My name is Darling Ortega, I’m from Sarteneja Village in Belize and this is the story of my journey working with Blue Ventures.

It all started when I saw a Research Assistant vacancy advert in January of 2016. I had done some research work while in school, so I made up my mind to apply for the post, but unfortunately it wasn’t accepted. In my village, it’s very common for kids to not complete school or to just attend high school for the first year; those who do manage to get an education will still struggle to get a job because there aren’t many opportunities for us in the village. If it weren’t for Blue Ventures, I would be struggling myself.

As one door closes, another door opens…

I love travelling, creating experiences, and learning new things so I excitedly agreed to volunteer.Five months after I had been rejected for the role, the team got in touch with me and said that even though I didn’t get the job, they saw some potential in me. Marc and Jen (who led the Blue Ventures team in Belize at the time) told me they had upcoming volunteer opportunities and asked if I was interested. I love travelling, creating experiences, and learning new things so I excitedly agreed to volunteer.

My first event was in July of 2016 – a lionfish tournament in Dangriga Town, on the southeast side of the country. A lionfish tournament is an event where local fishermen compete to catch the largest lionfish, the smallest lionfish, and the most lionfish from their boats. I was going to help with data collection for the tournament and manage the outreach booth to share information about lionfish to the community. 

In Belize, red lionfish (Pterois volitans) are an invasive species that eat juvenile fish and invertebrates. Lionfish culling events like this one are organised in an effort to stop them suppressing native fish populations and ecologically important species. Blue Ventures is involved in the management of Belize’s lionfish population through supporting local protected area managers to develop and implement lionfish control plans, and coordinating a national network for lionfish management, providing a platform for participation of stakeholders from all affected industries in lionfish management.

I had never been to Dangriga before nor travelled to the south of my country, but when the day of the tournament arrived, I felt confident because a few women from my village were also coming along to take part in some workshops at the event. It was my first lionfish tournament and I was surprised to see how many people were taking part. This was also my first time collecting data and it felt really good! It was something new, but I wanted to do it. Wanting is power and if you have the power to do something, you can do it.

If I was to give advice to someone from my village, I would tell them to do as much volunteering as possible because it helps you share your knowledge and develop your capabilities. For me, volunteering with Blue Ventures opened yet another door…

Proving my abilities

One thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that if you take chances you can either succeed or work yourself into succeeding. There is no such thing as failure.Shortly after the lionfish tournament, I became pregnant with my first child. During this time, I got another call from Jen who asked me to visit the Blue Ventures office. I had no idea what she wanted to discuss, but I had a gut feeling it was something really good. When I arrived, surprise! I was offered a part-time Office Assistant position! I did not hesitate and took on the role. One thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that if you take chances you can either succeed or work yourself into succeeding. There is no such thing as failure. 

When I started my new role, I had a baby boy to provide for so I was motivated to take more on. The team was looking for someone to assist with delivering presentations for volunteers and to work directly with communities in outreach activities; I jumped at the opportunity to develop my skills. So there I was, taking on even more responsibilities and raising a baby almost all by myself. But I could handle it; I got better at what I was doing, and showed that I could adapt easily and solve problems in the blink of an eye. 

The Blue Ventures office in Sarteneja | Photo: Blue Ventures

My new role encompassed a broad range of responsibilities, from administrative tasks to community outreach. I kept learning with each and every task that I was given. When you think you’ve learned everything, there’s always something new. 

One of the new things that I particularly enjoyed was working with my colleague Cecilia to prepare education materials so that we could teach in primary schools and at the Centro Escolar Mexico Junior College (CEMJC), a school in the nearby village of San Roman. We would deliver lessons on mangrove ecosystems, food chains and food webs, lionfish, fish survey methodology, and also taught the students how to write their own literature review for school projects. The teacher at CEMJC would often commend me on the way I delivered lessons and was impressed how I even managed to capture the attention of the least motivated students in class.

We often went on field trips with the students; they would always say to me that they didn’t expect a local woman from Sarteneja to be working with an international NGO and asked me how I got involved with Blue Ventures. I loved sharing my story with them and offering advice on how to get involved in conservation in their community.

‘Other tasks may be reasonably required’

‘Other tasks as may be reasonably required’ is my favorite line in my job description because it always seems to open new doors for me. Alongside my admin and outreach responsibilities, I also started to help out with Blue Ventures Expeditions. My colleague Davide was running Bacalar Chico Dive Camp at the time and needed assistance with solving problems that arose during expeditions, and he also needed Science Officers. Science Officers would lead science training for volunteers, and they also led scientific research and data collection with the assistance of volunteers. I wanted to learn how to do scientific research and I had always wanted to learn to dive, long before I joined Blue Ventures, so I was so excited to join the science team and begin my dive course. 

Bacalar Chico Dive Camp | Photo: Sarah Harris

I had to get a doctor’s check-up before starting the course; I went to the doctor only to find out I was pregnant with my second son. Although I was not prepared for this, I decided to take the news with joy as I have always done throughout my journey with Blue Ventures. My son was born in July of 2018 and I came back to the office in October 2018 with a new title: Operations Officer.

I continued to help with expeditions and showed I was capable of much more than I thought. I began with getting the dive camp fully powered with solar energy, then we replaced the roofs on some of the cabanas and completed many more infrastructural repairs – all of this in just five months! After this, I finally got the news I was hoping for: I was able to start my dive course.

Taking the plunge

When I took my first breath underwater, I literally said “WOW!” and felt so light floating underwater, filled with joy and peace.In December of 2019 I was sitting on the edge of the boat, holding my mask and regulator with one hand, calming my nerves while holding my dive belt in place, and ready to dive. Doing a back roll off the boat with so much equipment was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was the most rewarding experience. When I took my first breath underwater, I literally said “WOW!” and felt so light floating underwater, filled with joy and peace. 

There is always an opportunity to grow with Blue Ventures and you will always be appreciated.I’ve been through a lot with Blue Ventures and I am so grateful for the support that they’ve given me over the past few years. There is always an opportunity to grow with Blue Ventures and you will always be appreciated. All these opportunities could have been given to someone else, someone outside of our community, and even someone from another country; but these opportunities were given to me… and I’m not the only one. 

Many other people from Sarteneja Village have taken opportunities to get involved in Blue Ventures’ work here. Not only do these opportunities enable us to support ourselves and our families, but they also enable us to protect the precious marine environment that we love and rely on here in Belize. By working together and engaging in conservation efforts, we can learn more about our ocean and learn how to protect it for generations to come.


Read a similar story from my colleague Dedy in Timor-Leste


All of the photographs in this blog were taken prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Belize, and before social distancing rules were in place
Darling Ortega

Posted by Darling Ortega

One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Sandra Cordova Oct 22, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Darling,
    Thank you for sharing your story. You have accomplished so much and you are a great example in your community. Blue Ventures saw something in you, and they were right to take a chance on you. As a volunteer with Blue Ventures, I got to see first hand your enthusiasm and your thirst for knowledge. All things are possible for you! It is my pleasure to know you.
    Until we meet again,
    Sincerely,
    Sandra

    Reply

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