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Saying Goodbye

August 3, 2017

Our morning started early. Many of us gathered to watch the sun rise. Small rays passed by below, pelicans soared above, and the sounds of nature were evident all around. After an early breakfast, we had to say goodbye to the staff of this tropical paradise. We boarded the boat and headed to the mainland. Along the way, the captain made a slight detour so that we would have the opportunity to see brown boobies on a small island. We approached the island and were amazed to see the number of birds enjoying the mangroves. Baby brown boobies were visible, and to our surprise we found out that they are white when they are babies We continued to the mainland, met our bus driver, Bruce, so that we could begin our drive north towards Belmopan and then to the airport. The beauty of this area captivated us again, just as it had done at the beginning of our trip. We made our way along the Hummingbird Highway, past the sleeping giant, and through the rolling landscape of Belize. A low altitude rainbow caught our attention, along with several toucans, that gently glided over ahead. During our short stop in Belmopan, we had to say goodbye to Noelle, one of our Belizean educators. As a native Belizean, she shared with us how much she had enjoyed learning and traveling with us. The bus continued onward towards the airport. A few miles out of the airport, we made a final stop at a grocery store so that we could purchase native favorite pepper sauce, Marie Sharpes, Belizean coffee, tropical fruit jam and spices that would allow us to cook some of the wonderful Belizean dishes we had enjoyed during our visit. Melanie, our second Belizean educator, said goodbye to our group.
As we ventured the final few miles to the airport, we all realized that this was truly a remarkable place. Sad to say goodbye to our incredible guide, Nathan, and our driver, Bruce, we preferred to say “see you later” instead of goodbye. Nathan had made our learning experience one that we will never forget. Many of us want to return to Belize, probably sooner than later. We learned so much about the diversity of this tropical place. Our experiences in Belize have changed many of us as educators. We recognize the delicate balances in place in nature, the need for awareness of environment, conservation, and the need to educate all generations, not just the younger generation. We are incredibly grateful to our group leaders, Liz and Jason, who have helped us enjoy the beauty of Belize, helped us navigate through the varied environments, and educated us for the duration of this opportunity. The group has thoroughly enjoyed the Tropical Ecology Institute and take pride in being lifelong learners and Educators of Excellence.

Turtles and Plastic

August 3, 2017

The tropical breeze blew gently in through our rooms as we welcomed the new day. Many of us met

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Baby turtle making its way to the ocean

out on the beach so we could watch the beautiful sun rise on the horizon. A large ray surprised us as it came close to the beach, while pelicans flew overhead looking for their breakfast. A short time later, while enjoying the first cup of coffee for the day, we were alerted by another guest that the baby turtles were making their way out to the ocean. Excitedly, we ran to the edge of the island where a nest of baby turtle eggs revealed that many of the babies had already left. The last five baby turtles slowly and carefully made their first steps from the nest towards the water. All of us were on hand to watch this amazing event, some of us filming, some of taking pictures, all of us quietly cheering. Our conversation at breakfast was about the baby turtles and the beauty of what we had just witnessed.

After breakfast, we grabbed our snorkel gear and headed out for the day. We were excited to be headed to the Carrie Bow Research Station, a short boat ride from the island. The station manager gave us a tour of the station, where they are doing coral reef research. Following the station tour, we headed over to snorkel in the mangroves. What an amazing experience! While below, we looked at the root structure of the mangroves and looked for life in the water. A spiny looking Cushioned Sea Star was spotted, something we would not ever see closer to home. Schools of what we later found out to be sardines, swam busily below the surface. A mangrove crab climbed on the branches just above the water. As we made our way back to the island, we were entertained by the dolphins swimming nearby.

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Shredded Plastic as far as the eye could see

After a delicious lunch, we had an opportunity to make final trip into the water for snorkeling. While some remained in the warm waters, known as the “pool,” several of us ventured out past the turtle grass into the open waters. Final underwater images were captured, fish and coral identified, as we enjoyed our final time in the waters of the Caribbean. As we began to make our way back to the shore, we were devastated and heartbroken to swim into a massive amount of plastic floating in the ocean. Words cannot describe the feelings we had as we had to swim through this terrible mess. The plastic appeared to have been in the ocean for a while, and stuck to us and to our masks as we made our way back to shore. It’s hard describe the size of this awful mess, but the time we were swimming would be about the length of a football field. Even harder to imagine was the fact that the baby turtles we witnessed making their first trek into the waters this morning, we going to have to face this. The entire experience of the plastic was disheartening and almost terrifying. We climbed from the waters, very upset at what was still passing by us in view of the coast. It was not something any of us had ever experienced. Our evening meeting included conversation about this experience and our experiences of the day. which started off with something as beautiful as the baby turtles and was ending with something as disturbing as the plastic. After our final Belizean dinner, we were entertained by a drumming group and singers, learned some dances native to Belize and enjoyed each other’s company. Just before we finished for the day, we were alerted to another turtle making a nest for her eggs. We hurried to the beach, in time to see the turtle making her way back into the water and into the path of the field of plastic still progressing through the area. We looked for the nest and for other turtles in the area before retiring for the day. Many of us sat in the darkness, listening to the sound of the surf. This was our final full day in Belize.

