Tuesday, May 21, 2013

We're on "Island Time," Mon!

Day 9: May 9, 2013
We arrived in Caye Caulker yesterday and it could not be any more different than where we were residing for the last week. Instead of being 4 hours away from civilization we are right in the heart of tourist country. Even though the island of Caye Caulker is a hit tourist destination, I still feel very much so apart of a different lifestyle. I have never been to the Keys before, but a lot of people were comparing the island to that. I assume any island comes with its’ usual daily montage of “Live slowly” and that’s completely fine by me! I feel as if I belong on an island. One of the ship captains who took us out today kept calling me a mermaid because he said I swam so well. It’s interesting because I have always had this affinity towards the ocean and I moved to Florida to embrace that…however, Caye Caulker’s pristine waters are far beyond anything I anticipated seeing. The water is so crystal clear and just the perfect temperature. Our class went out snorkeling today and the marine biologists who were aiding us for the day showed us techniques to quickly estimate sizes of fishes and corals. After we brushed up on our measurements we took out to the water to run the transect line and try and identify as many juvenile fish and corals as we could. We were able to identify Brain Coral, Fire Coral, Fan Coral, Staghorn Coral, and Lettuce Coral; as well as identifying several kinds of juvenile Tang fish, a Barracuda, Butterfly fish, Green Moray Eel and several Damsel fish. I could not get enough of snorkeling this morning, however, I had to sit out the afternoon because I wasn’t feeling well. I can’t wait to check out my underwater videos!
Heather, Sam, Abbey and Mike upon our arrival

Day 10: May 10, 2013
Coconut tree
After breakfast at Wish Willy’s everyone headed to the pier to hop on the boat yet again today. Instead of spending most of our time in the water we dedicated the day to visiting an island which used to be an old coconut plantation which was deserted. Now the island houses a building for FAMRACC, or the Forest and Marine Reserves Association of Caye Caulker. 
The people who work for this association have been studying the mangroves on the island for years and are working to help restore the damage that was done in 2002 by a strong hurricane. I was completely in awe at how overgrown the coconut trees had become on the island and learned that coconut trees literally grow out of a coconut on the ground. 
We also got a chance to hop in the boat and relocate to the seagrasses to acquire some practice at counting seagrass species in plots.

Day 11: May 11, 2013
Today turned out to be a bit disorganized and slightly disappointing. I was looking forward to observing the local tour guides and watching to see how the overlook a group of snorkelers. However, because we returned our snorkel gear the day before we weren’t able to watch the snorkelers as well as we’d have liked. We basically had to just look out to see if the guides were supplying the guests with life vests, making sure too many weren’t on the boat as well as in the water, and also to make sure they weren’t doing anything illegal. 

The other portion of the day was supposed to be centered around food management within the hotels and the fisheries department. Unfortunately, when my group was out in the water the other group was inspecting the restaurant and when we switched the restaurant refused to let our second group return to the hotel as planned. Instead we headed to the fishing pier, which was also closed. From there we met up with a local fisherman who was cutting up some live Conch. Ali spoke with us about fishing regulations and the legalities and how lax the whole system is. We all then took a bite out of the freshly cut raw Conch and it was surprisingly good. Lindsay and Mike braved to eat a tendon and although they said it wasn’t too bad I have pictures of their faces to indicate otherwise. J

Day 12: May 12, 2013
Today was Abbey’s birthday and since we didn’t have any plans until the evening a small group of us decided to relax on the beach for the afternoon. There was a lot of laughs and some great friends that I met on this trip and today just made it that much better.
Sam, Lindsay, Me and Abbey striking our
"Sorority" poses

After dinner at Wish Willy’s our class met up with the Vice President and office manager in charge of Friends of Swallow Caye. They are a non-profit organization designed to help out the manatees that reside in the waters around Swallow Caye. We watched a presentation and asked several questions about what they do and what they need to improve. It is nice to see that local schools are contributing by sending students out to help post signs and spread the word about the friendly manatees.

Day 13: May 13, 2013
Sam, Lina and Alex relaxing

Today is our free day and since I didn’t really get a free day at Las Cuevas I am taking full advantage of mine in Caye Caulker. Lindsay and I walked down the street and signed up for an all day snorkel trip. We went to four locations: Hol-Chan Park, Shark Ray Alley, Coral Gardens and a special bonus location. As we trailed the northern coast of the barrier reef we saw Nurse sharks, Sea turtles, humungous stingrays, a ton of large adult fish such as Black Grouper, Snapper, Jacks which would not stop following us, Parrotfish, a manatee and tons more fish that I don’t think I could finish listing. It was the day that made my whole vacation.
Only Lindsay and I wanted to go out that day but I was so floored by the beauty of the reef and couldn’t imagine spending my last day in Belize doing anything other than swimming in the Caribbean Sea.

Day 14: May 14, 2013
Lindsay, Me and Abbey (my twin)
We are finally leaving Belize. It is bittersweet for me. I know everyone is reaching their breaking points and is missing their families, friends and civilization, but this trip has opened my eyes. I got to experience field work which is actually done in the field. I was able to learn from professionals and hear them say how they make mistakes but if you take your time and sometimes re-do what you already did then it will be worth it in the end. All of our hard work paid off in the end. Most of us arrived in Belize as strangers and I know I made 12 new friends.

Sunset at Caye Caulker
 I intend to keep in touch with everyone I met and maybe some more than others, but these memories will be ones that I will never forget. I know I said it before but I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to go to another country with. I plan to use the skills I’ve learned, as well as the lessons. I know now that if I needed to relocate to a country for work, there is something that can be done anywhere. The people who work these jobs are in this for the passion, that much is clear. The amount of care and dedication that Boris for instance, puts into his work is extremely inspirational and I hope someday to dedicate myself that much to something I love dearly. And who knows, maybe I’ll return to Belize someday. 

Now it’s time for a boat ride, bus ride, and two plane rides before I can use my cell phone again to tell my family and friends about all of my adventures. J

Caye Caulker: Days 9-14

Day 8: 08 May 2013
We had another long bus ride today. Even though I am really stoked about learning what Caye Caulker has to offer, I am sad to leave the Chiquibul. I learned so much there about biodiversity, natural resource management, and I really enjoyed experiencing the ecosystem unlike any I had ever seen before. 
The marine part of this trip has started off really well! We were able to enjoy a Bellikin, the Belizean beer, while waiting for our water taxi to the Caye. The rest of the day was left for getting settled into our hotel, which is better than I had anticipated btw, and acclimating to the salty sea air!

Day 9:
AMAZING!! We enjoyed an entire day on, and in, the water. I’ve been snorkeling in Key West, but this was so much better! We identified sever species of corals: lettuce coral, brain coral, fire coral, fan coral, and staghorn coral, to name a few. We also were able to identify sever species of reef fish: damsel, banded butterfly, blue tang (a.k.a. “Dory” from Finding Nemo), parrot, a green moray eel and even a barracuda!
We also learned the methodology that is used in the Marine Preserve to make estimates about the fish and coral population on the reef. First, we made a pass over the transect line set up and identified all the juvenile fish we could see. The second pass, we identified the adult fish we were able to see and estimated the size of the adult fish. On the last pass over, we identified as many corals as we could, making note of a rough percentage of which ones showed signs of bleaching.

Day 10:
Today was the day for mangrove and sea grass ecology. The organization FAMRACC on Caye Caulker manages the littoral forest preserve on the north end on the split on the Caye. They are in charge of mangrove restoration through propagation. This is a very time consuming and resource intensive project and I admire the commitment and dedication of the leaders and students/ other volunteers that participate in the restoration project. We were able to use some of what we learned from Boris in the Chiquibul about calculating species density in a quadrant here. Thanks to Boris, we all felt like old pro’s by this time. Boris made us re-do our plots until they were right.

Day 11:
Today was more policy centered and I have to admit, I was a bit uninterested. We got on to a small boat with one of the Preserve rangers. His job includes monitoring the tour boats and snorkelers on the tours and fishermen to make sure they aren’t destroying the reef or doing really anything unsafe or illegal. I imagine that this is a ridiculously difficult job seeing as how the Preserve is something over 100 square miles.  We “sneak up” (lol) on a boat with about eight snorkelers in the water around the boat. We watch for a bit to make sure that everyone has a life vest and we all get in the water and check to make sure the anchor hasn’t damaged the reef below.
After lunch, our group was supposed to enter a restaurant to make sure they didn’t have any out of season catches. However, the restaurant that the other group toured in the morning apparently had something they weren’t supposed to and so they did not allow us to enter the premises. Instead, we spoke with our guides about how the fishery cooperative is supposed to work, the difficulties behind prosecuting those who are caught illegally fishing, and a bit about the Queen Conch industry. The Queen Conch is listed as an endangered species but has a legal season in which it can be harvested and sold. When the quota for the season is met, the season closes. We were able to speak with a couple of gentlemen who happen to be cleaning their conch catches on the sea wall. They were kind enough to clean one for us and our group bonded by passing around the raw conch and taking a bite. Mike and I were even brave enough to eat a tendon from the conch. I found out, only AFTER having eaten the tendon, it is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh about that!

Day 12:
This evening we had a presentation about Manatee habitat preservation efforts in the area by the Friends of Swallow Caye non-profit organization. It is made up of Caye Caulker locals that have taken it into their own hands to go to great lengths to save the sub-species of the West Indian Manatee. Will Kara and I be lucky enough to see one on our snorkel trip on our free day?? We can only hope!

