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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Belize's Great Barrier Reef - A Diver's Paradise

By Linda Patterson

The sheer enormity of the Belize barrier reef, spanning over 900 kilometers (50 miles) of coastline from Cancun to the Yucatan Peninsula, qualifies it as one of the planet's most remarkable natural attractions. World-renowned for the ancient Mayan pyramids that crouch deep with its steamy tropical jungles, Belize's bounty of marine life has also been a steady draw for tourists and vacationers, who gape in amazement at the mirror-like waters and the dazzling colors worn by a host of unusual and splendid sea creatures.

If you find yourself in Belize, use a pen - not pencil - to add a stop by the barrier reef to your itinerary, no matter how full it might already be. If you haven't already got one, renting an underwater camera would be a particularly good idea; you'll fill entire albums with the unbelievable range of underwater life - including over 500 species of fish - that makes its home around this enormous natural treasure. Even quick trips with a snorkel set or the briefest scuba dives will leave you in awe - and planning your return.

The Belize barrier reef itself is constructed from the hard outer skeletons of over 70 species of coral. Tiny, communal animals with soft bodies and tiny tentacle arms, the coral polyps build their exoskeleton as a defense against predators, which can in turn provide a bountiful home for an entire marine ecosystem to develop around.

This is all besides an abundance of rays, sharks, and even cetaceans that occasionally stop by this undersea oasis. The diversity and quantity of undersea flora make an underwater camera almost necessary equipment for even a short snorkel or scuba dive around the reef - and make the Belize barrier reef an essential, not optional, stop on any tour of South/Central America.

A Profile of Marine Life

One of the barrier reef's most readily-identified, and yet undeniably one of its most beautiful, is the starfish (or sea star). Existing in a range of colorations that rival any fish or bird species, they may appear to be mostly inert, but can actually propel themselves across the ocean floor on hundreds of tiny tube feet. Feeding on mollusks like clams, snails, and oysters, prying their prey's protective shells apart with their arms, some species of sea star can move or glide over the sandy bottom with surprising rapidity, and can travel significant distances in search of prey or to avoid a predator, seeking out the details of their environment by sampling water temperature, brightness, and even chemical makeup.

Along with many species of strange and delicate jellyfish floating in the current, algae, eels, crabs, fish, and more, the plethora of species spanning all phyla is on display there at the reef on even the most quotidian day of the year. All that diversity accounts for a mere ten percent of the reef's massive structure; it's estimated that nearly 90% of the species that inhabit the reef have yet to be fully documented. So when you're ready to make your first plunge, check your mask and your recording equipment, because you won't want to waste a second blinking, much less averting your eyes from the panoply of splendid wildlife and unseen treasures that teems around the Belize barrier reef.

About the Author:

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