Southwater Caye

August 1, 2017

As we woke to the peaceful sound of the surf, we realized that this change in environment was very different than the one we left behind on the mainland. Some of us met on the dock to watch the sun come into view on the horizon. A few slept on the beach, while others enjoyed a room that was free of jungle critters. Prior to breakfast, we enjoyed a walk around the island, noticing the beautiful palms and crystal clear waters all around us. After breakfast, we went for a morning visit to the waters to do some snorkeling. The fish and plant life below the water was beautiful and calming. A little time on the land gave us time to enjoy lunch, conversation about our experiences snorkeling and a chance to get ready for our next visit to the waters. In the afternoon, we boarded a boat that took us to a location in the waters known as “the Aquarium”. As we jumped in the waters, we were quick to find out that the name was very appropriate. We snorkeled for nearly two hours before heading back to the island. For many of us, snorkeling in the open waters, far from the land was a new and very unique experience……one which not be forgotten. Our nightly evening meeting was filled with discussion about protecting our environment, and what we could do as educators to be sure that the younger generations understand the importance of the need for conservation. Following a delicious meal, we headed out for some night snorkeling. For all of us, this was a first and for a few, our very first time in the sea at night. We met on the beach, grabbed our underwater flashlights and split into our groups. Our night snorkeling gave us the opportunity to see a barracuda, lobster, crabs, and and octopus. Following our successful trip into the darkened waters, we met on the dock to celebrate and to share our stories. We were thankful for another beautiful day in this tropical environment.

From Bug Spray to Sunscreen

July 31, 2017
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Nurse Shark

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Nathan pointing out a Peacock Flounder

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Can you find the Peacock Flounder?

This morning we woke early and went for our morning walk in search of birds, bugs and beasts. Among other things we saw a purple hummingbird, a treehopper that mimics an ant, and a white-tailed deer. After a delicious local breakfast of Johnny Cakes, beans, scrambled eggs and pork sausage, we took a strenuous hike through the Jaguar Preserve to a magnificent waterfall. Our thirst for adventure was quenched by the refreshing mountain stream as it plummeted to depths of the pool below, carving a memory of the ancient mayans in our souls.

Upon returning from our hike, we quickly packed our belongings and began the trek down the mountain following the path of the local Mayans displaced by Belizean Government. We stopped at Maya Center’s Women’s Group, where a group of 35 women artisans share space and sell their beautiful hand-crafted artwork, made in the traditional style of their ancestors. After leaving Maya Center we began our third transition of our trip; moving from the mountains to the cayes.

We traveled by boat from Dangriga to Pelican Beach located on South Water Caye. After settling in, we quickly made our way to the Caribbean to practice our snorkeling skills. The water was warm and the excitement was high as we made our way out to the second largest barrier reef in the world! Our group saw stingrays, tuna, and even a barracuda swimming below. The adventures ahead are certain to be a capstone for what has been a truly inspiring voyage for us all.

Out to Southwater

July 31, 2017

On our way to s beautiful island!

July 30, 2017
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Watching the UV beads change

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Melissa showing students from Monkey River the beads that react to UV

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Melissa and a new friend from Monkey River

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Students at Monkey River are happy to have a new book about Crocodiles signed by Sharon Matola at the Zoo

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Students from Monkey River sining for us after we sang Itsy Bitsy Spider with them.

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Jennifer, Brittany and Kelly showing off the quilt that the students made with them.

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chocolate tour

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Cahty, Noelle and Jennifer tasting the chocolate we helped grind.

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Beautiful insect we found on the night hike

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Dragonhead Bug – Jason’s favorite!

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Looking at an insect with Jason

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Birdwalk!

Nerves were high sleeping at the Jaguar Preserve, but the overnight thunderstorm and sound of rain falling on the roof through the night helped many of us sleep. After a bird walk and breakfast in the morning, we loaded up the bus and headed back down the bumpy dirt road to a boat that took us across to Monkey River. Monkey River is a small village surrounded by the beautiful blue Caribbean Sea. We wondered what to expect as even Liz did not know how many children would be waiting to see us. After being greeted by three teachers from the village who were previous Educators of Excellence, we walked to the community center where the children leapt up into our arms giving us hugs and showing us how excited they were to see us.

We quickly split into our four groups, broke the children up by age, and began our lessons. Groups created paper helicopters to be dropped from the balcony, a solar balloon, bracelets representing the parts of the ecosystem, and a quilt of hand drawn Belizian animals. One child around the age of four saw a picture of a jaguar and shared with us that her grandfather had killed one because it had become a problem for his farm. This brought the importance of Sharon Matola’s jaguar rehabilitation program to life. The children sang a song for us, we presented them with the picture, chapter, and nonfiction books we were donating, and headed back across the water and towards Cockscomb.

Before heading back to our dorms, we stopped at Che’il. Meaning “wild Mayan,” Che’il is a Mayan chocolate company run by Julio Saqui at the Mayan Center. Julio’s brother, one of the cacao farmers in the village, gave us a tour. Julio educated us about how cacao is grown, the history of chocolate in the Mayan culture and the country of Belize. He then cracked open a cacao fruit to allow us to see and taste the raw seeds, which were covered in pulp that tasted like mango. Julio then took us back into the small room where he makes the chocolate.

