The Belize Barrier Reef system (aka "Meso-American Barrier Reef") is a 200-mile long series of reef formations that run in a north-south direction parallel to the Belizean mainland.
This extensive reef complex is separated from the mainland at distances ranging from just a few hundred yards (at the northern end) to some 20-25 miles at the southern end of the formation.
The Belize Barrier Reef has the distinction of being the world's 2nd largest example of this reef type, exceeded in size only by Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The Belize Barrier Reef Ecosystem
The unrivaled size (for the Atlantic Ocean) of the Belize Barrier Reef, along with its location very near the center of Caribbean marine biodiversity, makes this ecosystem a natural marvel. Exploring its wonders (either by snorkeling or scuba diving) is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
In 1982, the Smithsonian Institution sponsored a comprehensive study of this ecosystem. These experts recognized three broad geographic subdivisions ("provinces") of the barrier reef complex: northern, central, and southern.
The researchers concluded that the central province (popularly known as the "Middle Cayes"), contains the most spectacular reef development, with over 50 miles of well-developed barrier reef, mangrove islands, patch reefs, and seagrass beds.
More than 65 hard coral species were identified on the Barrier Reef, which represents about 90% of the total number of hard coral species found in the entire Greater Caribbean region.
Likewise, an unparalleled (for the region) diversity of fishes, octocorals, and other marine invertebrate animals have been recorded here. In part because of this amazing species richness, in 1996 the Belize Barrier Reef was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Predictably, snorkeling and scuba diving on the Barrier Reef is best when winds are calm. Because of its exposed position to easterly winds, visibility tends to get poor (20-30 feet) during high wind conditions. Water temperatures are fairly constant all year lying between the mid 70's to mid 80's. A lightweight wetsuit is generally suitable for most Belize snorkeling.
Threats To The Belize Barrier Reef Ecosystem
Unfortunately, there are clear signs of danger in this coral paradise. Impacts upon the ecological integrity of the Belize Barrier Reef steadily mount from a broad range of human activities.
Most notably, these include:
- Reef over-exploitation (by fishing and tourism)
- Infrastructure development (island tourism and mainland coastal)
- Mangrove removal
Together, these factors have already damaged more than 40% of the Belize Barrier Reef ecosystem. In response (2009), UNESCO added the Belize Barrier Reef to its list of endangered world heritage sites.
Travel Tips: Exploring The Barrier Reef
For all practical purposes, there are two broad options in terms of destinations supporting Barrier Reef tourism in Belize: Ambergris Caye, and the Middle Cayes.
Just about all areas one could engage in Belize Barrier Reef snorkeling and diving would still rank among the best to be found in the Caribbean. Still, serious reef explorers would be well advised to choose their diving and snorkeling sites carefully these days to avoid those reef areas that have already succumbed to the onslaught.
The most popular Belize snorkeling destination by far on the Barrier Reef is Ambergris Caye, located some 4 miles from the famed Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the northernmost point of the barrier reef system within Belize territorial waters.
Ambergris Caye, with its many activities, shopping, dining, and hotel choices - along with a vibrant night life - is a good choice for those who want a more upscale Caribbean island vacation that includes a bit of casual reef snorkeling.
However, prospective visitors should be aware that this once rustic island getaway now has over 100 hotels and a new casino. Not surprisingly, nearby Hol Chan now receives over 30,000 visitors a year and its coral reefs are showing clear signs of degradation from this level of tourism and the associated infrastructure that supports it.
The Middle Cayes
In our opinion, the best option for Belize visitors wishing to snorkel or dive the wonders of the Belize Barrier Reef is to do so from one of the fine small resorts situated on the Middle Cayes, east of the coastal town of Dangria.
The reefs here are still very healthy, and the multitude of patch reefs and the inner edge of the main reef provide the best readily accessible snorkeling to be found along the barrier reef.
Keep in mind that here, "resort" means a few beach cabanas and a restaurant and (in some cases) a dive shop. There are no spas, shopping, or outside (the resort) restaurants.
For those wishing to dive this area but also stay in more luxurious accommodations, there are a few upscale resorts located near Dangria on the mainland. These offer daily diving and snorkeling excursions to the barrier reef, along with the additional amenities of a first-class resort and easy access to other local attractions such as the city of Dangria and nearby rain forests.
The downside (for some) to staying at mainland resorts when planning to spend a lot of time snorkeling are the lengthy (up to an hour) boat rides to and from the best reef snorkeling sites. Still, there are worse ways to spend your time than cruising the protected waters shoreward of the Belize Barrier Reef.