A rainbow-hued parrot fish nibbles on a veined purple sea fan in the tranquil waters of Belize’s barrier reef, the largest in the western hemisphere.
But the fish stays well away from a large patch of dying coral, a white skeleton amid the bright colors of spectacular ocean life along the coast.
Much of the 200 miles of Belize’s coral reef has been “bleached” in the last decade and some scientists warn it is likely to die, a victim of global warming.
Reefs around the world are in peril with people damaging the delicate ecosystems and endangering some 1 million species of animals and plants that call the coral home.
Scientists estimate over 27 percent of the world’s coral has been permanently lost and at current rates of destruction, another 30 percent will disappear over the next three decades.
Reefs across the Caribbean have been hit particularly hard, making them vulnerable to deadly diseases.
Greenhouse gas emissions raise the sea surface temperature and increase the acidity of the ocean, hurting the reef, said Melanie McField from the World Wildlife Fund in Belize City, and the damage is almost impossible to control.
“Other effects of development like pollution and over-fishing are caused by locals and can be mitigated. But with bleaching nothing is off limits,” she said.
Half wiped out in 1998
Belize lost nearly half of its reef, a World Heritage Site, in 1998 when global warming and the “El Nino” weather phenomenon combined to cause the highest sea temperatures ever recorded worldwide.
Experts say 16 percent of the world’s coral was wiped out that year and the damage was made even worse off this Central American nation by Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged the reef with huge waves and covered it with silt and sand.
In July, environmental organizations petitioned the World Heritage Committee to sanction big greenhouse gas emitters harming reefs in Belize and Australia and speeding the melting of glacier parks in Nepal, Peru and the Rockies.
The United States fought the measure and the U.N. body put off labeling the sites as endangered, a title usually reserved for monuments threatened by wars.
Reefs, often called the rainforests of the ocean, are home to over a quarter of all marine life in the world, even though they cover less than one percent of the ocean floor.
In Belize, a dip of a snorkel mask into the crystal clear water reveals black and yellow striped angel fish, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks and sea turtles all bobbing along in the mild current.
Found in tropical and subtropical oceans, the reefs depend on algae called zooxanthellae to give them nutrients and brilliant color.
“Even a slight increase in water temperature disrupts the relationship between the coral animal and the algae,” said Richard Aronson a marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.
“The coral actually pukes out 90 or 95 percent of the algae and those that are left are ill,” said Aronson, who studies the bleaching of coral reefs worldwide. With no algae to sustain them, the coral basically starves to death, he said.
The coral can recover by taking up new algae from the surrounding water but if temperatures stay high and the coral stays “stressed”, it can become vulnerable to disease and die.
“It’s like a boxing match,” say McField. “You can get hit by one big pow that knocks you out or you can be punched over and over again until you go down.”
Tiny islands, like the cayes of Belize, suffer the brunt of global climate change, said Kenrick Leslie the director of a regional climate monitoring center in Belize’s capital, Belmopan.
“The United States contributes more than 25 percent of the greenhouses gases in the world while Caribbean islands produced altogether less than 0.1 percent. But we are suffering the major impacts,” said Leslie.
Many islands like the idyllic Caye Caulker, a sliver of sand just four and a half miles long and 40 minutes by boat taxi from Belize City through a floating mangrove forest, are completely dependent on tourism for survival.
On Caye Caulker, motorized golf carts circle its three sandy streets lined with clapboard guest houses and lobster restaurants.
Tor Bjuland, a brawny blonde medical student, traveled for almost two days from his home in Norway to snorkel here and see a school of electric blue hamlets swim by or a spotted moray eel peak its head out of a crevasse.
“In Norway, it used to snow all year round, which is good for skiing. Now the snow melts early and we have to find somewhere else to go on vacation,” he said, pointing out global warming’s perils for both arctic and tropical climates.
Close to a third of Belize’s 230,000 tourists last year visited the Hol Chan Marine reserve, a coral reef park near the cayes. Income from fishing and travelers is a lifeline for poor residents.
“If the coral disappears, we’ll have to see what else we can do,” said Carlos Ayala a 40-year-old guide with his own boat and tour company who has taught groups about the reef wildlife for 15 years. “It’s hard to imagine.”