Six years ago when he started, he was able to make the bars in the traditional Mayan way. Julio has since created his own modern equipment for making his chocolate more efficiently. We all had the opportunity to grind the cacao beans into liquid, the first step in making chocolate. After tasting some of Julio’s completely organic, preservative free, 80% dark chocolate, he invited us upstairs for homemade dinner. Here, Julio shared with us the story of how the village was relocated out of the land that is now the Jaguar Preserve to the Mayan Center. This story was relatable to how the Europeans forced the Native Americans out of their homes in the United States. We returned to our dorms as night fell and reflected on how this journey has shaped us both personally and professionally.

Photos coming soon!

From the Zoo to the jungle

July 30, 2017
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Kelly and Tapir

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Melanie and the Tapir

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Panama the Harpy Eagle

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Magic the Barn Owl

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Taylor holding a boa

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Beth holding a boa

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Drew being a shade tree for Beth

Adjusting to life in Belize was easy at duPlooy’s. Even without consistent power, no air conditioning, television, or wifi, it felt like a home away from home and a little slice of paradise. As we got ready to leave, we were sent off by a troop of about seven toucans feeding at the fresh fruit feeder and flying from tree to tree. After saying goodbye to Judy, we got on the bus and began the next leg of our trek. Liz prepped us for the Jaguar Preserve where we would have no hot water and electricity is provided by a generator that shuts off at 9pm each night.

Our first stop was the Belize Zoo run by Sharon Matoloa, an American known locally as “The Zoo Lady.” Many of us knew about Sharon after reading about her quest to stop the Chalillo Dam from being built on the Macal River to save the beautiful scarlet Macaws. The excitement filled the van as we talked about what we might see and do as Liz told us each trip over the past 30 years has been unique.

As we walked through the entrance way, we saw one of the zoo workers handling a coffee snake and another allowing visitors to hold a boa constrictor around their neck. A few of us had our first experience handling a snake, bringing even more firsts to this trip. Although Sharon is an American, her heart is in Belize. She employs only Belizians and is proud to say that the Belize Zoo is the only nature destination in the country that is 100% accessible by wheelchair and stroller. Over ten thousand school children visit the zoo each year. Noelle, one of our Belizian educators on the trip, informed us that the Belize Zoo is the only location her school allows for field trips.

After being greeted by Sharon, we were given  VIP treatment as she took us personally through the zoo and into some of the habitats. The tour started with the king vulture, which we saw in the wild at Xunantunich the previous day. After educating us about the unique (disgusting) eating habits of the animal, she also informed us that they can see something the size of your fist from two miles away. It was incredible to see the bird close up. Next we visited Indy the tapir, the national animal of Belize and very rare in the wild. Sharon allowed us to enter Indy’s habitat and feed him leaves by hand while we scratched him under the chin.

After viewing and feeding the spider monkeys, incredible creatures with human-like characteristics, we next visited many other animals including the scarlet macaw, George. Sharon allowed us go in with this breathtaking bird with a beak so strong it can crack a Brazil nut. Sharon also gave us backstage passes to personally meet Panama the harpy eagle and Rosie the crocodile, star of the book “This Croc Rocks,” which we all received a signed copy of at the end of the visit.

Perhaps the most incredible part of the visit was getting up close to Junior Buddy and Rocky the jaguars. Sharon has about seven jaguars enclosed, but there are another 17 in rehab at the zoo. She has an agreement with the Belizian government where any problem jaguar is brought to her rather than being killed. Every jaguar in the zoo has been brought to her because of this reason. Many have been sent to zoos in the states including the Philadelphia zoo to help with breeding after they have been rehabbed. Sharon continuously commented on the beauty of nature and inspired us by saying “nature is perfect in every way” and that the purpose of the zoo was to help children “fall in love with what is theirs” referencing the beauty of nature in Belize.

We ate lunch then left the zoo to head towards Belmopan. At the market we were each tasked with finding one fruit or vegetable that we had never seen before. We then journeyed to Cockscomb where we admired the change in scenery as the mountains took the shape of the sleeping giant covered with tropical plants. After driving down the bumpy road, we reached our accommodations and realized we truly weren’t in NC anymore.

After dinner, Nathan and Jason led us on a night walk to take in the new scenery and hopefully find some red eyed tree frogs that breed during this time over a local pond. A few of us were given UV flashlights to find scorpions which glow. We saw tarantulas, a kinkajou, a small snake that may have been a coffee snake, cat eyed snake, and, finally, red eyed tree frogs and their eggs. As Jason showed us this beautiful amphibian, it hopped out of his hand and hopped and crawled from person to person in the group. We turned our headlamps and flashlights off for a few moments in so we could listen to the sounds of the rainforest as the song of the tree frog became synchronized. When we finally ended our long day, we felt as though we were already dreaming after having so many fascinating encounters with creatures that many of us had never even seen or heard of.