The guiding principal behind the World Heritage Convention, a treaty administered by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the protection of our common natural and cultural inheritance, is to identify and protect forever truly unique natural sites anywhere on the planet. Making nature’s The “Hall of Fame” is not an easy task. A nation must actively and aggressively promote a potential site for inclusion under the convention. Beyond demonstrating a site’s “outstanding universal value,” a country must define the boundaries of the site, enact protective legislation, and provide a detailed long-term management plan… requirements which winnow the qualifiers down to only a handful each year. Into this select group, which also includes the Pyramids of the Giza plateau, the lions of the Serengeti plain, the treasures of the Vatican… the pristine cayes of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System have been given admission. These irreplaceable wonders belong not to any one nation but to all humankind as internationally protected sites of “outstanding universal value.”
The entire reef, which runs from the northeast tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to Sapodilla Cay, in southern Belize, is more than 350 nautical miles long; the Belizean portion, more than 180 miles, is the longest unbroken living reef in the world. To the west of the reef, on a limestone shelf, sit shallows that range from three to 70 feet deep, but it’s 15 feet in enough areas to accommodate cruising sailboats. Prevailing winds clock primarily from northeast to southeast, yet boats are protected from the wave action of the open Caribbean. To the east, starting eight miles out, are three coral atolls-Turneffe, Lighthouse, and Glover; these rarities in the Western Hemisphere have base formations tied to the tectonic-plate movements that created the reef.
Belize had seven areas of its barrier reef-the second largest in the world-listed in1996. The reef provides habitat for a diverse array of species, including threatened marine turtles, manatees, and the American saltwater crocodile. Conservationists say the international backing of the World Heritage Convention is a valuable aid in promoting conservation initiatives, a boon for tourism, and a source of national pride, and that the global recognition has encouraged Belizeans to take a more active role in protecting their natural heritage. Most important, this high-profile status has reached from the directorate of the U.N. all the way to those most involved in the reef, and has inspired local fishermen to join in the international effort to protect marine resources.
For divers, from the tiny Sapodillas Cayes in the south to Amgergris in the north, all of this spells one thing… exceptional diving experiences. Virtually every hotel which is on the water (either mainland or reef), no matter how small, has dive charter connections. They cater to divers and snorkelers of all levels. And no wonder, since underwater visibility can reach a coveted 200 feet. The latest thing is swim-with the-manatees charters.
In Ambergris, beginning divers can get their fins wet at Hol Chan or Rocky Point. Hol Chan, a five-square-mile national underwater wildlife reserve, encompasses a channel through the reef. A short ride from the caye’s south end, the protected reef hosts an unusually large variety of fish. And unusually large fish: huge Hogfish, Nassau groupers, cubera snappers, permits, nurse sharks, and French angelfish hang out under dive boats, waiting for handouts. Spiny lobster and green moray eels hide beneath heads of brain coral. Swarms of damselfish and blue tang flit among waving finger coral and sea fans. Thick-upped conch hop along a sandy bottom at 30 feet deep. At Rocky Point, a popular destination for north-end operators, island meets reef.
More experienced divers aspire to the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, one of Belize’s three atolls. (There are only four in all of the Caribbean.) Plunging to about 130 feet in the 480-foot-deep pit; divers witness primeval underwater sights in a cavern. The ride to the Blue Hole, Belize’s most famous dive site, from Ambergris Caye takes two-and-a-half hours by boat. On Caye Caulker and the smaller cayes, the emphasis on diving is even stronger because there’s precious little else to do. A bit farther south and 30 miles offshore, the Turneffe Island Lodge on Turneffe Island offers even more extreme diving and fishing adventures. Turneffe and the other two Belizean coral atolls… Glovers and Lighthouse, offer the most protected and dramatic diving in this wonder of nature.
All of the reef can be easily reached, and one needn’t stay on the reef to enjoy it. The mainland hotels in Dangriga, Placencia and Punta Gorda offer spectacular diving packages to different points of the reef and more remote mainland destinations while still keeping dry members of any group not as comfortable on small boats or planes.
No matter what your interests, and even if your wet encounter of the third kind is nothing more than a 20 minute snorkel in water 5 feet deep… you’ll remember every moment you spend in the Caribbean thirty years later. Fortunately, as Belize is about the size of New Hampshire, diving is never more than a day’s easy travel away… and should be on the itinerary of ALL visitors to Belize
1: Reefs & Cayes
2: Mainland Beaches