Cayes & Atolls of Belize

The Belize Barrier Reef is the southern portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest reef system in the Western Hemisphere.

The Belizean section extends 186 miles north to south, protecting Belize’s Caribbean Coast from high waves.

While the reef is largely submerged, numerous cayes and atolls break the surface.

A sailboat docked on a leisure tour of Caye Caulker in Belize

A caye (pronounced “key“) is a low-elevation island formed on the surface of a coral reef.

Belize is home to dozens of cayes and three major atolls–coral islands encircling lagoons. Among the most famous cayes and atolls are:

Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker, 20 miles northeast of Belize City and 10 miles south of Ambergris, is a narrow island ringed with mangroves and a thin strip of gleaming sand.

Caye Caulker’s only town, located on the southern half of the island, offers basic accommodation and diving tours.

Multi-day sailing charters are also available.

Scuba Diving Expeditions

Near the island, you can dive among shipwrecks, sponge gardens, and coral caves.

A rainbow over the straw roof of and ocean surrounding an overwater bungalow in Belize

Day trips are also available to the Lighthouse Reef (site of the Great Blue Hole) and Turneffe atolls.

Flights between Caye Caulker and Belize City or Ambergris are available.

Glover’s Reef Atoll

Glover’s Reef Atoll, 45 miles west of the mainland, this is the most remote Belizean atoll.

It’s also a national marine reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The atoll’s central lagoon is famous for its wall dive sites—nearly fifty miles of them ranging in depth from 25 to 2,700 feet.

A school of Chub, photographed underwater on a scuba diving expedition in Belize

Its 700 patch reefs offer snorkelers the chance to swim among coral gardens with sea turtles.

Laughing Bird Caye

Located 11 miles east of Placencia, Laughing Bird Caye National Park takes its name from the Laughing Gulls (Larus artricilla) that used to nest here.

This caye is part of an elongated ridge of reef known as a faro (“fah-ro”) or shelf atoll.

The west or lagoon side of Laughing Bird Faro contains colonies of lettuce, boulder star, and fire coral; sponges; and sea stars.

Sanderling shorebird by the water at the beach, photographed on a birding tour of Belize

Here you can dive and snorkel with angelfish, bottle-nosed dolphins, and trumpet fish.


Turneffe is the largest of Belize’s three atolls.

Divers are drawn here by steep walls, numerous caves and the wreck of the Sayonara.

Sportfishing is an added attraction, with flats fishing for permit, tarpon, snook, and bonefish.

Lighthouse Reef Atoll

Twelve miles east of Turneffe (62 miles from Belize City), sits the majestic Lighthouse Reef Atoll, one of the world’s top dive sites.

A hammock tied to two palm trees on the beach in Belize

The atoll contains approximately fifty miles of wall and reef diving, with crystal clear visibility.

The Great Blue Hole, near the center of the atoll, is a collapsed limestone cave nearly 1,000 feet across and 410 feet deep.

Here you can dive with giant groupers and several species of shark.

Half Moon Caye

Half Moon Caye National Monument, at the southeast end of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, is a spectacular wall dive site.

This caye is also a nesting ground for the Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) and the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens).

Turquoise blue caribbean water ofThe Barrier Reef in Belize, the second largest in the World. Photographed on private travel in Belize

Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) lay their eggs on the cay’s beaches.

South Water Caye

Just north of Laughing Bird, the enormous South Water Caye Marine Reserve protects numerous cayes, including:

  • Carrie Bow
  • Man-O-War
  • Tobacco
  • Wee Wee

South Water Caye also features numerous seagrass beds, shallow coral reefs, and vertical walls.

Sea turtles and eagle rays are common here. Harlequin bass, barracuda, moray eels, and dolphins can also be observed.

A firey red and yellow sunset over the ocean, photographed on a family vacation to Belize

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