Tropical Ecology

“The last full day”

July 31

Our last full day in Belize!

Woke up after last night’s tropical rain to a cool, refreshing breeze. The sunrise was beautiful as evident in the pictures taken by the early morning kayak crew. After breakfast we discussed the sadness of having to return to the real world and the absence of a cook/chef, wait staff, and Nathan to guide us through the day.

We visited Carrie Bow Caye Smithsonian Research Station to get an up-close view of the work being done on corals along Belize’s barrier reef. We learned that the researchers are anxiously awaiting the annual coral spawn and are hoping it will occur tonight (the 31st). The coral spawn is being used to study the effects of ocean acidification on coral polyps. Zach, the station manager, showed us two nesting sites for Hawksbill Sea Turtles that were made last night! Babies should hatch in 60 days.

Originally we had planned to snorkel in the Mangroves, but last night’s rainstorm stirred up too much sediment. Not wanting to miss our 5th snorkel opportunity, we traveled to another patch reef to see what we could see. Despite some serious chop, everyone was excited about the diversity of corals, as well as seeing a large stingray, barracuda, many spiny sea urchins and a Nurse Shark.

Our last night began with hilarious group “presentations.” Each team reflected on our experience in a creative skit. The skits began with the leaders’ brief presentation and ended with “The Beast,” a tradition since 1987.


Tropical Ecology

“Night snorkel”

night snorkel

Thank you Tony Rath photography!

We had a fabulous night snorkel and are grateful to Tony Rath photography for capturing our group under the Milky Way!

Tropical Ecology


We awoke on the island at South Water Caye with the breeze drifting in through the open door and palm trees. A handful of us adventured out early before our full day to enjoy a quiet morning kayaking to enjoy the sunrise. We spotted cormorants feeding and a rainbow to greet us as we started our day.

After a breakfast of creole bread (similar to sourdough), eggs, breakfast sausage, and fried beans, we took a short walk around the island. All of our educators were assigned expert topics before we arrived in Belize, and we were able to hear about conch shells, pumice, mangrove trees, coconuts and the Magnificent Frigate birds found on the island. Nathan demonstrated how to remove the tough husk from a coconut by impaling it on a stake and then using a machete to get to the coconut meat on the inside. Only the brave of heart tried to do the same!

We headed out for our first of three snorkels of the day to the Aquarium Reef, a pristine part of the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world, and the the largest living reef. It is estimated that close to 90% of the reef is healthy, as evidenced by the vibrant colors of the coral and biodiversity we witnessed. On the reef, we saw stingrays, schools of fish and a few of us even spotted a Hawksbill Sea Turtle swimming! We saw squid, and held conchs and touched a sea cucumber.

After lunch, we snorkeled closer to the island and paired up, trying to observe a particular fish’s activity. We came back together in the evening where we shared about our first day on the island and then mentally prepared ourselves for a night snorkel. We broke into small groups with dive flashlights and glow sticks and slowly snorkeled, looking for octopuses, lobsters and sleeping fish. The reef is just as breathtaking at night.

A friend on the island took a picture of our group where the Milky Way and stars were bright in the background. The sight of the countless stars and sounds of the storm rolling in lulled us all to a restful sleep and another beautiful memory of Belize.

Tropical Ecology

“Last Day in the Jungle”

During our last night in the Jaguar Preserve we took a short walk to find Jason’s Favorite Bug — the Dragon Head Bug. It is only found on one species of tree, and spends the day in the canopy before coming down the trunk at night. Sure enough, we found it on the tree where Jason had spotted it last year!

A morning boardwalk to the South Stann Creek started our day. We were really excited to see Keel-billed Toucans. While they were a little distance away they were easy to see with binoculars and a spotting scope. Plus they have a really distinctive silhouette that looks like a “crow pushing a banana.”

After a delicious breakfast that included johnny cakes, we set off for the Ben’s Bluff Waterfall. We enjoyed hiking through the jungle, marveling at the buttress roots, huge philodendron, and beautiful tropical heliconias. The waterfall was beautiful. We were able to swim back to the little grotto created by the force of the water. Back there we found a small bird nest with two eggs. We think it is a Cave Swallow nest. We then took turns posing under the cascade, with Nathan kicking it off posing like a weightlifter!

Our hike back down was fast because we were looking forward to heading to the coast, but we slowed to a stop when Nathan spotted a Coral Snake. This was the first snake in the wild we have seen. Nathan made sure everyone got a chance to see it.

We headed back down the road to Maya Center where we stocked up on chocolate products at Che’il. We were all excited to buy the products we had learned how to make after our chocolate tour the day before — YUM YUM YUM!

At Pelican Beach Hotel in Dangriga we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Caribbean as we relaxed over lunch. Our luggage filled the bow of the boat, and we sat towards the back for our ride to Pelican’s Pouch at Southwater Caye. We were shocked when we had an hour of free time to get ready for our first snorkel.

We met on the beach to try out our snorkel gear. After making sure that everyone’s  masks fit, we swam over the Turtlegrass to our first reef. We saw lots of fish including Stoplight Parrotfish, Fairy Basslet, and a Nurse Shark! We stayed with our buddies and spent nearly an hour “oohing and aahing” into our snorkels before it was time to get back.

Our evening meeting was with a view of the sunset, and after dinner we spent a little time stargazing and identifying constellations. We saw at least three shooting stars, too!

We are enjoying this transition from jungle to sea.

Tropical Ecology

“From the Zoo to the Reef”

Our last day at DuPlooy’s started off with breakfast burrito and a huge THANK YOU to the staff who took such wonderful care of us during our stay. It was hard to leave, but the Belize Zoo and our hero, Sharon Matola, awaited us and we did not want to be late! Only two hours separated us from some of the most amazing animals that we would ever see. Can we go on permanent vacation in Belize? 

We pulled up to the zoo, parked and made our way inside to be greeted by Queen Green, the resident boa constrictor. Each of our group members was able to take a once in a lifetime photo of themselves with the boa. Even those of us who were scared of snakes could not resist the Queen. She had just shed her skin and her light blue shimmer was eye-catching, to say the least. As we made our way through the zoo, we were in awe of everything from the hand-painted signs to the opportunity to go behind a “Staff Only” fence and give a crocodile a foot massage. 

We loved seeing Chiquibui, the Jaguar, who was a surprise to the zoo after her mom joined the family, carrying a little surprise stowaway with her! Our favorite visit was with Indy and Sparks, the tapirs. Tapirs are the national animal of Belize, but were once plagued by myths regarding their supposedly aggressive behavior, although you could have fooled us! Indy and Sparks were friendly, playful and kind. We even were able to feed Indy his favorite snack of carrots and scratch his back, which he loved. 

The most incredible part of the Belize Zoo, however, was being able to meet the heart and soul of the zoo: Sharon Matola. She is a hero to many of our group members and, likewise, people around the world. What she has done for the people and animals of Belize is nothing short of a lifetime achievement.  She left us with the idea that “no animal is unteachable” and we could not help but agreeing and will carry that sentiment with us into our classrooms.  

From the zoo, we visited the market in Belmopan to grab some unusual fruits for an exotic tasting. Have you heard of craboo or soursop? We hadn’t either! 

The next stop was the Blue Hole, a crystal clear pool of blue water tucked into a rocky cliff. There was even a cave only accessible by swimming and you know we had to check that out. It was as solid as the rock we stood on to take a group picture. A quick dip was all we needed to recharge before we headed to the Jaguar Reserve and the Mayan Center. We arrived just in time to head out in search of tarantulas and scorpions, which we found immediately. 

After an early morning bird walk on Saturday, we headed off to the remote village of Monkey River to meet the people and interact with the students. Our teachers planned engaging activities to challenge the minds of these young learners while getting to know them and their culture better. A delicious lunch prepared by former students of Monkey River school hit the spot and we hopped on the fishing boat to cross back over to the mainland, but not before catching sight of a gar fish! 

On the way home we stopped at the Mayan Center to get a personal chocolate making lesson from Julio, whose family has been living on that land for over 100 years. We were able to make chocolate from cacao seeds and it was the best chocolate we have ever tasted. Julio even gave us a lesson on the history of Mayan culture and how the Jaguar Reserve has affected the Mayan people. Ecotourism is the livelihood of the village and the community is thriving. 

We are in love with Belize; so much. Now, on to the sea turtles. 

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“From the top of the temple down to the river”

One of the many amazing things about Belize is how awake and ready we are to hit the ground running when that 5:30am alarm goes off!

We began our day with a walk through the Belize Botanical Gardens, where we saw Jackfruit, Ginger, Tamale leaves, Angel’s Trumpets and the Lodge’s Solar Panels! After breakfast we were lucky enough to see Collared Aracari Toucans by the deck!

Xunantunich - El Castillo.

Xunantunich – El Castillo.

We then traveled to Xunantunich where we hiked on and up Mayan ruins. It was breathtaking! We explored the residential areas for nobility — El Castillo (“the castle,” in Spanish) is 130 feet above the plaza floor. It is the second-tallest building in Belize. The Mayans were at their peak around 500 or 600 A.D. Approximately 7–10,000 people lived at Xunantunich, with around one million inhabiting the country.

After an awesome morning, the day just got better!

After lunch we grabbed life jackets and paddles and met at the beach on the Macal River. We jumped in canoes and spent several hours floating and paddling (about seven miles). The wildlife was plentiful and we were surrounded by bird noises, iguanas, rapids, bats and teachers talking.

When we got off the river we were treated to visit to a local ice cream joint! So delicious! We had all kinds of flavors new to us — sour sop, sweet corn, and crab. Also flavors we knew such as coconut, pineapple, chocolate, etc.

We headed back to DuPlooys to learn about figs and get ready for dinner!

Tree frog

Tropical Ecology

“Oh what a Day!”

Tuesday, July 24 and Wednesday July 25, 2018

Tuesday — The day begins at “0-dark 30.” Even thought most of us were up before 4am, everyone seemed to be awake and cheery. Liz saved the day on our first flight by responding to a medical emergency. GO LIZ! Happy to report the passenger who fainted is fine.

We landed in Belize, met Nathan (our guide), Bruce (our bus driver) and Nora and Armin (our Belizean educators). Our first stop was to meet former participant Ryan Elijio!

The group with Ryan.

The group with Ryan.

On to the Community Baboon Sanctuary, where we saw a mom and baby Howler Monkey. They came to say “Hi.” Mom came first and we were amazed that she came close enough to touch, BUT THEN the baby followed in her exact same path, and we were so close we felt as if it saw our souls! We learned the names of many plants and tasted cashew fruit. We also learned they make wine from it!

We went on to duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge where we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a night walk where we found a sleeping Basilisk Lizard down by the Macal River.

Peanut-headed Bug.

Peanut-headed Bug.

Wednesday — We took a bird walk where we spent much of time looking at plants and insects. We tasted Velvet Apples (Diospyros discolor) and had fry jacks for breakfast. We then drove to the Mountain Pine Ridge where we hiked to the Domingo Ruiz Cave. We found a Peanut-headed bug on a tree and got to see its beautiful eye spots.

The eye spots of the Peanut-headed Bug.

The eye spots of the Peanut-headed Bug.

Jason was  “done for the day” with that find!

Group in Domingo Ruiz Cave.

Group in Domingo Ruiz Cave.

Later in the cave we saw a baby bat snuggled next to its mom and we could hear their wings when we sat in the pitch dark. We later sang in the dark because it sounds so good in the cave!

Rio Frio Cave.

Rio Frio Cave.

The Rio Frio Cave was an amazing experience and contrast to Domingo Ruiz Cave. Rather than being deep and subterranean, it was huge and open to a river on both ends! And we watched in amazement as a katydid ATE a cicada!

Katydid eating a cicada!

Katydid eating a cicada!

We finished out the day playing in the waterfalls at the Rio On Pools, and returned to duPlooy’s in time for quick showers and a meeting before dinner. Then, off to a night walk topped off by looking at insects attracted to a sheet and bright light that Jason set up.

And RACHEL wanted to send a BIG birthday greeting to her mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!


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“Airport July 24, 2018”

The group heading to Belize!

The group heading to Belize!

We have made it to Fort Lauderdale and are eagerly awaiting our next flight. The teams are currently researching birds and plants we will see from the bus. Lots of great laughter already!

Shannon working on her journal.

Shannon working on her journal.