Researching Dolphins in Belize

Special Note

IMG_8002If you’ve found this page and are about to read my Journey, I’m glad and I hope you enjoy it. But I want you to know that it is not written for you. What happens in this Journey stems from a life-changing decision I made awhile ago, and many of the conversations that led up to my decision happened on Wayward Wind, including the idea for Windy’s arrival in my life is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me, and I won’t forget what I’ve learned since, nor change this trajectory as a result. So, this journey of me producing a Journey is a bit different… This story is a rare blend of my personal adventures and professional quest in media production. It is for the future Jess, whoever she is and wherever she might be.


The Other Ninety-Nine Percent

The idea hit me on the morning of Day 4, as we immediately stopped my how-to-drive-a-dinghy class to throw on our snorkeling gear and find the manatee that had just surfaced for air. Together with a GoPro in 8 feet of Belize’s famous Caye Caulker turquoise waters, we swam to the manatee and I filmed my friend touching it briefly. I came here to live and work on his beautiful sailboat for a month, and to complete my data analysis for graduate school. Yet, as he later said on Day 20, while quietly motoring the Love Bug dinghy along the edge of a mangrove bogue so we could get B-roll of the distinctive root systems, even though I came here to conduct research on the research conducted on dolphins in this area, I found the meaning of life instead.

I asked Jason how it felt when he touched the manatee. “I dunno, like old carpet.” I thought I knew what my mission to Belize was, or at least I knew that it was going to be more than just researching and writing my Journey passages for grad school. But maybe I really did not know. I’m not sure where the all of the lines between learning and teaching are, where it all ends or begins, or where this journey will continue to take me. All I know is that, for 24 magical days, I had to be exactly where I was, sailing as sole crew through southern Belize and Mexico waters. Welcome to my journey. As my friend said on Day 1, we have all of the time in the world, and it’s going to go by in a flash.

Photo Gallery


J is for Job

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
~Albert Einstein

I want to connect science and education through media. For a decade, I’ve attempted to gear my career toward that sentence. So, I write Journeys, or interactive reading passages, for secondary science students based on my travels and research conducted on, by and with scientists and their endeavors. That’s my capstone thesis project for graduate school. During my travels, I curate the content for these Journeys by meeting scientists and translating their work into current media. The timing is opportune because the Next Generation Science Standards are new and people need people like me to produce new quality media in order to meet NGSS’s rigor and relevance. I changed my entire life to pursue this dream, or rather my entire life changed as a result of it.

It all started last summer when I was studying dolphins on a sailboat in Greece and invented the “JOURNEY” structure for these reading passages. A friend helped me write at first about Grecian dolphins, but then quickly changed the location and returned dolphin-related material on… Belize. I never really understood the switch, but took the generosity of a friend’s contribution, ran with it, and sure enough it worked. Belize it was. March created a unique window of opportunity to bring my research directly to the brilliant Barrier Reef. Coincidentally, it was where my friend Jason and his sailboat were located as well. I could be in my living room typing away on a desktop, or in Windy’s beautiful cockpit, happily clicking away on a laptop, as long as I was willing to work for my way. Seemed like a win win.

IMG_6819What I did not realize, however, was that school did not stop with the last semester of my online Masters of Science in Science Education program with Montana State University. Sure, I knew I’d learn about crew life on a boat; that’s a lot, right? But as of that moment when we jumped off Windy’s Love Bug, I was immersed in a complete education on sailing and the other 99% of knowledge that has nothing to do with being under sail. Boat repair and maintenance, navigation, fish and wildlife identification, scuba, spear-fishing, water filtration and head procedures, weather and storm procedures, filming and technology challenges, and the never-ending crew duties in cooking, cleaning, and the prioritization of time management. Not to mention all of the biology, chemistry and physics that comes with living and working on a sailboat with a 6’ draft, in the world’s second largest and extremely shallow Barrier Reef, with the friendliest and smartest person I know.

