BlueWild in partnership with TASA (Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association)
Discover Turneffe Atoll

The Wildlife of Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve

Turneffe Atoll is a biodiversity hotspot with an abundance of iconic, important and threatened species. Which Turneffe Atoll wildlife will you see? 

Our shortlist of must-see wildlife

Turneffe Atoll is an amazing biodiversity hotspot, with something new to see every time you dive or snorkel. That’s thanks to its status as a Marine Protected Area, and the amazing variety of habitats that can be found there. With mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds and a mosaic of flats, creeks, and lagoons, it’s no surprise that Turneffe Atoll is one of the most abundant wildlife ecosystems in Belize, if not the entire Caribbean.

The Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve is home to a staggering array of wildlife, on land, in the air and of course beneath the waves – as you explore the many different habitats that make up Turneffe Atoll you’ll encounter species you recognise and others that will be new to you. Each species has its own niche and role in the Turneffe ecosystem, and we’ve also classified them as ‘Iconic’, ‘Important’ or ‘Threatened’ so that you can learn more about them before you meet them.

We can’t introduce you to every species you might encounter, but here’s our guide to some of the true stars of the Turneffe Atoll ecosystem – the creatures we believe you’ll most want to see, and to learn more about. 

Important Species

Important species are the species that play a pivotal role in the ecosystem of Turneffe Atoll; the creatures that many other species depend on.

Iconic Species

Iconic species are must-see creatures that have an undeniable wow factor. You will want to keep a look out for these during your visit to Turneffe Atoll

Threatened Species

Species that are most dependent on the habitat provided by Turneffe Atoll and the protection afforded by the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA)

Nassau Grouper

Iconic

A bold and curious fish that often approaches divers. They are territorial, which means that you may get to meet the same fish many times if you know where to look. They have even been known to guide divers through the reef!

Important

Nassau Groupers are a great sign of a healthy ecosystem. As a large reef predator, this species helps control the numbers of smaller fish.

Threatened

Due to habitat loss – especially their vital spawning sites – Nassau Groupers are now considered critically endangered throughout their range. TASA is participating in vital research to help save this species and ensure that local fishermen can still catch them on a sustainable basis.

More About Nassau Groupers

Nassau groupers are one of the largest species of bony fish found in Turneffe. They can grow up 2.1m (7 feet) and can weigh up to 14kg (30lb). They can change their colours and markings, from tawny and striped in shallow water to reddish orange in deeper water. To feed, the Nassau Grouper uses its large mouth to engulf squid, smaller reef fishes, shrimp and small lobsters. Juveniles hide in seagrass beds and shallow reefs until they grow to become one of the largest, most iconic reef fish of Turneffe Atoll.

Nassau groupers create a powerful suction to draw in small animals and hold them using thousands of small before swallowing them whole.

Midnight Parrotfish

Important

The Midnight Parrotfish is a keystone species on Turneffe Atoll, meaning that it can shape its habitat to meet its needs. Parrotfish use their beaks to scrape algae off corals, and to break off chunks of coral – you can actually hear them do this! As they graze, they allow light to reach the symbiotic algae in coral tissue and prevent fleshy algae could outcompete the growth of reef-building corals. 

Threatened

Midnight Parrotfish are well camouflaged and prefer deeper waters, so they can be hard to spot, despite their relatively large size (which also makes them a target for fishermen). This means that we can’t be sure how well they are doing as a species, but parrotfish are protected in Belize, so we hope that they’re populations are recovering.

More About Midnight Parrotfish

Midnight parrotfish wrap themselves in a cloak of mucus when they sleep in crevices in the reef. It’s believed that this keeps them safe from infections, and makes it harder for predators to smell them.

Rainbow Parrotfish

Iconic

Rainbow Parrotfish are known for their bright colours. This species is truly spectacular and is bound to put a smile on your face when you see them.

Important

Rainbow Parrotfish sometimes eat coral as they graze away harmful algae, changing the shape of the reef and allowing coral species to thrive without the algae blocking out the light. High densities of Rainbow Parrotfish are a sure sign of a healthy coral reef ecosystem.

Threatened

The large size and preferred habitat of the Rainbow Parrotfish makes it an important species for local fishermen, and they are often targeted by spearfishers due to their bold nature and bright coloration. Juveniles live in shallow reefs and mangroves – habitats that are vulnerable to human activities. 

More About Rainbow Parrotfish

Without parrotfish, we might not have Turneffe Atoll’s gorgeous white sand beaches! The coral they break off is excreted as sand, and then washed ashore.

