Spring Break in Belize

Eight students are spending their spring break in Belize, Central America, together with their professor Dr. Amy Berger. This week-long trip is the primary component for their class “Caribbean Biogeography”. While there, they explore reef, shore, and jungle environments. Follow the students’ experiences, in their own words.

Brandon Magee scuba divingBrandon Magee

Criminology major

This was an extremely excited yet super sad day all at the same time. I woke up super excited about what this day had in store of us, potentially, two snorkels and two dives. But, at the same time extremely sad because this was our last full day here in Belize. All of the excitement began when I got to snorkel at Shark Ray Alley. Here you slide in the water as quickly as possible as sharks come up to the boat. This is amazing—unless you have a fear of sharks—because there were possibly fifteen nurse sharks here along with three rays. It was breath-taking to just watch them go after the chum that was being thrown into the water. From there we swam up to Turtle Rock Island, which is not what one would think given the name. There was no island standing out of the sea, but a boat that we gathered around as two Queen Conch fishermen threw their scraps overboard. Even underwater you could hear Anna McNabb’s screams of excitement from seeing this monster-sized loggerhead turtle. The turtle would come up and eat the chum; it was amazing that with all of the people around watching him, he seemed like he had not a care in the world.

After lunch, a group of us were picked up by a dive boat to go scuba diving. This was the pearl of the entire trip to me, I was so over the top excited about this part. The first location was called Borderline Belize. It was super exciting because it was my first dive in the ocean. Once I finally got down to the depth and actually started the dive it was amazing. My favorite part of this is looking up towards the surface and watching how far up your air bubble travels. It puts into perspective how far down you really are. On this dive we saw a number of different fish such as lionfish, nurse shark, trigger and angel fish—that’s just listing a few. On the second dive we went to a site known as Esmeralda. The guide was extremely nice and kind. As we were doing a briefing about what to expect to find during this site the unexpected happened. As the boat pulled in, dolphins appeared off the bow. This sent everyone in a quick hurry to get into the water, but they were too fast. Once in the water I could hear the dolphins clicking, but I never got to see them. However, the fact that I missed the dolphins was quickly made up for when the group spotted a large loggerhead turtle. Only to be followed up with appearances of nurse sharks and a lionfish. Overall, I had an amazing day. I would not change a thing about it.

Sting ray​Montanna Bachtel 

Biology major

Our time here in San Pedro, Belize is sadly coming to a close. Today we did four dives, saving the most exciting day for last. We started the day examining nurse sharks in Shark Ray Alley. After helping chop up the sardines to feed to the sharks and stingrays, we jumped—well, slid—right in with them! This was quite stunning and an adrenaline rush at the same time. The sharks and rays were literally right near you!! We then swam about 20 minutes to the next dive location, Turtle Rock Island. After fixing a little leak in my mask, we were on our way swimming up current. We saw a HUGE Loggerhead sea turtle. He was honestly beautiful and so breathtaking. He would come right up to the fisherman (who were grandfathered in as otherwise fishing here is forbidden) and grab the conch from their hands, even putting his fin on the side of the boat. We were told he was about 20 years old and did not have the best vision, so we had to make room for him. I’ve never seen something so beautiful.

Right when things truly couldn’t get any better, we went to our next location: Hol Chan. Here we could swim through a small tunnel in the channel. I was so proud of my buddy, Cynthia, for facing her fears and making it!! It was a very open ocean and rather deep, which made looking at the wall of the channel in the reef truly incredible. Imagine a reef filled with bright fish and coral standing 30 ft tall! After this, a short nap was much needed! We traveled to mangroves about 40 minutes away. Here we saw previous small islands had fallen into the ocean from parasitic marine species attacking the mangrove roots. Although sad, it was pretty cool to see the tree roots that had fallen under the sea, where marine life was making it into their new home.

Last but not least, a fancy dinner in town was exactly what we needed. Most of my class tried lionfish (an invasive fish with poisonous spines if you touch him under water, however not I. Seafood has never been my forte. I did get amazing seasoned grilled chicken with a phenomenal baked potato and topped it off with Java Coffee ice cream. I got all my souvenirs for friends and family and am quite sad to pack my bags and head to the States tomorrow morning. It truly has been un-BELIZE-able!


