Big 5: Marine Animals in Belize

The Big 5 Marine Animals in Belize

1. West Indian Manatees

Manatees can be seen at river mouths, in coastal lagoons and around the cayes. And sitting on the deck from our over the water bungalows, our guests have often seen them swimming slowly around the island. Manatees are the only vegetarian sea mammals in existence. Just a few hundred survive in Belizean waters. They are threatened by increased boat traffic (you’ll see some with scars from propellers) and erosion that threatens their feeding areas. Typically 10ft long and weighing 1000lb, adults eat 100lb to 150lb of vegetation, especially sea grass, daily.

2. Whale Sharks

Belizean waters are home to whale sharks – notably Gladden Spit, about an hour away from Thatch Caye.  Between March and June, most commonly during the 10 days after the full moon, these filter-feeding behemoths come in close to the reef to dine on spawn. These are the world’s largest fish (yes, they’re sharks not whales), growing up to a whopping 60ft (although the average length is 25ft) and weighing up to 15 tons. Whale sharks can live up to 150 years. They’re gray with random light-yellow spots and stripes, and are quite harmless to humans.

Other sharks – nurse, reef, lemontip and hammerhead – and a variety of rays often make appearances around the reefs and islands. They tend to leave divers and snorkelers alone.

3. Sea Turtles

Long-lived reptiles, sea turtles do not land for any purpose other than to lay eggs.  Though air breathing, they remain underwater for long periods of time.  One loggerhead turtle in captivity was seen to surface for air about once every three hours.  Front limbs have oarlike flippers.  Sea turtles range over hundreds of miles in warm waters they inhabit.  International agreements and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibit taking sea turtles or their eggs dead or alive, or disturbing their nests.  All are classified Endangered or Threatened.

4. Eagle Rays, Sting Rays, Manta Ray

Rays are sometimes referred to as the birds of the sea. They are amazing disc-shaped creatures that gracefully swim about the ocean. Three rays inhabit Belize: southern stingray, spotted eagle ray, and manta ray. All rays are characterized by a unique spherical body shape with a raised head and eyes set to the sides. Their nostrils, mouth, and gill slits are located on the underside of their body. They are completely composed of cartilage; they have no bones. The most striking feature of rays, however, is what is known as cephalic fins, the wing-like appendages that allow them to "fly." Rays are also equipped with a whip-like tail; tails of southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays carry barbed spines, capable of inflicting a painful wound. The largest of the three species is the manta ray, with a wingspan reaching a width of 20 feet and weighing up to 3,000 pounds. Ironically known as the "Devil Ray", this species has no sting and is completely harmless to humans. Seeing a manta ray leap out of the water is an amazing sight; there are reports of manta rays leaping 15 feet out of the water! The Spanish meaning of "manta" is blanket, describing the unique spherical body shape of this animal. Rays learn to evade predators by spending much of their time on the sandy bottom, flapping their pectoral fins to throw sand on that body.

5. Dolphins

Two kinds of dolphin inhabit Belize: bottlenose and spinner. Both dolphins are mammals, are silver / gray in color, are large (up to 12 feet long and 1000 pounds for the bottlenose), are very intelligent, communicate well with each other and have streamlined bodies. Dolphins have long beaks and long, pointed flippers. They are capable of extremely fast swimming and leaping through the air. But, these agile creatures do not jump through the air simply for fun, sometimes they are avoiding predators or trying to impress potential mates. Dolphins are also skillful divers, reaching depths of 1,640 feet in search of food (dolphins consume 6-8 kilograms of fish each day). To breathe dolphins use the blowhole located at the top of the head to empty and refill their lungs with air. To communicate they often whistle to each other, with each dolphin having a signature whistle. Spinner dolphins are distinguished from other dolphins in their ability to leap out of the water and twist their bodies into elegant curves and spins. It is not known why they do this, but some scientists believe this is one of many forms of communication these dolphins use.

6. Lionfish

We couldn't stop our list of the top five marine species in Belize at just 5 and technically the lionfish shouldn't be on our list as it is not native to Belize.

The lionfish invasion was first documented in coastal waters near Florida in the 1980s, thought to be a result of deliberate and accidental releases from private and public aquaria. First officially recorded in Belizean waters as recently as 2008, their population has expanded rapidly throughout the country. With voracious appetites for juvenile fish and no natural predators to control them, they are now considered one of the biggest threats to the coral reef life in the Caribbean.

We monitor and report lionfish on each dive that we do.  Our Divemasters are properly training in the handling and culling of lionfish and may remove them from our local sites during your dive.  

Jacob AyarsComment