Tuesday, August 6, 2019

From 1st world to small island-field work in Belize

Marilyn, Carrie Bow Belize 2002

I made a dozen or so trips to Belize over the next twelve years, working on three different projects. Going from Washington, DC, we boarded a plane at National Airport to Miami, where we joined a group of largely tourists heading south to Belize City. After passing through Belizian customs with large, plastic containers of our supplies and gear, we made our way south to Dangriga.  Sometimes, we hired an old station wagon to take us from the airport to Dangriga, that more frequently than not broke down for a period of time along the way. If we managed to jump on a small plane, often our luggage was too big and was delayed in Belize City until a truck could be found.
         Dangriga is a mid-size coastal town with an airstrip located next to the Pelican Beach Resort Hotel. If we arrived by plane, we were met at the airfield by two men who worked at the hotel. They loaded our luggage and gear onto two wooden hand carts, the we walked on a dirt path through a field to the dock area where a small boat awaited us for transportation to the offshore Cayes. With our gear wrapped in plastic trash bags, we were taken across 20 km of choppy, coastal waters to Smithsonian’s research station at Carrie Bow Caye, a small, 50 meter sand atoll on the edge of a coral reef.     Carrie Bow Field Station 
         Arriving at Carrie Bow was always exciting and special. From a distance, we could see the small island emerge with its few palm trees defining the landscape. We were greeted by our cook and the station managers on the dock, where we hauled up our personal gear and boxes of scientific equipment.
Myrna Jacobson, Carrie Bow lab
         Scientists share communal living and lab space and meals, prepared by a Belizian cook who always made healthy, delicious local foods. Electricity is generated by solar power. Food and fresh water are brought in once a week by boat. The laboratory consisted of a wet lab, complete with running seawater, and a dry lab, where we set up small equipment for nutrient and pigments analyses. During hurricanes, the Carrie Bow Caye is often covered with water. Once, it was almost completely leveled by fire with the exception of one or two older cabins.
         One of the more unusual features of the station was the location and positioning of the outhouse. At the end of a 40 m small catwalk positioned over a “pristine” coral atoll, the outhouse looked out over the Caribbean Sea with small gentle waves lapping over the corals at low tide. The hole in the outhouse led directly into the ocean where bodily fluids and solids, along with toilet paper, flushed out with the tide. Usually, you walked quickly away and avoided searching for your “business” among the invertebrates lining the shallow waters. After a week or so on the island, particularly at night, it was not uncommon for someone to be intentionally locked inside of the outhouse.
Mat Wooller and Babs Smallwood, Guuy Fawkes Day, Carrie Bow
Martha, one of our Belizean cooks
         A major joy of working at this field station was the food cooked and served by local cooks. Martha and XXX were two that stand out as women who served for long periods of time. They negotiated with local fishermen to obtain reef fish and haggled with folks from Pelican Beach Resort to bring out fresh papayas, mangoes, bananas, coconuts, watermelon and a variety of fresh vegetables as well. Breakfasts were special treats with Johnny cakes, pancakes, fruit, and eggs that fueled our morning field excursions. Usually one of the first to arise in the morning, I made fresh coffee. Lunches were simple. The cook would assemble simple sandwiches and fruit. Those stuck on the island were treated to a fully cooked lunch.
         Armed with hot coffee, I spent the early cool part of the morning before breakfast out on a Belizian wooden chair overlooking the water. It was the time for quiet reflection, for refining the exciting field work for the day, and thinking about what I’d learned the day before. I was often joined later by Wooller, Jacobson, or Dave Baker (coral biogeochemist) who also took advantage of the peaceful time of day. While some people feel troubled by jumping off the grid or being a remote environment, I found it completely invigorating.
         Before dinner and after showering off the day’s mangrove muck, we cracked open Belican beers and headed out to the end of the dock wearing Hawaiian shirts and dresses, excited to discuss the day’s adventures. On rainy days, sometimes we remained inside the labs, but usually the rain cleared by sunset. Dinners were spectacular culinary delights. In 2011, on a trip with postdoc David Baker, Chris Freeman, and student Derek Smith, Martha learned how to prepare lion fish that Dave and Chris had speared earlier in the day. My favorites were beans and coconut rice with fried plantains along with fresh fish. We ate our meal on the back porch of the field station as the sun set and darkness set in. Drinks that were offered to us, other than the beers we had to chip in for, were syrupy fruit drinks--passion fruit, orange, lime flavored mixed with bottled water hauled over from the main land.   
Boating to our research area: After breakfast each day, we hopped into a 3-4 meter boat with an outboard motor and headed to Twin Cayes, a pair of islands several kilometers to the west of Carrie Bow. The boats were always a source of both pleasure and pain. They were moored about 30 meters offshore of Carrie Bow. In the morning, someone had to don their dive booties and walk into the cold water to manually drag the boat closer to shore so all could board. No one looked forward to the task. Being older, senior women, Myrna Jacobson and I asked Mat, Babs, or any of the other students to wade out. One morning while dutifully bringing in the boat, Wooller was stung by one of the sting rays that lived on the bottom of the calcareous sediments. He spent the day with his foot in boiling water then sprinkled with Adolf’s meat tenderizer. I’ve rarely seen grown men cry in the field. He didn’t but it was a close call.
         Each day when we left the station, we were handed a water proof Pelican case with a marine radio to communicate back to Carrie Bow if we encountered any problems or were delayed for any reason. We dutifully carried the radio box with us. One afternoon, we called in to alert the station managers that we were delayed, so they wouldn’t worry. Turns out that they were annoyed we used the radio when it was not an emergency. Mat always answered, “Terribly sorry. Shan’t happen again.” Several times there we ran out of gas, had engines not start, couldn’t reach Twin Cayes due to strong winds, and lost numerous things off the side of the boat. Once, Candy Feller was returning from a solo trip to Twin Cayes, hit rough water, and was thrown from the boat. She did not have the kill switch on her wrist, so the boat kept going until it ran out of gas. Fortunately, she was rescued.

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