Thursday, 25 October 2012

55 days in Belize


I am always thrilled to introduced guest bloggers who have been up to amazing sea-changing things around the world. Genna Handley traveled thousands of miles from her home to spend 55 days in Belize on a marine conservation project.  She had an amazing trip and below shares her journey and some of observations. Sea-Changers is looking forward to working with Genna as a volunteer now she is back in the UK.

55 Days in Belize by Genna Handley

Arranging a Conservation Trip

At the start of 2012, I took some unpaid leave so I could do some travelling. I have been working in a Day Centre for homeless people for the last 5 years and have found it becoming increasingly challenging and no longer rewarding. I have wanted to become more involved with conservation work for a number of years but have found the transition from my current role into conservation work quite difficult!
I had previously travelled around Guatemala and was keen to improve my Spanish skills so explored a number of possibilities within Central America. I had qualified as a diver approximately 2 years ago and was keen to get some more diving experience. Belize seemed like the perfect destination!  I managed to secure myself a place on an internship in the south of Belize but unfortunately, a few weeks after booking my flights, I was informed that because I didn’t have a Degree or Masters in Science that the NGO hadn’t accepted me onto their project so I frantically searched for an alternative.  

I emailed a number of other NGOs within Belize to find a suitable replacement and seemed to face the same problem on a number of occasions.  Although challenging, contacting NGOs in Belize lead me to come across an organisation called Blue Ventures.  The information on their website looked really promising and I spoke to the volunteer co-ordinator, Kate Guy, and secured my place on the expedition starting in the middle of August.  There were no entry requirements for this expedition but Blue Ventures encouraged me to do some reading and learn some fish families prior to arrival.  I got to work studying and made a number of flash cards of the various fish families and their defining features. I then spent a few weeks teaching and boring my friends with information about fish before I left for Belize!


Arriving in Belize

After arriving in Belize City, I travelled for 4 hours on bus to get to a village in the north, called Sarteneja, which is where the Blue Ventures office is based.  On the afternoon I arrived, Blue Ventures were hosting afternoon tea for the Sarteneja Homestay Program.  The Sarteneja Homestay Program was set up by local families to provide another reliable source of income in an area predominantly reliant on the fishing industry.  Families take on volunteers or other guests and provide them with a room in their house and all of their meals.  This creates an extra source of income and reduces their dependency on the declining fish stocks.
Each Blue Ventures expedition runs for a 6 week period. For weeks 1 and 6 all volunteers are based in Sarteneja and for weeks 2-5, the staff and volunteers are based at Bacalar Chico Dive Camp (BCDC).  This is a small camp based on Ambergris Caye near to Rocky Point that is surrounded by dense jungle so it is largely inaccessible.  It takes approximately 1 hour to reach by boat from Sarteneja or San Pedro.  The main route to and from Bacalar Chico Dive Camplso goes through a channel through the local mangrove platforms which was created by the Maya centuries ago and was thought to be quite a major trade route.


My Role with Blue Ventures

The Blue Ventures Volunteer group is separated into 2 groups – fish and benthic.  The fish people learn all about the fish species which live in the area and the benthic people learn all about the corals, algae and plants, such as sea grass.  This enables volunteers to specialise at an early stage and not get overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information. I was part of team fish. A key objective of Blue Ventures’ work in Belize is to undertake focused marine ecosystem surveys, assessing the impact of both natural and human disturbances on the area. Research staff and volunteers monitor the diversity, abundance and health of coral and fish species found on the region’s reefs and mangroves.

Blue Ventures conduct 2 types of surveys Holistic Reef Health (HRH) and Meso-American Barrier Reef System (MBRS) which vary in frequency.    HRH requires information about coral and fish families but is not species specific and MBRS require information which is species specific.  All volunteers are required to learn about either fish or corals and have clear knowledge of families and individual species before taking part in any surveys.  Each volunteer is required to pass tests for their subject matter – each test allows the individual to get up to 2 species wrong but if the family is incorrect then it is an instant fail, but everyone has a number of opportunities to retake the tests. Once these tests have been passed in and out of water, the volunteer is then able to get involved with completing surveys.Prior to any underwater tests, all volunteers with previous diving experience are taken for a check dive and Peak Performance Buoyancy dive – this gives the dive master an opportunity to assess volunteer’s diving skills and offer any tips which may be useful.  Volunteers are also then taken for a number of fish or benthic point outs underwater, followed by practice tests and eventually real tests.

Many volunteers come to Belize with little or no diving experience or qualifications.  Some volunteers signed up to do diving qualifications in Bacalar Chico Dive Camp and it is a great opportunity to learn and improve your skills as for 4 weeks you are diving generally between 1 and 3 times each day. When volunteers are not diving, they are also required to do Shore and Boat Marshalling duties.  Shore Marshalls are responsible for manning the radio at the base and putting any emergency protocols into action if required. Boat Marshalls are required for manning the radio on the boat and loading dive and safety equipment onto the boat.


What We Monitor

There are a number of target species which Blue Ventures monitor on every dive, noting down location, size and species.  These are generally species which are largely in decline, often due to overfishing.  Some, such as Barracuda, are apex predators which are a really important part of the food chain as without their presence, other species’ populations would get out of control.  Others are species which are known to be popular food types, and are often targeted by the local fishing industry – i.e. Hogfish, some Snappers and Groupers.

