Belize's Waters

Glover's Reef, Belize Photo
From the Glover's Reef Research Station, WCS scientists and researchers from around the world study Belize's marine species, such as critically endangered hawksbill turtles.
©R. Ferrari
Eagle Rays in Belize Photo
As an interface between the open ocean and the coast, the reef serves as a feeding ground for larger, roving ocean species such as barracuda, nurse and hammerhead sharks, and these two spotted eagle rays.
©Renata Ferrari Legorreta

Away from the crashing surf of Belize’s beaches, along miles of impenetrable mangroves and lagoons, the landscape blends almost seamlessly with the Caribbean Sea. Low-lying tropical forests and savannahs gradually give way to the ocean, while submerged coral reefs continue the subtle transition farther out to sea.

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is a sparsely populated, conservation-minded country just south of Mexico. The relationship between ocean and land in Belize is intimate and comparatively trouble-free. Its waters are largely unpolluted, and more than 40 percent of the country is under formal protection. Nearly 75 percent of the landscape remains under forest cover. With Mexico and Guatemala, Belize shares the largest contiguous tropical forest north of the Amazon, La Selva Maya (the Mayan Forest).

Belize has long been popular with ecotourists in search of wildlife and scuba divers who come to explore its reefs. Terrestrial Belize is home to more than 500 species of birds, 75 species of bats, and five species of cat, including the jaguar. The coastal mangrove swamps and adjacent waters provide habitat for flamingos, marine turtles, grouper, and American crocodiles, while coral, sponge, and an array of fish and other marine plants and animals find shelter among the reefs.

Fast Facts

  • Belize’s barrier reef, which extends from a few hundred yards to as much as 25 miles offshore, stretches 155 miles from tip to tip.
  • An intricate network of lagoons, mangrove swamps, and deltas provides habitat for manatees, birds, fish, and crocodiles. Between the shore and the barrier reef, where the water is typically shallow and calm, grass beds cover the sandy bottom.
  • The barrier reef protects the mainland from storms and supports an underwater ecosystem of soft and hard coral, sponge, angelfish, parrotfish and other sea life.
  • Staghorn coral predominated the reef before a bacterial infection proliferated in the 1980s. Now, the most common coral is lettuce coral.
  • As an interface between the open ocean and the coast, the reef serves as a feeding ground for larger, roving ocean species such as barracuda, nurse and hammerhead sharks, and spotted eagle rays.
  • The country’s native population is a rich ethnic mix of mestizo, creole, Garifuna, Maya, and European people.


Overfishing has reduced populations of some marine species. Most towns and villages are concentrated along the coast, but as rural development and road improvement expands with population growth, increased accessibility is putting pressure on protected areas, which are inextricably linked to the ecologies of the marine environment. Wildlife habitat loss on land is accelerating due to human activities—agriculture, resource extraction, road building and other economic developments—which are occurring in or around places of conservation value with little or no effective regulations or law enforcement. Poaching is also a problem in protected areas. To inform decisions regarding development and conservation, greater knowledge of the distribution and status of Belize’s wildlife species is needed.

WCS Responds

WCS began its involvement in Belize during the early 1980’s when it initiated the planning of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. To assess and promote the conservation of the marine environment of Belize, WCS founded the Glover's Reef Marine Reserve Station and is a partner in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Initiative. At Glover’s Reef, our marine scientists conduct research on species such as the hawksbill turtle, Nassau grouper, Caribbean reef shark, queen conch, star coral, long-spined black sea urchin, and osprey. When applicable, WCS takes information they generate at Glover’s Reef to help conserve the South Water Marine Reserve. WCS is also studying how whale sharks travel throughout the region.

In addition to field research, WCS works to strengthening the region’s capacity to carry out conservation initiatives and policy reform. For instance, in 2009 WCS research helped inform national rule changes that will help sustain Belize’s reef ecosystems and fisheries over the long term.

For more information, visit

From the Newsroom

Happy Birthday, Hol Chan Marine ReserveAugust 2, 2012

A recent blog for National Geographic NewsWatch celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize, the country's first marine reserve and one that protects the greatest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Conservation efforts there ensure continued success for blue striped grunts and other precious fish and marine animals. 

Charting New Waters at Glover’s ReefApril 23, 2012

With support from the Summit Foundation, WCS conservationists and their local and international partners have introduced a new system of managed access to the Glover's Reef Marine Reserve’s conch fishery.

A Conversation with Rachel GrahamMarch 26, 2012

The New York Times interviews WCS's Dr. Rachel Graham about her work in the Gulf and the Caribbean to create a constituency for the protection of a magnificent—and often misunderstood—ocean giant: the shark.

Netting Change for Fisheries in BelizeSeptember 6, 2011

WCS conservationists help Belize develop a management program to restore the health of both fisheries and the coral reef ecosystems at its Glover’s Reef and Port Honduras Marine Reserves.

A Map for Reef ReliefAugust 12, 2011

WCS marine scientists provide a color code for coral conservation by mapping out the stress loads of the world's reefs.


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