IMG_7087A quick note about that. Any one of us could know everything there is to know about one thing, maybe it’s pressure or flying or weather, and that would result in approximately a five-minute conversation with Jason. That one thing that you thought you knew so well is just one of the things he already knows and has demonstrated skills in, or at least attempted and likely had a better result than in your years of previous expertise. Not overwhelming at all… especially in close quarters for weeks as a clumsy sailor on a very humbling journey. What he understands, and what I now believe, is that one must use and apply all scientific knowledge, all of the time, in order to complete tasks necessary to live. With a smile to boot. It’s boat life. One second you’re fileting a speared fish while discussing its anatomy, the next you’re doing Oceanography homework while looking up tide tables for safe times to approach a marina, and the next spontaneously meeting other sailors discussing navigation. That’s not even counting what passages and open water days are like. All of this while documenting it all with fantastic technology (including my trusted Beagle notebook and a single Bic Crystal black ink pen). Nothing is ever done, but everything is done well. It has to be. Call it multi-tasking or single-tasking (whichever, I’ve given up trying to categorize this concept and now just call it all-tasking), yet synthesizing knowledge and skills into completing unending and unimaginable, albeit fun, tasks is what Jason does. Practical learning at its best.

The J in the Journey reading passage structure stands for Job. Using the research requirements for students represented in the Next Generation Science Standards as inspiration, I want the Job section to be where students immediately understand the relevance of a current problem in science, and model the objective similar to what scientists are currently doing in the field. Just like solving a problem on the boat. In the case of Researching Dolphins, my first Journey, I decided on Day 2 to change the focus, resulting in the students’ task is to create a report for the Belizean government on the affects of surging tourism on marine mammal populations, particularly dolphins, and to solve problems associated with any adverse effects.

IMG_0117In my own journey this month, my job was to work as crew while completing my personal goals in data analysis and media production. I’ve mentioned the surprising workload on a boat. Everything is moving, even if you’re moored in a slip safely tied to a dock, so everything is constantly opposed, thanks to Newton’s laws of motion. If you’re under sail or passage, everything takes longer and substantially more effort, especially when (not if) your hands are swollen and sore from the salty sea, covered in cuts that come from nowhere and everywhere. I think every student in the world should spend some time on a boat so they can appreciate the work involved just to survive, let alone thrive. That would be a great job, as well as great exercise both mentally and physically. Anyhow, the Job section, or leg, of a Journey sets the stage of expectations for the student and sets clear goals of what they will achieve as they complete the reading and data analysis assignment.

Waypoint: It’s Boat Life

Just like learning, every leg of a journey needs to have times for reflection. These are inherently built in my reading passages through waypoints, or formative assessments. They help measure learning in action and keep everything on track.

How much have I learned about boat life and all that would be entailed aboard Windy? Here is just a glimpse, including rare evidence of Jason cooking.

O is for Opportunity

What you focus on… expands.
~Written on the wall in Sports Bar, Caye Caulker

IMG_8168Determined to develop new (ahem, brand new) skills to interview scientists and teachers, produce media and integrated science reading passages, create motion content and travel, I designed my capstone thesis research project to include such challenges. My vision is for teachers to have ready access to current, relevant and useful reading passages and for students to feel as though they have gone on their own research journey as well. By meeting and recording as many people as I can in the field, like scientists at research facilities and local workers for example, I figure out how to bring the whole thing together in a Journey. Not only is my research on researching researchers (where does it all end?!) in order to bring the reading passage’s data sets together, but my methodology also includes asking teachers to vet the first Journey in draft form and provide their feedback. Every day on board Windy, I practiced writing the Researching Dolphins Journey based on the teacher feedback I’d compiled just days before my trip, admiring the circular analysis process of it all. All of this while listening to bechata, silently dancing in my spot in the cockpit after lunch, tapping away on my laptop on a beautiful afternoon while sailing through some incredible water. Wonderful.

Early in my sailing trip, possibly around Day 5, or whichever night a front blew in and we stayed in the cockpit to monitor the anchor situation, I realized that these passages could be written in plain language for middle school and high school students, maybe even in first person. These are supplemental activities designed for after a student has completed after the main hands-on portion of a lesson. Journeys are media that help students elaborate on their knowledge by synthesizing scientific concepts together and maybe they can work in small groups and help each other out to solve problems.

IMG_7456It wasn’t until Day 17 that I discovered that the Journey could be modeled as if the students were researchers themselves. This means that the information is scaffolded in a specific way so that they must complete each leg of the Journey in sequence in order to solve a problem. The Opportunity leg begins that process, and in Researching Dolphins, they will meet scientists like Eric and Dr. Caryn, get descriptions of what type of research they are doing, and why it’s significant. This little producer-writer epiphany hit me while enjoying a quiet beer (Belikin Stout, the one and only) in Cucumber Bay for a quick internet and supply stop in Belize City on our way north. Thanks Day 17.

Waypoint: My-Thesis-In-a-Nutshell

U is for Unique

 The Sea. Once it casts its spell, holds one its net of wonder forever.
~Jacques Yves Cousteau

IMG_7749Why is it important for students to actually reflect on unique scientific research during a Journey? Thanks to NGSS, students are no longer just expected to know science (as I was expected to), but apply it (as I was never adept to). In Researching Dolphins, as a result of teacher feedback, students should ask questions they have about dolphins, marine mammals, the Belize Barrier Reef and some related Earth and Space concepts. The whole reason I went into science education was because I wanted to improve the approach to teaching it from lecture-based to hands-on instruction. It’s what any good constructivist educator aspires to do, and my challenge is relearn everything I’ve ever learned about science, education, and science education in order to embrace this new paradigm. As we watched a shipwreck removal off the shallow shore of Ranguana Caye on Day 13, a fascinating process that included a small team of barefoot workers on a tiny barge and a tiny boat with a wench retrieving massive tanks and engines from underwater, I realized that I have my work cut out for me.

IMG_7921Sailboat life itself is unique. It’s kind of like camping in the middle of nowhere, but a million times better because your shelter is stationary within movement. Maybe like RV’ing in salt water, except your RV can keel, or tilt, by over 20 degrees in a light sail, and everything falls that direction (or the other if you tak). Did I mention that I’m clumsy? Sail with Jess and she will have stubbed (nearly broken) toes, burns, countless bruises, cuts and scrapes, squid ink on her leg, a pelican bite, and an uncanny ability to only understand something once she’s learned it the hard way. The mechanics of wind and sailing, no matter how basic, have not come easily to me. My previous visits with Windy did not include extensive passages and have been few and far between. But slowly, my salty, swollen, fingers with wide, waterlogged nails gained confidence in tacking, jybing, mooring and anchoring, navigating, knot-tying, dinghying, the millions of buttons and knobs and straps and lines, and climbing the god-forsaken mast that would taunt me daily with its tall-ness. I discovered that the reason why sailors cuss is because everything is so fucking hard.

IMG_7499I’ve thought long and hard about trying to describe the week we spent in Ranguana Caye and her truly unique beauty. I am afraid I cannot. I’m sorry. I wish I could share the magical process of making coconut oil with the caretaker Dembigh, and what it smelled like when we were done. Or the fish dinners with Desiree’s flour tortillas, or fishing and playing with cards with Danfelt (and Danfelt’s confidence). I could possibly attempt explain what it was like to practice a spear gun for the first time in her shallow waters, just trust me, I would ruin it for you (although I’m sure it looked quite comical). And the brilliance of watching dozens of pelicans, my favorite favorite bird, dive and dive and dive into the water, overseen by even more frigates hovering in breeze above the palm trees? Sadly, I’m just not that good of a writer, yet. Besides, some things are best experienced, not documented. I will share one thing. On our last day, as we lay in a hammock under the palms on the beach, watching our beloved pelicans dive over and over, I thought there was absolutely nothing that could make my life any better. Not a single thing. Just then, Dembigh walked up and gave Jason a bag of cleaned lobster tails as a surprise gift, which we enjoyed on the boat’s grill as we motored to Placencia later that afternoon.

