Chad Kavanaugh's Diary

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Tuesday, May 27, 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

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 Surreal. After much reflection, this single word is the most appropriate to capture the range of emotions I have experienced since receiving an email advising me that I had been selected as a fellow in the Alcoa Earthwatch program. Shock. Disbelief. Acceptance. Humility. Gratitude. Excitement!
My name is Chad Kavanaugh, and I am the environment, health, and safety (EHS) specialist for Kawneer Company in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. An Alcoa business, Kawneer offers architectural aluminum building products and systems for the commercial construction industry.
Along with Ronaldo Firmo, a fellow Alcoan from Poços de Caldas, Brazil, I will be participating in the Sustainable Southern Belize expedition from May 31 to June 8, 2008. Working with leading scientists, our small group of volunteers will be examining coral islands, surveying queen conchs, and mapping aggregations along the southern tip of the Meso-American Barrier Reef System (MBRS) on the southeast coast of Belize in Central America.
In October 2007, I noticed posters throughout the plant touting the opportunity to participate in ecological research projects around the world as a scientific field assistant studying environmental issues that are important to Alcoa. I was intrigued, to say the least, and saw this as a fantastic opportunity to give of my professional skills and personal commitment while embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
EHS is my chosen career path because I have a strong personal interest in a healthy, safe, and sustainable environment for members of our global community. I was thrilled to apply for such an endeavor, and the thought of being selected, however slim, made me brim with giddy anticipation. I strongly believe we all must give back to our community and our environment when we have the opportunity, and it is in this spirit that I applied for the program—and eagerly awaited word as to whether or not I would be selected! 
Becoming an Earthwatch fellow will allow me to seize the opportunity to participate in the creation of a sustainable environment while representing Alcoa, my family, and my community. I hope to learn how our environment is being affected from a global perspective and to translate this experience into tangible resources for use in my workplace and community. To be immersed in another culture and work side-by-side with a multifaceted team to address one of our world’s greatest problems is truly a gift.
With a mission to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment, Earthwatch is a much-needed catalyst for change. The fact that Alcoa is sponsoring opportunities for employees to participate in ecological research projects around the world and become personally involved speaks volumes about the kind of company it is—the kind of company that lives its values, and the kind of company I am proud to work for.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 A lot has transpired in the past two weeks. With bewilderment fading and reality settling, it has become clear that there is much to be done before embarking on such an expedition. Several forms were completed, vacation arrangements were made at work, my expedition has been promoted throughout my company, and I have seen my doctor to make sure I can handle the rigors of this adventure. One appointment remains at the travel clinic this week to get immunized against typhoid, yellow fever, and rabies, and to receive boosters to the standard assortment of vaccines. Yikes! That’s a lot of needles.
I have been trying to be more mindful of my body by watching what I eat and exercising more regularly. In the remaining weeks leading up to the expedition, I also intend to swim laps at the local pool to get my feet wet prior to the trip. With very full days, including several hours snorkeling, I need to make sure I am physically and mentally prepared. I have always enjoyed swimming and have been swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in Eastern Canada since childhood. Hopefully, this, coupled with years of hiking and multi-day backpacking trips, will see me through the diverse topography and climates our group will experience.
I have made a point of learning as much as I can about Belize and the expedition prior to my departure. The expedition briefing has been extremely helpful, detailing all of the finer points of the trip. I have also had the great fortune to meet up with Bruce Croissant, a fellow Kawneer employee from Greenwood, Indiana, who traveled to Belize to study manatees for two weeks in 2006 as a fellow in the Alcoa Earthwatch program. We spent more than an hour discussing his experiences and my expedition. While our discussion bounced around, with Bruce re-living his expedition through pictures and words and me explaining what I would be doing, one fact was quite evident and constant—Bruce’s life has been forever changed by his experiences.
Some of the highlights of my learning thus far:
  • Belize is a very small country with great tropical biodiversity.
  • The MBRS is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and second in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
  • Despite having one of the lowest population densities in the world, Belize is not protected from immense environmental concerns. Coastal development, industrial growth, over-fishing, and tourism activities are harming the ecosystem of the MBRS.
  • Conchs are an important part of this reef ecosystem. As grazers, they keep populations of grasses and algae in check, and their shells provide shelter for hermit crabs, young groupers, octopuses, and many other sea creatures.
Our goal on the expedition is to temporarily capture these conchs to measure them, determine their age, and tag them for monitoring efforts. The goal is to tag several thousand conchs so that scientists can map their dispersal, survival rates, and growth rates—all key indicators of the health and sustainability of the MBRS. Our efforts will be part of a multinational initiative to monitor and protect the MBRS and the communities that depend on it for sustenance and livelihoods.
As the countdown continues, I now look to the logistics of my expedition—finalizing travel plans and packing. Bruce was very clear that sunscreen and bug repellent should be in BIG BOLD letters at the top of my packing list!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 With three days remaining until I depart for my expedition, my travel plans are firm and my bags are packed. There will be three legs to my flight to and from Punta Gorda, Belize. I leave Toronto at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 31 bound for Miami. From Miami, I fly into Belize City and, finally, from Belize City to Punta Gorda, arriving at 1:30 p.m. local time. With a time difference of two hours (behind), my trip will take nine hours, with 6.5 hours of flight time. I will be returning on Sunday, June 8, but my trip will take 16 hours due to lengthy stopovers in Belize City and Miami.

