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Belize is one of the world's top spots for scuba diving and snorkeling. I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again, but Belize has the second longest barrier reef in the world, as well as three spectacular mid-ocean atolls. The diving and snorkeling all along this reef and at the atolls are world-class. In general, the reef is in very healthy shape and the water quality and visibility are consistently excellent.

Amateur or casual divers and snorkelers should really be happy almost anywhere in Belize, and every major beach and island destination has easy access to some fabulous dive and snorkel sites. Truly dedicated divers will probably want to head to one of the outer atolls. Glover's Reef, Turneffe Island, and Lighthouse Reef atolls all offer outstanding diving opportunities. The Blue Hole and several other sites on Lighthouse Reef Atoll make it the top choice for scuba divers, amongst a crowded field. Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve are two deservedly popular snorkel spots just off of Ambergris Caye, although overpopularity and overcrowding are threatening the experience there. And finally, only just becoming known to cognoscenti, the Gladden Spit area, off the coast from Placencia, is one of the top spots on the planet to snorkel or dive with giant whale sharks.

There are several dedicated dive resorts around Belize. Another option for hard-core divers is to stay on a live-aboard dive boat. These midsize vessels usually carry from between 10 to 20 divers in private staterooms. The boats feature fully equipped dive operations and a host of amenities. One of the advantages here is that you get to hit several of the top reef and atoll sites in a weeklong vacation.

Almost every beach resort in Belize, as well as most hotels in Belize City, either has its own dive shop and operation or can hook you up with a local crew. Below are listed a couple of live-aboard operations, and a couple of the best dedicated dive resorts in Belize.

Note: While many of the beach and island hotels and all of the dive shops in Belize have snorkeling and diving gear for rent, you might consider bringing your own. If nothing else, bring your own mask. A good, properly fitting mask is the single most important factor in predicting the success of a dive outing. Faces come in all sizes and shapes, and I really recommend finding a mask that gives you a perfect fit. Fins are a lesser concern, as most operators should have fins to fit your feet. As for your own snorkel, well, in this day and age, I think you should want your own. If you plan on going out snorkeling or diving more than a few times, the investment will more than pay for itself.

Live-Aboard Dive Boats

Aggressor Fleet (tel. 800/348-2628 or 985/385-2628 in the U.S.; www.aggressor.com) has the 34m (110-ft.) Aggressor III, a comfortable dive boat with deluxe staterooms. Rates cost around US$2,300 to US$2,900 per week (£1,219-£1,537).

Peter Hughes Diving (tel. 800/932-6237 or 305/669-9391 in the U.S.; www.peterhughes.com) runs the Sundancer II, a 42m (138-ft.) yacht with 10 staterooms. Rates range from US$2,200 to US$2,400 per week (£1,166-£1,272).

Tip: Both boats are very comfortable and well equipped, with full dive and photo-lab operations, rental equipment, attentive service, and plenty of deck and lounge areas. Each boat has one or two master staterooms with a queen-size bed for couples. The Aggressor III features TVs and VCRs in every stateroom, and even has a hot tub on the upper deck. Couples will probably prefer the Aggressor III's wider lower bunk of their staggered quasi-bunk bed arrangement, while buddies traveling together may be more comfortable with the two separate single beds in the standard staterooms on the Sundancer II.

When a Package Isn't a Deal -- While it's often tempting to purchase all-inclusive dive packages before coming to Belize, this limits your flexibility. For example, if the weather and water are really rough, you're already committed, even though you might prefer taking an inland tour to a Mayan ruin instead of a rough dive.

Diving Resorts & Outfitters

Hamanasi (tel. 877/552-3483 in the U.S., or 520-7073; www.hamanasi.com) is an excellent dive resort located on a beautiful patch of beach south of Hopkins Village. The location grants good access to a wide range of dive sites, including the outer atolls.

Capturing It on Film -- No longer is underwater photography and video the exclusive realm of professionals with very expensive equipment. Generic and custom waterproof housings can be purchased for most modern digital still and video cameras. However, if you don't own your own underwater camera or casing, you might want to bring one or more cheap, disposable waterproof or underwater cameras. Alternatively, many dive shops will rent professional or semiprofessional underwater still and video cameras for about US$20 to US$40 (£11-£21) per day.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.