Arrived Safe in Massachusetts

Farewell dinner at Elvi's Kitchen. (from left to right Elena, Victoria, Kayla, Riley, Delmi--a local friend, Clara, and Kiara)

Farewell dinner at Elvi’s Kitchen. (from left to right Elena, Victoria, Kayla, Riley, Delmi–a local friend, Clara, and Kiara)

Team STARRS is finally back in the USA at Smith College working like hard stingrays to prepare our presentation on Thursday afternoon, tie up loose ends, and readjust to America.  We arrived at 3 am on Monday morning to Smith College with only 12 bags of luggage this time.  Each flight we took we brought a heft of rain with us.  We left the runway in San Pedro to grey clouds and once we were up in the air it started raining.  When we walked to the runway in Belize City it was raining cats and dogs with water up to our ankles which made for a funny scene prancing through the rain with our carry-on luggage.  And finally when we landed in Atlanta and Hartford the same heavy rain accompanied us.

I have not adjusted to the states yet; there are moments when island air gets under my skin and I miss the caked on layers of sand to antsy toes, or the way golf cart and boat engine fumes cling to air making the humid air taste like adventure.  I hold a certain sadness in my belly right now like the waves hold home in their folds.  Underneath the Massachusetts moon, I desperately listen out for the night waves crashing over the reef and realize that New England cicadas and cars are no substitute for children’s laughter and salty waters.  I miss the way my feet dangled heavy over the dock at night reaching towards the stingrays playing in the water. Even the ocean has a name whispered sweet, low.  The air was most fresh at night when boat engines were still for the night.  Only the rocks hold still on an island, for when the sun is up the island stirs with familiar faces sharing moments of extreme generosity between friends and family.


Snuggles on the dock after dinner!

I remember the week we were at Smith before we left and we received ample emails saying how wonderful this opportunity is and how life changing it is.  This is an understatement.  This program at it’s core reinforces the vision Smith College has for its students to experience an array of challenges outside of our comfort zone, develop the skills as a leader and critical thinker, and to give back to a community different from ours.  There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel so fortunate to be in such a safe and welcoming community with friends I hope to stay in contact with for a lifetime.  Aside from the wonderful experience I have had with local citizens and the other STARRS members, ultimately the children in San Pedro are what hold this program together.  There were so many conversations I had with some of the team members in which we discussed how wonderful the kids are.  How they are truly kids who spend hours kicking old soccer balls or coconuts on the beach and streets, explore the ocean on snorkel, or hang out on the back of golf carts laughing until their parents beg them to wash up for bed.

While I am glad to be back in Massachusetts where peanut butter is affordable and all my clothes are not perpetually sandy, I have to admit that my heart and a big piece of me is still in San Pedro.  I don’t know how to describe to people how my trip is, I find myself feeling extremely inadequate in my ability to articulate how incredible this experience was.  As I adjust back to the states and anticipate all the conversations I will have about my trip, I have to say I have never felt happier and more confident in myself than I did in San Pedro.

 For all the support from friends and family, especially those who were patient with my communication with them I thank you so much.  To the professors and all the participants who made this trip possible, my sincerest gratitude for your guidance and support.  And for all my stingrays (team STARRS) thank you for being you and for bringing such fierce tenacity for the work we have done, and all the bravery and fun in doing it.

Riley and Elena land in Atlanta! Go Germany!

Riley and Elena land in Atlanta! Go Germany!

-Elena Karlsen-Ayala ‘16


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Youth Camp


Once Youth Camp started the days seem to blend into one, passing us without stopping and before we knew it Graduation has arrived!  This year Graduation is held one day before camp ends which means Thursday is our Glass Bottom Boat Trip where we bring the kids to visit the reef and see the habitats we have been teaching them for the past two weeks.  We have spent hours and hours on our lesson plans to ensure that the students are getting access to the best information we can provide for them (in the most fun ways, of course!).  As an overview of what we have covered we have taught them about Anti-Bullying, Sand/Water/Waves, Mangroves, Shallow Seas/Sea Grass, Crocodiles: Predator and Prey, Corals, Conservation, Deep Sea, and Adaption.  The kids have really enjoyed learning about these various topics through games, activities (especially if they include food), presenters, presentations, movies, books, and field trips.


I have learned that teaching is one of the hardest jobs but it is definitely the most rewarding job and experience I have had thus far in my life.  There is something to be said for the passion and interest these students have for their island and the habitats that surround it.  I constantly have students come to me and say “Miss…this is the best camp ever!”  I am reassured in these moments, in moments of jittery hands begging to be called on, and candid laughter and smiles that we are all doing good.

Helper meeting! And teaching the kids the importance of planning

Helper meeting! And teaching the kids the importance of planning

We have had a plethora of kids help us out this year, especially the students who were part of advanced camp.  In addition we have had students work with us to teach a portion of a lesson plan, co-lead a game, or create an activity that better suits their learning style.  For many of these students this opportunity is a way for them to gain confidence, master the material, and understand how difficult it is to have kids quiet down and listen to them.




In our final hours before graduation we are running around town picking up cupcakes from local businesses, finishing expert cards, and hanging the kids work up.  I could not be prouder of these students and look forward to celebrating their hard work tonight.  Furthermore, I could not be more thankful for a hard-working, dedicated, and fun team of Smithies who continuously encourage me to push myself and reassure me that naps are important.


-Elena Karlsen-Ayala ’16


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Crocodiles Come to Camp!


The boys from ACES returned with two baby crocodiles to teach the kids about why crocodiles are important, how they catch them, how to monitor crocodiles and why monitoring them is important.  Some of the kids left camp saying “I want to be a crocodile wrangler when I’m older!”  Luckily for them ACES is located right here on the island so as soon as the kids turn 18 they are able to begin the training to learn how to catch and monitor crocodiles.  The kids had an absolute blast with our in class visitors (and the ACES folks).  Each kid got to hold the crocodile if they wanted to (including the teachers!)  Top right is Elena Karlsen-Ayala ’16 and Bottom right is Kiara Gomez ’14.


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Highest temple we climbed up

Team STARRS 2014 Team STARRS 2014

Highest temple we climbed up

There is a quiet solitude in the Xuantunich Mayan Ruins in Cayo, Belize like stumbling upon something beautifully unexpected or finding yourself trespassing on a private moment in nature that you weren’t sure you were supposed to see.  Moments like these make elementary school lessons and textbooks feel obsolete; history comes alive in the shadows of these sites.  The 10 of us packed up and headed off to visit the temples accompanied by a young guy who was of Mayan decent.  When we arrived, the site was pretty desolate with the exception of a few small tours and a cute little fox prancing in the woods with recently caught lunch.  Despite the desolation of the mountaintops, the cicadas were chirping loudly in the trees beckoning us further up the mountain.  While the group was in the visitor center looking at the exhibits I stood outside and took a moment to feel the energy of my surroundings, which ultimately brought me to tears.  I kept thinking we are only here briefly and there is a whole world in these mountains.  If you stood still for long enough you could feel the spirit of the temple alive and uninhibited.  I thought about how the very land we were standing on was once filled by a whole community that would still be filling this space if their civilization wasn’t abandoned.  What is most interesting is the lack of concrete knowledge of what exactly happened to this civilization.  There is typical speculation of disease, disagreements over land, climate, etc. but the tour guide said there wasn’t any specific answer to what drove them away.STA_0817

When we climbed up the hill we arrived in what was the central square was surrounded on every side by temples and we all thought about how much we would all give for five minutes here with all the buzz and activity of the community.  We hiked up to the tallest temple and stood on top of it looking out as far as the eye could see of Cayo.  There were brightly colored houses, wood burning fires and smoke dancing in the sky, clear cut forests, and new planted trees, and miles and miles of quietness.  I wasn’t sure how I felt standing as a tourist in this place, this world, that wasn’t mine and wishing to see these people just being humans, simply and beautifully.  However, I think a certain level of discomfort in spaces like these is essential for understanding the importance of keeping the history of these people alive without making it a spectacle that would dishonor their humanity.  This may be a difficult task to accomplish, especially when we were only able to see the ruins for about 2 hours, but it is a responsibility I feel is essential; specifically when traveling as a tourist.

Miles and miles of quietness

Miles and miles of quietness

–Elena Karlsen-Ayala ’16

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Soft corals and transect tape

This week we started research with Denise, Al and David at Mexico Rocks, a site just  off the coast of San Pedro. Hol Chan Marine Reserve has been planning for this site to become a new marine protected area.

√CoralEd team prepares for UW research_R_June2014

Above is a picture of us doing a dry run on land of how we will measure and document the coral mounds.

