√Amigos dock overview_R_12June16

The Amigos del Mar dock – much more than first meets the eye…… Al Curran 

I took the attached picture of Amigos del Mar dock, an area familiar to all Coral Ed team members from years past, in early June 2016. The photo vantage point was top floor (3 of 3) of the Mayan Princess Hotel, our longtime headquarters for the Smith College Coral Reef Ed-Ventures Program in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

This is one of my favorite views on Ambergris, and I am grateful for having been able to enjoy this captivating scene for almost 20 years now. So much activity is in evidence here, and it’s also a changing venue, reflective of Ambergris as a whole.

Some key observations:

  • Marine water and boats: from the human perspective, coastal Belize is all about the shallow offshore waters and boats, boats, boats. The waters off Ambergris are among the clearest anywhere, reflecting the absence of any nearby rivers transporting suspended sediment to the sea. The beach and offshore sediments are all made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), generated primarily by calcareous green algae and marine micro- and macro-fauna, such as foraminifera and shell-bearing mollusks. The shallow-water zone is the “interstate highway” for Ambergris, with much of the local population plus tourists moving by boat from place to place along the coast and back and forth to the mainland. More people = more boats!
  • So much energy: it’s all on the beach, which is a happening place from sunrise to sunset. On a hot summer day, who wouldn’t want to be close to or in the water! I love watching the kids having so much fun here on every sunny day, and it’s all for free.
  • Development: when I look at pictures of this same scene from a few years ago, I see a much smaller Amigos dock. Yes, the dock complex has been enlarged, and the building on it is much bigger. A seaside massage parlor now is at the elevated seaward end of the structure, and its front part houses a very busy water taxi operation and a gift shop!

Amigos dock is a microcosm for all of Ambergris – development in the past few years has been very strong to the south. With completion of a bridge over the cut at the north end of San Pedro, tourist-oriented development has skyrocketed on North Ambergris.  I’m not talking about small, eco-conscious B&Bs – rather mega-resorts with many, many rooms, and all very posh. Traffic in downtown San Pedro is much increased over  even just a couple of years ago. I still say that getting hit by a golf cart is the biggest hazard in Belize for Coral Ed team members!

  • Wildlife: Even though the developed waterfront presents a highly modified habitat, there is still a surprising diversity of wildlife present and easily observed. A variety of birds are around, as exemplified by the cluster of large frigate birds in the upper right-corner background of the photo. Many small fish hang out around the docks, along with an occasional barracuda, and patches of turtle and manatee grass persist. Large southern stingrays foraging for food are a common sight, and Denise, David, and I even observed the holes of burrowing callianassid shrimp in the sandy areas. So, although compromised, the developed offshore is far from being a dead zone. All this is reassuring and demonstrates the resilience of many forms of marine life.
  • The reef: Looking farther offshore, one sees the continuous white line that represents waves breaking over the crest of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second longest reef feature on Earth. This is the constant aspect of the Ambergris Caye seascape, and it represents nature’s free source of storm protection for the island. The reef appears to be holding its own, but the combined threats of elevated sea-surface temperature, coral diseases, and overfishing present a serious long-term challenge. The mission of Hol Chan Marine Reserve is to protect this natural resource, and the goal of the Smith College Coral Ed-Ventures Program is to educate youth of the San Pedro community to appreciate the value of reef resources and to explore the best means to conserve and sustain the reefs and other marine habitats of Ambergris Caye.

It’s all in this single image!

Al Curran

Last Weekend in San Pedro

Our last weekend in San Pedro, the family of one of our campers hosted a dinner for the Coral Ed team in order to say goodbye and give us one last chance to hang out with the kids. It is a great feeling to know that we are so valued by not only our campers, but their families and the community as a whole. We packed up our things, including a multitude of gifts and cards brought to us by the campers throughout the past weeks, and enjoyed our last few days on the beautiful beaches of San Pedro. It is my second time saying goodbye to the island and I can’t say it gets any easier.

