There are 6 marine reserves in Belize you should explore on your next dive trip to this amazing country. While Belize itself is a young country, it had its modern start from the conservative British background that included a legacy of conservation.
In Belize, you will find:
- 8 marine reserves
- 5 natural monuments including the Great Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye
- 17 national parks
- 3 nature reserves
- 7 wildlife sanctuaries
- 16 forest reserves
- 11 spawning aggregation zones
- 7 bird sanctuaries
- 15 archeological reserves
6 marine reserves in Belize you should dive when you get the chance
The marine reserves that make up the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS) were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. These marine reserves make up 12% of the total Belize Barrier Reef area.
1. Glover's Reef Marine Reserve
If you are looking for some of the best diving in Belize, then head to Glover's Reef Atoll. You will find a range of different types of dive sites not matched anywhere else. From spur and groove formations on reefs, to patch reefs to walls offering seemly unlimited visibility, the variety of conditions is only exceeded by the variety of marine life.
The Glover's Reef Marine Reserve is one of the reserves that is a part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System and one of the three atolls that are found in Belize. Of the four atolls located out of the Indo-Pacific region, this one is the closest to a textbook example of any.
It is an oval-shaped atoll measuring 32km long and 12km wide and approximately 35,000 hectares in area. The atoll walls have only three breaks for channels, and the lagoon is classified as a deep lagoon.
Atoll's lagoons are typically shallow, so “deep” is relative as the lagoon depth ranges from a half meter to 18 meters in depth. The lagoon has about 850 patch reefs and pinnacles while the southern edge of the outer reef has six sand cayes.
Glover's Reef has three primary habitats; the lagoon floor, the outer reefs, and the patch reefs. Each of these habitats offers you a different type of dive.
In the 1970's coral researchers found that the Glover's Reef Atoll had the best conditions in the Caribbean to research coral growth. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and others pushed to have the Atoll declared a protected zone, and that was achieved in 1993. The WCS developed the Glover’s Reef Research Station located on Middle Caye in that year.
What dive sites can you find at Glover's Reef Marine Reserve?
Diving is done by boat near one of the six sand cays located on the south-eastern edge of the atoll, with the sites around Long Caye and Middle Cayes being the most popular. Because of the shallow, fragile reefs that extend from the cayes, there are only a few places where shore diving is possible.
The lagoon north of the cayes is where most of the snorkeling is done among the patch reefs, and they are also a few excellent shallow dives. Turtles and dolphins are found both in the lagoon and out along the walls while few other pelagics are found inside but are definitely found outside the atoll. Whale sharks can be found here from March to June with the days before and after the full moon offering the most sightings.
There are only a few named dive sites. Not because diving is limited but because there are so many possibilities, 850 patch reefs and 80 kilometers of walls means it easy to find your “own” private dive site. Here are a few that you will hear about:
Long Caye Wall:
Said to have been one of Jacques Cousteau top three dive sites this site is just off shore of the Long Caye Cut (also an outstanding dive site), an opening in the reef between Long Caye and Northeast Caye.
A sandy bottom at around 9 meters gently slopes down to coral garden. At the edge of the garden is the wall that drops into Bartlett Deep, the deepest point in the Caribbean at around 2,000 meters. The currents here are mild, so it is a good dive for beginners as well. The visibility is outstanding so it easy to go deeper than you intend.
Middle Caye Wall:
Just south of Long Caye is the home of the research center. Offshore is a flat area in around 10 to 15 meters of water with what is called the “most exquisite coral formations in the area”. It clearly shows why the researchers were drawn to the Caye in the first place. The wall starts at 15 meters with fantastic views of the depths and the life on the wall.
Sometimes called the “Spires”, is different from the other sites and not often dived from the dive boats coming from the other islands or mainland. Just off the atoll reef on the west side in about 30 meters of water, 36 pinnacles rise as close as 3 meters to the surface. Between the pinnacles is a sandy bottom that attracts large pelagics.
2. The Lighthouse Reef Atoll Marine Reserve
Within this famous marine reserve in Belize you will find The Blue Hole Natural Monument. Everyone, divers, and non-divers alike, will quickly recognize aerial photographs of this famous dive site. The deep blue color circular hole surrounded by light blue water is distinctive. The Blue Hole is around 310 meters across that is about 1,000 feet and drops 135 meters or about 450 feet.
While the reef that creates the rim of this hole is teeming with coral and marine life, within dark interior of the hole itself you will find little marine life. A "cave" at the limits of recreational diving is one of the big attractions here. Six meter long stalactites and stalagmites are found inside the entrance of the caves.
What dive sites can you find at the Lighthouse Reef Atoll?
There are many dive sites within the lighthouse reef, and you can easily take a few weeks to explore then all. Some of the best dive sites are found around Half Moon Caye which also a natural monument. This small island is known for both its marine habitat and for what is found on land.
The island is an important habitat for various species of birds (Red Footed Boobies) and lizards make, and some of the beaches are nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. Originally established in 1928 as a bird sanctuary it later was expanded to included the entire Caye and surrounding waters.
