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Turneffe Atoll

The Crocodile Lagoon
Turneffe Atoll’s sprawling central lagoon is a beautiful natural playground marked by thick mangrove islands and littoral forest, and hosts dozens of remarkable marine species – including crocodiles. Yes, the central lagoon is pretty to look at and one of the best places in Belize to watch the sun rise, but I wouldn’t recommend you go for a dip. Crocodiles spend their days escaping the heat in the thick mangroves, then swim out into the open ocean at dusk to feed. I saw two crocs during my time on the island; a very young juvenile whose curiosity had brought him right up to the sandy patch of beach behind the Blackbird Caye Resort, and a suspicious adult who kept his distance (thankfully).

Still, the lagoon is a great place to spy on the aforementioned crocodiles, photograph marine birds, and more.

Photo Finish:
Nikon D800 | 24-70mm f/2.8 lens | Aperture f/6.3 | ISO-400 | Shutter 1/60 sec.

Drop Your Anchor
Most folks come to Belize to explore pristine coral reefs and encounter the myriad underwater life, and are surprised when they happen upon the remnants of old freighters, ships, and more. At least, I know I was surprised.

We had just finished diving at gorgeous Calabash Cut and were on our way back to Blackbird Caye when our captain slowed the boat and told us to walk the plank (sort of). He wanted to share with us one of his favorite little dive sites; the remains of a wrecked freighter that when still seaworthy, was more than 100-feet in length.

Bits and pieces of this wreck are scattered along the sea floor just off of Calabash Caye. The most incredible piece of wreckage is this near perfectly preserved anchor; clinging to the metal and hiding beneath the anchor were all manner of fish, rays, and eels. Pretty great for a quick stop on the way back to lunch.

Photo Finish:
Nikon 1AW1 | 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 lens | Aperture f/7.1 | ISO-160 | Shutter 1/125 sec.

Fishing for a Feast
This one qualifies as one of the best travel surprises of all time.

So there we were, wrapping our second incredible dive of the day, and zipping over the waves on our way back to Blackbird Caye. With the Turneffe Atoll still small on the horizon, we came upon this antiquated fishing boat bobbing in the sea. Our captain filled us in; we were in the presence of a family of lobster fishermen whom have worked this bit of the Caribbean for more than 50 years.

We chatted with the fisherfolk for a few moments and then made a deal to purchase part of their catch of the day; their captain sold us a dozen spiny lobsters for a song, and gave us a few tips on how to prep our feast once back on dry land. All in all, one of the finest trips to the market I’ve made in my life.

Photo Finish:
Nikon 1AW1 | 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 lens | Aperture f/10 | ISO-200 | Shutter 1/125 sec.

Super Fuel for the Sea
When heading out on our introductory dives with the Blackbird Caye Resort crew, I kept walking past tanks with yellow and green Nitrox stickers emblazoned all over them. My only thought: isn’t that what Vin Diesel uses in his Fast & Furious cars?

No, it’s not. And I looked like an idiot when I asked that very question.
Nitrox is used by divers who want to extend their No Decompression Limit times when diving at extended depths by limiting the amount of Nitrogen absorbed by the body. If all this sounds Greek to you, don’t worry. It didn’t make much sense to me until I took my Nitrox diving course with PADI Instructor Dom Evans.

Ordinary air tanks are filled with 21% oxygen, while Nitrox tanks are filled with up to 40% oxygen (we dove with tanks at 32%). This allowed us to dive deeper and longer without having to go through extended and tiresome decompression stops near the surface.

Putting this into practical perspective, it meant that we were able to swim with spotted eagle rays, reef sharks, giant moray eels and turtles for longer periods than we would have had we been exclusively breathing air. So if you have an opportunity to take a Nitrox diving course, you should take it.
Photo Finish:
photo credit to my friend and legendary underwater videographer, Alex Ruiz. www.lupitaproductions.

Panasonic DMC-GH4 | 14mm f/3.6 lens | Aperture f/8 | ISO-800 | Shutter 1/50 sec.

