Surpassed only by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef is the second-largest barrier reef in the world and the largest in the western hemisphere. Measuring more than 180 miles long, the Barrier Reef stretches the full length of the coastline of the Central American country of Belize.
Barrier reefs are not made from inanimate stone but are rather living colonies of invertebrate animals known as coral polyps. Carnivorous in nature, coral polyps grow a hard exoskeleton similar to a shell that is made from calcium carbonite. Different species of coral are distinguished by the color and shape of these calcium carbonite deposits called corallites, including elkhorn, large star, finger, brain and plate coral.
Coral polyps subsist on organic material which the tides bring in during the night. Using stinging tentacles, the polyps feed on microscopic organisms that drift their way. During the day, the coral polyps retreat inside their hard calcium carbonite shells.
Barrier reefs serve as a shelter and spawning ground for thousands of species of marine life. Sea turtles and fish are drawn to the reefs. Although they compromise a fraction of the ocean’s surface, coral reefs compromise 25% of the world’s marine life. One creature that works in symbiosis with the coral is blue algae. The plant-like algae use photosynthesis to grow, creating oxygen as a byproduct that nourishes the coral polyps. Simultaneously, the coral polyps breathe out carbon dioxide which is used by the blue algae.
The Belize Barrier Reef is home to hundreds of species of fish, octopus, lobster, sea turtles, shellfish and a myriad of other forms of marine life. The spectacular beauty and staggering bio-diverse complexity of the Belize Barrier Reef make it a natural wonder of the world, something no visitor to Belize should miss!
Belize Coral Reef
Coral reefs are amazingly complicated ecosystems whose beauty and wonder draw tourists from all over the world. Incredibly important to local fishing industries as well as natural protection to shorelines, coral reefs add over $28 billion to the global economy. Yet these marine structures are quite fragile and susceptible to changes in temperature, climate, pH values, illegal fishing practices and careless land use. Pollution and excess nutrients released into the water allow harmful algae to flourish and destroy the coral reefs.
Structure and Anatomy of Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are formed by the attachment of multicellular invertebrates to rock and limestone build up around land masses. Each individual coral organism is called a polyp. Composed of a stomach and stinging tentacles around its mouth, the tiny polyp survives on plankton and other small creatures. The discarded exoskeletons, containing calcium carbonate, build up underwater, providing an environment for additional coral, plants and other sea animals such as mollusks, sponges, sea turtles and fish to live. There are different types of coral including reef building and deep sea varieties. Reef builders need bright sunlight to live, so these coral reefs are most often found in areas of clear, shallow water with a depth of between 100 to 450 feet.
These reefs are found in tropical and subtropical waters and take up a very small percentage of the ocean’s surface area. However, almost one-quarter of marine life relies on them for shelter and food. Corals face significant danger as the waters are filled with predators such as seaweeds containing chemicals that are toxic to them. One variety of fish, called the gobi, acts as a bodyguard when it receives chemical signals from the coral indicating danger. These gobies nibble the offending seaweed until it no longer poses a threat.
Belize Barrier Reef
The Belize Barrier Reef is one of four types of coral reefs: fringing, barrier, atolls and patch. Barrier reefs, like fringing reefs, run parallel to the coastline but are separated from land by a deeper, wider body of water. The Belize Reef is approximately 180 miles long and is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. It is the largest reef of its type in the northern hemisphere and is second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In 1996, this reef system was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Belize has a tremendously diverse reef region housing over 65 species of coral and 500 species of fish. Compare that to the entire Caribbean with 70 species of coral and over 510 types of fish. Dolphins, seahorses and manatees are among the animals that call the Belize Barrier Reef home.
During the last Ice Age, underwater caves flooded and subsequently collapsed into themselves. The resulting sinkhole is almost 400 feet deep and close to 1000 feet wide. Dubbed the Blue Hole, this area of the barrier reef is regarded as one of the best snorkeling and scuba diving areas in the world.
Cahal Pech Village resort in Belize’s western Cayo District has a close working relationship with the best hotels and resorts in Ambergris Caye and the Placencia Peninsula to offer guests complete reef and rainforest packages which include scuba diving and snorkeling trips at the Belize Barrier Reef.