Day 13:
Today was our free day! Kara and I decided that we wanted to go snorkeling again. But it wasn’t at all the same as the places we had gone earlier in the week. We went to four different sites along the northern part of the reef. We headed out almost all the way to San Pedro, another and much bigger Caye, and gradually made our way back to Caye Caulker. We were able to swim with all kinds of different fish. I’m still trying to figure out which one’s. We also swan with seven different sea turtles. One of them was missing his front right flipper. He was an older tagged turtle and looked to be doing just fine. How adaptable! We also swan with tons of rays and nurse sharks! That was Kara’s favorite part… big smile on her face! We also did get to swim with one manatee! It was amazing. I have seen them from above the water in Florida, but never had one swim so close to me I could have reached out and touched him (of course I didn’t). I borrowed Mike’s underwater camera and took tons of pictures! Can’t wait to look at them!

Day 14:
We all arrived safely back in the States today. Bitter sweet. I was so glad to see my kiddos again, missed them like CRAZY!! But I really loved Belize! I learned so much in the past 14 days. The biggest lesson for me was really about myself. I learned that field work and research is what I want to do. Even battling the bugs (and there were A LOT of bugs) and the vines and the water and all the other issues that come along with being out in the field, I loved every minute of it. Now all I have to do is figure out what I want to concentrate on…. The more I learn, the less focused I seem to be in a particular area. I definitely believe that learning more about more is better than the alternative though!

Chiquibul Forest: Days 1-8

Day 1: 01 May 2013
In a few hours, I will be leaving the country for my study abroad course in Belize! This will be my first trip out of the country besides my deployment and I am thoroughly looking forward to the unforgettable experiences over the next two weeks!
After arrival: We finally arrived today. Rafael and Alberto picked us up from the airport in a yellow school bus. We had a four hour bus ride ahead of us, and what a bus ride it was. The road to Las Cuevas was a long, long, long, long bus ride. We drive through very rural towns and even more rural villages. We passed many areas that were burning, either from the villagers burning garbage or possibly from carelessness. The mountainous portion of our journey was, in one word… terrifying. We even missed a check point and were stopped by the Belizean patrol. We finally arrived at Las Cuevas Research Station about an hour after dark and I was so thankful to be off of that awful bus. We met the staff, had a presentation by the head biologist, Boris ****, and went to bed. Tomorrow we begin.

Day 2: 02 May 2013
Angela is the cook here and has proven to be worthy of immense praise for the home cooked quality, freshness and authenticity of her meals. I am eager to see what else she has in store for us.
We began the day with a short hike on “50 hectare trail.” We learned methods to determine tree height, tree dbh (diameter at breast height), and light penetration with a densiometer. We also got to look at a “soil pit” and went through a brief discussion on a soil profile for a broad-leaf forest. We ended today’s activities with a really interesting policy oriented discussion about the practice of one country paying another country to not cut down an area of forest. What should be the assigned value of a hectare of forest? How does this value get assigned and by whom? Does the money change hands through governmental agencies and/or private citizen? What constitutes “sustainable management” in a protected area? There are no real answers to these questions right now. The real issue is to learn as much as possible about a particular issues such as this one, and then make every attempt to affect change.

Day 3: 03 May 2013
I experienced one of the World Wonders today: the Mayan Ruins at Caracol Archaeological Reserve. I wish I could describe the power of the site. Such an amazing history and cultural richness in these stones. Boris, our group leader, led a discussion about the links between the political, economic, social, and environmental concerns when attempting to manage a site such as Caracol.

Day 4: 04 May 2013
Today was all about understanding how to evaluate population dynamics of an ecosystem. We did this through mist netting (the trapping of small birds), Sherman Traps (the trapping of small mammals) and the setting of camera traps in the hope to identify the large animal species in an area. The mist netting was my favorite part of the day. We got up before first light and set up two 2x10 meter nets. We learned about the reasons behind capturing birds, the limitations to mist netting, what to look for when examining a bird, and how to release a captured bird. Our group was able to capture three different bird species: the yellow-billed tyrannulet; the white-breasted wood wren; and the wood thrush. Something to look up later: Birds without Borders.

Day 5: 05 May 2013
We went to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest today. It was a completely different ecosystem than the Chiquibul. Apparently, the Caribbean Pine that dominates the pine forest used to also dominate the coastal areas and has migrated over time to some of the highest elevations in the country. This makes the species of tree very important when considering sea level rise.
We also were able to look out onto the artificial lake created by the building of the Chalillo Dam and go for a spontaneous dip in the Macal River on the way back to Las Cuevas.

