A Trip of Discovery
During summer session 2007 a group of eleven Westminster students and two faculty members traveled to Belize and completed what has become one of Westminster's most popular and successful travel courses - The Biology of Belize.
In preparation for the summer travel course to Belize, the students and faculty members, Dr. Mike Amspoker and Dr. Bob Seelinger, met in a weekly seminar during the spring semester exploring topics such as the history and cultures of Belize, the structure and dynamics of the rain forest, current environmental issues, ethnobotany, seagrass and mangrove ecosystems, parasites and venomous snakes, coral reef structures, and the well represented world of insects and spiders - wee wee ants, termites, mosquitoes, tarantulas, and numerous other examples of crawling and flying creatures.
The travel itinerary was designed for the class to visit and explore the key areas of the country - the savannah, the mountains, the rain forest, and Belize's spectacular marine environment. In Belize the group sometimes camped in tents and at other times stayed in rustic cabins.
"The plan was to immerse ourselves in the environment that we had come to study," says Dr. Seelinger, "and our accommodations, although somewhat sparse and at times Spartan, were ideal for our trip's purpose."
They hiked challenging trails, did some caving, played soccer with a very skilled youth team from a small village, soared through the rain forest on a zip line, swam with the sharks and stingrays, and explored major Maya sites.
"In many ways the entire trip was a non-stop lab session - we examined, discussed, and analyzed virtually everything we encountered," notes Seelinger. "Dr. Amspoker was especially good at prompting and encouraging all of us to look closely with our eyes and to think carefully with our minds about the world we were exploring. We also had the good fortune to work with several excellent guides who often complemented Mike's own expertise in various fauna and flora."
On the Savannah
The class began their stay at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (http://www.monkeybaybelize.org/), where they stayed for the first 6 nights. The sanctuary itself specializes in educational and research oriented programs that are centered on the biological, ecological, and cultural context of Belize.
During their stay they had the opportunity to meet groups of students from three other colleges or universities - two from western Canada and the other from a branch campus of Penn State. In the case of most programs, students do not begin any active learning about Belize until they actually arrive in the country and seem dazed by all that they initially encounter.
"As we soon discovered, our preparatory seminar had established a foundation on which we could build," Seelinger notes. "Nevertheless the world around us still seemed less than familiar, and we learned quickly on a firsthand basis how fascinating Belize is from a great number of perspectives - social, economic, political, cultural, historical, linguistic, and biological/ecological."
Read Dr. Seelinger's Travel Journal from Monkey Bay
The Barrier Reef
After 6 days of exploring the savannah and some of the higher elevations in the western area of Belize, the class traveled to a very different environment - namely Tobacco Caye and Belize's astounding marine areas. Tobacco Caye is 5 acre island located about 40 minutes by boat from the town of Dangriga. Although the island is small, it is in many ways a virtual marine treasury. It rests on the edge of the barrier reef, is defined by mangroves, and is surrounded by a sea teeming with the diverse and spectacular fishes and other creatures of the sea.
The next three days were spent snorkeling in the waters near and around Tobacco Caye and visiting the Smithsonian's marine research center on Carrie Bow Caye. On various swims, the explorers were able to swim among innumerable fish of all sizes, colors, and shapes; to explore up close coral beds and mangrove lagoons and the environments they support; and to observe the nesting areas of Frigate Birds and Brown-footed Boobies.
They also explored virtually every inch of the island and met almost each and every island resident and visitor. By this time of the trip the social, adventurous, and outgoing nature of the group had become apparent, and they quickly made new friends everywhere and as the result were able to immerse themselves into the places they visited.
After several days of wide-open marine vistas, they traveled next to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary to explore the very different environment of the rainforest.
"Although we had spent some time in dense forest conditions during our stay in the savannah, we soon discovered how much more intense the world of the rainforest really is," recalls Seelinger. "We were struck by a great many phenomena - the number and variety of insects, the closeness of the forest and its canopy, the enormous size of some of the plants and trees, the inspiring symphony of bird songs at dawn and dusk, and the profound stillness of the rainforest at night after a rain shower."
During the stay they made two arduous hikes through the rainforest, closely examining the flora, and reaching spectacular overviews that afforded grand vistas of the expanse of the rainforest and Victoria Peak in the distance. They also hiked to two dramatic waterfalls and swam in their crystal clear and bracingly cold pools. In turn, the group had the opportunity to talk to one of world's foremost authorities on jaguars about his research on the elusive and majestic cats, which were the most sacred animals of the ancient Maya.
Snorkling with Sharks
For their final block of time, they returned again to the sea and spent 5 nights on Caye Caulker where they visited another monumental Maya site (Altun Ha) and spent many hours snorkeling in the company of sharks, stingrays, manatees, and a diversity and abundance of fishes that often seemed impossible to adequately describe or to readily identify.
An Opportunity to Reflect
Although their trip to Belize had been intense and the agenda aggressive, they all knew that there was much more that they would like to have explored and examined. Nevertheless, after 17 days in the field they were all tired, somewhat frayed and dirty, bitten, scratched, and bronzed by the sun. Now was an ideal time to return home, get cleaned up, and to reflect upon all they had seen.
For all, their travels had been an opportunity to learn much about another part of the world and perhaps to come back richer as a result.
Read one student's reflection on the experience
...and what she brought back.