The Coral Ed team has made it safely back to Massachusetts and, although we were all sad to leave the island and our the many friends we have come to know in San Pedro, we are excited to get to share our experience with the Smith community.

Until next time!


Youth Camp Week Two

On Monday, Mandy gave a lesson on trophic interaction, and we had a guest speaker from the Blackador project come in and talk to the kids about island conservation. On Tuesday, both Hayley and Emma gave a lesson. Hayley gave a lesson about corals and their anatomy, while Emma talked about conservation. On Wednesday, kids worked on an art project directed by one of the Blackador project leaders, and everyone also worked on their final project for the camp, something to show off what they have learned at graduation. Tonight, we also hosted the Coral Reef Ed-Ventures 2016 graduation at Lion’s Den. We had a great turn out, and it was great to see kids’ works were being celebrated with their family and friends. Even though it is very sad to see that youth camp is coming to an end, it was a truly rewarding experience. On Thursday, we took the kids out for the glass bottom boat trip. This year, we had a large number of kids coming to camp, and therefore, we took three trips. We went to Hol Chan, and Shark Ray Alley. It was very fulfilling to see that kids were enjoying their time on the boat. As we were saying goodbyes and stepping off the boat, I realized that this marks the end of the program. I will deeply miss this beautiful country and the enthusiastic kids.


2016 Youth Camp kids working on their final projects

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Youth camp kids on glass bottom boat trip, off to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley


Week One Youth Camp

Our first week of Youth Camp went very well! The picture shows our first day of camp after our beach clean up. Our campers were very excited to do their part to keep San Pedro beautiful and clean. We have more than doubled our numbers from the first day of camp and now have over 80 campers. On Tuesday, Laura gave a lesson on different types of sand and on Wednesday, Ziqiu gave a lesson on mangroves and their importance in preventing erosion. Emma made a GIANT batch of popcorn for movie night in the Lion’s Den Wednesday night where we screened Finding Dory for the community. An island wide power outage struck Wednesday night and went into the next day so we had to cancel camp due to the lack of running water. However Friday the power was restored along with the running water.  Much refreshed, I taught a lesson on the deep sea Friday. We all enjoyed our last full weekend on the island.



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Advanced Camp

This past week we had an awesome time conducting Advanced Camp for kids age 12 and up. This summer Advanced Camp conducted research on biodiversity in different ecosystems.

The 2016 Advanced Camp crew, minus our photographer Hayley.

The 2016 Advanced Camp crew, minus our photographer Hayley.










Our week began with a scavenger hunt along the beach behind the high school to remind the kids of all of the marine science terminology they already knew. The next day, we started with a quick lesson about ocean acidification before commencing a multi-day experiment in which we put eggs into cups of sea water, fresh water, and vinegar in order to demonstrate the negative impact of acidity on calcium carbonate.

For our biodiversity research we broke into three groups and recorded which organisms were visible along a 30 meter transect. We looked at both a beach and mangrove environment, while talking about how human presence, especially tourist pressure, affects those environments. At the end of our trip to the mangroves we checked back in on our egg experiment and found that the vinegar had totally dissolved the eggshell, providing a good visual representation of how rising ocean acidity is negatively impacting corals.

On our last day of Advanced Camp we took a nighttime boat trip into the mangroves with ACES to look for crocodiles. Although our guide Chris was unable to catch a crocodile for us we saw a couple in the water and really appreciated his wealth of knowledge about the whole Crocodilia family.

We were sad to see Advanced Camp end, but are so excited for Youth Camp to begin tomorrow! The team is preparing enthusiastically for our first day of camp and for all the fun activities we have in store.


Camp Preparation

With research over it was time to start advertising for camp! We went to several schools all around San Pedro to perform our ocean themed skit and get the word out about our program! The kids were very responsive and a lot of them recognized the camp from years past.


We finished up our promotion week at Lobster Fest! A San Pedro tradition that celebrates the opening of lobster season and where local restaurants can showcase their best lobster dishes. The Coral-Ed program has its own tradition by attending the festival in costume every year. (From left to right) This year Zi Qiu went as an Angler fish, Mandy as a a sea star, Emiline as a jellyfish, Emma as sea grass, Laura as a Spotted Eagle Ray and Hayley as Poseidon. We had games such as fishing in a barrel and the cookie challenge that kids at the festival could play for prizes.  All of us had a great time interacting with the kids, some of who will be attending camp this week!


Research Week

Research week has come to a close. It seems like the professors just got here but they are heading out in the morning already. Nice weather and calm seas allowed us to have a great time diving in Hol Chan and collect a lot of data out on the coral mounds. Mandy and I enjoyed our second round of dive research and the new girls picked up on it quickly despite being tossed around occasionally by waves. We also did some work in the mangroves, gathering information about distribution of mangroves to study trends in their growth. If we weren’t in SCUBA gear or paddling a kayak, we were flying the drone and taking pictures of the island from a bird’s eye view.

The Coral Ed ladies off to do dive research with the professors and dive masters at Mexico Rocks

The Coral Ed ladies off to do dive research with the professors and dive masters at Mexico Rocks

We went on the air with Clive from Lighthouse Radio on Friday and got a chance to talk about what we do here on the Island. He asked us questions about everything from what got us interested personally in participating in Coral Ed to what people can do in their daily lives to help protect the reef.

Emma, Hayley, Laura, and Mandy at the Lighthouse Radio interview with Clive, advertising for camp and discussing some important issues facing the reef

Emma, Hayley, Laura, and Mandy at the Lighthouse Radio interview with Clive, advertising for camp and discussing some important issues facing the reef

We are very excited to go to the schools next week to continue advertising for camp and start interacting with the kids!


First Week in Belize

This past weekend the team took a mainland trip. We stayed at a research center called La Milpa in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area run by Programme for Belize. We were fortunate to have a highly knowledgeable guide named Francisco Tush who shared his insights about the Mayan archeological site, La Milpa. Unlike Xunantunich, the site we visited last year, which was excavated, La Milpa is still preserved in its natural state covered by years of leaf debris.  It is an active research site with a group from the University of Texas that works there for a month each summer.

The team also participated in a night walk, where we saw all sorts of creepy crawlers including huge tarantulas! Another highlight of the trip was going to the Belize Zoo, where we learned more about the native Belize fauna, including Belize’s national bird, the toucan, and its national animal, the tapir.

The team has started research this week with the professors, mostly diving at the recently established marine protected area called Mexico Rocks. However, we are excited to move on to the sea fan surveys and mangrove comparisons later this week.

Until next time,



The team takes a break on a mahogany buttress at La Milpa.


After spending a semester together in the coral reef ed-ventures special studies we are so heading down to San Pedro already friends! (Left to right back row: Emma Becker, Emiline Koopman, Laura Henry, Ziqiu Zhang; left to right front row: Hayley Reifeiss and Mandy Castro)
After spending a semester together in the
coral reef ed-ventures special studies we are
heading down to San Pedro already friends!
(Left to right back row: Emma Becker, Emiline
Koopman, Laura Henry, Ziqiu Zhang; left to
right front row: Hayley Reifeiss and Mandy Castro)

The Coral Ed team has made it safely to San Pedro and we have begun preparation for research week and advance camp that are approaching quickly.

Ziqiu, Emiline, Emma and Hayley are getting adjusted to the heat, while Laura and I had a better understanding of what to expect, but still had some adjustment to deal with. Even though Laura and I shared with the new girls how small San Pedro is, the girls were still surprised at just how small and tight-knit the community is.

The professors have arrived in San Pedro today and we will embark on our first trip out to Hol Chan as a team tomorrow morning!

I am so excited to be back in Belize as a member of this team and cannot wait to show all the kids what we have in store for them this year!



Welcome Team STARRS members for 2016:

Emma Becker (’18)
Mandy Castro (’17 Co-leader)
Laura Henry (’16 Co-leader)
Emiline Koopman (’18)
Hayley Reifeiss (’18)
Ziqiu Zhang (’18)