Looking for Nemo? Then head to the Belize. Home to countless lagoons, mangrove swamps, and deltas, as well as the second largest barrier reef system in the world, the country’s Caribbean coast is like a Pixar movie come to life. You can find everything from crocodiles, manatees, and sea turtles to hundreds of bird, coral, sponge, and fish species. There’s so much to see, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are five great suggestions, along with tips on where to stay.

What you’ll see: Red-footed boobies, frigates, and other coastal birds
Where to stay: Turneffe Islands Atoll

This crescent-shaped, 18-hectare (45-acre) island was the first protected area in Belize and is the only red-footed booby sanctuary in the Western Hemisphere, outside of the Galápagos. Located at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef, it’s home to thousands of boobies, myriad frigates (both birds appear in the symbol for the Belize Audubon Society), and nearly a hundred other bird species, including ospreys, pelicans, and storks. A nature trail winds along the southern side of the island (be careful not to step on scuttling hermit crabs as you follow it) and leads to an observation platform where you’ll be eye to eye with nesting birds and iguanas.

What you’ll see: Whale sharks
Where to stay: Placencia

From March to June, Gladden Spit & Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (located just east of Placencia along the Belize Barrier Reef) turns into a hot spot for whale sharks and the divers and snorkelers who come to swim with them. Harmless to humans, these sharks are the largest fish in the world (they can weigh up to 15 tons) and come to Gladden Spit to fatten up on spawning fish. You can also find them—though in lesser numbers—from August to October and in December and January.

What you’ll see: Southern stingrays and nurse sharks
Where to stay: Ambergris Caye

Want to get up close and personal with a stingray or shark? Hol Chan Marine Reserve provides the opportunity for just that. Located on the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, this 17-square-kilometer (6.5-square-mile) reserve is home to the famous Shark Ray Alley, an area of sea grass that provides habitat for southern stingrays and nurse sharks, alongside of which snorkelers can swim. The reserve also comprises a narrow channel that cuts through a shallow but rich coral reef that’s home to incredible sea life, including moray eels and black groupers.

What you’ll see: Dolphins, sea turtles, crocodiles, sponges, coral, and myriad reef fish
Where to stay: Turneffe Islands Atoll

The waters around Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef Atolls are rife with life. The former comprises a ring of mangrove islands, sand flats, and shallow gardens that serve as a natural nursery for tropical fish and are home to the American crocodile. Around Turneffe’s spectacular coral formations, you’ll spot eagle rays, dolphins, sea turtles, groupers, and reef sharks. Lighthouse Reef is best-known for its Blue Hole sink cave, though it’s the area around this famous spot that really thrives with sea life. Head to dive sites like Cathedral to see incredible sponges or Aquarium, where orange and yellow sea feathers, striped parrotfish, and French angelfish abound.

What you’ll see: Manatees
Where to stay: Ambergris Caye

Belize’s waters are home to a few hundred West Indian manatees, some of which can be seen at the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary. The turtle grass that lines the ocean floor of this 3,642-hectare (9,000-acre) protected area is a magnet for manatees, which consume up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of it and other vegetation per day. Tours to Swallow Caye depart from Ambergris Caye regularly to look for these gentle animals. If you find them, remember that you can look but can’t touch—conservation laws prohibit swimming, diving, and snorkeling with manatees.

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