TubingAnna McNabb

Environmental Science major

Today, we went to the Belize Zoo and the cave on the mainland. The zoo was really interesting because they had animals that I have never even seen before, like a toucan and a jaguar. What really caught my eye, though, were the small howler monkeys that were hanging in the trees. One had a small baby monkey and we stopped for about 10 minutes gawking over how cute it was! After the zoo, we made our way towards the cave where we carried an inner tube upstream then floated back down the river. I must say, I definitely underestimated how big the cave was actually going to be inside. It ended up being mind-blowing how a structure like that wouldn’t collapse! When we were inside the cave, we were able to see insect bats and swallows, but they were hard to find since they were so small. We continued floating down-stream and eventually saw the light of day, where we could see the beautiful trees surrounding us. Man, it made me realize how much I love the summer and how much I really don’t want to go back to Ohio just yet… why can’t it be warm like this in Ohio at this time? Another day well spent in Belize: we saw some pretty incredible things so far and we have one more day! Bittersweet but very thankful for the time we’ve spent here!

MonkeyMcKenzie Biniker

Environmental Science major

Today we were on the mainland! It’s always a nice break from being in the beautiful water all day, as we get to see more of Belize! We went to the Belize Zoo first, and it was amazing! It’s not like a normal zoo in the US: besides the fencing it looks more natural. And the animals are native to Belize. I literally got to watch a jaguar eat a piece of meat.

The next thing we did was go cave tubing. That was the coolest thing. First of all, I love caves, so this was just jaw dropping. And having Dr. Berger with us was even better because she taught us so much about the formation of this system. The water in the river was so refreshing and clear. The cave was so big with stalagmites and stalactites, crystals, waterfalls, little baby bats, beautiful vegetation at the opening. The river was winding and fast moving at some parts. It was just beautiful to look up and see the canopy trees. Another cool part about today was learning how that our tour guide lived in Fostoria, Ohio! More people here know about Ohio than I had expected. Our tour guide came back to Belize because it wasn’t for him. I can totally relate to it, I’m not ready to leave this beautiful island to go back to snow. But I’m still living it up, soaking in the sun before I have to go back to the snow!

Cynthia NielsenCynthia Nielsen

Biology major

Today was completely breath-taking! We started our day out on Goliath, the research station’s huge boat, and headed an hour and a half north to Mexico Rocks snorkel site. This reef was part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and it being a reserve made all of the difference. It was clearly evident that the coral was well taken care of and there seemed to be more beautiful fish here. The fish were literally swimming straight up to our group, but just out of our reach. There were hundreds of sergeant majors swimming around us and they were so comfortable around people, which was surprising. The water was perfectly clear and all of the colors were very vibrant. The water was pretty deep and the current was not too strong so swimming around was very easy and graceful.

The next stop was about 30 yards to the south—a deep cave about 25 feet down. The whole group buddied up and we took turns free diving down to the front of the cave. There seemed to be a lot of fish hanging out in front of the cave and some invertebrates. We were only at this location for about twenty minutes before heading off to our third site.

Our next cite was Playa Blanca. This site was a buddy-up place as well and threw us all a curve ball. We got closer to the reef crest and the water was very choppy. I was in a group with Kenzie and Montana and we were struggling to weave in and out of the coral. We original headed north but soon turned back because a lot of the coral was broken and had algae grown over it. We later learned from Dr. Ken that it is because of tourists who step on the coral and break chunks off to take home with them. The gang and I headed south and came across a baby nurse shark and a few fish, which were beautiful. Eventually we ran into a 5 foot horseshoe stingray and literally screamed with excitement! We began to take footage when the ray began to follow us. Obviously us being inexperienced as were are completely freaked out and swam as fast as we could away to avoid the ray. When we looked back it continued to follow us so we swam back to the boat as fast as we could to learn that it was probably following us to eat what we were kicking up by swimming so fast. …so yeah, we suck…

