Caye Kids Have Close Encounters of the Shark Kind!

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Kids Meet Sharks-1Students from three different schools on Ambergris Caye were fortunate to be selected to be a part of the Kids Meet Shark Program. Spearheaded by Dr. Rachel Graham, Director of the Caribbean and Gulf Rays and Shark Program of the Wild Life Conservation Society, the program aims to build awareness and appreciation for sharks and rays as well as the important role the sea creatures play in the marine ecosystem.

Kids Meet Sharks-15According to Graham, the project started in the fall of 2011 after she won a monetary award. “This Kids Meet Shark program has been an incredible program. It started a few years ago with the support of funding from the Whitley Fund for Nature. Throughout the past few years, we have been taking children from Punta Gorda, Chunux, Sarteneja, Caye Caulker and now San Pedro Town. Amazingly, the San Pedro kids, you would think, they have all spent time at the reef or swum with the sharks and rays but they haven’t. This gives them an opportunity to become scientists for part of the day. We get them involved in all the sciences and techniques involved in monitoring sharks and rays.”

Kids Meet Sharks-3Graham explains that the participating students get to learn by using baited remote controlled under water video cameras while at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, where information about the species is recorded. They also estimate and record the size of the animal, sex the animal to know if it is a male or female, and determine how many sharks versus rays are in the area. “This information helps us in our long term monitoring of the population that is actually fed at the Hol Chan – Shark Ray Alley area,” further explained Graham.

The main objective of the Kids Meet Shark Project is for school children to learn about the dwindling species of sharks and rays in Belize. “They are the future decision makers, they are the future conservationists and they are absolutely curious about the world around them, so who better to have as our ambassadors for our sharks and rays in Belize than our kids? We want to get kids involved through experiential learning in the sea,” said a very passionate Graham.

Approximately 75 students from Ambergris Caye Elementary School, La Isla Bonita Elementary School and The Island Academy participated in the expedition over the course of two days. The participants all had a wonderful experience and for some, their view on sharks and rays has taken a new perspective. Two such students are Kemre Rippon and Tahryneh Pott, both from The Island Academy.

Kids Meet Sharks-14“It was amazing to see all those sharks because the last time I came to Shark Ray Alley, I was afraid but since I listened to the presentations, I was not that scared,” said Rippon whose fears have abated “. It was interesting to see so much wildlife that I didn’t really know of. One of the highlights for me was the feeling of being wild while in the water with all these wild animals. When you are in the water, it is very scenic and you get that feeling like if you are watching at a picture, except that in this case, it was moving – it was real.”

Kids Meet Sharks-7For Pott, it was her first experience and one she will always appreciate. “It was my first time at Shark Ray Alley and I couldn’t believe how big some of those sharks are. We saw plenty of rays and sharks when we went into the water. I enjoyed learning more about these sea creatures and I have certainly learned to appreciate them. You really have to be able to be around these animals to be able to appreciate it,” she told us.

One of the key things explained to the students while on the trip was to refrain from touching flora and fauna while in its natural habitat. It is something that is illegal within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley although it has been an illegal practice by tour guides for years. That illegal practice was witnessed when a group of students was on the morning expedition on Saturday November 2nd. Graham condemned the behavior and said it was disrespectful, even more so when students were out learning about the do’s and don’ts while dealing with animals in their natural habitat. “I was a bit dismayed to see that there was a guide from a very reputable dive shop actually going in and coming in front of our boat with all of the children in the area and grabbing the shark and stroking it just in order to please his tourists. I think that sent a very disrespectful message to the children of San Pedro. I would really hope that we would soon have very strong guidelines that would basically promote a more “enjoy, look, take pictures” activity that is more respectful to animal in their natural habitat. The touching of our flora and fauna in a marine reserve and in their natural habitat is definitely not the message we want to be sending to the world.”

Kids Meet Sharks-6The Kids Meet Shark Program was made possible with the assistance of several volunteers, including the staff at Belize Diving Services. The activities were documented by well known underwater videographer Marty O’Farrell and photographer Maya Papovic. The videos and photographs will be available on the Belize Shark Project Facebook page before the end of November.

The organizers also took the opportunity to invite the students that participated in the kids Meet Sharks field trip to enter a Shark and Ray Creativity Competition. All children participating in a Kids Meet Sharks Field trip between 15th of October and 4th of December are eligible to win a Nexus PC tablet. Entries will be divided into two categories, writing and art and only one piece in either category will be allowed per student. Students can compose a poem, song or travel blog under the writing category while students can create a sculpture, drawing or a painting under the art category. The names of the winners will be announced on Tuesday, 17th December.

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