The Great Barrier Reef is to the southern hemisphere and Australia what the Belize Barrier Reef is to the northern and western hemispheres: the feather in their cap, the jewel in their crown.
Unlike the much-visited and over-exposed Australian Barrier Reef, Belize’s competitive advantage is that its coral reef remains largely unknown, and is thus the source of endless new discoveries.
It provides an ongoing education in the evolutionary history of reef development with examples of the classic fringing, barrier, atoll, and spur-and-groove reef formations. To top it off, Belize’s coral reef systems are home to the incredible Great Blue Hole, visible from outer space and made famous by Jacques Cousteau.
Regrettably, despite protective measures, and like too many other natural wonders, the reef is under constant assault by oceanic pollution, uncontrolled tourism, as well as indiscriminate shipping and fishing. Major environmental threats are bacterial fluctuations, hurricanes, and global warming, this last resulting in an increase in ocean temperatures which causes devastating bleaching to live coral colonies. Scientists claim that over 40% of the Belizean reef has suffered damage since 1998.
The urgency of the need for conservation of this magical phenomenon cannot be overstated. Aside from the obvious natural importance of the Belize Barrier Reef as a life-supporting habitat for aquatic species and migratory birds, the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS) has tremendous cultural, historical, and economic significance that further warrants its protection. Archaeological excavations at Maya sites in Belize have revealed that the natives fished the reefs as far back as 2500 years ago. The reefs are part of the nation’s natural heritage, and the preservation of this prehistoric legacy is paramount.
The MBRS contributes approximately 30 percent of Belize’s Gross Domestic Product through commercial fisheries and high-quality ecotourism products, and significant revenues are generated via coastal developments and aquaculture.
Belize leads the region in protecting its biodiversity and natural resources. Proactive recognition of this necessity has resulted in widespread consensus among government and non-profit organizations, world bodies, and environmental activists on the importance of ongoing sustainability programs. UNESCO, always at the forefront of environmental responsibility, makes invaluable contributions through its World Heritage program. Its focus is on the protection of environmental and cultural diversity; the Belize Barrier Reef System has been a World Heritage site since 1996.
Extensive portions of the reef are protected by the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which includes seven marine reserves, 450 cayes, and three atolls in a total area of 370 square miles. The Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations of Belize (APAMO) confirms that 36% of Belize’s land and 13% of its territorial waters fall under official protection. Thus Belize has one of the largest footprints of terrestrial and marine nurturing in the Americas.
The Belize Audubon Society’s (BAS) report, “An Environmental Agenda for Belize, 2008-2013” is a comprehensive study of the areas of concern, exploring the issues at stake and concluding with concise recommendations. The proposed action plan integrates the formation of coastal zone management authorities with the implementation of national policies for biodiversity and tourism, improved coordination and cohesion between all concerned agencies, financing mechanisms and regulatory bodies.
Above all, BAS endorses a holistic environmental education (EE) policy, proposing a strategic framework and action plan to direct and develop an environmentally-conscious Belizean citizenry.
Many private marine conservation and ecotourism companies work alongside the Belizean government in achieving preservation goals. Here’s our short list of some groups worthy of the spotlight:
Responsible Vacations brings small groups of volunteers from all over the world to sites in Belize to conduct reef monitoring, research and conservation work, under the purview of international scientists, NGOs and community members whose livelihoods depend on healthy coral reef ecosystems. Responsible Vacations won the 2010 Responsible Tourism Award for Best Volunteering Organization.
ReefCheck, with a presence in more than 82 countries (including Belize), brings divers together to help obtain a global assessment of human impact upon coral reefs.
Reef Conservation International (“ReefCI”), is a non-profit enterprise formed under the laws of Belize. A member of ReefCheck, it is active in the ecotourism and responsible travel sectors. They operate a wide variety of marine conservation projects, dedicating time and energy to teaching their guests about marine species identification and sub-oceanic life.
PADI Project AWARE Coral Watch assesses the health of coral systems and maintains records in a scientific database. This valuable program improves global understanding of coral reefs and stimulates valuable contributions to environmental preservation.
Through its credo, “Conservation through Education,” ECOMAR coordinates projects that focus on conserving the Belize Barrier Reef, associated ecosystems and the diverse marine realm for which Belize is renowned.
Charles Darwin in 1842 expressed his awe for “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” The Belizean government is exemplary in its leadership role in sustaining this national and global treasure. However, there can never be too many helping hands in the effort towards reef conservation. Hence it falls to us all as eco-conscious travelers to support responsible tourism and ensure that Belize remains an incredible destination for future generations of nature lovers.
Tips for Eco-Conscious Travelers on The Ambler
Looking to explore the coral reefs of Belize for yourself? Make sure you read up on The Ambler before you head to the warm Caribbean waters of this incredible Central American nation. Share Jen’s hilarious and unforgettable experience snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef, and discover all the best places to dive on Belize’s coral atolls.