The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI) is a collaborative and multi-institutional effort dedicated to the conservation and understanding of the Mesoamerican Reef. With 73 partner organizations involved, this initiative spans Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, focusing on the comprehensive health of the reef ecosystem.
Over the course of fourteen years, the program has produced six Mesoamerican Reef Report Cards, offering in-depth insights into the reef’s condition, and conducted four Eco-Audits, evaluating the reef management efforts in each participating country.
The most recent of these audits was published in 2022 and it paints a very grim picture of Mesoamerica’s reefs–particularly its largest and most important, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
You can read that full report here.
With the world’s reefs in increasingly bad shape and, subsequently, truly awe-inspiring snorkeling and scuba diving experiences that much harder to come by, I wanted to put together a list of the most impressive snorkeling and diving spots along the Mesoamerican Reef–that’s Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
The world’s second largest barrier reef, global warming and acidifying seas along with persistent natural disasters (exacerbated by climate change), disease and invasive species like the red and common lionfish have wrought unparalleled damage on Caribbean reefs.
As someone who has snorkelled and free dived Caribbean Reefs from Mexico to Panama to Aruba and Colombia, it’s incredibly distressing to imagine a future in which the Mesoamerican Reef, for the intents and purposes of snorkeling and diving, no longer exists.
What I have done in this article is lay out a list of the best remaining snorkeling and diving destinations in the MAR countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
Trying to decide on snorkeling or diving gear for an upcoming trip? Checkout my detailed breakdowns of everything from fins to BCDs to dive watches and more.
These are the sites that have been rated as “good” (and one “very good”) by the Healthy Reefs report card:
Before I get into my list of the best diving and snorkeling destinations along the MAR coast, I’d like to dedicate the first section of this article to summarizing the major findings of the 2022 Healthy Reefs Report Card.
The 2022 Healthy Reefs Report Card
The latest assessment of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) reveals concerning trends in its overall health.
A significant portion, 44%, of the 234 surveyed sites are classified as being in ‘Poor’ condition, marking a substantial decline since the last report.
The situation has further intensified, with ‘Critical’ sites now comprising 31% of the total, indicating a doubling of their prevalence.
Notably, only one site, situated in Cozumel, Mexico, achieved a ‘Very Good’ ranking, attributed to decades of comprehensive protection.
This specific location stands out with grouper and snapper biomass exceeding the regional average by over five times. Unfortunately, only 12 sites (5%) across the entire MAR are considered to be in ‘Good’ condition.
The evaluation underscores the challenges faced by the Mesoamerican Reef, emphasizing that Mexico, despite having the highest score, owes much of its rating to the singular success of Cozumel. Fish surveys covering 140,000m² of reef recorded over 64,000 fish, revealing a concerning scarcity of large groupers and reproductive-sized individuals.
The report also highlights the discrepancy between the extent of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the territorial sea (56%) and the meager 2.6% that is fully shielded from all fishing activities. Even when focused on the coral reef habitat spanning 1,324km², the fully protected areas only increase to 9.5%, indicating an insufficient level for the comprehensive replenishment of the remaining 90%.
Additionally, despite maintaining stable coral cover, there has been a 44% decline in the main framework builders over the last decade, affecting net carbonate accretion, shoreline protection, and overall reef resilience.
The current stony coral tissue loss disease outbreak poses a severe threat, particularly to critical reef-building coral species, leading to a reduction in habitat complexity and carbonate production, marking it as one of the most lethal disturbances ever witnessed in the Caribbean.
Now that you’re thoroughly demoralized, let’s have a look at some of the most worthwhile snorkeling and diving sites that remain along the Mesoamerican Reef. If you’re interested in having a look at some of the best remaining sites that are not exclusive to the MAR, check out my article on the best snorkeling spots in the Caribbean.
Table of Contents
Over the past four decades, urbanization in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum has surged at alarming rates, escalating by 1,233%, 8,200%, and 1,500%, respectively. This unprecedented growth has resulted in chaotic overdevelopment, particularly near highly developed areas.
The consequences of this rampant urban expansion are evident in the deteriorating reef conditions, especially in the densely populated Quintana Roo Peninsula.
In Cozumel, where diving tourism prevails and the Marine Protected Area (MPA) hosts around 5,800 visitors daily, the local community actively engages, providing crucial surveillance in the MPA.
