Saturday, March 20, 2010

#1 Surrounded by people who are very good at what they do

Peter Gawne, Belize Expedition

I find myself surrounded by people who are very good at what they do.

After the customary tedium of traveling within the confines of the United States, Randi and I finally landed in Belize City. During the flight, we had met one of the other researchers, Alex, who was heading to Carrie Bow to conduct experiments surrounding mangroves and their associated insects. Alex was seated directly in the seat in front of me, and overheard a conversation about Carrie Bow Cay, and decided that the odds were in his favor that we were headed there as well. It was funny to be seated so close to someone headed for the same remote destination. In a plane filled with over one hundred passengers, we were seated within earshot of a man headed to the same small island with a maximum population of eight. Alex has an obvious passion for his work, and a quick sense of humor. I liked him instantly.

Traveling with so much scientific equipment (something the Phoenix Islands Expedition is familiar with), it was unsurprising that the prying eyes of officials in the Miami airport could not resist one last look inside our plastic trunk, packed with a tools, nets and chemicals of all varieties. We decided to wait for the entirety of our baggage, and took in some tamales at the airport. Those were some of the best tamales I have ever tasted, worlds beyond typical American airport food.

When finally our bags arrived it felt like our journey to the island was really beginning. While waiting for our seven-seat airplane to be ready, we bumped into Zach, the manager of the island. Zach exudes the confidence and competence needed to run a successful field station. He has to maintain the station and seamlessly work around the ever-changing needs and demands of a population of scientists in a small remote location. Zach has a good job, but it is far from easy. He carried with him a 100-pound inverter, which was necessary to maintain the island's solar panels. The airline was hesitant to allow an item at the weighed in at double their 50-pound allotment, but Zach was able to talk the inverter onto the plane. I am not certain what was said to allow the inverter to fly; Zach is just good at getting the job done.

After boarding the small seven-seat plane, I asked if I could sit up front with the pilot. Our Belizean pilot judged that I was not in fact a terrorist and allowed me to sit shotgun. In front of me was the mirror to the pilot's own controls, instruments, pedals and gauges; complete with steering wheel. I attempted to take a picture but the pilot muttered something to me, which made me fear that I was going to crash the plane.

Got it, no pictures.

Flying so close to the windshield of such a small plane was unnerving. On takeoff, it felt like the plane was going sideways down the runway. I just did my best to keep my hands out of the way and my feet off the pedals while the pilot flew the aircraft. He was constantly pulling levers and turning knobs as the plane flew one thousand feet over the ocean (I checked my gauges). We made a quick stop on a dirt runway to pick up a couple more passengers, bringing our passenger-count to six. Great call sitting up front. I had just survived landing on a short dirt runway, and now we had to use that same single runway to return to the air and continue onward to Dangriga. The rest of the flight proved uneventful as we landed lightly at a small airport. I watched as our pilot took us through the landing procedures. Open the flaps, nudge back the throttle, adjust the rudder, turn some unknown knobs, touch down, feather the prop, and we had landed. This guy was good.

We were immediately met with trucks to help move our gear to the docks at Pelican Beach Resort, were we would catch a boat out to Carrie Bow Cay.

Dan, a professor from the University of Maryland, was there to meet us at the docks. Dan was working on mangroves and their insects with Alex, who we met on the plane, and would also be staying on the island. Dan has proven to be insightful and wise on topics far beyond entomology to ecology, but at this point little chance was given for more than the briefest of introductions and we were shepherded onto the docks.

Wind, waves, and reef block our passage to Carrie Bow Cay.

On the docks at Pelican Beach, we met Junior who has worked the waters of Belize for his entire life, and has begun to pass down the knowledge of the local waters to his sons. Alvin, one of Junior's sons, was to be our guide through the reefs, waves and wind that stood between us and the Smithsonian field station at Carrie Bow Cay. We hopped aboard a long-slim boat with a 200hp outboard Yamaha, and our gear was loaded into the forward hold. Alvin proved to be an able guide past all of the obstacles, and a fine captain once we were crossing open water. It was rough and wet ride, so all of our sensitive equipment went to the safest and driest parts of the boat, while we were left to endure the pounding and spray of an angry ocean. Despite wind, waves, reef and approaching dark, Alvin was able to get us safely to our destination. Soaked and in good spirits, we finally set foot on a small dot of land 10 miles from the coast.

The entirety of the island consists of a handful of sparse cabins, clustered around the main research facility.

I had heard that Carrie Bow was small, but it is hard to fully visualize this tiny spot of land that juts up amidst Belize's barrier reef. A few small buildings rise from the sand, and a number of palm trees speckle the island, but there is little else there beyond that. Tomorrow there will be an island to tour, caretakers and a chef to meet, and work to commence, but for the evening it felt great to get some sleep.

Sun sets over Carrie Bow.


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