The Belize Barrier Reef is home to a large diversity of plants and animals and is one of the most diverse ecosystems of the world.
It is comprised of 70 hard coral species, 36 soft coral species, 500 species of fish, and hundreds of invertebrate species.
With 90% of the reef still needing to be researched, it is estimated that only 10% of all species have been discovered.
Charles Darwin described it as "the most remarkable barrier reef in the West Indies" in 1842.
Belize's Barrier Reef is a series of coral reefs straddling the coast of Belize, roughly 300 meters offshore in the north and 40 kilometers in the south within the country limits.
The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300 kilometers long section of the 900 kilometers long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.
It is the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and is popular for scuba diving and snorkeling. The Barrier reef is also Belize’s top tourist destination, attracting almost half of its 260,000 visitors, and vital to its fishing industry.
A large portion of the reef is protected by the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which includes seven marine reserves, 450 cayes, and three atolls. It totals 960 km² in area, including Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Great Blue Hole, Halfmoon Caye Natural Monument, Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Cayes include: Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel, St. George’s Caye, English Caye, Rendezvous Caye, Gladden Caye, Ranguana Caye, Long Caye, Maho Caye, Blackbird Caye, and Three Coner Caye.
The Reserve System has been designated as a World Heritage Site since 1996 because of its exceptional natural beauty, and essential on-going ecological and biological processes. It contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity.
Coral reefs are aragonite structures produced by living animal colonies, found in marine waters containing few nutrients.
In most reefs, stony corals are predominant and are built from colonial polyps that secrete an exoskeleton of calcium carbonate.
Reefs grow best in shallow, clear, sunny and agitated waters.
The accumulation of skeletal material, broken and piled up by wave action and bioeroders, produces the formation that supports living corals and a great variety of other animal and plant life.
Often called “rainforests of the sea”, coral reefs form some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems on earth. They occupy less than one percent of the world's ocean surface, about half the area of France, yet they provide a home for 25% of all marine species, including fishes, molluscs, echinoderms, and sponges.
Coral reefs deliver ecosystem services to tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection.
The annual global economic value of coral reefs has been estimated at $30 billion. However, coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, partly because they are very sensitive to water temperature. They are under threat from climate change, ocean acidification, blast fishing, cyanide fishing for aquarium fish overuse of reef resources, and harmful land-use practices.
High nutrient levels such as those found in runoff from agricultural areas can harm reefs by encouraging excess algae growth.
Most coral reefs were formed after the last glacial period when melting ice caused the sea level to rise and flood the continental shelves.
This means that most coral reefs are less than 10,000 years old.
As coral reef communities were established on the shelves, they built reefs that grew upwards, keeping pace with the rise in sea level.
Reefs that didn't keep pace could become drowned reefs, covered by so much water that there was insufficient light for further survival.
Live coral should be thought of as small live animals embedded in calcium carbonate. It is a mistake to think of coral as plants or rocks.
Coral consists of accumulations of individual animals called polyps, arranged in diverse shapes.
Polyps are usually tiny, but they can range in size from a pinhead to a foot across. Reefs grow as polyps, along with other organisms, and deposit calcium carbonate which is the basis of coral. The skeletal structure beneath and around themselves pushes the coral's "head" or polyps upwards and outwards.
Waves, grazing fish (such as parrotfish), sea urchins, sponges, and other forces and organisms break down coral skeletons into fragments that settle into spaces in the reef structure. Many other organisms living in the reef community contribute skeletal calcium carbonate in the same manner.
Coralline algae are important contributors to reef structure in those parts of the reef subjected to the greatest forces by waves (such as the reef front facing the open ocean). These algae deposit limestone in sheets over the reef surface, thereby strengthening it.
If you are interested in diving or snorkeling tours and vacation packages, where you can experience the incredible beauty and awesome diversity of the Belize Barrier Reef, contact Chaa Creek at reservations[at]chaacreek[dot]com or call toll free 1-877-709-8708.
See also: Ambergris Caye
Darren Lamb, Tour Guide