Life Changing Student Travel to Belize

September 18, 2023

This educational trip to Belize inspired a future generation.

Floating in the middle of the Caribbean Sea on the Belize barrier reef, I pulled my head from the water and rolled on my back to take in the surrounding setting. I was immersed in coral blue water. Looking east, I saw the endless horizon of the sea, in the far distance in all directions water and the outlines of small Caye’s, and below me, the most intensely beautiful coral reef and more wildlife in one view than I could possibly ever see in a full day of walking through the mountains in my home state of Montana.

More immediate to me, I saw bobbing heads and snorkel’s, my 16 high school students (the “Service Scholars”) and our personal guides and marine experts from EcoMar floating and diving over the reef. I hear the muffled scream of astonishment come from the snorkel tube of a nearby student and I look down below me and see a gorgeous spotted Eagle Ray swim below me, and then a docile nurse shark comes into view, and from nowhere just in front of me a stunning Permit fish. I too am astonished and cannot help but grin from ear to ear which consequently, immediately fills my mask with salt water. I turn over again, clear my mask and then notice my co-leader, Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza a shark researcher, passionate ocean conservationist and Executive Director for the Ocean First Institute, swimming up to me. She says “Oh my gosh, did you see that spotted Eagle Ray? I can’t believe what we’re seeing.” I reply, “Mikki, look at this, look around us.” We see more bobbing heads, more muffled cries of astonishment, Nidia, one of our EcoMar instructors pointing out to a small group of students the green mora eel and other colorful fish. Mr. Johnny, part of the husband and wife team that run EcoMar, is showing kids how to clear their ears so they can dive deeper. One kid comes up and screams “I did it!” Another is struggling and Mr. Johnny gives her some more patient encouragement. I say to Mikki, “Can you believe this, look where we are. Look at what our students are doing, experiencing, and learning about. I have been dreaming and working for this type of experience with students for over 20 years, and it is happening.” We both grin, fist bump, then move on to join the others.

One of our first discoveries in the sea grass beds near our field station on St. George’s Caye. (Photo Credit – Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza)