Belize's modest patch of Caribbean Ocean is rich in marine life and a variety of habitats, and much of it has protected status.
THE CAYES AND ATOLLS
More than 200 cayes (pronounced KEEZ and derived from the Spanish cayo for "key" or "islet") dot the blue waters off Belize's eastern coast. They range in size from barren patches that are submerged at high tide to the largest, Ambergris Caye-25 miles long and nearly 4.5 miles across at its widest point. Some cayes are inhabited by people, others only by wildlife. The majority are lush patches of mangrove that challenge the geographer's definition of what makes an island (that's why you'll never see a precise figure of how many there are).
Most of the cayes lie within the protection of the Belize Barrier Reef (almost 200 miles long), which parallels the mainland. Without the protection of the reef-in essence a breakwater-the islands would be washed away. Within the reef, the sea is relatively calm and shallow.
Beyond the reef lie three of the Caribbean's four atolls: Glover's Reef, Turneffe Islands, and Lighthouse Reef. An atoll is a ring-shaped coral island surrounding a lagoon, always beautiful, and almost exclusively found in the South Pacific. The three types of cayes are wet cayes, which are submerged part of the time and can support only mangrove swamps; bare coral outcroppings that are equally uninhabitable; and sandy islands with palm trees, jungle shrubbery, and their own set of animals. The more inhabited cayes lie in the northern part of the reef and include Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye, St. George's Caye, and Caye Chapel.
Reefs are divided into three types: atoll, fringing, and barrier. An atoll can be formed around the crater of a submerged volcano. The polyps begin building their colonies on the round edge of the crater, forming a circular coral island with a lagoon in the center. Thousands of atolls occupy the world's tropical waters. Only four are in the Caribbean Ocean; three of those are in Belize's waters.
A fringing reef is coral living on a shallow shelf that extends outward from shore into the sea. A barrier reef runs parallel to the coast, with water separating it from the land. Sometimes it's actually a series of reefs with channels of water in between. This is the case with some of the larger barrier reefs in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The Belize Barrier Reef extends from the tip of Mexico's Isla Mujeres to Sapodilla Caye in the Bay of Honduras. This 180-mile-long reef is known by various names (Belize Reef is the most common) and is the longest reef in the Western and Northern Hemispheres.
Coral is a unique limestone formation that grows in innumerable shapes, such as delicate lace, trees with reaching branches, pleated mushrooms, stovepipes, petaled flowers, fans, domes, heads of cabbage, and stalks of broccoli. Corals are formed by millions of tiny carnivorous polyps that feed on minute organisms and live in large colonies of individual species. These small creatures can be less than half an inch long or as large as six inches in diameter. Related to the jellyfish and sea anemone, polyps need sunlight and clear saltwater not colder than 70°F to survive. Coral polyps have cylinder-shaped bodies. One end is attached to a hard surface (the bottom of the ocean, the rim of a submerged volcano, or the reef itself), and the mouth end is encircled with tiny tentacles that capture its minute prey with a deadly sting.
How a Reef Grows
As these small creatures continue to reproduce and die, their sturdy skeletons accumulate. Over eons, broken bits of coral, animal waste, and granules of soil contribute to the strong foundation for a reef that will slowly rise toward the surface. To grow, a reef must have a base no more than 82 feet below the water's surface. In a healthy environment it can grow one to two inches a year. One small piece of coral represents millions of polyps and many years of construction.
| REEF ETIQUETTE |
There are a few important guidelines to follow when snorkeling or diving near coral and other marine life. The reef, though massive and impressive, is also extremely fragile and every year is subject to impact from an increasing number of visitors.
Start by getting comfortable with your dive or snorkel gear in a sandy area before venturing out to the reef. Ask your guide to explain the area to you, and give yourself plenty of time to learn how to kick properly, to float on the surface of the water, to practice expelling water from your snorkel, and to clear your mask a couple times.
If you're in doubt about your swimming ability, wear a life jacket around your waist. You don't want to find yourself far from the boat, tired and gulping water. This is dangerous for you and could force you to grab onto the coral and stand on a patch of reef--both of which can seriously damage or even kill the coral.
Here are some more standard guidelines to follow:
.Don't touch the coral! Not only can it sting you, but it is a living thing and can be seriously damaged. The coral lives in a mutually beneficial relationship with a type of algae, and by disrupting that protective layer, the algae can die and the coral won't get all the nutrients it needs. Gloves are not allowed in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve for this reason.
.Watch your fins. It's easy to forget that you have two extensions on your feet when you're in the water, so be sure to keep your distance from the coral heads so that you don't brush against them or break them off.
.Don't stand on the coral. This happens a lot, and it's one of the surest ways to kill coral. Be smart, safe, and don't put yourself in that situation. If you're feeling a little anxious or think you might need to rest, stay near the boat or ask your guide for help. Hold onto a life ring if you're not sure about your swimming abilities.
