Diving Along Belize’s Mesoamerican Reef
By Catherine Evans, Owner of Tours of Exploration
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS) is a marine region that stretches over 1,000 kilometers (620 mi) from the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula down through Belize, Guatemala and Honduras waters. Belize’s coastline, comprising the Belize Barrier Reef, is home to approximately 80% of MBRS making it the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere and the second largest barrier reef in the world. The Belize Barrier Reef and Belize’s three offshore atolls, several hundred sand cayes, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Courtesy of Wikipedia
I am in Belize to dive the world’s second longest barrier reef. It is my fourth visit, and I never tire of the islands, islets and underwater treasures that grace Belize’s Barrier Reef. My husband, Matthew, and I have treated this trip as a second honeymoon – the last some 25 years ago when we first came here to scuba dive. During our first visit to Belize, we explored the Northern Cayes and Atolls including Ambergris Caye, the largest of the islands with an already mature tourism infrastructure.
Now we have come to explore the Southern Cayes and atolls that lie approximately one hour from our base, the coastal town of Placencia where a mixture of mega square-foot mansions and funky colorful wooden houses cater to an equally diverse set of travelers and locals.
We visit Splash Dive Centre shortly after arrival: a full PADI centre offering training, snorkeling and scuba trips. Equipment is plentiful and well-cared for while staff are safety- and service-oriented. We discuss our hopes of going to Glovers Reef, an atoll 30 nautical miles from Placencia. This will only be possible with enough advanced divers and favorable weather conditions on the sea.
Our first day is spent diving two sites off Silk Cayes. Matthew and I are joined by two divers, one from Switzerland, and the other from Germany. The four of us depart along with dive masters from Splash (Sam and Dan) and our Captain, George. At first, we hover over sand and coral gardens and arrive at a wall that drops deep beneath us, fading into azure depths. We are able to drift almost effortlessly by crevices that harbor lobsters of impressive stature. We move between 90 and 60 feet. Two green morays come out to provide us with full views.
Lunch and surface intervals are spent on the Cayes, and we wonder what took us so long to come back. The afternoon will be a shallower dive at another of the many reefs here. On this outing we spot several Nurse Sharks, large groupers, and so many tropical fish. There are angels, damsels, parrotfish, triggerfish and a small black and white, ornate fish which performs like a graceful gymnast on the marine floor.
On another day, we dive off a small private island, one of many that dot these waters, but our favorite adventure happens off South Water Caye. At fifteen acres, this island is large enough to support three small resorts. It has a sandy beach and a cute restaurant bar at the IZE resort for our surface time, as well as fisher folk arriving on charter boats.
Wow! Wow! Wow! best describes this day. An 80-foot wall dive with two large Spotted Eagle rays gliding by, quite literally – they did not flap once. We also pass over a series of ridges draped with life against a backdrop of deep blue ocean. The visibility on this day is well in excess of 100 feet. The dive conditions could be considered advanced, with fairly large swells during entry and exit. Moray, trigger fish, lionfish, pufferfish, and swarms of colorful tropical fish were all there along with Nurse sharks, a good-sized grouper and a Loggerhead Turtle. Arrays of coral including large Gorgonian fans are the architects of this spectacular site. Perhaps the best memory is of a flock of 15 Spotted Eagle rays doing an ocean fly-past. Once on board – everyone is quiet, stunned by the drama and beauty.
Before heading back to shore, we stop for a snorkel at the fishing grounds where three species of rays, a Loggerhead Turtle and more Nurse Sharks were feeding off the scraps left from three small fishing boats seeking conch, lobster and hogfish.
There is concern by many that in addition to “overfishing, deforestation, offshore oil drilling, pollution and climate change, the reef is compromised by large-scale, irresponsible tourism and indirect industrial development that not only threatens the integrity of the marine ecosystem but the wellbeing of the two million local people who depend on the reef for their lives and livelihoods.” (The Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative)
They are just one of the NGO’s working in the area leading efforts to maintain a vibrant tourism industry that can support local communities and contribute to a healthy ecosystem for the 500 species of fish, 60 species of coral, four sea turtle species, sharks, two species of crocodile and dolphins that live here. In addition, it is home to one of the world’s largest populations of West Indian manatees, numbering an estimated 1,000 to 1,500, and the normally-solitary whale sharks which congregate near Isla Contoy in social groups to eat and mate.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is also using its worldwide knowledge and resources to help the dwellers of the Belize reefs. It is especially monitoring how the reef is suffering from an invasion by the imported red lionfish which is native to the Indo-Pacific region. They severely damage the reef ecosystem by eating nearly every reef-tending species, such as cleaner shrimp and other species that eat algae. These animals keep the corals clean, alive, and disease-free. However, lionfish eat up to 90% of the reef-tending species in a given area within just a few months. This can result in a quick death for a reef. Valuable commercial species, such as lobster, are also being negatively affected by the spread of the lionfish.
Follow Up FactsFor more than 30 years, Tours of Exploration www.toursexplore.com has been planning ecotourism visits to countries around the world, underpinned with a sustained passion for wildlife, natural and cultural heritage, adventure (trekking, hiking, cycling and paddling), and ecotourism. Almost 90 percent of Tours of Exploration clients are 50 to 80 years of age mainly from Canada (80%) and the US (15%) with the balance from Europe and Australia (5%).
Tours of Exploration offers five tours in Belize:
Nature, Archaeology, and Coral Reefs
Diving in the Southern Cayes
Nature and Art Tour
Two birding tours.
In our Travel Article Library collection, we also recommend Catherine Evans’ richly-illustrated feature article presenting her five favorite community-based eco-lodges in Costa Rica.
Catherine’s TEN tourism tips for reef preservation
1. Support local NGOs conducting research on island and shoreline stations where you vacation.
2. Choose your accommodations wisely by staying at lodgings that follow environmental practices such as reduced use of water, energy and gas.
3. Observe wildlife with the least amount of disturbance – keep your distance and do not attempt to touch them.
4. Use only reef-friendly sunscreen and sun block.
5. Don’t litter! When straws, plastic bags, fishing lines and other debris ends up in the ocean, it can be lethal to sea turtles and other marine life.
6. Use re-fillable water bottles and carry your own cloth bags to convenience stores.
7. Do not buy or consume unsustainable sea products. This includes turtle meat, eggs, or oil, as well as souvenirs made from shells or coral jewelry.
8. At night, especially near beaches, use lights discreetly. Artificial lights can scare and disorient wildlife or make them more vulnerable to predators.
9. Use local guides who are members of the Tour Guide Association and are trained in both tourism and conservation.
10. Share your love of reefs with others you meet!
During a 30-year career in tourism, Catherine Evans has contributed to a range of innovative projects in experiential, educational, ecotourism, and wildlife tourism as well as community-based development in emerging countries. Evans has an MA in Tourism Management, a degree in Zoology, and is a successful entrepreneur of the global travel company, Tours of Exploration, which customizes programs on all seven continents. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.