Rainforest to Reef Research in Belize

Belize’s diverse, pristine natural environment continues to attract an increasing number of scientists and researchers. And the good news is that many Belizean based research projects are making important contributions towards better understanding pressing global environmental issues such as the effects of climate change.

One interesting project we’ve recently heard about is Sea Base 1, a permanent underwater research station and habitat planned to be located in the Caribbean Sea just off Ambergris Caye. Said to be the first-of-its- kind underwater facility combining coral reef research, education and eco-tourism, Sea Base 1 would house up to 25 aquanauts to live and work over extended periods of time in a submerged environment.

Sea Base 1 is a non-profit company established by the late Dr Richard Cooper, a former marine biology professor, veteran underwater researcher and explorer who stressed that such research is imperative because coral reefs are “considered to be the ocean equivalent of a canary in the coal mine.”

Although coral accounts for only 2% of the ocean floor, it is necessary to life for three quarters of the entire world’s ocean species, according to Sea Base 1 information. With climate change and other factors drastically affecting coral reefs, they are of increasing interest in many fields of science.

Dr Cooper had stressed the need to build a permanent habitat in a pristine coral reef such as the Belize Barrier Reef so that researchers could “blend into the ecosystem” to better observe the environment and marine species. Currently, most studies rely on “bounce dives” where divers spend shorter periods in the water, are more intrusive and less accepted by the creatures inhabiting the eco-system.

Although Dr Cooper recently passed away, the project is ongoing and slated to be the first permanent ocean floor research and education facility that incorporates eco-tourism in its operations.

According to Kenn Feigelman, a research partner with Sea Base 1, “It will not be elitist… Joe Public will be invited to work with scientists as lab rats, or assistants. The diving public will be able to take part in eco-tourism.”

Mr Feigelman is the director of Deep/Quest 2 a company carrying out projects ranging from coral reef studies off Barbados in the eastern Caribbean to documenting endangered wildlife and producing underwater educational television shows for PBS in the US. In addition to his role as research partner and part-time aquanaut, he will film the construction and deployment of Sea Base 1 in Belize.

Another interesting aspect of the Sea Base 1, which is designed to vaguely resemble a Maya pyramid, is that while not for profit, it will be open not only to researchers but also to paying guests who wish to spend a minimum of five days underwater.

One floor will house sleeping quarters, bathrooms, showers and other amenities for the aquanauts. The second floor will house the communications, medical and dining areas while the third floor contains scuba and other equipment and the entrance/exit to the habitat.

The US$28 million project will rely on financial support from universities, government and private groups and then generate earnings as a research facility and by hosting some 600 to 700 divers a year. Mr Feigelman added that the vessel is on target for construction and then deployment in Belize during the summer of 2013.

Sea Base 1 is a project we’ll definitely be watching with interest.  The Belize Barrier Reef has been part of Chaa Creek’s eco adventure tours and packages for many years, and we have a special love for this stunning ecosystem, listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.  Our Rainforest to Reef eco adventure packages, for example, give guests an intimate rainforest and Maya experience combined with a Caribbean reef vacation at some of Belize’s most pristine areas. We believe that the more people understand and respect this incredibly complex and beautiful environment, the better are its chances for survival.

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