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  • Belize's Atolls A Magical World of Biodiversity

    by Rick Frehsee, Sep. 1997

    In a corner of the western Caribbean are three ovals of coral, each as big as an island and all bathed by the clear waters of the open sea. Above water this ocean panorama is occasionally interrupted by slim slivers of sand capped by mangroves and palm trees, a haven for nesting seabirds. Where the tangled stilt roofs of the mangroves penetrate sandy shallows, a vast biological food chain begins that will eventually blossom over the outer reefs. Go below the sea and you will discover 60 species of stony corals, 200 species of colorful fishes and more invertebrates than anyone has ever been able to count. Along the outer reefs of the coral fringes is another life zone, a nearly continuous drop-off decorated with bouquets of billowy sponges and sprigs of bushy black corals. Between the ovals of coral are miles of open ocean, a blue water expanse where schools of dolphin play. This is the magical world of Belize's offshore atolls; three majestic coral formations that are truly unique in the hemisphere.

    Origin of the Atolls: Lighthouse Reef, Glover's Reef and the Turneffe Islands are all distinct anomalies in the Caribbean. Nothing else in the Western Hemisphere resembles a true coral atoll, except perhaps Chinchorro Reef, off Mexico's southern Yucatan Peninsula (just above the Belize atolls). According to geologists they are even more unusual in that the origin of their formation does not seem to mirror the atolls of the Pacific Ocean, where rings of coral are better known. The ancient processes contributing to Belize atoll development may have begun as many as 70 million years ago and the atolls did not develop around subsiding volcanos. Instead, they originated atop giant fault blocks; limestone covered ridges that settled in steps, providing a series of offshore platforms for coral growth. After the last ice age, with the slow rise of sea level, coral growth continued upward, creating the precipitous outer walls and the shallow inside lagoon that typifies these distinct formations. Many drop-offs surrounding the Belize atolls are thousands of feet deep, while depths in the shallow lagoons average 10 to 30 feet.

    Recent History: The sense of isolation and remoteness that accompanies a visit to the atolls, even today, belies a rich history. Although only archaeological traces remain, it appears the ancient Maya inhabited at least a few of the atoll islands for more than 1,000 years. The recorded history of the atolls begins in the early 16th century with the arrival of the Europeans. From 1528 to 1532 the Spanish explored and charted the coastline and offshore reefs of Belize and the Yucatan. Original names known to the indigenous inhabitants or given by the first Spanish explorers are now obscured. The only names that have survived are published on charts discovered decades after their making. It appears that Turneffe used to be called Terre Nef; Lighthouse Reef, Quattro Cayas (four cays) or Eastern Reef; and Glover's Reef, Longorif. The present names evolved with English discovery and occupation in the 1750s. Glover's Reef was named for the English pirate John Glover, who used this particular atoll as a hideout. Lighthouse Reef was renamed after a navigational light was permanently established on Half Moon Caye.

    In 1836 the famous biologist-evolutionist Charles Darwin paid homage to these remarkable formations when he said the Belize atolls and the Belize Barrier Reef constitute 'the richest and most remarkable coral reefs in the entire western Caribbean.'

    In the mid 1970s Jacques Cousteau's Calypso made its famous investigation of the Great Blue Hole and the Belize atolls, which corresponds to the arrival of dive travel to the region.

    The Atolls Today: I was one of those early arrivals from the scientific and sport diving community, accompanying the Cousteau divers into the Blue Hole and participating in one of the first dive travel ventures along the Belize River. Because of the relative isolation, the Belize atolls have remained nearly as pristine as I remember them 20 years ago. As a result of today's relatively easy travel, this sense of remoteness and the quality of the underwater environment is even more extraordinary. With only a few exceptions, I can visit any above or underwater site in the Belize atolls and the scene appears unaltered.

    Today you can visit the Belize atolls several ways. First, you can plan a stay for a week or more at an atoll resort. There are three excellent dive resorts on Turneffe and one each on Lighthouse and Glover's. The week's stay usually runs from Saturday to Saturday, with the resorts picking up and delivering guests to the Belize International Airport. Air service to the atolls is available only for Lighthouse Reef. All other resorts provide a fast, comfortable one and a half to three hour boat transfer. Other dive resorts on Ambergris Caye, along the barrier reef and the Belize coastline (including Belize City), often feature day trips to the atolls. The atoll resorts also feature excursions to other atolls.

    Another, most exciting possibility is a week-long excursion aboard a quality live-aboard dive vessel. Several of the world's best live-aboard fleets have vessels that regularly visit the atolls from their docks in Belize City.

    What You Will See: Each of the three Belize atolls is capable of delivering a world-class diving experience. I will leave it to other divers to argue their favorite site along the atolls. There is no doubt, however, that with sunny days and pristine visibility the Belize atolls live up to the saying, 'It just doesn't get any better than this.'

    Remember, anywhere along the Belize atolls you are on unspoiled and varied reefs far removed from population centers and river runoff. The three atolls feature a reef system whose length rivals the Belize Barrier Reef. One hundred fifty miles of coral reef surround the three atolls and 1,000 patch reefs dot the inner lagoons (there are 700 patch reefs in Glover's Reef lagoon alone). The atoll reefs offer several hundred known sites but only a fraction are regularly visited by divers. Standout sites include shallow sea gardens, meandering spur and groove mid-reefs and precipitous drop-offs.

    Each of the three atolls has its special sites and its own individual attractions. On Turneffe, the giant of the three atolls and the one closest to Belize City, you will find a spectacular, mangrove-lined paradise and dive sites such as The Elbow, a fish filled spectacle. Lighthouse Reef, the farthest atoll from shore, features pristine drop-offs such as Half Moon Caye Wall and a once in a lifetime dive into the stalactite-decorated depths of the Great Blue Hole. Above water are streaks of white sand crowded with palms and seabirds. Glover's Reef, the least known of the three atolls, is a coral paradise featuring rarely visited sites, such as the undersea canyons of Hole in the Wall.

    Belize offshore weather is consistently tropical and pleasant throughout the year. Air temperatures range from 75 to 90F. Along the coral atolls there is nearly always a cooling trade wind.

    Water conditions, too, vary little during the year. In the winter (November to February) the water temperature may dip to 78F; in summer it can reach 84F. Visibility in the lagoon or inside the fringing reef may be as low as 20 to 50 feet, on the outside it averages greater than 100 feet and often reaches the 150 foot mark.