Belize is world famous for the diversity of its rich underwater wildlife, primarily due to its unique geology, the barrier reef lagoon system, and a government that actively works to protect marine habitat. There is also a great deal of marine research in Belize, often with opportunities for tourists to get involved. While all the standard Caribbean species are found in Belizean waters, there are a few animals in particular worth noting.
These “gentle giants of the sea” are large and bulky—weighing 600–1,200 pounds. Manatees belong to the taxonomic order Sirenia, a group of four species that represents the only herbivorous marine mammals living today. There are three species of manatees: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis), and the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). The two subspecies of the West Indian manatee are the Florida manatee (T. m. latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (T. m. manatus).
Belize has long been considered the last stronghold for West Indian manatees in Central America and the Caribbean. West Indian manatees are also found year-round in Florida, and are sparsely distributed throughout Central America and the Caribbean, and occur as far south as Brazil. The Antillean subspecies (which excludes the Florida animals) is red-listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as endangered, in continuing decline, with severely fragmented populations.
With a relatively short coastline extending from the Gulf of Honduras in the south to Chetumal Bay in the north, Belize reports the greatest density of Antillean manatees in the Caribbean region, perhaps because of the extensive sea grass, mangrove, coastal, and riverine habitat within the Belize Barrier Reef Lagoon system or perhaps because manatees have been protected by local laws since the 1930s and are currently listed as endangered under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1981.
Belize has designated several wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas for the benefit of manatees and other marine life, including Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, Southern Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary, Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Burden Canal (part of the Belize River system), and Port Honduras Marine Reserve.
Many foreign researchers, including Caryn Self-Sullivan, PhD, and James A. “Buddy” Powell, PhD, as well as Belizean biologists, including manatee researcher Nicole Auil (EcoHealth Alliance) and Jamal Galves, have dedicated years of work to a countrywide research program, aerial surveys, and the stranding network through Coastal Zone Management Institute (www.coastalzonebelize.org).
Sharks and Rays
There are at least 42 species of sharks and rays in the waters of Belize. Most people get a good close glimpse of nurse sharks and southern stingrays on their trip to Hol Chan, and divers occasionally spot other species as well, such as the Caribbean reef shark or the great hammerhead, especially on trips to the farther atolls, particularly Lighthouse Reef. (The only recorded shark attacks in Belizean waters were due to sheer stupidity: a spearfisher who refused to give up a fish to a curious shark, and a tour guide who pulled a nurse shark by the tail and wouldn’t let go.) To learn more about sharks in Belize and how you can help them, check out www.belizesharks.org.
Although Belize is home to many species of sharks, the biggest and most notable is the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Like all sharks it has a cartilaginous skeleton and visible gill slits, yet feeds on zooplankton like a whale, and is the largest fish in the sea (up to 20 meters in length and over 15 tons!). Whale sharks bear live young (up to 300 have been found in one female) and are believed to be long-lived—living more than 60 years—and may require up to 30 years to mature.
According to biologist Rachel Graham, PhD, who has been studying whale sharks since 1998, Belize hosts the only known aggregation of whale sharks that feeds on the eggs of large schools of reproducing snappers. Although this must occur elsewhere in the world, to date Belize is the only known site where it has been observed.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition