Bigger, better, faster: ‘The Columbian’ has finally arrived!

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by Sarah Beach, Field Scientist, Belize

This expedition marked another exciting milestone in the history of Blue Ventures Belize (BVB). After almost a year in the making, we finally welcomed the arrival of our brand new boat. Built in Mexico and driven to Sarteneja by Samos and Desi, the new boat arrived in a huge electrical storm. The weather was not enough to deter us very excited staff and some keen volunteers from racing down to the pier to see her in all her glory, illuminated by a street lamp and the occasional sheet lightning. It was a fleeting glimpse before she was driven away to San Pedro to have all the mod-cons fitted for safe and comfortable diving and driving.

A week or so later she arrived at Bacalar Chico Dive Camp (BCDC). A very proud moment for everyone who has worked so hard to turn the dream into reality. Fully fitted out with extra benches, fin supports, a centre console, bilge pump and of course the 115 horsepower Yamaha engine, it was quite a sight. Before Samos had reached the beach, the rather enthusiastic welcome party decided they wanted a test run. Connor and Hannah, preferring a more traditional mode of transport, chose to paddle a nearby abandoned rowboat, leading the way. Meanwhile, all the passengers on the new boat admired the space afforded by 28 foot length, not to mention the fact that even without cushions and with Samos at the helm, barely a bump was felt as she cut through the waves.

(Left) Everyone wonders how on earth they will jump into such a large boat. Newly outfitted, it’s here at last! (Right) Everyone excitedly leaps in the new boat for a test run, while Connor and Hannah lead the way.

Thoughts amongst the volunteers quickly turned to the name. Officially she goes by ‘Venturas’ (complementing ‘Azul’ to form Spanish ‘Blue Ventures’). However, the community of San Pedro had been calling the new boat ‘The Columbian’, mainly due to the speed and size, and this name quickly stuck. Her maiden voyage was marked by a very special experience, as the largest pod of dolphins I have ever seen here joined us, leaping out the water next to the boat and surfing the bow wave for ages, magic! Onto the survey site we went…

Off to survey far afield, with extra tanks and a rather happy team at the ready. The new boat has revolutionised the survey schedule.

Having a second fore reef boat, and in turn a dedicated survey boat, means we have been able to rapidly enhance our survey schedule and data collection. With the addition of two new survey sites; ‘Palm Springs’ and ‘Control,’ in the outside reserve area, we will now be able to measure the overall effectiveness of the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. This area was previously only accessible at very limited times of the year, in good weather, and as such had not even been mapped, let alone surveyed. However The Columbian is able to pass through the cuts and reach these distant sites with no problem, even when Azul cannot. Additionally, the new boat is able to carry more divers plus spare tanks, so we can stick around and get twice as many dives done in the one drive. This expedition alone we managed to map, and complete MBRS (Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Systems Project) surveys, at three of the furthest sites from camp, as well as an HRH survey, all in all a BVB record.

Also this Expedition, the Belize Fisheries Department invited us to join them for a turtle release. The Fisheries Department monitor a nearby loggerhead turtle nesting beach, collecting any hatchlings which do not make it to the sea for release later. On the day, the cuts were too rough for Azul to pass, but The Columbian was able to get to the fore reef, and fit all the volunteers so nobody missed out. Individually releasing around a hundred tiny, baby loggerhead turtles into the sea was the highlight of the expedition for many of the volunteers.

(Left) Hannah releases some loggerhead turtles into their new home (Right and middle) Lifejackets – check, oxygen kit – check, sat phone- check, a cool box full of baby loggerhead turtles…check?!

We discovered that rolling from The Columbian is far more exciting than from Azul. The extra drop distance affords greater chance of acrobatics – yes I’m talking about that spectacular somersault entry Andrew! Getting back in the boat is a tad trickier. Unless you are Laura who puts us to shame with an effortless leap into the bow, while we all fail miserably and eventually clamber up the ladder. Much to the joy of all boat marshals there is a large dedicated sunbathing area on the bow from which to watch the SMB. And all the captains are lining up to drive the new boat, although they do still try to persuade us that she is missing some ‘vital’ items of equipment; namely a stereo system and ice box, hmm…

There may have been a few learning curves, but all in all The Columbian has revolutionised the expedition and dive programme for volunteers and us staff. I don’t know how we ever survived without her!