After our dry run we  slipped into scuba gear and slid into the crystal blue water of our field site. Mexico rocks is a patch reef of coral mounds behind the protective barrier of the meso-american reef. Picture a flat sandy area with a series of little hills made of coral  ranging from about the size of a bathtub to a small car. Growing on these mounds furry looking corky sea fingers poke their purple fingers towards the surface, brown sea whips create a miniature forest of soft branches where grunts and sergeant major fish dart between, sea fans wave gracefully in the current, occasionally adorned by a flamingo tongue snail eating themselves full on coral polyps. These soft corals are the reason we’re here at Mexico Rocks this week. Most work on corals focuses on the hard or stony corals that build the reef, yet at this site there are just as many soft corals. Some people speculate that soft corals may be moving in where hard corals are suffering. Very little is actually known about these interactions between hard and soft corals or about how soft corals will fare in the future. We’re hoping to collect data on the abundance and health of soft corals in this patch reef that could be used as baseline information to compare before and after it’s designation as a protected area.

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Crocodiles, mangroves and ACES, oh my!

On the third day of advanced camp we took the kids out to the lagoon on a field trip with ACES, the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary. This was an evening excursion so instead of having the camp start at 4 PM today, we had the kids stop by the high school at 6:15 so we could then make the short walk over to the bridge to meet with ACES on their flat bottom boat. There was only enough room for all the kids and three teachers, so only Riley, Victoria and I went out on the trip absolutely ready for the adventure of seeing crocodiles for the first time.

Once on the boat I was amazed at how Chris and the ACES intern Amaury captured the kids attention. Hands were raised all around with question after question for them to answer, only with tons more questions to follow. I was also thoroughly impressed as to how much the kids from last year remembered from the previous year’s trip about the anatomy, habits, and nesting of the crocodiles. They were truly engaged and excited about the discussion, and were shining their flashlights out onto the water to see if they could maybe, just maybe catch a glimpse of a certain something hiding out in the water.

Amaury teaching the kids about crocodiles.

Amaury teaching the kids about crocodiles.

The sky quickly transformed from dusk to darkness while we were traveling alongside the mangroves. The previous year they had spotted a crocodile and Chris had gone out in the water to capture it, however this year they didn’t spot anything. The kids were a bit disappointed by missing the action that they heard about last year, but that was quickly diffused when we arrived at a spot where they had a three foot crocodile all ready for the kids to check out.

Leroy cuddling up to the crocodile "Donatello"

Leroy cuddling up to the crocodile “Donatello”

Once going over all the precautions of having the crocodile on board the boat as he is a living creature that should be respected, Chris and Amaury demonstrated the proper way to hold a crocodile, one hand at the neck and one at the tail so he won’t escape your grip. After going over the rules of the proper grip, we monitered each of the kids so they had the chance to hold the crocodile. The kids extremely excited about the prospect of holding the crocodile which they named Donatello after following the tradition of Ninja Turtle names from the previous year.

Juan, Nin and Bryan checking out the crocodile.

Juan, Nin and Bryan checking out the crocodile.

Once everyone who wanted to hold Donatello had their chance, the ACES team went through their documentation of the measurements and marking the crocodile by trimming one of its scoots so they can track it over the coming years. To finish things up, Victoria had the honors of releasing Donatello back into the water where he then soon disappeared from our sight.

It was an exciting and successful trip and hopefully we’ll be able to continue taking the kids out with ACES in the coming years!

All the best,

Clara and the rest of Team STARRS 2014

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RC School Graduation

June 24, 2014

Greetings from San Pedro! We returned a couple days ago from our trip to the mainland with the professors. It was nice to get a break from the island, but we are all glad to be back. This past weekend was an exciting one in San Pedro. On Friday, the students in Standard 6 (~13-15 years old) had their graduation from the RC School. The remainder of the weekend was filled with Lobsterfest celebrations in town. All week the fishermen had been going out on their boats fishing for spiny lobsters, then on Saturday and Sunday they celebrate the successful catch with parties and other festivities.


Rainbow welcoming us back to San Pedro

I was pleasantly surprised when Jason and Mariano, two of the neighborhood kids, invited me to go watch their graduation. I was thrilled to be invited; it made me feel really welcomed into the community. So on Friday night I put on my finest attire and headed over to the high school auditorium. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I was really excited to see so many of the kids that I’ve met in the past few weeks. When I arrived, the kids were all dressed in formal uniforms (the girls in pretty blue dresses, the boys in button up shirts and vests) taking pictures with their friends and family. Shortly thereafter, everyone took their seats and waited for the students to walk in. Once everyone was seated, the master of ceremonies welcomed the friends, family and graduating students, and invited the top student to speak. Once the student had finished her speech, the principal of the RC School began to hand out awards to students. Some of the awards handed out were for good conduct, best attire, perfect attendance, punctuality, extra cirriculars, and sports. Following the award ceremony, the guest speaker was invited to speak to the crowd. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the speaker was Clive, the man who interviewed us at the radio station. He gave a speech on virtues and certain qualities that are important to leading a happy and fulfilling life. I really enjoyed the speech and thought that it was a good message for the students to think about. When Clive had finished, the principal began to call students up to the stage and hand out the diplomas. Once all of the diplomas were handed out, the students walked back out of the auditorium and the ceremony concluded.

IMG_6966 With Jason (left) and Mariano (right) at Graduation

I’m really glad that I was able to experience a graduation ceremony in San Pedro. It has become evident to me how important the children and their education are to the people here. The education system is different than that in the U.S., and it tends to be difficult for students to continue their education through high school and beyond. All of the parents I have talked to around town and at the ceremony were so proud of their students for all their hard work. I often hear parents talk about their children as the future of the island and how important it is to teach them well. I was impressed by the number of students who ranked among the top in the country for the national test they were all required to take. I’m excited to meet more of the students from San Pedro during Advanced Camp and Youth Camp.

Sending warmth and sunshine,

Riley and the STARRS2014 team


P.S. – Go Netherlands!!! :-)

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SCUBA Certification

June 17, 2014

Team STARRS has been busy over the past two weeks preparing for camp and working with the professors! During these two weeks, Elena and I have been working towards our SCUBA certification. We began a few days after we arrived on the island. We watched a series of videos and read a book to get a solid knowledge base before getting into the water. Once we finished with that, we did two confined water dives with George. During these “dives” we stayed in shallow water and worked on basic skills, like clearing the regulator, clearing the mask, using a friend’s regulator, etc. Elena and I were both a bit nervous at first, but George made the training environment very comfortable and safe. In true Smithie spirit, we asked lots of questions and didn’t allow ourselves to feel confused during any part of the training. We finished our second confined dive a few days later, learning knew skills and reinforcing skills that we had learned the first day.


Scuba selfie (Elena) during the first open water dive 

When it was time to go out for our first open water dive, Elena and I were feeling a flurry of emotions. We were excited to finally go out for a real dive, curious about what we might see underwater, and a bit nervous about diving in the open water. We had originally planned to go to Hol Chan for our first dive, but the current was too strong that morning. We ended up going out with Eddie and the rest of Team STARRS to a relatively shallow area off the coast called Tuffie. We let the other girls get in the water before us so that we could take our time getting into the water and becoming comfortable with our equipment. Once we had gotten into the water and were ready to descend, Elena and I deflated our BCDs and sank to the bottom. Any nervousness that I felt in the boat went away when we started swimming at the bottom. I remember being in awe whenever I saw a fish or another creature swim by me. Before diving, I had only seen the underwater world in film or in books, but now I was actually seeing it in person! We swam around with Eddie for a while until we reached a sunken sailboat, at which point he let us explore on our own. When it was time to head back towards the boat and ascend, the current became more noticeable. Eddie gathered us all together and navigated us through the current safely and slowly. When Elena and I got back into the boat, we talked about what we saw underwater and how amazing the entire experience was.

IMG_0452 3

Riley (top) during the first open water dive

We had to wait several days before going out for our next open water dive. The weather has not been cooperating here in San Pedro, to the extent that diving (and other water activities) has been limited. After four or five days, we were able to go back out to Tuffie to finish our remaining dives. This time, we started near the shipwreck and worked our way to the reef. We saw lots of different fish and sea creatures in and around the reef. The time on our second dive flew by, and before we knew it we were done! When we got back to land, Eddie gave us the final part of our certification – the written exam. Elena and I used what we learned from the movies, book, confined dives, and open water dives to complete the exam. We were nervous at first (come on – an exam in the summer?!), but soon realized that we knew all of the information and easily passed the exam. The overall certification process took a little longer than a week, mainly due to poor weather and our busy schedules. Elena and I appreciated the delays though, since it gave us more time to reflect on what we had learned. We are both excited to get back into the water and dive!

Much love,

Riley and the rest of the STARRS2014 team

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First Week in San Pedro!

Week one in San Pedro is finished! And now I can hardly believe we are already halfway through our second week here.  Since arriving in San Pedro, it has been full days of settling in, getting ready for camp, and also trying our best to get acclimated to the extreme heat.  The days have felt long, , and yet they have been flying by. It still amazes me that we have been here for only 10 days as I feel like I am now finally getting to know San Pedro from wandering along the streets, meeting so many new people and hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood.

