On the Caribbean Sea and bordered by Guatemala and Mexico, Belize is home to the second-longest Barrier Reef in the world, a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site. It’s also home to the phenomenal Great Blue Hole, a natural sinkhole that’s more than 400 miles deep. The Great Blue Hole is on most scuba divers’ bucket lists and was named by Jacques Cousteau as one of the top five diving sites in the world.
At nearly 9,000 square miles, Belize has a small population, leaving plenty of room for flora and fauna. In fact, 37% of the country’s land falls under some sort of official protection. It is home to more than 5,000 species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals, including the ubiquitous Howler monkey. And the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary established n 1990 in south-central Belize, is the world’s first sanctuary for the jaguar.
Belize takes its location on the Caribbean Sea seriously, and 13.6% of its territorial waters are protected. It was the first country in the world to ban bottom trawling in the fishing industry. Its reef system is a series of coral reefs straddling the coast, starting in Cancún and reaching to Honduras. One of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, the reef is home to 70 hard coral species, 36 soft coral species, 500 species of fish, and hundreds of invertebrate species.
Only 10% of the reef has been researched, so there are still many lifeforms to discover. What will you discover when you volunteer with marine wildlife and research coral reefs in Belize? In addition to discovering new plants and animals, volunteers are needed to help research and protect Belize’s corals, at risk because of global warming. The increase in ocean temperatures causes coral bleaching, and scientists estimate that 40% of Belize’s coral reefs have been damaged since 1998. Corals get their color from zooxanthellae, small single-cell plants that foster the polyps, which are reef-building creatures. But, when the water is too warm, the zooxanthellae are driven away, and the coral polyps lose its food source and starve.
When the reef is weak, it can suffer from other man-made threats, such as oceanic pollution, uncontrolled tourism with snorkelers who smother them with sand, and fishing that damages the coral branches. Once they start to decline, the coral reefs cannot withstand hurricanes and other large storms. Dead coral is bleached a light gray or white, and the seafloor becomes a wasteland.
Know Before You Go
English is the official language of Belize, formerly known as British Honduras. Belizean Creole, however, is the unofficial native language, with Spanish being the second-most-common language spoken there. It’s a Commonwealth realm, which means Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch and head of state. Belize’s government is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy.
The Maya civilization emerged in the Yucatan Peninsula more than 3,000 years ago and spread across what is now Belize around 1500 BC. This ancient and culturally important civilization flourished there until about 900 AD. When the Spanish Conquistadors explored the area in the sixteenth century, they decided not to settle there because of limited natural resources and hostile native people.
Next came English and Scottish pirates, known as the Baymen, who settled along the coast in 1638 to better attack Spanish ships. Soon, a port was established and it became a trade colony, built upon the backs of black slaves forced to cut logwood to use for clothing dyes. The Spanish relinquished control to the British in exchange for quelling the pirates and enforcing the law in the land. A superintendent came to the country in 1786, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that reform occurred, following the abolishment of slavery in England. Despite this, former slaves still were discriminated and restricted from buying land and were forced to continue working in the timber industry.
The country became a British Crown Colony in 1862 and named British Honduras. Conditions didn’t improve much, and in the 1930s, the Great Depression and hurricanes devastated the tiny colony. Poor economic conditions prompted reform in the way of the People’s United Party, and in 1954, universal suffrage was granted. In 1964, Britain granted British Honduras self-government and, on June 1, 1973, the country took the name “Belize.” It was granted independence in 1981, however, Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation and a territorial dispute began, and it remains contentious. Guatemala’s government’s claims to own the country because of a clause in the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty.