Below is a great article on Reef CI’s work to protect the coral reef ecosystem that we found in a recent Toledo Howler. (We love the Howler! It’s one of our favorite ways to keep up on interesting things happening in southern Belize.)
Reef Conservation International was founded by Polly Wood ten years ago when she left her corporate life in Britain to pursue her passion for diving and marine conservation. A diving trip to Roatan in 1999 first sparked Polly’s interest in marine conservation but she quickly found that there were few short‐term opportunities.
Most coral reef conservation projects and placements were for gap‐year students or other longer‐term commitments. Realizing that there were others who felt as she did and who could help contribute meaningful data to scientists, she started to explore the idea of a marine conservation organisation which could offer opportunities to a much wider group of people.
Polly told us, “I wanted to create something unique, where anyone of any age could come and help contribute towards data collection, whether it was for one week or three months and for any level of diving experience, from beginners to experts.”
She attended numerous seminars on citizen science and marine conservation, explored various locations, talked to scientists and developed her business plan. One of the major factors was financial sustainability and, having looked at operations that relied on funding, she wanted to use what was at that time a fairly new concept, the voluntourism approach.
Many scientists rely on a limited pool of funding and grants, and their ability to collect data is often limited to short visits. With ReefCI being funded on a non‐profit basis by the volunteers themselves, they are able to operate year‐round and conduct regular monitoring to contribute meaningful data to the scientific community without taking funds away from existing studies.
ReefCI has a number of programs, including the Queen Conch study, lobster surveys and turtle nesting monitoring. They have also developed their own ReefCI Check, a coral reef monitoring protocol focussing on the unique marine ecosystem of Southern Belize. This includes the monitoring of indicator species and the mapping of the condition of the reef.
But, perhaps one of the biggest draws is Polly’s growing reputation as something of a whale shark “whisperer”. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean (up to 46 feet long and weighing up to 15 tons for those of you interested in statistics) and the Belize Barrier Reef attracts one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. The Sapodilla Cayes lie along one of their migration routes, meaning that they are often seen for up to nine months of the year.
Polly is modest about her ability and says they are easy to spot if you know the signs. These include boobies and terns feeding on the small fry in the water which are aided by the usually calm conditions at the Sapodillas. She also says that her secret weapon is Roland, her husband who grew up fishing the southern Belize waters and “has eyes like a hawk”.
ReefCI provides all whale shark data to the Belize Fisheries Department. Guests also feed data into the Project AWARE Whale Shark Project, reporting whale shark sightings and providing pictures for a public photo identification database – whale sharks each have a unique pattern on their left‐hand side about the pectoral fin akin to a human fingerprint.
The Sapodilla range consists of eight cayes forming a hook shape at the southern-most end of the Belize Reef. Hunting Caye – reputed to have the most beautiful beach in Belize – is a base for the Fisheries Department and Coast Guard and also has an immigration post. Other cayes include Nicholas Caye, the Garbutt family’s Lime Caye, Franks Caye and Tom Owen’s Caye where ReefCI is based. The cayes are right on the continental shelf so they offer amazing wall dives with sheer drops and other dives with a gradual slope. These provide an amazingly varied environment with sponges and corals, pelagic fish, rays, turtles and sharks.
ReefCI has between 15 and 20 dive sites that they regularly visit. As well as finding new sites, divers will revel in the fact that there are no other dive boats in the area. Tom Owen’s Caye is many people’s idea of a perfect cast away island and is great for novice divers offering diving from the shore, warm water with few if any currents and good visibility. Polly is a certified dive instructor, having trained over 300 divers and more than 5000 dives under her belt.
The island is an acre of sand and palm trees with eleven guest rooms in cabanas and a main building which also serves as the restaurant, training centre and meeting place. ReefCI offers diving conservation trips staying on Tom Owen’s Caye from Monday to Friday, including all diving (typically two to four dives a day), diving equipment, training in survey techniques and methodology, accommodation and meals. For more information, visit www.reefCI.com and ReefCI on Facebook.