No Visit to Belize is Complete Until You Visit the Belize Barrier Reef!
Ask any country to rank order its natural wonders and you’ll be treated to lessons in geographic diversity. Among irreplaceable treasures would surely be Lebanon’s Nahr al-Kalb Valley where the Jeita Grotto renders visitors speechless, Argentina’s Iguazu National Park, Zimbabwe’s dramatic Victoria Falls, Mount’s Fuji and Everest and the moody mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan.
But for residents of Belize, who enjoy an endless number of one-of-a-kind natural wonders within its borders, Belize’s Barrier Reef regularly tops popularity lists. Belizeans take pride in this ancient biological wonder because the reef stands as a monument to perseverance, sustains a vast world of marine biology, and it's also a symbol of the nation’s resilience and character. No wonder this site has no equal!
The Belize Barrier Reef: A World Heritage Site
When Charles Darwin first arrived at the Belize Barrier Reef in 1842, his landing provoked extensive research that remains an authoritative body of work to this day. Darwin called his first sighting of the coral range, "The most remarkable barrier reef in the West Indies." He should know a thing or two about reefs, having taken his legendary journey on the Beagle to the world’s largest barrier reef--off Australia’s coast--just 10 years earlier.
Did Darwin’s visit to Belize’s reef—the second largest on the planet—help him posit theories about marine biology and evolution that made him a scientific pioneer? The answer is yes--yet, despite the passage of time, only 10-percent of the species populating the reef have been found and identified! This was reason enough for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to confer World Heritage status upon the coral monument. Now protected, access to the reef by scientists eager to unearth the remaining 90-percent of species believed to inhabit the reef could divulge secrets sure to advance man’s understanding of our planet.
The anatomy of the Belize Barrier Reef
One of the benefits of traveling to Belize is getting into close proximity to the reef that, at 300km in length, occupies a major portion of the 900km-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. No area of the reef is without its’ share of life forms, including more than 100 separate coral species (70 are classified as hard; 36 as soft). An estimated 500 types of fish coexist peacefully with hundreds of exotic invertebrates that also call the reef home.
Despite its’ relatively uniform shape, there’s nothing uniform about the Reserves that are part of the reef system. It stretches about 960km in length and includes three atolls, 450 cayes and seven aquatic landmarks that beckon visitors from around the world. The four most often visited are Hol Chan Marine Reserve, The Great Blue Hole (a favorite of Jacques Cousteau), Halfmoon Caye Natural Monument and Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, but with the increase in Belize tourism, others are sure to make that list.
If your goal is to visit all 450 cayes, you’ll need a speedboat and unlimited time in Belize, but be forewarned that these protected waters won’t tolerate the noise! Settle for as many as you can, prioritizing these 12 hot spots: Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel, St. George’s, English Caye, Rendezvous Caye, Gladden Caye, Ranguana Caye, Long Caye, Maho Caye, Blackbird Caye, and Three Corner Caye. Count on diverse experiences while visiting each; Ambergris Caye is Belize’s happening hub while many of the others are isolated, uninhabited isles where nature rules supreme.
Biology really is destiny
When the Belize Barrier Reef was first tapped for World Heritage status in 1996, both the reef itself and its’ beleaguered inhabitants were saved or preserved thanks to stringent laws and policies put into place to grant absolute protection, punishable by fines and possibly jail time. The reef may look solid, formidable and daunting, but in fact, time has punished surfaces badly, leaving some fragile and in danger of further deterioration or, at the extreme, disappearing. Fortunately, Belize government actions and sanctions reinforce the original UNESCO proclamation, so the only outside forces that can’t be stopped are the effects of regional climate change.
Fortunately, the reef has solid roots: formed during the Earth’s last glacial period when ice melted with such rapidity, sea levels rose and continents were flooded, the reef’s geologic history has been traced back 10,000 years by scientists exploring the region. The base established, aquatic animal colonies fasten themselves to the surface, live and died excreting calcium carbonate that forms layer upon layer of aragonite exoskeletons. But it’s taken more than a base and excretions to shape the reef we see today. Without being subjected to sun and surf over thousands of years, it might look very different—or perhaps it might not exist at all.
Do reefs matter?
Scientists specializing in marine biology and environs call coral reefs “rain forests of the sea,” because while rain forests are tethered to the earth, reefs require shallow waters offshore to flourish. A Belize rain forest offers a perfect environment for the perpetuation of soil, trees, plants and wildlife, each contributing to the ecosystem that sustains rain forests and perpetuates the life cycles of inhabitants. Conversely, coral reef "rain forests" serve the same purpose, acting as havens for 25-percent of the planet’s sponges, fish, mollusks and echinoderms.
If you’re impressed by the life-sustaining value of the coral reef and have a new appreciation for them, it’s important to understand that nurturing fossils, plants, fish and other aquatic life forms is not the only reason the safekeeping of Belize’s Barrier Reef has become so imperative a mission for the nation: This formidable body forms a backbone for every facet of Belize’s tourism efforts. From fisheries and resorts to attractions and a vibrant marine recreation scene, if the reef were to disappear today, a major chunk of the nation’s tourism business would vanish.
The Belize reef fights for existence every day
Modest estimates by those who track the world’s annual economic values estimate the collective worth of the world’s reefs at $30 billion, but who could put a price on such a legacy? In fact, every environmentalist on the planet believes reefs are worth ever so much more. Threats to reef and reserve systems multiply with alarming regularity: ocean acidification, the practices of cyanide and blast fishing, alarming ocean temperature changes and land-based threats that occur when toxic matter leaches into the sea. Even development, if not done properly, can compromise the reef and its fragile organisms.
But coastal concerns aren’t the only areas marine biologists worry about. Some of Belize’s greatest tourism attractions are regularly impacted by changing weather, temperatures and the introduction of toxins. For example, The Great Blue Hole, a limestone cave that collapsed beneath the sea during the last glacial period, is an internationally-known tourism hot spot that is a favorite for divers around the globe. If the Hole’s structure is impacted by the effects of climate change, it could collapse completely, eliminating one of Belize’s most beloved and popular attractions.
Know Before You Go
As the first nation on the planet to ban bottom trawling, offshore oil drilling within 1km of the reef, initiatives to control tourism, fishing and other external threats, Belize's Herculean efforts to preserve the reef and its inhabitants has become an ongoing mission. Collective efforts by the nation’s tourism industry are extraordinary and were celebrated on the 20th anniversary of the day the reef was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in December 2016.
What can you do to help preserve it? Be discriminating about the resources you book when you visit Belize because not every entity you run into is as supportive of the reef’s future as one would like. On the other hand, if you want to be certain you’ve found a resource that works as hard to promote the sustenance and protection of the reef as any homegrown business, try Adventures in Belize.
This company, owned and operated by Ian Anderson has been creating vacations for 18 years, so they’ve a very personal interest in making sure visitors see the real Belize, stay at properties in close proximity to the reef and even dine at restaurants where chefs and owners make it a priority to serve foods grown and caught in accordance with Belize’s commitment to the environment. Learn more here, http://adventuresinbelize.com/, come visit and become part of the reef’s success story for yourself!