Students-at-Sea in Belize
May 13, 2001
Francesca Cava, SSE education program manager
National Geographic Society
I arrived in Belize City on May 8th to prepare the Sustainable Seas Expeditions (SSE) education program that was accompanying the expeditions occurring off shore. It was certainly exciting to be in a new country and to finally meet the people I had, to date, only been planning with by email and telephone.
This was our first international mission focussed on one of the most important marine areas in the world -- Belize, known for its pristine coral reefs, high fisheries abundance, important nursery areas and sometimes home of the shy whale shark. We had a lot to look forward to seeing!
The first order of business was to meet Eden Garcia, director of the Institute of Marine Studies for the University of Belize. Eden had been instrumental in helping determine the best possible education program for Belize. He had reviewed our teacher and student materials, identified students and teachers who could visit the NOAA research vessel McArthur, advertised our Open House and took care of the myriad of logistics that make any plan a success. Luckily I had arrived early, as our first problem was even after months of planning, we still needed to find a shuttle to transport us to the ship (the ship was located about 45 minutes off shore near an area called English Caye). And, the pier space for the McArthur Open House scheduled for May 13th had yet to be confirmed.
Despite the fact that the University of Belize was just going into finals week, Eden went out of his way to help in every way possible -- finding a launch and captain, visiting the port authority and most importantly providing a marine radio so that we could contact the McArthur directly. After quite a bit of scrambling we had our projects back on track and were eager to get out to meet the ship
At 7 am on May 11th we rendezvoused at the University of Belize to head out to meet the McArthur. Eden, another University professor and three of their students joined us for the all day tour of the ship, to meet Dr. Sylvia Earle, SSE Project Director, and the other scientists, and to see the launch and recovery of the DeepWorker submersibles. The weather was hot, about 90° F, but the winds and waves were calm. The water was a beautiful sea green and our four meter skiff skimmed its way effortlessly out to sea to meet the ship.
Seeing the McArthur on the horizon and finally coming along side to the many familiar and friendly faces is always a joy. The ship captain, LCDR Michele Bullock and her crew waved a welcome, we quickly boarded the ship and were raring to go. Luckily, one of the Belizean pilots was just getting ready for the first dive of the day. We were able to see the last minute preparation for the dive and see the one of the first launches into Belize waters. After the sub was in the water, we joined the crew monitoring the submersible's location and listened in on underwater communications. As the sub does not have a live video feed, we joined Kip Evans, National Geographic Society (NGS) photographer, to look at video from previous dives. Kip had a real treat for us -- great shots of coral, thousands of snappers and other fish and the real prize -- several close-ups of whale sharks. Later, he showed a video highlights tape from the west coast of the US and explained the intricacies of digital video photography, his ability to "grab" stills and make instant pictures using an on-board computer and printer. It was easy to understand how it took hours to get a single good shot.
Our day sped by with a special lunch prepared by the Steward department, a personalized tour of the bridge by LCDR Bullock and a very thorough explanation of the DeepWorker submersible by Sasha, one of the technicians who maintain the submersibles. All in all, an unforgettable experience and one that I hope inspires these teachers and students to learn more about the ocean and perhaps be tomorrow's ocean explorers.
On May 13th the McArthur held the SSE Open House. Despite a tropical rainstorm and competing with Mother's Day, we had a warm reception. Luckily I was able to meet with Alice Drislane, a Peace Corps Volunteer and Environmental Educator for the Friends of Laughing Bird Caye. Alice was developing a K-12 environmental education plan and really needed classroom activities. Unfortunately, there were very few local environmental education materials available. Our SSE materials were much needed and appreciated, especially the NGS Coral World Map with its pictures of coral habitats in Belize.
Nathalie Foster from the US Embassy also proved to be a huge help in helping to distribute our materials to all the local schools and libraries. However, perhaps the most memorable visitors were a group of young students who had great fun identifying local fish highlighted in the virtual coral reef on the NGS map. I certainly look forward to continuing our education dialogue in July when we invite teachers from around the world, including Belize, to join us for a month long on-line teacher workshop focussed on coral reef conservation.
Footnote: With support from NOAA and the NGS Council on Research and Exploration, SSE distributed 500 copies each of its 2-unit Teacher Resource Book and accompanying poster and the NGS Coral Reef World poster to local students and teachers. A TV crew from National Geographic Today spent the day on the NOAA ship McArthur to produce a news segment that aired on the National Geographic Channel during National Geographic Today's Wednesday, May 30, broadcast. The segment featured interviews with Dr. Sylvia Earle and footage from the mission in Belize.
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