Reef Conservation International trips are a unique experience! ReefCI gives you the opportunity to learn about reef ecosystems and help conserve and protect the reef by directly helping us with our marine conservation programs all while having a fun holiday/vacation!
People coming on this type of volunteer experience all have a shared passion for diving and ocean conservation, which makes for great group dynamics. Our trips are for both experienced and non-experienced divers and those wishing to become certified divers. Everyone contributes regardless of their background and experience. The research methodologies we teach are very simple and straight forward and you can learn all you need to know in our training sessions prior to the dives. Our volunteers help ReefCI make meaningful environmental contributions towards the reef and go home much happier and better divers.
Marine Conservation Projects
We have several ongoing marine conservation projects underway at Reef Conservation International. Hence, each week/day will differ but you will be helping in many of the following ongoing projects:
Invasive Lionfish population monitoring and control (spearing and dissecting Lionfish)
Queen Conch surveys
Commercial fish surveys
Reef health surveys – ReefCI check & coral watch
Whale shark monitoring (if spotted)
Coral reef bleaching and bio-diversity dives
Depending on the season and ocean conditions you might not take part in all of these activities above but it is a good bet that you will experience most of them.
Calling all apex predators! Our lionfish program focuses solely on hunting, spearing, and eradicating this invasive species.
People often feel that “releasing” a fish or any other animal into the wild is a good thing, but not in the case of the lionfish! The initial source of the lionfish invasion can be pinpointed to personal aquarium releases in Florida back in 1985, probably by people whose lionfish were getting too big for the tank or eating the other fish. Lionfish are indigenous to the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Red Sea but not the Atlantic-Caribbean belt. In their natural habitat, they have a diet that is not a threat to the environment; there are many more varieties of species and they have natural predators to keep their numbers in check. However, in the Atlantic-Caribbean oceans they are an invasive predator, feeding on species that are key to our healthy reef environment such as juvenile groupers, parrotfish and crustaceans. These native species have no evolutionary defence mechanism against the invasive lionfish.
Lionfish are voracious predators and consume juvenile fish recruits. In thirty minutes one lionfish was observed eating more than twenty fish!! ReefCI found a lionfish with a Blue Chromis in its stomach, the Lionfish measured 18cm and the Blue Chromis measured 9cm! That is half its body size in one mouthful! It’s like a human being eating a sheep in one gulp!!
Most fish species spawn once or twice a year over maybe a two-month period during the full moon. Lionfish release their eggs every 4 days!! They can release up to 20,000 eggs. They do not release the eggs until they are fully developed making the chance of survival much higher. This means they reproduce at an alarming rate. They reach sexual maturity in less than 1 year! And they can live until they are around 15 years old!
The invasive lionfish is one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of coral reefs and fisheries habitat throughout the Caribbean. Scientists are predicting that lionfish will have a grave impact on Belize’s already stressed stocks of fish and lobster and could spell potential disaster to our marine habitats.
What will you be doing?
Hunting and spearing the invasive lionfish!! Here in Southern Belize, we at ReefCI spotted our first lionfish in November 2009 but they were few and far between. Now we are spotting them on every dive and sometimes as many as 50-100 at one dive site. This is a dramatic increase and extremely worrying as we are the only divers in the area. ReefCI divers and snorkelers are actively involved in removing this invasive lionfish from Belizean waters. You will be spearing as many as you can!! So, for once in your life you can do something that is banned in most marine parks and go spear a fish! Great fun! After capture, we dissect some of the fish and study their stomach contents for research purposes. Then we eat! ReefCI guests often get lionfish on the dinner menu, cooked in garlic and black pepper or ceviche, they are extremely tasty.
ReefCI is currently supplying local restaurants with the lionfish we spear. We are giving them lionfish to include on their menus to introduce lionfish as a food source and to increase awareness of this problem amongst restaurant customers!! Lionfish ceviche, lionfish fish cakes, and fried whole lionfish are all delicious to eat. ReefCI is also working with local Belizean women to help them make jewellery from the spines and fins. We give them the sun-dried fins and spines and then buy the jewellery from the women and make them available for purchase.
We are extremely proud of our battle against the invasive and destructive lionfish. ReefCI is removing more lionfish and collecting more data on lionfish than any other organization in the country of Belize. ReefCI staff and guests are on target to remove over 7,000 lionfish this year alone and dissect 1,585 for research purposes!
Release your inner predator! Please join us in the fight to save the reef from this invasive species!
The Caribbean Spiny Lobster is a high commercial value species throughout the Caribbean. Over the past few decades the populations have been seriously depleted due to an increase in overfishing. In many countries in the Caribbean there are now open and closed seasons. The closed season is normally when the females are ready to release their eggs into the water column. During the closed season in Belize (February-June), lobsters are banned from fishing and from restaurant menus.
Together with the Belize Department of Fisheries, ReefCI monitors the population of lobsters in the patch reefs (where the fishermen are most likely to retrieve lobsters by free diving), as well as the deep waters on the continental shelf. The surveys conducted in the shallow patch reefs give an idea of the density of lobsters in the region. The primary reason for surveying the continental shelf is to gain the male to female ratios and number of females carrying eggs. There are several specific locations where female lobsters gather to release their eggs. These biologically important locations require protection in order to sustain the lobster populations.
What will you be doing?
The lobster survey is conducted using the rover diver technique. We go down in groups of about 6 divers with the person at the bottom of the line at about 25m and the person at the top of the line on the top of the wall. Two people carry slates and a measuring stick. We move along the wall at the same pace for about 100 metres. Each lobster must be coaxed out of its hole using the measuring stick. First we ascertain what sex the lobster is, then we measure the total length and tail length and if the lobster is a female we look to see if she is carrying eggs. We do the same for about another 100m on the top of the wall with the deepest diver moving to the top of the line and the person who was on the top remaining where they were.
Queen Conch Surveys
The queen conch is a large marine mollusk whose scientific name strombus gigas means giant spiral shell. After mating, which occurs July to October, females lay long egg masses with about half a million embryos, although as in the case of most marine organisms, the older and larger the conch becomes the more eggs it can produce. It takes about three to five years for the queen conch to become fully mature and be considered an adult. Within three years, the conch can grow up to two pounds in weight and eight inches in length. The average shell length will increase about three inches per year in its active growing stage. The adult conch can be identified by its heavy shell which has a flattened flare on one end. Therefore, the older the conch gets, the thicker its shell will be. A conch can live up to forty years if it is not harvested by its main predator during its adult stage, humans.
Conch has been overfished in Belize because of its high commercial value. There is much debate as to whether conch is breeding in the shallow or deep waters. Theories have suggested that both are true. Increasing numbers of conch are being forced into the deep to breed because of the increase of fishing pressure.
ReefCI is working with John Ciglioni, a scientist from Cedar Crest College, Pennsylvania USA, and contributing to a paper that he is writing on the Queen Conch. To monitor the migration paths, breeding patterns and populations of these species, a number of plastic cable ties with individual numbers on have been placed around each conch, and every subsequent observation is recorded. This may indicate not only the migration patterns of conch between different depths it can also record the directional migration patterns associated with the anticlockwise currents. By regularly diving in the area, ReefCI has been able to locate two important new breeding grounds, this is of particular importance to John because he can only come to the area once or twice a year, making it extremely difficult to locate new breeding grounds.
What will you be doing?
Divers go down in buddy pairs to a sandy area where there is a large conch population. One buddy has some calipers and a slate and the other a large measuring device and some tags. We record the lip thickness (this determines age and sexual maturity), size of spiral, size of conch, habitat, depth and tag number. When the tagging project is completed, we conduct several conch survey dives each week throughout the year where we locate the conch and note the number and location.
All of the information assimilated for this project is allowing us to map out the key biologically important areas of the Marine Reserve, in terms of conch populations and activity. During 2010 the Belizean government implemented no take zones in the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. The numbers of conch in the shallow waters are already on the increase, which in turn are increasing the numbers of species that feed on them such as the Spotted Eagle Ray.
EcoMar Coral Watch (Coral Bleaching and Data Collection)
ReefCI supports and contributes to the Meso-American Coral Reef Watch Program, an organization developed by the marine conservation group, ECOMAR. The program was launched in 2008 in Belize, Mexico, and Honduras as an early warning alert system for coral bleaching in the region.
The goal of the program is to raise awareness among stakeholders – marine guides, visitors, non-governmental organizations and government departments – on the increasing impacts climate change may have on the delicate balance that exists on tropical coral reefs.
Once aware of the conditions inherent of a natural and healthy reef; guides, visitors and park rangers can submit regular reports on the conditions of the reefs so that changes over time can be measured.
Climate change is a reality and its effects on our oceans are clear. The program monitors levels of coral bleaching of stony corals. As sea temperatures rise during the later summer months, the corals begin to get stressed and first become pale, then turn partially white, and then if the sea temperatures remain too warm for too long the entire coral colony can become completely white.
Corals can exhibit varying levels of resistant to increasing sea temperatures. What makes corals in certain areas of the reef resistant to the impacts of climate change can be repeated stress from locally warmer waters or sediment-laden run-off. The corals in these areas have acclimatized to these conditions and become resilient. The acroporid corals – elkhorn and staghorn – that are growing on the reef now are believed to be resilient to our warming seas.
What will you be doing?
Divers go down in buddy pairs with Coral Watch slates and look for affected brain/cactus, branching/pillar, boulder/mound, flower and lettuce/sheet corals. The divers note the type of bleaching from paling, partially bleached to completely bleached. The water depth and the water temperature are also noted. This is a great way to learn about corals and about the different types of bleaching and disease. Everyone says that these surveys change the way that they dive and makes them appreciate the health of the reef.
ReefCI Check (Reef Habitat Surveys and Fish and Coral Identification Dives)
Our ReefCI team has developed a coral reef monitoring protocol that is more focused on the unique marine ecosystem of southern Belize. Still employing simple techniques that non-scientific divers can easily master, we aim to collect scientifically robust data allowing us to monitor and report on our coral reefs health. ReefCI Check is a comprehensive assessment of the health of coral reefs. We have fine tuned the “indicator species” observed based on the ecological and economical value and sensitivity to anthropogenic disturbances, specific to the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. A new aspect to our methodology is counting the male and female Parrot fish, while still including Groupers, Surgeon fish, Butterfly fish, Grunts, Snappers, and the invasive Lionfish. Invertebrates, coral bleaching/disease, trash and coral damage will be recorded and the substrate composition thoroughly mapped.
