The Belize Barrier Reef is a series of coral reefs straddling the coast of Belize, roughly 300 meters (980 ft) offshore in the north and 40 kilometers (25 mi) in the south within the country limits. The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300-kilometer (190 mi) long section of the 900-kilometer (560 mi) Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is continuous from Cancún on the north-eastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula through the Riviera Maya and up to Honduras, making it the second largest coral reef system in the World after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is Belize's top tourist destination, popular for scuba diving and snorkeling and attracting almost half of its 260,000 visitors. It is also vital to the country's fishing industry.
Charles Darwin described it as "the most remarkable reef in the West Indies" in 1842.
In addition to its barrier reef, it also boasts three distinct Caribbean atolls: Turneffe Atoll, Glover's Reef and Lighthouse Reef. Lighthouse Reef is the most easterly diving area in Belize, it is home to the Great Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau in 1970; Turneffe Atoll lies directly to the east of Belize City and is the nearest of the atolls to the capital. These different reefs provide diverse scuba diving opportunities that include walls, pinnacles and reef flats that are located throughout an enormous area of sea.
A large portion of the reef is protected by the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which includes seven marine reserves, 450 cays, and three atolls. It totals 960 square kilometres (370 sq mi) in area, including:
Because of its exceptional natural beauty, significant on-going ecological and biological processes, and the fact that it contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity (criteria VII, IX, and X), the Reserve System has been designated as a World Heritage Site since 1996. Despite these protective measures, the reef is under threat from oceanic pollution as well as uncontrolled tourism, shipping, and fishing. The main threats are considered to be hurricanes along with global warming and the resulting increase in ocean temperatures, which cause coral bleaching. It is claimed by scientists that over 40% of Belize's coral reef has been damaged since 1998.
The Belize Barrier Reef is home to a large diversity of plants and animals, and is one of the most diverse ecosystems of the world:
- 70 hard coral species
- 36 soft coral species
- 500 species of fish
- hundreds of invertebrate species
With 90% of the reef still needing to be researched, it is estimated that only 10% of all species have been discovered.