The Belize Barrier Reef, which boasts world-class snorkeling and some of the most extensive stretches of untouched coral magnificence in the world, was removed from UNESCO’s endangered list last week. The largest reef in the northern hemisphere, it spans 185 miles of Belizean coast, with the Great Blue Hole, an aptly-named sprawling dark blue sinkhole surrounded by a translucent halo of coral reef, its biggest tourist draw. UNESCO has 54 natural wonders on their endangered list; Putting a site on is generally meant to raise awareness of threatening conditions and revitalize preservation efforts. The Belize Barrier Reef landed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 because of “destruction of mangroves and marine ecosystems, offshore oil extraction, and the development of non-sustainable building projects,” according to UNESCO.
Belizeans rely on the reef as their primary source of tourism. For them, the reef’s well-being is not only crucial to the environmental health of their country, but to bringing in revenue. To restore and protect the reef, they’ve put a moratorium on oil exploration and instituted regulations to protect the mangrove shrubs. The measures taken in Belize over the last nine years extend to actions that only tangentially benefit the reef but further highlight Belize’s commitment to sustainability—they’ve even banned single-use plastic utensils and bags.
Two weeks ago, I was in Belize witnessing these initiatives first hand. And let me just say that the plastics ban is no joke. At Turneffe Island Resort, the bartender told me they had stopped using cocktail umbrellas in drinks, and now only garnish their frozen concoctions with found materials, like flowers or palm leaves. They’re also minimizing waste on the island by composting and are moving from an oil-based generator to solar power, with the goal of making the entire private island solar powered by the end of this year.
The snorkeling, diving, and fishing guides cover up enough that they don’t need sunscreen, which is purely to ensure they don’t impact the ecosystem if their limbs graze one of the 500 species of fish or marine life. And deep sea fishing on the Belize Barrier Reef is strictly catch-and-release unless you intend to bring the fish home for dinner.
While mainland Belize is home to tropical jungles that are worth exploring, so much of what Belize has to offer is miles off the coast in the three atolls and 400 cayes (or islands) along the Belize Barrier Reef. Some of these cayes are inhabited by luxury resorts, others are completely untouched, and a select few, like Half Moon Caye, are preserved as Natural Monuments by the Audubon Society.
Half Moon Caye has the idyllic white-sand beaches you hope to find in the Caribbean, and the water is the shade of turquoise Instagram dreams are made of. The divers told me that even 60 feet underwater, it was so clear that they could see all the way up to the surface. On a day trip to the Great Blue Hole with Turneffe Island Resort, I snorkeled from right off the boat and was immediately surrounded by a school of fish (and a lone, regal sea turtle). I also caught an aerial view of the Great Blue Hole while helicoptering over the Belize Barrier Reef; From above you can see the perfect ring formed naturally in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Seeing the wonders of Belize up close, it’s abundantly clear why they’re so worth protecting.