Despite this, nearby atolls, located 30 km from the mainland, experience unexpectedly low fish biomass. With only 1,800 annual visitors and 120 registered sustainable fishers, the MPA operates well below its carrying capacity.
Unfortunately, its remote location hampers enforcement, leading to an increase in flagrant violations from organized lawless groups. Urgent attention to sewage treatment and enhanced protection enforcement is crucial to mitigate the escalating threats to the marine environment in this region.
Despite the significant economic gains from tourism, the budget for Protected Areas has dwindled to approximately $0.50 USD/ha/yr, resulting in a substantial budget gap of around $51 million USD per year. Addressing these challenges is imperative to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the coastal ecosystems in Quintana Roo.
Despite the booming and unsustanable development of the coastal areas of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Cozumel stands out as an exception with the highest fish biomass. This island is predominantly driven by diving tourism, drawing approximately 5,800 visitors daily to its Marine Protected Area (MPA).
Wall dives, drift dives, whale sharks, a profusion of healthy Caribbean reef life and a schedule that rotates dive site closures make Cozumel the well-deserved allstar of the 2022 Reef Health Report Card.
Banco Chinchorro is not actually rated as “good” or “very” good by the report card, but I’ve included it on the list because it is still described as “the last hope for corals.”
Located 30 km away from the mainland, the atoll remains untouched by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Its seagrass beds are also some of the best places on the Caribbean coast of the Americas to see endangered American Crocodiles.
However, despite the coral health, the fish biomass in the area is surprisingly low (hence the fair-poor rating).
With a mere 1,800 visitors annually and a small community of 120 registered sustainable fishers, the Marine Protected Area (MPA) operates well below its carrying capacity. The atoll’s isolation poses challenges for enforcement, resulting in a rise in blatant violations, often perpetrated by organized and lawless groups.
Between 2020 and 2022, Belize’s Reef Health Index (RHI) experienced a decline from 3.0 to 2.0, transitioning from a fair to poor rating, marking a departure from its previous trend of improvement. Over the last two years, the country’s reefs have, according to the reef health survey, experienced “the largest fish declines yet recorded.”
What’s more, while coral cover has marginally increased by 1% since 2020, concerns persist over the composition of corals. The decline of larger, reef-building species, such as boulders and brains, poses a significant threat, exacerbated by the impact of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which has been confirmed as far south as Ranguana Caye as of August 2022. Fleshy Macroalgae, though showing a 1% decrease, remains in poor condition.
Over the past 15 years, Belize has taken substantial conservation measures, including the full protection of parrotfish, expansion of multiple Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), revision of the Fisheries Act, and the implementation of rights-based Managed Access. However, the effectiveness of these initiatives hinges on enforcement and compliance.
The COVID-19 pandemic, starting in March 2020, brought about movement restrictions, a complete shutdown of the tourism industry, and widespread job losses in Belize. This economic downturn prompted increased fishing for livelihoods and subsistence, impacting marine resources. The challenges of deploying enforcement officers and budget reductions further strained effective management responses.
A WCS study in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve between 2020–2021 revealed significant shifts in average catch sizes during the pandemic, with decreases in lobster carapace length and conch meat weight compared to the eight years preceding the pandemic. Larger snapper species were often caught below their reproductive length.
As you can see, things are not looking great the neotropics diving Mecca.
Northern Central Barrier Complex – Gladden Spit MPA and surrounding areas
The northern part of the Central Barrier Reef–places like the Gladden Spit Marine Protected Area and the surrounding keys west of Turneffe Atoll–appears to feature the healthiest marine ecosystems in the country.
Here, coral cover and herbivorous fish biomass remain good or very good, while fleshy macroalgae cover remains low. Commercial fish levels here, however, as they are everywhere, are poor.
Places like Gladden Spit MPA remain one of the best places in the Caribbean to see Whale Sharks (from March to June).
Honduras, particularly exemplified by Roatán, showcases a noteworthy state of marine health with the highest herbivorous fish biomass in the country and the second highest in the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), following Cozumel. Roatán’s success is attributed to enhanced enforcement measures.
