Wednesday, August 28, 2002

The plane lands, the door opens, and once again, we step out into the tropics. A rush of hot, heavy, sweet smelling air surrounds us completely. Walking down the stairs and onto the tarmac leaves us drenched in sweat.

And so begins our expedition to Belize—our fourth Virtual Explorers expedition. After months of planning and preparation we are finally here and it feels good. Immediately and without thinking, we begin to notice what is familiar and what is new and strange to us. We watch everything out the taxi window as it winds its way through the streets of Belize City. It is what is foreign and strange that makes traveling both so rewarding and challenging at the same time. Being confronted with “newness” is what forces us as travelers to expand the parameters of what we know and understand about the world and ourselves. It feels great to be back out in the world again!

As previously arranged, the team met Katie, Caryn, and their two interns, Tami, and Hannah at the Princess Dock in Belize City in the afternoon. While we were flying in from different cities, Katie and Caryn spent the day shopping for the supplies that we will need for the next week—bags of oranges, flats of eggs, 5 lbs of brown sugar, 5 lbs of cheese, chickens, 10 lbs of flour, and crates of fresh produce. When we arrived they were already loading the speed boat that will carry us out to the research base.

We introduced ourselves and boarded the boat ready to spend the next two weeks together on a very small island. No doubt everyone was excited and a little apprehensive about what the next two weeks would bring. The good news is that, at least for the next week, there are no tropical storms brewing offshore.

A thirty-minute ride and we were at Spanish Bay Research Camp—home for the next two weeks. This side of the island holds two buildings—a dormitory and a kitchen. The building materials for both buildings are mostly recycled from Belize City. The dormitory has four small rooms and a bathroom. The dorm rooms have only walls with no ceilings so that we really are all sleeping in one large room with partitions. For us though, this is luxury accommodation compared to what we had in both Ghana and the Amazon. All but Caryn sleep in the dorm. When we have all gone to bed, Caryn hangs a hammock in the kitchen.

Flush toilets! Yes, we have them—two toilets to be exact. We are thrilled not to have to make our way at night through the jungle to the outhouse. Then using our flashlights, scan the inside of the outhouse to ensure that there are no deadly snakes before stepping inside to relieve ourselves. Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night will be a cakewalk.
While this is more than adequate for our needs for the time we are here, Caryn told us that this side of the island couldn’t sustain this many people for much longer than two weeks.

As the sun was setting and the lights of Belize City began to shine on the horizon, we sat under the palapa, the thatched sun shelter, and each person told a little about themselves. A cool breeze blew over the island—a relief from the heat of the day and a bit of a defense from the relentless sand flies.

Katie and Cary met 3.5 years ago while in the field. They discovered that they both had the same goals in establishing a long-term research project. More, they had the same philosophy about conducting research in developing countries. It was important for their individual research that their topics overlapped but with different emphasis. Caryn is focusing on animal behavior, in particular how manatees use sound and Katie is studying how manatees use their habitat, in particular the seagrass beds. Together, along with other sirenian researchers, they formed Sirenian International in 2000. Sirenian International, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that funds and supports sirenian research around the world. You may want to read the background information about sirenians to learn more about these gentle creatures.

Katie just took her written exams and will take her oral exams in October for her doctorate. She also had a baby last January. Drew is six months old. Katie of course had pictures that she shared with us. Caryn told us that her dream had always been to go to college. When her youngest daughter decided to go to college Caryn decided it was time. She actually started the same year as her daughter! After receiving her bachelors degree, she loved what she was studying and decided to continue with her doctorate.


Caryn has been here since June. This is the first time Katie has been here this season because of her new baby. She will spend only the first week with us and then return home. This is the first time that researchers have had the opportunity to study a population of manatees in their native environment outside of Florida.

Island Living

Water—we are surrounded by it but it is very much a luxury here. Our drinking water is rainwater gathered in a 1000-gallon tank that is pumped up to a holding tank on top of the dorm. It is then fed to the camp by gravity. The toilets are flushed with salt water that is pumped with a bilge pump powered by a solar panel. Water for drinking is filtered with a very fine filter to protect us against potentially harmful organisms. However, it takes all day to fill a five-gallon jug because it drips so slowly!

We do have lights! They are powered by solar panels and a wind generator that whirs constantly. There is a gasoline-powered generator but it only runs a few hours a day and powers only the refrigerator.

The toilets flush into a septic system but with the water table so high and high tide regularly flooding this portion of the island, we can’t put any paper into the toilet. All of that gets put in a box beside the toilet and then burned twice a week along with all other burnable trash. There is little recycling in Belize so Katie and Caryn are very careful about not generating too much trash. All non-burnable trash is taken off the island except tin cans. They are taken to the other side island and used for landfill. Most of Belize City was created this way. People put items like cans and bottles into the shallow water and then cover them with dirt. This then becomes new areas on which to build homes and businesses.

We go to bed with the sounds of each other’s sleep noises in our roomy bunkhouse and eagerly wait for dawn. Tomorrow we get into the boat and explore the water for the first time! We are all hoping for a manatee sighting!