Ronaldo Firmo's Diary


Friday, February 1, 2008 Friday, May 19, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008 Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Thursday, May 29, 2008
Saturday, May 31, 2008 Sunday, June 1, 2008
Monday, June 2, 2008 Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Wednesday, June 4, 2008 Thursday, June 5, 2008
Friday, June 6, 2008 Saturday, June 7, 2008
Sunday, June 8, 2008 Monday, June 30, 2008

Friday, February 1, 2008 My first name is Ronaldo, although my friends and even my parents call me by my middle name, which is Ivo. I don't know the reason for this. It has been like this ever since I was a child, so maybe Ivo is easier to say.
 
I'm currently with the global data & reporting team within the procurement group in GBS Poços de Caldas in Brazil after 10 years with the information technology (IT) team. This was not a big change, as my activities continue to be related to IT.
 
My peers and customers are in the USA, Europe, and Australia, with a few in Brazil. This gives me a multi-faceted approach to my job. I’ve been in Poços de Caldas for two and half years now, and it is a beautiful and cozy town. Its many parks and amazing landscape have made my and my family’s transition very comfortable. Besides, I'm only a two-hour drive from my hometown.
 
This is a quiet Friday night at the office, as I’m coming back from a business trip. My workmates have just gone home, but I decided to drop by my desk and enjoy the stillness of the place to read the tons of emails that piled up in my mailbox while I was out. This very night marks the beginning of Carnival in Brazil, which goes until Wednesday. That’s why the office is empty. Almost everybody has hit the road right after office hours to head toward their holiday destinations.
 
I usually browse the email subjects, looking for an interesting or important topic. Surprise—the first email I saw on the top of all the others read “2008 Alcoa Fellowship Program.” I was actually not thinking much about the subject. I decided to apply for the fellowship after seeing a woman from my plant come back from an expedition. It was the first time I applied, so I tried not to have great expectations about it. I just thought to myself, “Well, let’s put off the anxiety for once.” I opened the email, and the first word was “Congratulations.” That certainly meant a yes. I had been accepted to the Sustainable Southern Belize program. I was surprised and happy.
 
I could not wait to get home to tell the great news to my wife. I called her right away, and, funny enough, she didn’t know exactly where Belize was. To tell the truth, I didn’t have the faintest idea either.
 
All this reminds me of the outdoor lab classes in my college days, when my buddies and I would venture out into the local woods to camp. Time now has come for the real thing—truly exciting. Next step is to download whatever information I can about that tiny country in Central America and get acquainted with the project itself. I just hope the time to pack it up and head to Belize comes soon.

Fact #1: Belize is the only official English-speaking country in Central America, although Spanish is used in informal conversations. It was known as British Honduras until 1973 and is home to several important ancient ruin sites—reminders of the great Mayan civilization.

Friday, May 19, 2008 Until now, everything had been as easy as a Sunday morning (quoting a line from a Lionel Ritchie song).

After preparing the forms, arranging my vacation period, packing the first items to take with me, and getting the inoculations, the time came to schedule my journey. This became very stressful.

Brazilians are required to obtain a visa to enter Belize, and this ended up being very cumbersome. As an Alcoan, I started the process with Alcoa’s travel agency, but they initially did not know where to get the visa since Belize is not a usual destination for Brazilians. The first suggestion was to get the visa from the consulate in Miami, so I planned my itinerary accordingly. A more detailed reading of the expedition briefing revealed some very useful links and references, so we found out there was a consul based in Fortaleza (in the far northeast of Brazil), but this was also an issue because the travel agency did not have a representative in that region.

It was suggested I work with a visa agency in São Paulo, but I would have to make direct contact with the agency to expedite the process. I did so, and I was told I would have the visa in 15 days. I have 42 days left before departure.

Monday, May 26, 2008 After several contacts over the last 30 days, I had an interview for my visa scheduled for today. If I manage to complete the process today, I’ll have the visa on Wednesday, in time for my departure on Thursday.

I did call at the time scheduled, but I had very bad news. The visa agency told me the consul was traveling and would not be back in time for my travel. This was a terrible blow to my spirits, and I was left not knowing what to do. I’m still wondering what went wrong.