Caribbean Reef Shark

Iconic

The Caribbean reef shark is one of the most common shark species on Turneffe’s reefs, and can be seen cruising the outer edges of reef drop offs and in the deep water below. If you’re lucky, one might appear over the reef to take a closer look at you. Although the Caribbean reef shark is not generally aggressive towards humans, it’s a powerful fish that should be treated with respect. Some individuals are curious and will approach divers, while others are much more wary of humans.

Important

Like other large predators, the Caribbean Reef Shark is essential for maintaining reef health by controlling populations of smaller fish. The presence of these sharks is considered a good sign of the health of a marine ecosystem.

More About Caribbean Reef Sharks

Caribbean reef sharks are great dancers, but beware – their “threat dance” is actually a display of aggression designed to tell other sharks or even divers that they are aggravated. Watch for rapid forward rotations of the pectoral fins combined with a zig-zag swimming pattern, and give a shark space if you see this behaviour.

Caribbean Spiny Lobster

Iconic

The Caribbean spiny lobster is one of the most economically important species for fisherman in Belize, including at Turneffe Atoll. It’s an important ingredient in local cuisine (yes, it’s delicious).

Important

These lobsters are a culturally important marine resource for Belizeans, and many fishermen rely on them as their primary source of income. TASA is working with local fishermen to develop a sustainable lobster fishery, including establishing a minimum legal size for harvesting (typically the size they have reached at about two years old).

More About Caribbean Spiny Lobsters

The Caribbean Spiny Lobster is one many species that begin their lives in the seagrass nurseries, and move out to coral reefs as adults, making them ambassadors for both habitats. Lobsters provide food for large predatory fish and octopus. They mostly eat mollusks, but also help to keep the seabed clean by consuming detritus, algae and dead fish.

All lobsters molt as they grow – the Caribbean Spiny Lobster will molt 25 times before they reach the age of seven, and continue to molt 2-3 times per year (Williams, 1984). They can live for about 15 years.

Antillean Manatee

Iconic

Manatees and dugongs are the only fully herbivorous marine mammals. The coastline and offshore atolls of Belize has the largest remaining population of Antillean Manatees in the world. Turneffe Atoll provides one of the most important refuges for this iconic species.

Important

Manatees are a major tourism drawcard – seeing one manatee in the mangroves or seagrasses is often the highlight of a trip to Turneffe.

Threatened

The Antillean Manatee is considered endangered throughout its range, with the IUCN estimating that numbers will continue to decline unless we act. Due to their patchy and fragmented populations, Antillean Manatees are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss and coastal disturbance. 

More About Antillean Manatees

Antillean Manatees reproduce very slowly, and while they are no longer hunted, they are threatened by rising sea temperatures (they have very specific habitat requirements) and by accidental collisions with boats.

Antillean Manatees spend so much time chewing their food that their teeth are constantly being replaced, like a conveyor belt.

American Saltwater Crocodile

Iconic

Turneffe Atoll is one of the most important nesting sites for the American Saltwater Crocodile, a species you may not have heard of, but which will give you a real thrill if you see one swimming in the open water. These crocodiles have slender, V-shaped snouts and are lighter coloured than alligators. They tend to be solitary. American Saltwater crocodiles can grow very large, with males reaching lengths of 4.8 – 7m (16 – 23ft), although females tend to be significantly smaller.

Threatened

Across Belize, the population of American Saltwater Crocodiles was estimated at just 1,000 in 2011, with the highest concentration of nests occurring at Turneffe Atoll. TASA has high level protection in place to ensure the long-term survival of this species. Turneffe Atoll is an important breeding ground – from here, juvenile crocodiles spread to other parts of the coastline, helping to keep populations genetically diverse.

More About American Saltwater Crocodiles

Crocodiles really do produce tears, but not because they’re feeling sad. Instead, it’s to keep their eyes lubricated if they have to spend long periods out of the water.

Great Hammerhead Shark

Iconic

At least three of the seven species of hammerhead shark are found in Belize’s waters, but the most iconic is the Great Hammerhead Shark. It is the largest hammerhead, growing up to 6m (20ft) in length and can weigh up to 270kg (600lb).

Important

This species is a major predator, and feeds crustaceans, stingrays, fish and even other sharks. In this way, it helps to control the numbers of other species around Turneffe Atoll.

Threatened

The Great Hammerhead Shark is globally endangered due to the shark fin trade and accidental bycatch. This species has a long gestation rate and only breeds once every two years, so populations take a long time to recover from overfishing.

