Brie Cokos is a marine scientist at Ocean Consulting, LLC, in Miami, as well as a competitive rugby player, traveler, and writer. Thanks to her go-with-the-flow travel philosophy, she landed in Belize in 2001 and ended up staying for three years, exploring and researching the coral reef ecosystems of Glover’s Reef Atoll. It changed her perspective, her career, and her life.
Amble Resorts: So how exactly did you end up in Belize?
Brie Cokos: Well, it was a bit of good fortune, but I think Belize was definitely going to cross my path at some point. I wanted to experience a different culture and immerse myself in a world totally foreign to me. I opted to pursue Environmental Biology at Columbia University and I had to do an internship before my senior year. I went for what sounded the most exotic: coral reef ecology in Belize. Living on a secluded atoll with five other people – perfect.
AR: What was it like?
BC: I lived on Middle Caye, one of the five islands that makes up Glovers Reef Atoll. It is about 17 acres of dense brush. There is a little section of the island carved out for the staff and guests – no tourists allowed. I lived there for two and a half months. The only other people I saw were the local staff: a cook, caretaker, boat captain, divemaster, and the station manager. We had limited phone service, no internet at the time, and limited electricity.
AR: Was it strange living in the middle of nowhere?
BC: At first, I was totally shell-shocked. I flew from the heart of Manhattan to a place 40 miles off the coast of Belize, a country that has the population of the neighborhood I came from. The night sounds really stood out to me. I heard so many noises that I couldn’t identify. It frightened me, actually. Plus, I became a prime target for the “locals,” by which I mean sandflies and mosquitoes. After the first week, I had so many bites it looked like I had contracted smallpox. I counted 50 on one foot.
AR: Yikes! What made you stick it out?
BC: Something really stirred in me as the days went by. My fears, and my longing for the night world that I had left – the pubs, movies, TV, internet – started to dissipate as I began to live the island life. I was eating the freshest foods, sleeping a full night (electricity was cut at 9 p.m., and the sun comes up at 6 a.m.), and working hard in the field. Simplicity became a way of life.
AR: What did you do for fun?
BC: I started venturing out into the “wild” half of the island by myself and would just watch a sunset or snorkel off the back end of the island. It was the simple pleasures of “real” living that captivated me. I thought one day, “This is my church.” That may sound corny, but the place really embodied a spiritual sanctuary to me. Funny enough, the bugs stopped biting.
AR: Did you learn to snorkel in Belize?
BC: I arrived in Belize a good swimmer and very comfortable with the water from my summers spent on the Jersey shore, but I didn’t know much about snorkeling and didn’t know how to dive. Within the first day, snorkeling became second nature to me. I’m fairly fit and the water is generally very calm and warm, so that part was easy. Plus, I had no choice! The lead investigator who set up my work believed I was a pro, so I just had to go with it.
AR: What was your initiation into scuba diving like?
BC: I was sitting at the dominoes table one day and the boat captain said, “Brie, gal, ya wanna get wet today?” Now, Caribbean men have a tendency to lace their words in various innuendoes, but I knew he meant scuba diving because I had expressed interest before. A woman born and bred on Long Caye (one of the neighboring islands) taught me the ropes and within a few days, I was dropping down into the biggest fish tank I had ever seen. But I was inside the tank! 150-foot visibility. It was intense!
AR: Tell us about your wildest diving adventure in Belize.
BC: Well… I agreed to step in as divemaster for a friend’s resort when his real divemaster was on vacation. I was leading a group of pale middle-aged American tourists on a wall dive. I was about 80 feet down when I started thinking “These people are in my care! What do I do if one of them has a problem?!”
Panic set in and I started to hyperventilate. I thought I might have to dart to the surface, but you can’t do that or you’ll really hurt yourself, so I literally grabbed onto the sloping wall in front of me and stared at it as intensely as I could. The focus helped my mind relax and my heartbeat returned to normal. When I snapped out of it, I realized that the eight divers with me were all looking at the same patch of coral as intensely as I was… They thought I had seen some really exotic creature and wanted to know where it was. I played it like they had just missed the biggest eel of all time. I never led tourists on a dive again.
AR: What’s the craziest creature you’ve actually seen?
BC: The most fabulous creature that I’ve seen in Belize was a whale shark. It’s a 40-foot fish!
AR: How did your experience out on Belize’s remote cayes change your perspective?
BC: After I had lived in Belize for about two years, I went back [to the States] for the holidays. I had lived in a very poor part of Belize, so I hadn’t seen opulence for a long stretch of time. I recall sitting at the table, on Thanksgiving, seeing every inch of tablecloth covered by platters of food. It was more food than the people whom I interacted with would ever see in one place. Again, simplicity seemed to suit me just fine. No need for three different kinds of sweet potato!
AR: And how did it bring you to work in environmental consulting?
BC: My life now is not as glamorous, but it is directly influenced by the work I did in Belize. One day I woke up on Middle Caye and thought, if I don’t leave now, I will never leave, and I feel like I have more to offer the world. I also published a few articles based on my reef work in Belize, and watched the message they conveyed go completely unnoticed by the folks capable of making conservation management decisions. I was really bothered by that. Why do these scientists find out how to best manage or preserve a place if the government folks just give in to local pressure from the other stakeholders?
AR: So what do you do now?
BC: I am living the vision I had went I left Belize. I’m the scientist who serves as the mediator between all the stakeholders – developers, local laborers (fishermen, divemasters, etc.), and the government. I work for a small company that helps coastal developers – from the big resorts to the little marinas – blend their needs and wants with the various government agencies that permit such actions. We strive to help developers reduce and minimize impacts to marine resources to the greatest extent possible.