I called the consulate in Miami and got more bad news. I was told the consulate had been closed and the operations transferred to Washington, DC. What I have now is a bag of mixed feelings, from frustration to despair.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 My departure is scheduled for Thursday night, and I still have no visa. The travel agency was somehow as lost as I was, and the visa agency failed me. It’s unacceptable to me that a visa is not possible if the consul is not physically present.

I finally decided to advise Earthwatch about what was happening, and I should have done that long before. I would have had more time for other options, such as being assigned to a different expedition. I emailed Earthwatch to inform my contacts there about this terrible issue. I actually said I would not be able to go.

At this point, Alcoa and Earthwatch proved to be very supportive. Special thanks to Shamsa from Alcoa, who offered several suggestions to help me get the visa. I tried the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belize, but I was told the visa must be obtained outside Belize. Needless to say, I feel as if this were the worst day in my life—my mind is spinning in a whirl of anxiety.

There is a string of emails from Alcoa managers and Earthwatch people trying to find a way out of this.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 I’m reluctant to unpack my stuff. I left home in the morning with slim hope something would happen. I checked my emails, seeing a couple more from Alcoa managers really worried that I could not go. I tried my last shot—calling the embassy in Washington, DC. This was the light at the end of the tunnel. I would be able to get the visa from the Belize embassy in Washington, DC.

At 10 a.m., I got a call from Shamsa. It was time to hurry up and change my itinerary to include a stopover in Washington. I gave the travel agency the difficult task of changing the flight plan on such short notice.

Since I have to be in Washington tomorrow morning, I had no time to wave to my children—“see you soon”—as there is a three-hour ride by car to São Paulo to get my documentation and passport and then rush to the airport.

The first leg of the trip was a flight of eight hours from São Paulo to Miami, during which I was overcome by physical and mental exhaustion after so much stress.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 Two hours was the exact time needed in Miami to pass immigration, clear customs, and catch a connection to Washington. Obtaining the visa in Washington was pretty easy. All they requested was the completed form and a photograph, different from visa agencies that require a lot of documentation. Of course, I had to pay an extra fee for an emergency service, as I needed the visa for tomorrow. The rest of the day was free time, so I finally relaxed from all the previous stress and enjoyed the sights of the city.

Washington somehow resembles the town I live in. With something around 588,292 inhabitants, it is much larger than Poços de Caldas, but its many parks and trees made me feel at home.

This was my first time in the U.S. I did go to Vancouver, Canada, in 1987, but all I can remember from there is in the pictures I got from that time.

We definitely have things to learn from each other. It was very nice to see that there are no motorcycles crowding the streets and adding hysteria to chaotic transit, as in Brazil. At the same time, I think Americans have to learn that we don’t need one ton of metal surrounding us to transport us from here to there.

Saturday, May 31, 2008 My journey to Belize starts today. With visa finally in hand, nothing can stop me now. The possession of the document allows me to set my mind to what is awaiting me across the Caribbean Ocean, but I’ll have time to think about it while on the plane to Miami and then to Belize City.

It was still dark when I left Washington, DC, for a quite uneventful flight to Miami. Three hours waiting in the airport allowed me to relax and think more about the next few days. I enjoyed my last chance to give my family a call and talk to the kids, but my wife was not at home at that time.

Looking at the people standing around the gate, it seemed to me most of the passengers were American. Does this confirm that Belize has become a new tourist haven? It makes me wonder what a flight to Belize City would have been about 10 years ago. I thought the lady sitting next to me was Belizean, but I found out she was Nigerian and going to spend some days with her husband, who was also a Nigerian working in Belize City. The world has really become very small, and that is a good thing.

I slept for the last hour of the trip, and I thought I was dreaming about a bumpy ride. I soon saw water drops and an overcast sky outside the window, warning me of certain rain and that the turbulence was for real. Considering that the country is a tropical one, some rain would not be a surprise. I was surprised by the scorching heat when I got off the plane. Brazil is a tropical country as well, but Poços de Caldas has an average temperature of 12o to 15o Celsius (54o to 59o Fahrenheit) at this time of the year, so I may not be that used to hot weather.

While waiting for a connection to Punta Gorda, somebody started talking to me. As I told him I was going there as a volunteer on an expedition, he introduced himself as Bernie. He was also on an expedition with Earthwatch. I had met my first expedition mate.

Bernie is a guy somewhere in his sixties or seventies, retired from the government of California, living in Palm Springs, and now dedicating his time and resources on volunteering. The first time I met with him, he already taught me a lesson—we can be active and helpful at any age. I have to start planning my years after Alcoa.

The flight to Punta Gorda proved to be my first adventure in Belize, as it was my first time flying in a small plane like that one, a Cessna Grand Caravan from Tropic Air. Tropic Air and Maya Island Air are the only two airlines in Belize.

I was somehow feeling like Indiana Jones hovering over the Belize coastline, seeing the unfolding of the rain forest that covers the country, some mangrove vegetation here and there, and small towns or villages in between.

In the plane, I met Chad, who was sitting right across from my seat. When he saw my Alcoa backpack, he instantly associated me with the expedition. He gave the impression of being a very nice guy. He’s also an Alcoan, working with Kawneer in Toronto, Canada.

After two stops in Dangriga and Placencia, we reached Punta Gorda, a small village in the far south of the country. Dennis, operations manager for Earthwatch in Belize, picked us up at the airstrip and dropped us off at Beya Suites, a very small hotel with five rooms but very, very cozy.  Should I return to PG one day, it will certainly be my choice of a place to stay.

At the hotel, we were introduced to Michelle, a designer for an architectural company in New York. Michelle has already been in a few countries in Central America, and she is a keen long distance runner, having finished one marathon.

After unwinding and relaxing, we met Dennis at the Earthwatch office, where we had an overview of the project. John Cigliano, the principal investigator, and Rich Kliman, his colleague, were traveling from Belize City and would join us for dinner.

As John and Rich were expected to cover the in-depth details of the expedition, Dennis covered the logistics. He introduced us to the Earthwatch facilities in Punta Gorda and the other support staff, which included Sean, our boat captain and manager for the Living Reef Center (LRC), where we will stay at the Sapodilla Cayes; Renata, a Mexican biologist with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE); and Jonathan, who provides security at the LRC. This was our first roundtable that enabled us to know a little about each one involved in the expedition. My attention was drawn to the fact that Renata really fell in love with Southern Belize and her job at TIDE.

Dinner was served at a local restaurant, where we met up with John and Rich. They are both from Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania.

I think I heard somebody says that Dennis’ mother had cooked for us, and I have to say that the food was absolutely fantastic. After a couple of days eating hamburgers and pizzas, I feasted on curried chicken, curried shrimp, rice and beans, fried plantains, and lime juice. To my surprise, we were served the subject of our research, the conch, and I tell you, it was delicious.

Fact #2: Punta Gorda, or PG as it is locally known, is the largest town in Belize’s Toledo district, with about 4,500 inhabitants. The surrounding areas are full of Mayan villages with their traditional thatched-roof huts. PG is the gateway to Guatemala and features some of the largest cave systems in the world.

Fact #3: The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300-kilometer (185-mile) section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. This system is continuous from Cancun on the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and to offshore Guatemala, making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is also one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, with 70 hard coral species, 36 soft coral species, 500 fish species, and hundreds of invertebrate species.

Sunday, June 1, 2008 It’s been a couple of days since I left my home in the southern hemisphere, and I still have not gotten rid of the jet lag.

I am used to getting up every day at 6 a.m. to get breakfast ready and get the kids on their way to school. I woke up today with my mind set to leave the bed and start the day, but to my surprise, the clock indicated 3 a.m. That’s natural, as Belize is three hours behind Brazil.

I was alone and sleepless in the darkness of the Belizean early hours. A quick glance outside the curtains showed the same drizzling from the previous day. I have learned already that, to a certain extent, this expedition depends on good weather, so it’s not that hard to anticipate that we’ll spend another day on the mainland.

My suspicion was confirmed after a breakfast of burritos and coffee. Talking about breakfast, there are so many different things from home, and food is totally one of them. It’s neither better nor worse—just different. Our diet back home definitely does not include scrambled eggs, bacon, and fried jacks, and our coffee is much stronger. People here drink very big cups of coffee. Michelle, in particular, is a diehard coffee lover. She admitted she can’t live without this beverage.

Dennis, our operations manager, came to the hotel for the 9 a.m. meeting and reported a bad weather forecast was canceling our crossing from PG to the cayes. A storm is said to be making its way in the ocean northward to Mexico, making the crossing unsafe somehow. Even though all I could see was a drizzling, my lack of experience in the open sea suggested I trust Dennis’ advice for staying on the mainland.

We spent the morning at the Earthwatch office, which is within walking distance from the hotel. In fact, the town of PG is so small that everything is within walking distance.

John and Rich were very educational in their briefing on the technical side of the expedition. Both of them are experts on the subject and know how to translate scientific terminology into easily understandable words.

The first thing I learned about scientific research is that an expedition consists of 70% planning, 25% frustration, and 5% excitement. We have already experienced our share of planning and frustration. Excitement is yet to come.

The queen conch, scientifically known as Strombus gigas, is an herbivore marine gastropod mollusk that feeds on algae. Among its predators, man is a major one, as the conch is an important part of the diet in many Caribbean islands. Conch was once very abundant in the Caribbean basin, from the shorelines of Florida to as far as the north of Venezuela and Brazil.

Even though it is a highly reproductive animal (laying approximately 100,000 to 480,000 eggs per female per reproductive season), over-fishing has decimated its populations, in addition to heavy juvenile mortality. Almost no natural predation occurs with mature adults, whose massive shells protect them from all but a very few predators. However, the shells are no deterrent to humans, and the queen conch inhabits the near-shore shallows (0.3 meters to 25 meters, or one to 82 feet), placing it squarely in the range of waders and skin divers.

Queen conchs are slow-moving and very easy to pick up by hand or with the simplest of fishing gear (poke poles). They are especially vulnerable to fishing during the spawning season, when they gather in huge aggregations. The introduction of scuba gear and freezer technology in the 1970s changed conch from a local specialty to an internationally traded commodity. Since the 1970s, conch populations have been recognized as in decline throughout the animal’s range.

Pollution and loss of near-shore habitat are preventing recovery in some areas, but there is also disturbing evidence that this species requires a certain density of adults to stimulate spawning behavior (i.e., where populations are too sparse, the adults no longer breed). Because of over-fishing, Florida closed its commercial conch fishery in 1975 and its recreational fishery in 1986. Queen conchs are still harvested by 36 nations and territories across the Caribbean.

This project has four main goals:
  • Determine the efficiency of the marine reserves (Sapodilla Cayes and Port Honduras) in the protection and replenishment of the conch stocks;
  • Conduct long-term monitoring of the queen conch populations;
  • Determine how reproductive the conch populations are; and
  • Develop a strong collaborative relationship with local stakeholders to help build capacity in the community.
 
We are expected to help meet these goals by collecting data that will be shared with local stakeholders, namely TIDE, the Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment (TASTE), and the Fisheries Department. From there, sustainable management strategies will be developed.

The expedition site is located in the Sapodilla Cayes, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) offshore of Punta Gorda. The routine field work will include mapping aggregations in several waypoints across the Gulf of Honduras. At each point, we will be required to dive no deeper than five meters (16 feet) to set up 100-meter by 50-meter (328-feet by 164-feet) transects. Within these quadrants, we must look for conchs and bring each one to the surface to measure length, lip thickness, and maturity. We will tag them with individual red or yellow numeric bands according to their maturity level. They must be returned to the point they were found after this work.

After the outline of the technical side of the expedition, we devoted the rest of the day to informal talks at the Earthwatch office and long walks up and down the main road. Bernie is a keen hiker, and it’s nice to hear his many stories from previous journeys.

As it is Sunday, everything’s closed, and there’s not much to see in PG except the crabs that seem to populate the sides of the main road. We called it a day with the hope of some sunshine tomorrow morning.

Monday, June 2, 2008 The hope we had of departing to Hunting Cay today faded away with the morning’s persistent rain. If things were not good here at PG, they were far worse outside town. Reports told of devastation across the country, with the chaos being fueled by floods and houses and bridges being washed out. I even heard of fatalities from locals.

Now I understand why we see so many huts on stilts. The rainy season is not too merciful on people here. Although we could not see much damage in PG, we could not offer help to people outside PG, as ground transportation was made impossible and we were left cut off from the rest of the country. There was really not much to do except stay indoors.

I took the only moment of no rain in the morning to go downtown and experience local culture. The market was full at that time, with Mayans selling and buying their agricultural produce, Garifunas running their grocery stores, and Chinese operating their clothing businesses.

After lunch, Dennis took us for a couple of presentations at the TIDE and TASTE offices, with the presentations led by Renata and Jocelyn, respectively. Both organizations are environmental non-governmental ones with headquarters in PG. They are also active partners with Earthwatch, playing the role of building capacity in the community. We had an in-depth view of their efforts in preserving the marine ecosystems of both Port Honduras and Sapodilla Cayes marine reserves and the way they enforce such provisions.

Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) is a 414.4-square-kilometer (160-square-mile) coastal reserve with input from five major rivers. The reserve lies 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) from Punta Gorda and includes 48.3 kilometers (30 miles) of coastline up to the Monk River. Water depth averages 12 meters (40 feet) in the inner portion of the reserve and goes to a maximum of 36.6 meters (120 feet) around the outside cayes. PHMR is managed by TIDE through a co-management agreement with the Fisheries Department of the government of Belize.

The Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (SCMR) covers an area of approximately 125 square kilometers (48.3 square miles) and includes 14 sand and mangrove cayes along the southernmost tip of the Belize Barrier Reef. The Sapodilla Cayes area was designated a marine reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 because of its extraordinary natural value and socio-economic significance. SCMR is currently co-managed by the Belize Department of Fisheries and TASTE.

Toward the afternoon, the wind started to blow stronger, and a heavy rain that looked to be in the ocean approached the shore. We walked to the restaurant where we would have dinner just before it started to rain cats and dogs. I thought the restaurant, which had a wooden structure, would be wiped out by the really heavy rain. Edwin Martinez, the field director for Sustainable Southern Belize, soon joined us. He told us that that heavy rain coming from the ocean was a good sign and we might expect some sunshine for the next day. Everyone hoped he was right.

Fact #4:  Belize City was the capital of Belize until 1970. In 1961, the city was almost entirely destroyed when Hurricane Hattie swept ashore on October 31. In 1970, the city of Belmopan was built to seat the country’s government.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008 God blessed Edwin’s words last night. I think I was the first one to see some sunshine, as I’m still waking up too early in the morning. All the guys had a smile on their faces as we left the rooms and gathered for breakfast. Bernie especially seemed to be the one who was getting more bored. Yes, sunshine has a special, positive effect on anyone’s mood.
 
There was no need to ask anybody for directions. Eat breakfast, pack it up, put baggage in the truck, and get ready to go across to Hunting Cay. We set off in two motorboats— one with all of our luggage, and one with us, including Mrs. Sandra and Dennis’ sister, who would prepare our meals and do the general housework at the LRC.
 
The ride to the cayes was very nice. Bumpy at times, but nice. We were all very excited to have sunshine and be on the way to the cayes. We expected to see some manatees or dolphins along the way, so we kept our eyes wide open. Unfortunately, we saw none, but we feasted on the sights of many tiny mangrove islands with their own ecosystems that were sprinkled throughout that area. Rich provided some good explanations, at least to me, as I was sitting right next to him.

The Sapodilla Cayes are about 64 kilometers offshore, so we’ll take almost two hours to get there. The first cay to come into our sight on the journey was Seal Cay. Another half an hour eastward, and we reached Hunting Cay, where we are to stay.

The sight of the cay approaching was a heavenly one, as the place was awesome. I’d never seen such clean water, with tones of blue and dark green according to the kind of seabed. We arrived in time to take all the stuff from the boats to the dormitories and kitchen and wait for lunch.

Hunting Cay is a small coral island that is home to the Living Reef Center (LRC), a brand new facility built in association with the University of Belize. We are said to be the first expedition team to be using these facilities. Although I’m used to camping in rustic tents, I feel blessed to have running water and electricity at will. The LRC is a concrete building with nine dormitory-style rooms, a wet and dry lab (yet to be finished), kitchen, dining room, and a coed bathroom. Since our bedrooms are only 30 meters (100 feet) from the seashore, I can anticipate nice nights sleeping, being rocked by the sound of the waves.

Right before lunch, Sean, our boat captain who is also the LRC manager, gave us a briefing on the cay, how the facility is run, and safety issues.

After lunch, the time finally came for the first excursion to the open sea. A short ride by boat, and we reached the sampling site not far from Hunting Cay. Here started part of our daily routine: put on the snorkeling gear, dive to the ocean floor to lay out transects, look for conchs, take them to the surface, measure and log parameters, and return them to the bottom of the sea. We were told about some aggregations of conchs all around, but this seemed not to be the case. The team counted only six conchs. As this was our first excursion, we still didn’t have our eyes trained enough to find the conchs easily. We soon returned to the land base with a couple of stories to tell.

Fact #5: The Sapodilla Cayes are six carbonate islands, or cayes: Hunting, Northeast Sapodilla, Frank’s, Nicholas, Lime, and Ragged. They are located in an area that is recognized as a tri-national border between Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. They are currently subject to political dispute with Guatemala, which claims possession over the islands.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008 The day started as planned. As usual, I woke up when the day was still dark. With the doors closed, the room was really hot, so I decided to wait for breakfast at the island dock. The morning breeze was refreshing, and I had the company of countless crabs that go out at night to hunt.

After breakfast, we had a few minutes of free time before going to the boat. I tried my luck at taking a couple of pictures at the lighthouse. I saw the lighthouse while on the dock, but it was dark at that time so I waited for the morning sunlight.

The lighthouse stands on the back of the cay in a strategic position, warning ships entering the Gulf of Honduras about the over reef. The place seems to be an old concrete building that was demolished to build a new one, as big blocks of concrete were lying around. One wrong step, and I was pulled backwards. I tried to get hold with my left hand and secure the camera at the same time, but a heavy block rolled over my arm and hand. The result was a sprained wrist, a bruised arm, and a severely cut hand. Fortunately, Chad was a trained paramedic and had supplies for medical assistance in his baggage. With my left arm dressed, I will not enter the water today. There goes my pride down the sink.

Throughout the day, I tried to support the team from the boat, but that became cumbersome as they had to swim to the boat so I could measure and tag the conchs they found. I had a bag of ice on my wrist, and I thought and hoped the swelling would be gone by the next sunrise. I just couldn’t wait until I could jump into the seawater again.

In the meantime, while I played the second mate for Sean, we had long conversations about our cultures. Sean is a young sea wolf and has roamed several Caribbean islands. He even has a distinct accent that is different from the other locals, and he plans to explore the Brazilian coastline in the future. It would be nice to meet him again.

Of about 20 waypoints scheduled for sampling today, most were more than five meters (16 feet) deep and not proper for snorkeling. At such points, only depth and type of sea bed were measured and recorded. This information will be used by subsequent scuba diving teams.

The remaining points produced very few conchs, and this was somehow frustrating, as we expected to find many aggregations. We were led to draw bleak conclusions about the stock’s status in this area. First, all conchs found were juvenile ones, which may mean that over-fishing has depleted the populations of mature conchs. Second, the conchs found represented a very sparse population and, assuming that mature conchs need aggregations to breed, we may be dealing with non-reproductive stocks over here, but this may be due to sampling biases. Only the continuing monitoring can confirm that.

Fact #6: According to informal talks with Sean, the major exports of Belize are lobster and conchs. This stresses the importance of establishing efficient environmental management strategies for these fisheries.

Thursday, June 5, 2008 A new day dawned, and with the sunshine came the certainty of a great day. My swelling had gone, and the mobility was back. I took off the bandages for breakfast.

After routine preparations for the day, John said we would meet our first real aggregation of conchs. The site was located about 100 meters (328 feet) off Hunting Cay. We might even reach the aggregation by swimming from the beach but, for the sake of safety, we would use the boat. These are pretty shallow waters—no deeper than three meters (10 feet)—and are an area where juvenile conchs aggregate.

We were told we should be ready to see many conchs in this area, and we actually did. The sea bed made of sand and sea grass favored the aggregation, but I think the proximity to the shore of Hunting Cay had a major positive impact on sustaining the conch population in this area.

The first conch of the day was surfaced by Bernie after only a couple of minutes in the water. The visibility in these waters is perfect, and by now our eyes were trained enough to distinguish conchs from other organisms. The challenge here was really to hold off until the transects were laid out.

As I was still feeling uncomfortable, I decided to just float and do the data recording with no diving. This included the use of pencil and paper, calipers, rulers, and the tags that should be wrapped around the conchs’ shells. Handling this material while treading water was not that easy, making the task a bit more strenuous. In addition, sometimes we are required to transcribe the data collected from measurements onto the clipboard under the water while snorkeling, but I think I have good handwriting.

The morning ended up being very busy with all those conchs to map and tag. Rich and Chad are probably the ones most tired, as they did a large number of dives despite the shallow depth. During lunch time, we all had a special smile on our faces.

