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The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef
Second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in size, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef stretches more than 450 miles and is home to a universe of marine life. It is unique, due to its length and composition of reef types, and is home to more than 60 species of coral, 350 mollusks and 500 fish species. Closely linked to coastal wetlands, lagoons, sea grass beds, and mangrove islands, the reef plays a significant role in the stabilization and protection of coastal landscapes and maintenance of coastal water quality, and it serves as breeding and feeding grounds for marine mammals, fish, reptiles, and invertebrates. In addition, the reef is a source of economic life for many of the people living along the Yucatan Peninsula’s coast.
The Inner Reef
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is divided into three zones: the Inner Reef, Middle Reef, and Outer Reef. At 25 to 35 feet the Inner Reef is a network of patch reefs, spotted with elkhorn coral and formations of boulder brain and plate corals. They provide shelter and function as a nursery for several marine and land species. Here you will find mostly rainbow-colored tropical fish such as parrotfish, butterfly fish, angelfish, balloon fish, sergeant majors, surgeonfish, damsel fish, blue angelfish, tangs, wrasse, jackknife and many others. Though less common, you might also spot sponges, sea urchin, star snakes, fan corals, starfish, crabs, lobsters, snails, turtles and manta rays. At this depth the water is remarkably transparent – ideal for underwater exploring. Dividing the Inner Reef from the Middle Reef is a stretch of white sand, where most beginning scuba divers are first introduced to the underwater world.
The Middle Reef
Spanning several miles and varying in depth from 40 to 50 feet, the Middle Reef is best known for its coral cave and canyon formations. Here elknorn coral reaches for the surface, like the pinnacles of a mountain range, and wrecked remains of pirate and Spanish colonial ships are transformed into reefs hosting a broad spectrum of marine life. Throughout the Middle Reef you will find all types of tropical coral formations, sponges, schooling fish, barracuda, shark, manta ray, sting ray, snappers, grunts, parrots, and wenchman, in addition to massive sea turtles. And similar to the divide between the Inner and Middle Reefs, there is a stretch of white sand separating the Middle and Outer Reefs.
The Outer Reef
Beginning at 60 feet in depth and descending through canyons to 125 feet, the Outer Reef is adorned with magnificent canyons and coral caves in addition to black coral, which begin growing at around 90 feet in depth. In the Outer Reef it is common to spot hawksbill, green and threatened loggerhead turtles as well as bull, nurse reef and hammerhead sharks. Visibility at this depth averages approximately 70 to 90 feet, with little or no current.
The Mangrove Nursery
Completing the reef ecosystem are the essential contributions of the lagoon and mangroves that provide both a nursery and food source for virtually all reef species at some stage of their life. Nowhere in the lagoon does the depth exceed 15 feet (5 meters), however far from being the stinky muddy place that many people mistakenly believe, it is a pristine area teeming with life. From fiddler crabs to fish eagles, crocodiles and tree climbing anteaters, pink ibis and white egrets, silver tarpon and small sharks all mingle in the tranquil area among the mangroves. Most boat trips pass through this area on their way to the reef, and it is highly rewarding to spend time wildlife watching as you pass through.