Join an award winning project and become part of an active research team. Learn to dive or further your skills while doing hands-on conservation projects!
Whale Shark & Marine Conservation
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, they grow up to 14m (46ft), weighing up to 15 tons! They are migratory creatures and it has been estimated that they may live up to 100-150 years old! They eat plankton and small fish and are harmless to people. Diving with whale sharks in Belize is one of the most rewarding experiences when you are diving in the Caribbean.
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef in Belize attracts one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. Whale shark season/migration in Belize runs March-June; however, we do spot them year-round. The presence of the whale sharks is dependent on the health of the spawning fish aggregations. ReefCI actively participate in working on the spawning fish in the area.
Like many of its shark relatives, whale sharks are in decline and they may soon face extinction if we don’t act now. Whale sharks’ gentle nature makes them an easy fisheries target for meat and fins, highly valued in the international shark fin trade.
The Whale Shark & Marine Conservation Project engages divers and snorkelers in whale shark data collection efforts in partnership with the UK based Shark Trust. The Whale Shark Sightings Database allows volunteers to report their sighting information online. This public, photo identification database supports photo and sighting data comparisons by scientists, researchers, and others interested in preserving this vulnerable species. Photographic identification is a powerful non-invasive technique for studying shark life histories and movement in their natural environment. This is especially important for a highly migratory species like the Whale Shark.
What will you be doing?
Nobody can guarantee a Whale Shark encounter however; if you are lucky enough to experience a Whale Shark you must record as much information as possible, and take photos (without a flash). Displaying a myriad of pale blue spots and stripes, each whale shark has its own unique pattern. Divers and snorkelers are asked to photograph and make notes about each whale shark’s individual skin pattern, size and other identifying factors. Following each sighting, divers will be asked to submit the sightings data and images to an online database.
Please note that not all of the following surveys/activities are guaranteed to be part of your specific standard conservation program trip. Some are seasonal and/or are dependent upon length of your trip, dive experience, and numbers of participants.
The Caribbean Spiny Lobster is a high commercial value species throughout the Caribbean. Over the past few decades the populations have been seriously depleted due to an increase in overfishing. In many countries in the Caribbean there are now open and closed seasons. The closed season is normally when the females are ready to release their eggs into the water column. During the closed season in Belize (February-June), lobsters are banned from fishing and from restaurant menus.
Together with the Belize Department of Fisheries, ReefCI monitors the population of lobsters in the patch reefs (where the fishermen are most likely to retrieve lobsters by free diving), as well as the deep waters on the continental shelf. The surveys conducted in the shallow patch reefs give an idea of the density of lobsters in the region. The primary reason for surveying the continental shelf is to gain the male to female ratios and number of females carrying eggs. There are several specific locations where female lobsters gather to release their eggs. These biologically important locations require protection in order to sustain the lobster populations.
What will you be doing?
The lobster survey is conducted using the rover diver technique. We go down in groups of about 6 divers with the person at the bottom of the line at about 25m and the person at the top of the line on the top of the wall. Two people carry slates and a measuring stick. We move along the wall at the same pace for about 100 metres. Each lobster must be coaxed out of its hole using the measuring stick. First we ascertain what sex the lobster is, then we measure the total length and tail length and if the lobster is a female we look to see if she is carrying eggs. We do the same for about another 100m on the top of the wall with the deepest diver moving to the top of the line and the person who was on the top remaining where they were.
Queen Conch Surveys
The queen conch is a large marine mollusk whose scientific name strombus gigas means giant spiral shell. After mating, which occurs July to October, females lay long egg masses with about half a million embryos, although as in the case of most marine organisms, the older and larger the conch becomes the more eggs it can produce. It takes about three to five years for the queen conch to become fully mature and be considered an adult. Within three years, the conch can grow up to two pounds in weight and eight inches in length. The average shell length will increase about three inches per year in its active growing stage. The adult conch can be identified by its heavy shell which has a flattened flare on one end. Therefore, the older the conch gets, the thicker its shell will be. A conch can live up to forty years if it is not harvested by its main predator during its adult stage, humans.
