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Diving the Meso-American Barrier Reef of Belize

Belize is a small country in Central America bordered by the Caribbean Sea on the east, Guatemala on the west and south, and Mexico to the north. Belize is also known for its extreme biodiversity and distinctive ecosystems. On the coast, there is a swampy coastal plain with mangrove swamps. In the south and interior there are hills and low mountains. Most of the land is undeveloped and is forested with hardwoods.


History

Belize is a part of the Meso-American Biodiversity Hotspot and contains jungles, wildlife reserves and a large variety of flora and fauna. In addition, it also hosts the largest cave system in Central America. Some species of Belize's flora and fauna include the black orchid, the mahogany tree, the toucan and tapirs.
The first people to develop Belize were the Maya around 1500 B.C.E. As shown in archeological records, they established a number of settlements here including Caracol, Lamanai and Lubaantun. The first European contact with Belize occurred in 1502 when Christopher Columbus reached the area's coast. In 1638, the first European settlement was established by England and, for 150 years, many more English settlements were set up. The Belizean people are made up of Maya, Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, Mennonite, Arab and Chinese.
In 1840, Belize became a "Colony of British Honduras" and in 1862, it became a crown colony. For one hundred years, Belize maintained a representative government of England but in January 1964, full self government with a ministerial system was granted. In 1973, the region's name was changed from British Honduras to Belize and on September 21, 1981, full independence was achieved.
English is the official language, and Spanish, African-based Garifuna, Maya-Kekchi, Maya Mopan, Mandarin, and German are just a few of the languages that form the unique dialects that are spoken throughout the country.


Touring And Diving Belize

We visited Belize in 1992, 2005, and 2014, to experience the country and to dive and photograph the second largest barrier reef in the world. The country is known for its Mayan ruins, Eco-Lodges near the Guatemalan border, the Belize Zoo, jaguars, birds, and of course, its offshore reefs. Recently, large resorts and casinos have sprung up near Belize City. Now one can also enjoy zip lining and cave tubing through the jungle, in addition to eco tours of the wildlife preserves.
The purpose of this article, though, is to talk about the reefs and the changes we have seen over the past 25 years. We have always dived these reefs from a live-aboard dive boat. We felt that was the only way to experience the scope of what Belize diving has to offer. The Aggressor and the Dancer Fleet both run live-aboard dive boats. They dock at the Marina at the Raddisson Fort George Hotel in Belize City. It is a nice safe hotel to stay in both before and after your dive trip. One should try and spend time exploring the country.
Our first trip in 1992 showed a reef filled with sea fans, sea whips, hard corals, beautiful walls with huge elephant ear and tube sponges, soft corals and very little algae. We encountered fairly large but not huge grouper, tarpon and a large variety of indigenous Caribbean fish. The water seemed clearer than it is today, given the same weather conditions.The photos below were taken on our most recent trip.

  • Belize Aggressor At Sea
  • Arrow Blenny
  • Arrowcrab
  • Balloonfish
  • Banded Butterflyfish
  • Barrel Sponge
  • Belize Wall and Boat
  • Belize Wall Tube Sponge
  • Diver And Barrel Sponge
  • Diver And Coral Head
  • Blacktip Shark
  • Blue Tang
  • Boat and Sea Fans
  • Boat and Wall
  • Channel Clinging Crab
  • Elephant Ear Sponge
  • Elliptical Star Coral Closeup
  • Flamingo Tongue
  • Flounder
  • French Angel
  • Gorgonians
  • Graysby
  • Grey Angel
  • Grouper Face
  • Grouper Mouth
  • Grouper
  • Grouper With Cleaner Blenny
  • Hermit Crab
  • Belize Wall and Boat


The Belize Blue Hole

We dove the Blue Hole, a dark blue round 450' deep "cave" where the roof had collapsed over time, which invites divers to see huge stalactites. Now completely underwater, these formations took thousands of years to form, when the seas were much lower and this was a dry cave. The stalactites start at about 100' and go down to over 170'. In 1992, the growths of encrusting sponges and other soft corals were vibrant, and the visibility good enough to see the surface from 150' down. In 2014, the stalactites were covered in algae, and the visibility was terrible, the water was almost green. The reef top at 20' used to have the most beautiful formations, staghorn corals, sea fans, sea whips, and a lot of fish life. Today, all that is gone, and what remains is covered in algae. It was hard to find much of the former sea life we had seen previously.
On the two subsequent trips to these reefs, we noticed some definite changes. Over the years, the sea temperatures had risen, the urchin population (which eats algae), had disappeared, algae growth was becoming more prominent, and the bigger fish were gone. Elkhorn and staghorn corals were gone. Lionfish, an invasive species, have found their way into that ecosystem. They are voracious eaters of every smaller fish. But, what is happening in Belize is not unique, it is happening worldwide.

