VIP expeditions

by Thomas Forwood, volunteer, Belize

Generally speaking, life at Bacalar Chico Dive Camp (BCDC) is routine. You get up at 5am, breakfast is at 8am and lunch is at 1pm. In between is diving, marshalling duties and other enjoyable responsibilities, all set in wonderful surroundings. These days are without fail highly enjoyable and the company great, but sometimes you have to crave for something a little different; perhaps a break in the routine, either due to weather or sometimes a change of company. Variety is the spice of life. Sometimes this comes in the form of the coast guard, appearing out of nowhere from the jungle with rifles in their arms, like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Sometimes it’s the Belize Fisheries Department, here for a game of beach volleyball and chat.

The view we wake up every day – it’s a hard life.

But last Saturday, new company and new activities came in the form of 15 or so students from Sarteneja. The VIPs (Volunteer and Internship Program), along with teachers, representatives from SACD (Sarteneja Alliance for Conservation and Development), and a parent or two. They were here for the day to simply see the place, experience the reef and the mangroves, and see for their own eyes the reasons they were being taught conservation and sustainability of the sea. I have been told that the majority of teaching for these students is hands-off, with repetition the make-up of most school days, so I thought it was great that this experience was on offer, remembering how much I enjoyed field-trips when I was at school. But for these kids, aged between 12 and 15, it was so much more. Although Sarteneja is just over an hour away by boat, most of the children had never been to the reserve, and although surrounded by warm, azure waters, few were confident in the water, some had never snorkelled, most needed lifejackets while swimming. And yet all were desperate to get into the water, and see with their own eyes the wonders of the underwater world.

We met them at the fisheries department, where they toured the small museum there, giving them an oversight of the area and everything in it. We had seen it a week earlier and I thought it was great, giving you concise information about lionfish, manatees, Mayans and everything in between. While they were inside, we had a look at a racing pedal boat, registered in the UK, which had been lost in the Bahamas and had managed to find its way to Bacalar Chico. It was the reason for the coast guards visit the previous week.

So, with the VIPs done, we split into three groups, and started the day. The boat went back, with Mexico to the north and Belize to the south, through the ancient Mayan canal built to bring trade down the coast into calmer waters. We went into the mangroves, where Klavdija, BCDC Field Scientist, gave them a quick rundown of mangrove ecosystems. I was surprised at how much they knew already, all about the three types of mangroves; red, white and black, and how each grew, the importance of mangroves in managing coastal erosion and the health of the reef. We had a quick look over the side of boat, pointing at fish and on the lookout for manatee, but there would be more time for that later when we returned for a snorkelling trip. We docked up at camp a few minutes later and headed into the classroom for an introductory lecture about the work of Blue Ventures and the life of the reef, given effortlessly by Sarah. While Klavdija told them about some of the fish and megafauna they might see in the ocean when snorkelling, the next activity on the menu.

There are remnants of the ancient Mayan civilisation around BCDC.

And so we assembled our stuff, with fins to outrun the kids should they decide to run off, and headed to Barracuda Patch. We were given one child to look after each, with plenty of volunteers to go round, and got them ready. We told them to spit into their masks, which took them a while to believe, and strapped them up with life-jackets round their waists, so they could float while still getting their heads in the water. And with everything ready we jumped… Well, the volunteers jumped. The VIP’s went down the ladder, and slowly got themselves used to the saltier water (Sarteneja has really un-salty water). My protégée was a boy named Cruz.

To say they found the experience amazing is an understatement. They saw Southern stingrays, barracuda, conch, tons of fish, which were all correctly identified by Cruz, and then out of the gloom, two manatees, along to show the kids what it is they are conserving for the VIP days in ten, twenty or fifty years time. The half hour wonder was all too brief and we returned to the boat to head back for lunch. Cruz and I made our way up the ladder, onto the SACD boat, and while we sat he turned to me and said, ‘We going back in? Now?’ ‘No Cruz, later, after lunch.’ ‘Not now? Can we go back in now?’ I think he enjoyed himself.

These are the kind of wonders that the children saw while snorkelling.

Lunch was well deserved, for everyone involved, and after a post-lunch kick-around with the volleyball, and lying in the hammocks, my group headed to the Mangroves for another go at snorkelling. It would be hard to top the morning’s efforts, but it was worth a go. mangroves have a whole different system of life, with shallower, sandier waters providing homes for upside-down jellyfish, snapper, mojarra and the occasional manatee and stingray. Sure enough we didn’t see as much as the morning, but in a way that didn’t really matter. We stayed close to the sides, peering through the mangrove roots into the maze of hiding places for young fish, occasionally seeing a ray disappear in a puff of sand and letting ourselves get carried by the current hundreds of meters from where the boat dropped us off. It kindly came to pick us up, saving us the up-stream effort.

This was the end of the day, and the three boats parked together while we got back in,  stories came from all sides talking about what had been seen, with each one trying to top the last. The boat turned and sped off back to camp, while the VIPs, with entourage, turned and headed deeper into mangroves, and out the other side, back to Sarteneja, with, I’m guessing smiles on their faces.

A group shot! The happy faces at the end of the day were a sign of success.

Not everyone is cut out for teaching, and it is certainly difficult at times to keep children interested. But no matter who was comfortable with children before the day began, each and every volunteer and staff member found their job made infinitely more easy, with the reef and mangroves keeping the attention of all the kids, pulling another trick out of the hat, whenever eyes started to wander. That is the joy of this part of the world, and it is so easy to be enamoured with the place that convincing someone of conserving the area is pushing an open door. It is in everyone’s interests, now and in the future, to get these guys to love this place. And sometimes, one day is all it takes.