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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Day #6 - January 13th, 2015
Location: Tropical Research Education Center, Ambergris Caye, Belize

The best day of snorkeling ever!

Today started off in a most unpromising fashion. A heavy downpour began around midnight and continued until our 9AM departure time. After dropping off a load of laundry at a local shop, we headed to the ship, hoping for nicer skies. Soon the rain stopped, the sun appeared, and we were treated to the calmest smoothest seas of the entire trip, just in time for the Best Day of Snorkeling Ever!

We began the Best Day by visiting Turtle Rock Island. This spot, within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, is known for its population of loggerhead turtles who come out to feed from scraps left behind by a local conch fisherman. The turtles and rays in this area are therefore quite used to human presence and so will stay for an extended period, presenting great photo opportunities!

The students (and professors!) were totally jazzed to have spent an hour in the water viewing these magnificent creatures up close. This dive alone would have been worth the trip. But wait! There's more!

We headed to the main area of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the most heavily protected reef in Belize .We were lead on a guided tour along the reef, across the channel for which the park is named, and then across the other side. Highlights included green sea turtles, nurse sharks, barracuda, green moray eels, groupers at least 5' long, and countless varieties of healthy colorful coral. There was even a cave tunnel that the braver among us were able to swim through.

Hol Chan is truly a natural wonder and we are all very lucky that the country of Belize has put so much effort into preserving this marine sanctuary. The students were shocked to learn that it was already 2PM at this point, so they ate a quick lunch on the boat (supplemented by the usual captain's recipe for bean dip and chips, as well as our never-ending supply of snack bars) as we motored the short distance to Shark Ray Alley. Read that name again. How badly do you want to go there? So badly! This spot is commonly used to view nurse sharks as well as horseshoe rays and southern sting rays. The students were able to swim with the rays to their full contentment, as well as to swim around and view the sharks.

Doesn't it look like this horseshoe ray is smiling at me?

Nurse shark

Nurse shark (and horse eyed jack in the foreground)

Southern and horseshoe sting rays

Southern sting ray

Wow! What an amazing experience. Everyone left the water completely psyched up by the experience, chattering away with each other excitedly and comparing experiences. I can't imagine that any of us will ever forget this day - The Best Day of Snorkeling Ever!

We returned to TREC and everyone prepared for the final species ID exam. I prepared a series of photos and videos from the last few days and students had to quickly identify 44 species by sight. I am proud to report that, despite the fact that over half the class consists of non-science-major students, the average on the final exam was 95%! Outstanding students, every one! I had laid out a challenge at the start of the semester: any student who could maintain a prefect 100% average on the 7 species ID quizzes would earn a free lobster dinner for them and a guest in Belize. I was a bit nervous when 3 people were still alive for the prize going into the final, but two of those students missed one question, leaving just one winner to claim the lobster dinner!

We all headed into town walking along the beach as the Belizean sun sank below the Caribbean. We all nattered on about the day and our time on the island. We enjoyed a nice local dinner, including ceviche, conch fritters, blackened snapper, and of course lobster for our exam winner:

After dinner, students were encouraged to stimulate the local Belizean economy by shopping (ice cream souvenirs, etc.). You may have noticed that I posted more than the usual number of photos today. That is because there was a lot to photograph, but also because, as I write this, all the students (save one) are out enjoying some night life, so I have the Internet connection all to myself! While the students play, I get to sort through over 500+ photos from the day and write the blog to all you wonderful people.  :-)  If it wasn't for the mosquitoes feasting on my legs, I would say that arrangement was just about perfect.

We leave the island early tomorrow morning for three days in the interior rainforest area. I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on our time on the reef, but sleep calls me now, so that will have to wait for another day.

Everyone is doing very well. Nearly all the students have completed their lab research projects, and everyone is keeping up with their journal writing. I'd say that every single student is hitting a good balance of work and play, taking the time to experience the culture while also remembering the purpose of this trip is primarily educational. This is really a great group of students!

Best wishes to everyone. I'm not sure of the Internet situation where we are headed, so I'm not sure when my next update will be. Please don't worry if you don't hear from me for a few days - it's just the jungle taking away our WiFi!

Thanks for reading!

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