After 10 years of traveling to Belize to study endangered hawksbill sea turtles, Dr. Todd Rimkus of Marymount University said the work is not only fulfilling for him as a researcher, but more importantly, also makes a difference in the lives of his students and the residents of the small village where they stay.
This year, Rimkus took 24 students on the three-week trip in July, part of a four-credit marine biology and tropical ecology course which includes observing and tagging turtles with GPS satellite tracking devices at Gales Point Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Being the tenth anniversary, this trip meant a lot to me,” said Rimkus, chair of Marymount’s department of biology and physical sciences. “I did a lot of reflecting and feel like I’ve been given the keys to the city because they love us there.”
His first trip was a fact-finding mission with fellow MU science professor Dr. Jacquelyn Black, a now retired mentor, and Victor Betancourt, executive director of Marymount’s Center for Global Education. Since then, more than 125 students have traveled with Rimkus to Gales Point.
During the 2008 trip, Gales Point was hit by two tropical storms at once, Arthur coming from the Atlantic and Alma from the Pacific.
“There wasn’t a lot of forceful wind, but it dumped a whole lot of rain on us,” he said. “The road was gone and we were surrounded by four to five feet of water.”
Rimkus and the four students with him were evacuated by helicopter.
The next year, when he arrived with 14 students, Rimkus was presented with a handmade drum by the town’s most prominent musician.
“He had lost it in the storm,” Rimkus said. “The week before I was scheduled to return, the drum washed ashore, so he re-skinned it and presented it to me. He told me it must belong to me.”
That year Rimkus and Marymount started Hawksbill Hope, a nonprofit that provides support to the turtle tracking program and pays for supplies and the wages of local people who monitor the nesting beaches. Hawksbill Hope has also supported school lunch programs, along with clothing, shoe and food drives for the people of Gales Point. Additionally, it buys turtle necklaces, bracelets, mugs and cups carved from coconut shells by local artisans, supporting the local economy. These items are used as gifts to those who make donations to Hawksbill Hope.
Gales Point is home to fewer than 500 people, descendants of runaway slaves from the time when Belize was a British Colony. They make their living fishing, farming, hunting and making drums.
“They look forward to seeing us each year,” Rimkus said. “We’re a huge group for a place that typically gets seven or eight visitors a month. The whole community comes together and celebrates with traditional African drumming and dancing.”
This year the Marymount group surprised the villagers with “turtle tracker” T-shirts in thanks for their hospitality. The Marymount group got a surprise of their own, too, tagging a turtle on the very first night of the trip.
“Usually everyone is very exhausted after the day of travel but nine kids went out to the beach, even though I tried to talk them out of it,” Rimkus said. This was one time he was glad the undergraduates didn’t listen to him.
“Several of us were on the beach, and we heard a call on the radio, ‘We got one!’” said Marymount Senior Christine Lukban. “We were completely ecstatic to have a turtle within 24 hours of being in Belize.”
“That was the first time that ever happened, and it was just an amazing experience that set the tone for the whole trip,” Rimkus said. “On some trips, we don’t get to tag a turtle until the last day.”
The group named the young female hawksbill Meeko, and after evaluating her health and gathering data, she was fitted with a small transmitter that uplinks the turtle’s location data each time she surfaces to breath. Meeko was then released.
This year the group used a new tag, with batteries that should last two years. The $2,000 cost is paid for by Rimkus’ Marymount research budget and supplemented by Hawksbill Hope.
During the year, several Marymount students will help Rimkus collect and analyze data from the tracking devices in order to predict waters and beaches visited most often by the critically endangered turtles for feeding and resting. Among the groups that use the information is the Belize fisheries department, which then prevents fishing and shrimping in those key areas.
In all, MU students have tagged 24 turtles over the years. Four tags are currently active.
In addition to the work with turtles in Belize, students explore coral reefs while snorkeling, hike Mayan ruins, observe a manatee refuge and more. But as Rimkus points out, students learn more than science.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth,” Rimkus said. “You walk down a dirt road into town. The villagers have the simplest lifestyle you’ll ever see and yet they’re the happiest people you’ll ever meet. One thing I hear over and over from students is the recognition that their own lives could be a little simpler and that they can do more for people who have less. If I can get students to think that, not only am I doing my job teaching that course, I’m contributing something to humanity.”
Dr. Todd Rimkus, chair of Marymount University’s department of biology and physical sciences, has been traveling to Belize for the past 10 years to study endangered hawksbill sea turtles. Rimkus and a young Belizean are pictured with a turtle that’s about to be tagged with a GPS satellite tracker.
Over the years, Dr. Todd Rimkus has taken 125 Marymount University students to Belize as part of a course on marine biology and tropical ecology.
Marymount students explore coral reefs while at Gales Point, Belize.
Jacob Thomas and Christine Lukban are pictured at Xunantunich (Stone Lady) Mayan Ruins on top of El Castillo in Belize.
This year the group from Marymount University took more than 200 “turtle tracker” T-shirts to give away when they visited Belize.