If you ever get a chance to dive into the waters in front of Ambergris Caye, make sure at least one of your dives is at the Esmeralda Canyons. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sites on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. For reasons that only an oceanographer may be able to explain, the sites there share a distinct geography that features hard coral ridges running west to east. These structures gradually extend and create deep canyons, like rows of bookshelves in a vast underwater library. Atop the hard coral that appears to have been built up by countless generations of coral polyps, soft corals speckle the landscape: sea fans rock back and forth to the music of the waves, and sea plumes dance, inclined into the direction of a gentle whispering current.
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Esmeralda reigns supreme in this area because it boasts its own collection of unique canyons plus a bustling community of nurse sharks, rays, moray eels and spiny-lobsters. A typical dive trip out to the Hol-Chan area, where the dive site is located, may take five minutes if you’re diving off San Pedro Town on Ambergris Caye. If your trip is leaving out of Caye Caulker it will take about 40 minutes and it is almost always worth the travel time.
Outside the barrier reef there are numerous buoys and mooring lines that mark where one dive site ends and another begins. A dive at Esmeralda Canyons usually involves briefly tying up to the mooring line that marks its location before a brisk entry.Quick entries are usually preferred because surge and waves of 3ft/1m or more in height are considered normal conditions in this area. Below the surface however, the surge is subtle or quite often, unnoticeable.
The average dive at Esmeralda begins with an entry and descent to 43ft/13M near the mooring line and a planned depth of either 80ft/24M or 60ft/18M. Most guides, before making their lowest descent, head a few kick cycles southwest of the line to an open sandy space surrounded by hard coral where nurse sharks are frequently seen napping on the ocean floor. In between the hard corals there are crevices that make perfect dens for moray eels, and they are sometimes seen peeping out at passing divers. One of them in particular, whom I affectionately call Fluffy the moray, is known to come right up to divers, and I’ve been lucky enough to look him in the eye on a few occasions. Though I am of the opinion that it is never wise to touch animals, getting really close without touching can be enjoyable, and sometimes unavoidable with the more curious and assertive animals.
At the eastern side the sandy clearing opens up to one of the many deep canyons that dominate the deep end of northern fore reef. Esmeralda’s canyons in particular always give me the feeling of flying through and over a mini grand canyon. Descending to the dive’s maximum depth takes you between the canyons, where the colors fade to twilight in the distance, but the visibility is always excellent, so excellent that it is essential to keep an eye on your dive computer to avoid going too deep without noticing. They start off relatively narrow and eventually open up with a certain grandeur that moved me the first time I saw it. It’s the sort of view makes me think of those dive magazine shots that you assume had to be photo-shopped. Most of the canyons, unlike the Grand Canyon I’ll admit, end suddenly, as if there is an invisible barrier that prevents them from going further, and after this point there is nothing but ocean floor and water that extends into blue nothingness. At 70ft/21M on a good day, red and orange hues can still be distinguished but the subtle blue of depth gives everything a distinct color overlay, almost like looking at the world through an emerald lens. Incidentally, esmeralda translated from Spanish means emerald.
The gently leaning fans and plumes that live atop the canyons create the perfect contrast with a vibrant array of organisms juxtaposed against the dusky shades of blue and gray hard coral that make up the canyons themselves. Between them staghorn and lettuce coral play host to clusters of prismatic blurs of which upon closer inspection, are various reef fish species. Parrotfish, butterflyfish, black-durgeons and damselfish dart around, swimming through cracks and crevices in the hard coral, chasing each other playfully or guarding their young. If you are calm, careful, and observant, it is possible to see larger fish like barracudas and groupers hovering passively over corals, where a team of shrimp and tiny fish remove parasites, particles, and crumbs from their gills and their mouths, in exchange for feeding on whatever they find appetizing.
After about 25 minutes your dive leader will begin heading to shallower depths to help your dive group stay safely within their computer’s NDL*. As you go shallower, you’ll notice that the canyons gradually even out until they almost flatten, leaving only slight bumps of old hard coral like plowed and sown soil in a field. Nurse sharks roam in an out of sight in the shallows, scanning the seabed for crustaceans. Elkhorn corals sparsely populate the area, and there are at least two at Esmeralda that play host to snappers and school masters.
By the time you are 40-45 minutes into the dive depending on how much you kick, (slower is always better with SCUBA) you’ll arrive at the mooring line that marks the end of the site, an elkhorn coral growing with other hard corals lies a few kicks to the west. Dive leaders often spend ten minutes circling the area, exploring crevices for interesting marine life, and looking out for passing sea turtles. At 55 minutes, the dive is usually over and safety conscious dive leaders will ask you to do a safety stop during your ascent.
Esmeralda, in summary, is one of the best choices for those who want to see the best that the barrier reef has to offer. Although its surface conditions can get rough or choppy, its advantage is that it is far more accessible than the atolls, areas like Lighthouse reef and Turneffe atoll offer exquisite diving but are far from shore, and on a good day, with a little bit of luck, the experience can be magical. If you’re the type who wants to have encounters with large marine-life or even if you’d rather just go slow and see the tiny stuff, this is the site you want to visit.
* All photos courtesy of my friend and diving buddy Gordon Kirkwood.
*NDL or No Decompression Limits; also known as No Stop Time or No Decompression Time is essentially a countdown clock on your dive computer that tells you how long you can stay at a given depth safely, it is based on theoretical algorithms that calculate how much nitrogen is dissolved in your blood at any given time based on quantitative research and tests done on people exposed to elevated ambient pressure.