More About Great Hammerhead Sharks

This shark is sometimes seen cruising in the distance while diving along the deep walls of Turneffe, making for rare but exciting periodic sightings. Great Hammerhead Sharks tend to be solitary, unlike other hammerheads which are often found in schools. 

All sharks have gel-filled pores on the underside of their snouts that allow them to pick up electromagnetic signals. The great hammerhead has extra surface area on the bottom of its head to find stingrays buried in the sand. 

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Iconic

Turneffe is visited by three different species of sea turtle, but the hawksbill is always a crowd favourite. During mating season, hawksbills will become bold and approach divers, but they can be seen year-round. They always make for an exciting sighting! 

Important

By clearing away sponges and algal cover, they promote reef biodiversity by allowing other species to grow in their place. The beaches of Turneffe are also important nesting sites that need to be protected for future generations.

Threatened

Hawksbills were historically hunted for meat and for their shells, which were used as ornaments and sold as souvenirs. As well as ongoing illegal hunting, the main threats nowadays are becoming entangled in nets and disturbance of nesting beaches by coastal development.

More About Hawksbill Sea Turtles

Hawksbill Turtles are named for the pointed beak they use to feed on sponges and jellyfish.

Because Hawksbill Turtles reproduce very slowly, range over large areas, and depend on specific beaches for nesting, populations can find it very difficult to recover once they have been exploited by humans. Female hawksbills return to the same nesting beach where they themselves hatched to lay their own eggs. It’s believed that they use ocean currents, sand grain size and beach gradients to make sure it’s the right beach.

Spotted Eagle Ray

Iconic

Turneffe is home to a large population of Spotted Eagle Rays that can be seen gliding above the reefs and seagrass beds. This graceful ray is real treat to see on a dive or snorkel, or from a boat when they leap out of the water. The best place to see Spotted Eagle Rays at Turneffe is on our Underwater Trail where seagrass meets shallow reef. They can be seen alone or in pairs, mostly in the morning or evening when they’re hunting for crustaceans and mollusks.

More About Spotted Eagle Rays

Spotted Eagle Rays are known to jump out of the water. We’re not quite sure why, but it could be to remove parasites, to help females escape unwanted attention from males, or simply for fun!

Queen Conch

Iconic

The Queen Conch is a type of sea snail that can live up to 30 years. It is immediately recognisable and affirms the important cultural values held by Belizeans concerning the ocean.

Important

The Queen Conch is one of the most economically important species for Belizeans. The conch fishery provides food and income for the traditional fishers of Turneffe Atoll. Fishers dive in the seagrass looking for conch using only a mask and fins and bring their catch back to small canoes. Some traditional fishers will spend up to a week at sea diving for Queen Conch while they sleep and cook on their sailboats.

More About The Queen Conch

Not only does the Queen Conch provide an important food source for humans, but the Queen Conch also provide food for crabs, turtles, sharks and rays. The Queen Conch is a herbivore, eating algae on the surface and decaying material, helping to keep the ocean clean. The shells may also be sold as souvenirs.

Though the outside of the conch’s shell is sandy coloured to blend into its environment, the inside of the shell is bright pink with hints of yellow. Talk about interior decoration!

Nurse Shark

Iconic

Nurse Sharks are known for their friendly and curious attitude towards divers. Almost like puppies, Turneffe’s Nurse Sharks will tag along with divers or pay a visit to snorkelers on our Underwater Trail. Some of our Nurse Sharks even have names, such as Cuddles, who can be seen on Calabash Wall.

Important

Shark species that are generally not aggressive – like Nurse Sharks – are a big draw for divers. The Nurse Shark has very small teeth and clamp-like jaws for crushing crustaceans, and helps to maintain the balance of the Turneffe Atoll ecosystem.

More About Nurse Sharks

These slow-moving sharks can often be seen resting at the bottom or under ledges on reefs. Though they are curious towards divers, there is no reason to be alarmed if one approaches you (although it always pays to be respectful).

Nurse sharks are suction feeders and can literally suck Queen Conch out of its shell.

An identification guide to Turneffe's wildlife

There is, of course, a lot more wildlife in the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve than our shortlist of Important, Iconic, and Threatened species. To help you identify the species your spotting when diving, snorkeling, or boating around Turneffe we’ve created an identification guide with a collection of wildlife you’re likely to see. 

Sightings calendar for Turneffe's wildlife

In a wilderness environment, wildlife moves according to seasonal patterns, migrations, breeding behaviours, because of changes in food resources, and in some cases for reasons we don’t completely understand. To give you a better idea of when you’ll have the best chance at seeing the iconic animals you love best, we’ve compiled a monthly sighting calendar.

Learn more

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