Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System
Truly one of the great natural wonders of the world, the Belize Barrier Reef is home to one of the most abundant and diverse marine ecosystems found anywhere on the planet. Measuring more than 190 miles long, the reef is part of the bigger Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System that stretches from Mexico to Honduras, making it the second biggest coral reef system in the world, and the largest in the hemisphere.
Many of Belize’s most popular islands, known locally as cayes (“keys”), are situated in and around the Belize Barrier Reef, including Ambergris Caye, Caye Chapel, English Caye, Three Coner Caye, Blackbird Caye, Maho Caye, Gladden Caye, St. George’s Caye, English Caye, Ranguana Caye, and Long Caye. Three atolls also exist near the Belize Barrier Reef, including Lighthouse Reef, which is home to the famous Great Blue Hole, one of the most beautifully unique dive sites anywhere on Earth.
The Belize Barrier Reef is easily accessible from the coast, as it comes with 300 meters (980) feet of land in the north, and 40 kilometers (25 miles) in the south.
Amazing Facts about the Belize Barrier Reef
- Declared a World Heritage Site in 1996 – Since that time, the government of Belize stepped in to preserve this amazingly unique ecosystem for generations to come.
- It’s the country’s #1 tourist destination – Every year, thousands of visitors from all over the world come to Belize to explore this unique underwater habitat. Measuring 600 by 300 kilometers, there’s plenty to for divers to see, and scientists to examine, and millions of photographs are taken here every year.
- It’s one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet – Scientists have catalogued more than 70 species of hard coral, 30 species of soft coral, hundreds of invertebrates, and more than 500 species of fish in this special habitat.
- Only 10% of the Belize Barrier Reef has been investigated – Despite its fame, and having been the subject of hundreds of scientific articles and research projects, today we only really have a firm understanding of about 10% of the entire reef. Many marine experts believe that more secrets will be uncovered as research progresses.
- It’s a great place to see sharks – Divers at the reef can spot hammerhead, black tip, lemon, bull, Caribbean Reef, nurse, and tiger sharks in their natural habitat. Every year, whale sharks pass through the reef on its annual migration.
- Its nickname is the “Rainforest of the Sea” – Because of its rich abundance of diverse life, the Belize Barrier Reef has a lot in common with rainforests on land. More than 25% of all the marine species in the hemisphere call the Belize Barrier Reef home, making it one of the most biodiverse locations on Earth.
- Belize Barrier Reef tourism is an important driver for the local economy – Between the divers and scientists who come to the Belize Barrier Reef to explore this special underwater habitat, and the tourists and visitors who stay in local lodgings and eat in nearby restaurants, tourist activity around the reef has become an integral part of the country’s economy.
- It was almost destroyed in 1998 – After Hurricane Mitch struck the region in 1998, up to 90% of the coral in the reef died off, making the reef lose its vibrant color, in an event known as “bleaching”. Thanks to timely intervention by the Belizean government, the reef was protected from further damage, and now is back to full health.
- Celebrities love it – The most famous visitor to the Belize Barrier Reef was the evolutionary pioneer Charles Darwin, who explored it in 1842. In 1971, the famous French marine biologist Jacques Cousteau brought the Belize Barrier Reef to the world’s attention, declaring it one of the best diving spots on the planet.
- It makes Belize a prime destination for fishing – Professional and amateur anglers come from all across the globe to Belize, drawn to the hundreds of abundant game species that shelter and feed in and around the reef. The huge reef protects sea urchins, sponges, and fish species from powerful storms and waves, which is why they fill the nearby waters in such large numbers.
- The Belize Barrier Reef is the centerpiece of one of the world’s largest marine reserves – Encompassing more than 450 islands, three atolls, and seven adjacent marine reserves, the Belize Barrier Reef requires constant government maintenance and intervention to protect this fragile but important ecosystem.
- Every square inch of the Belize Barrier Reef was once alive – Coral reefs are formed when coral excrete and build a hard outer protective layer built from calcium carbonate. Billions of generations of coral added their secretions to build the hundreds of miles of coral skeletons and sea flotsam that form today’s Belize Barrier Reef.
- It’s so big that you can see it from space – The reef is so large, and has such a powerful effect on tides and ocean currents, that it is clearly visible in photographs taken by satellites in space.
- The Belize Barrier Reef is extremely fragile – Although it looks and feels as hard as rock, the Belize Barrier Reef is actually extremely fragile, susceptible to pollution, increasing ocean salinity, and aggressive modern fishing techniques.
- The Belize Barrier Reef is less than 10,000 years old – The reef first began when the last Ice Age came to an end with rising sea waters that flooded the region. As the ancestors of the Maya first crossed the Bering Strait to enter the Americas, the reef was beginning to grow, making it an abundant source of fish and seafood for the emerging Mayan Empire.
Coral Reef Formation
The coral reefs that inhabit today’s oceans began their existence more than 10,000 years ago. As the last Ice Age came to an end, melting caused caused global sea levels to rise and swamp what were then continental shelves. Coral reefs began live on what were then continental shelves, slowly growing upwards in order to maintain access to light and food near the sea surface. Those reefs that were unable to grow fast enough to match the pace of the rising waters are now known as drowned reefs. Unable to access enough light and nutrients, these reefs are no longer living organisms.
Coral Reef Biology
Coral reefs look like inanimate objects but are actually vast networks of living animals. Live coral is a small animal that protects itself in a mantle of calcium carbonate similar to the shells of crustaceans. Living coral are called polyps, and the shape of their outer shell is the best way to determine their species. Some living coral are tiny, no bigger than a grain of sand, while other coral are up to a foot across.
Coral reefs are vast networks of polyps, their hard calcium carbonate shells, and an intricate biosphere of other plants and animals. As living coral grow, they add more layers to their hardened shell. A variety of factors, including wave motion and the activities of sea urchins, sponges, fish, and mammals slowly grind the coral into smaller fragments that then settle into the open nooks and crannies of the reef, thus reinforcing and strengthening it.
One of the most important contributors to coral health is coralline algae. The algae symbiotically bind to the coral’s exterior to gain access to sunlight for photosynthesis, simultaneously strengthening the reef.