Open Reef Mapping Society Lifts Off in Belize!

by Christine Munisteri, Open Reef Staff Member

Imagine the possibilities for citizen science, research and education with crystal clear, high resolution and FREE imagery of the Belize Barrier Reef Islands. Three months ago on a trip out to the cayes of Belize during a project with the Citizen Science GIS National Science Foundation REU Site, the idea for the Open Reef Mapping Society was born. A couple weeks ago, we turned that idea into reality with funding from the University of Central Florida and the Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI), as we traveled around Belize collecting aerial imagery of approximately 30 islands using DJI Phantom 4 drones, Pix4D, Agisoft, and ArcGIS Online. The common sentiment amongst the team during our week in Belize was excitement. Excited that we were actually there, embarking on this new project. Excited, once again, by the beauty of our surroundings. Excited by the stories told to us by people we met on the cayes. Excited by the support and suggestions pouring in through social media. Excited that our work is possible: together with you, everything is possible!

Open Reef staff at our last stop on Day 1, Sergeant’s Caye!

This is an example of the imagery that is currently available online…


And this is the incredibly clear imagery we are producing! Both images are of Goff’s Caye.

Our adventure began on Sunday, October 23. Immediately after landing in Belize City, we headed out to Caye Caulker to meet up with Joni Miller, co-founder of Ocean Academy, and some of her students. Sunday was arguably the most important day of the week, as it was essentially the pilot of our pilot project. After flying only one island, we figured out the most efficient flight paths, the best way launch from and land on a boat, and how to do those things in windy conditions. (It is important to note that this was all done on a large catamaran, so most tasks became trickier as the week went on and we graduated to smaller vessels.)

Nick setting up the drone with the assistance of Caye Caulker youth.

Calibrating the drone.

This first trip was a perfect opportunity to ask students from Caye Caulker, tour guides, and educators how they saw themselves using our data. One idea came from our captain, Carlos Ayala. He told us that many of the islands around Belize City are composed primarily of mangroves, which tend to grow into channels, making common boat routes impassable. This concern of outdated nautical charts was echoed later in the week by members of the Belize Port Authority and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Boating through mangrove islands near North Drowned Caye.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were spent on the cayes off of Belize City with partners from Coastal Zone Management, Port Authority, and University of Belize. On each of these days we headed to the cayes at 8:30 in the morning, flew until around noon when batteries needed to be recharged (ours and the drones’), and then flew until 4:30 when shadows became too overpowering. These first three days were incredible and we had several successes: 1) We were able to map 20 islands in this period of time and the images are incredible. 2) Our followers on social media have been acting as virtual consultants, giving us new ideas for how to use the data. They have also expressed interest in assisting with this massive citizen science GIS opportunity to share open data about the Belize Barrier Reef with the world! This is something we look forward to each day; we love seeing people engaging with the imagery and their excitement reminds us why this is important. 3) We met a number of great people who were thrilled about Open Reef and told us stories of the cayes. One of these people was Mr. Kenneth Burgess. He manages Foreman’s Caye, which is a manmade island near Spanish Lookout. The island is amazing, and not only because of the eight puppies running around!

Puppies on Foreman’s Caye!

Mr. Burgess graciously let us wander around the island, told us about its history, and showed us damages from Hurricane Earl (August, 2016). That conversation was one of the highlights of the week. Informal interactions like these are how we make new connections and learn more about the places we are lucky enough to map through Open Reef. We are going to be sharing these incredible stories of the reef through ArGIS Story Maps throughout the life of this project. We’d love to share yours as well!

Dr. Hawthorne chatting with Mr. Burgess on Foreman’s Caye.

The Open Reef team on North Drowned Caye on Day 1!

Christine and Dr. Hawthorne flying at Rendezvous Caye.

Keeping an eye on the drone at North Drowned Caye.

Jani securing the drone after flying Castillo Caye. A storm cut our afternoon of flying short.

While the first three days were successful more often than not, we did face some challenges. Challenge #1: We had finally encountered large mangrove islands with very few features to keep ourselves oriented. Solution: Fly higher. Challenge #2: Weather. Solution: Have knowledgeable captains that can dodge storms. Challenge #3: Sometimes SD cards fail and we lose our images. Solution: Backup the data after each flight. All of these issues were important learning experiences that will only help us improve the official project.

Thursday was for meetings, starting at CZMAI in Belize City and ending at the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan. Both were attended by representatives from groups including the Environmental Research Institute, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Caribbean Community Climate Change Center, TBSL, and Wildlife Conservation Society. In both meetings, Open Reef was met with excitement and great suggestions for the future, as well as the potential for new collaborations. After finishing at the Embassy, we headed down to Hopkins with three representatives from the summer’s NSF research team, who returned to follow up on their earlier work.

The goal for our short time in Hopkins with Open Reef was the same as it was in Belize City: map as many cayes as possible. This, however, was more difficult than it was up north because we did not have access to a power inverter to charge the drone batteries while on the boat. Each of the six batteries lasts approximately 25 minutes, leaving us with about two and a half hours of flight time. Over the two days, we mapped about 10 cayes. On Saturday we brought some of the kids from Hopkins out to map with us. For most of the five kids that came with us, it was their first time going to these cayes. That is one of the major goals of our project: engaging youth in the environment around them and teaching them how technology can be applied to so many of the issues we face today. We ended the Open Reef pilot week with some relaxation on Bread and Butter Caye and made it back to Hopkins just in time to watch the sun set over the lagoon.

A few of our friends from Hopkins on the way out to South Water Caye!

A view of the sunset from Hopkins.

This past week was a critical component for the success of the Open Reef Mapping Society. We are lucky enough to have incredible partners at University of Central Florida, University of Belize, CZMAI, and the Belize Port Authority, and working with them was invaluable for improving our upcoming plans for the official launch of the Open Reef Mapping Society. We look forward to seeing Open Reef take off (pun intended) in the coming months and for more collaborations with individuals and organizations! Join the movement: together, everything is possible! #openreef #citizensciencegis

Check out these videos on our Facebook page for more information!

A shot of tiny Sergeant’s Caye.

Sections of North Drowned Caye.


Images like this can be used to assess storm damage and land use.

These photos can be used to determine relative depths and benthic cover, both of which are useful for navigation.

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