Standing along the coast of Belize and looking seaward, many tourists are surprised to see something dark in the shallow water just offshore. They expect the sandy bottom typical of many Caribbean islands. However, it is this “dark stuff” that eventually will make their day’s snorkeling, fishing, or dining experience more enjoyable. What they are noticing is sea grass, another of the ocean’s great nurseries.
Sea grasses are plants with elongated, ribbonlike leaves. Just like the land plants they evolved from, sea grasses flower and have extensive root systems. They live in sandy areas around estuaries, mangroves, reefs, and open coastal waters. Turtle grass has broader, tapelike leaves and is common down to about 60 feet. Manatee grass, found to depths of around 40 feet, has thinner, more cylindrical leaves. Both cover large areas of seafloor and intermix in some areas, harboring an amazing variety of marine plants and animals. Barnacles, conch, crabs, and many other shellfish proliferate in the fields of sea grass. Anemones, seahorses, sponges, and starfish live here. Grunts, filefish, flounder, jacks, rays, and wrasses feed here. Sea turtles and manatees often graze in these lush marine pastures.
These beds and flats are being threatened in some areas by unscrupulous developers who are dredging sand for cement and landfill material (especially on Ambergris Caye ).