When I first started working for Blue Ventures in Belize in November 2014, I took with me my diving equipment, some clothes for Caribbean weather, and the simple words of Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell: “Try to leave this world a little better than you found it.”
I grew up in a small Italian town with a strong sense of community. My family instilled in me charitable values and a love of travel, and I was an enthusiastic member of the Scouts. Looking back at my roots, there is no doubt that these childhood influences have contributed greatly to my worldview and decision-making over the past few years.
I thought, perhaps slightly naively, that my background in the Scouts and my experience in teaching and tourism would be more than enough for me to become a successful Expedition Manager.
In reality however, achieving success on the level that Blue Ventures envisions has been a lot more challenging than I initially supposed… even if my mum still has the impression that I’m basically living on holiday!
An eye on the bigger picture
“Look wide, and even when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still” – Baden Powell
For the last few years, Blue Ventures’ Belize team has been working hard to design and deliver an expedition experience that not only produces enough scientific data to make meaningful contributions to Blue Ventures’ conservation efforts, but also guarantees a life-changing experience for every expedition participant.
I am very proud of our expeditions, but my focus on the practicalities of maintaining an efficient team of staff and a rewarding volunteer experience has meant that I’ve not always been aware of Blue Ventures’ larger goals.
At the start of 2017 my role changed to Expeditions and Operations Coordinator, and I’ve since had the chance to increase my exposure to Blue Ventures’ conservation work beyond what I’d seen in Belize.
During my travels, I noticed that through a conscious process of regular critical analysis and self-evaluation, and not being afraid to challenge the status quo, Blue Ventures’ conservation programmes continue to improve and evolve.
This experience helped me to understand that for our volunteer expeditions to be considered a success, they needed to undergo a similar process of self-evaluation, and make every effort to ensure that they’re providing lasting benefits for the communities we work with.
Working with communities over a long period of time, as we do at our expedition sites, builds strong relationships and a sensitive understanding of local contexts. This is not only vital for the expeditions, but also crucial for developing conservation programmes that genuinely benefit coastal people. We work to keep community interests at the heart of all our activities and are committed to employing, sourcing and buying locally whenever possible.
Blue Ventures’ Belize team is now made up of 17 people, with an increase in Belizean staff of 85%, including three new managerial roles.
When I arrived in Belize, the Blue Ventures team was made up of ten people, half of whom were from Sarteneja, our base of operations in Belize, although none of them were in a managerial role. The team was also having to deal with the very intense work calendar presented by the expedition schedule.
In response to this, we doubled the number of boat captains and watchmen, and created two new office-based positions – office assistant and community officer – to support expedition operations. This enabled us to increase employment opportunities in the Sarteneja community and better distribute the workload around a larger team.
As we have become better established and our financial sustainability has improved, we have also been able to create new managerial positions – Science Coordinator, Community Programme Coordinator and Expedition Leader – which have been filled by Tyrell Reyes, Cecilia Guerrero and Hugo Castillo respectively, all three of whom are Belizean.
This is a vast improvement on the previous system, where the responsibilities of these roles were shared amongst Field Scientists and the Expedition or Dive Manager: all stipend-based, internationally hired positions that were dedicated to working all expeditions in the calendar year.
Blue Ventures’ Belize team is now made up of 17 people, with an increase in Belizean staff of 85%, including the three new managerial roles, and there is more recruitment on the horizon. It’s been amazing to see this new team take shape. After discussing ideas and strategies for so long, once we decided to put our plans into motion it all happened very quickly!
We’ve been very fortunate to have worked with independent researchers Dr. Noella Gray, Alexandra Meeker and Sarah Ravensburgen from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
Over the last few years they have investigated the perceptions of the Sarteneja community and various stakeholders regarding Blue Ventures’ programmes. These two studies were then collectively analysed by Noella Gray and her colleagues in 2017.
We were delighted to hear the researchers had identified numerous positive effects of our work. Importantly, our expedition activities are designed to put our science and conservation responsibilities first, rather than being based on the market demands of ecotourism. That way, our volunteers can be confident that they’re making a meaningful contribution to conservation during their time with us. The studies also noted a strong relationship between Blue Ventures and the community – reinforced by the Homestay experience, a commitment to use local resources, and the generation of employment opportunities.
Along with these positives, their work also helped to spotlight some challenges for the future: we need to reach a larger group of beneficiaries, maintain high quality in data collection, communicate our work across the entire community, and involve more community members in experiential, knowledge-generating and knowledge-sharing positions.
In January 2017, we launched our new Community Officer programme, which we hope will address many of these challenges directly. This programme involves six community members playing an active role in a range of Blue Ventures activities, including accompanying our expeditions, giving talks to the volunteers, participating in training opportunities, and supporting broader outreach work about invasive lionfish.
The future is bright
A great deal has changed since I joined Blue Ventures in 2014, and the path I see stretching before our Belize team is both intriguing and very promising.
In my own personal journey, I have felt the ephemeral and fast burning joy of “living on holiday”, as my mum puts it, giving way to the more concrete and long term satisfaction of working hard for a challenging cause that I believe in.
As Expeditions and Operations Coordinator, I now support the Blue Ventures Expeditions in Madagascar and Timor-Leste as well as the ever-growing Belize, and with greater responsibility I feel an even greater need for constant self-evaluation and honest critique of our performance.
I have no doubt however that with a brave and innovative spirit we will successfully tackle all the challenges that tomorrow brings, and hopefully leave the world a little better than we found it.
Read more about our Belize team in Learning on the job: Tyrell’s journey to reef conservation.
Experience our marine conservation expeditions in Belize for yourself!