I quickly learned upon arrival that in order to thrive I would have to open myself up to relying on others.
As I’m sure many of my fellow interns remark on a daily basis, it is truly hard to believe that we are well past the halfway mark. It is amazing to think of how much I have learned in the past 3 and a half months, and almost all of what I have picked up has been due to the kindness of people I have met along the way.
As part of my placement, I am collecting and recording data on fisheries catch at the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve in Belize. The Atoll is over 1,300 square kilometers and considered an ecological hotspot for biodiversity. It contains three distinct habitats: mangrove forest, seagrass beds, and coral reef, all of which contribute to the spawning, development and maturation of commercial species, among others.
My work involves days spent weighing and measuring fish, lobster and conch on various sailboats and skiffs and at fishing camps around the Atoll, and surveying fishermen on their fishing practices. The data that I collect will be used to asses trends in catch over time and to inform future management decisions for the reserve.
I generally consider myself to be a fairly independent person. I like to figure things out for myself and likely don’t ask for help as often as I should. This is an acceptable strategy in Canada, where the environment and the culture is familiar, but I quickly learned upon arrival that in order to thrive I would have to open myself up to relying on others. While Google can get you so far, there is so much to learn when moving to a new city and a new country that asking for help is essential. Learning this has been a humbling experience in many ways, as it is somewhat outside of my comfort zone. However, the amazing thing that happens when you put your ego aside and ask for help is that almost everywhere you find people that are willing and happy to help.
This has been demonstrated to me time and time again, through friendly fishermen who patiently help me as I struggle to wrangle a live fish, kind coworkers who stop the boat for every dolphin and manatee along the way and who teach me about the ecosystems around me, or new friends who go out of their way to ensure that I am soaking up every bit of experience that Belize has to offer. I was even lucky enough to be included in a SCUBA diving course being run by my work, just by virtue of asking to participate.
Through my work I have gained a deeper appreciation of where our seafood comes from – the image of industrial fishing operations with large-scale equipment simply does not hold true here, where most of the fish, conch and lobster are caught by hand, one at a time. I have had the opportunity to see most of the Atoll and have learned about the people, the product and the environment. I have learned how to tell the sex of a lobster, how to assess the maturity of a conch, and all about the different species that make up the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The fishermen and women have taught me about the various aspects of their profession and have even let me try diving for lobster with them. Numerous times I have stopped at a fishing camp or alongside a sailboat and in addition to the data I collected I have left with snacks, treats and sometimes even a full meal, freshly caught!
I have learned about the weather patterns of the Atoll, where to sit on a boat in rough weather (hint: it’s not the very front), how to pick sea grapes, and much more. Outside of fieldwork, I have been fortunate enough to have explored so much of Belize. I have been shown how to pick and open a coconut, about the culture of the Maya people, where to buy the best noodles in Belmopan, and how to take the bus practically anywhere I care to go.
With the relentless pace at which my internship has been proceeding, I know that before long I will be back home reflecting on my time here. I am of course gaining excellent practical experience that will help me in my professional development, which I greatly value. I have had the opportunity to explore both the jungles and the coral reefs of Belize and lots in between; however, I know that beyond these experiences, I will be most grateful for the people that I have met along the way. Travelling and living abroad can at times be a very challenging experience; so much is new and unfamiliar, and unlike a vacation where a return flight is always close at hand, it can be difficult to settle in to the rhythm of life in a new place. Learning how to ask questions and seek out help, whether it be for work or for something as simple as how to send postcards, has been an unexpectedly wonderful outcome of my internship and something that I will endeavor to put into action in my day-to-day life beyond my time here in Belize.