Andrew Douglas' Diary


Monday, February 25, 2008 Monday, March 17, 2008
Monday, April 14, 2008 Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Thursday, May 8, 2008 Friday, May 9, 2008
Saturday, May 10, 2008 Sunday, May 11, 2008
Monday, May 12, 2008 Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008 Thursday, May 15, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008 Thursday, June 19, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008 It was early February, a Monday morning. Work was progressing as normal…that is, until I checked my inbox. I opened an email that instantly injected some serious excitement into the day (and coming months)—I had been accepted to participate in an Earthwatch expedition in Belize. Fantastic, I thought. Great news! My mind was racing. I had a thousand questions, but the first one was “Where on Earth is Belize?”.
 
Hi, my name is Andrew, and I’ve been employed with Alcoa since 2004. My current position is as a mechanical engineer at Alcoa’s Kwinana alumina refinery in Western Australia.
 
I was very excited to discover I had been accepted to participate in an Earthwatch expedition. This would be such an amazing opportunity to not only help research a distant part of the world, but also contribute to the sustainability of Belize and hopefully have some fun while we’re at it!
 
I had mixed feelings of excitement, a little disbelief that I was actually going, and also a little nervousness since I had no idea what to expect. After the initial excitement had calmed, I began to get as much information about Belize and the expedition as I could.

Monday, March 17, 2008 I have got my travel books, searched the Internet, and spoken to lots of people—I now know a lot more about the tiny country of Belize. Here’s a summary of some interesting facts about Belize:
  • It’s located in Central America.
  • The country borders the Caribbean Sea to the east, Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west.
  • It’s home to about 300,000 people whose official language is English—this is unique in the region.
  • Belize is a very small country. It has a land area of about 22,800 square kilometers (8,800 square miles).
  • To put this in perspective, Belize is slightly larger than Wales. For those familiar with Australian geography, Belize is less than one-third the size of Tasmania and can fit into Western Australia more than 118 times!
  • Belize may be small, but it compensates for this with an extraordinary array of biodiversity.
  • The barrier reef that sits just off Belize’s shores is the second largest in the world (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). The reef is home to a wide variety of sea life, including fish, rays, and whale sharks.
  • Seven sites in this barrier reef have been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
  • There are only four atolls in the western hemisphere, and three of these are located in Belize’s waters.
  • Belize’s rich biodiversity is not just confined to the water. The country has more than 4,000 species of flowering plants and about the same number of tree species as the United States and Canada combined.
  • Belize is home to 600 species of birds, 60 species of snakes (thankfully, only a few are poisonous), and animals such as jaguars, iguanas, and howler monkeys.
 
With all this natural biodiversity, it is encouraging to read that more than 40% of Belize’s national territory is under some kind of environmental protection.
 
In short, Belize is a tiny country with a small population. However, it has remarkable natural assets, such as forests, reefs, and abundant wildlife. So, why am I traveling to Belize for Earthwatch, and what do we hope to achieve from our trip? I’ll cover this in the next diary entry.

Monday, April 14, 2008 The Earthwatch operations in Belize are designed to ensure the amazing natural diversity of the area can be managed sustainably.

Our Earthwatch expedition is the second of 10 teams working on “Sustainable Southern Belize” expeditions in 2008. Earthwatch and the local Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment group have developed a monitoring program to evaluate the extent of coral bleaching in the shallow back reef at the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. This is where we will spend the majority of our time—either with our heads down snorkeling or on a boat recording data.

When they are under stress, coral can bleach (i.e., turn white when they lose their symbiotic zooxanthellae algae, which gives the coral its color). Bleaching doesn’t always kill the coral—the zooxanthellae can be regained. However, prolonged or intense stress can lead to the death of the coral.

The increasing number of coral bleaching events around the world over the last 20 years is thought to be linked to increasing sea temperatures as a result of global warming.

Our expedition will focus on setting up study sites for the following expeditions and collecting information from these sites. To do this, we need to be able to identify 20 different coral species with names like Stephanocoenia mechelinii. I have laminated the identification cheat sheet to take with me!

Our expedition team will run transects, take underwater photos, install temperature and light loggers, and conduct water quality testing. The 2008 teams will add data to that already collected by Earthwatch teams in 2007.

The effects of bleaching on key coral species will be documented, and the key influences on these bleaching events (e.g., water quality, temperature, light intensity) will be recorded. This will allow a greater understanding of the impact and extent of coral bleaching within the cayes.

An understanding of the extent and potential influences of bleaching in the area will allow the local managers to effectively conserve and protect the coral reef ecosystem within the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve.

Ultimately, Earthwatch research in this area will identify key physical and biological factors that influence coral bleaching. This will facilitate the development of a strategy to monitor, provide early warning, and possibly mitigate future coral bleaching events.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008 My Earthwatch adventure begins tomorrow morning when I fly out of Perth. It will take a long 48 hours to get to Belize (25 hours in the air) and 34 hours to get home (26 hours in the air).

I have visited the travel doctor three times to get my required vaccinations and (hopefully) packed all the required equipment.

We will be living on an island in the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve during the expedition. These cayes are remote—around 60 kilometers (37 miles) offshore from the town of Punta Gorda. There is no regular transport passing the cayes and no communications (mobile phone reception, Internet, etc.) on the island where we will stay except for use of a VHF radio (for emergency use only). Hopefully, we won’t need it!

It will be an amazing experience to live in such a remote area, and I am looking forward to the trip.

Thursday, May 8, 2008 Traveling from Perth to Belize was always going to be a marathon effort, and not only because crossing the international dateline meant my Thursday would be 37 hours long!

After excitedly getting up at 3:30 a.m., I left Perth domestic airport at 5:45 a.m. A little over four hours later, I landed in Sydney for what was supposed to be a short stopover. After my flight was delayed, I reached Los Angeles (13.5 hours after leaving Sydney) to find my connecting flight to Houston had already left. Catching a later flight landed me in Houston around 11 p.m. local time.

After having a long-needed shower in my Houston hotel, I tried to get some sleep. This wasn’t so easy. Although it was midnight in Houston, my body clock was still on Western Australian time (noon the following day). The anticipation of the trip kept me enthusiastic—I had spent the last few months learning as much as I could about Belize and the research we would be conducting.

Friday, May 9, 2008 After arriving back at the Houston airport at 7 a.m., a relatively short flight (2.5 hours) landed me at Belize International Airport. This is where I met up with the first of my fellow Earthwatch volunteers—the very friendly Jim and Laura from Northern California. After booking a flight to Punta Gorda (a small town in the southern Toledo district of Belize, locally known as PG), we found the airport bar to have a few refreshments to combat the heat while getting to know each other.

An hour later, we wandered through the airport to catch our 12-seater Cessna to PG. We had to be at our gate 15 minutes before the scheduled departure and on the plane five minutes before departure—a welcome change from arrival at airports hours before scheduled departures!

Jess from Chicago (our fourth Earthwatch volunteer) was also on our plane. Our flight stopped off at Dangriga and Placencia before arriving at the tiny airstrip of PG.

We were met at the airport by a very friendly Dennis Garbutt, who is the field operations manager for Earthwatch in Belize. Dennis is a local, and his family has a long history in the area.

We loaded into his truck before heading to the Beya Suites, which would be our accommodation for the first and last nights of our expedition. The town of PG is very small, so it only took a couple of minutes to drive from the airstrip to our accommodations on the outskirts of town, where Dennis dropped us off with instructions to meet at the Earthwatch offices in an hour.

After getting settled into the Beya Suites and meeting the fifth volunteer of our expedition—Priscilla from Arizona—we walked five minutes down the road to the Earthwatch offices. Here, we met our final expedition volunteer and a fellow Alcoan, Corey from Iowa.

We had introductions from the Earthwatch and Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment (TASTE) staff and a number of presentations detailing the local area, the Earthwatch expedition, and specifically what we would be doing. The presentations gave us good background on the importance of the area and the work done by the various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as TASTE, in the past. I tried to concentrate as much as possible. However, I was half excited and half exhausted after only a few hours sleep in the last 50 hours—and it was only 4 p.m.!

That night we went to a local restaurant for our first taste of Belizian food. This was my first (but definitely not the last) taste of Belize’s national dish—rice and beans, which was accompanied by a selection of local dishes that included chicken and fish. Dinner was great, and I was beginning to get to know my fellow volunteers and our principal investigators (TASTE employees)—Jocelyn and Christina.

After dinner, we walked to a nearby bar opposite the beach to sample the local beer before heading back to Beya Suites.

Saturday, May 10, 2008 After getting up around 6:30 a.m., we packed our bags and had our last hot shower (with good pressure) for a week. Breakfast consisted of a tortilla with beans and cheese and fresh fruit and fruit juice.

We walked 200 meters (655 feet) toward the center of PG to where we’d jump on the boat destined for the Sapodilla Cayes. PG is a very small town—it is possible to walk or ride a bike anywhere!

The “B-Nice” was the boat that we were taking 60 kilometers offshore to the Sapodilla Cayes. It was 5.5 meters (18 feet) long with a canopy to shelter passengers from the sun. It looked a little small, however we managed to pack all our bags and equipment onboard before having safety talks covering everything from life jackets to defibrillator use. After the safety talks, we excitedly jumped aboard and began the trip out to the cayes.

The 1.5-hour trip out was very smooth, as there was no swell (the area is protected by the barrier reef). We stopped off at Abalone Caye to check out the ranger station that was built by the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE). TIDE is an NGO that the Belize government has given permission to co-manage, with the Fisheries Department, the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR).

To effectively manage the area, the two organizations have built a base with a high lookout on tiny Abalone Caye. The patrol guys live at the base for two weeks at a time. One of their most important jobs is to educate the local people on sustainable fishing. They also confiscate illegal fishing equipment, such as gill nets that were previously placed across river mouths to indiscriminately kill all fish and marine life that got caught in them. These guys are the guardians of the PHMR and, after training, are even granted powers of a special constable to allow them to carry weapons, primarily for their own protection.

The base on the island serves as an education center and a home for the patrol guys. The building was designed by Dennis and includes a high central tower that gives sweeping views over the marine reserve. Using binoculars on the tower allows surveying of the area without consuming fuel by driving the patrol boat.

We were given a talk about the local area and what TIDE does.

Fishing that uses traditional methods is generally allowed in the area, except for the area surrounding three important cayes (e.g., bird-breeding areas). Some of the guys working for TIDE actually used to take part in illegal fishing, so they know a lot of the tricks and secrets that the illegal fishermen use. They came to realize that without conservation of the area and sustainable management of fish stocks, the fishing industry and the local people will ultimately suffer.

We continued on our journey, passing a lot of deserted-looking cayes on the way. We finally arrived at the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (SCMR), where we will make Hunting Caye our home for the next week.

Hunting Caye is a very beautiful and very small island located in the SCMR. The reserve covers approximately 125 square kilometers (30,888 acres) of the southernmost section of the barrier reef and includes 14 sand and mangrove cayes and substantial shallow patch reefs and sea grass beds. Hunting Caye is the main island in the area, and it has a few permanent buildings for the Fisheries Department, Port Authority/Customs, and the lighthouse keeper. Luckily for our expedition, there is also a brand new building, the Living Reef Center (LRC), that Earthwatch just completed. This is where we will be staying.

A lot of planning went into the design and construction of the LRC to minimize its environmental impact. For example, our two hours of electricity per day is supplied by solar panels supplemented by butane, and the installation of a wind turbine in the future will utilize the strong winds that blow across the island in the afternoon. The LRC was specifically positioned to prevent light pollution onto the beach behind the building. This is an important turtle nesting area, and light distracts the turtles when they come onto the beach to lay their eggs.

We were the first Earthwatch coral team to stay at the LRC, which consists of a kitchen, bathroom, dining room/study area, dormitories, and wet and dry laboratories that will be used by the University of Belize. Our rooms were basic but comfortable, with two wooden bunk beds, a dresser, and an upright fan.

One of our principal investigators (PIs), Christina, took us on a quick tour of the island. It is very small, perhaps 300 meters (985 feet) wide in the middle and 800 meters (2,625 feet) long. The north of the island is forested with mangroves (the original condition of the caye prior to human impact), and there is a nice beach on the west of the island and a great moon-shaped beach on the east side.

After our tour, we got straight into work with coral identification lectures and then a test where we had to identify 30 species of coral from pictures. The test was very difficult, and although I would like to blame jet lag, I couldn’t correctly identify any coral by its scientific name. Two examples are Mycetophyllia lamarckiana and Acropora cervicornis—see why I couldn’t remember them?

We took a break to have lunch. Dennis’ mother, Miss Sandra, was our cook for the trip. Lunch was fantastic, although we had to spare a thought for Miss Sandra because it was very hot outside and even hotter in the kitchen.

After lunch, we had more discussions on coral before Sean (our boat driver, “study hall” operator, basketball player extraordinaire, and all-round nice guy) took us out on the boat, which is called the Baby Marley, for our first look underwater.

We traveled about five minutes from Hunting Caye, where we were in one to five meters (3.3 to 16.4 feet) of water. Our PIs handed out laminated coral identification sheets, and we jumped in the water for our first look at part of the second biggest barrier reef in the world.

Our brief was to practice identifying the coral. We broke up into two groups of three, and Jocelyn and Christina had the tough job of rapidly teaching six people who knew nothing about coral how to identify one coral from another.

The coral cover was great, and the water was warm (about 29° Celsius, or 84° Fahrenheit)—perfect snorkeling/research conditions. After being blown away by the beauty of the coral, we next noticed the lack of fish and marine animals living around the pristine coral. Apparently, the area had been extensively fished in the past. The Sapodilla Cayes are actually very close to Guatemala and Honduras, so there is a lot of pressure on the area. This is one of the reasons for having the Fisheries Department based on Hunting Caye.

Jocelyn and Christina were excellent and very patient teachers, explaining the sometimes subtle differences between coral species. It was all a bit confusing, and I wasn’t confident at being able to identify all the coral. It was about 2 p.m. Belize time, which is 4 a.m. the next day in Perth, and I was still adjusting!

After a couple of hours in the water getting Meandrina confused with Montastraea, we did a quick boat tour of the area before returning to Hunting Caye.

We had a glass of wine (thanks, Jim!) before assembling and flying a shark kite that Jim had brought to the island. The wind was strong in the afternoon, which helped keep us cool as it became dark.

After dinner, we spent a few hours studying our coral sheets, and Jocelyn gave us a few more presentations regarding identifying coral. My head was overloaded with coral facts (as was everyone else’s), so we headed to the study hall for a couple of Belikins (beer) before crashing in bed at 10:30 p.m., where I slept soundly with the noise of crashing waves sending me off to sleep.

Sunday, May 11, 2008 I was up early Sunday morning to write this diary and read over my notes from yesterday’s presentations. I sat on a log under a palm tree about 15 meters (50 feet) from the LRC, looking out over the moon-shaped beach while watching the sun rise. I had read that this is one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Belize. I feel very lucky to be here right now, and it is quite surreal.

Even though we are 60 kilometers off the mainland on a small island and well off the tourist trail, the ugly side of human impact on the planet is still with us. The moon beach is naturally beautiful, but, unfortunately, it is far from pristine. The currents in the Gulf of Honduras direct a lot of floating rubbish to this beach. It is very depressing to see drink containers, thongs, sandals, aerosol cans, foam, and anything else that floats (including needles) washing up on the beach. The beach is cleaned regularly, but rubbish continues to wash up from faraway lands.

This reminds me of the so called “pacific rubbish tip” that is also caused by ocean currents. This is another unfortunate reminder of how humans have affected the planet. Who thinks that by throwing an empty drink container out of a car window, the container could find its way to the ocean through stormwater drains and then float on a current to finally wash up on an idyllic beach thousands of kilometers away. I’m not into preaching for the environment, but I do believe that everyone has an obligation to do their part to preserve the planet where we all live.

On a brighter note, it is great to see hermit crabs scurrying around in the mornings and evenings when the sand isn’t too hot. Early in the morning, there are crab tracks all over the island—evidence that hundreds have been busy running around during the night.

We had a big breakfast (bacon, scrambled eggs, beans, rice, and fruit) to provide the energy we’ll need to snorkel all day. Jim mentioned that the temperature didn’t drop below 28° Celsius (82° Fahrenheit) all night. Unfortunately, the wind stopped blowing around midnight, which was about the same time the generator (and our room’s fan) turned off.

After breakfast, we had another session identifying corals from a slideshow. Jocelyn is certain she can successfully teach us all the coral species of the area. Although I had my doubts early on, I’m finally starting to get the hang of it now, as is the rest of the group.

To be able to identify coral species, you have to initially identify the basic shape (i.e., brain, staghorn, lettuce, etc.) and then look for further identifying characteristics, such as relative size of the coral, thickness of polyp sections, and other features. Although the differences make sense, I still need some more time to become competent! Compressing the scientific names, such as Colpophyllia natans into CNAT, makes them a lot easier to remember.

After 63 slides of coral identification, we enthusiastically jumped back onto the Baby Marley for another snorkel. We traveled about 15 minutes from Hunting Caye and then broke into two groups.

Jocelyn and Christina asked us to identify specific corals that they pointed out. It was necessary to swim up close to some of the corals to identify their unique attributes, and I started to get the hang of it! As an example, I was able to tell the difference between the four different brain corals of the area. Diploria labryrinthiformis has a groove on the top of its polyps. Colpophyllia natans (giant brain coral) has a line on the top of its polyps. Diploria clivosa isn’t spherical—it has lumps on it—while Diploria strigosa has none of the identifying features of the other three brain corals. As it turned out, Jocelyn and Christina really did know how to teach us this stuff!

We continued our practice, with our PIs asking us to find and point out to them an example of a particular coral. It was great fun, and we found the majority of the corals on our 25 coral laminated card. We stayed in the water for about two hours, after which I felt a lot more comfortable with my coral identification skills.

We traveled back to Hunting Caye for a delicious lunch of beans and rice, plantains (fried bananas), salad, and rice pudding. The food is much better than what I thought we’d be getting on the island.

After lunch, we had some lessons on coral disease, corals attacking each other, and how corals can be attacked (e.g., parrotfish bite off chucks of coral). We then did a lot of work on algae and the different types of algae before moving on to look at different types of gorgonians (e.g., sea fans) and other organisms that are present on a healthy coral reef.

Some interesting snippets were that damselfish bite off chunks of coral and then allow algae to grow in its place. They tend to their “gardens” to ensure the algae grow, and they are very protective of them. Also, parrotfish bite off chunks of coral to digest the polyps and zooxanthellae. They spit out the coral’s calcium carbonate skeletal structure. If the predators of parrotfish, such as large snapper, decrease in numbers (which could happen, for example, as a result of over-fishing), it can place the coral under increased stress. See the photo gallery for an example of parrotfish bites on a small colony of Montastraea faveolata.

We then had some lessons and a discussion on how to estimate the percentage of dead/alive coral. This can be difficult due to the irregular shape of most corals and the difficulty in identifying the boundaries between different coral colonies of the same species.

We discussed benthic cover (which I’ll talk about later) and the importance of the diadema. This long-legged sea urchin is very important to healthy coral reef ecosystems since it eats all different types of algae that grow over coral. An unexplained mass death (approximately 97% mortality) of these animals in the Caribbean in 1998 has resulted in some reef areas changing from coral-dominated to algae-dominated reefs. Fish and other organisms are very selective of the algae they eat, so the diadema is very important to healthy reef ecosystems.

After more than an hour of lectures in the stifling heat (we had only just started to become competent identifying coral species, and now we were moving onto new material!), it was time to go and test our new knowledge. Sean took us to the north side of Nicholas Caye, which is just north of Hunting Caye. We again broke into groups with our ever-patient PIs, who identified a lot of different algae and seafloor coverings, such as gorgonians. We were then tested on our ability to estimate the percentage of dead/alive coral in specific colonies.

I realized I had become a bit of a coral nerd when I was excited to see my first Diploria clivosa, the only remaining brain coral of the area that I hadn’t seen during the last couple of dives. We also saw lots of Siderastrea radians colonies. Jocelyn explained that different corals prefer to live in certain areas. These two prefer to live in the shallow, high-current water that we were currently in.

A highlight of this snorkeling trip for me was finding a nurse shark resting on the sandy bottom under a rock ledge. According to the Marine Animals of the Caribbean book that we were studying back at the LRC, nurse sharks aren’t aggressive unless molested. I wasn’t going to risk that, so I just took a photo and left him alone!

After two hours of snorkeling and lessons with our PIs, we went back to Hunting Caye. Jim, Corey, Jess, and I decided to check out the reef that is less than 50 meters (165 feet) from the LRC for some additional snorkeling and studying. This reef can be accessed easily from the moon beach.

We saw lots of coral and marine life. Highlights for me were seeing a few stingrays, including a spotted eagle ray; fish that included a 1.2-to-1.5-meter (four-to-five-foot ) tarpon that circled and stalked us, which was a little unnerving; a green morey eel that emerged from under a coral ledge; and an abundance of reef fish. It was great to see so much marine life on this reef, especially as there are not that many big fish on the reef areas we have visited for our research.

Back on Hunting Caye, we had some free time to relax after spending a lot of time in the water during the day. Dinner was great—the staples of rice and beans, chicken, salad, and freshly baked bread were eagerly eaten. Everyone was tired after a long day, so we watched a movie and then went to bed.

Monday, May 12, 2008 Today started with another early morning on the moon beach to write this diary and do a little more studying. Jocelyn had mentioned that we will have another coral identification test today. I’m positive I’ll do much better than last time. I find it much more difficult to identify coral from pictures than to identify them in the water. With practice, we are all getting really good at coral identification.

After breakfast, we had a briefing on how to do our coral measurements. This is what we have come here for, so I guess the real work is about to start!

We are going to use two methods to gather data on the health of the coral reefs in the SCMR. The first method is called the weighted bar drop. This involves randomly placing a 1.5-meter-long (five-foot-long) piece of irrigation pipe on the seafloor/coral reef. Any coral under each end and the middle of the bar is included in the recording.

Using waterproof paper, we record the following:
  • Species of coral;
  • Percentage of coral colony that is dead;
  • Percentage of coral colony that is recently dead (the coral is white if it died in about the last week, although we need to be able to distinguish between dead and bleached coral);
  • Any bleaching of the coral;
  • Any disease; and
  • Other comments, such as parrotfish bites and gorgonians or Christmas tree worms living on the coral.
 
The other recording method uses line transects to record the benthic cover of the research areas. This method involves randomly laying a 10-meter-long (33-foot-long) leaded rope over the seafloor/coral cover and then diving down to the rope to measure the total length of each of the following:
  • Crustose coralline algae (looks like pink/white frosting on the coral);
  • Calcareous macroalgae;
  • Fleshy macroalgae (e.g., gorgonians);
  • Sand; and
  • Live coral.
 
Additionally, we record the number of lobster, diadema, and conch in the vicinity of the line.

The weighted bar drop is used to record a lot of data regarding the health of the coral at each of our research sites in a short period of time. It also reveals the coral makeup of the area and can provide information regarding the resistance and resilience of the corals in specific areas.

The line transects allow the gathering of more detailed data on the research area, such as what percentage of coral cover is in the area. The line transects are much more time-consuming, so not as many data points can be recorded.

These methods have been used in the area in the past, so the data that we collect will add to this knowledge base. Check out the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Systems Project and its 2005 baseline report to see how this type of data has been used in the past.

After our PIs described and demonstrated these methods on the island, it was time to get in the water to practice them. We got our snorkeling gear ready and then jumped on the boat and headed to a research area around 10 minutes from Hunting Caye.

We spent an hour or two practicing the bar drop and line transect under the watchful eyes of our PIs. The conditions were fantastic—calm and, as always, the water was crystal-clear and the coral was beautiful. We asked our PIs plenty of questions before being judged competent in both methods.
 
The line transects involved a lot of diving and holding your breath underwater while trying to use a short tape to measure each covering (e.g., live coral). I found it a lot more enjoyable than the bar drop, and it was definitely my favorite method. Have a look at the photo gallery for some pictures of both methods.

We returned to Hunting Caye for lunch, where we ate conch (garlic conch and conch fritters) for the first time. Conch is a local shellfish and a staple part of the diet for many Belizeans. There is a fixed season for the taking of conch from waters in Belize, and only conchs greater than a certain weight are allowed to be taken from the water. The importance of conch to the area is highlighted since it is the topic of another Earthwatch expedition to the SCMR in which two other Alcoa employees—Chad Kavanaugh and Ronaldo Firmo—are participating this year.

After lunch, we had a couple of Belikins at the study hall while we looked over our coral notes and discussed various tips on how to identify some of the corals before our test. We headed back to the LRC to retake the coral identification test, where we all did much better than last time. I scored 26 out of 30, which I was pleased with, as they were all the corals that we would see in the areas where we were recording data.

We broke into three teams to begin our data recording. Jess and I did the line transects with Jocelyn recording our measurements, while Laura, Jim, Corey, and Priscilla paired up for bar drops under Christina’s supervision.

Our first research site, Vigilance, was a tough introduction to recording data. There was quite a bit of surge in the water, which made it very difficult to maintain a position over the top of the transect line. The other difficulty was the so-called fire coral (Millepora alcicornis), which had a habit of branching over the transect line or being positioned just to the side of it. When concentrating on what I was measuring, it was very easy to inadvertently brush against the fire coral. Fire coral gets its common name from the burning/stinging sensation it gives divers on any skin that it comes in contact with.

We were all still learning how to conduct our measurements accurately. This, as well as the big swell, meant it took a long time to do our first set of transects at Vigilance. After a couple of hours of repeatedly diving underwater, we headed back to Hunting Caye. Jim and I snorkeled on the reef off moon beach again, where we spotted a couple of big lobster and a lot of fish.

Back at the LRC, we got cleaned up before dinner. All the water for the taps, toilets, and showers is collected from rainwater, so it was important that we conserved it—especially since it is still dry season, and I haven’t seen even a hint of rain. All our showers use cold water that is gravity fed from a tank. A two-minute shower to wash the salt off is all that is really needed on the island. We sat around and discussed the day’s activities before dinner (jewfish, chicken, rice, and fresh bread). After dinner, we entered our data from the day onto the computer and then went to the study hall where we played cards with the group and some of the Fisheries guys.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 Our team was keen to start our data recording early before the wind (and the swell) picked up later in the day and made recording difficult.

After an early breakfast, we went to two research sites—Seals and Last Shoal. The two sites were fantastic, and I again did the line transects for the benthic cover recording. The coral cover was great, and there were more fish here. The water wasn’t too deep (about three meters, or 10 feet) and we were all much quicker at the line transects and bar drop today after practicing yesterday. Plus, the conditions were ideal.

I found a temperature logger at Seals that had been lost during past research. The logger would have continually recorded data until its memory was filled, so it will still provide data to the PIs. We took water quality and water temperature measurements at both sites. We saw some eels and lots of great coral and marine life. After collecting a lot of data at the two sites, we returned to the LRC for lunch.

We were ahead of schedule, according to our PIs, so after lunch we traveled a few minutes by boat to a shipwreck between Hunting and Lime cayes. The wreck had been there since the 1970s, although it was still easy to identify parts of the ship, such as the propeller, hull, and even the anchor chain.

After snorkeling on the wreck, we landed on Lime Caye. This is where we would have been staying if the LRC hadn’t just been completed on Hunting Caye. The accommodation on this island is a lot more basic than the LRC—a few cabanas with enough room for a bed and a separate outdoor eating area. We all realized we were very lucky to be staying at the LRC! Lime Caye is nice and it would be a great place to stay if you like rustic accommodations and sharing the island with a bunch of iguanas!

Back at the LRC, we had some presentations regarding the resilience and resistance of coral reefs to the numerous threats (e.g., destructive fishing techniques and increased sea temperatures) that threaten their survival.

Researchers are working to uncover which coral species are more resistant to the threats against them. Additionally, finding areas of reef systems that are resilient to bleaching (i.e., show good recovery after bleaching events) is potentially very important for the long-term survival of reefs. One proposed method of protecting coral reef ecosystems is identifying resilient areas and ensuring they are effectively protected from threats that can be controlled (for example, destructive fishing and pollution).

The data that we are collecting will be compiled with other data, and the resistance and resilience of corals in the area will be one conclusion that can be drawn from these data.

Ultimately, it would be ideal if reef managers could stop all the threat factors at their source. Unfortunately, this is very difficult, especially with factors like pollution and rising sea temperatures. It is thought that increasing sea temperatures are caused by global warming, and these higher temperatures can cause corals to become stressed. If they are stressed for about four weeks, they can bleach (which occurs when coral releases their symbiotic organism, zooxanthellae). If the stress source isn’t eliminated (e.g., high temperatures don’t drop), the coral can die due to starvation or disease.

Global warming also leads to “ocean acidification.” The increasing industrialization of the world has increased the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere by approximately 35%. The ocean absorbs some of this CO2, increasing the carbonic acid in the water. Unfortunately for corals, this ocean acidification makes it more difficult for corals to build their calcium carbonate skeleton and also makes them more susceptible to erosion. It is thought that higher sea temperatures also result in more severe hurricanes/cyclones, which can be very destructive to coral reefs.

During the presentation, a map of the world clearly showed that reefs all over the world have either suffered extensive bleaching and/or mortality of coral over the last 20 years. It was shocking to hear that 85% of the inner reefs at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia are extensively bleached. This was something I didn’t know.

It appears we are entering a critical phase in the survival of reef ecosystems. There are many threats to coral reefs that must be addressed if we are to preserve healthy coral reef ecosystems. This year has actually been designated as the International Year of the Reef .

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 After breakfast, we went out to another couple of sites—Tom Owens and Last Day—to continue data collection. Again, the sites were fantastic, and I was really enjoying spending so much time in the water each day.

One of our line transects ran right through a massive colony of fire coral, which made measurements interesting. This was then followed by a transect being laid across a stingray that was hiding under a layer of sand. I think these were placed accidentally by our PIs…but maybe our team was being more annoying than I thought!

The first site was fantastic, and we found a lot of lobster. Counting lobster is great, since they like to hide under rock formations. It is good fun looking for them while trying to avoid fire coral.

At the second site, we did our deepest transects of the expedition. It is amazing how quickly we had become competent in the water. I had drastically increased the time I could spend underwater while measuring each transect.

It was very rewarding to know that we increased our knowledge of coral and reef ecosystems (from a starting point of zero!) over the past five days to the point where we could identify more than 30 coral species and I could tell you what zooxanthellae is. At the same time, we were contributing to the body of knowledge about the reefs and ecosystem of the SCMR, which will help ensure its sustainability.

After more transects and measuring, we headed back to the LRC, where we played some basketball on a sand court with some of the Fisheries guys. One thing that has been obvious during my short stay in Belize is the friendliness of all the local people. I’m told this has something to do with the acceptance and tolerance of the local people since Belize is a “melting pot” of many different cultures.

After cleaning up some rubbish and having a refreshing swim out on the front beach as the sun was setting, we learned a bit about the starfish that live in this area before we returned to the LRC for dinner and then carried out our data entry for the day.

After this, we watched a movie on whale sharks. Whale sharks are commonly spotted on Glover’s Reef, which is roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Hunting Caye. Snapper and grouper congregate in huge schools around the full moon to spawn, and the spawn turns the sea white (it can even be seen on the surface). The whale sharks somehow know when and where to arrive and show up just in time to feast on the spawn.

There is an Earthwatch expedition studying whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. This would be another very interesting expedition to be involved in (and much closer to home for me!).

Thursday, May 15, 2008 If you have read the last few days of my diary, you probably already know what today consisted of. After a substantial early breakfast, we headed out to record more data on the coral in the area. The weather again was hot and sunny with the water clear, calm, and warm—perfect research conditions. Our team named our last research site Rock Lobster after the catchy B52’s song that someone had been singing all week.

We didn’t do any benthic cover data recording, so I worked on collecting data using the bar drop method. This method was a lot different from the line transect and meant a lot more treading water and discussion on top of the water regarding our estimates.

At this last site, there was a lot of Montastraea annularis, which looks like lumpy, potato-type coral that grows in colonies of large mounds. My key learning from this site was that it isn’t easy to tread water and laugh at the same time. One great thing about this Earthwatch expedition is that we’ve done a lot of work and also had a great time while we’ve been doing it.

After taking a stack of data points, we took some water temperature measurements and laid some temperature loggers and light intensity meters before returning to Hunting Caye. We’re ahead of schedule for our expedition (apparently we are quick learners and even quicker data recorders), so we had some spare time after lunch.

After many discussions and presentations regarding whale sharks, Sean took Jess, Corey, me, and our PIs out on the boat with the promise that we’d look for whale sharks. We began by taking some temperature/depth measurements in the deeper water to the east of Hunting Caye, where the water begins to increase in depth. We then scanned the water looking for any whale sharks breaking the surface. It wasn’t the ideal time or location for whale shark sightings, but we carried on anyway. We saw a pod of dolphins with a baby calf and lots of flying fish before calling it a day and heading back to Hunting Caye.

It was our last night on Hunting Caye. We played some more basketball with the Fisheries guys on the small sand court before cooling down in the water on the front beach while watching the magical sunset. Although I miss everyone back at home, I’ll definitely miss the caye and the fantastic people that I’ve spent the last week with.

After our last dinner from the talented Miss Sandra, we had a team discussion before heading down to the study hall on the beach for the last time, where we shared a few cold Belikins.

Friday, May 16, 2008 Unfortunately, it was our last morning on the island. After breakfast, we packed our bags, said goodbye to our new friends from the island, and jumped on the boat for the trip back to the Belize mainland.

The trip back to the mainland was smooth, so we headed up the Rio Grande River to try to spot some native wildlife. It was a bit hot for most of the animals to be out in the open, so after stopping off at the Starcher conservation area, we climbed to the top of a local resort for a look over the landscape. Back at PG, we had lunch at a local restaurant before looking everywhere around town for a shop selling tourist T-shirts.

We headed to the Beya Suites again, where hot showers with good pressure were available for the first time in a week! While swapping stories, we had a dinner of local Belizean food where we started off on our first night. After dinner, we headed out for a couple of final drinks with our team before heading off to bed. The next day we would be heading our separate ways. Jess, Corey, and Priscilla had to return straight home, whereas I would be spending some more time in Belize and Guatemala, as were Jim and Laura. It had certainly been a great adventure.

Thursday, June 19, 2008 I traveled halfway around the world to a place I’d never heard about before to research something I knew nothing about. What did I learn from this fantastic experience?

Coral reefs are very important ecosystems. They:
  • Support a huge number and variety of marine life;
  • Offer coastal protection, helping to shelter land from hurricanes and cyclones;
  • Attract tourists; and
  • Are relied upon by many coastal communities.
 
But coral reefs are currently facing numerous threats, including:
  • Pollution, such as nutrient runoff from cleared land;
  • Increasing demand for fish and other marine animals;
  • Increasing coastal development; and
  • Most importantly, increasing sea temperatures.
 
Coral reefs similar to what we see today have been around for about 25 million years. These reefs have been under increasing stress during the last few decades. There are debates as to whether “global warming” exists or not. However, about 16% of the world’s reefs died in about 10 months in 1997/98 due to increased sea temperatures. These years were associated with El Nino/El Nina, but 2005 was the hottest year ever recorded and there wasn’t a concurrent El Nino event to attribute this to.

We need to protect the world’s coral reefs and ensure they can be managed in a sustainable manner. There are around 2,500 square kilometers (618,000 acres) of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Belize and a number of regionally focused projects and initiates researching Belizean reefs. Parts of the reef have even been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Organizations such as TIDE and the Belize Fisheries Department are doing their best to enforce the MPAs with limited resources. This is a great start to protecting the MPAs from local threat factors; however, it won’t prevent serious threats to the coral reefs, such as increasing sea temperatures. The work TASTE is conducting and the data we have contributed to will quantify the effect threats are having on the health of the coral reef around the SCMR and also identify resistant coral species and areas of reef that are resilient. This knowledge will allow TASTE to recommend to local stakeholders how to sustainably manage the coral reefs of the area.

Our Earthwatch expedition was titled “Sustainable Southern Belize.” I hope that the data that we have gathered will allow this amazing place to retain its natural beauty.

What can people do to contribute to the health of the world’s coral reefs? Basically, reducing your carbon footprint is a simple way to positively contribute. You don’t have to change the way you live—just be mindful of how your actions affect the environment. There is heaps of information available detailing energy and water saving tips, such as using compact fluorescent light globes and water- and energy-efficient products in your home. The changes aren’t difficult to make, and they will save you money over the life of the products. The changes individuals make do make a difference—saving reefs couldn’t be easier!

I’m very appreciative to Alcoa for the opportunity to attend this Earthwatch expedition. It was a fantastic experience that I will never forget. The people I met were great fun, and it is good to know there are organizations like TASTE working hard to secure the future of unique and beautiful parts of the world. I encourage everyone to have a look at the different expeditions Earthwatch offers and consider attending one that sounds interesting,  even if you know nothing about the subject matter.

If you would like to learn more about the health of coral reefs of the Caribbean, a good place to start is The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and, more specifically, its “Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs after Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005” report.

Thank you for reading about my Earthwatch experience. I hope you have enjoyed it!

Photo Gallery


View the images from Andrew Douglas' Diary.
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Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
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Sustainable Southern Belize


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
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