Snorkelling in Belize
You would hardly notice it there, a speck of white in a sea of dazzling blue.
The only reason I spot it before we arrive is because of the palm trees poking up from the horizon, contrasted against the clear sky behind. As we arrive, it all becomes clearer.
This is a tiny sandy island in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Belize. It’s what is known as a caye (pronounced ‘key’) and is sitting on top of a coral reef. It’s going to be my base for the day as I go snorkelling – here in one of the most beautiful underwater regions in the world.
The Belize Barrier Reef
There is no doubt that the Belize Barrier Reef is one of the world’s natural wonders. It doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – the largest in the world – but the Belize Barrier Reef is actually the second largest in the world (and, obviously, the largest in the Northern Hemisphere).
The Belize Barrier Reef stretches along the coast of the country for about 300 kilometres and is part of a longer reef system that goes from Mexico in the north to Honduras in the south.
But it’s not just the scale of the reef that is impressive, it’s also the quality of what you’ll find. There is an incredible amount of sea life here and the biodiversity is so impressive that the reef has been added to the World Heritage List.
It’s hard to put exact figures on the number of species that you’ll find at the Belize Barrier Reef but rough estimates put it at more than 100 coral species and more than 500 fish species, not to mention turtles, manatees and all sort of other sea life. Plus, we can presume that there are many other species still to be discovered.
All these facts and figures, though… well, they’re important. But I forget them all as soon as I reach that small sandy caye, get underwater, and see things for myself.
Because this reef takes you to a whole other world.
Snorkelling trip from Placencia
I pull the strap of my goggles over my head and put the snorkel in my mouth. As I put my head under the water, the sound of the squawking birds and the sea wind disappears and is replaced by the dull hum of submerging.
All around me are small mountains of coral, the valleys in between them full of schools of fish swimming along like underwater highways.
The coral is not as colourful and vibrant as you might imagine. I think sometimes the bright photos you see gives you the impression that all coral is like that. In this case, the dominant colours are green, purple, brown and blue.
Here, these are the colours of a healthy reef.
You can tell that the water is clean and the reef is healthy by the number of fish that are around. This is where the spectrum of colours opens up. Yellow, blue, striped, spotted, thin, fat. So many fish, everywhere I look.
I’ve come out to the Belize Barrier Reef with Splash Dive Centre, which is based in the town of Placencia and runs snorkelling and diving trips every day. I would highly recommend it, if you’re trying to choose an agency to go with.
A guide from the centre snorkels with four of us. It’s obviously partly for safety but also so he can point things out as we go along. He spots a lobster hiding under some rocks, a lion fish, a sea snake, and much more.
Belize Barrier Reef conservation
The reef is clearly an important tourist attraction – probably the most important in Belize – but there’s much more to it than just that. It is a symbol of Belize, intertwined with nature and the people.
About 200,000 Belizeans are dependent on the reef for their livelihood in some way. That includes tourism – and it’s worth mentioning here that Splash Dive Centre has a few community projects that helps local youth get jobs working on dive boats or as instructors.
But the reef also provides many other jobs that are dependent on its health. This is why the Belize Government has made such an effort to look after the reef after a troubling conservation period.
In 2009, UNESCO added the Belize Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, which is for sites that are under severe threat (many of the 54 that are currently on the list are in war zones like Syria, Libya and DR of Congo).
This stated reason was because of “concerns about sales of lands for private development within the property, mangrove destruction and offshore oil extraction”.
This was obviously a wake up call and, although there was no immediate, the government of Belize became very active from 2015 in addressing these concerns. One of the major actions it has taken is a permanent oil moratorium across the entire Belize offshore waters!
So, it’s really good news to see that in June 2018, UNESCO took the Belize Barrier Reef off the danger list, describing it as “a pivotal moment for the World Heritage Convention and the oceans.”
When you go to Belize, don’t miss the opportunity to get underwater and see this natural wonder. Swim amongst the coral, let the fish swim around you, and enjoy being in this special world.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Travel Belize but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.