The Belize Barrier Reef is a living coral reef described as solid mounds of submerged limestone, and is the richest and most diverse habitat in the ocean. The underwater landscape structure, tropical latitude and sea ocean currents make Belize the proud home of the largest living coral reef in the Western Hemisphere. Many visitors to our shores are looking for a unique SCUBA diving or snorkeling experience. The wide range of dive and snorkel sites in within and outside the Mesoamerican reef provides endless opportunities for the sport diver looking for challenging adventure, or even for beginners looking for safe snorkelling or wanting to gain PADI certification or additional training
SCUBA is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. It may also refer to Scuba diving, the use of a self-contained breathing set to stay underwater for periods of time.
Snorkelling (U.S.A. spelling: Snorkeling ) is the sport of swimming on or through a body of water while equipped with a diving mask, a shaped or curved breathing tube called a snorkel, and swim fins. The snorkel allows the snorkeller to observe underwater attractions for extended periods of time with relatively little effort. Snorkelling is also used by fishermen to harvest lobster, conch and other marine products in relatively shallow areas of up to 50 feet of water depth where they can spot their traps or targets from the surface, and then free dive for retrieval.
The following is an overview of the Belize marine environment and the types and locations of our coral reefs to help you better appreciate what you can see and experience during your visit.
Currents and Tides
In the Western Caribbean, which is really Northern Central America where Belize is located, surface currents tend to flow in a northerly direction. This northerly current creates a southerly counter current directly in front of the Barrier Reef and around the atolls off its coast. Between the barrier reef and the mainland, the currents tend to flow in a southern direction. The emptying of the several rivers coming down from the Maya Mountains and Guatemala, combined with the push of the prevailing trade winds creates a head of water that funnels to the south and out to the southern edge of the reefs.
The general seafloor profile of Belize’s coastal waters leads from the inland lagoons and beaches of the shoreline to the lagoon, barrier platform, barrier reef and wall and finally the coral atolls. Our inner lagoons consist mainly of sediments from river run off. Sea grass and hardy corals abound, and fishing at the river mouths is abundant. Snorkeling offshore is fine in most areas. But the water can be murky especially during the rainy season due to spill off into the rivers. Belize has some of the best diving and snorkeling spots in the Caribbean.
South of Gladden Spit, the outer platform narrows to about 1 mile, with wide passages through the barrier reef. The barrier platform ends in a hook form shape at the Sapodilla Cayes. The barrier platform is bordered on the east by the barrier reef, a wall of coral that breaks the surface of the Caribbean Sea.
Those SCUBA diving, snorkelling and exploring the underwater world of Belize, will discover a range of different reef types. Among these are fringing reefs, patch reefs, faroes, barrier reefs, and atolls.
Fringing Reefs – Fringing reefs are usually found hugging the mainland shores. The only fringing reef in Belize is at at Rocky Point in the Belize Corozal District at the northern end of Ambergris Caye. Here the reef literally rises out of the water at Rocky Point and you can actually walk on top of the coral skeletons embedded in the shoreline rocks.
Patch Reefs – Patch reefs vary from small coral formations to huge, sprawling reefs. They are common throughout the coastal zone, though more extensive in the south, particularly in the intricate barrier platform region south of Southwater Caye.
Faroe – A faroe better known as a ringed reef or angular atoll on a continental shelf, also known as a shelf atoll. Just like an atoll, a faroe is steep sided and encloses a central lagoon. One of the best examples of a faroe in Belize is Laughing Bird Caye.
Virtual Dive Of The Mesoamerican Reef Off The Belize Coast
The largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, UNESCO added this site to the World Heritage in danger list in 2009. The system illustrates a classic example of reef types through fringing, barrier and atoll, and the regions seven sites provide a significant habitat for threatened species. This particular dive features Half Moon Cay, at the southern end of Lighthouse Reef Atoll.
Barrier Reef and Atolls
The barrier reef region has been extensively studied and has been shown to possess distinct zones from the lagoon seaward to the drop off wall. Directly landward of the barrier reef lies the back reef lagoon, characterized by corals and sea grass beds. The reef crest breaks the surface of the water and bears the main forces of heavy surf. Reason why the coast of Belize is great for swimming and water sports. Coral Atolls – the final reef type, seaward of the continental shelf is composed of three coral atolls. The three Belizean atolls have been described as “the finest structures of their type in the Caribbean Sea”.
The Turneffe Island in Belize, the largest of the atolls, has a length of 31 miles and varies in width up to a maximum of 10 miles. Numerous mangrove covered sand cayes rim Turneffe.
Lighthouse Reef has a length of 25 miles and a width of approximately 4.5 miles with an area of over 78 square miles. Lighthouse Reef is the smallest of the three atolls.
Halfmoon Cay Natural Monument lies along the southeastern portion of the reef and the Blue Hole Protected area lies within the interior of the atoll.
Glover’s Reef is 15 miles in length and its greatest width is 6.5 miles. The approximate area of over 80 square miles. making it slightly larger than Lighthouse Reef but much smaller than Turneffe Island.
Lighthouse Reef is best known for its famous Great Blue Hole -a huge sunken cave 300 by 400 feet that was the subject of a documentary by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. The Blue Hole is probably Belize’s best known scuba diving attraction, but Lighthouse Reef is also the site of Half Moon Caye National Monument, established as Belize’s first nature reserve in 1982.
The reserve is managed by the Belize Audubon Society – its most well known inhabitants are its thousands of booby birds. Endangered hawksbill and loggerhead turtles nest on Long Caye’s beaches, as to several species of iguanas, lizards and large land crabs. Camping is permitted by arrangement, as are swimming, diving and snorkeling. No food or services are available.
Because most islands on the Barrier Reef are not yet developed, there is abundant bird life, including egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, flamingos, pelicans, cormorants and frigate birds. About a mile north of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, an 80 foot channel, the San Pedro River, separates the southern part of Ambergris from the rest of the island.