What will you be doing?
The Team Scientist or Team Leader lays the 100m transect line. There are three buddy teams; including one for fish, one for invertebrates and one for substrates. The fish survey is conducted first in order to avoid fish being disturbed prior to the survey. One buddy times whilst the other counts the indicator fish in 5 metre cube areas for 1.5 minutes. This is then repeated along the line. The next team surveys invertebrates with one buddy on each side of the line. They count the invertebrates inside a 2.5 metre width on each side of the transect line. This requires looking under rocks and ledges and into holes in order to find the species. The 3rd team counts the substrates. One buddy has a plumb line with a small weight on the end; the diver drops the line onto markings at each 50cm (.05m) interval and gives a hand sign to their buddy who then records the data onto a slate. The Team Scientist conducts a site description which includes any coral damage, anchor damage, disease etc. Some of the fascinating marine life you will encounter along the way includes whale sharks and lobsters.
Project AWARE Whale Shark Project
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, they grow up to 14m (46ft), weighing up to 15 tons! They are migratory creatures and it has been estimated that they may live up to 100-150 years old! They eat plankton and small fish and are harmless to people. Diving with whale sharks in Belize is one of the most rewarding experiences when you are diving in the Caribbean.
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef in Belize attracts one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. Whale shark season/migration in Belize runs March-June; however, we do spot them year-round. The presence of the whale sharks is dependent on the health of the spawning fish aggregations. ReefCI actively participate in working on the spawning fish in the area.
Like many of its shark relatives, whale sharks are in decline and they may soon face extinction if we don’t act now. Whale sharks’ gentle nature makes them an easy fisheries target for meat and fins, highly valued in the international shark fin trade.
The Project AWARE Whale Shark Project engages divers and snorkelers in whale shark data collection efforts in partnership with the UK based Shark Trust. The Whale Shark Sightings Database allows volunteers to report their sighting information online. This public, photo identification database supports photo and sighting data comparisons by scientists, researchers, and others interested in preserving this vulnerable species. Photographic identification is a powerful non-invasive technique for studying shark life histories and movement in their natural environment. This is especially important for a highly migratory species like the Whale Shark.
What will you be doing?
Nobody can guarantee a Whale Shark encounter however; if you are lucky enough to experience a Whale Shark you must record as much information as possible, and take photos (without a flash). Displaying a myriad of pale blue spots and stripes, each whale shark has its own unique pattern. Divers and snorkelers are asked to photograph and make notes about each whale shark’s individual skin pattern, size and other identifying factors. Following each sighting, divers will be asked to submit the sightings data and images to an online database.
In order to participate in the Whale Shark project, you must pledge to follow the Whale Shark code of conduct. If you would like to learn more about the Project AWARE Whale Shark Project, please follow the link to the Project AWARE website:
“All I kept thinking was ‘where, where?’ and then all of a sudden, a large shadow, about 45ft in length, mimicking a torpedo upright in the water was there, in front of us. Sunlight was twinkling around its outline, like some sort of halo. And it took my breath away. There she was mouth wide open, feeding on all the little fries that were unlucky enough to be trapped on the surface. The crazy tuna swimming frenziedly below and the squawking gulls attacking above could not steal away the magnificence of this fish.” Aachal
“The whalesharks were an amazing experience, it was truly incredible and I was completely speechless throughout. I couldnt have asked for a better way to spend a month.” Becky
Please note that not all of the following surveys/activities are guaranteed to be part of your specific standard conservation program trip. Some are seasonal and/or are dependent upon length of your trip, dive experience, and numbers of participants.
ReefCI is a fantastic way to experience real world conservation efforts, while having great fun! You will get hands-on experience for marine conservation work and gain real world insight on what it is like to actually work in the field of marine conservation. You can even shadow our two Marine Biologists while with us and soak up as much from them as possible. It would be a great learning experience for you and help inform you on your possible career choices.
The only real difference between our regular volunteers and our long term (internship) volunteers is the length of time you stay with us. Typically, we find our long-term volunteers/interns tend to be one of three types:
1.) gap year students interested in a marine biology career
2.) college students majoring in the field of marine biology taking off a semester or two to get hands-on experience to bolster their resume
3.) working professionals who are exploring other career options like marine biology or possibly working as a professional diver.
Our long term (4 weeks plus) volunteers in essence become one of the staff. They often help with the following during their extended stay…
Leading volunteers in ReefCI projects
Facilitating Caribbean reef fish identification
Teaching coral reef surveying techniques
Collecting data on coral reef survey
Spearfish training and diving for removal of lionfish
Lionfish dissection lead and data analysis
Maintaining snorkel, dive, and kayak equipment
Helping out in other areas when required
Coordinating and leading marine conservation dives (if qualified)