Conch has been overfished in Belize because of its high commercial value. There is much debate as to whether conch is breeding in the shallow or deep waters. Theories have suggested that both are true. Increasing numbers of conch are being forced into the deep to breed because of the increase of fishing pressure.
ReefCI is working with John Ciglioni, a scientist from Cedar Crest College, Pennsylvania USA, and contributing to a paper that he is writing on the Queen Conch. To monitor the migration paths, breeding patterns and populations of these species, a number of plastic cable ties with individual numbers on have been placed around each conch, and every subsequent observation is recorded. This may indicate not only the migration patterns of conch between different depths it can also record the directional migration patterns associated with the anticlockwise currents. By regularly diving in the area, ReefCI has been able to locate two important new breeding grounds, this is of particular importance to John because he can only come to the area once or twice a year, making it extremely difficult to locate new breeding grounds.
What will you be doing?
Divers go down in buddy pairs to a sandy area where there is a large conch population. One buddy has some calipers and a slate and the other a large measuring device and some tags. We record the lip thickness (this determines age and sexual maturity), size of spiral, size of conch, habitat, depth and tag number. When the tagging project is completed, we conduct several conch survey dives each week throughout the year where we locate the conch and note the number and location.
All of the information assimilated for this project is allowing us to map out the key biologically important areas of the Marine Reserve, in terms of conch populations and activity. During 2010 the Belizean government implemented no take zones in the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. The numbers of conch in the shallow waters are already on the increase, which in turn are increasing the numbers of species that feed on them such as the Spotted Eagle Ray.
EcoMar Coral Watch (Coral Bleaching and Data Collection)
ReefCI supports and contributes to the Meso-American Coral Reef Watch Program, an organization developed by the marine conservation group, ECOMAR. The program was launched in 2008 in Belize, Mexico, and Honduras as an early warning alert system for coral bleaching in the region.
The goal of the program is to raise awareness among stakeholders – marine guides, visitors, non-governmental organizations and government departments – on the increasing impacts climate change may have on the delicate balance that exists on tropical coral reefs.
Once aware of the conditions inherent of a natural and healthy reef; guides, visitors and park rangers can submit regular reports on the conditions of the reefs so that changes over time can be measured.
Climate change is a reality and its effects on our oceans are clear. The program monitors levels of coral bleaching of stony corals. As sea temperatures rise during the later summer months, the corals begin to get stressed and first become pale, then turn partially white, and then if the sea temperatures remain too warm for too long the entire coral colony can become completely white.
Corals can exhibit varying levels of resistant to increasing sea temperatures. What makes corals in certain areas of the reef resistant to the impacts of climate change can be repeated stress from locally warmer waters or sediment-laden run-off. The corals in these areas have acclimatized to these conditions and become resilient. The acroporid corals – elkhorn and staghorn – that are growing on the reef now are believed to be resilient to our warming seas.
What will you be doing?
Divers go down in buddy pairs with Coral Watch slates and look for affected brain/cactus, branching/pillar, boulder/mound, flower and lettuce/sheet corals. The divers note the type of bleaching from paling, partially bleached to completely bleached. The water depth and the water temperature are also noted. This is a great way to learn about corals and about the different types of bleaching and disease. Everyone says that these surveys change the way that they dive and makes them appreciate the health of the reef.
ReefCI Check (Reef Habitat Surveys and Fish and Coral Identification Dives)
Our ReefCI team has developed a coral reef monitoring protocol that is more focused on the unique marine ecosystem of southern Belize. Still employing simple techniques that non-scientific divers can easily master, we aim to collect scientifically robust data allowing us to monitor and report on our coral reefs health. ReefCI Check is a comprehensive assessment of the health of coral reefs. We have fine tuned the “indicator species” observed based on the ecological and economical value and sensitivity to anthropogenic disturbances, specific to the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. A new aspect to our methodology is counting the male and female Parrot fish, while still including Groupers, Surgeon fish, Butterfly fish, Grunts, Snappers, and the invasive Lionfish. Invertebrates, coral bleaching/disease, trash and coral damage will be recorded and the substrate composition thoroughly mapped.