We got back in the boat right after lunch. This time, we headed to some random points to the south of the gulf. This is quite open sea, and most of the points are in deep waters where we are not allowed to snorkel. We tried our odds at two points, but both of them had no conchs at all. We ran out of points, so the principal investigator decided to return to the land base for data entry and some free time until dinner. Good decision, as the sea became choppy after mid-afternoon and the sun was definitely out. This was certainly the hottest day since we arrived in Belize.

The outcome of the day was a positive one despite the contrast between morning and afternoon. More than 100 conchs were recorded in the morning and not a single one in the afternoon, but the guys were happy. Bernie and Chad even found energy for extra snorkeling in front of the cay.

The food prepared by Sandra and Marcia was usually great, but dinner tonight was no less than thoroughly delicious. I ate the best curried shrimp ever, all with the habanera pepper sauce that people here seem to love.

After a good day of work, our spirits were high and the locals got in the mood. The free time after supper was spent in excited domino games, while Marcia and a local woman excitedly hunted for crabs. Hunting crabs in the darkness of the night is not a game for me. My prescription glasses are no good in the dark, and I already had enough accidents. But we had a good laugh at the excited women screaming at each other in the dark.

Friday, June 6, 2008 We have reached the last day of our expedition on Sapodilla Cayes. We were cut off three days at the onset because of bad weather, and we are returning to the mainland tomorrow morning instead of Saturday afternoon because John needs to anticipate our return for personal reasons. Our stay in the cayes seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, so our hope was that this would be the best day with hundreds of conchs found and tagged.

We left toward Nicholas Cay by surrounding Hunting on the over reef. From there, we had a beautiful view of the lighthouse, and the rocks where I had my little accident looked pretty harmless. We soon reached our first point, but just like all the other points from the morning session, it was too deep for snorkeling. It was easy to conclude that any point in the over reef will be deep water in contrast to the back reef, where we can see the bottom of the ocean from the boat.

With the uneventful sampling of the morning, we soon ran out of waypoints. John pleased us all with a session of free snorkeling just off the coast of Nicholas Cay. That was the time the team was waiting for to savor the submerged beauties of the reefs. The morning was completed with a picnic at Lime Cay. This island is a small coral island home to countless lizards whose colors camouflage them among the bush and rocks. You only notice their presence when they cross your way quite fast on their escape to the water or to the bushes and rocks.

A quick stop at Hunting so John and Rich could pick the last waypoints of the expedition, and we were back in the boat. Three points were proper for snorkeling, but none had conchs. The team got a bit frustrated that we tagged no conch today. Instead, we recorded parameters of the sites surveyed. Overall, the afternoon debrief on the data collected suggests that these data are very useful for the goals of this expedition in the long term. The continuing effort from future volunteers is essential to accomplishing them. As to me, I feel as if I received more than I offered. I’m forever grateful for the chance to share my time with this team.

Fact #7: A cay is a small, low-elevation, sandy island formed on the surface of coral reefs. Cayes occur in tropical environments throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans (including in the Caribbean and on the Great Barrier Reef and Belize Barrier Reef), where they provide habitable and agricultural land for hundreds of thousands of people. Their surrounding reef ecosystems also provide food and building materials for island inhabitants.

Saturday, June 7, 2008 This is the last official day of the expedition, and we are anticipating our return to the mainland. John has activities of his own at the Earthwatch office, and we will be allowed a free day.

The morning was splendid as we crossed the ocean toward PG. A shade of sorrow seemed to cross our faces while Hunting was fading away in the distance. We returned in a single boat, as much of the provisions was consumed or stayed at the cay. Once again, we kept our eyes open for dolphins or manatees, but they seemed to be hidden somewhere in the depths of the gulf.

This is also our last stay at the Beya Suites. This time, Lisa introduced me to her husband, who showed a hospitality that seems to be inherent in these people. Lisa is from the Garifuna ethnic group, and she plans to go to the West Indies someday to find her relatives. I hope she succeeds in finding them.

After a couple of beers, Bernie suggested a visit to one of the Mayan ruins. We promptly accepted. We soon found ourselves on our way to Lubaantun. This is a pre-Columbian ruined city of the Maya civilization. It is about 42 kilometers (26 miles) northwest of Punta Gorda.