Waypoint: Coconut Oil Produced by Jason Stone


R is for Real

Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial water, alike in peace and in war.
~Woodrow Wilson

IMG_8226I’m not going to lie. This killing-fish-and-preparing-it thing is crazy difficult and Jason makes it look easy. I’m no stranger to the value of preparing one’s own food from land to table; heck, I once carried an elk out of a backcountry forest in Montana, on a sled, by myself. The thing is, sea to table is completely new for me and adds flavor to the already huge humble pie I ate every day for 24 days. Why do the fish jolt around even when they are dead, bodies half removed? That makes it even more difficult to filet such a slippery and scaly thing, on a moving boat’s stern, with a super sharp filet knife…  It’s not so much the killing of the organism that is difficult, but getting to it or getting it to come to you that is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Well, not done. I was unsuccessful in my goal to catch, kill, clean and cook a fish on my own. I wasn’t even successful in my goal to learn the different kinds of fish and I am hoping that will come in time (my background is in plant science). Spear gun? Extremely difficult to load and I bet entertaining for fish to watch me as I chase after them with it. Reel? Um, sure, if you count barely, perilously, holding on to a net to help with Jason’s latest catch… sigh. However, I did learn how to filet fish and I actually really enjoy the process. Especially if it involves making a barracuda ceviche. 🙂


There is something more real than just how to catch a fish in this journey. Sure, if you don’t catch a fish that day, you’ll live, because you’ve provisioned as best as possible. But if you do something wrong, be it while fishing or sailing or even planning, you or someone else could die. This is a dangerous life filled with a ton of variables including storms, multi-national and maritime laws, safety issues, crew health and constraints, communication errors, and anything else the tides bring in. When you’re on night watch going 7.5 knots under full sail with a steep keel in a beam reach (or maybe it was a broad reach) and 8’ swells, clipped in a Personal Floatation Device that’s clipped into the cockpit, terrified that that tiny light you see wayyyyyyy on the horizon a million miles away HAS to be on an immediate, emergency, collision course with Windy… Well, then you realize the value of practice, preparation, and sound leadership. Except for my lack of experience, those were the best possible conditions and nothing was out of order. Even with my previous leadership experience, I cannot fathom what Jason does as a captain and dearly appreciate his patient and fun ways. I’ve coordinated some major events and projects before, but figuring out how we were going to get from Belize City to Puerto Aventuras in seven days, with a Norther on the way and a closed immigration office to schedule around, seemed impossible. In fact, it’s so relevant and challenging, I want to produce media about it.

IMG_7372All of this background is why I want to provide real data for students to practice. I want to provide graphs and diagrams from the real experiences of scientists and engineers in Researching Dolphins and other Journeys for that practice. Practice, practice, practice. Repeatedly, feedback from participating teachers of all grades shows that this is an area they need more support in. This type of analysis skill helps all inquiry-based instruction as students see and understand the entire scientific method more over time. It’s not just about collecting empirical data in a scientific investigation, which is a specific skill often focused on in a hands-on lesson, but also about interpreting and communicating results in any investigation. I thought of something when we were in Caye Caulker, watching Belizean students playing ball in a field. What if students can’t go to Belize, as is sadly the case for many, to study dolphins or the Reef? Well, a Journey can bring them the results of others’ research in order to give them the opportunity to answer the same questions the scientists are answering. In a lovely spin on the nature of science and its reliance on the credibility of data collection, students can communicate their findings, as scientists do, based on the objective evidence provided to them.