I will be traveling light, with a 40-liter (11-gallon) backpack and my snorkel gear. Having been on many backpacking trips, I make a point of bringing technical (lightweight, moisture-wicking) clothing and only the bare necessities for hygiene and comfort. It’s amazing how only packing the essentials lightens the load when trekking across the continents. There’s not much worse than strolling through a huge airport with more gear than you can carry!

My favorite piece of kit (equipment) for this trip has to be my Olympus digital camera. It has a two gigabyte card (that’s 1,200 pictures!) and is fully sealed so it can be used underwater or kicked around in the sand without any damage.

In the past week, I have emailed Corey Ortiz and Andrew Douglas, two Alcoa employees who just returned from this same expedition in Belize on May 17. They were both extremely helpful in providing me with very useful tips on what to expect and what to pack. And, as I expected, they were both still mentally in Belize although physically located elsewhere. They were also quick to echo Bruce Croissant’s sentiments—an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Andrew mentioned that Earthwatch teams this year will actually be afforded some degree of luxury. Construction of the Living Reef Center on Hunting Caye was completed in early 2008. A joint venture between Earthwatch Institute and the University of Belize, the center facilitates research and education programs to support sustainable use and management of the Meso-American Barrier Reef System. The center consists of a two-story concrete building with nine dormitory-style rooms, a wet lab, a dry lab, a kitchen and dining room, a bathroom, and a small storeroom. The fresh water supply for the building is rainwater captured in huge plastic storage tanks. Prior to this, most recent expedition teams would stay in huts on stilts! While this sounds both rugged and intriguing, I can’t say I’m opposed to running water and electricity.

I have also been reading up on my particular expedition and the primary investigator leading it, Dr. John Cigliano. John is a very established researcher and an associate professor of biology at Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania. While his current focus is on marine conservation ecology and, specifically, the queen conch, he has completed extensive research on octopus. This stemmed from a childhood of watching Jacques Cousteau on the Public Broadcasting System. To work under someone who is living out his childhood dream will undoubtedly be very inspiring.

I am looking forward to participating in such an excellent expedition. Without any means of communication or transportation while on Hunting Caye, I will essentially be cut off from the outside world. I will have a camera to my eye and a pen in hand to report on my experiences when I return!

Saturday May 31, 2008 Today started my long journey to Punta Gorda, Belize. I left my home at 3 a.m. for the airport in Toronto. Although I knew it was going to be a long day and it was very early in the morning, the excitement of what was yet to come had me bright-eyed and energized. Truth be told, I did not sleep much the night before, akin to a child on Christmas Eve who can’t wait for morning to arrive.

My flights were uneventful. With short stopovers, I was in Punta Gorda (or PG, as the locals call it) without delay. The flight from Miami to Belize City was rather turbulent, as we left sunny skies and ended up in heavy rain—rain that would stay for a lot of the trip, according to local forecasts. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of rain when I will be in the water most of the time anyway!

My flight from Belize City to PG was on a small plane—a Cessna Air King. It was a single prop plane with seating for 10 and a low ceiling. Flying in it reminded me of my days in the late 1990s flying Cessna 172 Skyhawk aircraft. You haven’t really experienced flying until you have been in one of these small planes buzzing the treetops at 760 meters (2,500 feet) above ground level.

Tropic Air, which provided my flight, and Maya Island Air are the only two airlines in the country. Both have small fleets of aircraft consisting of this type of small plane exclusively. Flying in one is more like being on a bus in North America. We made three stops on tiny airstrips along the way to let a few passengers on or off the aircraft and were back in the air within five minutes. The pilot calls out the stop name just like a bus driver would, and off you go!

On the flight to PG, I noticed a man across from me with a backpack embroidered with Alcoa Global Business Services (GBS). I figured this had to be Ronaldo Firmo and promptly introduced myself. Ronaldo is with the global data and reporting team for Alcoa GBS South America. It turns out he already had been traveling for three days due to difficulties with visitor travel requirements, but that is a story for his diary.

Upon getting off the flight, we found that Bernard (Bernie), another volunteer on our expedition, was sitting right behind us the whole time! Bernie worked as a city manager for Los Angeles for 37 years before retiring in 2005. He now travels the globe and is on this expedition on his own time and resources.

Once in PG, we were taken to the Beya Suites Hotel, where we would spend the night before departing for the Living Reef Center on Hunting Cay. “Beya” means beach in Garifuna and reflects the heritage of the owners.

PG is a very culturally diverse town with Kekchi and Mopan Mayan, Mestizo, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, and Chinese inhabitants. With a population of 6,000, PG is the largest town in Southern Belize.

The hotel was very clean ands pleasant. It had a total of five rooms and a dining room. Upon arrival at the hotel, we met with Michelle, a designer for Perkins + Will and a participant in our expedition; Dr. John Cigliano, the principal investigator; and his colleague, Dr. Richard Kliman.

The rain continued, but with an hour to spare before supper, I walked into town. The people here are very friendly and polite. I was soaked to the bone upon my return, but I have a feeling this will be the norm for much of this trip. The rainy season had started three days prior, and the rain has not let up since.

We met with Dennis Garbutt at the Earthwatch office in PG. Dennis is the manager of the office and is a prominent member of the community.

Once at the office, we received a briefing regarding the itinerary and logistics for our trip. It was then that we were alerted to a tropical storm that might delay our departure for Hunting Cay. Tropical Storm Arthur, the first of the year, was brewing off the north coast of Honduras (to the southeast of our location), making our 65-kilometer (40-mile) crossing impossible. There was a good possibility we would remain in PG tomorrow, but we were assured that there was lots of valuable field training we could do in the office.

We went to a local restaurant for dinner, where we feasted on curried shrimp, curried conch, rice and beans, fried plantains, curried chicken, and pineapple pie. The food was excellent. I was thoroughly enjoying my meal, having last eaten nine hours prior, when I realized I was eating the subject of our research and conservation efforts—the conch!

Sunday June 1, 2008 Tropical Storm Arthur made landfall and was wreaking havoc along the Belizean coast. There was a small craft advisory in effect, and heavy rains made our crossing from PG to Hunting Cay impossible.

While rather uneventful, today was very pleasant. We started with a briefing by John and Richard. We covered the ecology of the conch, the issues surrounding conch population decline, and the scope and methodology of our project.  

The queen conch, or strombus gigas, is a species of large, edible sea snail. It lives in the greater Caribbean tropical zone from southern Florida to Venezuela and Central America to the Lesser Antilles. It prefers a habitat of sea grass and/or sandy substrate and feeds on algae and plankton.

The adult shell is anywhere from 18 centimeters (seven inches) to 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length and features a flaring lip, usually pink (although sometimes pale) in color. Females lay between 180,000 and 460,000 eggs per year and typically reproduce between March and September.

Conch meat is a regular part of the diet of many Caribbean countries, and the shell is favored by tourists. Over-fishing for these purposes is major cause of conch depletion throughout the Caribbean. It is for this reason that we are collecting data on their population size and migration that will be used to develop sustainable management strategies for conch fisheries to preserve the socioeconomic importance of the conch while allowing for a stable population.

