Bruce Croissant's Diary
||November 2004/January 2005|
|Friday, December 30, 2005
||Tuesday, January 31, 2006|
|Friday, February 3, 2006
||Monday, May 22, 2006|
|Tuesday, May 30, 2006
||Wednesday, May 31, 2006|
|Thursday June 1, 2006
||Friday June 2, 2006|
|Saturday June 3, 2006
||Sunday June 4, 2006|
|Monday June 5, 2006
||Tuesday June 6, 2006|
|Wednesday June 7, 2006
||Thursday June 8, 2006|
|Friday June 9, 2006
||Saturday June 10, 2006|
|Sunday June 11, 2006
||Monday June 12, 2006|
|Tuesday June 13, 2006
||Wednesday June 14, 2006|
|Thursday June 15, 2006
||Friday June 16, 2006|
I received an Alcoa newsletter touting employee involvement in Earthwatch. It sounded interesting, so I investigated further. Having started college as a science major, this sounded perfect for me. I loved the lab work in school, and what a lab this program would be.
November 2004/January 2005
I applied to be an Earthwatch fellow for 2005 and was turned down. There were too many applicants for not enough spaces. Oh well, maybe next year.
Will Earthwatch be offered again this year? I hope so. After the disappointment of not being selected in 2005, maybe this is my year.
Yes! Alcoa is offering the fellowship again this year! It’s time to revisit answering those six important questions with a word limit. I have so much to say and so little room to say it. After about four re-writes apiece, I am satisfied with my answers.
Friday, December 30, 2005
I submitted my application. Now comes a month of wondering. Our vacation schedule requests are due before I think I will find out about the Earthwatch selection. I have never had to schedule a family vacation with the hopes it would not happen before.
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
I had to take care of the kids this morning while my wife was at the hospital to support her dad through his surgery. When I arrived at work, the first email that I saw was entitled 2006 Alcoa Earthwatch Fellowship. Being that it was still January, I figured this was a note saying that the decisions would be made within the next week. Much to my surprise, I was accepted! What a rush!
I was going to spend two weeks this summer in Belize studying manatees. I had to read the email several times to make sure I was not dreaming. I have to tell someone! My wife is at the hospital, and calling her is not an option. Fortunately my parents are home. I can hardly contain my excitement as I start to spread the word.
It is now two hours later, and my heart rate has finally come back to normal. My hands have quit trembling enough to start my journal. What a morning. It is hard to concentrate with thinking of all the things I need to get done in four short months. It looks like Disney World will have to wait until next year.
Friday, February 3, 2006
The names of my fellow adventurers are posted. I will have company from another Alcoa employee—Dany Pleau from Deschambault, Quebec, Canada, will be joining me. He and I have conversed several times via email. He sounds as anxious as I am to head to Belize. Once we find out how to make the travel arrangements, we are going to try and hook up in Belize City before the expedition rendezvous.
Monday, May 22, 2006
My travel arrangements are made, and most of my supplies are purchased. I know I will forget to pack something.
I am getting very anxious to depart. There are only 10 days and counting before I leave on June 1, and I will spend two days in Belize before meeting the expedition. There are so many things to do and see in the area, I am having a hard time deciding how I want to spend my time to maximize the experience.
Dany will be arriving on June 2, and we plan on meeting that evening at our hotel, which is located at the rendezvous point on the marina. On the expedition, we will be joining two men from HSBC Bank, headquartered in London, and another individual traveler.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Looks like Dany and I will have company on June 2. Roger from HSBC will be arriving shortly after Dany. I am looking forward to meeting up with these two before we start our tour of duty.
I now have all of my things piled up and ready to pack. I hope it all fits.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
I leave tomorrow at 10:45 a.m. and will arrive in Belize City at around 3 p.m. local time. I plan on getting a lay of the land and relaxing before a day of sightseeing on June 2. I have arranged to fly to San Pedro and then snorkel in a marine reserve. I can’t wait. My previous snorkeling experience was about 30 years ago in a cloudy Missouri lake.
While I am excited, it is now starting to sink in that I am leaving my wife and kids behind for the next two-plus weeks. Boy, am I going to miss them.
Thursday June 1, 2006
With tearful goodbyes from Susan, Lauren, and Andrew, I boarded my flight bound for Belize City. I had the full range of emotions: happy, anxious, nervous, and sad—all at the same time. Both legs of my flight were boring and uneventful, which is just the way I like it. After a long day of travel, I ate at the hotel restaurant and forced myself to stay up until 10 p.m. local time (U.S. Mountain Time) to get acclimated to the time change.
Friday June 2, 2006
Two of my Earthwatch fellows will be arriving in Belize late this afternoon, so I flew to San Pedro to try my hand at snorkeling before the expedition begins. Covered with SPF 50 sunscreen, I snorkeled for about two hours at Mexican Rocks Reef. Wow, what a brilliant display of colors. The documentaries on TV do not do the vibrancy of the reef colors justice. The area is teeming with stingrays with 1.2-meter (four-foot) wing spans, barracuda, and other tropical fish. The highlight was seeing an octopus hiding in the rocks. The only thing I did not see that I was hoping to was a nurse shark.
After a shrimp burger at a local restaurant, I flew back to Belize City. That gave me plenty of time to get cleaned up and await the arrival of Dany and Roger. Two hours in the sun with SPF 50 did not prevent me from getting some minor sunburn on my back. I knew the sun was intense, but this really shocked me.
Dany arrived at about 5 p.m. He is a jack-of-all-trades employee at an Alcoa facility in Deschambault, Quebec, Canada. He is a fireman and first responder, and he fills in at any place in the facility that he is needed. Although French is his primary language, he has been learning English and is quite proficient at it. With our previous correspondence and phone calls, I feel I already know Dany.
Unfortunately, Roger’s flights were delayed, and he was not able to make it to Belize City. Roger is single and works for HSBC Bank based outside of London. Part of his job is to create contingency plans in the event a large portion of a department within the bank is out of action for an extended period of time.
Dany and I ventured into Belize City for dinner at a restaurant with a harbor view. The Cajun red snapper hit the spot after a busy day of touring. By the time we got downtown, most of the shops and street vendors had packed up for the night.
Belize City, population 70,000, primarily caters to the tourist trade. Over the past eight years, the number of tourists visiting Belize via cruise ships alone has increased at an alarming rate. In 2001/2002, it increased by a whopping 584%. This dramatic increase is a driving force for why Earthwatch is supporting studies of manatees in Belize. (More on this later.)
It was a nice evening that gave Dany and me a chance to get to know each other better before we head out to our tropical island destination tomorrow afternoon.
Saturday June 3, 2006
Fun Fact: Belize was originally a part of the Mayan Empire, then controlled by pirates before finally being colonized by the British using slave labor. It has become the melting pot of Central America, with an influence from immigrants from China, Mexico, and the East Indies. It is also becoming a retirement area for some Americans.
Dany and I decided to head to the Tourist Village and explore downtown until our 4 p.m. rendezvous with the rest of our team. Well, our plans were quickly changed when we got to the Tourist Village. It was a ghost town. We soon found out that the cruise ships only come to Belize on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Therefore, the village was closed up tight. Taking the Caribbean mentality of “don’t worry, be happy,” Dany and I had the taxi driver take us to the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha, about an hour north of the city.
We took the major north-south highway, which was along the lines of a two-lane country road. Because the country was formally British Honduras (until June 1, 1973), I was not sure when I arrived if Belizeans drove cars on the right side or left side of the road. It was explained that when it was British Honduras, cars were driven on the left side of the road, similar to England. However, when the Pan-American Highway was proposed, Belize was forced to switch to driving on the right side. Belize is now a British protectorate and has a democratically elected government.
As far as Mayan ruins go, Altun Ha is a small site. Only a few of the larger temples and tombs have been uncovered. The rest of the site remains largely un-excavated. Although small, Altun Ha was a major trading center of the Mayan Empire and home for about 10,000 Mayans around 600-900 AD. At the height of the Mayan Empire, it is believed that the number of Mayans topped 1 million inhabitants. What makes this even more remarkable is that modern-day Belize touts a population of just less than 300,000.
The site was far from what I expected. Most historical sites I have visited in the States and in Europe come with a museum, maps, book stores, and guided tours. The map we had to use was my tour book. Any artifacts found during the excavation were sent to museums throughout the country, and the only things available for purchase were trinkets made by the local villagers. I left with more questions than answers.
We got back to the city around 1 p.m., giving us ample time for lunch and a quick dip at the pool. Before ordering a hamburger, I told Dany I did not want to eat seafood, as I expected to get a lot of it on the menu for the next two weeks.
We began meeting the rest of our team at the marina around 3 p.m. Our first contact was Caryn Self-Sullivan, the principal researcher on the project. Caryn is a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University. She went back to school after raising a family and being a real estate agent. Caryn and another researcher co-founded Sirenian International, a non-profit dedicated to the education and preservation of the manatee.
We were joined by Karen (logistics intern). This is Karen’s second tour with Caryn on the manatee project. She has also worked with Ducks Unlimited in the Northwest Territories in Canada, researching several migratory ducks in the area. Karen is the free spirit of the group. Her dedication to the project is accented, as she will be spending the summer on a small island without being paid. Our other intern is Haydee from the Dominican Republic. Haydee has studied marine mammals in both Columbia and Belgium. She has recently submitted a grant request to study manatees in the Dominican Republic.
Roger made it into town along with our other two team members. John is a student at Appalachian State studying environmental affairs, and Chip is a member of the HSBC Auto Financing Group in San Diego.
We departed Belize City about 4:30 p.m. bound for Spanish Bay, located within the Drowned Caye about eight miles off the mainland in the Caribbean Sea. Drowned Caye is appropriately named, as during high tides, some of the island system is literally under water. In order for the Spanish Bay facility to be built, a seawall needed to be added along with sand to create a more solid land foundation.
The Spanish Bay area is being developed under the direction of the Hugh Parkey Foundation. In addition to housing the Manatee’s in Belize Earthwatch Project, the island currently houses a lagoon with four resident dolphins used to educate the public on dolphin behavior. Several other buildings currently under construction will house future volunteers, educational facilities, and a kitchen.
The plan is to use these facilities to educate the teachers of Belize about the natural oceanic beauty their country possesses. The teachers will then be able to show their classes what they have learned and also have the opportunity to bring their classes to the island for a hands-on, up-close learning experience. Although Belize has a long coastline, many Belizeans have never been on the sea and therefore have no idea what lies just off the coast. To some, the docile vegetarian manatee is a large, scary creature of the sea. The plan is to put these fears to rest through education.
Upon arriving, we found our new home was better than advertised, as the dorm was not complete. Dany, Chip, and I found ourselves in a cabana literally located on the water. It came complete with a porch, shower, toilet, and sink. After settling in, we met on the dock for some ice breakers and star gazing. Dinner was stewed chicken, coleslaw, and, of course, rice and beans. We all turned in early so we could get a fresh start in the morning, learning more about the objectives of the project and how we would be involved in making it successful.
Our first night on the island turned out to be a mini adventure in its own rite. When they say lights out is at 10 p.m., they mean it. The island electricity is provided by a gas-powered generator. At 10 p.m., the generator is typically shut down for the night. Well, this night a storm brewed up. I was awakened at 1 a.m. to a splash of water in my face. The torrential rain was blowing into our windows, soaking anything in its path. Without power, we had to fumble in the dark to close the windows. As soon as the windows were closed, our room became a sauna. Welcome to the rustic Belizean way of life. Once I finally fell asleep, the alarm birds (grackles) greeted the new morning for us.
Sunday June 4, 2006
Fun Fact: The order Sirenia was named after the Sirens in Greek mythology. These half-woman, half-bird creatures would try to lure sailors to the islands with songs. Over time, the half bird of the story became half fish, and thus was the advent of mermaids. Columbus wrote about mermaids of the Caribbean in 1493.
Our big day has finally arrived. After four months of waiting, it was time to get our feet wet with the research. After a hearty banana pancake breakfast, Caryn gave a presentation on our mission. Part of Caryn’s research is to study the effects of increased tourism on boat-related injuries to manatees in Belize.
As mentioned before, cruise ship tourism has increased dramatically since 1998. The Belize tourism board reported that from 1998 to 2002, the number of cruise ship tourists increased from 14,183 to 319,690 per year, the latter representing a group exceeding the entire population of Belize. A large percentage of this increase occurred after 9/11, as people decreased the amount of travel involving flight. As the number of cruise ships increased, so did the number of shuttle boats that ferry the passengers to tourist areas of Belize City, San Pedro, and dive/snorkel locations. This increased traffic on the seas has produced more manatees with scars caused by unaware boat captains.
After our lecture, we had a tour of the island. Our first stop was at the dolphin research facility located on the northwest corner of the island. There are four resident dolphins that came to the facility about one month ago. They live in a lagoon that is constantly refreshed by the tides and is teeming with fish. One of the dolphins’ favorite games is to catch a puffer fish and toss it back and forth with each other. The current training module for the dolphins is to teach them how to be “captured” safely in the event a hurricane evacuation is required. Dany was prepared by wearing his swimsuit. Lucky for him, he got to help with the training.
Our next stop was on the west side of the island, where manatees are known to rest. Sure enough, we saw our first manatee. After 20 minutes of observation, we headed back to base for a lunch of leftovers. Lunches could usually be anticipated to be leftovers from the previous dinner and breakfast.
After lunch, we boarded the Osprey. The Osprey was a 7.6-meter-long (25-foot-long) boat with a large outboard motor, a canopy, and several bench seats. It is a small boat for nine people to be sharing for the next two weeks. In case you did not notice, this description did not mention a bathroom, because there was not one.
The Osprey was captained by a fun-loving Belizean named Gilroy. Gilroy, in addition to being the boat captain, was also in charge of all of the island’s physical plant. He is always the first up to start the generator and one of the last to retire after shutting down the generator. He plays the role of electrician, fisherman, plumber, and research assistant for dolphin and manatee research projects. Gilroy is the glue that holds the island together. So long as he saw the channel markers, I had complete trust in him on the sea.
While getting a perimeter tour of the island by boat, we surveyed the surface of the water, looking for any signs of manatees. Within the first 20 minutes, we had spotted our second manatee of the day. This time, we did not just observe. It was data collection time. I will get more into the data collection over the next two week’s entries.
Our free time today was a snorkel in relatively calm waters. Before asking to accomplish underwater research tasks, Caryn wanted to get a feel as to how watertight her crew really was. Caryn really cares for her crew and takes pride in keeping us safe.
After our snorkel test, we headed in for the day. On the way, we saw manatee #3 for the day. It swam within nine meters (30 feet) of the boat before heading back into the murky depths below.
After dinner and showers, we had a debriefing on the day. Part of our debriefing is geared toward reviewing the data collected and verifying the information is consistent between the various data forms. It makes for good checks and balances to make sure only accurate data are captured.
After four hours on the water, we saw three manatees and a loggerhead turtle. Caryn warned us that seeing that many manatees in a day was typically the exception rather than the rule. I hope she is wrong.
No one waited until lights out tonight. After our first day at sea and a sleepless first night, we were bushed and ready for bed.
Manatee tally: 3 today — 3 total for the trip
Monday June 5, 2006
Fun Fact: Manatees are mammals. They have live births, nurse their young with milk, breathe air with lungs, and have hair.
Of the five groups of modern-day animals that make up the order of Sirenia, only four members survive today. The Stellar sea cow was the largest modern manatee at 7.6 meters long and 3,600 kilograms (25 feet long and 8,000 pounds), but it was hunted to extinction in the cold waters off of Kamchatka in Russia in the 1700s. The four remaining animals in the order of Sirenia are: West Indian, Amazonian, West African, and Dugong. The West Indian manatees are broken into two families: the Florida and Antillean families. We will be concentrating on the “smaller” West Indian manatees in the Antillean family (Trichechus Manatus). Smaller is a relative term in this case. These “gentle giants of the sea” can grow to be between 270 to 540 kilograms (600 to 1,200 pounds) when full grown and have lengths upwards of three meters (10 feet).
The Antillean manatees live along the coastal waters and rivers from Brazil to the Texas/Mexico border and throughout the Caribbean islands. While this area is great, the manatee numbers are sparse. Therefore, the Antillean manatee is considered vulnerable by the World Conservation Union. Through federal laws and the founding of several marine wildlife sanctuaries, Belize is considered one of the last strongholds for these creatures.
Besides these safe havens, why does Belize have the highest concentration of this sub-species? The answer could be found in the geography. Belize does not stop at the main shoreline. Along the entire cost of the country, small mangrove islands called cayes dot the surface of the sea for more than 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the shore. These cayes provide shelter for marine animals from rough seas, a shallow sea depth of one-third to 4.5 meters (one to 15 feet) that allows for lush sea grass beds for a hungry manatee, and plenty of freshwater rivers as well.
Well, Caryn was right. Our first full day at sea, and we saw no manatees. Throughout the day, we ran four scans. A scan is a 30-minute intense observation from a predetermined point. During the first 20 minutes, we scan the water on all sides of the boat for any trace of a manatee. It could be seeing a nose or paddle (tail) sticking through the water, hearing a breath, or seeing a mud plume showing us if a manatee is traveling.
Manatees hold their breath between four and 10 minutes. If an animal is located in the scan sight, it will typically be noticed before we start to sample the habitat 20 minutes into the scan. The habitat sampling consists of four main tasks. We check the temperature and salinity (saltiness) of the water at both the surface and at the bottom, and we measure the depth and visibility of the water. The final item we check is the make-up of the bottom in our location. Is it mud, sand, or filled with vegetation? Data are collected for this sample, and a global positioning system (GPS) waypoint is established. The GPS is used so scans can be made over a period of years at the same location. This is essential to see how the environment changes over time.
Our first two scans took place in the hot, humid, breezeless mangrove areas. Without air movement, we were sitting ducks for mosquitoes. This made for a less-than-perfect morning. However, the afternoon more than made up for it. Both of our scans occurred at different locations on the reef. The breeze was abundant, and the “mossies,” as our British counterpart called them, were not.
Caryn and I hit the water for the first portion of the scan. While we did not see any manatees, it was quite an eye opener. There was a plethora of sea life, including large barracuda and a tarpon about 1.5 meters (five feet) long. The tarpon really surprised me, as it came within one meter (three feet) of my face without any warning.
After scanning the area, we took care of the required data collection of water samples and visibility. Here the visibility was crystal clear. We were able to see well over 15 meters (50 feet) without any problems. This was a far cry from visibility in the mangroves that, at times, was less than three meters (10 feet).
As the reef was so spectacular, Caryn declared free time for a snorkeling trip around the reef led by Gilroy. My favorite fish today was a doctorfish. It is jet black with a neon blue tail and outline on the top and bottom of the fish. It was one of the most vibrant blues I have ever seen.
During our dive, we all practiced the buddy system. I was paired with Karen and Haydee, as they were able to point out many different fish and corals I would have missed. While snorkeling, slow is the word. It is too easy to miss things. While there were no manatees seen today, it was a great day.
Manatee tally: 0 today — 3 total for the trip
Tuesday June 6, 2006
Fun Fact: Are manatees related to whales and dolphins? No, other than they are both marine mammals. Manatees are 100% vegetarian, feasting on a variety of sea grasses. All other marine mammals are carnivores, with fish in their diet.
Caryn gave us a pep talk to start the day. She reiterated that while it was not as fun as days we saw manatees, days with zero manatees provided her with just as valuable information. In the competition between developing an area versus preserving the manatee habitat, a particular location that habitually shows no signs of manatees may be a more preferable location to develop than a location where manatees are known to congregate.
As far as our day went, I should start at the beginning, but I can’t today. The end of the day made my trip, and here it was only day three on the water.
After a successful day of data collection and sighting two manatees from afar, we went to South Gallows Reef for some free-time snorkeling. About 20 minutes into our free time, we hear the cry “deadman’s float.” This is the cry for when a manatee has been sighted and swimmers are in the water. We float very still so we can observe what is happening.
Sure enough, a manatee about 2.7 meters and 317 kilograms (nine feet long and 700 pounds) swam right in front of me! It came within three meters (10 feet) of me. What a rush! It turns out there were two in the area, and several of us got some pictures of the pair. With the grace in which they glide through the water, it is no wonder ancient sailors thought they were mermaids. On our day off, Karen will get our film developed so we can better document our findings. Ironically, the entire team with the exception of Caryn saw these animals. Yes, we saw other great sights on this snorkel, but they pale in comparison. This made my trip!
Manatee tally: 4 today — 7 total for the trip
Wednesday June 7, 2006
Fun Fact: The closest relative to the manatee is not a marine mammal at all. With similar prehensile upper lips, the manatee is more closely related to an elephant or an aardvark than any other marine mammal.
We feasted on a good old-fashioned pancake and sausage breakfast this morning along with our complement of fresh pineapple, papaya, and cantaloupe. Chip has boldly predicted that we will see four manatees today. I hope he is right.
Our goal, as every morning, is to leave shore by 8 a.m. We have learned that time in Belize is not an exact science. If we are away by 8:30 a.m., we are on time.
This morning, we are headed to the bogues of the northern section of the Drowned Caye. A bogue is a waterway between mangrove islands. The manatees love to eat and rest in these bogues, as the food is plentiful and the boats are scarce.
Our first job was to cover ourselves in bug repellant. Caryn has dubbed Roger a “reactor,” as every mosquito bite he has is now greatly swollen and bright red. During one part of the passage, the mosquitoes were so bad, we are given the option of snorkeling through the creek or taking the boat. All except Gilroy choose the snorkel. As we swam through, the buzzing of the mosquitoes was deafening when our ears came above the waterline.
The most interesting find on this trip was seeing a remora fish (also known as a “hitchhiker”). These fish suction the top of their heads to a manatee, shark, or other larger animal and travel to other locations under the power of their host. Given the location of this remora, Caryn surmises that a manatee had been here recently and we just did not see it. As murky as the water was, this was no great surprise.
The manatees were playing hide and seek with us today. As soon as we would see one, it would leave the area. We documented if we felt that we caused the manatee to leave the area or if it was moving out to begin with. Chip was right on. We did see four manatees today, albeit for a very short time each.
Today, we headed back to base early, and our free snorkel time was spent around the island. My favorite today was swimming with a school of thousands of 2.5-centimeter (one-inch) long fish. For dinner, we had lasagna that was to die for. No leftovers tomorrow.
Manatee tally: 4 today — 11 total for the trip
Thursday June 8, 2006
Fun Fact: Baby manatees are called calves. At birth, they can be 0.9 to 1.2 meters (three to four feet) long and weigh in excess of 32 kilograms (70 pounds).
Today started out on a grumpy note. No one slept well due to the humidity and no air movement whatsoever. It reminded me of the dog days of summer.
With the threat of storms in the area, we decided to stay near base. After two uneventful scans, our fortune changed. While en route to scan point 3, someone shouted “manatee.” Normally, manatees are solitary animals. However, we found a trio together. While tracking the breathing and dive patterns is fairly easy, trying to do it for three at once is downright confusing. We tried to keep track of the seconds each individual animal was underwater. However, when they only show their nose, it is virtually impossible to tell them apart.
While we had seven people shouting “breath” or “paddle dive,” one poor soul was responsible for shouting out the time to the second and another was writing down the times. We watched them frolic for about three hours, recording each breath as we went. While watching these three animals, two more appeared in another area of the bogue. To make matters more chaotic, a sixth manatee came into the picture, along with a bottlenose dolphin. All of these animals gave us quite a show, as we stopped to picnic on the boat. After a day like this, no one seemed to mind the showers we had all day. Data processing tonight will be a challenge.
Our data collection depends on the circumstance. During a 30-minute scan at a predetermined sight, we would collect the habitat data. These habitat samples were done regardless if a manatee was spotted or not. If manatees were sighted, a sighting data sheet was completed. This form includes information about where the manatee was located in comparison to the boat, the number of manatees sighted, any distinguishing marks, and how often the animal took a breath or did a paddle dive. Paddle dives are done by manatees to either dive into deeper water or to travel a longer distance without having to resurface.
The sightings form was used every time we saw a manatee, while the habitat form was only done at scan points. The record of effort and trip summary forms are the glue that pulls all of the forms together. These forms are the timeline of our day, from when we left base until the time we returned. We all took turns owning the various forms for a day. It helped give us a better feel for the big picture. It also allowed those doing the sightings form a chance to observe the manatee and not have to constantly record data. Here’s an example of a typical day's data.
Upon return to base, we cleaned all of the equipment and washed the saltwater off of our snorkel gear as usual. Once we got done with that, I decided to hit the shower. As water is scarce, navy showers are required. A navy shower is when you wet down, turn the water off, lather up, then rinse.
Rustic island living caught up with me today. After washing my hair, I tried to turn on the water to rinse. To my dismay, there was not even a trickle of water. With the unreliability of the water pumps and power, there was no telling when the water would return. So, I got my suit back on and hopped into the rain barrel that is used to wash equipment. Talk about cold water!
Tonight, Caryn continued her talk about manatee behavior in regards to reproduction. Female manatees become sexually active around four- to five-years-old, while males mature at a slower rate (eight- to nine-years-old). Once they become active, females can give birth every three to five years. The gestation period is approximately 13 months, and single births are typical.
The calves stay with their mothers for at least 1.5 years before venturing off on their own. Only after a calf cleaves from its mother does the female go into estrus (becomes sexually active). When in estrus, a female attracts numerous males that follow her for days, if not weeks. They all jostle for position, using their weight to gain an advantage. Eventually, one impregnates the female, and the mating herd disperses. Manatees are not monogamists. Each time they mate, it will probably be with a different animal.
Manatee tally: 6 today —17 total for the trip
Friday June 9, 2006
Fun Fact: Living in seawater causes manatees to be a breeding ground for algae and barnacles. They often lose their natural gray coloring while they are covered with these ocean invaders.
Today marks the end of the first half of our adventure. Like yesterday, we are not sure if the weather will hold, as it rained all night. Fortunately, they left the power on all night, so we had fans! A tropical depression is east of us, bringing the rain.
For breakfast, we had fry cakes. The best way to describe them is they are like carnival elephant ears without the sugar coating.
We started our first three scans today in the rain. I was more than willing to spend time in the rain, as the mosquitoes left me alone and concentrated on attacking those remaining under the boat canopy. Our third scan netted something that Caryn had never seen before. While she was filming a manatee underwater, she saw it using a submerged post to clean algae and barnacles off its back. While she had seen manatees clean themselves before using coral at the reef, she had never before seen anything like this in shallow water. Fortunately, Caryn’s video turned out well. We were able to see the streaks on the manatee’s back where it had scrapped off sea scum.
As we had not been to the reef in a while, we went to My Reef to the south of our island. On our way, we saw two more manatees in the seabed. My Reef is a much deeper set of coral than those we previously visited. It had a vertical wall about 10 meters (33 feet) below sea level at the base—far too deep for most of us to see much below the top of the reef. While I did not enjoy this reef as much as the other reef, it was no less spectacular. I have never seen a more vivid blue color when I looked underwater toward the open sea. The most memorable of our finds today were the 1.2-meter (four-foot) barracuda that seemed to pose for pictures, and a ray with more than a meter (three-foot) wing span. They were as curious about us as we were of them.
Tonight we were supposed to have a fish barbecue for dinner, but new storms forced a cancellation. Beef vegetable soup was the back-up meal. Much to my surprise, the only seafood we have had this first week was canned tuna. Chicken was our staple meat here.
Manatee tally: 3 today — 20 total for the trip
Saturday June 10, 2006
Fun Fact: Xunantunich is pronounced “soo-nahn-too-neetch” and means maiden of the rocks.
We will not see manatees today, as it is our day off. Our plan is to head to Western Belize to the Cayo District. For the first time on the trip, I felt seasick. The trip to shore featured 1.5-meter (five-foot) swells and water in our face. The tropical depression is now a tropical storm named Alberto. It appears that Alberto will pass well to our north, but we are still under his influence. I was glad when our feet were on solid ground once again. I am glad we have not had weather like this before today.
Our land trip started with a two-hour air-conditioned van ride to San Ignacio and the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. We began in the swampy lowland savannah area and eventually went into the hilly jungles of Belize. It was quite interesting watching the vegetation turn from palms to the sturdier jungle timber.
Just east of the Guatemalan border lies the town of San Ignacio. San Ignacio was bustling as we passed through town. Saturday is market day, and the town square was busy with farmers selling their wares, tourists looking lost, and a few local Amish and Mennonites thrown in. Like the reef, this was a beautiful tapestry of colors.
All of the local bars were drawing folks in with the lure of the World Cup football (soccer) matches. Roger is happy; England leads Paraguay 1-0. When you hear that life stops when the World Cup is on, it is true. They have a real passion for the sport. Tomorrow, San Ignacio is playing for the national championship. You can believe the city will be one big party! Unfortunately, we do not have time to stop, as we have a full day ahead.
The entry to Xunantunich must be accessed by crossing the Macal River on a unique one-vehicle ferry. The boat is operated by a large hand crank. Upon entering the park, David, our tour guide for the day, gave us an interesting overview on some of the foliage. My favorite tree was the “Tourist Tree,” which features a bright red bark. Whenever a parasite or threatening vine tries to adhere to the tree, its bark simply peels away like a sunburn peel.
Xunantunich dates back to 200 to 300 BC, with its peak around 600 to 900 AD. It is believed that about 15,000 to 20,000 Mayans inhabited the area, which was primarily a religious site. The Mayans flattened the top of a mountain top to build the site on, so any hill located in the middle of the flattened mesa was another ruin that was now grown over with foliage. At the top of the main temple, El Castillo (39 meters, or 127 feet, tall), one can see nearby Guatemala and San Ignacio. It was a breathtaking sight.
The buildings were built in stages. As a new ruler or priest took charge, the old buildings were sealed off and the next layer built on top of them. While a building 39 meters, or 127 feet, tall (about 10 stories) does not sound like much, currently the tallest building in Belize is the 41-meter (136-foot) tall temple at Caracol, and this building was erected more than 1,200 years ago.
There are many theories as to why the Mayan civilization died out—disease, earthquakes, floods, and a public uprising, to name a few. The most popular of these theories is the public uprising. The common man grew weary of serving the elite and educated. The commoners would depart the towns, leaving the elite no workforce to construct and maintain these edifices. Meanwhile, the commoners were unable to maintain the empire, as they were not educated. Without each other, both of the groups dwindled to smaller numbers, and they were dispersed throughout Central America. Fortunately, “all is not lost.” David explained that many Belizeans still speak in a derivation of their native Mayan tongue. Many of the past traditions have been carried on by today’s Mayan.
After a fun morning at the ruins, we headed off to the Trek Stop and Butterfly House for our chicken with rice and bean lunch, plus a dose of World Cup. I was able to get a picture of a small postman butterfly for my daughter, Lauren, who just did a school report on this butterfly.
On the way back to Belize City, we stopped at the Belize Zoo. It is quite a unique place. All of the animals in the zoo are indigenous to Belize. The cages were literally fences placed within the jungle so the animals were in their natural habitat. A non-captive snake was even seen wandering across a path between animal cages. Throughout the zoo, visitors are reminded of where these animals live in the country and that in order to keep these animals, care must be taken.
We arrived back at the marina shortly after 5 p.m., giving me plenty of time to buy a pirate ship for my son Andrew. Our ride back home was much smoother than this morning. While we did not see any manatees, we were greeted by a curious dolphin. What an enjoyable, informational, and tiring day it was. All…is not lost!
Manatee tally: 0 today — 20 total for the trip
Sunday June 11, 2006
Fun Fact: The origin of the name Belize is debated. Some say it was named after an early buccaneer who used the area as a base, and others believe it is the Mayan term for muddy water. While the Caribbean waters are clean and pristine, the rivers are very cloudy and muddy.
Today, I have missed my family more than most. I almost forgot it was Sunday until I heard our cook Jeremy’s radio playing the same songs Susan and I would be singing at church. Hearing them at 8 a.m. local time would have been the same time we would have been in church at home.
We started our work at the reef this morning with the hopes of some extra snorkeling. However, the weather had other ideas. It is a gray, overcast day with very choppy waters. Since we have two on our crew that can get seasick, we did our scans quickly and went back to the mangroves for more surveying.
After two mangrove scans without any manatees, we decided to do one more and then try the reef again as the weather had improved. Well, the manatees had other ideas. Dany sighted a manatee, then another, and another. They kept appearing. The final tally was seven in one spot! Caryn believes it was a mating heard of six males and one female. It appeared they were playing follow the leader. One would take a breath, and that would be followed by six more breaths. One would paddle dive, then they all would paddle dive. We had to take turns recording the breath and dive data, as they were so frequent one person could not have kept up with the data.
This all kept up for more than an hour until a boat passed by. When the boat was there, they simply moved to the side of the channel until the boat passed. Then they headed back to their playground. In eight years of studying in Belize, Caryn thought this may have been the tenth mating herd she has seen. Our crew seems to bring out the rarely seen aspects of manatee behavior. What a blessing it has been to be a part of this study.
After the party finally moved on, we chose a nice lagoon for our snorkeling time. During this time, Caryn took us to an empty manatee resting hole. Resting holes are just that—a deeper indentation in the sea floor that a manatee can nestle down into for rest. Manatees and other marine mammals do not sleep in the same manner as humans. They rest often, and they need to be partially awake so they can breathe on a regular basis. As this was a lagoon, the water was murky. However, that did not prevent us from seeing thousands of upside-down jellyfish. These jellyfish are planted along the seafloor and come in a rainbow of colors. Like other jellies, care must be taken around these, as they do have toxic stings. As we re-boarded the boat, two curious dolphins passed by.
Once again, with all of the data we collected today, we returned a little early to process it and make further notes on what we had seen. After dinner, we did witness a feeding frenzy—not of the shark variety but of the human kind. Karen made a pan of brownies with the idea of eating some tonight and saving the rest for lunch tomorrow. Wrong! That was never going to happen. The pan was set in front of nine chocolate-deprived people, who devoured it all in no time flat. Yum!
Manatee tally: 7 today — 27 total for the trip
Monday June 12, 2006
Fun Fact: The horizontal and vertical visibility distances are measured with an instrument called a secchi disk. Pietro Secchi of the Papal Navy first used the concept to measure the visibility in the Mediterranean in the mid-1860’s. It is a 20-centimeter (eight-inch) in diameter disk with the four quadrants alternating between black and white. It is attached to a rope with knots tied in 30-centimeter (one-foot) increments. When the disk can no longer be seen, you simply count the knots to determine the depth.
The sun is up, the smell of sausage is in the air, and any remains of Alberto have left the area. It is simply another spectacular day in paradise. Only four more days at sea remain. Part of me wants to stay longer; however, I can’t wait to get home to share my experiences.
While paradise cooperated, Roger’s mosquito bites did not. His ankle was about twice the size it should be, and Caryn decided to take him to the mainland for medical attention. The doctor’s diagnosis: “You are soft.” He gave him a stronger form of Benadryl and sent him on his way. The whole trip to shore took about four hours.
As we were unable to do our work, Caryn arranged for us to borrow kayaks for the morning along with an 11 a.m. stop at the dolphin lagoon. While John napped, Chip, Dany, Karen, Haydee, and I kayaked around the island. As part of our cruise around the island, we snorkeled in “The Crack.” This is an area where the sea floor is collapsing like a sink hole. Here I saw a huge jewfish, which is a member of the grouper family that can weigh up to 363 kilograms (800 pounds)! The one I saw was not nearly that big.
Our time at the dolphin encounter was part lecture but mostly hands on! We were taught how the employees tell the dolphins apart, along with some of the biological and behavioral facts about them. Our in-the-water time included petting, lifting, and getting a kiss from the dolphins. I will never forget this experience. While we were all sorry for Roger’s medical misfortunes, we would not have had this experience without them. Thank you for being “soft,” Roger!
We finally pushed out to sea at 2:30 p.m. for a scan and snorkel at the reef. No manatees, but Dany did see a small marlin. As the snorkeling was done on the outside of the reef, it was much deeper and harder to see.
For dinner, we were joined by another researcher, Dr. Leszek Karczmarski. Leszek is a dolphin researcher tied to Texas A&M University in Galveston. He will be joining us on the boat with the hopes of photographing and identifying dolphins in the area.
In addition to discussing his research plans for Belize, Leszek gave a lecture on the spinner dolphins located in and around Midway Island. True to their name, the spinner dolphins spin in the air when jumping out of the water. No one seems to know exactly why, but it is thought that one reason might be to rid itself of remoras.
Manatee tally: 0 today — 27 total for the trip
Tuesday June 13, 2006
Fun Fact: The dorsal fin on a dolphin is like a human fingerprint—no two are alike. While to the naked eye they appear smooth and sleek, the trailing edge of a dorsal fin is a jagged line of peaks and valleys. Through clear photos of these markings, scientists can identify individual animals.
Finally, a “normal day.” We set out with Leszek on board with the hopes of collecting both manatee and dolphin data. Before the boat had even left the view of our cabana, Dany saw a manatee. It was the start of a busy day.
In all, we located eight manatees in four locations and dolphins in two. While Caryn was in the water filming three feeding manatees, two curious dolphins joined the party. It was a mother and her calf. The calf was a real ham around the boat, so we got some great pictures and data on all five animals. We are now up to 35 manatees on this trip. Hopefully, we can find 50 on our adventure. At the reef, it was Ray Day. There were about eight to 10, most with wing spans approaching 1.2 meters (four feet).
This evening, we viewed the dolphin photos that Leszek had taken. Much to our surprise, the mother/calf pair had already been photographed last fall and put into the pictorial database. As the back of the dorsal fin is somewhat brittle, the mother had several new notches that were noted in the database. It was quite interesting to be able to identify these so quickly.
The stars were out in full force tonight. Shooting stars, the Southern Cross, the North Star, Big and Little Dipper, and countless satellites and stars could be seen. The sky was so crowded with stars, it was hard to see many of the constellations we take for granted. Without any extra lights in the area, the stars were absolutely breathtaking.
Manatee tally: 8 today — 35 total for the trip
Wednesday June 14, 2006
Fun Fact: The Drowned Cayes are home to the American crocodile and the boa constrictor. While we saw neither of these animals, there are still a few around. The native Belizeans fear these animals and have virtually eradicated them from this island group.
The rain is back with a vengeance. High winds and choppy waters have held us on shore for the morning. However, it did not stop Roger and Dany from a quick snorkel to post a sign on one of the channel markers. On one of our first days at sea, Gilroy hit this marker, and we have been playfully teasing him about it. As Gilroy is a mainstay in the area and already has a channel, lagoon, grass bed, and fish camp named for him, this marker has now been dubbed Gilroy’s Post.
In order to maximize our time, we had our closing briefing a day early during the storm. All in all it was a VERY positive experience. We did have a few suggestions for Caryn, like having the dolphin people and Gilroy join us for a meal or two and to work the dolphin experience into the typical two-week Earthwatch program. She took our suggestions to heart right away. When we had dinner tonight, some of the dolphin people along with Gilroy joined us. She also arranged for Roger to have his own dolphin experience tomorrow.
We finally made it out just before lunch. Our primary focus was to be looking for dolphins today. I never thought I would say this, but it was boring compared to looking for the manatees. All we did was traverse the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dolphins.
While we struck out with the dolphins today, in all we saw six more manatees. Dany, Roger, and Caryn got to see them up close and personal. This was the wrong time for Roger and Dany to forget to take their cameras in the water with them.
After a successful scan of seeing a manatee and recording data, we thought the manatee had left the area. On the back side of the lagoon, there was a small cove that Caryn needed someone to go back into with her. Dany and Roger were already in the water doing secchi readings, so they followed her. Much to their surprise, there was not one manatee in the cove but two. During the initial encounter in the murky waters, one swam directly under Roger, and he did not realize it. He had been looking to the side, and within seconds the animal had passed him by. Later, while doing the dead man’s float, the manatee passed by them several times. With Roger missing the dolphin experience, I am glad he had this manatee experience. Once the manatees had eaten their fill, I spotted them leaving the area.
Our next scan took place near the Friends of Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary. This sanctuary was established in 2002 by, of all people, the tour operators. In a unique concept, the tour operators banded together to have the sanctuary become an area that limits the number of tour boats and people in the area each day. In order to enter the area, a fee is required.
While skirting the sanctuary, we found four playful manatees in the deep water channel. While they were diving deep, it did not appear that they were eating. They were just socializing.
Tonight, Karen gave a brief presentation on several varieties of threatened ducks in the Northwest Territories of Canada. She previously worked for Ducks Unlimited, and one of her assignments was to research these ducks in this remote section of Canada.
The researchers would fly in before the snow melted to set up camp—a far cry from our balmy 31° Celsius (88° degrees Fahrenheit). As soon as the ducks arrived, so did the mosquitoes. All of the researcher’s bodies were covered from head to toe. It made the Belizean mosquitoes seem not so bad. Karen’s group would capture, tag, and sometimes implant radio transmitters into the ducks just prior to mating. After the ducks mated, the researchers would plod through the marshy grasses in search of nests for monitoring. Data were recorded from all nests found. As the research is not yet complete, no reasons are apparent for the decrease in these fowl.
Like Haydee’s presentation on her research proposal, it was interesting to see other actual research methods and how they are done. The techniques between duck and manatee research vary greatly. With manatees, the research we were doing was purely observational. With the ducks, the methods can be more destructive. For instance, due to the distances involved with migratory ducks, transmitters are implanted in a duck. With manatees, some have been fitted with external collars on their tails. I’m glad I am here and not in the Northwest Territories.
Manatee Tally: 6 today — 41 total for the trip
Thursday June 15, 2006
Fun Fact: Manatees’ teeth are all molars that are used to grind sea grass. As the front teeth wear out, they fall out, and new teeth are formed at the back of the mouth. These new teeth push the older teeth toward the front. New teeth are being generated throughout a manatee’s lifespan.
It is our last day at sea. It is a very melancholy day. It was one we all knew would be here soon, but one we were not ready to have come.
Roger had his dolphin experience. While we were waiting for him to finish, we scanned near “The Crack.” This is the same area we saw our first manatee nearly two weeks ago. Would it be our last as well? Shortly after starting our scan, we saw number 42 having some brunch. Apparently, this was a good feeding ground, as number 43 made an entrance. Since today is the first day of lobster season, the area is busy with small watercraft. This did not seem to phase our manatees, as they contentedly ate then rested for several hours. We even left to pick up Roger and talk to a snorkel tour group, and when we came back, they were still there. They provided our lunchtime entertainment.
After lunch, we went to the reef one last time. On the way, we played chase with a couple of dolphins and snapped some dorsal pictures. Even from our regular digital cameras, we could identify them as our same mother and calf. It makes it easy to catalog the fins when you only see the same animals time after time.
Even though we went to the same place to snorkel, it was always a new adventure. Moray eels were the latest addition to our sightings list. We ran across three buried within the coral holes. They are eerie-looking creatures. Of further interest was the food chain at work. There was a school of thousands of minnow-sized fish. Every so often, a slightly larger fish was there to pick out a few for dinner. Before today, we had only seen individual barracuda. Today, there were nine located near the feeding area waiting to catch their own supper.
The Osprey was having some engine hiccups, so we took a slow and leisurely ride back to the base. Neither John nor I had been the initial spotter of a manatee all week. We were always a second slower than the rest. About five minutes from home, he and I both spotted manatees at the same time. One performed a paddle dive about 10 meters (33 feet) to the starboard side of the boat. That was all we ever saw of that manatee. Number 44 brought our average sightings to an even 4.0 per day.
During dinner, we presented Caryn with a token of our appreciation for the experience. We all signed my sunhat for her. For dinner, we were joined by a group of seven college students. They arrived today and are taking a one-week intensive course taught by Caryn and Leszek. After supper, the course began, so our five Earthwatch members sat on the dock with our cooks (Miss Ellen & Jeremy). We talked about each other’s culture, star gazed, and shared our experiences. With the breeze tonight, the mosquitoes left us alone. After class ended, we were joined by Haydee and Karen. Before we knew it, the time was 11 p.m. and the lights were going out. No one wanted the evening to end.
Manatee Tally: 3 today — 44 total for the trip
Friday June 16, 2006
Fun Fact: The weather in Belize is greatly affected by the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike most of the weather in the United States, the weather in Belize typically approaches from the East.
All of our bags are pack, but we are not ready to go. It was a quiet breakfast. Most of us were reliving our experience. It seems like just yesterday I was arriving. Where has the time gone?
Just as my journey started with a lump in my throat, it was now ending. We left Caryn, Haydee, Karen, and Gilroy on the island as we returned to the mainland. Not much was said, and no manatees were spotted. Roger and Chip are not heading home today, so they were in search of a tour. As it is an off-tourist day, I do not know what they will find.
Dany, John, and I hopped on our bus to the airport. My trip started with David taking me from the airport, so it was ending with him returning us to the airport. We stopped at a market to do some quick gift shopping for friends and family. As we had been on an island, we did not have the opportunity to do so earlier. Then it was off to the airport. Of the three of us traveling today, I made it home closest to my original arrival time. I was only four hours late. John was much later, and Dany got to spend the night in Houston. Oh well, we were home and “All…was not lost!”
I have now been home for a week and have had a lot of time to share my experience with friends, family, and coworkers. Another Earthwatch team is scheduled to arrive in Belize soon. I wish them well. While physically I have been at work, for much of the week my mind was off on the Caribbean shores of Belize.
While manatee research was our primary focus, my eyes were opened to the marvels of the coral reef. Pictures and documentaries do not do the beauty proper justice. The images in my mind cannot be accurately described in the things I saw. Having never snorkeled before, this was a real treat. For two weeks, I was Jacques Cousteau in the middle of a National Geographic special.
I am forever grateful to my wife, family, Alcoa, Earthwatch, and Caryn for granting me this once-in-a-lifetime experience. While I had to wait two years to be selected by Alcoa, I know others have been trying longer. I have one word for you—PERSEVERE. Do not give up. Your time will come. It is well worth the wait. I would apply again if I were eligible.
One question we had of Caryn was: “What can we do for you to aid in your research?” Aside from the obvious monetary donations, we have several options. First, she wants us to help educate those in our sphere of influence about the plight of the Antillean manatee. The second is something anyone can do. Through the Sirenian International website, www.sirenian.org, there is a link to Amazon.com via the Sirenian gift shop. Any purchases on Amazon.com through this link will help support Sirenian International. The purchases can be about manatees or basketball. It does not matter.
View the images from Bruce Croissant's Diary.
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Manatees in Belize
Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.