Guide to the Belize Barrier Reef

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Belize's Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef is the second-largest coral reef system in the world and one of the most sought-after tourist destinations for recreational activities such as diving, snorkeling, sailing, and fishing. In 1996, it was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

On this page
About the Belize Barrier Reef
Things to Do
Where to Stay
Best Time to Visit
Belize Barrier Reef Map

About the Belize Barrier Reef

Aerial view of Belize's reef

The Belize Barrier Reef runs about 190 miles (300 km) parallel to Belize’s entire coastline. Offshore cayes, coral atolls, coastal lagoons, estuaries, mangrove forests and several types of reefs are situated within the barrier reef system, allowing for an abundance of marine life of the most vivid colors. Sea turtles, rays, eels, nurse sharks, goliath groupers, dolphins, and manatees are commonly sighted.

See also: Top destinations in Belize and 10-step Belize Travel Guide

Belizeans consider their reef to be one of their most important natural assets. Along with the reef hosting an incredibly diverse ecosystem of plants and animals, it protects the coastline from the damaging effects of wave action, tropical storms, and hurricanes.

Until recently, Belize’s reef was endangered, however, in 2018, due to several successful protective measures, it was removed from UNESCO’s Endangered List. Initiatives included an oil drilling moratorium, development restrictions, and fishing reform.

Things to do: Belize Barrier Reef

Fly-over tour of the Belize Blue Hole

Belize’s reef is a hotspot for recreational activities such as snorkeling, diving, fishing, and sailing. Naturally, due to the abundance of plants and animals native to the reef, diving and snorkeling are the two most popular things to do.

The Great Blue Hole is the most common reason people visit Belize’s reef. But other attractions are similarly as popular once people get a chance to know more about Belize. For example, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is an amazing spot that visitors love. At Hol Chan, snorkelers and divers can see fishes of every color imaginable, along with nurse sharks, sea turtles, and manta rays.

Other popular reef activities include swimming with Whale Sharks at the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes, diving at the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the second largest marine reserve in Belize, and visiting Half Moon Caye, a pristine crescent-shaped island and natural monument that is as gorgeous from above as it is from underwater.

Belize Barrier Reef Top Things to Do

Where to stay to explore the Belize Barrier Reef

Diving the Belize Barrier Reef

Often used as principal hubs for scuba diving or snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are the most popular cayes in Belize. These cayes are the largest in the country and are near popular attractions such as Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the famous Great Blue Hole.

This is not to say that other smaller cayes or atolls are not frequented by travelers. Places such as Turneffe Atoll and Glover’s Reef are loved by many for their remoteness and the countless opportunities to swim right offshore and encounter exotic marine wildlife.

Also popular is staying at coastal destinations where some of the best dive resorts in Belize are found. For example, scuba diving enthusiasts often stay in Hopkins or Placencia to explore the Southern Barrier Reef. From Hopkins, it’s easy to dive the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, and the possibility of potentially swimming with Whale Sharks lures divers to Placencia every year.

Alternatively, some travelers stay at mainland Belize jungle resorts and take day trips to the Reef. This option is less popular, however, since although the coast is near the mainland, Belize doesn’t have speedways which makes travel by road lengthy. But as long as guests don’t mind leaving their destinations early in the morning (8 AM) and returning late afternoon (5 PM), day trips to the Reef are feasible.

Best time to visit the Belize Barrier Reef

South Water Caye Marine Reserve

There isn’t really a best time to visit the Belize Barrier Reef. Belize has subtropical weather which means the water is warm year-round and the Reef can be dived or snorkeled anytime.

However, people often plan their trips based on whether they prefer being in Belize during the dry season aka high tourism season or the wet season aka the low tourism season. Both offer pros and cons.

Conversely, people may plan their trip around certain diving events, such as Whale Shark season, which is from April to June, or Grouper mating season, which happens from October and November.

Dry Season

Belize’s dry season typically runs from November to April. This time period is also known as Belize’s “high season”, since this is when most tourists visit Belize, running away from their harsh winters while Belize remains nice and warm. Although surface conditions may be choppy during this time, little to no rain occurs, which results in excellent visibility for diving or snorkeling. The water temperatures are cooler during this time, ranging on an average of 75°F to 80°F.

Wet Season

Belize’s wet season typically runs from May to October. Many travelers strategically visit during this off-peak season to take advantage of lesser crowds and price drops as tourism businesses adjust to the plunge in tourist arrivals. Rainfall is prevalent during these months, however, it typically only rains 1 to 2 hours in the late morning or early afternoon. This means unless there is a tropical storm or hurricane, the rain doesn’t typically affect your diving or snorkeling experience. The water is pleasantly warm during the summer, ranging on an average from 80°F to 85° F.

Belize Barrier Reef Map

Here’s a map outlining the 7 components that make up the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve World Heritage Site:

  1. Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve
  2. Blue Hole Natural Monument
  3. Half Moon Caye Natural Monument
  4. South Water Caye Marine Reserve
  5. Glovers Reef Marine Reserve
  6. Laughing Bird Caye National Park
  7. Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve
Belize Barrier Reef Map
belize diving map