All staff and volunteers are also required to report any sightings of megafauna – this includes sharks, dolphins, rays, manatees, lobsters and turtles.  If any megafauna are spotted, whether on a dive, a boat journey, or from the pier, then these sightings must be logged and further information about the location, animal size and their behaviour provided.

Lionfish are an invasive species in the Caribbean and were introduced to the area relatively recently - it is thought that they were first captured in the waters around Belize as recently as December 2008.  They have no natural predators and are proving to be really problematic within the area.  It is thought that each female lays approximately 2 million eggs each year and each individual fish is responsible for consuming approximately 30,000 reef organisms within their lifetime.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that these numbers are quite concerning and why Lionfish are having such a detrimental effect within the Caribbean.  

Blue Ventures monitor every sighting of Lionfish in the region by their staff and volunteers – they record how large the individuals are, where they are (i.e. the name of the dive site and whether they are on open reef, in cave/ crevice/ overhang, sand etc) to provide some further insight into their behaviour and the nature of the problem.  Some staff are also qualified to spear them; this usually happens on fun dives at the end of the week. Staff and volunteers measure, sex and dissect them – recording their stomach contents.

Although they have some venomous spines, they are relatively easy to prepare (once someone has shown you how) and surprisingly tasty!  One focus of Blue Ventures within Belize is to encourage local people to catch Lionfish and create a demand and market for them.  Many of the other fish caught in this area are in decline so Lionfish are a great alternative.  Fortunately they are very tasty! They make amazing ceviche and are delicious when fried. Catching them helps to take the pressure off some of the other species on the reef, due to both consumption by humans and the Lionfish themselves, so they are a very sustainable fish to eat!
I think I can quite safely say that all the volunteers had some amazing diving experiences throughout their time at Bacalar Chico Dive Camp.  Quite early on in the expedition, during a fish point out, I turned around from the reef to see 3 manatees, apparently 2 were mating but I was oblivious and more interested in the smaller one which swam within a metre of us and was really inquisitive.  We all came across a number of turtles, rays and nurse sharks on our dives – one Open Water group even had a pod of 8 dolphins surround them while they were practicing their skills!  We managed to complete enough fish, invertebrate and benthic surveys and even managed to fit in a couple of Queen Conch surveys for the local fisheries department.  In my spare time, I also made some “No Wake/ Go Slow” signs to put up in the mangroves most commonly frequented by manatees to reduce the number of injuries caused by boats – all in all it was very productive! 


Amazing Dives and Some Questionable Dive Operators!

In between expeditions, the Blue Ventures staff have some days to themselves and any remaining volunteers have an opportunity to travel around and have some free time.  We spent some time travelling around and then went onto Caye Caulker.  From Caye Caulker, we went on to dive the magnificent Great Blue Hole, which was an amazing experience.  After a 2 hour boat journey, we dived on top of a sandy ridge and swim over to a dark edge, from which we descended rapidly into what can only be described as the abyss!  Fortunately we had the wall to our left as a reference point; otherwise I think it could have become very disorientating.  From about 35 metres, the enormous stalactites appear which the dive masters encouraged us to swim between and make the most of as we could only remain so deep for a very short period of time.  When we ascended above the sink hole and headed back towards the boat, we were surrounded by a number of Caribbean Reef Sharks and an enormous Black Grouper.  I wasn’t sure how diving amongst sharks for the first time would be, but they didn’t seem that interested in us at all! It was an amazing experience and one that I won’t forget any time soon!

A number of the local diving companies are also involved in more questionable practices like feeding the fish and allowing people to touch the nurse sharks and rays.  Fortunately the company we went to the Blue Hole with didn’t do any of this, but we were surrounded by a large group of Chub who were used to being fed by divers and terrorised us throughout one of our dives.  A number of these companies have been challenged about this behaviour in the past, but refuse to change their practices “because the tourists love it!”  It encourages unnatural behaviour in a number of species and takes away the significance of coming across these amazing creatures and witnessing their behaviour in their natural habitat.  I would like to encourage anyone who comes across these kinds of practices to continue to challenge and potentially boycott these companies; otherwise it creates a dependency upon humans and discourages natural behaviour.


Blue Ventures Making  a Difference

A major focus of Blue Ventures work in Belize is to encourage the local population (and tourists) to consider more carefully what fish species they are eating and to create a market for Lionfish.  This is obviously going to take some time, but it was quite disheartening when we went to Caye Caulker and we didn’t find it for sale very widely.  We also discussed the work we had been doing with a number of tour guides, and they had been told by some of the sports fishing companies in the area that Lionfish were really dangerous and that they weren’t worth eating. 

One thing I found very helpful from participating in this kind of trip was that knowledge of the local fish stocks enabled me to make informed choices about the fish that I chose to eat.  By asking around in local restaurants for things like Lionfish, I hope that people involved in the industry realise that there is a market for it, and if word gets out, restaurants will eventually start to stock it.  There are more sustainable alternatives available in these areas, and I would recommend that anyone who is going to visit should take this into consideration and read up about these matters prior to visiting.

The best things about this project is that it’s a very hands-on way of gaining really valuable professional and personal experience.  You really see where the money goes; they employ local people – all of the boat Captains are from Belize – they do really positive work with local agencies and the wider community, including schools.  They also actively encourage supporting projects such as the Sarteneja Homestay Program, reducing the community’s dependency on the fishing industry and giving these families an alternative source of income and making them less reliant on the sea.

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