.Know the area. Some snorkel sites are located near channels with strong currents, and you don't want to find yourself too far out or struggling to swim back. Stay near your group and listen to your guide.
.If you're in a sandy area, try not to stir up the sand, especially if you're near a coral head. Corals cannot live in murky water, and when sediments land on top of them, the algae they live with are unable to photosynthesize and could easily die.
.Don't touch or feed the marine life. Poking them, prodding them, lifting them out of the water-these activities can cause the animal stress. Feeding them can change their habits and make them more susceptible to predators.
.Don't collect coral. It's tempting to take some of these beautiful creatures home, but all marine life should be left where it is. The only coral that is legal to sell in Belize is Black Coral, and that's only with a special license.
.Always go snorkeling or diving with a guide. Not only is this for your safety, but they know the area better than anyone and will certainly enhance your experience.
.Don't leave any garbage behind. And if you see any, pick it up and take it back to shore with you (but be sure to check it carefully to make sure no animals are using it as a home.)
.When diving, be sure to maintain neutral buoyancy and watch for dragging equipment. This will ensure that you and your gauges won't run into the coral.
The marshy areas and bays at the mouths of rivers where saltwater and fresh water mix are called estuaries. Here, nutrients from inland are carried out to sea by currents and tides to nourish reefs, sea-grass beds, and the open ocean. Many plants and animals feed, live, or mate in these waters. Conch, crabs, shrimp, and other shellfish thrive here, and several types of jellyfish and other invertebrates call this home. Seabirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl of all types frequent estuaries to feed, nest, and mate. Crocodiles, dolphins, and manatees are regular visitors. Rays, sharks, and tarpon hunt and mate here. During the wet season, the estuaries of Belize pump a tremendous amount of nutrients into the sea.
Mangroves live on the edge between land and sea, forming dense thickets that act as a protective border against the forces of wind and waves. Four species grow along many low-lying coastal areas on the mainland and along island lagoons and fringes. Of these, the red mangrove and the black mangrove are most prolific. Red mangrove in excess of 30 feet is found in tidal areas, inland lagoons, and river mouths, but always close to the sea. Its signature is its arching prop roots. Black mangrove grows almost double that height. Its roots are slender, upright projectiles that grow to about 12 inches, protruding all around the mother tree. Both types of roots provide air to the tree.
Red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) specialize in creating land-its seedpods fall into the water and take root on the sandy bottom of a shallow shoal. The roots, which can survive in seawater, then collect particles from the water and the tree's own dropping leaves to create soil. Once the red mangrove forest has created land, it makes way for the next mangrove in the succession process. The black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) can actually out-compete the red mangrove at this stage due to its ability to live in anoxic soil (without oxygen). In this way, the red mangrove appears to do itself in by creating an anoxic environment. But, while the black mangrove is taking over the upland of the community, the red mangrove continues to dominate the perimeter as it continuously creates more land from the sea. One way to identity a black mangrove forest is by the thousands of dense pneumataphores (tiny air roots) covering the ground under the trees.
Soon, burrowing organisms such as insects and crabs begin to inhabit the floor of the black mangrove forest and the first ground covers, Salicornia and salt wart (Batis maritima) take hold-thereby aerating the soil and enabling the third and fourth mangrove species in succession to move in: the white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) and the gray mangrove (Conocarpus erectus), also known locally as buttonwood.
Each of the three primary mangrove species lives in a very salty environment and each has its own special way of eliminating salt. The red mangrove concentrates the salt taken up with seawater into individual leaves, which turn bright yellow and fall into the prop roots, thereby adding organic matter to the system. The black mangrove eliminates salt from the underside of each leaf. If you pick a black mangrove leaf and lick the back, it will taste very salty. The white mangrove eliminates salt through two tiny salt pores located on the petiole (the stem that connects the leaf to the branch). If you sleep in a hammock under a white mangrove tree, you will feel drops of salty water as the tree "cries" upon you! The buttonwood also has tiny salt pores on each petiole.
Standing on Ambergris Caye and looking seaward, many tourists are surprised to see something dark in the shallow water just offshore. They expect a sandy bottom typical of many Caribbean islands. However, it is this "dark stuff" that eventually will make their day's snorkeling, fishing, or dining experience more enjoyable. What they are noticing is sea grass, another of the ocean's great nurseries.
Sea grasses are plants with elongated, ribbon-like leaves. Just like the land plants they evolved from, sea grasses flower and have extensive root systems. They live in sandy areas around estuaries, mangroves, reefs, and open coastal waters. Turtle grass has broader, tapelike leaves and is common down to about 60 feet. Manatee grass, found to depths of around 40 feet, has thinner, more cylindrical, leaves. Both cover large areas of seafloor and intermix in some areas, harboring an amazing variety of marine plants and animals. Barnacles, conch, crabs, and many other shellfish proliferate in the fields of sea grass. Anemones, seahorses, sponges, and starfish live here. Grunts, filefish, flounder, jacks, rays, and wrasses feed here. Sea turtles and manatees often graze in these lush marine pastures.