When waking up the Tuesday morning after we got here, I had momentarily forgotten where I was until once again seeing the ocean view shining brightly outside our balcony sending me a gentle reminder that yes, we are now officially in San Pedro. We ate some breakfast, repacked our bags and lugged them  a few blocks down to our new home at Mellie’s apartment. We got settled, did some grocery shopping and necessary errands for the house. We got some MUCH needed fans, as well as a new air mattress. The new air mattress proved to be a problem that first night. We were exhausted and ready to fall into bed, but this mattress did not come with the necessary air pump. So someone was either going to sleep on the floor or snuggle up on the other twin size air mattress in our already beastly hot room.  Being determined Smithies, we decided to take on this challenge. We tried blowing it up by mouth, and failed miserably. Kiara then came up with a genius plan (or so we thought) to use the water pump to blow the mattress up by hand. We screwed it onto a water bottle and tried it out. It did work, ever so slowly though. Honestly, we would probably still have been pumping it without sleep until sunrise.  We were about to give up in a moment of mixed exhaustion and laughter as we honestly pondered how many Smithies are necessary to blow up a mattress. We then finally discovered that our other air mattress’ electric pump could reverse its airflow, which FINALLY worked… and in the end, after all our effort, it blew up perfectly. And I did sleep wonderfully on that mattress that night!


Attempting to blow up the mattress with the water pump.

On Wednesday, Kiara and Victoria went diving at the Blue Hole while the rest of us continued with more preparations for camp. We went to Lighthouse Radio where Elena and I tried out our best radio announcer voices to invite kids to come to camp within the coming weeks. After completing the announcement which we went there to do, we were then put on the spot to do a quick radio interview with Clive. I think we were all a little nervous to do an interview we weren’t prepared for, but it turned out really well!


Kayla, Elena and Clara interviewing with Clive at Lighthouse Radio.

On Thursday and Friday we went to all the schools to recruit students for camp. We went with our scuba mask props in hand, and split up as we went from classroom to classroom to make our announcements and skits for the kids. We were greeted with a number of kids raising their hands up high telling us they’ve been to camp before, as well as a lot of excitement and laughs during the skits. When walking the streets, it has also been a wonderful surprise being approached by kids who recognized us from coming to their school and ran up to us with big smiles letting us know that they have their permission slips for camp.


Elena and Kiara performing a skit at the RC School.

I still can hardly believe that we have already been here for over a week. Each day has been a blur to me, as each day has been full of jam packed activities. From fundraising, dropping off permission slips and flyers, getting camp materials, doing announcements and skits at all the schools, as well as some of us working to get certified to dive, I now completely understand why we need these two weeks to prepare and get everything in place for camp.


Transporting Coral Ed bins from the Hol Chan office.

Next week we are going to start our research on soft corals on mounds atMexico Rocks, and I’m anxious and excited to do marine field research, which will be a completely new experience for me. Hopefully all will go well next week as we learn more about the field equipment and the methods we will be using, but in the meantime I will be signing out for now.

Much love from Clara and 2014 Team STARRS






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Greetings from San Pedro!

June 03, 2014

STARRS'14 outside of Bradley with luggage

STARRS’14 outside of Bradley with luggage

The STARRS team has been very busy for the past 36 hours, but we have finally gotten some sleep and are ready for our first full day in San Pedro. We arrived at Bradley around 4:15 yesterday for our 6:00 flight to Atlanta and the connecting flight to Belize. We had a very enjoyable plane ride to Ambergris Caye with a newlywed couple on board with us. The view of the water from the plane was incredible. We could see the seagrass beds and the coral reef surrounding the island. Upon arrival in San Pedro, we were greeted by many smiling faces and a beautiful day.

The view from our plane

The view from our plane

Kayla and Kiara gave a quick tour of the town to us newcomers. We stopped at a small roadside cafe for a light lunch before unwinding at the hotel. Some of us decided to catch up on sleep, while others went out exploring a bit more. We all got together last night and went out for papusas (pumpkin = amazing). After a nice walk on the beach, we went back and got a full night of sleep.

Checking out the balcony

Checking out the balcony

When I woke up at 5 this morning I was greeted by the sun shining in our room. I sat on the balcony for a while and enjoyed the view of the boats and all the people walking by. This has already been an amazing experience for me, and I’m sure it will get even better in the coming weeks. I’m looking forward to meeting all the kids from camp as well as the adults we will be working with. We have already seen a few of the kids from camp, who were very excited to see Kayla and Kiara back for another summer.

Coral Reef Ed-Ventures has officially returned to San Pedro for its 15th year. The four newcomers (including myself) are feeling a mix of emotions – excitement, nervousness, curiosity, gratefulness – as we adjust to living on the island.

Sending warm weather and sunshine,
Riley Gage & the STARRS ’14 Team

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