What will you be doing?
The Team Scientist or Team Leader lays the 100m transect line. There are three buddy teams; including one for fish, one for invertebrates and one for substrates. The fish survey is conducted first in order to avoid fish being disturbed prior to the survey. One buddy times whilst the other counts the indicator fish in 5 metre cube areas for 1.5 minutes. This is then repeated along the line. The next team surveys invertebrates with one buddy on each side of the line. They count the invertebrates inside a 2.5 metre width on each side of the transect line. This requires looking under rocks and ledges and into holes in order to find the species. The 3rd team counts the substrates. One buddy has a plumb line with a small weight on the end; the diver drops the line onto markings at each 50cm (.05m) interval and gives a hand sign to their buddy who then records the data onto a slate. The Team Scientist conducts a site description which includes any coral damage, anchor damage, disease etc. Some of the fascinating marine life you will encounter along the way includes whale sharks and lobsters.
The below itinerary is to ensure that people get the most out of their volunteer placement. However, it is also based upon flexibility and can be adapted according to individual requirements. Itineraries are subject to the length of the trip. In terms of the volunteer work, each day will differ but you will be working in the following areas depending on your program of choice.
Trips on the weekends to the jaguar sanctuary, jungle, caves, waterfalls, ziplining/rappelling, Mayan ruins, etc. can be arranged. Belize has so much to offer!
We leave for our private Caribbean island on Monday morning and return on Friday. So, you will need to arrive and depart Belize during the weekend. Most of our volunteers arrive on Sunday and leave the following Saturday, depending on what else they may wish to do in Belize or how many weeks they are staying with us.
We operate throughout the year (except for September) which means that our volunteers can choose how much they wish to get involved. Some people want to do as much conservation work as possible, some want to combine the conservation work with relaxation and fun dives and others just want to dive and spear lionfish! The choice is yours!
Our volunteers can choose how much they wish to get involved. Some people want to do as much marine conservation work as possible, some want to combine the conservation work with relaxation and fun dives! We typically do 3 marine conservation dives a day but they are not mandatory. If you prefer to chill in a hammock all day, feel free to do so. The choice is yours in terms of your participation level!
Services provided each week for your volunteer stay includes:
Cash Requirements: You will need to bring enough cash (US dollars) to pay for the following items on the island, as we do not accept credit cards or PayPal in country:
Tom Owens Caye is a 1½-acre island situated 25 miles from the mainland of Belize. It is surrounded by turquoise coral seas and situated on the continental shelf; dive sites are 5-10 minutes away!
Accommodations are basic but clean and comfortable. The location is however 5 star!!! Quirky, stone, individual cabanas surround the island. Every cabana has incredible views of the Caribbean! Imagine waking up to the sound of waves lapping against the shore and a spectacular Belizean sunrise!
During the week your accommodation will be on the island where you will have the option of either the main house or beachside cabanas. In the main lodge there are double rooms suitable for couples, twin rooms and family rooms suitable for groups of friends or families. The cabana bathroom facilities are shared though the rooms in the house are all en-suite. There is a friendly communal area with colorful underwater murals on the walls. The dining room overlooks the ocean and the food is plentiful and delicious! There are plenty of hammocks around the island to relax in.
A generator is kept in its own room to reduce noise pollution. It is run all night on the island allowing guests to charge their laptops, iPhones, iPods and cameras etc. and use a fan if the sea breeze is not enough. This generator is turned on in the evening so during the day electricity is limited. Internet is available during the mornings, evenings and often between dives.
We are Known for Our Great Food! Sample Island Menu:
All dietaries requirements are catered for. We use freshly caught fish, lobster and conch (when in season) and island ingredients such as fresh coconut.
All meals and drinking water are provided for you while you are at the island. There is an honesty book system on the island, which has a small selection of sodas, beers, and rum drinks available at an additional cost.