Visiting Half Moon Caye National Monument, Belize

Dedicated as a monument in 1982, this crescent-shaped island was the first protected area in Belize. Half Moon Caye, at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef, measures 45 square acres, half of which is a thriving but endangered littoral forest; the other half is a stunning palm-dotted beach. This is also the only red-footed booby sanctuary in the western hemisphere besides the Galápagos. The US$40 per person admission fee is sometimes included in your dive boat fee, but sometimes you’ll pay it directly to the park ranger when you disembark.

As you approach Half Moon Caye, you’ll believe you have arrived at some South Sea paradise. Offshore, boaters use the rusted hull of a wreck, the Elksund, as a landmark in these waters. Its dark hulk looms over the surreal blue and black of the reef world. The caye, eight feet above sea level, was formed by the accretion of coral bits, shells, and calcareous algae. It’s divided into two ecosystems: The section on the western side has dense vegetation with rich fertile soil, while the eastern section primarily supports coconut palms and little other vegetation.

Half Moon Caye.
Half Moon Caye. Photo © dronepicr, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Besides offshore waters that are among the clearest in Belize, the caye’s beaches are gorgeous. You must climb the eight-foot-high central ridge that divides the island and gaze south before you see the striking half-moon beach with its unrelenting surf erupting against limestone rocks. Half Moon Caye’s first lighthouse was built in 1820, modernized and enlarged in 1931, decommissioned in 1997, then felled by the elements in 2010. A newer lighthouse was built in 1998 and is still functioning.

Everyone should go to the observation tower, built by the Audubon Society in the ziricote forest; climb above the forest canopy for an unbelievable 180-degree view. Every tree is covered with perched booby birds in some stage of growth or mating. In March, you’ll have a close-up view of nests where feathered parents tend their hatchlings. The air is filled with boobies coming and going, attempting to make their usually clumsy landings (those webbed feet weren’t designed for landing in trees). Visitors also have a wonderful opportunity to see the other myriad inhabitants of the caye. Thieving magnificent frigates (the symbol of the Belize Audubon Society) swoop in to steal eggs, and iguanas crawl around in the branches, also looking for a snack.

Half Moon Caye Wall

On the eastern side of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the reef has a shallow shelf in about 15 feet of water where garden eels are plentiful. The sandy area broken with corals extends downward till you run into the reef wall, which rises some 20 feet toward the surface. Most boats anchor in the sandy area above the reef wall. Numerous fissures in the reef crest form canyons or tunnels leading out to the vertical face. In this area, sandy shelves and valleys frequently harbor nurse sharks and gigantic stingrays. Divers here are sure to return with a wealth of wonderful pictures.

Getting There

It’s 52 miles from the mainland to Half Moon Caye, a long boat trip over open ocean. Most visitors make the trip through one of the bigger dive shops, like Amigo’s on Ambergris Caye. Otherwise, only chartered or privately owned boats and seaplanes travel to Half Moon Caye. Check with the Belize Audubon Society in Belize City for other suggestions.

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