Alumni Spotlight: Linda Weeks

Linda Weeks has been a teacher for over 20 years and currently teaches grade one near Toronto, Canada. She's a bit of a foodie and enjoys cooking and eating (especially ceviche now)! She is passionate about the environment and spends as much time as possible in the great Canadian outdoors. Linda enjoys the luxury of reading a good book during her summers off.

Why did you decide to volunteer with ReefCI in Belize?

on a boat in Belize

Linda: My love of scuba diving along with my passion for the environment led me to ReefCI after searching the internet for 'Responsible Travel' projects that involved scuba diving. My correspondence with Jo from ReefCI in the planning stages gave me the assurance I needed to travel alone to Belize. I was also relieved that ReefCI does not charge extra for a single traveller. ReefCI's website gave me all the information I needed to prepare for the trip. Located in southern Belize, I was hopeful that I would have an encounter with whale sharks. Sadly, I missed them by a week which now gives me an excuse to go back for another trip. ReefCI's philosophy is also to support the local community which made me feel good about my decision to join their organization.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Linda: ReefCI caters to very small groups (8-10 people) and founder Polly Wood speaks individually to each guest on the island to find out specifically what each of us wants to get out of the experience. I was interested in taking part in each of the dive conservation projects that were running at the time - Coral Watch, Conch Surveying and the Lionfish Program. There was a training session for each of the projects before going in the water. The Coral Watch dive involved surveying the reef and documenting the extent of coral bleaching that we observed at that site. Our Conch Survey dive involved going to a conch breeding area on the reef, tagging the conch and documenting information for later use such as length, thickness and sex.

The Lionfish Program was the most popular among the volunteers during my stay. Although I was used to admiring their beauty on many of my Pacific Ocean dives, we learned that lionfish are an invasive species in the Atlantic Caribbean with no natural predators. It is believed that during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, lionfish escaped from an aquarium into the Atlantic and have since spread throughout the Caribbean, reaching Belize in 2009. Most of our volunteer work involved finding and spearing lionfish on our dives. ReefCI has discovered that lionfish make a very tasty ceviche and our group was very fortunate to enjoy this tasty dish.

In addition to trying to rid the reef of as many lionfish as possible, and introducing the lionfish to other predators, ReefCI works with local restaurants to introduce lionfish on the menu in order to reduce the demand for other overfished species like grouper and snapper.

What made this experience unique and special?

scuba diving in belize

Linda: Everything about this experience was unique which is why it was so special. Prior to our amazing stay on the island, our trip out to the reef was interrupted by Hurricane Ernesto that appeared to be headed towards the island we were to stay on. Sadly, we were unable to go to the island as planned but it meant that we were fortunate to spend more time in Punta Gorda (town) and explore - especially the local shops and restaurants. Spending evenings playing dominos at a local pub was a highlight of my time on the mainland as was chatting with local school kids and buying freshly picked avocados from them. Although we were sad not to be getting out to the island when we thought we would, the staff at ReefCI did all they could to help us to enjoy the interruption to our plans. Once out on the island, I was interested in learning to cook some of the local cuisine and was given the opportunity to help out in the kitchen.

This was a very unique experience that I would never have got at any resort! Tom Owens Island where we stayed is a very, very tiny island. Going to sleep with the sound of the waves just steps away, stepping carefully back to your room to avoid the many, many hermit crabs out at night, and finding other critters living harmoniously in our rooms also added to the unique experience. When not scuba diving, the volunteers would enjoy lounging on the many hammocks on the island, taking pictures or just laughing and having a good time with the staff and other volunteers.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Linda: Meeting Polly and Jo who have devoted their lives to marine conservation as well as another volunteer who founded Kaya - a responsible travel company left a lasting impression on me. Although I am not at a point where I will change my profession (although it is tempting), I do feel lucky that I have a meaningful career where I have an impact on many lives around me. My future travel plans will continue to involve marine conservation and I do hope to join ReefCI again in hopes of swimming with whale sharks!