Corey Ortiz's Diary

Tuesday, March 4, 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 Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 My name is Corey Ortiz, and I work as an export transportation planner in the supply chain management department at Alcoa Davenport Works in Iowa.
The day that the email came across that I’d been accepted for the Belize expedition, I was in complete disbelief. I think my coworkers were also in disbelief from witnessing my unique dancing skills. I was in so much shock that I soon realized that I did not even know where Belize was. So I quickly ran back to my computer to find out exactly were Belize was located.
The first picture that had popped up showed nothing but clear water and palm trees. I knew right then that this trip was going to be an opportunity of a lifetime. After regaining my composure, I began to read the complete email and realized that I’d be doing research and monitoring the Barrier Reef. Are you kidding me? Could it get any better?  Not only will I be traveling to this beautiful country, but I will also be spending most of the time snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean Ocean. Needless to say, it did not take very long to accept the offer.
Since my acceptance to the Belize expedition, I have been trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible about this foreign country that I’d soon be visiting. I think I have already read every book with Belize on the title at my local library so that I’d have a basic understanding of the culture and the people of Belize. I was in shock to learn that it was the only country in the region where the native language was English. Also, I was in awe of the beautiful and spectacular scenery, from the tropical forest to the underwater wildlife.
I am very excited to have this opportunity and am very humbled at the same time. Now that I have already booked my plane ticket, all that is left is the fun part...getting my shots! Whatever it takes to get me on that plane, I am willing to do it.

Friday, May 9, 2008 I knew I was in for a long day when I was checking my bags in at the airport at 4:30 in the morning. Three flights and twelve hours later, I finally reached my destination at Punta Gorda. I could not complain, though, because I found out that my fellow Alcoan from Australia had a 48-hour trip. Ouch.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the travel from Belize City to Punta Gorda. I didn’t know if it was the fact that the plane was so small that I literally had my knees jammed in the back seat of the pilot, or if it was the toddler who was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, or maybe it was the airport that was smaller than most garages. Either way, I soon realized that I was no longer in the U.S. and that the principles and regulations I was accustomed to would be a little different.

Upon arrival, the first thing that struck me was the heat and humidity. I found out that it was the hottest time of the year, with the average temperature hovering around 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit), with usually 100% humidity. I am a sweating machine as it is.

After the plane touched down in Punta Gorda, I was greeted on the ground by Dennis, the Earthwatch manager. Dennis had a smile from ear to ear, and right away he made my welcome very comforting. From the airport, it was only a five-minute drive to the Earthwatch facility. While pulling up, I noticed that all of the other fellows had already arrived and were hanging out on the deck. We then had the opportunity to meet and greet and chat for a bit, and then we went into an introductory briefing on our mission with the principle investigators (PIs) and Dennis.

Our mission was to be able to identify more than 20 species of coral and provide scientific data on the health of these corals.

Belize has the second largest coral reef in the world. The reef is very important to the people of Belize, because many tourists travel to Belize every year to dive and snorkel these waters. Most important is probably fishing tourism. Fishing is a very popular sport in Belize, and many of the people count on these fish to feed their families as well as their income. Without the coral, the fish would have nowhere to go.

We also learned about many more benefits of having the coral around. For example, coral can limit the magnitude of hurricanes and even offset their paths. Who knew?

After our briefing, we all went out to eat and enjoyed a great Belizean feast at a beautiful restaurant along the water. We did, however, call it an early night. In the morning, we would be taking a 90-minute boat ride to the Sapodilla Cayes, where we would be spending the week conducting our research.

Saturday, May 10, 2008 After a good night’s sleep, we were up and at it early in the morning, loading all of our equipment onto the boat. The ride to the island was very scenic, with the clear greenish-blue water and all of the little islands along the way.

Once we pulled up to our island in the cayes, I knew it was going to be a great week.  There were sand paths separated by rows of conch shells and hundreds of species of palm and coconut trees throughout the island.

After we unloaded the boat, we moved our items to the dorm where would be living for the next week.

Once we were unpacked and settled in, we were given a tour of the island. Basically, it was just us, a couple of guys from the fisheries department, and a couple of guys from the coast guard who were on the island. It was pretty neat knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about any phone calls or emails for a whole week.

After the tour, we headed to the classroom and began our intense study on the different coral species. About a week prior to arriving in Belize, we were given a study guide for all of the different types of coral. To tell you the truth, it was pretty overwhelming at first.  Our goal was to have all of these memorized by the second day so that we could then perform our studies throughout the rest of the week. After a long day of studying in the classroom, we went out to the Caribbean for our first dive.

Going underwater for the first time was indescribable. It was like crossing into a whole new world, seeing species such as stingrays, eels, tarpon, and numerous puffer fish and parrotfish. Luckily, we did not spot any sharks…at least not yet.

