A Great Eco-Voluntourism Experience for Solo Travel
As a world traveler, scuba diver, and Sustainability professional, I have been looking for a way to start incorporating marine conservation volunteer work with my travel and scuba diving. That’s how I found Reef CI at Tom Owens Caye. Here is how I became a marine conservation volunteer in Belize over 40 and how you can, too.
Why Reef CI?
I researched many international volunteer programs geared towards marine conservation, and as a working professional with limited vacation time, Reef CI was perfect for me because:
- It allowed me to volunteer for a week – many international volunteer programs require at least a 2-3-week time commitment (some require a minimum 2 to 6-month commitment);
- Reef CI allowed me to use and expand upon my diving skills; and
- Belize, which was on my bucket list, also has one of the largest coral reef formations in the world, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, making conservation in Belize’s coral reef system a great place to start volunteering.
Having first decided on a time of year to go (April), I allowed myself at least 6 months of time to research. I ultimately enlisted through International Volunteer HQ (“IVHQ”) as I found they had the best price and good reviews.
Grace, my IVHQ contact, was extremely helpful in the trip planning: she walked me through the thorough IVHQ’s enlisting process; her correspondence was always timely; and, she impressed me with the feeling IVHQ wanted to help me prepare for the best volunteer experience possible.
In addition to Grace, I also worked with Anthony, my U.S. Reef CI contact, who answered my many dive and Belize questions and signed me up for the PADI Coral Reef Conservation and Fish Identification Specialty courses I would take in Belize to obtain my SSI Advanced Diver certification.
Assuming I would also be much older than most in the volunteer group, Anthony logged my request for sleeping in a bungalow, not the main house, to allow me some quiet time.
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Like most, I flew in to Placencia, Belize by way of Belize City. Since you do not meet the volunteer group until Monday, it is advised to arrive Placencia at least a day early. I took the opportunity to arrive on a Saturday so I could enjoy some diving in South Water Caye and get an idea on the state of Belize’s coral reef and conservation efforts.
Come Monday, I made my way to the Hokey Pokey dock to meet the Reef CI staff and volunteer group for the one-hour boat ride to Tom Owens Caye.
Tom Owens Caye, Belize
The island itself is well maintained. The palm trees were cleared out just enough to allow sun and plenty of shade. There are also no bugs, which is a bonus. Upon arriving the island, all volunteers pitched in to help carry supplies to the main house. Sleeping assignments were then made – yes, I was accommodated a bungalow. While returning volunteers took their first dive of the week, new volunteers were given a “welcome to the island” and itinerary review, and all dive equipment was assigned for the week.
Later, the new volunteers did an introductory dive followed by a delicious meal – just one of the many you’ll have on the island. You’ll eat freshly prepared food every day, including the lion fish you kill. The cooking staff also worked within volunteers’ dietary restrictions by providing gluten-free and dairy-free meals.
Although given prior to arriving the island, the daily schedule is also posted in the main house, and the highly organized Reef CI staff follow it to a tee. It was impressive how they ran the volunteer program – juggling new with returning volunteers, to volunteers learning to dive and get certified, to those working on their Advanced Diver certifications and/or taking PADI Specialty courses. This, of course, is on top of providing daily Belizean coral reef conservation and marine life presentations and letting the volunteers partake in lion fish spearfishing, conch and lobster surveys, and coral reef and fish identifications.
These activities provide the marine conservation program information on the health of the Belizean coral reef, which is why you are ultimately there, right? No matter how busy, the Reef CI staff handled it very smoothly. And did I say friendly? The entire staff were fun to hang out with during “down” times, either playing cards, backgammon or volleyball. If you wished for alone time, you could opt to take a nap in a hammock, work on your dive course work, or just keep your dive log up-to-date.
You are told in advance that there is the possibility of no internet service on the island. Unfortunately, this happened the entire week of my stay. However, it was nice to be off the grid – it made the trip more relaxing.
Belize Scuba Diving
The scuba diving certainly did not disappoint. You dive on average 2 to 3 dives daily with each dive approximately 45 minutes in duration. Dive depths are from 30 – 80 feet, depending on your skill level, which lends to many opportunities to see amazing marine biodiversity, from sea turtles and nurse sharks, to lobster and conch (Belize’s main exports) and many fish species, including lion fish, eel and barracuda.
Not to mention how much you learn! It is an amazing opportunity to expand your Belize marine and coral reef conservation knowledge. If you’re not an experienced diver, do not let this dissuade you from trying this volunteer trip. Where else can you get certified in such a beautiful coral reef setting, not to mention for a very reasonable price?
If you are looking for a volunteer experience with fancy accommodations, then Reef CI is not for you. As I said, there may or may not be internet service. Also, the island generator shuts off for a portion of the day to save energy (but you’re in the water anyway), and fresh water usage, including showering, is kept to a minimum.
However, if you’re like me and value comfortable lodgings, in a very relaxed, beautiful setting, with the opportunity to meet like-minded people while making a positive, environmental impact for Belize to help conserve its marine life and coral reef, then this IS the place for you. I would definitely recommend taking an eco-volunteer trip to Belize, and do it through Reef CI.
All in all, I was very impressed. I would go back for sure.
For the Budget Traveler
If you are interested in getting diving certified, I recommend a program like this. For the total costs and the number of dives you get, it’s a pretty good deal.
For the Solo and Female Traveler
If you are interested in marine conservation or just like to dive, volunteering through a program like Reef CI is a great way to meet people from all over the world. When the weekly volunteering is completed, many volunteers still hang out together in Placencia before going back home or back to the island. From my trip, one of the volunteers also posted a Google share page where we all uploaded our pictures for each other. Facebook and LinkedIn connections are also bound to happen.
For the Sustainability Conscious Traveler
Eco-voluntourism is a great way to support environmental and sustainability initiatives.
Since the Belize City airport stores are full of disposables, like most airports, try bringing your own, refillable water bottle (not a throw-away plastic one) and your own utensils, at minimum, in order to reduce having to buy bottled water and use plastic utensils during your travel.
Whenever possible, download information to your smartphone or tablet to avoid printing on paper. Save a tree!
Purchase carbon-offsets when booking your airline travel.
Using public transportation, walking or biking is more eco-friendly than taking Ubers or taxis.
To protect the coral reef and marine biodiversity, many locations in Belize are banning non reef-safe sunscreen. Unfortunately, there are no places in Belize to buy reef-safe sunscreen so it is important you get it before your trip departure. Here is a list of the Best Recommended Reef-Safe Sunscreens on the Market:
- Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen Cream
- Stream2Sea SPF 30 Mineral Sunblock
- Thinksport SPF 50 Sunscreen
- All Good SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen Lotion
- Coral Safe All Natural Biodegradable Sunscreen
- Sun Bum Reef Friendly Ingredients Sunscreen
- Babo Botanicals SPF 30 Clear Zinc Lotion
- Raw Elements SPF 30 Certified Natural Sunscreen
- TropicalSport Biodegradable Mineral Sunscreen
Let Me Hear From You
I would love to hear if this marine conservation volunteer in Belize post was helpful to you. Post me your thoughts or questions in the Comment section below. Thank you!