Belize Barrier Reef Reserve

The barrier reef, 185 miles (290 km) long, second only to Australia’s in size and to none in color and brilliance, along with its accompanying cays (pronounced keys) and atolls has attracted world renown among snorkelers and scuba divers as well as marine naturalists. (The Belize government claims it as the world’s longest unbroken chain of living coral reef.)

Jewel-like fish and purple sea plumes find homes here along with gentle, friendly, endangered manatees and sea turtles in this largest tropical reef in the western hemisphere.

Biodiversity of this “rain forest of the sea” is as stunning as its beauty. Massive brain corals, branched golden elkhorn, staghorn, and finger corals, small and large stars, and 75 kinds of hard reef-building species coexist with softly waving lavender sea feathers, lacy sea fans, and dozens of others to furnish habitat for a myriad of organisms which are their intimately cooperating neighbors.

Multihued fish of over 500 species interact with sea anemones, octopi, lobsters, shrimps, urchins, sea worms, and almost innumerable others, displaying crimson, yellow, green, and blue scales, fins, and tentacles, which inspire wonder but are also indispensable. They serve as camouflage, identification, warnings, and courtship aids for many thousands of parrotfish, snappers, groupers, bonefish, barracudas, and graceful angelfish, along with harmless rays and nurse sharks.

Reefs and nearby cays are headquarters also for 286 bird species including storks, egrets, herons, pelicans, cormorants, ospreys, roseate terns, spoonbills, black catbirds, and magnificent frigate birds.

Some 4,000 red-footed boobies live on Half-Moon Cay on Lighthouse Reef, home also to renowned wish-willy lizards. Flocks of brown noddies come here after a life spent almost entirely at sea to produce families on Southwest Cay on Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve. The cay is an estimated seven million years old, one of the Caribbean’s most pristine and scientifically important coral gardens. Man-O-War Cay is a significant nesting site for magnificent frigate birds and brown boobies.

Two endangered coastal crocodiles, Morelet’s and American saltwater, are here. Loggerhead, green, and hawksbill sea turtles nest on beaches. West Indian manatees—300 to 700, perhaps world’s most concentrated population of this endangered sea giant—breed and graze on turtle grass. All these are at risk either from poaching or overfishing (legal seasons still exist for green and loggerhead turtles).

Biggest threats are new population centers with coastal development, sewage, agri-chemical pollution, overfishing, and unregulated boating and diving. But benefits from ecotourism have stirred support for protection of this fragile irreplaceable resource.

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Half-Moon Cay

Southwest Cay

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve

Man-O-War Cay