The Winter Term Marine Biology class spent January 7-16 traveling to Belize. Students blogged about their experiences there — below are their words and photos (newest posts at the top). For a larger gallery of photos, check KWC’s Flickr photostream.
For more on the opportunities available through the KWC Biology department, click here.
Today is our last day in Belize. Even though it is our last day, it was by far the most fun out of all the days of adventure. About every other day it has been sunny and today was one of those days. Since the weather was magnificent today, it made our snorkeling adventures that much more enjoyable.
We had two locations today to snorkel. The first was Turtle Rock. The name gives a hint to what would be seen. As soon as we pulled up we saw a loggerhead sea turtle in the water. So of course we all jumped in as quickly as possible!
We all saw a number of different fish species that glistened in the sun, including a couple of nurse sharks swimming through the area. Also in the area was the barrier reef that had a drop off behind it. On the drop off was a small cave that was about 20 feet from the surface that only the brave swam through … of course I did. What was amazing is that I swam alongside a huge sea turtle and loved every minute of it.
Our next location of the day was Shark Ray Alley. This place was absolutely mind blowing! Jumping off the back of the boat into shark-infested waters gives a feeling no other place can give. I swam next to a nurse shark that was a good three feet longer than I was. Also I saw a huge school of blue tangs (Dory from Finding Nemo). Some spots were shallow (around six to seven feet) and students were able to dive under and touch the sting rays.
Overall, today was the most exciting and most gorgeous day from the trip, and I think all the other students would agree.
— Nicole Shor —
Today we went to The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is about 8 square miles. We snorkeled at three main spots. The first place we snorkeled at was Turtle Island. Turtle Island was by far my favorite out of the three places we snorkeled at.
As soon as we stopped the boat and were getting ready to get in, there were southern stingrays and hound fish all around the boat. Ken (our guide for the trip) was feeding them some small feeder fish. Those fish just made them go crazy.
By the time I got into the water, there were at least five stingrays around the boat. The stingrays are pretty used to people there, which made it easy to swim down and touch them. The amazing part about the stingrays is they have this layer of stuff on top of them, you could write things on top of them. So of course I had to put my name on top of one.
There were also a few loggerhead sea turtles just swimming around the boat. They were very intense with their size – they were huge! I tried to keep my distance but they would sometimes sneak up on me and swim right under me or beside me. It just was a great turtle encounter.
The seconded place we snorkeled at was just the main part of Hol Chan. This was the main channel of the whole reserve. Hol Chan in Myan means little channel – that’s where the park gets its name from. At this spot we saw a ton of horse-eye jack. This is a pretty good size fish. They are really not afraid of people at all, they will swim right at you and at the last second turn away. You think it would easy to touch them but they are really fast swimmers. The whole time I was in the water, the horse-eye jacks were always somewhere beside me.
When we swam out into the channel it was amazing. The channel is about 30 feet deep and there were a ton of different species of fish everywhere. The yellow fin grouper I saw were massive. The grouper I saw was at least three feet long. The lips on the grouper are huge, but somehow I find them to be very cute in their own way.
One big disappointment of my day was I didn’t get to snorkel Shark Ray Alley. And the reason why I didn’t was quite amazing. I just happen to have gotten stung by a Portuguese Man-of-War. I got stung all across my back, hands and upper lip, the pain was very intense and it lasted for at least 2 to 3 hours. I still can’t believe that I just happen to find one of those jellyfish. The whole thing does make for a great story at the end out the day. But from what the other students said about Shark Ray Alley, it sounded amazing. One person even got to hold a small shark.
— Katie Boles —
From the island we took the boat to our second spot of the day called Hol Chan. It is a protected park area where fishing is prohibited and the divers have to pay during certain times. Because of its protected nature, there are species located there that may have more trouble surviving elsewhere.
This snorkel was unique not only because we were in the protected area, but also because we were diving at night! We were all given an underwater flashlight and eagerly awaited nightfall. Once it was dark enough we took the plunge into the black sea.
