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7 Reasons to Visit Belize in the Coming Year

By Wayne Sentman

Belize has some of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean. © Abel Coe

Positioned amid the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the Mesoamerican forest hotspot, the tiny Caribbean nation of Belize boasts outsized natural riches. Add in some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins, and a stable, peaceful democracy where English is the primary language and the U.S. dollar is widely accepted, and you will understand why we like to say that Belize has it all.

For more than 20 years, we’ve been exploring the coral reefs, mangrove stands, seagrass beds, and rainforests of Belize, and yet there is still much to discover. Nature travelers enjoy an impressive variety and sense of adventure in Belize without foregoing any “creature comforts.”

Our 2018 Belize expeditions were designed to give you a variety of ways to explore this incredible country, whether you are a die-hard snorkeler, a committed volunteer, a nature-loving family, or simply looking to escape the North American winter!

7 Reasons to Visit Belize in the Coming Year

The Great Blue Hole. © Jennifer Shatwell / Marine Photobank

1. The Great Blue Hole

This giant submarine sinkhole off of Belize’s coast was first brought to worldwide attention by Jacques Cousteau, who traveled there aboard the Calypso in 1971 and later declared it one of the world’s top ten dive sites. A near perfect circle, the Great Blue Hole is over 300 meters (984 ft) across and 125 meters (410 ft) deep. The hole’s notoriety comes mainly from its striking deep blue center that contrasts sharply with the surrounding shallow, pale turquoise waters of Lighthouse Reef, a 22-mile-long coral atoll that is one of the best and healthiest in the Caribbean.

Half Moon Caye supports the only viable colony of Red-footed Boobies in the western Caribbean. © Wayne Sentman

2. Half Moon Caye Natural Monument

Near Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is a historical national park and protected area that supports the only viable Red-footed Booby colony in the western Caribbean. The seabird breeding site was initially protected in 1928, making it Belize’s oldest site for wildlife protection, and it is also part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site. The southeastern part of the island is an important sea turtle nesting ground, with beaches where endangered loggerhead, hawksbill, and green turtles lay their eggs. The waters around Half Moon Caye are spectacularly clear with abundant topical reef fish, nurse sharks, and queen conch.

The Mesoamerican Reef is home to large stands of endangered elkhorn coral. © Wayne Sentman

3. Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem

The Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem is recognized as one of Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue Hope Spots, special places that are critical to the health of the ocean. The Mesoamerican reef is the largest barrier reef ecosystem in the northern hemisphere and home to more than 500 species of fish and 65+ species of hard corals. Belize itself is home to almost 80% of the Mesoamerican reef, and every visit you make to the reef is a large vote of support for Belize’s efforts to protect it. The Mesoamerican reef is home to many large stands of elkhorn (Acropora palmate) and staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) corals, two species that are considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and are disappearing throughout much of the rest of the Caribbean.

An aerial view of Calabash Caye in Turneffe Atoll. © Eric Ramos

4. Turneffe Atoll

Turneffe Atoll is the largest of three offshore atolls lying to the east of mainland Belize, and is one of the best-developed atolls of the Mesoamerican reef region, as well as a global hotspot for marine biodiversity. In 2012, Turneffe Atoll and the adjacent deep waters were designated as a marine reserve. Now the 150 mangrove islands, adjacent seagrass beds, grouper spawning aggregation sites, some of the world’s highest quality American crocodile nesting habitat, and resident populations of dolphins, manatees, and endangered sea turtles all fall under the reserve protections. Since 1996, Oceanic Society has been working to monitor the marine resources of Turneffe Atoll and to support their protection.

Student volunteers observe an Antillean manatee at St. George's Caye. © Linda Searle

5. The Chance to Get Your Hands Wet

A visit to Belize offers the unique opportunity to participate in hands-on ocean conservation. Since the early 1990s, Oceanic Society has been offering volunteer vacations to Belize that offer travelers the chance to snorkel along vibrant coral reefs and seagrass beds while learning from researchers about techniques to measure fish abundance, queen conch populations, and coral reef health. Operating currently out of St. George’s Caye, participants also have the chance to participate in boat surveys to study dolphins, endangered Antillean manatees, and sea turtles in the channels of the Drowned Cayes.

A loggerhead turtle seen on one of our Belize snorkeling trips in 2017. © Abel Coe

6. Sea Turtles, Manatees, Nurse Sharks, and Dolphins

Belize’s impressive variety of marine habitats harbor many charismatic and threatened marine species that can be hard to see elsewhere. Both our snorkeling and volunteer programs give participants plenty of opportunities to see sea turtles, nurse sharks, dolphins, and occasionally manatees. Those traveling to Turneffe Atoll are more likely to see sea turtles, nurse sharks, and dolphins, while those participating in our volunteer programs at St. George’s Caye almost always encounter all four species, including lots of manatee sightings because you are closer to the larger coastal manatee populations. On all of our Belize expeditions, you not only benefit from the leadership of our Oceanic Society guides, but also our long our history of in-country marine research projects.

Belize is part of the Mesoamerican forest hotspot. © Tony Rath / tonyrath.com

7. Maya Ruins & Verdant Rainforest

While the focus of our weeklong expeditions in Belize is on marine diversity, the wonders on land should not be overlooked. Belize is located within the Mesoamerican forest hotspot, the third largest of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and home to impressive species diversity and endemism. These forests are also home to globally important Maya ruins that date back thousands of years. We often design 2 to 7-day pre- or post-expedition extensions that explore the interior of Belize and will have you canoeing the rivers, visiting troops of howler monkeys, exploring ancient Maya ruins, or exploring cave systems that were used by Mayans and still hold archaeological treasures. Whether you are seeking orchids or jaguars, we have a wide variety of in-country partners that we will work with to create a land-based extension in Belize, one that is tailor made to you or your family’s interests.

Ready to Plan Your Trip?

Ready to plan your next trip to Belize? We've got you covered! Here are our upcoming Belize expeditions, with something for everyone.

  • Belize: Snorkeling and Coral Reef Ecology — Our classic week-long snorkeling expeditions based in beautiful Turneffe Atoll, including a visit to the Great Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, and Half Moon Caye.
  • Belize Coral Reef and Conch Research — Volunteer vacations that allow you to work side-by-side with researchers in St. George's Caye studying coral reefs, queen conch, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and more.
  • Belize Family Week — An educational, hands-on, family-friendly summer vacation in St. George's Caye featuring coral reefs, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and more.
Author

Wayne Sentman is our director of conservation travel programs and an Oceanic Society naturalist since 1998. He is an experienced guide with a diverse background in marine mammal, seabird, and marine debris research. Wayne also co-teaches undergraduate field programs in Kenya on human-wildlife conflict and on the use of social media and art to raise public participation in conservation. He recently received a Master's in Environmental Management from Harvard University.