We spent part of the afternoon learning more about the methodology of our project. The purpose is to map aggregations (groups) of conch in the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (SCMR). The SCMR is a protected area of 125 square kilometers (48 square miles) consisting of extensive reef crests and 14 sand and mangrove cayes (pronounced “keys”) that permit tourism activities and catch-and-release fishing only in an effort to increase declining marine populations by forbidding the removal of juvenile organisms. Baseline data for conch have already been gathered on previous expeditions over the past three years. As the SCMR is a new protected area, it is hypothesized that the population should start increasing.

We will be mapping aggregations in previously established transects just off the west coast of Hunting Cay for comparative purposes, as well as many new random waypoints in the SCMR.

Once arriving at a waypoint, we will dive up to 4.5 meters (15 feet) to the ocean floor to set up transects. A transect is a path along which one records the occurrence of the object of study—in our case, the conch. We will establish the transects by running a measuring tape for 50 meters (164 feet) along the ocean floor in one direction, and then running a second measuring tape for 50 meters perpendicular (90 degrees) to the original line. In the case of the known aggregation off Hunting Cay, we will set up a transect 100 meters (328 feet) long and then run 50 meter transects off the main line every 10 meters (33 feet) along its length, for a total of 10 transects.

By setting transects up in this manner, we can sample 20% of the sampling area. Once a transect has been defined, we will bring each conch found within one meter (3.3 feet) on either side of the line to the surface and measure its total length and lip thickness to determine maturity. Each conch will then be physically tagged with an individually identified numeric band for tracking purposes and returned to the ocean. By doing this, we can determine the long-term health of the conch ecosystem in the SCMR.

With any luck, we will make it to Hunting Cay tomorrow to start field work, although it does not look promising.

Monday June 2, 2008 Another day has now passed without departing for Hunting Cay, and with good reason. Tropical Storm Arthur has devastated much of Belize and put the country in a national state of emergency. Reports indicate that people have died across the country from widespread flooding and landslides. Highways and bridges have been washed out, making ground transportation impossible and cutting off the isolated south of the country (where we are) from the north. All boats and helicopters available have been activated for search and rescue efforts, including British military training units in Belize.

We spent the majority of the day indoors riding out the storm. We have already completed all of the field preparation and study required to conduct our research, so Dennis was able to arrange presentations by other environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Punta Gorda.

We were fortunate to hear from both the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) and the Toledo Association of Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment (TASTE). TIDE is the oldest NGO in PG and started in the early 1980s from an effort of concerned local citizens to preserve the marine ecosystem of the Meso-American Barrier Reef in southern Belize. Through their efforts, Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) was founded.

Monitored and managed by TIDE, PHMR includes several “no take” zones, where fishing is not permitted, and some preservation zones, where entry is not permitted except for authorized research. These efforts have resulted in the return of a more stable population of marine life to a once decimated area.

TASTE is a similar organization to TIDE within the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. TASTE monitors and manages this area in partnership with Earthwatch and the University of Belize. The groups’ primary goals include the establishment of no-take and preservation zones similar to those at PHMR, as well as the enforcement of such provisions within the park. This enforcement will, in turn, affect our research. Data collected on the conch thus far have been within the park. Without enforcement, however, some fishermen have ignored provisions related to establishing conch maturity, further decreasing the population.

Today’s briefings have given me a detailed overview and great understanding of the efforts being made to maintain marine biodiversity and sustainability in southern Belize. Hopefully, we can get out in the field to start helping with this worthy cause tomorrow.

Tuesday June 3, 2008 Success! Today, on day four of our expedition, we finally made the crossing from Punta Gorda to the Living Reef Center (LRC) at Hunting Cay. The two-hour crossing was very choppy, with the boat skipping around like a rock just thrown on the surface of a lake.

Our party consisted of two three-meter (10-foot) motor boats. One carried the six people (including myself) in our research party and three local women to prepare our meals and maintain the LRC. The other carried all of our research equipment, provisions, and personal luggage.

Hunting Cay is not much larger than an American football field (around 90 meters), but it is teeming with life. A small tropical forest is central to the island, and wildlife abounds. People in North America would pay thousands of dollars for an isolated, authentic tropical vacation like this, and here I get to enjoy it for free!