It really was a different world at night. Many fish take on a different color pattern or scheme at night. This was seen in the Blue Tangs, for example, because they had a black striped pattern and darker coloration than their normal vibrant blue. The coral also took on a different appearance since they feed at night. They looked wavy and soft since their feeders were out.
We also were able to see many nocturnal species. Our guide, Jeff, caught an octopus and let us touch it. When he let him go, it was neat to see the octopus camouflage to the bottom and put its chromatophores to good use. Green Moray Eels were also out hunting and active. It is thought that they actually use the assistance of our flashlights to find fish easier. There was also a Southern Sting Ray and a Yellow-Spotted Sting Ray.
Another interesting thing that can only be seen at night is the bioluminescence in the algae that resides at the bottom. At one point we stopped swimming, gathered in a circle and turned out all our lights. In the dark, we kicked the bottom with our fins and the bioluminescence looked like glitter everywhere in the water. It was really beautiful.
On the way to our first site of exploration we observed two dolphins. The site of exploration began with a sunken barge. Brain coral and common sea fans covered the ship. We spotted a nurse shark underneath the sunken vessel. Also, we observed a Southern Stingray, a Spotted Eagle Ray, a Scorpion fish, a Green Turtle, and schools of Blue Chromis, Yellowtail Snapper, Blue Striped Grunt, French Grunts, and Blue Tangs along the reef. The area of exploration was filled with Elkhorn, Staghorn, and Finger coral.
The day continued by taking a trip to Caye Caulker, a sister island of San Pedro. We spent some time in the city and enjoyed a lunch at the Happy Lobster. It was another great day in San Pedro, also known as Paradise.
The second site we snorkeled today was a site called Coral Gardens. It is a portion of the barrier reef that lies to the south of the town. It is unique because this section of the reef sits lower than most other parts of the main reef, which allows the surf to flow over the top instead of breaking.
It also is dominated by large stands of Elkhorn coral and Staghorn coral. These corals have large branches that form many hiding places for fish and other organisms when grown close together.
It began as a guided snorkel as an entire group with Ken in the lead and Jeff bringing up the rear, with Norman manning the boat. The entire time, everyone was on the lookout for shells, Sea Eggs, Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers, Flamingo Tongues and Christmas tree worms to play with.
As we headed back towards the boat, we broke into buddy teams and explored the area around the boat. A few of us spotted a Southern Stingray cleverly hidden in the sand, while some others saw a large Barracuda. In the course of our snorkel, a large Spotted Eagle Ray swam across our path.
Back in the boat, a small rain storm caught up to us and showered us as we drove back to the dock and walked all the way back to the TREC.
The rest of the evening was dinner on the beach, the chicken drop (a local entertainment), and some karaoke to sum it all up.
June 13, 2010 was another day in paradise. Although we all dearly love the Yu Hak Hahn, we find 8 a.m. class much more enjoyable on the beach. Everyday in Belize has offered a new adventure, and today was no exception.
As we departed from the dock, the sun was beaming, the temperature was rising, and the water was crystal clear. It was fixing to be the perfect day.
After an hour boat ride we arrived at our first stop, “The Red Mangroves.” Mangroves are simply trees that grow in salt water. They have elaborate root systems, which are mangled together in what I call “a big mess.” Because they are so strong, they can protect the shore from erosion and even strong hurricanes. The locals will go as far as wrecking their boats in patches of mangrove in order to protect them during strong winds.
One of the most interesting species spotted at the mangrove was the upside down jelly fish. Imagine a jelly fish and now flip it upside down, and you got it. Hundreds of these jellies could be found on the ocean floor performing photosynthesis and gathering plankton with their tentacles. This site was also the home to batfish, five-foot southern stingrays and schools of sardines. The mangroves proved to be a much different site than our normal coral reef patches.
Our night ended with an enjoyable beach BBQ. (Don’t worry, Owensboro, ours is still better.) The night was packed full of chicken drops, ice cream, beach walks and our favorite karaoke. After listening to each other sing, we all agreed to finish college because we have no potential of getting a record deal.
Just another day in paradise! Stay warm back home.
