Biology versus Meteorology: The 2007
Bruce K. Hol
View preliminary reports from the expedition.
View a 100-image slide show of the expedition, including pictures of all participants.
Read an extensive interview with Dr. Colin Young discussing current biodiversity and conservation issues of
The hurricane names Dean and Felix may not be familiar to most people in the States, but if you were anywhere near
I had worked many times in the past with the Belize Zoo and its director Sharon Matola, always deep into the most remote parts of the country. We traveled either by helicopter or on long hikes to document the animal, and in my case, the plant life of this beautiful country. Sharon, a
After assembling the team, and with Hurricane Dean ready to make landfall, a decision was made to go in. It looked like the hurricane was veering north of our destination, but still would cause problems in the country. If we didn’t move quickly in that window of opportunity, we probably wouldn’t be going in this year. And so began a full day of leap-frogging across the country with immense loads of gear to meet up with Sharon and two skilled Maya guides who had gone in a few days earlier to smooth the way for us. At the end of this migration, 13 biologists, the gear, and guides were settled in the beautiful Doyle’s Delight Camp at 1130 m elevation. The advance team had set up the most luxurious field camp I have been in. A throne for a pit toilet, ample tables to spread specimens out upon, comfortable folding chairs, undergrowth cleared for tents (though I don’t think many were on exactly level ground) and the most important of all, an ample, well-stocked kitchen under a large tarp.
With the hurricane still threatening that night, we hunkered down to see what would happen. Being at the highest point of the country we knew flooding would not be an issue, but being at the highest point of the country, the wind was of special concern given that we were camping in a forest under trees with branches loaded full of heavy epiphytes. Epiphytes are not parasitic on their host trees, but some can hold, and store, a very large amount of water, rendering the heavy branches they are perched on as potential anvils positioned directly over our tents.
That night, the rain fell hard and the wind was fierce, some very large branches could be heard crashing down. We thought this must have been from the hurricane, but we soon found out nearly every night is hurricane-type weather on Doyle’s Delight, at least at that time of year. The mornings light and calm were welcome relief. With Dean’s passing and only minor damage logged in the northern part of the country, work was upon our mind the next 10 days. It is a pleasure working with a seasoned group of biologists and even more of a pleasure to work with biologists logging their first expedition. The team worked hard, ornithologists up early for the birds, botanists up late pressing plants, and working long hours in-between.
I have seen a few forests, but these
Before we knew it, our departure date was upon us, but our exit from this site would be a good deal more difficult than our entrance, largely due to the weather. Packing up such a large camp requires time and planning. After nearly a full day of preparation, we awoke early the next morning for the pickup. But, through intermittent radio contacts, we learned that a heavy storm in the area of the military base grounded all flights that day. So back down to the camp we trudged, and not-so-grudgingly set up camp for another night. Not grudgingly since most tropical biologists would pay someone dearly to spend another day in paradise. The weather was better the next day for the helicopter to take off, but much worse for us to be picked up. An amazing photo in my mind is us standing at the highest point of the country, and watching a helicopter circle around the mountain, below our position, searching for us. After much signaling with our brightest and tallest objects, along with useless “hey, over here” shouts, and double-patched radio communications, the crew found us. We learned later that the crew does not fly directly to a GPS coordinate since a mountain may be in the way, and instead relies on direct sight. After that bit of excitement, our plan called for five of us (including myself) to go out on the first flight and help unload gear from the following flights. That was difficult enough with the unpredictable clouds and the amount of gear, and the helicopter struggled to gain altitude. Fuel load also becomes a big problem with those distances; we had several flights on the way in where we just jumped out as quickly as possible and threw our gear to the ground so they could take off again. But it was the last flight that experienced even more problems. After the second group was brought out with more gear, the flight crew had to divert to another mission elsewhere in the country. But later that afternoon, when they came back to our aid, the final extraction of biologists was thwarted by fog. It was looking bad to get them out that day, meaning they would have to set up camp again and their morale was low, as we could ascertain by radio. At our end, we enjoyed a delicious hot lunch of beans and rice, chicken and beer brought in by our ground transport crew to celebrate our successes. We did feel a little guilty with our friends still up on the mountain. Finally, at the last possible hour, the helicopter pilots found a window in the fog and picked up the last group. This was the flight with the botanical specimens and I had stressed their importance. However, as they were taking off, the chopper, a bit overloaded and unbalanced couldn’t gain altitude quickly enough to avoid the trees. In the ensuing seconds, the cargo operator was told "jettison" and unfortunately, my specimens were at the top of the pile and out they went to the protest of my companions. Two of the eleven bags were tossed, along with some duffel bags. Fortunately, the pilots were able to gain control of the helicopter returned to our base camp.
I heard the bad news upon their arrival, but was relieved that our friends were able to join us that day for the trip back to the zoo where another feast awaited us. To further complicate matters, we learned that one of the large British ground transports crashed on its way to pick up our gear. Fortunately, a replacement was found in time. With all personnel out, the specimens left behind were the biggest problem, though we learned that the helicopter would be able to make a quick pass in the following days to recover them and some remaining gear.
Cue Hurricane Felix
A few days later, while visiting the beautiful
As a final aside, while standing in line at the airport during my departure from
I am very grateful to the British Armed Forces in