Belize is home to three types of mangrove; the red (Rhizophora mangle), the black(Avicennia germinans), the white (Laguncalaria racemosa), and a subspecies known as Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus). Mangroves cover 3.4% of Belize’s land and border much of the 386 kilometre coastline and cayes of the country.
According to mangrove ecologist Candy Feller of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre, the growth in size of mangroves here depends largely neither on the salt content, nor the age. She draws this insight from one of her studies on Twin Cayes. At a distance of a few metres, trees as high as a house grow next to dwarf plants of the same age. Apparently it is the nutritional content of the site that makes such differences. A mangrove forest south of Hopkins is said to be one of the most magnificent in the whole of the Caribbean as the Committee River flows nearby bringing rich nutrients to the fresh water, allowing the trees to develop into 20 metres high towers. But sadly, nearby, you can see neatly stacked firewood, dead roots and charred stumps.
Despite legislation protecting the mangroves of Belize, their overall cover is decreasing due to the expanding developments including hotels and resorts. Mass tourism continues to be on the rise as more wetland areas continue to be cleared to accommodate the rise in tourists.
Christian Ziegler, a tropical ecologist and natural history photojournalist, is one of this year’s judges for the Mangrove Photography Awards. He has spent much time in mangroves around the world and enjoys these habitats that provide nurseries and shelter for marine life.
Christian shared some of his photos from the Belizean mangroves as we take a look, through the three life zones of the mangrove as described in GEO magazine.
The top is the canopy. Boas curl up in the branches, lie in wait for birds that nest here and begin fishing trips from the overlapping branches. You may see salt crystals on the surface of the leaves as the black mangrove pushes the salt out through special pores.
Below the treetops are the roots : In the section that is regularly flooded, mussels and barnacles cling to it. Prop roots make mangroves appear as though they’re on stilts and with them the tree finds support in the mud. Pneumatophores help the tree gain access to oxygen even when the roots are partially submerged under water.
The underwater world . The richest room. Algae, sponges and sea anemones envelop the stilt roots. Lobsters, shrimps and boxfish feed on this coat made of organic material. Shoals of tiny fish float past like glittering clouds. Barely a metre away from the mangroves, in the direction of the open sea, the swarm suddenly stops.