Beginner’s Guide: The 3 Atolls of Belize

Map of Belize's three atolls
Reading Time: 3 mins

Within its barrier reef system, Belize has three atolls: Glover’s Reef, Lighthouse Reef, and Turneffe.

Together, these atolls attract travelers from around the world seeking to explore their turquoise waters filled with beautiful reefs and abundant marine life. But since none of the atolls are alike, which one should you visit? Here’s a quick guide to help you decide which Belize atoll is best for you!

On this page
What is an atoll?
Why are atolls important?
Belize’s Atolls
1. Turneffe
2. Lighthouse Reef
3. Glover’s Reef

What is an atoll?

An atoll, pronounced AT-OL, is a ring-shaped coral reef that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. It forms when corals build fringe reefs around a volcanic island and as the island subsides beneath the water – perhaps due to erosion or sea level rising – the reef remains, along with an open lagoon in the center. The formation of an atoll is a slow process that can take millions of years. 

Why are atolls important?

Trolling for Barracuda is popular at Southern Belize Barrier Reef

Atolls are fantastic places for marine life to flourish. Their remote locations offer fantastic conditions for coral growth. And plenty of coral provides refuge to smaller reef life and juvenile species, allowing fish populations to thrive. In addition, regular up-wellings of nutrient-rich waters from the surrounding depths bring plenty of food, feeding corals, reef life and large, plankton-eating sea animals.

The 3 Atolls of Belize

From north to south, Belize’s atolls are Turneffe, Lighthouse Reef, and Glover’s Reef. They serve as ideal beach destinations for anyone interested in diving, snorkeling, or fishing.

1. Turneffe Atoll

Aerial view of Turneffe Flats Resort at Turneffe Atoll, Belize

Turneffe Atoll is the largest and northernmost atoll of Belize. It is also the most developed, home to luxury dive resorts and fishing lodges. In 2012, it was established as the largest marine reserve in Belize. The reserve includes the atoll and surrounding open sea covering an area of approx 131,690 hectares (325,412 acres).

Turneffe is primarily known as a diving destination, with its wall dives sought out by divers from around the world. The Elbow, for example, attracts divers for its stunning drop-offs and dramatic reef formations. The atoll is also well recognized as a flats-fishing destination, with extensive flats that attract anglers seeking a “Grand Slam” – catching bonefish, permit and tarpon in a single day.

2. Lighthouse Reef Atoll

The Great Blue Hole is part of Belize's Barrier Reef

The most distant of Belize’s atolls, Lighthouse Reef Atoll is located about 50 miles (80 km) off the coast of Belize City, surrounded by the easternmost part of the barrier reef. Having an oblong shape, the atoll includes six cayes and spans an area of approximately 22 miles (35 km) long from north to south, and about 5 miles (8 km) wide. 

Lighthouse Reef is one of the premier diving destinations in Belize, home to three of the country’s top dive sites: the Great Blue Hole, the Half Moon Caye Wall, and the Long Caye Aquarium. It is also known for having beautiful wildlife—birders, in particular, love visiting to spot rare Red-footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

3. Glover’s Reef Atoll

Aerial view of Glover's Reef Basecamp

Located approximately 30 miles (48 km) off the coast of Hopkins and Dangriga, Glover’s Reef Atoll is the southernmost atoll in Belize and it is a prime destination for off-the-beaten-path explorers. The atoll is a part of the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, one of seven protected areas that together form the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The biodiversity at Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve is incredible–it is a critical nursery and feeding ground for sea turtles, sharks and rays, and numerous fish species. Also nearby is the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the second-largest marine reserve in Belize. As a result, Glover’s Reef draws eco-tourists interested in a secluded beach getaway where they can dive, snorkel, kayak, and sail.

Let me know in the comments which of these atolls in Belize is your favourite



Reader Interactions


  1. Denise Trawick says

    This is really cool, thank you for teaching us about Atolls and how they shape the marine life in an area, I never heard of this before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *