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Nature on your doorstep: adventures on the Belize Barrier Reef

by Saskia Ponce, Centro Escolar México Junior College student, Belize

Foreword by Jen Chapman, Belize Country Coordinator

Centro Escolar México Junior College (CEMJC) is a Belizean tertiary education institution in the Corozal District. Its mission is to provide opportunities for students from rural communities to engage in tertiary level applied sciences, including Natural Resource Management (NRM), Agriculture, and Information Technology. Blue Ventures has worked with the CEMJC NRM group with their final year research projects since 2011. Each year, the students are assisted with project planning, field survey techniques, data management, analysis and write-up. In 2013, for the first time, CEMJC students, having completed their project write-ups, were rewarded with an overnight field trip to Bacalar Chico. Blue Ventures’ staff and volunteers guided students through mangroves and reefs; for many students, it was their first time snorkelling  Blue Ventures and CEMJC look forward to building upon their relationship, with the planned introduction of a Marine Biology course at the school, and internship opportunities for young graduates.

The Biology and Natural Resource Management Program is a course of great interest and great discovery. It focuses both on the natural history of plants and animals, as well as their interaction with the environment. As a part of the school curriculum, students are required to gain practical field experience, use analytical thinking and prepare a report to summarize what was learnt; we did this in the mangroves of Sarteneja with Blue Ventures. At the end of the academic year, all students had a chance to put their field skills into practice, when an overnight trip to Bacalar Chico was conducted.

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Students listening to a lecture about mangroves

It was a trip of amusement and of gaining knowledge and new experiences. Students met in Corozal for the two boat trip to our final destination of Bacalar Chico. As the boat sailed through the blue waters of the Caribbean, some of the students were fortunate to spot manatees! The boat sailed through a region where mangroves could be seen; they were tall and the roots of some could be seen above the water level. As we had already studied mangrove ecosystems, we could identify the different types of mangroves, which was fun.

The boat journey continued until we reached the Bacalar Chico San Juan Ranger Station, manned by the Belize Fisheries Department. Here, we met with Blue Ventures’ staff and volunteers. Everyone got off the boat and went inside, where a model of the whole island was shown and explained. We were told about protected areas, the importance of the reef and the abundance of species found within it. Soon after, we began our true adventure. Everyone was given snorkeling gear, fins and life jackets.

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What do you see? A student learns to measure salinity using a refractometer

The Belize Barrier Reef is a remarkable natural gift, blessed with breathtaking beauty. When I entered the water with the others to snorkel around the reef, I was both excited and anxious. It was my first time snorkeling, as it was for many that were on this trip. Volunteers and staff from Blue Ventures were there to guide us. It was a beautiful experience; I could describe the reef as the rainforest of the sea, so beautiful and fragile. While I swam above it, I could see beneath lots of fishes; different types, sizes, and colors. It’s such an extraordinary world that not many have the privilege of experiencing. I saw other organisms such as starfish and turtles, among others. It was very enjoyable. I fell in love with the view of the seafloor, covered with seagrass. The second time we went snorkeling we went to another part of the reef, where it was much deeper, and there we saw a wider range of creatures and the coral colonies were bigger and more colorful. Snorkeling on the reef exposed us to the wonders of Belizean waters and allowed us to appreciate and understand the beauty of it.

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Walking through the visible mangrove roots – called pneumatophores

Overall this entire trip was one to remember – it was an unforgettable encounter. We got to experience and see the sea’s rainforest with its beautiful and precious jewels. We studied the importance of the reef, the diversity of species found within the region, the buildup of this marvelous structure, the harms that both nature and humans can cause to it and of course the conservation strategies that are in place to protect it. This trip was a memorable experience that I would surely want to do again and again.

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The students had a great time learning about the Belizean environment