Belize City | Friday, December 8th, 2017 | 12:30pm
Weighing in at just 8,867 square miles, one might consider Belize a light-weight country. It is roughly the size of Massachusetts - or one sixth the size of North Carolina. Yet this small, coastal nation boasts some of the most striking biological diversity in this part of the world, including 80 percent of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef - the largest reef in the northern hemisphere.
I'm not aware of any of these facts as I cram myself and my camera bags into a van outside the Belize City airport. Most of what I know about coral reefs I learned from the documentary Chasing Coral. Watching that film felt like a punch in the gut and a rallying cry - reefs need us, and they need us now. I sent an e-mail to UNC's resident coral expert, Karl Castillo, who told me to get in touch with his PhD student, Justin Baumann.
Now I'm in Belize with Justin, and we're about to spend the next 10 days transplanting hundreds of corals on the second largest reef in the world. Sometimes things just work out.
Colleen Bove, another PhD student from the UNC Department of Marine Sciences (and Justin's lovely office-mate) is also here. The three of us, assisted by our driver - a native Belizean named Dillon - load two boxes full of tools and equipment, two duffle bags full of wetsuits and scuba diving gear, and a brand new tile saw into the van.
The village of Placencia is just over 100 miles south of Belize City, but the journey down the winding Coastal Highway (which resembles what most Americans would deem a country back road) takes about four hours. It's a scenic route full of rainforest and mountains, and we make a few stops along the way - including the one establishment in the country that sells dry ice.
"We're gonna need more of this," Justin says as he carefully packs the solid carbon dioxide into his cooler. He's planning to transport 12 coral fragments from Belize back to his lab in Chapel Hill and keeping them cold - especially in this warm, humid climate - is a tricky challenge.
About half an hour outside Belize City, Dillon pulls to the side of the road, jumps out of the van, and returns a minute later carrying bags of large golden plums sprinkled with homemade pepper sauce. Each crunchy bite is a kick in the mouth that helps resuscitate me from my travel-induced stupor - we've been awake since 4am but we're in good spirits.
When a cop stops us at a check point, Dillon rolls down the window, fist bumps him, and they chat for a few minutes.
“I went to school with him,” he says, chuckling. "In a country this small, everyone knows everyone."
We drive into Placencia just after the sun goes down. In the twilight, we can make out a small, colorful town that doesn't feel overly touristy - just warm and welcoming.
At dinner, we order lion fish tacos and cheap cocktails. Clinking our glasses together, we toast to a good start to the trip. Before today, I have met Justin and Colleen only briefly, but traveling (especially internationally) is the quickest way to get to know people. I talk about my experiences working with marine scientists in the Galápagos, and Justin and Colleen share stories from field work trips to Florida, Panama, and of course Belize. We talk about the merits of eating lion fish (an invasive species), and the best people we know at UNC (including an impassioned discussion about how awesome Jaye Cable is.)
Exactly one hour after dinner, we are all sound asleep - exhausted but happy to be here.
The next day, drizzling rain and choppy ocean conditions cancel our plans to dive and collect corals at False Caye. Lisa and Franco, our partners at Fragments of Hope, drive us to Lisa's house - where we'll be cutting, labeling, weighing, and recording data on all the corals we collect. While Justin and Franco set up the tile saw, Lisa voices concerns about the weather. The forecast doesn't look good - but the weather changes constantly around here. Justin, Colleen, and I exchange nervous glances. We have a lot of work to do, and we really need the weather to cooperate.
After setting up our work station, we return to our hotel room to deal with a massive amount of plastic.
"I never use plastic," Justin says as he zip ties a label to a small plastic disk that will hold a coral sample. "I hate using so much of it in field work. This is more plastic than I've used in the past two years!"
We set up a bit of an assembly line. Justin and Colleen attach the tags, then I secure them with glue, and cut off the ends of the zip ties. We do this hundreds of times.
"Have you ever had the thought that you've done something - some menial task - more than anyone else on the planet?" Justin asks.
"Mine is zip-tying things to other things," he says automatically. "And zip-tying things underwater. I feel like I've done that more than I've done anything else in my life."
When we finally finish, I ask Justin some questions about the coral species we're planning to collect. Siderastrea siderea (massive starlet coral) and Pseudodiploria strigosa (symmetrical brain coral) are both major reef builders, and some of the most resilient species in the Caribbean.
His recent research shows these two corals grow faster near shore – a surprising finding since near-shore environments tend to have the hottest water temperatures and the greatest risk of excess nutrients and sediments – all of which impede coral growth.
"Why is that happening? That’s the basic question," Justin explains. "Have the near-shore corals adapted to the rougher conditions? Or are we just not thinking about it the right way? Could they be getting some sort of benefit living nearshore? Either way, are these qualities transferable? Can we move a coral from offshore to nearshore and have it adapt?"
Once we get the corals transplanted, Justin will spend the next year monitoring them in hopes of answering some of these questions.
On Sunday, I wake up at 5:30am and jog down the beach, scrutinizing the cloudy skyline. At 6:15, the sun bursts through the clouds – it's going to be a beautiful day.
Time to go to work.