In Belize, offshore atolls and islands are known as cayes (pronounced "keys"). Belize has hundreds of cayes, all of which are located on the Belize Barrier Reef,
a 185-mile long stretch of coral reef system that is the biggest in the northern hemisphere.
Each caye in Belize has its own ecology, but most of them have at least a section of mangrove forests. Mangrove trees, of which there are more than 80 different species, are unique in that they can withstand salty seawater that would kill most other plants. Mangrove trees send down tough roots under the water, and it is these roots that form a key component of marine life on the reef. Fish, mammals, amphibians and other marine life use the complex labyrinth of mangrove roots as a nursery, feeding ground, and protection from predators.
Here is a list of the most prominent cayes in Belize:Ambergris Caye
The largest island in Belize, Ambergris Caye
was once connected to the mainland, but the ancient Maya separated it by digging a large, navigable channel. Today, Ambergris Caye is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belize, renowned for its seafood restaurants, luxury hotels and resorts
, and proximity to some of the top diving and snorkeling spots on the reef.Caye Caulker
Often thought of as Ambergris Caye's little sister, Caye Caulker is only a short distance away as the crow flies but another world when it comes to ambiance. Popular with budget travelers and backpackers
, Caye Caulker is a popular choice for divers and snorkelers. Both Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker can be easily reached from Belize City by boat in less than an hour, and both islands have an airstrip.Glover's Reef
Located on the outer reaches of the barrier reef, the island is named for an infamous English pirate that once used the area as a staging ground for raids on Spanish galleons. Today, Glover's Reef is a protected marine area and extremely popular with divers.Tobacco Caye
Once used to grow tobacco, today, Tobacco Caye is known for being a postcard-perfect image of what a tropical island should look like. Today, Tobacco Caye is inside the South Water Caye Marine Reserve and a popular staging point for divers wishing to explore the southern part of the reef. Tobacco Caye is located approximately 10 miles offshore of Dangriga in southeastern Belize.South Water Caye
Relatively small compared to other islands, South Water Caye is now in the center of the largest marine conservation area in Belize. Today, the island is famous for its gorgeous beaches and proximity to popular snorkeling
and dive sites
.Lighthouse Reef Atoll
One of just three atolls outside the Atlantic Ocean, Lighthouse Reef is the epicenter of professional diving in Belize. Atolls are ring-shaped formations of coral that have a lagoon in the center. Lighthouse Reef Atoll's claim to fame is that its lagoon is home to the Great Blue Hole, sometimes known as the Belize Blue Hole, which was explored in 1971 by Jacques Cousteau, the legendary documentarian, naturalist, and marine biologist. Cousteau declared that the sunken labyrinths of the Great Blue Hole, actually the interior of a cave system that flooded tens of thousands of year ago, to be amongst his top 10 favorite dive sites in the world.