At first, it was difficult concentrating on the coral with all of the wildlife surrounding me.  While in the water, our PI would quiz us on identifying the different species of coral, and this process would continue for a couple hours. As mentioned earlier, this became very overwhelming, not so much because of the coral, but because the names of the coral were ridiculous. I don’t think there was one name that was under 12 letters long. However, later than night we were given acronyms for each of the coral, and this helped out tremendously. Ah hah.

Sunday, May 11, 2008 We started the morning with a wonderful breakfast. The cook on the island was Dennis’ mother, and the food that she cooked was incredible. After the first day on the island, I thought that I would be losing 20 pounds from sweating so much. After having one of Dennis’ mom’s meals, I thought the opposite was more likely to occur. The breakfast consisted of eggs, beans, homemade tortillas, bacon, fresh pineapple, and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t even name. Believe me, it was great.

After the meal, we were given a lecture about the various diseases that were killing off the coral. Four coral conditions have been identified as diseases: white band disease (WBD), black band disease (BBD), bacterial infection, and shutdown reaction. The coral is also susceptible to tumors and parasitic worms. Diseases such as BBD and WBD actually kill coral tissue while advancing in a band around the coral, leaving the white coral skeleton behind. Scientists are still trying to pinpoint what is causing these diseases and how they could be prevented in the future.

Following the lecture, we went out again for another dive. This time, instead of being in such awe, I was able to concentrate and almost identify all of the coral underwater. After identifying the coral for hours, it was back on the boat, to the island for lunch, and then back to a different spot to dive in the afternoon. We would continue this process for the next couple of days. With the heat the way it was, I had no problem being in the water all day.

Once we had completed the afternoon dive, we were all pretty confident of being able to identify the coral. We had a couple hours of downtown prior to dinner, so a group of us decided to grab our gear and snorkel around the island.

Swimming underwater was pretty addicting. Every couple of feet brought a new adventure. In one area, a green eel would hiss at Andrew (Alcoan) while we were getting a close-up on his camera. In another instance, a tarpon would do circles around us as if it were posing for the camera. I became a little nervous at first, since the tarpon had to be almost 1.2 meters (four feet) long, and the only water that I was accustomed to being in was at my friends’ swimming pools.

Later that night, one of the locals stated that tarpon were harmless and just a curious fish. They also said that some people who were snorkeling the day before spotted some whale sharks and that these sharks were currently migrating in the area. Wonderful!!

Monday, May 12, 2008 Today, we were given intense training all morning on the different types of diseases that can kill the coral, as well as methods on how to evaluate and perform the research.

Now that we were able to identify all of the coral, we were partnered up with another fellow so that one could do the writing while in the water and the other would do the swimming underwater. We then performed two dives in the afternoon and applied the principles that we learned in the classroom to collect data and record our findings.

Basically, we would drop a pole that had three black marking on it underwater.  Whatever coral was under these markings was what we would record for the data collection. It had to be random drops, though, in order for it to work. As such, we would swim for about six meters (20 feet) and then place the pole on top of the coral. From there, we would document whatever species were under the markings and then identify the coral’s health and different traits. It wasn’t too bad. It was very interesting, actually.

Once we got back to the island, we would enter our data and findings into the laptop computer.

After a hard day’s work, we gathered with the locals on the island and taught them how to play UNO (a card game). It was a big hit, and they were hooked. We even got them to do a little trash talking (boasting or insulting talk) by the end of the night. Americans are a bad influence.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 It was another day of collecting data in the Caribbean for most of the day. 

Later in the afternoon, since we were ahead of schedule on our research, we got to dive in an area where a ship had sunk in the 1970s. It was pretty amazing and reminded me of an enlarged aquarium ornament that you’d see at a pet store.

There were thousands of fish just circling the ship, as well as swimming in and out of it, as well as different coral species growing all over the ship. Unfortunately, this was my first experience of running into fire coral. Fire coral looks like red twigs or branches. If you happen to run into the coral, it feels like bee stings and can last up to an hour. Not so fun.

After another great dinner, we met up with our new friends from the coast guard and fisheries department to settle unsettled business at the UNO table. I was just about to shut it down for the evening when they kept saying one more game, so I obliged. However, two hours later into the game, I think everyone had had about enough of UNO. Finally, once the game was complete, we all agreed to never bring out the UNO deck again on the trip.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 Because the weather was a little windier today, we decided to do all of our studies in the morning due to the water being very choppy in the afternoon. We would go out and collect our data and then key enter it into the system.

After lunch, we watched a video about the whale sharks in Belize. Whale sharks can grow to 18 meters (59 feet) in length and can weigh up to 15 tons or more. Other than their intimidating size, the whale shark is a harmless filter feeder. This species brings in a lot of tourism to Belize, where people will actually dive with the sharks.

Since we had finished our studies early, we decided that we would go look for the whale sharks. I couldn’t believe that on day one I was nervous about seeing a shark, and now a couple of days later we were actually on the boat looking for these sharks.

After riding around for about a half an hour, we were unable to find any sharks, although we did spot a group of dolphins. Because there was a baby dolphin in the pack, we found out that they weren’t as social and became very protective.

