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Monday, February 12, 2024

Tropical Marine Biology Belize 2024 - Day #7 - The Island Without Time

Caye Caulker, off the coast of Belize

Greetings friends and family!

Today was an adventurous day that involved a bit more travel than usual. Due to the taxing day we had yesterday, we decided to give everyone a break and we started 30 minutes late. Woo hoo! That means that, after breakfast, we headed down to the dock at 9:30AM. Instead of our usual ship, the slow and steady Goliath, today we were booked on a fast boat that would help us cover some distance:

Much smaller but much faster, this boat helped us zip from San Pedro out toward another island. But on the way, we stopped to snorkel at a beautiful and large reef with the apt name Coral Gardens. The students enjoyed a nice tour of the area, spotting many species they had learned about during the semester.

Upon returning to the boat, we headed to a unique snorkel spot: a sunken barge that had founded on the reef in the 1970s and now serves as an artificial reef upon which a new coral reef is growing. Unfortunately, the wind and current were too strong, preventing us from snorkeling there.

We were once again reminded that Mother Nature is calling the shots on this trip! So we motored over to Caye Caulker, an island half way between Ambergris Caye and the mainland. I joked with the students that Caye Caulker is where we go to escape the hustle bustle of San Pedro! 

We docked at San Pedro and headed into "town," which consists of a few dirt roads lined with restaurants, bars, and lots of gift stands and shops selling local goods:

We visited a local restaurant for a mellow lunch:

Afterwards, the students had a few hours to wander the island. It really is a remarkable place, the type where you could think to yourself "I'll walk over there and get something to eat" and, next thing you know, five hours has passed. It has an incredibly mellow and laid back Caribbean vibe, which we all appreciated after a busy week. I took the students to a "sea horse ranch" where some netting and seaweed provided an ideal habitat to spot these cool fish in the water:

After relaxing on some chairs watching the birds and the clear water.

As the time to depart neared, some students found me and reminded me of my previously stated rule: Any time we walk by ice cream on one of my trips, I'm buying!

Thus fortified, we headed back to the boat and motored back to San Pedro.

The students enjoyed a quiet evening with dinner at TREC followed by work on their projects and posters. As they always do, the students worked diligently, and went to bed fairly early, excited for tomorrow, our last day on the island.

Everyone is working hard and getting a lot out of this unique experience. I'm proud of all our NEC students!

Thank you for reading,

Eric J. Simon

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Tropical Marine Biology Belize 2024 - Day #6 - Wind and waves and water and ruins

January 24, 2024 - Tropical Research Education Center, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize

Today was a long day full of adventures and, I will admit, some challenges. Our destination was the Mayan ruins at Lamanai on the mainland; today would be our one day venturing off the island.

Our big day began with a 5:45AM breakfast and a 6:15AM walk down to the beach, where we caught a pretty sunrise:

We boarded a speed boat for the 2 hour trip from Ambergris Caye to the mainland:

Unfortunately, we will ill-prepared for the ride. The wind and tides and speed combined to quickly soak us. The boat was overrun by waves and splashing that thoroughly drenched us all. We scrambled to protect our electronics and books as we bounced across the bay. By the time we reached the mainland and entered the mouth of a river, we were drenched and all feeling a bit miserable:

We certainly won't let that happen again! Next time we'll be properly prepared with dry bags, a change of clothes, etc. The boat entered a river delta, through mangrove forests, and slowly headed toward our landing place:

We gratefully disembarked, and I asked everyone to pose with their faces showing how they felt in that moment:

With no choice but to carry on, we boarded a bus for a one hour ride:

From here, we boarded a boat for a 90 minute ride upriver:

The ride up the New River was a lot of fun and we spotted various wildlife along the way, including iguanas, turtles, various birds, interesting orchids, and some bats clinging to a tree:

After about 90 minutes on the river, it opened up to a large lake. The Lamanai archeological site sat upon the banks, barely visible through the jungle. Unfortunately, we we arrived, it started to rain, as in a pounding tropical rain. We scrambled into the park and took refuge under a set of thatched porches where our guides prepared a much-welcomed hot lunch for us:

Luckily the rain soon stopped. We met our archeological guide along a stone path, and he taught us about the history of the location and the Mayan people:

The site is quite large, spread over many acres, with hundreds of buildings:

Our first stop was the Jaguar Temple, a large pyramid structure that served as a memorial to a Mayan ruler. We were able to admire the structure from below as well as climb to its top:

Interestingly, the stairs up which we climbed were built sufficiently tall that one had to ascend on hands a knees, as befitting the royal presence. From there, our guide led us through the jungle, stopping at various locations to teach us about the excavations and what had been learned:

As the photos show, it continued to rain off and on as we toured the grounds:

This next spot was notable to me. In every trip, there is one moment when you are the farthest afield, when it would take you the longest to retrace your steps back to where you started. The top of this temple, where the students sit, represents that spot on this trip. To get here, we took 3 plane flights, a 2 hour boat ride, a one hour bus ride, a 90 minute boat ride, and a 60 minute hike. Every step after this would be a step that takes us closer to home:

We we walked back toward the boat, we came upon a group of howler monkeys. We had been hearing them all day from a distance. Their call is eerie and definitely produces the urge to flee! Here you can see some high in the trees as they call to each other:

Isn't that an interesting and disturbing sound? After a quick snack/bathroom/shopping break, we headed back to the boat for the fast trip back downriver. From there, we reversed our trip on the bus, meeting the boat at the river landing:

We were naturally a bit wary getting back into the boat. We weren't sure if the pretty sunset and rainbow heralded a new happier beginning, or indicated that we were about to boat into another storm! Luckily the boat ride back was quite pleasant, smooth and with a warm ocean breeze that nourished us, rather than drained our already-low resources. We all agreed that the ride back was actually the most pleasant part of our day!

We pulled up to the dock around 8PM and walked back to TREC, grateful for the hot meal (chicken parmesan over spaghetti, and freshly baked rolls) that Maggie and her crew had prepared for us.

One of the students created a wind tunnel for us to dry off our electronics, books, and journals:

How clever is that? Our students rocks! Alas, the drying chamber was not effective enough to save my laptop, which was unable to be charged. That is why I had to stop working on the blog during the trip and am only catching up on it now, after our return to the states.

Needless to say the students were all quite worn out from our 13 hour day. We all headed to bed, ready to wake up again the next day for new adventures.

Thank you for reading,


Saturday, January 27, 2024