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 over 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. Many important and significant decisions are made using the data collected.

There is much work to be done in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean and you can help by becoming a volunteer. During the program, you will have the opportunity to get involved and carry out some of the following activities:

  • Lionfish population monitoring and control 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 and monitoring populations, including locating lobsters to get measured, establish gender and see if the females have eggs
  • Queen Conch surveys and conch migration, 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
  • Coral reef bleaching and bio-diversity dives
  • 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
  • Monitoring various species of tropical fish and commercial fish surveys

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: 3-8 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

Highlights

Get ready to roll up your sleeves and jump in the deep end, literally! This experience guarantees to be exciting, enriching and incredibly meaningful. As a volunteer you will spend Monday to Friday diving on the reef – generally 2-3 times each day and one night dive each week. On weekends, you and your fellow volunteers from around the world are back on the mainland, relaxing and enjoying the local life.

This program has been developing and working on a wide variety of projects and sharing its passion for marine conservation with volunteers for over a decade. Your volunteer efforts on this program will go a long way towards helping to preserve this precious and fragile marine environment.

The island has approximately 5-6 staff on-site. 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.

Sample Itinerary

Depending on the season and ocean conditions, you might not take part in all of the volunteer activities listed, but it is likely you will experience most of them. Each day will differ and a typical week will include the following:

  • 5 days/4 nights on private island in the Caribbean off the coast of Belize
  • 12-13 dives per week
  • At least one night dive a week
  • Training for conservation work and participation in conservation programs
  • Island boat transfers to and from island

The Volunteer's Role

The main role of volunteers is to focus on the invasion of alien lionfish to the Belizean waters. 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.

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.

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.

Excursions

There are a variety of cultural activities and places of interest volunteers can choose to visit on their own (at own expense) outside of project hours. You will be free to explore Placencia and surrounds on the weekends. Organised tours depart from Placencia on the weekend and most are all-inclusive. Besides the incredible diving and conservation experience, Placencia has the best beaches in all of Belize and there is also so much to explore further afield:

  • Ancient Mayan ruins
  • Jungle tours
  • Nature expeditions
  • Zip-lining
  • River tubbing
  • Cultural tours

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.

Why Volunteer with CISaustralia

CISaustralia believes strongly in supporting volunteer initiatives across the world that promote sustainable and long-term societal, environmental and economic change to benefit and empower local communities.

While the term volunteering is widely known and accepted, we prefer to use the term Experiential Service Learning. This better relates to our philosophy surrounding close community engagement as well as a focus on projects that have a long-term approach and a range of positive impacts for both communities and our students. Over 98% of CISaustralia participants receive academic credit for their program abroad, which fosters a more culturally immersive and deeper reflective experience.

CISaustralia volunteering programs contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which aim to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. While not every program will achieve all seventeen of the UN goals, your role as a volunteer will have a positive impact by doing work that really matters. We partner with organisations that have in-depth, first-hand knowledge and close relationships with local communities. Prior to your departure, our team in Australia will prepare you with extensive resources so you feel supported every step of the way. You will also be supported throughout your entire overseas program by our fantastic and experienced in country staff. 

Volunteering abroad is a life-changing experience, enabling you to learn and grow on many personal and professional levels, to broaden your perspective on the world and to become a global citizen. CISaustralia prides itself in having the strongest global partners who are socially responsible and equally committed to their local communities and ethical practices. We love what we do at CISaustralia and are here to provide you with the support you need to successfully volunteer abroad – so that you can contribute to positively changing the lives of others, and yourself, along the way. Get ready for an exciting once-in-a-lifetime adventure!

Read more: Why Volunteer Abroad with CISaustralia?

Program Fee & Dates

3-8 Weeks - Year Round
Must have a minimum of 2 students. Arrivals every Sunday. Closed for the month of September due to weather conditions and maintenance. Application deadline is 60 days prior to commencement. If you would like to join a group program, see below for details.
Program Fee A$ 5,599
OS-HELP A$ 6,913
Fixed Group Dates (3 weeks minimum)
This program is also available on fixed, group dates. Group programs run approx. October-November yearly. Contact CISaustralia for upcoming dates. Application deadline is 60 days prior to commencement. Places are limited. Please enquire for availability.
Program Fee A$ 5,599
OS-HELP A$ 6,913

 

Program fees include the following:
  • Volunteer placement and supervision
  • CISaustralia support services 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

Note: Program fee discount is available for groups of five (5) or more students. Contact CISaustralia for details.

What is not included: 

  • Flights to/from Belize
  • Internal flights from Belize City to Placencia (available for approx. USD $110 each way)
  • Health and travel insurance
  • Dive medical
  • Visa fees
  • Vaccinations (if required)
  • Wetsuit, booties and dive mask with snorkel – must bring your own
  • 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)
  • Extra travel/excursions (other than those mentioned above)
  • 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.

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.

Please do not book flights until you have received the dates in your acceptance paperwork and you are confirmed on the program.

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

Adventure Awaits

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