Whether you arrive by plane, charter boat, or sea kayak, the hundreds of miles of living coral that form the Belize Barrier Reef are some of the most beautiful and biodiverse locations found anywhere on the planet. The Belize Barrier Reef is a rare double barrier reef measuring approximately 187 miles (300 km) from north to south, starting at just a few hundred yards offshore in the north of the country and ranging to about 25 miles (40 km) at the southernmost point. The Belize Barrier Reef is itself a subsection of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in size.
In 1996, the United Nations officially listed the Belize Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Site. Today, the Belize Barrier Reef is divided into seven protected areas: Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, Blue Hole Natural Monument, and the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve.
The Belize Barrier Reef is also unique in that it is one of the few locations not in the Pacific Ocean that has coral atolls, coral islands with an interior lagoon: Turneffe Atoll, Lighthouse Reef Atoll, and Glover’s Reef Atoll. In 1842, Charles Darwin visited the Belize Barrier Reef, describing it as the most remarkable reef ecosystem he had ever seen.
The Belize Barrier Reef is an important habitat for bird, marine mammal, reptilian, amphibian, crustacean, and fish species, including the West Indian manatee, Hawksbill turtle, American crocodile, red-footed booby, and 350 species of mollusks.
Belize Barrier Reef
Many people are unaware that coral reefs are actually living colonies of tiny animals, not plants or rocks. Coral is formed by tiny creatures called polyps that gradually build up an exterior shell of calcium carbonite, the same substance produced by shellfish.
Coral is quite unique in that it can only flourish in certain conditions. Coral reefs prefer relatively shallow water that is clear and receives steady ocean currents. Coral feeds on microscopic nutrients that flow through the reef. The living coral animal relies on symbiotic relationships with algae that require access to well-lit water in order to achieve photosynthesis. In turn, the algae bond with the coral, adding an additional layer of strength and flexibility.
As the coral grows and dies, it leaves behind its hard shell, which forms into vast “hedges” of both broken and living structures that provide shelter, hunting grounds, and nurseries for a wide variety of marine fauna and flora. Despite occupying less than 2% of the surface area of the ocean, coral reefs provide home to nearly a quarter of all marine species, including fish, mammals, mollusks, sponges, and echinoderms.
In areas that receive run-off from agriculture or have undergone significant changes in water temperature, water acidification levels, or cloudiness that blocks the sunlight, coral can quickly deteriorate, thus destroying this extremely important marine habitat. Other dangers to coral reefs include the use of cyanide to kill fish, the use of explosives to catch fish, and overfishing of species that live in the reef.
How Coral Reefs Are Formed
One of the reasons why coral reefs are so fragile is that they are very old ecosystems. Most coral reefs were formed more than 10,000 years ago when melting ice from glaciers caused sea levels to rise. Coral began forming on continental shelves, slowly growing upwards to keep pace with the water’s surface.
Coral Reef Biology
Corals are distinguished by the shape of their exterior skeletons. Most living coral are roughly the size of a pinhead, but some coral have been recorded as being up to a foot across. Fish, contact with large mammals, and wave action cause parts of the reef to break into smaller fragments that then get lodged in the reef, forming a dense labyrinth that is ideal for sheltering fish from predators as well as providing nesting grounds for a wide variety of marine animals.
Corals also work as natural barriers, protecting nearby land masses from storm surges and large waves. It is estimated that coral reefs contribute up to $30 billion dollars every year to the global economy in the form of fishing, tourism, and protecting coastal areas from strong tides and storms.
Make the Most of the Belize Barrier Reef
Black Orchid Resort offers guests customized tours to make the most of what the Belize Barrier Reef has to offer, including activities such as:
• Scuba Diving – Strap on your gear and make your way through the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean to explore a kaleidoscope of marine flora and fauna.
• Diving the Belize Blue Hole– Experienced divers can explore the mysterious depths of the Blue Hole rated as one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite diving spots.
• Snorkeling– Enter a magical world of living color as you interact with anemones, sea turtles, rays, sharks and fish in one of the most eco-diverse marine areas on the planet.
• Fly fishing– Go fo the fabled Grand Slam as you test your luck at catching bonefish, tarpon, and permitfish in fantastically beautiful locations.
• Deep sea fishing – Beyond the outer limits of the reef are some of the richest waters in the region for catching marlin, king fish, barracuda and grouper.