Today was a great time for relaxation. We arrived in San Pedro three days ago and had a packed schedule each day. The first day we observed pillar coral, the second day we observed Mexico rocks, Mexico caves, and Catalane, and the third day we visited Tres Cocos and Tuffy. With all that hard work, the free day came with much appreciation.
Chelsea, Mary Beth, Deandra and I went down to our dock and collected spotted sea hares. They are a part of the Mollusca phylum and the Gastropoda class. They range from six cm to 15 cm approximately and have an internal shell. After we collected several of these awesome creatures, we rubbed their backs, which causes them to ink a magenta/purple ink. They use this as a defense mechanism against predators. We rubbed this ink on our hands and dyed our t-shirts with the ink.
After playing with the sea hares, we walked a few miles down the beach and got a taste of the culture. Palm trees are scattered along the beach front, boats are tethered to the docks, restaurants and bars exude delicious smells and lively music.
There are some makeshift tourists’ shops by the water that consist of a table and some handmade artifacts. I bought a small marble temple modeled after the Mayan culture and their architecture. Overall, today was a great day for relaxation and fellowship.
–Mary Beth Powell—
Today is free day and no sunshine. After lunch Lindsay, Chelsea and I went down to the dock to find sea hares. Once we found the sea hares we picked them up, made them ink and made shirts. We did this so we could be official members of the ‘Fraternal Order of Apylsia Lovers,’ an old tradition.
We then went into town and visited some local shops. The whole group joined back at the TREC later and discussed what happened that day. Dr. Rosemier was offered “a necklace, pot, or a hooker,” and his response was, “Naw, I’m good!” MaeLing, Amy and Nicole rented a golf cart to ride around town, while Shelby and Shanna rented bicycles and rode around.
The four man wolf pack departed for our adventure bright and early at 9 a.m. We rented a golf cart at Island Rentals and spent the day exploring the island of San Pedro. Our first destination was downtown where we visited gift shops, walked the beach and socialized with the locals.
We then headed back to the TREC for a quick lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches. Then we headed to the unpopulated northern part of the island, where our adventure ended at a Rastafari Bar where we quenched our thirst with a few beverages.
We highlighted our evening with a visit to a local pond where crocodile sightings supposedly occur. Upon our arrival the water surface was motionless until five minutes later a 10-12 foot crocodile gracefully emerged from the depths.
— Amy Staples —
So far the trip has been a lot of fun. I am really enjoying it I just wish it would be a little warmer.
The food is really good! We have had some sort of fresh fruit at every meal. I tried a new type of fruit as well, called star fruit. It was sour but good. We eat a lot of chicken and beans but I have enjoyed the food.
Today was our third day snorkeling and definitely the best so far! At the first location there were a lot of cool fish to see. Two of my favorites were the peacock flounder and southern sting ray.
Next we snorkeled a shipwreck called “Tuffy.” It was actually really “tuff.” We followed the instructors and I thought I was going to die. Getting to the site was fine, but the way back killed me. It was definitely an amazing site. As we approached part of the boat there were three spotted eagle rays swimming. They were beautiful!
I have really enjoyed the trip so far! I have had a lot of fun and have learned a lot about the environment and animals that I see.
Ken says that it is supposed to warm up towards the end of the week. I am definitely looking forward to what the rest of the trip will bring.
The two stops for the day were Tres Cocos and Tuffy (named after the sunken ship Tuffy). The site is shaped like a ‘T,’ which means that you have very sharp corners to swim around. Turning around the bottom of the ‘T’ was very rough because of the strong current gushing from around the corner. I was sucking in air through my snorkel.
But the hard work paid off because once we were back in open water, I saw two spotted eagle rays gliding past us. I watched them for a moment to see where they were headed, and in their path was the largest spotted eagle ray that I have ever seen. They looked like a flock! It’s amazing seeing the species that you study in a book swimming around in real life.
When we got back, we ate a delicious dinner (once again) and headed out to souvenir shop. Tomorrow was our free day, so we went out to experience Belizean nightlife.
