Exploring a thriving reef ecosystem off the coast of Belize

The Belize Reefs are a beacon of hope for marine biologists, environmentalists, and divers across the globe. Over the last two decades, these coral reefs have rebounded dramatically due to conservation efforts driven by grassroots activism. 

 | 
Virginia Carter
Conservation America Campaign, Associate

Author: Virginia Carter

Conservation America Campaign, Associate

Started on staff: 2021
B.A. in Political Science and Visual Arts from Eckerd College

Virginia works to protect our public lands in the Four Corners region from dangerous oil drilling and mineral mining. In her spare time, Virginia likes backpacking, scuba diving, volunteering at Mission: Wolf, and crafting and sewing.

The Belize Reefs are a beacon of hope for marine biologists, environmentalists, and divers across the globe. Over the last two decades, these coral reefs have rebounded dramatically due to conservation efforts driven by grassroots activism. 

This spring, I was lucky enough to visit Lighthouse Reef, a beautiful atoll 50 miles off the coast of Belize— one of three atolls in Belize and one of four in the entire Western Hemisphere. 

The remote island we visited, Longe Caye is the only place to live or stay for 50 miles and is in the same atoll as the infamous Blue Hole. This far-flung destination was the perfect place to explore the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is a pristine marine ecosystem and part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef,  the second-longest coral reef in the world. 

Photo by Virginia Carter 

I spent a week diving with my family, marveling at the abundance of fish and vibrant coral.  Even though we dove at least three times a day for a week, we only saw a fraction of the reef. What we did see was spectacular. The coral was healthy and colorful, with bright greens, reds, and purples. We floated in amazement as spotted eagle rays glided past. We even spotted a few loggerheads and green turtles, the same endangered species you’re unlikely to ever see outside of “Finding Nemo”. The big creatures were amazing, but the little fish were just as cool. They create communities in specific pieces of coral. While the rays and turtles rely on the reef as a whole, the little guys call a small patch home.

We even made friends with a lovable grouper. Long ago our divemaster, Elvis named this particular grouper Rufus. We could tell it was Rufus because he has a scar on his back from where he was struck by a boat. When we dove near Rufuse’s home, Elvis would call him by banging his tank with a conch. Rufus would come to us and play, but that isn’t the only reason he was excited to see us. See Elvis is excellent at spotting Rufuses favorite meal, the lionfish -- a nonnative invasive fish. As we swam along the reef Rufus would follow us waiting for Elivs to point out a hidden lionfish. 

The atoll is also home to an abundance of Caribbean reef sharks and nerf sharks. The sense of awe I felt floating 50 feet beneath the waves as a shark swims past was well worth the risk. More than enhancing our dive, a healthy shark population is a sign that the reef ecosystem is healthy. 

The island where we stayed had a small eco-resort, a fishing house, and a few private homes. During our trip, I learned a lot from the resident divemaster, Elvis. Like nearly 50 percent of the Belizean people, his livelihood comes from the reef, so he dedicates himself to reef protection, including making the resort as eco-friendly as possible. 

We don’t always think of the impact our travels have on the planet. Because the Long Caye is a small island in the middle of the ocean, consumption is conscious—  a “pack it in, pack it out” mentality. Water is sourced from collected rainwater, toilets compost waste, and solar panels power the island. 

Living off-the-grid was a wonderful experience. Disconnecting from society while spending my days in the underwater jungle helped me reconnect with what matters most: our planet. 

The ecosystem on the atoll was thriving, but that isn’t always the case elsewhere. High temperatures, overfishing, and pollution bleach rainbow reefs into skeletal graveyards. Fish populations are dwindling. Sharks and whales are disappearing. 

Not everyone can or wants to dive 80 feet into the ocean or swim within arm’s length of a shark, but everyone has some connection to the ocean. It is within our power to restore our great coral reefs, but now is the time for action. Marine Protected Areas are a great place to start. Biden's executive order to protect 30 percent of our oceans by 2030 is a major step in the right direction for protecting our coral reefs and ocean ecosystems. If we all fight for ocean conservation and fair fishing practices, we can hope to see pristine marine landscapes like that of the Belize Barrier Reef for generations to come. 

Virginia Carter
Conservation America Campaign, Associate

Author: Virginia Carter

Conservation America Campaign, Associate

Started on staff: 2021
B.A. in Political Science and Visual Arts from Eckerd College

Virginia works to protect our public lands in the Four Corners region from dangerous oil drilling and mineral mining. In her spare time, Virginia likes backpacking, scuba diving, volunteering at Mission: Wolf, and crafting and sewing.