Meanwhile, Utila and Guanaja, scoring ‘Good’ and ‘Fair’ respectively for herbivorous fish biomass, have implemented community-driven Replenishment Zones, underlining the positive impact of sound management practices on reef health.
In terms of live coral cover, the western coast subregion of Honduras boasts the MAR’s highest at 47%. However, the national average has seen a decline from 27% to 24%, with Utila registering the lowest living coral cover at 16%. The West Coast, despite it’s high levels of coral cover, is fairing “poor” or “critical” by all other metrics.
While Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has affected all the Bay Islands, it has not yet reached the coastal reefs. Challenges persist with nutrient pollution from sewage and agriculture, coupled with a reduced parrotfish biomass, contributing to algal overgrowth.
Noteworthy improvements, such as enhanced sewage treatment exemplified by Polos Water in West End, Roatán, serve as a testament to the positive impact of localized management on water quality and macroalgae reduction.
The findings underscore the complex interplay between effective management, biodiversity, and environmental resilience in Honduras’ marine ecosystems.
Because of institutional and grassroots conservation efforts, Roatan is still a good place along the Mesoamerican Reef to see endangered green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles, eagle rays, nurse, reef and hammerhead sharks (as well as the occasional whale shark), and macro critters like frogfish, seahorses, and nudibranchs.
Utila is the most diminutive of the major Bay Islands and is less developed than neighbouring Roatan. More than 100 wall, cave and cavern dive sites dot the sheltered southern coast. Utila also remains the best place in Honduras to see whale sharks.
Depending on how you look at it, Guanaja is either the start or the end point of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Offering an attractive mix of wreck diving, vertical walls, pinnacles and lava tunnels, Guanaja is home to some of the healthiest reefs on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and the entire Caribbean.
A fantastic place to observe rare black coral and well-known for pelagics like manta rays, spotted eagle rays, schools of barracuda, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks and dolphins, the southside of Guanaja retains good coral cover along with large herbivorous fish biomass and macroalgae cover that, in several areas, is still in check.
Why no Guatemala?
I left Guatemala out of the analysis because, quite frankly, Guatemala’s small sliver of Caribbean coastline is, at least for now, not worth it when there are far better MAR locales.
From 2020 to 2022, Guatemala’s reef health score fell from 2.0 to 1.8–the lowest ever. Macroalgae is at critical levels, commercial fish biomass is plummeting and, because of the suspension of all fishing regulations during the pandemic, herbivorous fish levels are once again on the decline.
Wrapping up: cause for hope
Several organizations, including UNAM-Coralium, Secore International, CRIAP-INAPESCA, Xcaret Aquarium, Amigos de Isla Contoy, MAR Fund, and HRI, collaborated on a groundbreaking initiative as part of the Mexican Action Plan against Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD).
The project involved the establishment of a coral gene bank, aiming to rescue and maintain coral colonies. After two years, the initiative has successfully rescued 47 colonies from seven affected species, cryopreserved gametes from five species, fertilized over 12,000 larvae, and reintroduced 350 recruits to the reef. These significant strides in coral conservation offer hope for future restoration efforts.
In response to escalating threats and shrinking budgets for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), managers are increasingly engaging local communities in core activities. In Quintana Roo, Mexico, community-based Brigades have been formed, comprising local individuals trained by experts to contribute to surveillance, monitoring, first response, and restoration efforts.
This collaborative approach enhances the intervention capacity of MPAs and promotes shared responsibility for marine conservation.
Belize, recognizing the importance of its natural resources, has undertaken substantial efforts for ocean conservation. A historic Blue Bond financial transaction resulted in the conversion of $553 million of Belize’s national debt into a “blue loan.”
This not only generated fiscal savings but also established a $180 million endowment for long-term conservation financing. Additionally, an independent conservation fund was created, providing grants of approximately $168 million over 20 years to conservation partners.
Belize’s commitment to environmental protection is evident in recent legislative actions, including the expansion of marine reserves, protection of key species, and the revision of fisheries regulations to promote sustainability. These comprehensive measures underscore Belize’s dedication to preserving its marine ecosystems for future generations.
I hope that countries like Belize, Mexico and Honduras will continue to view their marine natural capital as integral parts of their national patrimony, economy and global civilization’s shared biosphere–natural wonders that are both intrinsically and existentially important.