Bay Islands - Schools Expeditions - Operation Wallacea

Bay Islands – Schools Expeditions

Expedition to learn to dive and assist a team of researchers collect data at two sites in the Bay Islands. Students will spend a week at each site, based on Utila and Roatan islands

Key Facts:

  • The Roatan Marine Park is considered one of the best examples of community-based conservation management in the Caribbean, and is home to abundant fish and turtle populations
  • Conservation Initiatives are focused on restoring populations of a keystone sea urchin species, and managing threats from the invasive lionfish
  • People living on the Bay Islands are economically reliant on dive tourism, therefore protecting the reefs is a conservation priority
  • Although they they are a Spanish speaking country, English is actually the main language

Expedition background and research objectives

The Bay Islands region is made up of eight large islands and 53 smaller islets found at the southern extent of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (MAR) in the Western Caribbean. The MAR is the second largest barrier reef in the world and stretches 1000 km along the coast of Central America from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, through the coastal waters of Belize and Guatemala, and down to the Bay Islands, which lie 15-60 km off the coast of mainland Honduras. The three main islands of the region are Utila, Roatan and Guanaja, and after a long and complicated history of settlement, they were assimilated into the British Empire under the protection of British Honduras (now Belize) in 1852. After being pressured by the United States, who were worried that Britain had too much control over the region, the Bay Islands were surrendered to the Republic of Honduras in 1861. The Bay Island’s colourful history has created an ethnic and linguistic melting-pot, and has left most of the local population speaking an English-Spanish hybrid decorated with smatterings of local dialects.

The economy of the Bay Islands is reliant on the burgeoning tourist industry, and annual visitor numbers have increased from about 15,000 in the early 1990s to >800,000 in 2010. Annually, tourists are estimated to bring ca. $55 million to the region, which is not only important for the local economy of the islands, but also for the rest of Honduras. The coral reefs of the Bay Islands are among the healthiest found in the Caribbean today, and most visitors to the area are attracted by the prospect of diving and snorkelling among healthy corals, and large and diverse fish populations. While the Bay Islands have enjoyed an economic boom in recent years, increased tourist numbers, coupled with a resident population currently expanding at a rate of 8% per year, have put a large ecological and environmental strain on the area’s coral reef systems.

Operation Wallacea research teams have been working in the Bay Islands since the mid-2000s, establishing an annual monitoring programme to assess patterns of decline in ecosystem health and identify drivers that may be mitigated through the implementation of conservation management strategies. There are many core environmental and conservation issues affecting reefs throughout the Caribbean including the decline of sea urchin populations which has stimulated increased macroalgal growth and associated decreases in hard coral cover, the invasion of the non-native lionfish which has expanded throughout the region and is wreaking havoc at lower trophic levels, and the catastrophic overharvesting of fish populations by local communities. Over the last few years, the Bay Islands has become Operation Wallacea’s flagship site in the Caribbean and researchers have been working on the development of new technologies, such as stereo-video surveying of fish populations and 3D modelling of reef architecture, which have the potential to revolutionise our understanding of coral reef ecology, not only in the Caribbean, but also on a global scale.

Structure of the expedition

Week One

The Bay Islands expedition is a marine only project based on the islands of Utila and Roatan. Students who are not yet dive trained will spend the first week of their expedition completing their Open Water SCUBA diving certification supervised by qualified PADI dive instructors, and participating in the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology lecture series. Those who are already qualified to dive, or opt to snorkel, will complete the same Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology lectures series, which will be supplemented with a variety of land and water-based practicals designed to introduce students to coral reef biology and ecology and the survey techniques used by coral reef scientists.

  • PADI Open Water: this combines several theory classes, confined water sessions and open water dives to provide students with a SCUBA diving qualification that will remain with them for life.
  • Topics in the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology course include:
    • Introduction to marine environments
    • Diversity of coral reefs
    • Identification of key taxonomic groups
    • Mangroves and seagrasses
    • Threats to Caribbean coral reefs
    • Conservation initiatives

Week Two

For the second week of their expedition students will move site and assist our scientists with their data collection across a variety of research projects, including:

  • Underwater Visual Census (UVC): this standardised survey technique gives students the opportunity to use the ID skills gained from the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology course to assess the abundance and diversity of fish populations in the study system.
  • Line intercept video surveys: students will use videographic techniques to film benthic transects in-water. Videos will then be uploaded and analysed back on land to quantify the relative abundances of key benthic components, including hard and soft corals, macroalgae and sponges.
  • Macro-invertebrate belt transects: students swim in a zig-zag pattern 1m either side of a 50m long transect to create a survey area of 100m2. All macro-invertebrates encountered within this area are recorded, including abundances of the keystone herbivore Diadema antillarum (the long-spined sea urchin).
  • 3D modelling: using single GoPro cameras, students will film 2x2m benthic quadrats. The video can then be uploaded and manipulated to create a 3D model of the underlying reef architecture from which key measures of habitat structure are calculated. These data can be used in conjunction with those collected on the biodiversity surveys to identify the drivers of abundance and diversity in the study system.
  • Lionfish dissection: fortunately, lionfish are relatively rare around the Bay Islands as culling programmes implemented by the well-established dive industry have kept their numbers low. However, students may have the opportunity to work with lionfish scientists to dissect individuals and gather key data pertaining to their stomach contents, sex and level of maturity. All these data are important for assessing the efficacy of grass-roots culling initiatives throughout the Caribbean.
  • Urchin biometrics: D. antillarum will be removed from the reef and brought back to site where key biometric information, such as weight, test (body) diameter, mouth diameter, and length of longest spine, will be recorded. These biometrics will support the in-water abundance data and provide key information about the underlying health of the urchin populations.

Throughout the second week, students will meet regularly with Operation Wallacea scientists who will give talks about the specifics of their research projects. Alongside the educational courses and surveys, students will be expected to complete an independent research project over the course of their two-week expedition and will present their findings to the group at the end of their second week.

Site descriptions and facilities

Roatan

The Roatan Marine Park (RMP) was established as a grass-roots conservation initiative in 1988 and has grown to become one of the best examples of a marine protected area in the Caribbean. Restrictions placed on the activities allowed within the RMP have facilitated recovery of previously damaged fish populations, and high abundances of a wide variety of fish with large biomass are now frequently encountered. Students will stay at Half Moon Bay Resort in air-conditioned dorm rooms of 6-12 people, which is an approximately 10-minute walk from the centre of West End; a sleepy tourist town where there are opportunities to purchase souvenirs and ice creams! All dive, snorkelling and classroom activities happen on site at Half Moon Bay Resort, and there is a fantastic swimming area just in front of the restaurant.

Utila

For many years, the charming island of Utila has enjoyed the reputation of being ‘the’ place to dive in the Caribbean, and in the decade since our project was established there it has become the hub of marine research for Operation Wallacea. Accommodation is provided by Coral View Beach Resort, located a short walk outside of the bustling Utila town. A maximum of eight students will share air-conditioned dorm rooms with en-suite facilities, and all meals are provided by sunny Coral View staff in the communal dining room. Learning to dive is made easy with the use of the resorts salt-water pool for confined training, and access to the house reef is via the sun-deck directly located in front of the main building – a great place to spend surface intervals!