The Belize Barrier Reef, an outstanding marine ecosystem


Located in the Yucatan Peninsula – a Central American nation with a Caribbean vibe – Belize is bordered by Mexico in the north and Guatemala to the west. This tiny country is only 14,270 square miles wide. But aside from its small size, Belize is home to the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere; the Belize Barrier Reef.

Declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996 for its significant habitats and natural development, the Belize Barrier Reef provides a crucial balance within the surrounding marine system. As the most intact reef system, Belize Barrier Reef covers a series of coral reefs span 185 miles of the country’s coastline. It is roughly 300 meters offshore in the north and 40 kilometers in the south within the country limits. It is a 300 kilometers long section of the 900 kilometers Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is continuous from Cancun on the north-eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula through the Riviera Maya and down to Honduras, making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In 1842, Charles Darwin visited the reef during his historic journey around the world aboard the HMS Beagle and described it as the “most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” But it is believe that this outstanding site has attracted people for thousands of years for both its natural beauty and resources. There is evidence that shows the Mayan civilization fished from the reef and traded near it from approximately 300 BCE to 900 CE.

Brain and tube corals of the Great Blue Hole in Belize- with trunkfish

Along with some of the planet’s largest atolls, the reef supports diverse, vibrant marine habitats, shelters hundreds of small islands, locally known as cayes, and provides protection for Belize’s Caribbean coast. The islands and cayes are mostly uninhabited, fringed with swaying palms or lined with lush stands of mangroves. The Reef comprises of over four hundred cayes and seven designated protected marine reserves compromising about 12% of the total area of the Belize Barrier Reef; Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. It also boasts three distinct coral atolls which are exceedingly rare outside of the Pacific Ocean: Turneffe Atoll, Glover’s Reef and Lighthouse Reef.

As one of the few double barrier reefs in the world, the Belize Barrier Reef offers the most beautiful and majestic ecosphere on the planet. Over five hundred species of fish and invertebrates live at the barrier reef. It is home to rare species like the hammerhead shark and jaguars. Several endangered animals inhabit the Belize Barrier Reef, including sea turtles, manatees, and the American marine crocodile. It is also important habitat for endemic and migratory birds, which reproduce in the littoral forests of cayes, atolls and coastal areas. Approximately 70 different hard coral species and 36 soft coral species among the plenty of aesthetic views both above and below water have been discovered and identified in the area. However, only a small portion of the Belize Barrier Reef has actually been explored. The diversity that people see is only ten percent of the whole area and there may be hundreds or even thousands of additional species that still need to be researched.

Aerial view of the Great Blue Hole- Image by Schafer & Hill -Getty Images

In addition to providing habitats for a wide variety of marine and other wildlife, as well as a large bird population, the reef has provided a growing tourism sector. The reef’s crystal blue waters are a haven for its marine community and an enticing exploratory region for visitors to enjoy world-class snorkeling. Typically, Belize’s snorkeling starts from the small town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. It is the largest Caye off the Belize coast, located only half a mile from the Barrier Reef. The island provides the easiest reef access and best accommodations in Belize. One of the most popular dive sites here is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a ten-minute boat ride from town. The reserves are built on a cut in the reef that is on average just 25 meters wide and is no deeper than 9 meters. As one of the smallest marine reserves in the world, the total area is about 7.8 sq km. However, Hol Chan is a clear example of what conservation efforts can do. Hol Chan is named for the Mayan words meaning “little channel” which refers to a natural break in the reef known as Hol Chan Cut. The channel walls are covered with colorful corals, which support an amazing variety of fish life, including moray eels and black groupers.

Another famous and magnificent feature of the Belize Barrier Reef is the Great Blue Hole. The deep blue color circular hole surrounded by light blue water is distinctive that it can be seen from outer space. Lies near the center of Lighthouse Reef, about fifty miles from the coast of Belize, this underwater sinkhole is approximately 1000 feet across and 400 feet deep. In 1971, famed Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau explored the Blue Hole aboard his vessel Calypso and claimed that it is one of the best spots in the world to scuba dive and snorkel. While the reef that creates the rim of this hole is teeming with coral and marine life, within dark interior of the hole itself divers will find little marine life. A “cave” at the limits of recreational diving is one of the big attractions here. Six meter long stalactites and stalagmites are found inside the entrance of the caves.


Other popular reef activities include swimming with Whale Sharks at the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes, diving South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the largest marine reserve in Belize, and visiting Half Moon Caye, a pristine crescent-shaped island and natural monument that is as gorgeous from above as it is from underwater.

There is not exactly a best time to visit the Belize Barrier Reef as it is a year-round liveaboard diving destination. Belize has subtropical weather which means the water is warm year round and the Reef can be dived or snorkeled anytime. However, people often plan their trips based on whether they prefer being in Belize during the dry season aka high tourism season which runs from December through May or the wet seasons aka the low tourism season which is June through November. Conversely, people may plan their trip around certain diving events, such as Whale Shark season, which is from April to June, or Grouper mating season, which happens from October and November.

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