By Colin Engel, Blue Ventures volunteer, Belize
Taking part in a conservation expedition, such as those run by Blue Ventures in Belize, offers a wide variety of challenges and rewards. Volunteers will have expectations of the expedition and of themselves, together possibly with a degree of concern whether they are up to it. I can share my own hopes and fears and how challenging and rewarding I found it. As a PADI Advanced Diver and amateur marine wildlife enthusiast I was looking to move beyond diving tourism. Instead of consuming air miles to passively view a threatened natural environment, I wanted to contribute both to the research and the practical conservation I believe are vital to support and sustain it. I hoped that, although not trained as a wildlife biologist, I would learn more identification skills and knowledge which would enhance my appreciation of marine wildlife and ecology. I also hoped that diving on a protected reef would present more and better photographic opportunities than those available in a tourist area. Finally I looked for a project which connected with local needs, rather than a Western bolt on, and would thus have a better chance of creating an enduring legacy.
My experience on the Blue Ventures Belize expedition ticked every one of these boxes. Being trained on location as a data collector, data recorder and other stages of the research process made me an active and valued part of the research team. There is nothing in dive tourism to compare with this level of involvement. I knew that I had contributed in many practical ways to develop conservation. It also deepened my understanding of marine life and now feeds back to enhance my enjoyment on other dives.
As for the photography, I was able both to contribute new documentary images to the project’s photographic library and to have some wonderful images for myself. The pristine state of the marine park reef, combined with the sea bed and fish biodiversity made for far more opportunities than you would normally encounter in a heavily exploited area.
Any environmental project stands or falls by its legacy. Blue Ventures are ensuring that the project is allied with local fishing management priorities. The home stay arrangements and the communication with local fishermen and their families and local schools are designed to widen local ownership of its aims and conduct. Coincidentally this turns out to add to the experience for the volunteer as well. Involvement with the families makes this a world away from the purely business transactions which contain a hotel based experience. I made firm friends with my Sarteneja family, who want me to come back.
What about fears and challenges? Well the diving itself was well within the skills and competencies of a safe and observant PADI advanced diver. The biggest challenge was to deal with the mosquitoes and sand flies. There is no denying that you do have to try out and adopt whatever techniques best equip you to minimize their attentions. So on balance what did I make of it all? Well, I’m already signed up to join a future expedition.