Later on that afternoon, Shaun (the tour guide) asked if I wanted to go fishing with him.  Without question, I quickly jumped on the boat, and we headed out to the open waters.

It was a little different than the fishing I was used to on the Mississippi River. Here, they use what looks like a thick rope (no rod), a little dumbbell, and conch for bait. Shaun would lower the rope for a couple minutes until it dropped about 30 meters (100 feet). He would hold the line and quickly yank back on it once he got a bite, and I would pull up the rope with the fish. It was pretty exciting pulling up the fish. It was a little more manual than I’m used to, but more satisfying. We ended up catching a snapper and a barracuda, which we brought back to eat for dinner. Yum.

Thursday, May 15, 2008 This would be the last day that we would be diving. It’s kind of depressing, actually, knowing that this whole experience was about to come to an end. At the same time, I did really miss my two-year-old son, and I was looking forward to sleeping a night under an air conditioner.

In the morning, we carried out our last dives and later returned for lunch. 

In the afternoon, we all decided to play basketball. On the island, there is a basketball court that is basically a dirt path, along with a basketball hoop. Everywhere you go on the island, everyone is barefoot. There was no exception on the basketball court.  Somehow, during one of our games, I managed to break a couple of my toes by accidentally kicking the heel of my fellow Alcoan. I was just happy that it happened after our last dive. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like trying to get the flippers on my feet.

We spent most of the night reminiscing about the experience and what it meant to each of us. The PI’s were incredible, and everyone on the island was very hospitable. The group of fellows I was with was awesome. I formed a pretty tight bond with everyone on the trip and hope to keep in touch with them after the mission is over.

Friday, May 16, 2008 So this was it. We started the morning by packing all of our belongings and loading our gear onto the boat. However, we did find out that we had one last adventure to experience. Today, we would be traveling down the Rio Grande River and would have an opportunity to walk around and explore the rainforest.

Although we did not witness any wildlife, such as manatees or alligators, traveling up the river, the scenic views made it all worthwhile. At the end of the excursion, we took trails through the rainforest and ended up at the Machaca Hill Lodge. The lodge was paradise.  From here, one can look east and see Honduras and Guatemala across the Caribbean or turn westward to witness the Maya Mountains of Belize. 

After settling in at the lodge and taking a load off aching toes, we were picked up by a van and escorted back to the hotels in which we stayed the first night. Upon arriving, we quickly ran to our rooms and cranked the air conditioners. It was like heaven.

Since it was our last day in town, we all decided to hit the village and look for souvenirs.  Walking around the village was probably the first time I realized that we were in a third-world country. The people here were half dressed and very thin. The animals looked as if they hadn’t had a meal in weeks. Needless to say, we stood out like a sore thumb. For the most part, everyone was pretty hospitable, but there were a few who weren’t such big fans of Americans. 

After picking up a couple of shirts and other miscellaneous items, we headed back to the hotel for a little rest and relaxation. 

That night, we all gathered again and enjoyed our last dinner together. Once again, we reflected upon all of the memories over the past week and had some good laughs. This was a trip of a lifetime, and I was very fortunate to share it with great people along the way.

Because we were the first group on this Earthwatch mission, a lot of our work consisted of setting up for the following teams. Even though we did some initial studies, the principal investigators stated they would give us a complete briefing of the outcome of the project once all the studies had been completed for the year. 

The initial report from the PIs was that they noticed a lot of the coral showed more bleaching from last year’s studies. Many believe that this is from global warming, which is causing variation in the sea temperature, but the studies will still continue until this can be proven.

Saturday, May 17, 2008 The taxi arrived early in the morning to escort me to the airport. I gave my last goodbyes and hugs and jumped in the van. I was going to miss those guys.

After departing from Belize City and arriving in Atlanta, it dawned on me how good we had it. 

While living on the island, the only source of energy we had was through the solar panels on the roof.  The majority of this energy was needed for cooking the meals three times a day, and the remainder was generally used for keeping the fans on us at night. Once the energy was gone, it was gone. If that meant waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat or using the restroom when it was pitch black, so be it.

The water that we had used was recycled rain water. It was important to limit the use of water, whether while taking a shower or washing your teeth.  Like the energy, once the water was gone, it was gone.

Having lived on the island for a week, you get a real appreciation of true conservation and how easy it is for one to adapt if you’re able to make just a few sacrifices.

While the importance of the trip was doing research on the coral reef, the biggest thing that I took away from it was the importance of conserving our natural resources.  Having the opportunity to see the beautiful country of Belize and witness the living conditions in a third-world country made me realize how fortune I am to be an American and not to take anything for granted.

I know that once I would arrive back home, I would change my lifestyle by making small sacrifices to do my part in protecting our environment—whether that be recycling more often or knocking the cobwebs off of my bike and using it more while running errands.  I now understand the true importance of protecting our environment so that we can ensure our children and our children’s children have the same great opportunities in life as we do today.

Photo Gallery

View the images from Corey Ortiz'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.