Our last and final dive of the day was a night dive, which was by far the best/worst dive yet. Worst because you do not know terrifying until you are slipping your body into black water in the middle of the night—and the only thing you can see is the little beam of light that you have from your flashlight. Best because of all of the incredible night creatures that came out that we had never seen before. We saw a sea turtle, three octopi, a brittle star, fish lying asleep on the sea floor, puffer fish, eels, and squid. It was mind blowing to see all the species in real life. The dive seemed to last for only a second but the memories will never be forgotten. This is truly one of the best experiences of my life.                                                                                                                                      

FishHollie Dunn

Environmental Science and Biology major

Today has been the most exhausting day in the best possible way! We woke up bright and early to prep for our longest dive day, 4 different dives between 9am and 9pm! (Reminder: we were all exhausted after only 2 dives a couple of days ago!) Today was also exciting because we finally got a chance to ride the main research vessel, Goliath, which has a massive open deck on the front. While it has been amazing to feel the sun on my face every day on this trip, my pink forehead is telling me it has felt more than enough sun this week.

The second we got into the water at our first dive, a stingray swam directly under us, as it was used to being fed by humans in the water; it was absolutely amazing to see it so close. Throughout the preserve we saw so many new corals and fishes, and ended the dive seeing a gigantic barracuda! Our second dive was one of the most unusual; instead of exploring a patch reef system and examining the different species, we got to free dive down to an underwater cave and look in it. Dr. Ken (the founder and owner of TREC) told us that local kids would dare each other to free dive down to the ocean floor and grab a handful of sand. Of course all of us had to try this, and several of us (myself included) actually succeeded! Cold water was rushing out of the cave, and it was an amazing feeling between it and the warm open water. Our third dive was some free, unguided snorkeling time around a patch reef, and the group I was swimming with found so many interesting things, most notably some huge hermit crabs (one in an empty queen conch shell) and a nurse shark that swam close to us before we even noticed it!

We enjoyed some pizza on the boat and moved on to our final snorkeling destination: the long-awaited night dive! The reef was entirely different than it was during the day, and it was highly entertaining to not only see new species of fish and bioluminescence, but to also see how some species completely change their coloring between night and day on the reef. Once we got back to TREC for the night, we decided to go get some ice cream- huge shout-out to ParadICE Cream for having some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. I am a little sad that today marked the day that we are over halfway through with our trip. While I miss home and my pets and everyone, I have fallen head over heels in love with TREC and San Pedro.

McKenzie BinikerMcKenzie Biniker

Environmental Science major

Today was such an adventure. We went to Coral Gardens and Tuffy, the opening of the reef crest, and we took a sailboat to the locations. I honestly keep forgetting I’m here for a school trip because it feels like a vacation. This was my first time on a sailboat and it was like heaven out on that crystal clear blue water. Both locations had so many species of fish, plus we saw sea turtles, a nurse shark and a dolphin. There were so many fish swimming all around me at all times, it was so overwhelming because they are so vibrant and colorful and I was trying so hard to get pictures of them all. Unfortunately, the coral is dull/white because of the bleaching. It is honestly heartbreaking, and I’m so fortunate to be here now before it gets worse. The Coral Gardens had a lot of evidence of bleaching.

At Tuffy, I came somewhat close to conquering my fear of manmade underwater objects, because Tuffy had a shipwreck. I snorkeled over a shipwreck! Overall, today was a blast. Yesterday was really cold in the water so I was fearful of that for today. But today, I didn’t want to get out of the water. I did get really burnt today, but it was worth it for that beautiful sailboat ride to and from our snorkel sites. So excited for more!

Brand MageeBrandon Magee

Criminology major

This was an amazing trip and I feel as if today was the post card day for this entire trip so far. Jumping into to waters at Coral Gardens was like jumping into another world, it is so amazingly beautiful. There are so many different fish and corals the life diversity is just breath-taking. While at Coral Gardens, I got a close up with a green sea turtle. They look like they are moving so slow, but in reality they are flying and almost impossible to keep in them sight for more than a minute or two. At almost the same moment a nurse shark came out of the same area as the turtle. On a serious ending note, it was extremely sad to see how much damage that the reefs have suffered from bleaching events.

