Marine Conservation in Belize

For most of us space exploration is a dream. Feel like an astronaut discovering a foreign planet as you dive and explore the blue waters of the Caribbean when you volunteer for the Belize Marine Conservation Project.

Program Overview

For most of us, space exploration is a dream. You can feel like an astronaut discovering a foreign planet as you dive and explore the blue waters of the Caribbean when you volunteer for this Marine Conservation project in Belize.

Belize is located on the northeastern coast of Central America and is the only country in the area where English is its official language. This volunteer program is based on a tiny private island in the Sapodilla Cayes – an uninhabited atoll (ring-shaped coral reef) in the Gulf of Honduras.

This marine conservation project has operated under a research license from the Belize Fisheries Department for the past decade researching the issues that are affecting the world’s second largest coral reef. They are collecting data for government agencies and non-profit organisations. At least one (usually two) PADI Scuba Instructors and one dive master / marine biologist will be on-site at all times.

While participating on this program, you will help collect data for research studies. The main role of volunteers is to focus on the invasion of alien lionfish to the Belizean waters. Other work includes monitoring coral health, lobster populations, whale shark identification, Conch migration and monitoring various species of tropical fish. There is much work to be done in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean and you can help by becoming a volunteer.

Volunteers generally dive two or three times a day, spend Monday to Friday on the island and experience one night dive during their program. On weekends, you and your fellow volunteers are back on the mainland, relaxing and enjoying the local life.

PADI qualifications are provided for non-divers or those wishing to improve skills.

Project Details:

  • Project Activities: Diving, species identification, documenting shell measurements
  • Project Availability: Arrivals every Sunday. Closed for the month of September due to weather conditions and maintenance.
  • Project Duration: 2-8 weeks
  • Working Hours: 6am to 5pm, 2-3 dives per day (weather dependent)
  • Location: Tom Owens Caye, Belize
  • Excursions: If you would like to participate in any excursions or cultural activities (at own expense), these should be undertaken outside of working hours, likely on weekends or before or after your program dates. Our on-site staff can assist in providing advice.
  • Support: 24-hour on-site support from our Project Leaders and Site Director
  • Minimum Age: 18+
  • Language: English

The Volunteer's Role

Your volunteer efforts on this program will go a long way towards helping to preserve this precious and fragile marine environment.

Lionfish are an Asian species with no natural known predators in the Caribbean. They are thought to have been released in Florida in the 1980s and are now a severe threat to the delicate marine environment of the Belizean reef. The Lionfish population is reported to be as dense as 100 per acre in some areas. One Lionfish has been found to decrease the juvenile fish population by 80% in just a 5-day timeframe. This species is literally decimating the reef and this project needs your help.

As a volunteer your main focus will be to work with the team to reduce the aggressive Lionfish population through spear fishing. Volunteers also collect data and research that is provided to the fisheries department. Many important and significant decisions are made using the data collected.

The island has approximately 5-6 staff on-site. This experience guarantees to be exciting, enriching and incredibly meaningful.

Projects: 

Lionfish Program
Removal of Lionfish from the Reef. Data collection on gender, length, eggs and dissection for stomach content.

Lionfish are indigenous in the Indio Pacific oceans and the Red Sea but not the Atlantic Caribbean belt. In their natural habitat, they have a diet that is not a threat to the environment; there are many more varieties of species and they have natural predators. However, in the Atlantic Caribbean oceans they are an invasive predator, feeding on species that are key to our environment such as juvenile groupers, parrotfish and crustaceans. Lionfish are voracious predators and consume juvenile fish recruits. In thirty minutes one lionfish was observed eating more than twenty fish!! Most fish species spawn once or twice a year over maybe a 2-month period during the full moon. Lionfish release their eggs every 4 days, and they can release up to 20,000 eggs. They do not release the eggs until they are fully developed making the chance of survival much higher. This means they reproduce at an alarming rate. They reach sexual maturity in less than 1 year, and they can live for around 15 years.

Scientist are predicting that lionfish will have a grave impact on Belize’s already stressed stocks of fish and lobster and could spell potential disaster to marine habitats around the world. Their invasive nature has been detrimental to the community and its fishing lifestyle. The project aims at educating locals to hunt and eat lionfish, as well as monitoring the conditions of the prey of the Lionfish.

Conch Survey
Monitoring of population density, data collection on total length and lip-thickness.

Conch has been over fished in Belize because of its high commercial value. There is much debate at the moment as to whether conch is breeding in the shallow or deep waters. Theories have suggested that both are true, increasing numbers of conch are being forced into the deep to breed because of the increase of fishing pressure. Our partners are working with a Scientist from Cedar Crest College, Pennsylvania USA, called John Ciglioni, contributing to a paper that he is writing on the Queen Conch. In order to monitor the migration paths, breeding patterns and populations of these species, a number of plastic cable ties with individual numbers on have been placed around each conch, and every subsequent observation is recorded. This may indicate not only the migration patterns of conch between different depths it can also record the directional migration patterns associated with the anticlockwise currents.

Lobster Survey
Monitoring of population density, depth and if possible, gender identification and if they carry eggs.

The Caribbean Spiny Lobster is a high commercial value species throughout the Caribbean. Over the past few decades the populations have been seriously depleted due to an increase in over fishing. In many countries in the Caribbean there are now open and closed seasons. The closed season is normally when the females are ready to release their eggs into the water column. During the closed season in Belize of February through to June, lobsters are banned from fishing and from restaurant menus. Together with the Belize Department of Fisheries, our project partners monitor the population of lobsters and concentrate on the migratory paths to the continental shelf where the females release their eggs.

Whale Shark Project
Like many of its shark relatives, whale sharks are in decline and they may soon face extinction if we don’t act now. Whale sharks’ gentle nature makes them an easy fishery target for meat and fins, highly valued in the international shark fin trade. The Whale Shark Sightings Database allows volunteers to report their sighting information online. This public, photo identification database supports photo and sighting data comparisons by scientists, researchers, and others interested in preserving this vulnerable species. Photographic identification is a powerful non-invasive technique for studying shark life histories and movement in their natural environment. This is especially important for a highly migratory species like the Whale Shark.

Future plans and project development:
It is essential for volunteers to focus their attention on the corals and understand the long-term goals of the project. This encourages serious participation and appreciation throughout the program. Future projects may include but are not limited to:

Permanent Coral Survey within the Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve
The goal is to identify coral formations in every zone of the Sapodilla Cayes for the following species: Boulder star coral, mountainous star coral, star coral, elliptical coral and pillar coral. Data collection will be on bleaching effects, disease and competitors.

Coral Restoration and Farming
The two native and fast growing Elkhorn and Staghorn corals are suitable for coral restoration efforts. The goal here is to protect the diversity of gene codes to re-establish coral colonies.

Lionfish Program
The next step in the lionfish program will be to conduct research on population dynamics. The purpose is to identify areas with higher population density than others and determine reasons for it. Data collection on the regrowth of reef fish populations in the absence of lionfish is also anticipated.

These projects and approaches are ideal for local fishing communities as they provide additional sources of income. Partnerships are being explored via community outreach with the University of Belize and the Belize Fisheries that might make it possible to design a sea cucumber and seaweed farming project.

Get ready to roll up your sleeves and jump in the deep end, literally. As a volunteer you will spend each day diving on the reef – generally 3 times each day. You will have the opportunity to get involved and carry out some of the following activities:

  • Lionfish removal using *spear fishing techniques
  • Coaxing moray eels to develop a taste for the lionfish
  • Working on educational materials to make people more aware of the danger the lionfish poses and encouraging others to hunt them
  • Lobster surveying, including locating lobsters to get measured, establish gender and see if the females have eggs
  • Conch monitoring, including identifying and registering individual giant conch and tagging them for ongoing monitoring
  • Reef health check which forms part of a global survey on reef health. Carrying out the checks outlined in the survey, including a coral-watch program looking at coral bleaching
  • Whale shark identification for those lucky to see a whale shark, photographing and identifying the individual for a global database looking at the species and their migration

A PADI open water course is included for non-divers. Those with existing open water certification will have Advanced PADI course included and all participants will learn eco-diving and spear fishing techniques. You must be able to swim and you will need a doctor’s dive check to show you are fit to dive. You will be required to take a peak performance buoyancy test before taking part in spear fishing.

*To work on spear fishing you must have a minimum open water PADI certification and pass advanced ‘peak performance buoyancy’. Training provided in the first week.

Location

The Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve covers an area of approximately 125 sq km with fourteen sand and mangrove cayes. The waters are crystal clear and provide divers with great visibility. The underwater playground is home to migrating whale sharks, nesting turtles, thousands of fascinating fish, manta rays, coral species and other beautiful marine species.

As a volunteer you will stay on the island during the week. It is less than one acre and you will feel relaxed and calmed by the island’s secluded vibe. Relax in a hammock surrounded by palm trees and you’ll think you were shipwrecked on Gilligan’s Island. Get together with fellow volunteers and have a hit of volleyball, snorkel in the clear shallow waters and stroll along the beach with squeaky clean sand between your toes. Even experience an occasional night dive.

During the weekend, the island is uninhabited. All volunteers and on-site staff head to the mainland to stay in Placencia. Transfers to and from Placencia are included in your fee.

Placencia has 16 miles of sandy beach, located with the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Maya mountains to the west. One of Belize’s main tourist hubs, Placencia offers a great variety of restaurants, bars and tourist activities. Cruise the maze of footpaths that provide fun and easy access between the beach and the town’s colourful shops and restaurants. Join a game of sand volleyball at one of the lively bars, head out on the water on whatever vessel you prefer, or head into town for some authentic local grub and culture.

Accommodation

You will be housed in a same gender, shared room for the duration of your volunteer program. The placement accommodation is situated on an uninhabited island, located one hour offshore. The accommodation features its own dining area, lounge area, kitchen area, shared bathroom and hammocks to relax by the beach. You will be able to access internet services while on the island for approximately USD $15 p/week. There is a good connection and you will have access to electricity.

While on the mainland, your weekend accommodation will be hostel-style in Placencia. The accommodation comes with linens and bedding, as well as access to a microwave, coffee maker, mini-fridge and toaster. Whilst meals are not provided during your time on the mainland (Friday afternoon to Monday morning), there are good choices for cheap, local food in town. A typical Belizean meal costs about USD $3-10.

Program Fee & Dates

2 - 8 week Volunteer Program - Year Round (except September)
Application deadline is 60 days prior to commencement. Arrivals every Sunday. Closed for the month of September due to weather conditions and maintenance. Program fee covers first two weeks; each additional week is $1,850.
Program Fee A$ 3,699
OS-HELP A$ 6,665

 

Program fees include the following:
  • Volunteer project placement
  • CISaustralia support before, during and after the program
  • Academic advising
  • Financial advice
  • Assistance with travel arrangements
  • Pre-departure guide and session
  • Airport pick-up and drop-off from Placencia Airport (on specified program dates within designated times)
  • Accommodation – shared room on the island during the week and on the mainland (in the Toledo District) each weekend
  • Meals – 3 meals per day while on the island (Monday pm – Friday am)
  • Weekly transfers to and from the island each week
  • All dive equipment is included EXCEPT mask with snorkel, booties and wetsuits. You must bring your own mask with snorkel, booties and wetsuit.
  • Marine reserve island fees
  • PADI Open Water Certificate
  • PADI administration fee
  • Wi-Fi internet access is available at the project site but it is likely to be slower and less reliable than what you are used to at home and unexpected lapses in connectivity can occur frequently
  • 24/7 on-site support – Project Leaders and Site Director
  • CISaustralia Certificate of Completion

What is not included: 

  • Flights
  • Internal flights from Belize City to Placencia (available for approx. USD $110 each way)
  • Health insurance
  • Dive medical
  • Visa fees
  • PADI manual/PADI online e-learning resources for the relevant course you will be undertaking (approx. USD $60-200 depending on the option you choose)
  • Weekend meals when on the mainland (Friday pm – Monday am)
  • There is no mobile phone signal on the island but there is signal on the mainland where you will spend your weekends

The project is closed during the month of September due to weather conditions and maintenance.

Note: Program fee waivers of between 5-15% will be applied to groups of two (2) or more students. Speak to CISaustralia for details.

If you are interested in furthering your skills and undertaking a PADI Advance Open Water Course or PADI Rescue Course, additional fees apply. Please contact CISaustralia for further details.

CISaustralia reserves the right to alter fees at any time due to currency fluctuations and/or fee changes made by our partners.

Dates are for reference only and are subject to change. Please do not book flights until you have received the confirmed dates in your acceptance paperwork.

Adventure Awaits

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