Aside from the LRC, the cay contains a small building for the Belize Fisheries Department and Belize Police, a small building for the Belize Coast Guard and Belize Defense Force, and a small house for the lighthouse keeper (and a lighthouse, of course). There is also a small bar and lounge area run by the Toledo Tourism Association which is open when larger groups of visitors come to the island for organized day trips. In total, there are no more than a dozen people on the cay at any given time in addition to research groups like us.

I settled into a quaint little room with two bunk beds. All of the furnishings in the LRC are handcrafted by carpenters and tradesmen in PG. Sean, the LRC manager, boat captain, and dive instructor (now that’s a lot of hats to wear!) gave us a briefing about the cay, the LRC, and safety considerations both on the cay and in the water. Unfortunately, he was not quick enough. I had no sooner stepped onto the beach barefoot to take a picture of us arriving when I stepped onto several small, prickly burs that stuck into the bottom of my foot—ouch! After performing a very eccentric dance to get out of the patch and then plucking them out, I was on my way. My pride hurt more than my foot!

After lunch, we headed out to our first dive site. We soon arrived, and I quickly found myself in warm, crystal clear water. A 50-meter swim laid out the first transect, and then it was off to find conch! They are rather cryptic, so it takes great attention to notice them at first. But soon enough, my eyes were trained, and I was diving to the ocean floor to retrieve them.

They are heavier and more slippery than expected, and some are a little frisky, popping out of their shell to touch your hand. Soon enough, it was time to return to the LRC. The day passed quickly as we focused on our task. It seems like we just went out and it was time to come in, but we were able to collect some solid data and establish a good operational tempo. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday June 4, 2008 Our group started the day with intentions of searching for conch at various randomly selected points within the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. We had a great breakfast followed by some free time before our departure. Soon, 8 a.m. arrived, and we were proceeding to the boat when I was tapped on the shoulder by another participant asking if I had a first aid kit. Before I even turned around, I knew this could not be good.

This person had slipped on some rocks while walking along the shore and had several contusions and abrasions to the left hand and forearm, as well as swelling and a lack of mobility around the wrist. Luckily, I had brought a well-stocked first-aid kit with me.

As a member of the Emergency Response Team at my Alcoa location, I am very involved in providing medical assistance and always ensure I have some basic supplies in my car or when backpacking, playing sports, etc., for when unexpected injuries like this occur. His wounds were cleaned and dressed, and the wrist was splinted. It was determined he had sprained his wrist, so he was unable to participate in the excursion that day. I think that upset him far more than the injury!

Soon after departing, we arrived at our first point. Several consecutive sites were deeper than 4.5 meters (15 feet) and therefore inaccessible by snorkeling. Their depths were recorded, though, as a subsequent team of divers this summer will be using self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) to dive at these sites.

In total, we surveyed approximately 20 sites and found quite a few conchs. Two things noted were the consistently small size of the conchs (less than 18 centimeters, or seven inches) and the general lack of conch found—both indicators of over-fishing.

We ended the day with a pep talk from John. It was a little disheartening to go a whole day with very few conchs, especially when the group is eager to find conch and make a difference. He assured us that the data we gathered today were still very valuable. A count of zero is still valid and useful in attaining a better picture of the conch population in the SCMR. Future conservation projects and designated preservation zones would want to focus on these areas. It also helps determine migratory patterns of the conch, especially when conchs have been found in those areas in earlier expeditions.

One of the research questions posed is if adult conchs migrate to shallow depths to mate, or if juvenile conchs migrate to shallow depths to grow before returning to deeper depths. An absence of conchs at the shallower depths we have sampled seems to support this hypothesis.

Still, it is upsetting to see the ocean depleted, as conch were previously found consistently in very high numbers in these same waters.

Thursday June 5, 2008 This morning, we conducted a survey of a previously established aggregation off the west shore of Hunting Cay. A large population of conch is known to live 100 meters offshore, so a shore entry to sample this area was the first order of the day.

The area we sampled consists of sand and semi-dense sea grass, a perfect home for conch. We started the day hopeful and were rewarded. We set up transects 50 meters long spaced 10 meters apart along a 100 meter length (or 10 transects) and found more than 100 conch in this area!

