I learnt to be more patient and easier on myself if I was having difficulties.

I am currently working on a project investigating the level of tourism in the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve (TAMR) and how it is affecting the atoll and its users. I work with a variety of stakeholders to collect information on the number of tourists, their activities, interests and the amount of physical damage to the reef in the TAMR.

My project is composed of two components, one where I conduct dive audits and the other where I interview dive masters. During the dive audits, I join dive masters and guests on their trips. I record their dive practices and other details, such as site location and ambient conditions. I additionally interview dive masters to understand their views on the uses, frequency of use and current management of the TAMR and the state of the reef. The survey was designed as a tool to assist stakeholders of the Turneffe Atoll to encourage better management of the marine reserve.

This project has turned out to be much more than I ever thought it would be.  It has evolved from being simple and static on paper to a sophisticated and complex development.

I quickly learnt that it takes time and personal interaction to build trust and to set up an efficient communication network amongst those stakeholders involved in the project. I aimed to assist the reserve rangers, TASA (Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association) and other tourism stakeholders in building the foundation of a system that they can later use to assess and manage tourism activities in the TAMR.

The thought of being responsible for strengthening the relationships amongst stakeholders often intimidated me during the initial stages of my internship. If one of the stakeholders refused to participate, I then felt that my duties were incomplete and could potentially endanger the success of the project. However, after speaking to my colleagues who work in the conservation field, I recognized that there is only so much one individual can do.  I learnt to be more patient and easier on myself if I was having difficulties. Furthermore, my supervisor has always been very supportive, helping me to overcome each hurdle I met.

Working with such a diverse group of stakeholders has enhanced my interpersonal skills and made me realize that businesses in the tourism industry may not always be willing to participate in conservation for a variety of reasons. Despite this, at the end of the day, all individuals’ livelihoods depend on the health of the reef in the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve, either indirectly or directly. I kept this thought in my head whenever working with stakeholders and used it as the main motive behind my work, especially in difficult situations.

Doing interviews with stakeholders has been an eye-opening experience. It gave me the opportunity to understand the problems, concerns and feelings dive masters have with the management of the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve. I have discovered dive masters who work in the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve are a group of passionate educators who teach thousands of individuals annually about the flora and fauna of the reef. Additionally, they are also protectors of the reef, ensuring that guests use sustainable diving practices. Working with dive masters can be difficult as they are very busy people due to the nature of their work. They normally are out the entire day diving, dealing with customers and taking care of the equipment. Therefore, I learnt to have a very flexible schedule and respect the availability of these individuals. I learnt to be more patient and understanding and to not be afraid to ask for assistance.

The last couple of months have really been a whirlwind of events. Quite honestly, I cannot believe where time has gone and that I am nearly finished my placement here. I have experienced and changed so much that sometimes I am unable to recognize myself.

Working at the Environmental Research Institute of the University of Belize has been an absolute pleasure. From the day I set foot into this establishment, I felt welcomed. I developed amazing relationships with my colleagues and they have really made my stay incredible.  They introduced me to their families, showed me around their hometowns and made me feel at home. It is one thing to explore the country as a tourist, but another to explore and experience with friends who are from the country you are exploring.  Spending time and travelling Belize with my local friends made it easier to work and adjust to life in a new country.

The cultural shock I experienced was not as sudden and apparent as when I left Barbados for the first time to study in Canada. However, Belize is a nation with a culture that shares a few similarities with Barbados. The local dialect, creole, shares similar phrases with the Bajan dialect. The laid-back mentality of people here is like that of Barbados as well.  I think the similarities between both countries allowed me to integrate easily but also made me miss home more than ever. These feelings are very difficult to put into words.

Besides similarities in culture, I have seen problems linked to tourism that I witnessed in Barbados growing up, mirrored in Belize. To be able to work with stakeholders to find solutions to these problems has given me more knowledge of how these problems came to be and what can be done to manage marine resources.

I feel very grateful to have been given such a fantastic opportunity. My interpersonal skills have drastically improved and I have learnt invaluable life lessons from some incredible individuals. Besides developing my skill set and giving me an experience that I can use as a stepping stone for my career in the field of conservation, this opportunity has provided me with a deeper understanding of problems that small coastal communities face. I wish to take what I have learned with me and make a difference in Canada and eventually Barbados.

Overall, this internship has been liberating as it pushed me to think outside the box to solve each situation for a cause much bigger than myself.  It is about preserving the Turneffe Atoll for future generations as well as preserving the livelihoods of those who work there. Most importantly, not only has this opportunity given me the ability to contribute to communities in Belize, it has given me the knowledge and practical skills to solve problems elsewhere in the world and that means the world to me.

Megan Trotman