A Trip to Belize: A Diver’s Paradise

By: Ashley Gustafson

Belize

Imagine a country tranquil and diverse, from its rainforest dominant interior to its clear blue coastal waters, filled with a different sort of rainforest. Coral reefs are often nicknamed the “rainforest of the sea” for their rich ecosystems full of every sort of life. Belize is famous for its barrier reef that stretches 155 miles from tip to tip, making it the largest reef system in the Western hemisphere and second largest in the world. As one can imagine, this makes quite the dive spot and often a dream destination for divers all over the world. With an average yearly, air temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit, it makes the perfect tropical getaway for those chilly winter months. Especially for the Reef nation team, who is excited to jump into the Belizean waters at the end of the month. It is exciting trip for any coral enthusiast and we look forward to the go-pro footage and log entries in the next month from their trip, so stay tuned!

An overview of Belize Coral Reefs

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is a sparsely populated country just south of Mexico. Its unique location combines a fine mixture of Central American and Caribbean culture. With such beautiful nature it is no wonder that over 40% of it is under formal protection. Its claim to fame is its crystal blue, unpolluted waters which provide refuge to over 600 marine species, including over 40 species of coral alone. These wonders include but are not limited to flamingos, salt water crocodiles, rays, West Indian manatees, sea turtles, hundreds of fish species, and of course coral. As stated pre

viously, Coastal Belize has the second largest barrier reef stretching 155 miles tip to tip and ranging from just a few hundred yards off shore to 25 miles off shore. This barrier reef is not only beautiful but absolutely vital to the existence of Belize. Barrier reef systems protect the mainland from storms and water surges that would damage or overtake the mainland.

In addition to the large barrier reef along Coastal Belize, there are three separate atoll reefs. An atoll reef is simply a ring shaped coral reef. Belize has three atoll reefs that are formed on two tiers of submarine ridges: Turneffe and Glover’s on one ridge and Lighthouse on a separate ridge farther to the east. These two ridges are separated by deep marine trenches. When viewing Belize, the reef appears as an unbroken chain of dreamy, white surf breaking along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Inside the reef itself the water is shallow with a bright blue tinge and colorful reflections from the coral beneath it. Outside the water is deep and shows a dark royal blue color. The warm clear, shallow waters of Belize make it a superb environment for coral reefs where there is plenty of sunlight and nutrients for growing polyps. The nutrients are fed to the coastal waters through various mainland rivers and streams.

An Overview of Belizean Marine Life

As previously stated, more than 600 marine species call the coastal waters of Belize home. One of the most beloved and endearing animals that reside in the warm waters of Belize are several species of Sea Turtles. These reptiles are exceptionally long living with recorded ages up to 150 years. It is even speculated that these ancient reptiles may live longer. Sea turtles, unlike land turtles, are only tied to land for reproductive purposes. They breathe air but can hold their breath for up to three hours. They need the protection Belize has to offer as all sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered by the ICUN. The species commonly sighted in Belize are the large leatherback turtle, the hawksbill turtle, the popular green turtle, the small Kemp’s Ridley turtle, and the loggerhead turtle.

Another marine animal that is found in the coastal waters of Belize is the favorite, Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin. Perhaps the most well-known of its kind thanks to pop cultures “Flipper” these intelligent marine mammals are commonly sighted at Blackbird Caye on the Turneffe Atoll or frolicking through power boat wakes all over the islands water ways. The can grow up to 10 feet long and have an average lifespan of about 20 years in the wild. Their complex sociability is suspected to account for their large brain size as well as their incredible capacity to learn. Highly intelligent and strategic they are able to communicate a wide variety of signals to each other from something simple like where they are to when a female is in estrus and ready to mate. Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins can be found in a wide variety of habitats across Belize from lagoons to Jungle Rivers to the coastal shorelines. Their social nature makes them a sure sight on your next trip to Belize.

Another famous refugee of Belize is the West Indian Manatee. With only a few hundred left in Belizean waters, this gentle, slow-moving giant needs protection from the dangers of power boats and the activity of people. Commonly nicknamed “the sea cow” for it large, vegetarian nature, they can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh up to 1000 pounds. These sea cows can eat up to 150 pounds of vegetation per day, making them live up to their nickname. They are also the only vegetarian marine mammals in current existence.

In addition to fascinating marine mammals and sea turtles, Belize is a fantastic place to spot the largest fish in the world: the Whale Shark. The Whale Shark can grow on average to 25 feet and up to 60 feet and weigh up to 15 tons. These unique sharks can live up to 150 years and are harmless to humans. The best time to see these giant filter-feeders is from March to June 10 days after a full moon when the males and females come in to the shallow waters to spawn. In order to find these massive sharks, go to the most notable spot to see these giants near Gladden Spit near Placencia.

Belize is also home to several shark and ray species. Since Belize is a popular dive spot, it is common to note that the majority of these potentially threatening species tend to leave divers and snorkelers alone. Some notable species of rays common off the coast of Belize are the spotted eagle rat which can get up to 8 feet long, the Roughtail stingray, the yellow stingray, southern stingray, the smalltooth sawfish, and the giant Atlantic mantra ray which can grow up to 20 feet and 3000 pounds. The common sharks found in Belizean waters are nurse sharks, blacktip reef sharks, and bull sharks. Bull sharks are very unique from other sharks as they can reside in both fresh and salt water. Bull sharks also have a notable, elevated level of the hormone testosterone which can make them extra aggressive in certain situations like hunting. And who could forget about all the beautiful fish found in Belizean waters? With over hundreds of fish species from game fish like grouper to adorable, colorful clown fish, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

While I could spend countless hours, pages, and words describing and detailing the extensive marine life found in the rich Belizean waters, this is just a taste of all the diversity Belize has to offer. Belize is a beautiful country known for its exotic ecosystems and vast protected lands. It is important to conserve such beautiful waters full of diversity and protect the tropical waters from pollution, over-fishing, and erosion. Hosting one of the world’s natural wonders, a barrier reef, it is critical to protect and learn as much as possible about disappearing coral reefs. So next time you are looking for a tropical getaway, with rich culture, beautiful wildlife, and spectacular dive sites; choose Belize!

References

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/belize/wildlife/marine-life

http://www.ambergriscaye.com/pages/town/barrier.html

http://www.ourbelizevacation.com/marine-life-identification-guide.html

http://www.wcs.org/where-we-work/oceans/caribbean/belize.aspx

http://animals.pawnation.com/marine-life-belize-8466.html

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/belize-coral