The Caye is on the edge of the atoll, with the south side facing a 2,000-meter wall. The lagoon side of the Caye has outstanding coral gardens and patch reefs like:
Half Moon Caye Wall:
This site is one of the most colorful and densely covered wall dives in Belize and arguably the Caribbean. Massive corals and sponges are found on the wall. A system of spur and grooves at the reef top leads out to the wall with an opening at various depths. Larger pelagics such as sea turtles, dolphins, eagle rays, and groupers are often seen swimming in the deep waters of the wall.
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This site situated at 10 to 15 meters depth has small ledges covered with plate-form star coral, black coral trees, green tube sponges and monster barrel sponges. You can also dive along the wall at around 18 meters and drop to beyond recreational range.
The top of the reef at around 15 meters has some deep cuts that exit the reef along the wall at 25 meters. At time, the coral has grown over the cuts creating a tunnel or cave effect.
3. Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are one of the smallest marine reserves in the world. The reserves are built on a cut in the reef that is on average just 25 meters wide and is no deeper than 9 meters. The total area is about 7.8 sq km. However, the reserve is a clear example of what conservation efforts can do.
The reserve is at the south end of Ambergris Caye a very popular diving destination. Hol Chan Marine Reserve was established on May 2, 1987. At that time, overfishing and unchecked diving had depleted much of the fish stock and damaged the corals.
The new status and clear guidelines have allowed the area to recover and is now the most dived site in Belize. The dive sites of this small reserve are divided into four zones:
Zone A: This zone is the reef zone and has four subareas: the back reef, reef crest, fore reef, and the channel or cut across the barrier reef. Each of these areas have their own attributes. Most divers find the cut the most exciting dive.
Zone B: This is a seagrass area and is separated from zone A by a sand stretch. This is mostly shallow with over a 50% cover of seagrass. There are a few areas deep enough for diving, and divers will find a healthy population of smaller fish.
In zone B you will find "Boca Ciega" is small blue hole that starts at 4 meters and is a strange feature in this area. The outer edge of the hole has a very dense population of fish. Unlike the much larger Great Blue Hole. Recreational divers are not allowed to enter this blue hole. Entering the hole is restricted to fully qualified cave divers and requires a trained guide and a permit.
Zone C: Is the mangrove area, this area is not as often dived due to the shallow depths and poor visibility.
Zone D: Zone D is famous Shark-Ray Alley and was added to the reserve in 1999. This site is similar and started the same way as stingray city in the Cayman Islands. Fisherman would come to this calm, shallow, area to clean their fish before taking them to market.
The scraps thrown overboard attracted rays and nurse sharks, and it is now considered a must do dive that is great for beginners and advanced divers. The maximum depth at Shark-Ray Alley is 9 meters, but most dives are done at five meters or even shallower if you are sharing a boat with snorkelers.
4. South Water Caye Marine Reserve
South Water Caye Marine Reserve is the largest marine reserve in Belize and sits just 16 kilometers from the mainland. Named after the largest Caye within the reserve, it includes a 12 kilometer stretch of barrier reefs.
Much of the reserve is in the lagoon behind the barrier reefs and is shallow and well protected. The barrier reefs provide awesome wall dives with frequent pelagic interactions including sharks, rays and in season whale sharks.
6. Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve
The Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (also claimed by Guatemala and Honduras) lies 50km east of Punta Gorda, in the Toledo District of Southern Belize at the southern tip of the Belize Barrier Reef. This area is out of the mainstream tourism zones and is only visited by few divers and other tourists.
The northern most portion of the reserve is just north of Tom Owen's Caye, which is the home of ReefCI, a non-profit conservation organization that performs research in the reserve and out along the barrier reef.
Overall the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve is 119 km2 that includes twelve sand or mangrove cayes. Hunting Caye is the most "built up", having a small research station of the University of Belize, two people manning a lighthouse, a coast guard detachment and a police station that also acts as an immigration station for vessels entering Belize waters. a
When you visit this area, and you should you will find pristine dive sites, easy access to the barrier reefs drop offs and lagoons and with a bit if luck a few Whale Sharks even outside of the regular Whale Shark season on Belize.
5. The Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserves
The Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserves are located in the Southern Belize Reef Complex about 36 kilometers (22 mi) off the coast of Placencia in the southern portion of Belize.
The Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve have a size of 10,510 ha (25,980 acres). The reserve is an important breeding area for 25 different species of reef fish including snappers and groupers.
One of the reasons the marine reserve was established was to protect the snappers, groupers and other reef fish that aggregate in the area to spawn each year during March, April, May, and June. Today Gladden Spit is the largest aggregation breeding site known in the Caribbean, both in mass and number of different species.
Every year many Whale Sharks migrate to Gladden Spit to feast on the eggs of the groupers during the spawning rituals. These spawning rituals are influenced by the lunar cycle and peak during the week of the full moon. Therefore, it is easy to predict when the Whale Sharks will appear.
The local authorities have developed a model management plan that includes a whale shark tourism portion. The eco-program has been designed to provide minimum interference to the spawning process of the reef fish, which is the main reason the Whale Sharks appear each year.
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Article written by Rutger Thole who is an avid scuba diver and loves to travel, dive and write about scuba diving. Based in Amsterdam he runs bookyourdive.com and at least twice a year he plans a dive trip of the beaten track.