Day 6: 06 May 2013
We caught a mouse in our trap today! According to Boris, “the probability of catching zero organisms: HIGH.” But we caught and were able to identify the organism as a common house mouse. The little guy had a long naked tail, wide naked ears, a grey-brown coat, and a short snout.
We also visited the cave at Las Cuevas. Pictures to come later… but it was AWESOME! We looked at a huge spider, not sure what kind, and a tiny fungus-gnat larvae. The creatures that have been able to adapt to life without light are just so cool!

Day 07: 07 May 2013
XATE!! I helped a group of students today that did a project for the trip. They had to calculate the density of the different species of xate that have a high commercial value in the floral bouquet market.
The best part of the day… the beautiful black orchid that was growing on a tree in one of our xate plots. I think I know what my next tattoo is going to be!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Science at the Caye is neat.
We snorkel and investigate reefs often, I believe for 3 days we were immersed in the underwater environment. We swam through reef systems in the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve in which time we watched the interaction of exotic fish, a moray eel, a swarm of sting rays, a nurse shark, and of course the sun---the sun got us all.

Day 1 Caye Caulker

We arrived at Caye Caulker. Day one on the Caye.
The pace of people and the social environment was 100% difference to our previous location, the chiquibul (chiq). In the chiq we had fought off bug swarms, hairy spiders, almost demonic howls from the jungle, cabin fever, bats, and the daily assault of thorns while in in the jungle. Caye Caulker was much different of social atmosphere, ecology, the people, and the inception of island freedom. After a week in the confinement of the chiq it was obvious the students were ready to relax--- So relax we did.

Today I am going to blog events from the chiquibul forest and into Caye Caulker, Belize.
The last blog I posted I believe I mentioned the river swimming near the chiquibul. I don’t have a particularly good memory these days so I will lump the days into a random order and mention a few key points of interest. In the Chiquibul (Chiq) we celebrated Kara’s birthday via bonfire and some friendly conversation with the staff at the chiq. They are extremely nice people there names are Boris, Rafael, pedro, Albert, and Angela. They took good care of us all and taught us a lot about the jungle environment as well as team work and ecological identification of multiple species of flowers, bugs, vines, trees, etc. Albert was very knowledgable on jaguars, Rafael knew a lot about navigation and plant species. Pedro took us on trails and taught us about local botany and traditional uses of different plant species. He was born and raised in the chiq so the knowledge he shared was unfiltered through the westernized mindset. Our conversations with him and other staff members were most definitely ethnographic studies. Angela was our cook the whole time we were at the chiq. She cooked us traditional yukatan and mayan meals, as she was mayan herself. Lastly there is Boris, the chief biologist on site. He was extremely knwledgable on every subject of the chiq. That includes scientific, political, financial, and social aspects of forest management. He also watches the show “Big Bang Theory”, needless to say he was an interesting leader worthy of mention.
Leaving the chiq was a relief for just about everyone in the group. I think everyone was feeling the enclosure of the chiq as well as a developing interest in what new adventure was coming up---Caye Caulker and the carribean. However, there was obviously some issue with leaving the chiq staff behind. They were an astounding people that walked at a different pace. We called them the Guardians of the Chiquibul.

DAY 1-6

Here in Belize it is 5:20 pm, 6MAY2013 and we are done for the day. Sitting on the porch of the Las Cuevas Forest Research Station. Light cloud cover, and no electricity.
The time we have spent here thus far has already been an intense experience between the culture of the people, the homemade food we have shared, the rivers we swam in, and the Mayan ruins we have explored.  The staff here  is very polite and informative with all of our studies and activities and the food they have prepared for us is genuine/traditional food of the region.
So far we have explored the nearby forest which taught us how to set transects in the jungle, proper research and data collection techniques, and most importantly we have worked on our team building skills. The group was broken into two teams of students who were charged with particular missions and parameters. The teams would create a strategy and everyone would carry out their own task for the team. This caused some disagreements among students, but for the most part students are learning to excel in not only their scientific tasks but also their critical thinking skills.
Just yesterday I noticed particular students stepping up to take charge in a foreign environment. Some students learned to work together after a disagreement and others simply followed instruction from a random leader. I noticed the leaders were learning what it’s like to take charge and not have perfect reactions from your team members. This is a good learning experience for anyone.
Another thing we learned yesterday was during our measuring activity in the Mountain Pine Forest. We had a perfect plan, strategy, and good momentum but then something happened to our system and it stopped our entire operation—a swarm of African Killer Bees flew just by our transects. This caused us to abandon our operations until the bees passed by, however, they did not go away so we were forced to stop for the day. Boris (our guide and lead biologist at the Chiquibul forest) explained that we cannot attempt to work near the bees as they are extremely dangerous.
On our way home we swam in a local river and rode the rapids for quite a while. I am sure the videos for this are posted. This was an exhilarating way to end our day, not to mention the wild macaws we came across on the way to the research station.