Travel Feature: Marine Conservation in Belize

It’s time to feature real stories from diverse experiences abroad! This time, we’re heading to the white-sand and mangrove island of Tobacco Caye with one of Kaya’s onsite program coordinators!

Traveling in 2021, with a purpose

In May, Emily traveled to Tobacco Caye, Belize to participate in Kaya’s Marine Conservation project there. Located on the UNESCO World Heritage Belize Barrier Reef, tiny and quiet Tobacco Caye is surrounded by clear, blue water and lined with rows of brightly colored buildings on stilts. Interns and volunteers relax in hammocks, lounge on swings, and bury their toes in the sand between lessons and shifts out in the water, or on shore. Here’s what Emily has to say…

What’s Kaya’s Marine Conservation project in Belize all about?

We had the opportunity to learn about local (and global!) Marine Conservation issues and actually participate! We collected trash, speared lion fish, learned about Marine Science, learned how to identify species, experienced varied ecosystems, and so much more! It was also so wonderful to experience the culture and beauty of Belize and Tobacco Caye. I would say this project would work well for anyone interested in Marine Science or Conservation in general, especially students in related fields looking for hands-on experience to add to their resumes, or help them decide their future careers.


The place and the people really captured my heart, and I can’t wait to go back to explore even more!

Tobacco Caye Aerial shot

What was it like to travel during Covid-19? Was it worth it?

Yes! Actually, we were able to form a travel pod allowing us to hang out together unmasked – and many of us were vaccinated. Plus, because we were on a remote island, primarily working in the water or outdoors, it was easy to social distance.


I had a colleague tell me before I left that flying during Covid-19 was totally normal. She said that seeing people with masks now feels normal, and that all the flying protocols are still the same, so if you put those two things together, not much feels different. I thought she was crazy at the time – how could it seem normal after being quarantined for over a year? But it totally was! Because I was vaccinated, too, I didn’t have to worry about getting sick.

On arrival to Belize, I did have to show my negative Covid-19 test, and masks were required at the airport and on our private transport to the island. But these few added steps didn’t impede my time in Belize, and I was able to travel, learn, and explore while knowing I was doing my part to keep myself and others safe.


On the island, staff wore masks, and we washed our hands often at outdoor hygiene stations. On the way home, we did have to get another negative Covid-19 test to fly home. It was quick and easy and only took about 30 minutes out of our day. (I know the entry and exit requirements are different for every country and Kaya project, so Kaya can help you navigate that, even if you don’t choose Belize for your destination.)


So all in all, I was so glad I was able to travel, and the extra steps were definitely worth it.

Sunset View

On the island, what was day-to-day life like? Could you go through a typical day?

Island life is interesting, as you generally rise and set with the sun. Because of this I would generally wake up around 6 am and start my day with some yoga on the beach! After that, I was quite ready for the delicious breakfast the wonderful cooks had made. It usually consisted of some eggs, refried beans, fresh fruit, and maybe some corn tortillas or toast. And ALWAYS with a side of Marie Sharps amazing hot sauce (on every Belizean table)!


In the morning we would either leave the island for a snorkel to experience a different ecosystem (i.e. fore reef, Mangrove, off-shore coral, channels, etc.), or we would stick around Tobacco Caye to work on some research projects in the area or hunt invasive lion fish!


The coral off the island was incredible, constantly circled with spotted eagle rays and whiptail rays. Some individuals have nicknames, they are so commonly seen and recognized. Just around the island you have the chance of seeing manatee, squid, octopi, moray eels, parrotfish, christmas tree coral, barracuda, snake eels, and SO, SO much more. It was incredible to see such a healthy reef after having snorkeled in barren bleached beds elsewhere.


After our project work or morning snorkel, we would stop for some lunch, and then back out in the afternoon for the same!


Evenings are pretty low key. There are two main restaurants on the island that serve great virgin and alcoholic drinks, as well as ice cream, which is always nice after a very hot, sunny day! We also spiced things up with an outdoor viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean on the beach under the palms and stars and a four day coconut olympic event including coconut bowling, bocce, and relays. But pretty much at 8 or 9 pm we were all in bed to sleep so we’d be ready for the next amazing day!

Did you travel around at all? Did you add on any other activities, and what were those like?

Many of us added on a diving component to the trip. As I am not dive certified, I was able to do a Discover SCUBA dive with a dive master. It was an incredible experience, and I will for sure be seeking my dive certification in the near future!


On the way back to the airport, too, we drove from Dangriga to Monkey Bay (another of Kaya’s locations in Belize). Along this drive, we stopped at the inland Blue Hole National Park to swim and learn about the cenote (Mayan term for sink hole). This area is managed by the Belize Audubon Society and therefore is full of bird life! It was a great way to see a sliver of the epic inland terrain of Belize.


All in all, though, Tobacco Caye was just so beautiful and interesting, that I didn’t feel that I needed to travel around more than we did.

What was the most memorable experience you had?

Probably the most memorable experience I had was our night snorkle. At the time we did the night snorkle, we had snorkeled around Tobacco Caye quite a bit, but the night reef is completely different from the day reef. I lived in California for a while and went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium probably once a month. Every time, I would sit in front of the squid exhibit and watch them for hours. I’m so fascinated with how they move, change colors and express themselves with their tentacles.


And then there I was in Tobacco Caye, snorkeling at night with a squid in my flashlight beam. It was incredible! Aside from that amazing view, we also saw an octopus put on a color show, a snake eel slithering through the sand, and an enormous green moray eel, locally known as Derick!

More Kaya projects for travel in 2021

We are so happy to be able to feature real voices from our projects on the ground! As we welcome our final round of interns to Tobacco Caye for this summer, we’re so excited to see what they accomplish. If you’d like to join us on the island, we’ll be offering the program again in 2022, and perhaps even this coming winter. Get in touch to apply and reserve your spot on this incredible program. Please note that we have limited spaces available!

We have a number of projects available now in places just as unique and interesting as Tobacco Caye. If you’re interested in Marine Conservation programs, we’ve compiled a list of immediately available options below:

If you can’t travel right now, but you’re looking for a way to support the project on Tobacco Caye and contribute to the conservation of Belize and our oceans, click here to find out more or donate. Thank you so much!

Let us know if you have any questions about traveling, Covid-19 safety precautions, or program specifics by emailing us, using the chat now feature on our website, or requesting a brochure using the button opposite. We’re here to help, and we can’t wait to see you on the ground – or in the water – someday!


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