Within the pristine waters of the Atlantic-Caribbean region lies about 450 atolls, hundreds of sand cayes, lagoons, estuaries and mangrove forests making up the Belize Barrier Reef System. The entire reef system is home to thousands of marine animals, habitats, and threatened species such as turtles, manatees, and the American marine crocodile. The reef protects the islands from erosion caused by the waves by acting as a natural breakwater. The reef is 180 miles long with about 980 feet offshore distance in the north to 25 feet in the south. The system includes about 370 square miles of protected area.
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is not just coral reef; it is also made up of seven protect areas, three atolls, and those 450 cayes. An atoll is an island or chain of islands formed from coral in the shape of a rind. A caye is a sandy island on top of a coral reef. The seven marine reserves include: Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, Laughing Bird Caye National Park, Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, and South Water Caye Marine Reserve. The three atolls include: Turneffe Atoll, Glovers Reef Atoll and Lighthouse Reef Atoll.
The Barrier Reef System is the largest barrier reef in the northern and western hemisphere and the second largest barrier reef system in the world. In 1996 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2009, the Belize Barrier Reef System unfortunately joined the list of being endangered.
Corals are living, breathing organisms. They have the highest biodiversity on the planet and are the reason we have reefs. There are about 70 hard coral species and 36 soft coral species found in the Belize Barrier Reef System. Coral reefs not only protect shorelines from waves, floods and tropical storms, they also provide habitats and food for marine life. Humans rely on the coral reefs for the food they generate, as an economic resource, and for products such as life saving medications.
Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve lies on the northern part of Ambergris Caye. It borders Mexico and was once a major site for the Maya, and an archeological site can be found here. The area is home to the endangered puma and jaguar. The Belize Barrier Reef System is the only place the reef meets the land.
Blue Hole Natural Monument is the largest blue hole in the ocean and is nearly 1,000 feet wide and 450 feet deep. It was once a cave, but it is now a sinkhole due to the top of the cave collapsing. It was a dry cave, but due to rising ocean level over thousands of years, it is now submerged. Divers can explore the stalagmites and stalactites within the sinkhole. While diving in the Blue Hole, Caribbean reef sharks are commonly seen as well as many other sharks and species of fish.
Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve and atoll is 28 miles off the coast of Belize. It is an oval shaped reef that is 20 miles long and 7 miles wide that encircles a shallow lagoon with more than 800 coral patch reefs and six sand cayes. Because the lagoon is protected, it provides a nursery and feeding station to fish, sharks, turtles, invertebrates and coral. It offers some of the best snorkeling around along with other water sports
Half Moon Caye Natural Monument was the first nature reserve established in Belize in 1981 under the National Park Act as well as the first marine protected area in Central America. In 1924, the red-footed booby birds habitat needed protecting, and Half Moon Caye was designated as a bird sanctuary. The forest on the island is one of the only breeding grounds for these birds in the western Caribbean. The island also is a breeding ground for the turtles. Scuba diving off the shores is popular because there is so much sea life diversity, crystal clear water and healthy corals. Lastly, nowhere else in the world other than Belize can you find the island leaf-toed gecko, which calls this island home along with eight other small islands of Belize.
Laughing Bird Caye National Park became protected under the National Parks System in 1981 and became a National Park in 1991. The island gets its name from the laughing gull, which used the island as a breeding ground before humans came to the island.
Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve consists of 14 sand and mangrove cayes. The coral reef system is very healthy here. Whale Sharks, turtles, dolphins and manta rays are often seen while visiting the island.
South Water Caye Marine Reserve is the largest of the marine reserves. It is home to one of the most biodiverse marine systems. Extensive seagrass meadows and a mangrove system provide habitats for many species here.
Turneffe Atoll, just 25 miles off shore of the mainland, offers excellent fishing and diving. It is the largest and most diverse atoll of the three.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the farthest offshore, but it not to be missed. It has the spectacular Blue Hole within it as well as Half Moon Caye and amazing dive sites.
Great work has been done to protect the Belize Barrier Reef System. In 2016, all off-shore drilling was banned. It was initially banned in the seven protected sites, but it was then expanded to all its waters off of Belize. Single-use plastic such as bags and forks have been banned in Belize as of April 2019. Scientists have been monitoring the ocean temperatures and coral bleaching that has been occurring due to the rising temperatures of the ocean. When ocean temperatures rise, coral die, which causes species to die. This is why it is important to protect these areas any way possible. In June 2016, the Belize Barrier Reef System was removed from the endangered list thanks in part to the great efforts of the Belizean people’s work to save it.