West Indian manatees can be seen at river mouths, in coastal lagoons and around the cayes. The sure-fire places to spot these gentle, slow-moving creatures are Southern Lagoon, near Gales Point Manatee village, and Swallow Caye, off Belize City. 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.
Belizean waters are home to whale sharks – notably Gladden Spit, near Placencia. 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.
Sharing the coral with the larger animals is a kaleidoscope of reef fish, ranging from larger barracuda and groupers to parrotfish, angelfish, butterfly fish and clown fish (they’re the ones who like to nestle into the anemones). Belizean waters host nearly every species of fish and coral found in the Caribbean, plus an amazing variety of sponges. The total number of fish and invertebrate species is around 600, and there are over 40 species of coral, from hard elkhorn and staghorn coral (named because they branch like antlers) to gorgonian fans and other soft formations that sway with the current.
Just in case you’re wondering what you’ve just seen, most dive and snorkel boats have laminated fish-identifier cards on board.