N is for New

“In science, chance is seldom acknowledged as a contributing factor in important discoveries. Yet chance has played a key role in discoveries that reveal our natural world.”
~The Living Ocean, curriculum review homework assignment from Chapter 3, The Origins of Life

IMG_8025On Day 17, we were able to stop briefly at Tobacco Caye Marine Station, just north of South Water Caye. It was on the recommendation of the great folks at IZEBelize, a similar educational resort. Together, these two locations work as campuses hosting high school and college students from around the world to snorkel the Reef’s edges. By this point, I’d come to understand that my research was not just to talk with scientists, but also the people who live and work in these areas to learn more about their perspectives. Belize is currently experiencing a 6000% growth in tourism, mainly from cruise ships and also in smaller ecotourism. Before this rise, maybe the rate of tourism was not as much of a concern as ‘big boats’ can only access the Reef through certain passes. However, the rise in ‘big boat’ traffic has raised concerns over the environment, particularly in litter and damage to wildlife habitat.

IMG_8155As we motored to Spanish Lookout Caye in the southern portion of the Drowned Cayes on Day 18, Jason made me captain and I experienced first hand how difficult it was. Even if it was a straight line, in deeper water, with full visibility, under motor. Doesn’t matter how easy it seems, trust me, it is stressful and challenging. I got us to the Caye but missed the obvious buildings that Captain Freya clearly spelled out in her Belizean Sailing Guide, aka the bible, on how to find (even with detailed maps). Fortunately, I was able to move Windy in 7-8’ water to a more correct anchoring spot, but not without the same discomfort of learning everything in the world the hard way. Of course the area where we moored the dinghy had a low bridge, with eight offset vertical guardrail-like rods coming out the water, making my dinghy captaining even more challenging. It was like dinghy slalom.

Waypoint: What It’s Like


IMG_8051Walking along the trail through the inner lagoon of Spanish Lookout Caye means that you will see lots of mangroves and crystal clear water underneath (with some weird jellyfish). But I could hardly pay attention because I was scribbling the last notes that I needed before I interviewed the folks at the Hugh Parkey Adventure Lodge. This private lodge caters to scuba divers from around the world who come to research and enjoy the Reef. Dr. Caryn joins this team at least once per year to conduct research with her team for about two weeks, and Javier told me all about her long term studies conducted through the Drowned Cayes. Here I was, a budding captain slash writer slash journalist looking for clues to tell a researcher’ story on how tourism affects dolphin populations, while talking with a local general manager. Seeing his perspective of working with dozens of researchers in the area, including Dr. Caryn, helped me find missing piece to my puzzle. Without his knowledge, he tells me, plain as day. The ‘big boats’ that navigate in and out of the small passes through the Reef are less of a problem than the smaller passenger boats, or tenders, that cross from anchor to shore in droves. This is especially harmful during mating season for dolphins and manatees. The media producer in me was satisfied, and with interviews of Fred, Biggie N., Governor, and the rest of the locals who run the private lodge, I left Spanish Lookout Caye with a whole new appreciation for how science is conducted here and the lives that it affects.

E is for Engineering

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.
~Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The beauty of the NGSSs is the inclusion of engineering principles in science curriculum and instruction. It is a newer concept for most in general science education. We are all embracing the Engineering Design Process in various models that allow for students to experience an iterative process, between design and testing, to find solutions to problems. Also important is the identification of criteria and constraints, including the tradeoffs of any given design. That’s why, in Researching Dolphins, students learn about what scientists like Eric are doing with engineers to produce the tools necessary to conduct the science. This includes “unmanned aerial surveyors UASs” (drones) to aid in above-water observations of Turneffe Atoll’s dolphins. Unfortunately, the Oceanic Society’s research facility there is currently closed down so we did not visit there, yet I did interview Eric Ramos for an extensive background on his current findings (special thanks to the whole staff of Oceanic Society for their overwhelming welcome of my research process).

