In September of last year, an email appeared in my inbox from an acquaintance outlining the details of an all-expense paid internship abroad. After reading about MUN’s IYIP program and the potential host organizations, I was convinced that this was an opportunity not to be passed up (because how many times do you find a promising internship online, which fits your qualifications and interests, only to be disappointed upon discovering that there is a cost of “X” amount of dollars – which is money that you just don’t have as a recent grad who has likely accumulated an impressive amount of student debt). Initially, I was drawn to various positions at each host organization; however, the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute (UB ERI) in particular captured my attention. This in part was due to the incredibly positive blog posts about learning opportunities, lifestyle, and overall experience. I set my sights and sent in my application.

I have been in Belize for almost three months now, as the Fisheries Resource Management Intern. I am lucky to be accompanied by three other like-minded IYIP interns; Hannah, Helena, and Krysta, who have become my friends, housemates, source of entertainment, and weekend adventure companions. Our host organization, UB ERI, is located in Belmopan – Belize’s lesser-known capital city. Although off the radar of most tourists, it is a city filled with green space, university students, and serves as a central hub for exploring the rest of Belize. We live just a 5 minutes’ walk from most amenities, including grocery stores, restaurants, laundromat, and work. Our schedule is simple, and I have found it easy to get into a routine here. We wake up early on Tuesday’s to get produce at the market, and enjoy relaxed evenings cooking, jogging around “Ring Road”, or enjoying a Belikin beer at the cevicheria while leaving plenty of time to participate in Belize’s favourite past time: hammock-ing. Oh, and eating fried dough, lots and lots of bean-filled fried dough.

A short-cut through the neighborhood on our daily walk to work

Before departing home, I was gifted with the Lonely Planet’s guide to Belize. I sat on the couch and read it front to back during Christmas break. The more I learnt, the more my excitement built. I found it peculiar how the guide described directions within the country. For example: “take any southbound bus, get the driver to stop on the side of the highway around mile 16, walk down the side road, continue past the graveyard, past the fence, and turn north. Here you will find so and so’s restaurant. If the owner is not to be found – take a quick walk through town and ask around”. Back home, this just wouldn’t suffice. But in a small country with a corresponding small population, there’s little need for street addresses and Google maps. If you take a wrong turn, well, just take the next turn, and you will likely end up where you meant to go in the first place.

During my research binge, I also learnt that although Belize is bordered by Spanish speaking countries, English is the official language due to their history as a former British colony. And although you’re unlikely to meet someone who is entirely unfamiliar with the English language, it is not actually the dialect spoken in majority at home or during casual conversation. Each district in Belize is made up of a combination of cultures and languages, such as Mayan, Garifuna, Spanish, Creole and Mennonites. At this time, I am not fluent in any of these languages, but my understanding of Creole is improving each day. Furthermore, in pursuit of finding a creative outlet here, I have discovered a mutual unspoken language: the art of ballet. After introducing myself to the owner of a dance studio just steps from my house, I was invited to teach weekly ballet classes to students age 8 – 14. Fortunately, differences in terminology, pronunciation, and teaching styles do not prevent the students from gaining valuable experience and has reinforced an idea that has been made clear to me throughout my travels: Ballet truly is a universal language.

As I get to know each district of Belize, during weekends, holidays, and trips to the field station, it is clear to me that this country has the best of both ocean and jungle. Over 50% of the land is protected and many national organizations work to ensure that these pristine ecosystems will be preserved and managed suitably. Short travel distances have made it easy for us interns to take weekend trips, often with the kind help and friendly company of our coworkers. So far, we have visited San Pedro, Caye Caulker, San Ignacio, Hopkins, and Placencia. A standout for me personally has been the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary – a web of nature trails, waterfalls, and secluded camping grounds. A night atop Tiger Fern Trail brings bonfires, Howler monkeys, and a view of Belize’s tallest peak in the distance. Morning brings the song of toucans as the sun clears thick clouds that have gathered on the jungle below. With no shortage of forest preserves and quiet coastal areas, I look forward to spending more weekends like this during the coming months.

Tiger Fern campsite in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Xunantunich Maya Ruin in San Ignacio. Climb to the top for a view of Guatemala

Back in Belmopan, our work schedule is a standard 8 to 5 Monday to Friday, yet it is hardly repetitive. My fellow co-workers keep days at the office lively and enjoyable. I spend time analyzing data, practicing my fish ID, creating infographics for distribution or scientific posters for conferences, and preparing for outreach events on campus. That being said, the highlight of our job is the Calabash Caye Field Station. Located within the remote Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve (TAMR), this internship requires that I stay at the field station for about 2 weeks per month. Mainly, I am responsible for performing catch monitoring surveys, during which I join the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA) rangers on their daily patrols. We stop at each boat and ask fishers to provide a sample of catch onboard, which we then measure, weigh, and ID. I also take time to educate fishers on current conservation initiates and discuss how we can incorporate their wealth of traditional and historic knowledge into our project. The conversations I have had with fishers solidifies the importance of two-way communication between policymakers or enforcement officials and stakeholders. Face to face interactions involving researchers, conservationists, and fishers deepens the understanding of all parties in terms of the importance of this work and allows stakeholders to express concerns that will inform management decisions and shape the future of the reserve.

Catch Monitoring surveys with TASA. Spot the fisher free diving for conch

Although each IYIP intern at UB ERI has distinct responsibilities and varying workload, we are all part of the overarching Coastal Resilience Program and are encouraged to lend a helping hand with each project as needed, under a variety of supervisors. If I had to pick one piece of advice for future interns, I’d say: in order to make the most of a placement with UB ERI, you must remain flexible, and come prepared for any scenario. When headed to Calabash Field Station, be organized and pack any gear you can get your hands on. That way, if plans change, you can make yourself available and are able to take advantage of all learning opportunities.

Sunset dive at Turneffe Atoll in search of snapper spawning aggregations

My time here thus far has been a whirlwind of new experiences, through which I have learnt just how capable I am of integrating into a new environment with the added pressure of a new job and a short six-month timeframe. If given an opportunity like such, be sure to bring your energy, enthusiasm, and plenty of sunscreen.

Hailey Shchepanik