  • Blue Hole 2014
  • Belize Blue Hole 1992
  • Belize Blue Hole 1992
  • Belize Blue Hole 1992
  • Belize Blue Hole Reef 1992
  • Blue Hole Stalagtite 2014
  • Blue Hole Stalagtite 2014
  • Blue Hole Stalagtite 2014
  • Blue Hole Stalagtite 2014
  • Blue Hole Reef 2014
  • Octopus at Home
  • Offshore
  • Blue Hole 2014


The Reefs - Conditions and Bio-Diversity

That said, we still found the Belize reefs to be beautiful. There are still the famous tube and elephant ear sponges, large sea fans, sea whips and hard corals covering the reef. The reef actually seemed better than we remembered in 2005. Although the large grouper are gone- there were still medium sized grouper that could become huge in time if left alone. The reefs are not covered in the slimy algae that we have seen in other places. Because this reef (the second longest in the world) was so far offshore, runoff from rains generally did not affect it.

  • Hogfish
  • Indigo Hamlet
  • Large Sea Fan
  • Longjaw Squirrellfish
  • Midnight Parrotfish
  • Moray And Angelfish
  • Moray Eel
  • Octopus
  • Octopus Eating Conch
  • Porkfish
  • Purple Sponges
  • Queen Angelfish
  • Redband Parrotfish -Terminal Phase
  • Rose Blenny
  • Scorpionfish
  • Sea Fans and Coral Head
  • Sea Rods
  • Spiny Lobster
  • Spiny Lobster Closeup
  • Spotted Drum Juvenile
  • Spotted Moray
  • Spotted Toadfish
  • Star Coral
  • Stingray
  • Stoplight Parrotfish
  • Striped Parrotfish
  • Sun Anemone
  • Turtle
  • Turtle BW
  • Turtle Head
  • Xmas Tree Worm
  • Xmas Tree Worm
  • Yellowheaded Wrasse
  • Yellow Tube Sponges
  • Midnight Parrotfish

When we dove in November, we experienced high winds, rain, and confused seas, which affected our visibility greatly. However, when the wind subsided on one day- the blue green bright color of the sea returned, and we could see to the bottom, and count the fish.
We enjoy diving here not only because of the diversity of the marine life, both big and small, but because diving off the live-aboard is so easy. You just jump off the back dive deck and make your dive. Once your gear is set up in the beginning of the week, all you do is suit up, sit and buckle your gear on, and off you go. The crew will help you with anything you need. You are spending your time diving, eating, sleeping, and downloading your photos. The food is always fantastic and plentiful.


The Outer Islands - Half Moon Cay - and the future

We did get to explore Half Moon Cay, a magnificent frigate bird and blue footed booby rookery and sanctuary run by the Belize Audubon Society. One can get close up and personal with these birds high in their nests by climbing the viewing tower into the treetops and watch the male frigates expand their red throat sacs to entice females. On the ground, iguanas and land crabs ruled. The island was a nice photo op, and a perfect place to off gas from our deep dive in the Blue Hole.

  • ClearWater
  • Exploring Half Moon
  • Frigate Bird
  • Frigate Bird
  • Frigate Display
  • Half Moon Boat
  • Half Moon Cay
  • Half Moon Cay
  • Half Moon Cay
  • Half Moon Cay Museum
  • Land Crab Closeup
  • Lighthouse
  • Offshore
  • Palms
  • Palms
  • Palms
  • Red Footed Boobie
  • Tender To HalfMoon Cay
  • Two Frigates
  • Two Iguanas
  • HalfMoon Cay and Boat

On these outer islands, there are land based resorts for divers, so if staying on a live-aboard is not to your liking, or you have non divers in the group, a stay at a resort would allow everyone to enjoy their time there. Activities are limited on these island resorts, walking, relaxing on the beaches or in a hammock under the palms, sea kayaking, snorkeling or diving, and fishing. You are limited to the island or close by reefs for diving, whereas the live-aboard travels throughout the reef system. We have to be hopeful that we can turn things around, and the seas and earth can recover from the ravages of climate change. We also have to be very careful to not introduce invasive species that can tip the fragile ecosystems into decline. We also need to reduce the amount of plastic we throw into our waterways that results in killing wildlife and fouling our waters. If we can't do that, you need to go now and visit places like Belize, because the reefs will not be there in the very near future.

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