Surveying a dense conch aggregation provided for a great workout. It was the most amount of time we had spent in the water yet. We swam around for more than three hours continuously. This was further complicated by frequent dives to retrieve conch and then measuring them with rulers and calipers, wrapping tags around their shells, and writing data on a clipboard—all while treading water. It was a great way to be productive and enhance my snorkeling skills. Everyone felt a real sense of accomplishment, and lunch was most welcome after expending so much energy.

Speaking of lunch…all of our meals were excellent. Miss Sandra, Marcia, and Lucy, all local women from PG, prepared our meals, and they were fabulous. Breakfast normally consisted of scrambled eggs or omelets, bacon, fried jacks or other breads, and a variety of fruit juices. And, of course, the nectar of the gods—coffee. Lunch and supper included fried plantains (yum!), chicken or pork prepared in a variety of ways, and rice and beans, beans and rice, or stewed beans and white rice. Lots of rice and bean combinations, but believe it or not, they are in fact different! Perhaps what I appreciated the most was our afternoon post-dive sweet treats. Miss Sandra would always whip up something very tasty to provide a sugar rush after a long day on the water and in the sun to tide us over until supper.

After lunch, it was off to sample more random waypoints. Unfortunately, most of the sites turned out to be too deep for snorkeling, so we were limited in our pursuit of conch.

At one site, John let the 50-meter measuring tape sink rapidly until it was fully paid out to show us how deep the ocean was. He then told us that the area we were in, on the back side of the reef, was actually more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) deep! This was a sharp contrast to the area we had just snorkeled in half a mile away, which was only four meters (13 feet) deep.

With sampling done early for the day, John selected a nice section of reef off the southeast coast of Nicholas Cay to let us snorkel around at our leisure. I had taken some time the night before to review a presentation with Rich that shows the pictures and names of common tropical fish, and this proved to be very helpful. While the sights of such beautiful and diverse fish along the reef was exhilarating on its own, it was even more exciting to be able to say “Wow, that was a stoplight parrot fish!” or “Did you see that banded butterfly fish?”

Friday June 6, 2008 Today marks our last day of field excursions to look for conch. Unfortunately, our time was cut short due to the tropical storm at the beginning of the expedition, but the trip has still been extremely positive, and we did, in fact, achieve a lot. All of the participants were willing to put in longer hours and work extra hard to try and compensate for some of the lost time, and we were able to find and tag several hundred conch.

Our field experience today was a wonderful way to end the data collection portion of our expedition. We checked several random points and again had limited success in finding conch. It is a sad commentary on our human species to see what destruction we have caused. Local fishermen tell stories of days not long gone when there was such a multitude of conch that they could be found stacked upon each other.

We were allotted some time to snorkel around a beautiful reef crest again, and the sights were breathtaking. Crystal clear, turquoise blue waters and a cloudless sky reflected magnificent patterns onto the sandy white ocean floor below while we swam by schools of tropical fish.

The ocean has become my home for the past week, and I feel very comfortable surrounded by it. The infinite color palette before me is warm and, coupled with the weightless sensation of floating in water, creates a real sense of inner peace. I close my eyes and wish that the moment will last forever.

We ended the day with data entry and a debrief of the data gathered throughout our trip. Overall, the data collected are very useful in achieving the long-term goals of this project. These goals include determining the effectiveness of the reserve in maintaining and further establishing the conch population and, in turn, determining sustainable management strategies for the reserve. Perhaps most important, we have continued to forge the relationship between stakeholders, such as Earthwatch, TIDE, TASTE, and the University of Belize, that is required to effectively co-manage the reserve and build capacity to sustain such efforts within the local community.

On this last night on Hunting Cay, we were treated to the fury and beauty of our wonderful planet simultaneously. Winds blew strong, lightning striking high in the rainforests of Honduras illuminated the skies, and bioluminescent fish dotted the ocean. I again felt at peace and imagined Mother Nature was thankful for our efforts.

Saturday June 7, 2008 On this last official day of our expedition, we left Hunting Cay to return to Punta Gorda. The ocean was smooth as glass, and the sun shone brightly in stark contrast to our maiden voyage. I even managed to catch a few winks while closing my eyes and raising my face to the sky.

When we arrived in PG, we were once again welcomed to the Beya Suites by its owner, Lisa. If you are ever in the south of Belize, be sure to spend a night or two at her hotel. It was voted the “best small hotel in Belize” in 2007, and the genuine hospitality is sure to please. Lisa and her staff went well out of their way to accommodate our group in every manner when we were left stranded in PG for two extra nights at the onset of our expedition.

The afternoon left some free time to enjoy the countryside. Some members of our group (including myself) decided a trip to one of the nearby Mayan sites was in order, and we soon found ourselves loaded in a van on our way to Lubaantun.

While the ancient name of the site is currently unknown, its modern Mayan name means "place of fallen stones." A pre-Columbian ruined city of the Mayan civilization built between 730 and 890 A.D., it is known as a well-preserved ancient city noted for its rounded corner dry stone construction without the use of mortar (all blocks were individually fitted) and large collection of intricate ancient ceramic figures and whistles.

It is perhaps most well-known as the place where the Crystal Skull was allegedly discovered in 1924 by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, daughter of British adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. Made from a solid block of quartz and an exact replica of the human skull, it is reported to have mystical powers, although this and its origin are widely disputed. Still, it is famous enough to have inspired (in part) the making of the new movie, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

The evening’s meal was a special treat for me, as we headed to a local restaurant for some fine fare. Upon approaching the door, I was overcome with a surge of patriotism as I saw a Canadian flag hanging on the wall. Soon after entering, it was discovered that the owner of the restaurant was a Canadian from Oakville, a town all of 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from mine. He explained that he came to Belize 17 years ago searching for adventure and, mesmerized by its beauty and the people, decided to make it his new home.

At the restaurant, we were treated to delicious local cuisine and a few pints of cold beer—well deserved. If I am not specific with the brand here, it is because there is only one brand of beer in Belize—Belikin. To order a beer, you simply have to ask for a beer!

The day’s events proved to be an excellent way to unwind after a fantastic expedition.

Sunday June 8, 2008 Today marks my departure from paradise. After nine wonderful days in the beautiful country of Belize, the reality of going to the office tomorrow is sinking in. The people, culture, landscape, environment, and experience have been magical. It is amazing that so much beauty can be contained in a country 290 kilometers (180 miles) long and 95 kilometers (60 miles) wide.

I woke up to hear birds singing and see the sun shining through my window. I laid there for a moment to try and soak it all in. I was soon treated to an excellent breakfast and a fresh cup of coffee with a quality that can only be found in Central America.

The flight from Punta Gorda to Belize City was breathtaking. With minimal cloud cover, I could see the country below me waking up and coming to life. No Sunday shopping or shift work here—just people enjoying the landscape and each other’s company.

My flight from Belize City to Miami was uneventful. Finally, after a five-hour stopover in Miami (including a one-and-a-half-hour delay), I found myself in Toronto around 2 a.m., blissfully unaware that when I stepped off the plane, this once-in-a-lifetime experience would be over.

I left with every intention of chronicling my experiences in this diary as vividly as possible, and I hope I have achieved this to some degree. The old proverb says “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and while I took many photos, I can’t help but feel that these, too, do not do the beauty of Belize justice. Whether with camera or pen, it is difficult to capture the essence of my Sustainable Southern Belize expedition. Then again, some things are better left to be enjoyed in memory and imagination.

I would like to thank Nancy Myles, my manager, Mark Blackmore, my plant manager, Alcoa, and Earthwatch for extending such a tremendous opportunity to me. I would also like to thank Dr. John Cigliano and Dr. Richard Kliman, the leaders of this expedition, and all of my fellow participants for making this such a wonderful experience.

This outstanding example of a large corporation partnering with a dedicated non-profit organization to work toward a sustainable environment should serve as a model of social responsibility for us all. I am humbled and honored to have been a part of such a noble cause, and I encourage all of my fellow Alcoans to get involved in this program and the many other social causes Alcoa sponsors.

One person CAN make a difference, and together as a global company of almost 100,000 employees, we CAN make that difference felt around the world!

Photo Gallery

View the images from Chad Kavanaugh's diary.

Earthwatch Institute

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

Sustainable Southern Belize

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.