Spring Break in the Caribbean

Mar 3, 2014

Students taking the class "Caribbean Biogeography" are spending their spring break in Belize, Central America, together with their professor Dr. Amy Berger. During the week-long trip they will explore reef, shore, and jungle environments. Follow the students’ experiences, in their own words.

March 7

Emily Sorauf (Senior Biology major)
Drew Fons (Senior Environmental Science and Math major)

After our week in Belize, we find ourselves traveling all day to return to the USA. Our final meal at TREC was yummy fresh fruit, pancakes, and cinnamon bread. (Hard to leave after that.)

As we ventured from taxi to plane to plane to yet another plane, we are all scrambling to write down as many notes and memories as we can. We could write books about the amazing events that happened here, and it would not still not do justice to the incredible trip this was. Our understanding of Caribbean reef biology has grown exponentially. A classroom for learning is cool, but hands-on experience is the best way to learn.

If you are reading this blog to try to determine if you should go on an alternative spring break, we give you this advice: Go and do it! There is nothing worse than living with the regret of a missed opportunity. Go and do something amazing—don’t let anything stop you. This trip to Belize was well worth more than the financial cost we paid. Even if you don’t choose Belize, doing something special over spring break is an opportunity that won’t be around forever.

We hope you’ve enjoyed following our trip. There aren’t enough words to describe how much we’ve enjoyed taking it!

March 6

Brandon Hermann (Senior Anthropology major)
Tyler Maynard (Sophomore Business major)

Our day began shortly after 8 when Maggie our cook had a delicious assortment of breakfast foods for us. The pancakes, cinnamon bread, and French toast are all to die for. We then headed out with Ken and Maureen Mattes (who run TREC) for a long day of snorkeling. The first place we visited was called Turtle Rock Island. Here we got to witness a variety of aquatic life, including the infamous conch graveyard—a giant pile of thousands of empty conch shells. Conch fishermen have been coming to this area for years to clean their catch. There to catch the cleanings were a loggerhead turtle, several southern sting rays, a large (blind!) burrfish, and several cowfish.

Next we headed to Shark Ray Alley, which seemed to be the favorite of many. Here we got to chum the water with fishheads—the nurse sharks swarmed to the back of our boat! There were so many nurse shark in the water we felt we could practically walk across the water on their heads. After feeding them for a few minutes, a few of the braver souls got into the water with them and found also at the bottom more southern and horse shoe sting rays. One of our guides dove down and wrote graffiti in the sediment that had accumulated on the tops of the rays!

Our last snorkel of the trip was at Hol Chan. Hol Chan is Maya for “Little Channel”—a 50-foot wide natural break in the reef that’s about 40 feet deep at the center. The channel allows larger fish to come through and feed in the calmer backreef environment,, and allows for a more diverse assortment of marine life. On one side of the channel was a small 10-foot swim-through cave opening that was about 12 feet below the surface. This was another favorite—several managed to swim dive down and swim through the cave. We also encountered several green turtles with beautiful green carapaces, and a whole troupe of spotted eagle rays.

Later that night we all ate dinner in town at a place called Carambas. This day as a whole couldn’t have been a more perfect end to our trip here in Belizean Paradise.

March 5

Kiara Almendinger (Senior Biology major)
Vickie Murphy (Sophomore Environmental Science and Music major)

Today we were back in the water for more snorkeling. We first headed to the mangroves, which are salt-tolerant plants that grow along the shores here. The snorkel site consisted of several small mangrove islands. There we saw marine animals such as stingrays, barracuda, and silverside fish. Many of the animals were a lot smaller than we had seen at other sites because the mangrove waters are calm and the roots protective. After our morning snorkel, we headed to Coral Gardens, where we further familiarized ourselves with fish we had seen in previous snorkels. We learned about two different types of boulder coral. One is less susceptible to coral bleaching, so it is slowly becoming more important to the reef. We also saw the elkhorn coral that we had seen at Tres Cocos last Saturday.

Later in the evening, we redefined our understanding of snorkeling when we dove into water after dark. Jumping into water with little to no light was a little freaky and totally unfamiliar—like jumping into an abyss when you don’t know exactly what’s swimming in the water around you! While swimming around with our underwater flashlights, we got to meet a feweels, lobsters, a squid, and ended with a great display of glistening bioluminescence from dinoflagellates. In order to actually see them, we all had to shut off our flashlights and kick our fins against the sea grass at the bottom. Soon we could watch the blinking light show under our moving feet and hands!

We can only hope that tomorrow will be as fun and educational as today has been!


March 4

Brandon Herrmann (Senior, Anthropology major)
Hannah Crocker (Junior, Biology major)

We woke up bright and early to Maggie’s cooking—sopapillas made in classic Belizean style—after which we jetted off with Allan and George to the mainland once again. We docked at the Princess Hotel in Belize City and boarded a bus headed up the Northern Highway. From there, we took another boat ride up the New River. Along the way, we saw crocodiles, blue herons, and spider monkeys. The spider monkey was interesting because we got to feed it bananas by hand.

We arrived at Lamanai, an archaeological site of a former Maya city located on the shores of the New River lagoon. We visited the museum for a few minutes before heading on a tour of the site. The first stop was Jaguar Temple. Our guide, Isidro, told us about Maya culture as well as how the site came to be excavated. We were also shown the traditional Mayan sport that was played in a ball court; we learned the winning captain was sacrificed for the honor of playing ball with the Mayan gods. We then entered a clearing that revealed the greatest temple of the area, called the High Temple—we were astonished by its sheer size and beauty. To our delight we got to climb the 112 feet to the top of the temple. The climb was treacherous but exhilarating.

At the top, we took a quick breather to enjoy the magnificent panoramic view of Orange Walk District. Climbing down was a task in itself, as we had to go down backwards—twice as difficult! After this feat, we took the long trip back to San Pedro, arriving back just in time to catch the sunset. As the day comes to an end, we look forward to another sunny day out on the reef.


March 3

Drew Fons (Senior Environmental Science and Math major)
Tyler Maynard (Sophomore Business major)

Our day started with the wonderful wake-up call at 8 a.m., followed by a breakfast of home-made breakfast burritos. We ventured to three different snorkel sites today: Mexico Rocks, Mexico Cave, and Playa Blanca. At the first stop, we encountered a diverse array of marine life, including nurse shark, southern stingrays, and a queen angelfish. At Mexico Cave, we got to free dive down as far as 20 feet to see inside an underwater cave. This cave is home for numerous angelfish and lobsters that were hanging off the upper shelf of the cave. Before we jumped in the water at Playa Blanca, we stopped for a while to enjoy a marine picnic on the boat. The highlights of lunch were freshly made Belizean tortilla chips and purified drinking water packaged in small plastic bags. The Playa Blanca snorkel dropped us at one end of the site and allowed us to drift with the current, and we were picked up by the boat at the other end.

Although our snorkeling adventures ended at 3:30, it was by no means the end of the day. We spent the afternoon as typical tourists, strolling through the town, before enjoying a dinner of chicken, curried vegetables, and more homemade tortillas! (You can’t eat just one.) We then headed back out to the beach for our night seine. To seine, two people between them and sweep a 30 foot net through the shallow water to catch any critters hanging out near the shore. Some of the more interesting catches included pufferfish, needlefish, blue crab, and yellow spotted stingrays (one was pregnant). Nothing, however, was as fascinating as the mid-sized horseshoe ray—something the biologist at the research station hasn’t caught near the shore for quite some time! After we finished making a list of all the species we found, we released our catch back to the ocean. We are all eager to see what excitement awaits us tomorrow!

March 2

Emily Sorauf (Senior, Biology major)
Vickie Murphy (Sophomore, Environmental Science and Music major)

We had an early start to our second day: after shoveling down banana pancakes and fresh pineapple at 6:30 a.m., we headed down to the dock for an hour long speedboat ride that definitely woke us up. We were going to the Belize Zoo. The zoo was exhilarating! Very different from the American zoos we have seen. All of the animals in the Belize Zoo are rescue animals native to Central America, and somewere to be released to the wild after rehabilitation and care. We saw several cats, including a black jaguar, jaguarundi, and ocelot, all of which we learned about prior to the trip. In addition, there were severaltapirs, which are the Belize national animal. We ended our zoo tour with the Scarlet Macaw. We left the zoo and continued our trip to the Cebbola Cave for cave tubing. Our tour included a jungle hike then a float down the Cave Branch River through the cave. We went past a waterfall and we learned about stalactites and stalagmites thanks to Amy’s geologic knowledge. The trip back was a great bonding time for everyone. We enjoyed Cheetos, sodas, and each other’s company. Upon arriving back we were welcomed with a great dinner (as usual!) and enjoyed our relaxing evening together. We are looking forward to the ocean air tomorrow morning as we get back to snorkeling!


March 1

Hannah Crocker (Junior, Biology major)
Kiara Almendinger (Senior, Biology major)

As we write this, we’re sharing a hammock, feet brushing the sand, and enjoying a warm island breeze. After a great breakfast of eggs, beans, and salsa, we started our expedition at 9 a.m. with a fast boat to Tres Cocos. We met up with our guide Cheecho, who was very laid back and gave interesting advice to questions like, “What do we do if we see a shark?” (Answer: “Take a picture.”) While we were snorkeling the north end of Tres Cocos, we saw fish ranging from damsel and squirrel to barracuda and shark. Don’t worry, everyone survived! It was great firsthand experience with coral life, too—many different species such as elkhorn, brain, finger, fan, and fire coral (which we learned to avoid because it stings). After a quick lunch back at the marine research station, we went out to the south side of Tres Cocos. There we found a burrfish hidden under a rock. Tyler had enough excitement for all of Belize when he found a brittle star. At both sites we searched for sea turtles, but no luck thus far. We knew they were there, though, because the turtle grass was nicely mowed. However, there were so many cool things to see that neither of us can even imagine picking a single favorite. So after 4 shark sightings, some minor sunburn, and rookie snorkeling mistakes, we find ourselves peacefully resting in a hammock, feet in the sand, enjoying the warm island breeze and dreaming about what fun activities are in store for tomorrow!