MEEKER I In June, 10 Meeker High School students traveled to Belize with Ecology Project International (EPI), staying four days at a research station in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Reserve and another four days at the Calabash Caye marine science field station operated by the University of Belize.
The group learned aspects of research into jaguar behavior, elements of the Mayan culture, the impact of invasive species on coral reefs and issues related to human impact on marine ecosystems.
Upon arrival, the group boarded a converted school bus for the trip to Cockscomb reserve. EPI instructors Jaen and Andria outlined the program and told stories about the people and sites along the way.
Cockscomb is the world’s only designated jaguar reserve, and the group hoped to catch a glimpse of the animal. International research teams have been monitoring jaguar and puma behavior in the reserve for 30 years, most recently using trail cameras to record cat location and movements.
The group learned to operate and place the cameras. And although no jaguar photos were taken, the group did find a fresh set of jaguar tracks. The group also reviewed photos and records from other research groups.
While in the reserve, the group also studied rainforest ecology and got up early in the mornings to watch the indigenous birds. The group endured the tropical heat on a couple hikes and cooled off swimming in pools under waterfalls. They stayed cool, also, tubing down the river near the field station under the forest canopy.
Jaen and Andria provided lots of fun games and activities in between expeditions.
One of the highlights in Cockscomb was a visit to Mayan Centre. The Mayan people, indigenous to the Cockscomb Basin, not only manage the reserve but also provide a cultural center exhibiting their traditional way of life.
Ernesto Saqui, the Mayan leader, showed off his family plantation filled with native fruit trees. His wife, Aurora, guided the group through the entire process for making corn tortillas, starting with a matate, grinding kernels straight from the cob. She also taught how to steam tamales wrapped in banana leaves. The group also ate cacao fruit and ground roasted cacao beans to make a traditional Mayan chocolate drink.
Departing the Cockscomb Reserve, Mr. Paul, the bus driver, returned us to Belize City, where the group boarded a launch across the broad coastal reef to Calabash Caye.
A third instructor, Alex, joined the group to help guide sorties in the ocean.
Shortly after arriving, we were fitted with snorkel gear and dove into the water. Right away the group found sea stars and myriad fish in the sea grass and sand just off the field station beach.
During the next three days, we spent lots of time in the water, learning to identify the various fish, corals and invertebrates in different marine environments. The group learned how to run underwater transects and helped collect data on reef health for ongoing research monitoring the impact of lion fish on the reef system.
The instructors speared a lion fish, which we later dissected.
One afternoon, the group snorkeled amidst the roots of a mangrove forest, which shelters small fry of a number of fish species. The group helped clean the beach near the field station and they were shocked at the amount of plastic trash. Unfortunately, as we have seen on other trips, our trash is piling up on beaches around the world and also collecting in floating islands mid-ocean.
As a final project at Calabash, the students divided into groups to conduct original research. Projects included a study of the relative abundance of fish at different times of day and a study tracing the geographic origin of beach trash. Another group studied natural materials available for beach golf and the final group studied acoustic monitoring for predator avoidance.
The group had great fun, made lots of new friends and learned about three of the world’s major ecosystems: rain forest, coral reef and mangrove forest. The students returned with lots of happy memories, and we hope to pass along more of our stories.
The group wants to thank the Freeman E. Fairfield Trust, the Meeker Regional Library District and the many individuals in the community who have provided such generous support.
The group plans a free public slide show at 7 p.m. on Aug. 11 at Meeker Public Library.