One of the most distinguishing features of Lubaantun is the large collection of miniature ceramic objects found on site; these detailed constructs are thought to have been charm stones. Lubaantun is also the center point for the legend of the crystal skull. This artifact, which can be seen in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (the fourth film of its series), is supposed to have been discovered in 1924 by Anna Le Guillon Mitchell-Hedges, who claims to have found it buried under a collapsed altar inside a temple in Lubaantun. The artifact is sometimes referred to as “The Skull of Doom,” either because of its seemingly inexplicable properties or the supposed ill-luck of those who have handled it.

Fact #8: The first expedition to the Lubaantun ruins dates back to the start of the 20th century, when inhabitants of various Kekchi and Mopan Maya villages in the area mentioned the large ruins to inhabitants of Punta Gorda. Dr. Thomas Gann came to investigate the site in 1903 and published two reports about the ruins in 1905.

Fact #9: The Crystal Skull, made from a block of clear quartz about the size of a small human cranium, measure some 13 centimeters (five inches)) high, 18 centimeters (seven inches) long, and 13 centimeters wide. The lower jaw is detached.

In the early 1970s, the skull came under the temporary care of freelance art restorer Frank Dorland, who claimed upon inspecting it that the skull had been “carved” without the use of metal tools and with total disregard to the natural crystal axes. Dorland reported being unable to find any telltale scratch marks, except for traces of mechanical grinding on the teeth. He speculated it was first chiseled into rough form, probably using diamonds, and the finer shaping, grinding, and polishing were achieved through the use of sand over a period of 150 to 300 years.

Although various claims have been made over the years regarding the skull’s physical properties, such as an allegedly constant temperature of 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit), Dorland reported that there was no difference in properties between it and other natural quartz crystals. [Extracted from Dorland, in a May 1983 letter to Joe Nickell, cited in Nickell (2007, p.70)]

Sunday, June 8, 2008 I’m all packed up to start my journey back home. I have my flight to Belize City scheduled for 7:30 a.m. along with John, Rich, and Bernie. Chad and Michelle will leave later so they can sleep longer. It was weird that we did not have much to say during breakfast. I think inside of us, no one wanted to leave.

John and Rich will be back in Belize in August for another expedition team, but we will be in our communities reminding our friends about the important role we all play toward a sustainable environment. Most important, we can play this role not only in our community but anywhere on the planet.

Dennis quickly picked us up at the Beya Suites and dropped us off at the PG airstrip. It was a short time for the last goodbye, and we were off to our destinations. Bernie stayed in Placencia. He was probably looking for an extra adventure. The rest of us continued in silence to Belize City.

My flight to Brazil is scheduled for tomorrow evening, so I’m staying overnight in Belize City. If I don’t get an extra adventure, at least I’ll take my chances on getting acquainted with this town. A long journey back home awaits me—two-hour flight to Miami, another eight-hour flight to São Paulo, and finally three hours by car to my home.

Monday, June 30, 2008 It’s been quite some time since I have been home, and I’ve had some time to share my experience with friends at work, family, and friends in the community. As I tell them details of my journey, I go back in time and again feel myself in the warm waters of the cayes.

Although the focus of the research was the queen conch, we were always encouraged to keep our eyes wide open to the diverse ecosystem of the region, which included manatees and dolphins (which, unfortunately, we did not spot), as well as turtles and the incredible forest of corals with its huge variety of fish. We were also encouraged to intermingle with the locals as much as possible to learn and understand their culture. Education is as important as the hands-on, technical side of the expedition.

I want to express my gratitude to Alcoa and Earthwatch for granting me my best vacation ever. Those people who were my companions throughout those days will be in my memory forever—John, Rich, Chad, Bernie, Michelle, Dennis, Sean, Sandra, Marcia, Shanya (Marcia’s little daughter), Renata, and Lisa (manager at Beya Suites). Once again, special thanks to Shamsa. My heart goes out to you all.

I have returned a different human being, with a wider view on the differences we can make either as an individual or as a team. It does not matter how limited ones skills are; there is always something that we can do to add value. For those who may be uncertain about volunteering, I say “Do it!” You don’t have to pursue a degree in biology or anything, and you don’t need special skills. You can certainly be involved and make a difference either in your local community or anywhere in the world.

Photo Gallery


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Earthwatch Institute


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Sustainable Southern Belize


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Presentation


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