Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Belize Barrier Reef

Belize Barrier Reef

Belize Barrier Reef

Belize Barrier Reef image courtsey:

Belize, Caribbean - A small nation unique in two things

Belize; a small nation in the Caribbean; located between Guatemala and Mexico; is one of the least a populated places in the world (less than 300,000 people live in a land area of 8867 sq miles). Till 1973 Belize was known as British Honduras. Two things make Belize a unique place one is the Belize Barrier Reef located off its coast (that is second biggest in the world) and the second is the language its people speak; English (Belize being the only English speaking nation in the Caribbean).

The coral barrier reef of Belize starts 300 meters off shore of Belize and stretches up to 40 km south like a mountain range; its total length is about 300 km (185 miles). For Belize; this coral formations remain as the hub of its tourism industry in fact it is the revenue from tourism that keeps Belize economy ticking.

What are these coral reefs?

Belize Barrier ReefBelize Barrier Reef image courtsey:

These coral reefs are calcium formations in intricate shapes and varying colors formed by generations of living things called cnidarians (coral polyps) which live in huge colonies. One may mistake them for plants and flowers because they are stationary, beautiful and flower shaped, in fact people of early times took them for flowers. These coral polyps grow one over the other, dead exoskeleton of the previous ones forms base for new ones to grow, thus several generations of anemones give rise to a massive structure like a mountain range in the sea; which we call the coral reef.

Most diverse system

Belize Barrier ReefBelize Barrier Reef image courtsey:

Belize Barrier Reef is an outstanding natural system under the care of a government body by name ‘Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System’ with about 960sq km in area under it; this includes seven marine reserves, 450 cays, several mangrove forests, estuaries and three atolls. This reserve system has almost all types of formations associated with corals like the following,

Fringing Reef; found in shallow waters near the coast and leaves shallow lagoon with full of beautiful fish varieties. These fish are of all shapes and sizes; some like angels and some like demons; most of them with all decorations in color and designs that can defeat any artist.

Barrier reef; a long chain of coral reef formed like a mountain range (ex the Great Barrier Reef of Australia).The Belize Barrier Reef is 300 km (185 miles) in length.

Offshore atolls (unlike barrier reef where formation longitudinal; corals form in a ring like fashion giving birth to islands in the mid sea; generally with engulfed sea or fresh-water Lake in the middle. Such a ring shaped island is called ‘atoll’

Cays’ (quays) are low bank or reef of coral, rock or sand, in fact they are a museum of beautiful corals of varying colors and shapes, fish of unheard color and beauty, crabs, starfish, mussels, squids and what not! The whole system is a scuba diver’s paradise, Belize has got hundreds of them; Ambergris cay, Caulker, Chapel, St. George, English, Long, Maho, Gladden, Black bird, Rendezvous etc are all cays, natures largesse to Belize! Ambergris Cay is perhaps more beautiful than heaven itself! Its fish is not afraid of man and they come very close to the scuba diver for an innocent caress.

Mangrove forests, these are saline and marshy places; they play host to many types of fish, animals, birds, specially adapted to such places The mangrove plants (example Rhizophora) have ‘aerial roots’ that can absorb oxygen from atmospheric air and survive in waterlogged areas. The Holchan Marine Reserve is endowed with one of the richest mangrove eco-systems in the world.

Holchan Marine Reserve is a 4448 acre wide area at the south of Ambergris Cay, with rich mangrove forests, sea-grass vegetations and swamps famous for its beautiful fish varieties. From 1987 it has been declared reserve as excessive fishing led the fall of fish stocks. WWF and USAID initiatives have helped in regenerating its dwindling fish stock, at present it has been divided in to 3 zones; A, B, and C, in Zone A no fishing is allowed. In 1999 ‘Shark Ray Ally’ another endangered area has been added to it.

Coastal lagoons (shallow lakes formed between sea and land; separated by sand banks and corals), they are homes to numerous living things most of them brightly colored and beautifully shaped. Albemarle Sound in N. Carolina and Fire Island in New York are lagoons.

Estuaries (semi enclosed water bodies with one or more streams flowing in to it; (generally mouth of river which meets the sea tides). the semi saline water with marshes mangrove plants inhibits human interference which let particular types of plants and animals adapted to the system to flourish.

Belize Barrier Reef

Jacques Yves Cousteau

The Great Blue Hole; is a 400 feet deep underwater cave with a mouth 1000 feet wide; this mystical cave lies in the center of the Light House Reef Atoll, this 1000 feet wide and 400 feet deep gorge remained as a mystery to the sea goers and many fairy tales were woven by the imaginative sailors about it. Jacques Yves Cousteau –the ace scuba diver demystified it and made this site famous as a scuba diving point. He charted this site with the help of his ship ‘Calipso’.

No predators, it is coral reef (man included)!

Belize Barrier ReefBelize Barrier Reef image courtsey:

This Barrier reef is a complete eco system comparable to a tropical forest; it is home to innumerable types of plants, vertebrates and invertebrates algae etc. Its intricate structure gives marine animals and other beings; protection from predators and give them ambient atmosphere to mate and multiply. Even in this time with advanced gears for scuba diving; man has been able to explore only 10% of the area of this Belize Barrier Reef; this fact itself is ample proof of the level of protection a coral reef offers to the living things which depend on it for a secured living!

From 10% so much!

Though natural fortification protects the bio-system from predators scientists are not a happy lot as they are not satisfied as far as 100% area is covered and studied. How many types of living things live in this ecosystem what are their lifestyles? These are questions the scientists are after. So far about 70 hard coral species, 36 soft coral species, 500 species of fish, thousands of invertebrates have been identified as inhabitants of this exclusive eco-system; and that too from the mere 10% of the area covered, suppose once upon a time 100% of area get covered how many new species will emerge remains to be seen!

A hot destination

Belize Barrier ReefBelize Barrier Reef Map courtsey:

The Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site since 1996. In size it is the largest in the hemisphere and second largest in the world; after the Great Barrier Reef). Its natural attraction as one of the most beautiful locations in the world has turned out this site to a much sought after tourist destination. More than 300,000 tourists visit this site and get engaged in boating, voyages and conducted as well as packaged tours every year. Tourism of late has emerged as one of the major threats to this system!

A word of concern

The coral polyps are very delicate beings which require clear water with fewer nutrients to grow. The fast vanishing tropical forests speeds up rivers that wash out silt to the sea; these silts engulf the reef thereby stifling it to death (bleaching). The nutrients (detergents etc) promote unchecked algae growth that infects the coral to death. Coral reefs are the fruits of strenuous and self-less efforts of billions of miniature beings; it has been established that about 40% of the Belize Reef is almost dead. Let us hope they will regenerate and flourish!

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