In Belize, a flourishing marine reserve showcases the benefits of protecting coral reefs

A floating ranger station is approached by an orange boat on a sunny day in Hol Chan, Belize

Bobbing gently in the waters of Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a jaunty and unique floating ranger station. The pontoon boat, complete with a porch, murals of ocean life, and a weather station, welcomes visitors to a well-preserved section of one of the Caribbean’s shiniest jewels: the Belize Barrier Reef.

Manuel Munoz looks out onto the water while standing on a boat and wearing a hat

Manuel Munoz, a ranger at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

Snorkelers and divers travel from all over the world to dip their heads beneath these crystal waters and it’s no secret why. Here, abundant schools of fish flick their fins simultaneously while nurse sharks roam along the sand. Structural coral rises stalwart from the sea floor—the first line of defense against a storm—and fan-like species sway in the mild current. Seagrass beds stretch into the distance.

It's easy for Hol Chan Marine Reserve ranger Manuel Munoz to characterize this protected area.

“I would use one word,” he says. “Unique."

Hol Chan—Mayan for “little channel”—is a prime example of how a well-operated marine reserve benefits both the environment and economy alike—and makes a convincing case for replicating the model elsewhere. Established in 1987 mainly in response to community concern over uncontrolled fishing and diving, Hol Chan is Belize’s oldest protected area and covers about three square miles of reef, seagrass beds, and mangroves. All three elements are critical to protecting wildlife, coastal communities, and the climate. Coral reefs and mangroves protect the shoreline during storms and serve as critical habitat for wildlife, and mangroves also help prevent erosion. And while seagrass provides a place for species such as manatees and sea turtles to feed and live, it can also capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rain forests—an essential characteristic for curbing the climate crisis.

Rangers like Munoz welcome about 500 people a day to the flourishing reef. They work both to ensure the safety of visitors to the reserve and enforce the security of the barrier reef and its vast marine life.

“You need to be able to have constant eyes on the water, on the reef, to be able to put in place actions to make sure that the reef is safeguarded,” said Nadia Bood, senior program officer for marine science and climate change at WWF-Belize.

And successful protection of such a precious natural resource is only achieved with the help of all interested parties, from government to community to business. Hol Chan Marine Reserve staff members conduct community outreach to connect people to the reef, working with everyone from primary school students to owners and employees of local businesses. Conservation organizations such as WWF, the MarAlliance, and others, that help conduct research and provide critical information that supports effective management of our oceans also play an important role in protecting wildlife and their habitats.

The visibility of the reef from the shoreline—one can watch the waves break against it while standing on the beach—and its proximity to Ambergris Caye, a long, skinny island off the eastern shore of Belize, contribute to a prevailing desire to protect it. And generations of families have fed their loved ones by fishing the reef.

“You are seeing tourists excited to go and visit the reef, to snorkel and dive the reef. You are seeing fishers come in with daily catch from the reef,” Bood said. “The reef is close to the community’s heart.”

Back at the ranger station, Munoz watches as boats full of eager tourists putter into the reef for a morning of snorkeling and diving. Sounds of exhilaration ripple through the air. He is proud of his position and what it means for visitors, locals, and Belize.

“It shows them that I'm doing something positive,” he says. “Not just for myself, not for just the community, but also for the future.”