Biology Versus Meteorology: The 2007 Belize Maya Mountain Summit Expedition

Biology versus Meteorology: The 2007 Belize Maya Mountain Summit Expedition

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 Belize.

Visit the Belize Zoo online and download podcasts from Director Sharon Matola on topics of Belizean natural history

Visit the Belize Botanic Garden online.

The hurricane names Dean and Felix may not be familiar to most people in the States, but if you were anywhere near Central America this past August, then you wouldn’t forget them. That is when Selby Botanical Gardens teamed up with colleagues from several US and Belizean universities and governmental agencies to mount an expedition to the highest and most remote point in Belize , just hours away in the first case, and days in the second, from the above-mentioned Category 5 hurricanes. Fortunately, neither hurricane ended up causing serious damage in Belize , but at one point or another, both were slated to hit the country full force, and carrying out a major expedition by helicopter with 15 participants at that time provided for a memorable trip.

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 Sarasota New College alumnus, is one of the most strident and effective conservationists in Central America . The staff at the Belize Zoo is equally dedicated and can be counted on to provide exceptional logistical support for almost any natural history expedition in the country. British Armed Forces in Belize were exceptional in their assistance and professionalism. They provided many days of helicopter and ground transport that saved the biology team, without exaggeration, several weeks of preparation and arduous hikes through treacherous terrain.

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 Maya Mountain summit forests are among the most beautiful I have ever seen. Majestic Colpothrinax and Euterpe palms reached the skyline, bright red bromeliad spikes lit up the understory, birds and mushrooms and insects were everywhere. That is the beauty of traveling with other biologists; you see things you never would when staying amongst your own discipline. I learned so much and saw so much that I didn’t want the trip to end. In our turn, the late night antics, which someone referred to as the “Bruce and Colin” Show” of pressing plants into the wee hours were enjoyed by our counterparts, at least by those with little work to do in the dark. “Colin,” my counterpart, was Dr. Colin Young of Galen University in central Belize . He grew up in Belize living and working in conservation, and now with a freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut , is already helping to teach the next generation of Belizean biologists and conservationists. I was fortunate to work with him on this, his first real deep expedition, and now I’m sure it won’t be our last. He is a natural at field biology and keen observer of nature.

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 Belize Botanic Garden we learned of another Category 5 hurricane making a beeline for Belize . Right there went our chances of finalizing our permits since the government quickly went into emergency mode. With the hurricane arriving and the zoo battened down I moved my departure date up a few days. In the end, the storm veered south and hammered Nicaragua and Honduras . The following day, we learned that one of the British Forces helicopters crashed and burned during a training exercise. The pilots escaped mostly unharmed, but the fleet was grounded pending an investigation. Realizing the danger to the specimens, Sharon chartered a private helicopter to return to Doyle’s Delight to gather them, which are now safely at Selby Gardens . In all, we collected about 60 living specimens to be shared among the Belize Botanic Garden, Belize Zoo, and Selby Gardens . Another 300 collections of herbarium specimens will serve as permanent records of the flora of the Maya Mountains , among them, at least five species we collected had never before been found in Belize . A report on our findings will be prepared in the coming months and made available to governmental agencies and the public.

As a final aside, while standing in line at the airport during my departure from Belize , I turned around and saw our cargo operator right behind me in line, departing on leave. I re-introduced myself and he told me of the ribbing he had taken from his colleagues after that flight, having tossed out such valuable cargo. I told him that I understood the situation and had no hard feelings; there could not be a question of priorities between specimens and human life and he, of course knew that well when the situation was at hand. He also asked, “Why the bloody hell don’t you do your expeditions during the dry season!”

I am very grateful to the British Armed Forces in Belize and the personnel of the Belize Zoo for their exceptional support of this expedition, and to Selby Gardens ’ volunteer and friend, Marge Schmiel, for her generous financial support.