For the Tweet Life
Blackbird Caye and the Turneffe Atoll are a birder's dream destination. From sunrise to sundown you can watch magnificent frigate birds soar on updrafts, pelicans plunge into the sea, red-footed boobies chase flying fish, and hawks lord over their island domain. Or you can do like I do, and chill out with the cheeky gulls down on the dock – there's something curious about these little fellas that just makes me smile.

Pack a big lens into your camera kit, and prepare to practice those birding skills.

Photo Finish:
Nikon 1AW1 | 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens | Aperture f/11 | ISO-160 | Shutter 1/60 sec.

For Curious Crustaceans
See, you don't need to go deep into the sea to spy on sea creatures.

The Turneffe Atoll is home to a very healthy hermit crab population. Some are small, like this little fella – hardly bigger than a golf ball, in fact. While others are about the size of a small dog and look like they were hatched on an Alien film set.

Keep an eye out as you walk around at night – hermit crabs are everywhere when the sun goes down – and have a look around the base of palm trees and bushes; you may see 10 or 20 huddled together at one time in an effort to escape the midday sun.

Photo Finish:
Nikon D800 | 24-70mm f/2.8 lens | Aperture f/10 | ISO-400 | Shutter 1/10 sec.

For the Sea Kayaker in You
Some people can spend every waking moment underwater – I get that. I think I'm one of those people. But others like to see what's going on above the surface from time to time. Others still like to combine a bit of underwater exploration with fun under the sun.

For those folks, Blackbird Caye Resort has an array of brand new kayaks ready to launch onto the sea. Sea kayaking is a thrill; if you've done it before, you know exactly how thrilling it can be to break through rolling waves and pick up a head of steam as you zip along the shore. If you've never been in a sea kayak, it's likely that you amaze yourself at just how easy it is.

One of the things I love most about the kayaks at Blackbird Caye is that they come equipped with an anchoring system – so you can paddle out to the nearest reef, drop your anchor in the sand, and snorkel and free dive until your heart is content.

Photo Finish:
Nikon D800 | 24-70mm f/2.8 lens | Aperture f/13 | ISO-400 | Shutter 1/160 sec.

Diving of a Different Kind
The mangrove forests of Turneffe Atoll provide a rich habitat for numerous species of marine animal – and crocodiles. We must not forget the crocodiles. Many species of fish live and feed in among the root systems of the mangroves, which in turn offers the big reptiles an easy lunch.

It’s easy to spot crocs in Turneffe’s central lagoon, but it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll come across one if you do decide to go out exploring the outer mangrove islands – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Snorkeling or scuba diving among the roots is a unique experience – here you’ll spot numerous species of fish that dare not venture into deeper water, crabs, mollusks, and other marine creatures. Just remember to keep one eye open…

Photo Finish:
Nikon 1AW1 | 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 lens | Aperture f/5.6 | ISO-160 | Shutter 1/640 sec.

Not as Deep as You May Think
I came to Belize to learn how to dive, and to visit some of the most pristine coral reef systems in the world. What I didn’t know prior to my arrival was just how easy it was going to be to explore the reefs – even without a scuba tank strapped to my back.

There are dozens of snorkeling and swimming sites around the Turneffe Atoll that can be visited by anyone with a mask and snorkel, which means you don’t need to come all the way down to Belize just to dive. You can explore these reefs at your own pace, and work with the folks at the Blackbird Caye Resort to tailor the experience to your expectations.

Photo Finish:
GoPro Hero3+ Silver | SPL Water Housings GP4 5″ Dome Port | Aperture f/2.8 | ISO-100 | Shutter 1/1700 sec.

Exploring Turneffe Atoll by Kayak
Kayaking adventures are available in many parts of Belize, but Turneffe Atoll’s protected, shallow waters in particular lend themselves well to being explored by this method. Both novice and advanced kayakers will enjoy seeing the biodiversity of this portion of the reef system. Twenty-five species of birds are found just on Blackbird Caye, abundant coral gardens can be seen from above the water, dolphins are easily spotted because they come to feed and rest within the atoll and mangrove creeks provide ample places to seek out other creatures via kayak. Double kayaks are most common, with single being available by request on a limited basis. Choose to stay at Blackbird Caye Resort and all arrangements can be made directly through the resort as a package or à la carte, for which prices begin at $40.

Turneffe Atoll, Belize