Belize may be one of the smallest nations in the Western Hemisphere, but the country has a widely diverse landscape. Running for more than 180 miles just offshore, the Belize Barrier Reef is part of the second-largest coral reef system in the world. Although coral reefs account for just 4% of the ocean’s total area, they are home to more than 25% of all marine species. The Belize Barrier Reef is home to a staggering array of plants, animals, and invertebrates, making it a paradise for scuba diving, fishing, sailing, and snorkeling. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef is an important asset in the biodiversity and ecological health of the planet.
Geography of the Belize Barrier Reef
The Belize Barrier Reef inside of the country’s territorial waters is a subset of the larger Mesoamerican Reef System that stretches for more than 1,000 kilometers (700 miles) all the way from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico down through Belize and onto Guatemala and Honduras. Surrounded by the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Belize Barrier Reef is an integral component of the second-largest barrier reef system on the planet behind only the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
Belize’s section of the reef measures approximately 300 kilometers (185 miles) from north to south, and includes widely diverse geology such as fringing reefs, sand cayes (islands), mangrove cayes, barrier reefs, lagoons, and estuaries. The Belize Barrier Reef also contains three coral atolls: Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef, and the Turneffe Islands.
Human History of the Belize Barrier Reef
For thousands of years, individuals have been braving the waters of the Caribbean Sea in order to marvel at the natural beauty and rich abundance of marine resources found in the Belize Barrier Reef. Starting in approximately 300 BC, the ancient Maya civilization used the reef as an important source of fish and other foodstuffs.
In 1842, celebrated biologist Charles Darwin visited the Belize Barrier Reef as part of his tour around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, declaring the reef to be the “most remarkable” one he visited in the area. Today, the Belize Barrier Reef is one of the top destinations in the country for both locals and visitors alike.
Flora and Fauna of the Belize Barrier Reef
Thousands of species of marine flora and fauna have their home along the length and breadth of the Belize Barrier Reef. Marine biologists have documented more than 65 species of coral, 500 species of fish, and numerous species of sharks, seahorses, manatees, crocodiles, dolphins, bird, and turtles in the area.
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System
The Belize Barrier Reef is a gigantic living colony of coral polyps, members of the invertebrate family. Dozens of coral species live together in harmony to form the reef. Coral are carnivorous plants, shape in the form of tubes, which protect themselves with a hard outer skeleton made from calcium carbonite. The outer hard shell is known as coralites, and come in a wide variety of colors and shapes.
The Barrier Reef is also home to hundreds of species of aquatic animals, including sea turtles, shell fish, lobster, octopus, anemones, and hundreds of other forms of marine life. The special beauty and unique complexity of this living ecosystem makes the Belize Barrier Reef one of the natural wonders of the world. Because the Barrier Reef is so enormous, there are different sections that appeal to different recreational activities, including divers, fishermen, and snorkelers.
Belize Coral Reef
Coral reefs are actually enormous living structures made from small animals. Coral reefs appear in ocean waters where nutrients are scarce, the level of the water is not too deep, and there is plenty of sun. The body of the reef is made when living corals build an exoskeleton out of calcium carbonate, the same component in the base of chalk, marble or seashells.
Over long periods of time, the skeletal “shell” left behind by coral begins to accumulate into very large structures that are known as a reef. Due to wave and tidal action, the reef then becomes a shelter for myriad other forms of flora and fauna, thus developing into some of the most bio-diverse marine ecosystems on earth.
Referred to many people as “rainforests of the sea”, the nooks, crannies, narrow channels, and shelter that the reef provides creates a unique marine biosphere. Although coral reefs constitute just a tiny fraction of the ocean, they are home to more than a quarter of all marine species.
Coral reefs are important today not just for their role in serving as fish hatcheries and a sheltered location for other juvenile marine creatures but due to their important contribution to protecting shorelines from storm damage and erosion. Coral reefs are also an important contributor to tourism, as the rich abundance of marine flora and fauna on the reef attract divers, snorkelers, and anglers.
Environmental organizations have estimated that coral reefs add 30 billion dollars worth of value to the global economy. Although critical important to the health of the world’s oceans, coral reefs are actually very fragile biospheres. Extremely sensitive to fluctuations in water temperature, coral reefs are also under attack from a number of other vectors: fishing with explosives, fishing with cyanide, the increasing acidification of ocean waters, the practice of harvesting fish for use in aquariums, and run-off of chemicals and fertilizers used for agriculture.
Coral Reef Formation
Coral reefs first appeared at the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago when continental shelves were flooded with rising sea waters. As water levels slowly rose, coral reefs began to grow upwards towards the surface of the water. Corals depend on sunlight to synthesize their food, so they will die if they aren’t sufficiently close to the surface.
Biology of the Belize Barrier Reef
Even though coral reefs are hard and brittle, they should not be thought of as rocks. Instead, corals are actually animals similar to shellfish that protect themselves in an outer shell of hardened calcium carbonate.
The living coral animal is known as a polyp, most of which are extremely small. As each generation of coral grows, it leaves behind its outer shell of hardened calcium carbonate. The motion of the waves and tides, contact with fish grazing in the area and other organisms shift, re-arrange and break down the empty spaces in the reef over time.
Experiencing this magnificent wonder should definitely be on your bucket list!
Yok Ha Island Resort is conveniently located just a few miles offshore from the beautiful Belize Barrier Reef. The resort specializes in guiding visitors to the best diving spots, as well as offering complete Belize fishing packages for anglers eager to try their luck in the rich waters of the reef. Yok Ha Island resort offers several adventure packages to suit every need and budget.
Belize Barrier Reef Adventures
Belize Scuba Diving
Nothing can compare to diving into the crystal clear tropical waters off of Yok Ha and swimming with a wide variety of sea life, including dolphins, eagle rays, turtles, and even whale sharks during the months of March to June. No other spot in Belize offers better scuba diving opportunities than the waters off of Yok Ha Island Resort.
Belize Barrier Reef Snorkeling
Even first-time divers can safely and enjoyably explore the shallow channels and reefs off the coast of Belize. Experienced snorkelers can enjoy other sections of the reef. No matter what your experience level with snorkeling is, everyone can enjoy the rich variety of sea life, which puts on a dazzling natural show every day.
Anglers can try fly fishing, hand line fishing, and reef trawling in the bounteous waters of the reef. Yok Ha’s experienced local fishing guides will work with you to land the perfect kingfish, snapper, mackeral, or barracuda. For experienced fisherman, we offer a chance to complete the grandslam of landing the trio of bonefish, permit, and tarpon.
Yok Ha Island Resort offers tours using special boats that are uniquely designed for divers and snorkelers. Every tour includes an experienced diving/snorkeling team that will protect your equipment and guide you to the perfect spot for underwater adventures on the reef.
Belize Scuba Diving Certifications
If you’ve ever been curious about scuba diving, the resort now offers PADI scuba diving certificates. A team of five-star PADI diving experts will teach you the fundamentals of scuba diving in the tropical paradise of Belize.
Once you earn your certification, and spend a few hours exploring the waters of Belize, you will learn to appreciate the rich abundance of marine life and the pleasures of diving. For more experienced divers, the resort’s expert instructors offer more advanced PADI courses.