Expedition to Explore Belize's Barrier Reefs
Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 17, 2002

Strung through turquoise waters along the coast of Belize are some 200 miles (322 kilometers) of pristine barrier reef—an area second in size only to Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef.

In early November, divers and scientists will travel the length of the exceptional coral reef in a celebration of natural World Heritage sites worldwide. The expedition is one of a series of events designed to commemorate the 30th anniversary of UNESCO's (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Convention.

"The Belize Barrier Reef System offers many unique opportunities for researchers and visitors alike," said coral reef researcher Julianne Robinson, one of the experts leading the expedition. "UNESCO and the World Heritage Program have emphasized the importance that this system has to offer not only to Belize, but also to the world. It is one of the few places left where you can observe nature at its best, but it is nonetheless under threat."

Live daily updates of the expedition's progress will be posted online at the World Heritage Web site, using technology developed at the University of California, Berkeley.

Stunning Biodiversity

Reefs around the world are threatened by damage and disease. In 1996, seven marine areas in Belize were accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. Together, they form the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System. The researchers will visit each of these areas in turn.

The expedition, which is supported in part by the National Geographic Society and includes National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, will showcase the natural highlights of this unique coral realm. Between the Belize coast and the main reef are some 450 cayes, islets, and islands—including three of the Western Hemisphere's four coral atolls.

Atolls, more commonly seen in the Pacific, are ringed reefs that enclose picturesque lagoons. In Belize, these atolls provide nesting grounds for three species of endangered sea turtles: the loggerhead, green, and hawksbill.

Near Belize's atolls, steep faults create deepwater conditions that can exceed 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). The deep water, warmed by Caribbean currents, is home to a stunning diversity of marine life, including whale sharks, dolphins, manatees, and countless seabirds.

Perhaps the most famous of Belize's protected areas is the Blue Hole, a much-photographed marine feature first explored by Jacques Cousteau. The hole is actually the remains of a cave, complete with stalactites. It's now an open-ceiling underwater cavern, rich with the color for which it is named. The 400-feet-deep (128 meter) hole is famed for its spectacular snorkeling, providing opportunities to see aquatic life like sponges, corals, barracuda, and angelfish.

Belize's other protected areas offer their own treasures. The warm waters of Lighthouse Reef are home to spotted groupers, nurse sharks, sea turtles, pink shelled conches, and multitudes of rainbow-hued fishes.

On palm-shaded Half Moon Caye, orange iguanas, land crabs, and rare red-footed booby birds share a magnificent nesting area.

To the south, spectacular coral architecture grows in waters that are home to dolphins and, in some seasons, massive plankton-eating whale sharks. Mangrove-fringed islands feature lagoons filled with manatees, and, near the banks, crocodiles.

Robinson hopes that the interactive component of the expedition, bringing all these wonders to the attention of the world, will inspire people to take a more active role in protecting such places.

"It is through expeditions like these that we will be able to bring to light the struggles and accomplishments that are needed to save and preserve that which we cannot replace," she said.