The Belize Barrier Reef is a system of coral reefs stretching roughly 190 miles (305 kilometers) along the coast of Belize. It is the second largest reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea of Australia. Designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and containing seven governmentally protected areas, the Belize Barrier Reef contains numerous islands and mangrove cays, the Western Hemisphere’s only coral atolls, and an underwater sinkhole known as the Great Blue Hole, which stretches to a depth of over 400 feet (125 meters) is considered one of the premier scuba-diving locations in the world.
The Belize Barrier Reef is a center for biological diversity, containing over four hundred known species of plants and an additional four hundred of fish, as well as nearly one hundred species of both soft and stony coral. The reef is also a home to sea turtles, endangered American crocodiles, hammerhead sharks, and West Indian manatees, and several migratory animals such as whale sharks and ospreys.
In recent years, the system of reefs has been affected by coral bleaching, a phenomenon linked to climate change in which mass amounts of corals are killed by conditions such as acidic seawater or long-term elevated temperatures, as well as pollution from tourism and damage from over-fishing. In 2009, the Belize Barrier Reef was added to UNESCO’s “World Heritage in Danger” list due to damages caused by nearby construction and the fear that the potential extraction of oil deposits would further threaten the ecosystem. However, extensive conservation efforts have acted re-stabilized the reef, and the Belize Barrier Reef was removed from the “World Heritage in Danger” list in June 2018.
The Belize Barrier Reef remains as a popular vacation and diving destination and a major fixture in Belize’s tourism economy. Popular destinations include the Great Blue Hole and the surrounding Lighthouse Reef, the Half Moon Caye, and the Turneffe and Glover’s Reef Atolls.