IMG_7930Using the UASs (drones), hydrophones, video and other technology, Eric can more efficiently measure dolphins’ responses to ‘big boat vs. ‘small boat’ tourism and how noise affects their communication during food foraging. If a dolphin is hungry, noise may deter them from their food source further, especially if they can’t hear each other. The irony and frustration of only being able to observe dolphins from a boat was suddenly lifted when Eric could observe them from above, meeting much of his criteria for effective study. And, kids love drones so this will be awesome to include in the Journey.

I took at stab at engineering myself and created the “Jessica Pacific” chair concept. Similar to the compact folding camping chairs that use your own body weight to offset leaning backward at, say, a campfire, I set out to create something that would work for Windy’s sunny deck. My vision was friends sitting comfortably in that classic Pacific blue material and the many chairs would then stow easily in the limited storage available on a sailboat. Placencia just happened to have a hardware store that serendipitously had enough materials to begin a prototype based on the sketches we’d made in Ranguana. Trust me, this stuff is not rocket science, yet I wanted to model the process myself, just once, so I truly understood the EDP and ways to write activities for it. That is, until Jason got involved and took the wind out of my sails. This is what happened.

Waypoint: Jessica Pacific


Y is for You!

When you want something, all of the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
~Paul Coelho

IMG_7883In Journeys, the You! leg is for me (media producer) to pass the proverbial learning and action baton to the student (via the teacher) and provide concrete ways for them to contribute to their scientific community as educated citizens. Citizen Science or service learning opportunities, especially through social media and other online venues, is a passion of mine. Things like Ocean Explorer or dolphin identification in photo databases, or anything to get students actively participating in something current. Researching Dolphins is a toughy, because there are few ways for students to directly contribute, despite my asking a dozen people how. I will need to get creative and look at other ways. As for the dolphins themselves, I saw very few (and only the one manatee that Jason petted). It turned out that the only dolphin I saw on my very own was my last night on board Windy during my night watch. Jason was right, they sneak up on you and you can hear them off the stern before you see them. Even though I only saw its tail as it dove, it was a thrilling wake up call.

I have much to do to complete Researching Dolphins and the rest of my capstone before the race to graduation in July. I’ll share the results of this massive project when it is complete. I won’t give up on my goal for this and every journey, because I believe that every journey must conclude with a call to action to better improve ourselves, and our environment. Except, I can’t quite pass that baton to you here in this paragraph, can I? ‘You’ are not you (the reader), remember? ‘You’ are future Jess. So, you see, I (current Jess) can only write what I have experienced and what I want out of this journey. I want more experience, and obviously I am going to keep practicing my new skills in hopes to improve our environment.

I’ll keep working on it, I have time.

IMG_8278What you’ve read could have been written as a result of my daily Beagle notes, weekly summaries in Windy’s logbook, video messages, and a compiled list of activities done over the course of weeks, on several different devices. I can’t tell you because, despite scrupulous documentation, the days just blend. We watched the Moon go from new to full, and experienced the vernal equinox while on board. We missed the US time change and the terrible attacks on Brussels. For the record, the actual itinerary from March 2-26, 2016, includes the safe passage through the following places in sequence: Belize City, Caye Caulker*, San Pedro, Long Caye in Lighthouse Reef, some Caye we never got the name of in Glover’s Reef, Ranguana Caye*, Placencia, South Water Caye (with an uber spontaneous visit to Carrie Bow Caye), Tobacco Caye, Belize City, Spanish Bay Lookout in the Drowned Cayes, Caye Caulker, San Pedro, Xcalak* and Puerto Aventuras, Mexico (fly out of Cancun March 26). Even though Belize called, Mexico always feels like home. *Indicates places that I experienced 100% Boat and 0% Land days. It should come as no surprise that it did, indeed, go by like a flash.

IMG_7983 (1)As always, I don’t know when I’ll see my friend again, but I am eternally grateful for all that I got to do with Jason aboard Windy. I am especially thankful for his willing participation in something that means a lot to me. My other 99%

He once gave me valuable advice to do one thing and do it well. So I did.

© 2016 Jess Rowell, Full Circle Jess Productions. All Rights Reserved.