The second stop was great. We had an amazing sail boat ride there, which was a first time experience for me. It was like out of a movie, just laying out on the front of the boat with this amazing blue sky and water and not a care in the world. At Tuffy, we passed several groups of divers who were certifying and I was so jealous of them. There was just so much that I was trying to see near the bottom of the reefs, but I would just run out of air and be forced to come back up. Overall, this is an amazing experience that I am glad that I get to enjoy while I can because who knows how much of this will be here in the next couple of years.

Brandon CreakmanBrandon Creakman 

Political Science major

Waking up after a long day of travel yesterday was far easier than expected. It helps that I was promised breakfast right at 8 o’clock. After a great breakfast that did not involve Hoernemann, we finished getting ready and started making our way down to the beach. Amy mentioned that there has only been a single class that has not gotten sunburnt after their first day. We quickly realize that a goal of ours as a class was to be that second class. We all loaded up on sunscreen.

We arrived at our first dive site after an eventful 10 minute boat ride. This included spotting a yellow stingray in the water as well an eagle ray leaping out of the water. Seeing this only made everyone want to get into the water more. Everyone was antsy to get in the water once we stopped and set anchor. We then swam to the Pillar Coral and began observing. Siete, our guide began handing around a brittle star and pointing us under corals to see a nurse shark. He was spotting things that took me minutes to find even after he pointed them out to me. The man is a legend.

Coming back to the water after our first dive, I didn’t expect things to be that different. Minutes into swimming, the guru Siete, points out the highly poisonous lionfish. No spear in hand (they’re invasive and not good for the reef) we kept moving. Eventually we saw multiple rays and some turtles. All in all a great first day. The consensus of other groups at TREC is that every day is better and better. I am definitely looking forward to that.  

SnorkelingHollie Dunn

Environmental Science and Biology major

Today was the day! We finally made it to our first dive day on the reef!

We started our day with an absolutely amazing breakfast full of banana pancakes, fresh watermelon, and delicious fresh papaya, all thanks to the amazing Maggie (the head TREC cook). When we made our way to the dock, we had a brief wait due to boat troubles, and the group was literally jumping up and down with excitement to get on the boat and in the water. The first thing we saw from the boat was an Eagle Ray cresting the water, and our enthusiasm to snorkel only grew. When we made it to our first location, Pillar Coral, I completely floundered around. Not just due to the newness of snorkeling with huge, unwieldy fins (though I’m sure that played a major role!) but also due to the absolute magnificence of the reef and coral. All the colors were stunning, and nothing at all like what I am used to seeing in Ohio! I spent the entirety of the first dive in absolute awe over the sheer magnitude of animals and corals, with my personal highlight being seeing a baby nurse shark hiding out under some coral.

Our second dive was even more eventful, with seeing almost everything again, plus some new things, like several sting rays, new corals, and sadly, evidence of bleaching on the reef. The second dive was in shallower water, with some corals reaching above the waves, and it was closer to the reef crest, so the waves were far stronger. These things made snorkeling far more difficult, and coupled with the energy loss from the first dive, we all came out of the water exhausted. That being said, I am ready to hit the hay!

Student GroupMelanie Cohn

Environmental Science and Chemistry major

We began our adventure very early this morning, meeting up to load luggage and defrost the cars at 1:30 am. With the tight luggage space, we were bonding right off the bat on our crammed car ride to Cleveland. Our flights went fairly smoothly and before we knew it, we had gone from shivering with chattering teeth at the Cleveland airport to breathing in the humid island air. When we climbed aboard our final flight, a small puddle jumper to take us from San Pedro to Ambergris Cay, Montanna was privileged enough to be the copilot for our short, 20 minute flight (don’t worry, she just did head count and was moral support for the pilot).

I was a part of this trip two years ago and it was wonderful to land at the tiny airport and shuttle back to the Belize TREC, our home away from home. Another group from Kentucky was still out, so we were greeted by Maggie, one of our hostesses who showed us around and made some much appreciated grilled cheese. After a swim in the pool, we decided to relax and ended up dozing in the hammock garden, resting up for our full week of amazing adventures ahead. We are going to walk along the beach tonight and get some sleep, soak up some relaxing vacation before we get to work bright and early tomorrow for some snorkeling!

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