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The Belize Barrier Reef—A World Heritage Site

The Belize Barrier Reef—A World Heritage Site

 The Belize Barrier Reef​—A World Heritage Site


“Deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world. . . . It is incumbent on the international community as a whole to participate in the protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value.”​—From UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention.

IN KEEPING with the above words, the Belize Barrier-Reef Reserve System was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1996. It was thus accorded the same status as Machu Picchu in Peru, the Grand Canyon in the United States, and other such wonders around the world. What makes this site of “outstanding universal value”?

A Heritage Worth Preserving

The Belize Barrier Reef is the second-largest mass of living coral in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and it is the longest in the Western Hemisphere. It extends for 185 miles [300 km] along the Yucatán Peninsula, including most of the coast of the Central American country of Belize. In addition to the reef itself​—actually a series of reefs—​the reserve includes some 450 cays, or islets, and three coral atolls, ring-shaped reefs enclosing picturesque lagoons. Seven aquatic areas in this reserve, totaling 370 square miles [960 sq km], are specifically protected under the World Heritage Convention.

The importance of preserving coral reefs is evident in that they are home to one quarter of the earth’s marine plants and animals. Indeed, coral reef ecosystems are second only to tropical rain forests in biodiversity. Yet, scientists warn that 70 percent of all corals on the planet will be destroyed within the next 20 to 40 years unless humans stop the many forms of pollution of the  seas, uncontrolled tourism, and destructive practices, such as cyanide fishing.

Seventy species of hard corals, 36 species of soft corals, and 500 species of fish have been identified in the Belize Barrier-Reef Reserve System. It is a habitat for endangered or threatened marine animals, such as the loggerhead, the green, and the hawksbill sea turtles, as well as the manatee and the American crocodile. Commenting on the amazing diversity of marine life at this site, coral reef researcher Julianne Robinson says: “The Belize Barrier Reef System offers many unique opportunities for researchers and visitors alike. . . . It is one of the few places left where you can observe nature at its best, but it is nonetheless under threat.”

Perhaps the biggest threat to the Belize reef system is coral bleaching, in which the multicolored corals turn a translucent white. (See the box on page 26.) National Geographic News reports that coinciding with Hurricane Mitch, a mass-bleaching event occurred in 1997 and 1998 resulting in a 48 percent reduction of the live coral cover. What caused this devastation? Although research is ongoing, reef scientist Melanie McField says: “This coral bleaching is pretty solidly tied to rising ocean temperatures. . . . Ultraviolet light also causes bleaching, and the combination of the two gives you the worst bleaching response.” Happily, however, the Belize reef appears to be slowly recovering. *

An Underwater Paradise

The pristine waters of the Belize reef system, averaging 79 degrees Fahrenheit [26°C], are a delight to divers and snorkelers. Ninety percent of the reef has yet to be explored. It lies just a few hundred yards from San Pedro on Ambergris Cay and is easily accessible there. Four miles [6 km] southeast of San Pedro  is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, three square miles [8 sq km] of shallow underwater park featuring a cut, or channel, through the reef.

One of the most astounding places on earth for diving is the Blue Hole, a protected World Heritage area in the reserve system, located some 60 miles [100 km] from mainland Belize on Lighthouse Reef. It was made famous by French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau during his 1970 expedition on the research ship Calypso. Set in a turquoise sea, the Blue Hole is an indigo-blue limestone cenote, or sinkhole, rimmed by living coral. It measures some 1,000 feet [300 m] in diameter and plunges to a depth of over 400 feet [120 m]. Before the sea level rose, this geologic phenomenon was a dry subterranean cavern, the roof of which later collapsed. The walls are sheer to a depth of about 110 feet [35 m], at which point mammoth stalactite formations begin to project downward from ledges. The underwater panorama is awe-inspiring, with visibility up to 200 feet [60 m]. Little marine life is found in the hole other than sharks. Scuba divers should take note that this is a decompression dive not to be attempted by the inexperienced. However, there is excellent snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of the coral perimeter.

Nearby is another of the seven World Heritage areas, the Half Moon Cay, an idyllic island sanctuary for the rare red-footed booby. Some 98 other species of birds have been recorded here as well. The dive off the Half Moon Cay Wall, which is covered with beautiful soft corals and drops to 3,000 feet [1,000 m], is spectacular.

As seen from this brief visit to the Belize Barrier Reef, there is good reason to preserve this treasure for the wonderment of future generations. Its loss would truly constitute “a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations.”


^ par. 9 Perhaps little can be done locally about the global warming that produces elevated seawater temperatures, but the reef system’s World Heritage status has encouraged Belizeans to become more active in protecting the site.

[Box/​Pictures on page 26]

Coral Bleaching

A reef is a living wall formed by colonies of carnivorous animals called coral polyps, which have a hard external layer of calcium carbonate, or limestone. Live corals build upon the dead skeletons of past generations. Microscopic algas (zooxanthellas) live in the tissues of reef corals in a symbiotic relationship, giving off oxygen and nutrients, which the polyps utilize, and absorbing the carbon dioxide given off by the polyps. Sensitive to changes in water temperature, the polyps begin expelling the algas when the temperature rises, causing a loss of chlorophyll pigment that results in a bleached appearance. In this weakened state, corals are vulnerable to disease and death. However, coral reefs are resilient and can recover when protected.

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Background: Copyright © 2006 Tony Rath Photography -

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Caribbean Sea

Pacific Ocean

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Satellite view of Belize showing the 185-mile reef

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Rendezvous Cay

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Hawksbill sea turtle

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The Blue Hole on Lighthouse Reef, created by a collapsed limestone cavern

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The Belize Barrier Reef is home to 500 species of fish

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Inset: © Paul Gallaher/​Index Stock Imagery

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Satellite view: NASA/​The Visible Earth (http://​; divers: © Paul Duda/​Photo Researchers, Inc.

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Copyright © Brandon Cole