I feel like people are genuinely nice here. The pace is very slow. Even while driving, there are no lines and hardly any stop signs – people just share the road in peace. That’s one huge difference that I am really going to miss.
— Deandra Buskill —
Anyone who lives in Belize and gets to go snorkeling on the reef every day has “the good life.” Belize is one of the few places in the world that has a barrier reef, which makes for some of the best snorkeling anyone could hope for.
While on the Goliath today, we went to a spot in the northern part of the reef called Mexico Rocks. The coral in the area is a patch reef, meaning it is discontinuous. The patches are almost sphere-shaped, with a few yards between each patch. Within each patch there were juvenile fish of many different species. I saw Cocoa Damselfish, Yellowtail Damselfish, Sergeant Majors, Fairy Basslet, Threespot Damselfish, and many more.
Baby fish are some of the cutest animals because you rarely get to see them; when you do all you can say is ooooohhhhh!
On top of there being all sorts of ridiculously cute fish all around, there were eye-catching invertebrates as well. Giant anemones have these extremely vibrant purple tips that feel like tiny butterfly kisses on your fingertips.
Although the water was cold, the eye candy in the water keeps you in it even when shaking. Snorkeling makes for one amazing day.
Today in Belize we went to three different reef areas. The first area was called Mexico Rocks, which consisted of large bolder coral. While snorkeling, I got to see many species of angelfish and stingrays. I also saw giant anemones, which you can touch.
After we were done at this area we all stayed in the underneath part of the boat until we got to the next snorkeling area because it was rather cold since it was windy and the sun wasn’t out.
Our next destination was Mexico Cave, which was just an underwater cave with patch reef around it and a resident Southern Stingray at the mouth of the cave. Here we got to practice our free-diving.
After leaving the cave, we went to Catalane, which was a smaller patch reef area, and we saw many of the same fish species here. All three of these areas were beautiful.
When we were all done exploring Catalane, we got back on the boat and headed back to shore. Once on land the sun finally came out and it got warm and I was able to lay out next to the pool at TREC, our field station. Overall it was another awesome day on the Island.
— MaeLing Chiu–
I woke up today around 5:15 a.m. to get ready to leave Clarrisa Falls. Today was our last day to stay there, and we were heading out to the airport to fly to San Pedro, Belize, to stay at the Tropical Research Educational Center (TREC) for the rest of our trip. I was really excited because I would finally get to go snorkeling for the first time ever.
The plane that flew us to San Pedro was very small, midget size. I had to bend down in order to walk into the plane without hitting your head, and I’m only 5’3. So, it was a pretty interesting 20 minutes flight to San Pedro.
It was around noon when we arrived at the TREC and met Dr. Ken, who would be taking us out snorkeling into the ocean and teaching us about the different species of fish that we were going to be discovering underwater.
My first time snorkeling was pretty interesting because I had a little trouble at first getting the hang of using my mask and snorkel. My partner Amy and I swam around to look at the different species that were underwater. The Manatee grass and coral were everywhere on the bottom of the area we were snorkeling. We had to be careful where we stood or we would hurt the coral.
There were many different species of fish underwater like the Queen Angelfish, Four-Eye Angelfish, French and Blue-Striped Grunt, and many more. My favorite were the Yellowtail Damselfish and the Fairy Basselet – their colors were very pretty. It was an experience because it’s much cooler than looking at images in Google when you have the real thing in front of you.
— Richard Fangman —
Today we departed from Clarissa Falls at 6:00 AM and headed to a small airport in Belize City via a large van/bus. From Belize City we flew over to the Island of San Pedro in small single propeller plane. From my seat on the plane I was able to observe the pilot take off, fly, and land our plane while reading an instruction manual.
Once in San Pedro we took a taxi from the small airport to our field station, where we will stay for the remainder of our trip. We then had a short debriefing with the owner of the field station and had a quick lunch before heading out to our first snorkeling experience.
We boarded the vessel “Goliath”, a 50 foot catamaran, and headed out to spot along the barrier reef named “Pillar Coral.” This spot is given its name because of the large amount of Pillar Coral that prospers in that area.
