Marine Life | Belize
The second longest barrier reef in the world is, as you’d expect, thriving with marine life, from the tiddly arrow crab to the massive whale shark. There are plenty of other rays and sharks too – eagle rays and stingrays, nurse and reef sharks. Wall dives like the Blue Hole see pelagic species such as jacks and trevallies, while reefs are home to hard and soft corals – and a few unusual fish species such as the indigo hamlet, which is only found in the central western Atlantic.
Southern stingray Dasyatis americana
Found throughout the Caribbean and from New Jersey to Brazil, the southern stingray is a diamond-shaped ray with an olive or grey back and a white underbelly. The ray has a serrated barb on its tail, which it uses for self-defence. Shark Ray Alley, in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris Caye, is a great place to see this species and nurse sharks too. They hang out in a shallow cut in the reef. Also look for them resting on sandy patches of seabed.
Whale shark Rhincodon typus
Belize’s Gladdon Spit is something of a hotspot for the biggest fish in the sea. Three days before or after the new moon and the full moon in April and May is the best time to see aggregations – although there’s no guarantee, and whale sharks are spotted in the area throughout the summer. There are limits to the number of boats and divers that can visit the whale sharks, and a limit to the amount of time visitors can spend in the water with the sharks. These measures are intended to keep disturbance of the sharks to a minimum.
Nurse shark Ginglymostoma cirratum
Growing up to 4.3m, nurse sharks are found on sand flats, reefs and mangroves. Generally a timid species, nurse sharks off Ambergris Caye have become somewhat accustomed to divers bringing them treats. In particular, lionfish – an invasive species here that divers are trying to eliminate with spearfishing - are fed to the sharks. They can get pretty close to divers and snorkelers in the hope of an easy meal!
Spotted eagle ray Aetobatus narinari
These rays have a distinctive black back with white spots, a white belly and a flat snout, which is often compared to a duck’s bill (in fact, duckbill ray is another of this species’ common names). They have long tails, and can be 5m in length with a wingspan of up to 3m. They eat molluscs and crustaceans, using their snouts to dig in sand to find them. So if you see a plume of sand in the water column in a seagrass meadow, it’s worth checking out. It could be an eagle ray… or just a fellow diver.
Dog snapper Lutjanus jocu
This rather unassuming fish is the reason whale sharks visit Belize. Dog snappers (along with mutton and Cubera snappers) spawn at Gladdon Spit in the spring, and their eggs are a bonanza for the sharks. Dog snapper can grow up to 120cm, but most only reach about 60cm, and their eggs are particularly large and popular with whale sharks. The biggest dog snapper ever caught weighed 28.6kg. They’re brown with a bronze tinge, and are lighter in colour on their sides.
One of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, the barrier reef in Belize has 70 species of hard corals and 36 species of soft coral. However, it’s been estimated that only 10 per cent of the reef has been researched, and it’s thought there are many more species out there unfound. Some corals to look out for include brain coral, staghorn and elkhorn corals and fire coral. Look closely at soft corals to see their polyps out feeding.
Horse-eye jacks Caranx latus
Pelagics are particularly impressive in Belize. Watch out for schooling jacks at wall dive sites such as The Elbow, Turneffe Atoll, and Long Caye Wall, Glover's Atoll. Horse-eye jacks can grow up to a metre long and weigh 13kg. Other jack species include black jacks and crevalle jack, or common jack.
Arrow crab Stenorhynchus seticornis
Don’t forget to look closely – there are many more tiny wonders in the sea than big sharks. Arrow crabs like hanging out in barrel or vase sponges. The arrow crab’s carapace can be up to 6cm long, and its long, thin legs can be 10cm long. Its body is triangular and can be golden, yellow or cream with brown, black or iridescent-blue lines. The legs are red or yellow, and the claws blue or violet.
Indigo hamlet Hypoplectrus indigo
Found in the central western Atlantic, this little blue-and-white-striped fish hangs out near the bottom on or near reefs. About 12-15cm long, it can be shy, but if you’re patient it should return to its territory. They’ve been known to get quite close to divers and are a species unique to this area.
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