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Updates From Belize: New Staff, Drones, And More

By Brian Hutchinson

Our Blackbird Caye Field Station on Turneffe Atoll, Belize reopened on January 1, and already we have lots of exciting updates to share with you.

One of the first images of Blackbird Caye captured by a drone that is being used in dolphin research. © Eric Ramos

Gearing Up for the 2015 Season

Our new Belize program manager Kathi Koontz is getting settled in at Blackbird and working together with our amazing field station team of Alton Jeffords and Wanda and Kent Leslie to get the station ready for visitors and to prepare for the upcoming season. While this mostly includes less-fun tasks like painting and repair, the staff also have plenty of time to enjoy Blackbird Caye's famous sunrises and sunsets and to catch up with neighbors like the bottlenose dolphins, American crocodiles, vine snakes, and other island inhabitants.

Sunrises from the station are hard to beat. © Kathi Koontz

In mid-January, student groups from University of Maryland and Ecology Project International will begin to arrive to the island and participate in the exciting research programs that we will be running this year.

Non-student visitors are invited to join one of our upcoming travel programs to Belize for a first-hand opportunity to see, participate in, and learn about our marine research programs. We will be running snorkeling trips, scuba diving trips, dolphin research volunteer programs, coral reef monitoring, and family programs throughout the year.

New Drone Research Project Takes Off

Our lead dolphin researcher Eric Ramos has spent the past few days testing out the drones that he will be using as part of a new research project in collaboration with his advisor (and longtime Oceanic Society partner) Diana Reiss of Hunter College, CUNY, and Marcelo Magnasco of Rockefeller University.

Eric and Alton prepare the quadcopter for flight. © Kathi Koontz

For this exciting new project, they will be using remotely operated and unmanned vehicles—including aerial quadcopters, autonomous aquatic drones, and a remotely operated underwater vehicle—to collect data on bottlenose dolphin behavior and communication, threats, and habitat use. The data collected by the drones (which will include video and audio recordings, and photographs) will be supplemented by the decades of bottlenose dolphin research that has been conducted by Oceanic Society and our partners in Turneffe Atoll using field observations, acoustic listening, and other non-invasive methods.

We can't wait to share more about this program as the research progresses (join our newsletter to keep up to date). For now, here are some of the amazing images that Eric has been able to capture over the past few days of quadcopter test flights at Blackbird.

Flying high above our field station on Blackbird Caye. © Eric Ramos

Eric flies the quadcopter from aboard the research vessel. © Eric Ramos

The quadcopter offers an exceptional vantage point from which to observe dolphin behavior in a non-invasive way. © Eric Ramos

Blackbird Caye and the murky lagoon where American crocodiles reside. © Eric Ramos


Brian Hutchinson is Oceanic Society's vice president of outreach, co-founder of the State of the World's Sea Turtles Program, and program officer of the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. Brian holds a B.A. in zoology from Connecticut College, and has been working to advance global marine conservation for more than a decade.


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