We jumped into the water, got oriented with snorkeling in the ocean, split up into two groups and then began exploring the reef. This area of the reef was dominated by species such as Pillar Coral, Long-Spined Sea Urchins, French and Bluestriped Grunts, various species of Damsel Fish, Common Sea Fans, Boulder Brain Coral and Slippery Dicks.
After our dive, a small group of students, including me, took a walk around the town of San Pedro. Dinner consisted of a mixture of chicken, beans and rice. We then ended the night with a lecture over the reef sights we planned to visit the following day.
January 8, 2010
Today was our first day on the mainland, after a slightly eventful plane ride in. Clarissa Falls Resort is the name of the place where we are staying – it’s a quaint little place with some bungalows and an outdoor patio dinning area. After a delicious breakfast of local fruits, eggs and some fried pastry, we embarked on our hike along the banks of the Mopan river toward Xunantunich, a Mayan ruin.
The hike was about two miles and was awesome. Along the way we saw many local species including leaf cutter ants, parrots and a variety of cranes. Our guide, Chenna, was the owner of the resort, and was very knowledgeable of the area. Chenna told lots of interesting stories and remedies the local flora is used for, such as the plant that makes castor oil.
Once we reached the park that Xunantunich sits on, we rode a ferry across the river. It was another short mile hike up the hill to the ruins. As soon as you enter the ruin complex you see the main tower standing about 250 feet tall, sticking out of the forest canopy. We all ascended the building – it was pretty intense since there was nothing but a six-inch wide stone step between you and the ground hundreds of feet below. Once you get to the top you can see for miles; the view is breath taking, with Guatemala on one side, Belize on the other, forest all around.
We explored the rest of the ruins seeing the ball courts and the other two temples, which were less impressive but still intriguing. We then hiked back down to the river where we were met with a quick lunch and inner tubes. We proceeded to venture down the Mopan on the tubes. It was very relaxing and we got to see several iguanas sunning themselves up in the tree tops and blue herring fishing. There were some minor rapids that we had to traverse but only a few people flipped, with their pride the only thing hurt. We spent about two hours on the river before arriving at our resort.
We were fed a delicious dinner of some local chicken dish and rice. On the way back to my bungalow I happened upon a large tarantula that happened to be a red rump, which was a species John Grieb had presented on in class. So I captured it in a bag and brought it back to the dinning area where Dr. Rosemier handled it and we passed it around being sure to be gentle so not to get bitten, even though a bite is only like a bee sting. Of course lots of picture were taken.
Well that’s all for today – lots of fun, very tiring, time to hit the sack. Heading to San Pedro tomorrow.
Today was a very full day – we had the opportunity to take a guided walk, go to see the Mayan Ruins, and then tube down a river back to the place we were staying.
When we arrived outside of the jungle area, we had some time to walk around and take a quick look at some of the stores.
To get to the Ruins we had quite a hike. Starting off, the trip was easy – all we had to do was go on a ferry and cross the river. When we crossed the river there was a very big hill awaiting us, and when we made it up the hill there was an even steeper hill waiting for us.
On this hill two girls in our group decided they were going to race up it. This turned out to be quite hysterical because as they were going up they had a good pace then near the very end they both died very quickly. When we finally made it to the top of the hill, the rest was a very gradual incline that made the trip seem not nearly as bad as it was.
We reached a spot where we could buy tickets to enter into the Mayan area, but to our dismay we still had some hiking left to do. When we finally reached the site, it was amazing. The stone buildings were so high and the architecture for that time was very impressive.
So, naturally we all found the tallest of the three areas and started climbing up it. We all got to the top, where it seemed like we were on top of the world. It felt like I could see for forever in every direction. You could easily see houses and fields in the distance; it was quite spectacular.
Then it was time for the descent. Going down did not seem to take nearly as long as going up did. When we reached the bottom, we were able to grab a small snack before we grabbed tubes and got into the river. Drifting on the river was very relaxing and very fun. Finally we got back to the house and rested and grabbed some food.
The trip has been a lot of fun and very interesting. We have learned a lot from the people here and have had the chance to experience many new things.