Madelyn In TCI: Going Home

January 6, 2020

Well, today is my second day home. It’s strange. I don’t know how to put into words how much I miss my friends from this semester. Saying goodbye was so difficult. The morning of our departure I took a moment away from last minute packing and walked over to the conch wall. The conch wall is a little stone wall that goes along the edge of the cliff and has many sets of benches that overlook the ocean. It’s where we would go to be alone, thoughtful, or simply appreciate the ocean. It was the place where many deep, authentic conversations occurred, and where students would sit and play the guitar by themselves. Saying goodbye to that spot felt like saying goodbye to the center.

The Conch Wall

Before getting in the truck to head to the airport, we all signed out of the center for the last time, writing our hometowns as our destination, and leaving our time-in slot empty. When I saw that, I broke and my eyes started leaking, which created a chain effect of five other girls also crying and all of us laughing at ourselves.

Signing Out

Our first flight was just to get to Provo, the main island. It’s only 14 minutes in a very small plane. The entire time I stared out the window, watching the water, seeing the Salinas on the island and realizing I wouldn’t go running along them in the mornings to see flamingos anymore. It was so hard to wrap my brain around the fact that we were actually leaving, all of us going home and wouldn’t see each other for a very long time. The entire semester we had all been so present, focused only on what was happening in that moment and enjoying it as much as possible. It felt like it could never end, because none of us wanted to think about the end. We were on different planes to Provo, but all met up in that airport for a final goodbye. I had the first flight with two friends, going to Fort Lauderdale airport for a layover. The goodbye was full of tears and hugs. As much as it hurt to say goodbye to everybody, it was also so amazing to know that in such a brief period, we formed such intense connections and shared amazing experiences that made it so difficult to say goodbye. I think it would’ve been sadder to say goodbye if nobody really cared about it. We knew that we couldn’t have any regrets from the semester; we had done everything we wanted and lived a very intense, authentic lifestyle together. I still cried though, wishing it could last longer. Life just doesn’t work that way though.

When we got to Florida, I was very grateful for having two of my friends still with me. I had a 7-hour layover, and we were together for four of those hours, until both of them took different flights. I spent the rest of the time watching happy Christmas movies to cheer myself up. Landing in Philly airport was… cold. I spent the last 6 months in an eternal summer, where 75 degrees felt chilly. And suddenly it was 30 degrees and my breath made clouds of smoke outside. SO WEIRD! It was really fantastic to see my dad again and have the hour-long ride back home to catch up and tell him all of the fun stories from this semester! Even though it was 2 AM, the first thing I did when I got home was take a long, hot, freshwater shower, for the first time in 3 months. That was amazing, to feel entirely clean before going to bed. I’m going to miss my friends and the time I spent on that Caribbean island so much, but I am excited to see everybody again and hear all of the new adventures! I’m also excited to incorporate everything I learned there, particularly a sustainable lifestyle, into my present and future life. On to the next adventure!

The Last Sunset


Madelyn In TCI: Sunset at Long Cay

January 3, 2020

Today is our last full day here (I swear I’m not freaking out about it). All morning was spent doing site and room clean-up, and maybe packing? We’re all in denial about leaving tomorrow, which is probably not very healthy. It’s been such an incredible time here and we’re all going to miss each other so much. Cleaning everything made me feel a bit better about it all, just because it gave my mind something else to focus on.

Sunrise

After lunch, we went on our long-promised trip to Long Cay. Long Cay is right in our view when we look out at the ocean from our center, and we’ve been excited to finally go there. They told us we would go to watch the sunset on the very last day of our trip, as long as we all were fairly well-behaved throughout the semester and didn’t do anything too atrocious. I’m not sure what would’ve constituted “too atrocious”, because we were all certainly menaces throughout the semester. We went out at 1:30, after lunch. There are many iguanas on the island who get fed by tourists, and so they are very friendly. When we started along the rocky path, one of them ran right at us, stopping about a foot away. If you’ve never seen an iguana run, you should definitely look it up – it’s a very strange movement that reminds me a bit of the way that Phoebe from Friends runs.

Long Cay has a high elevation and turns into cliffs on the far side. Standing along the edge was absolutely stunning, reminding me of New Zealand or Ireland. The limestone cliffs cut sharply down into the water, where waves beat against the rocks, spraying white foam into the air.

Long Cay Cliffs

My friends and I adventured around the cliffs, watching the water. There was a drastic gradient, with white and teal by the rocks. A bit farther out, there were patches of turquoise, indicating the sandy bottom. Other areas were dominated by dark blue waters that deepened to indigo in the distance. We watched a green turtle bobbing up and down on the waves for a long while, which was very cute. I stood on the edge of the cliff and spread my arms out to feel the wind, pretending I was an osprey. I could feel the spray from the ocean on my face. Even though I’ve not been looking forward to leaving, in that moment I couldn’t feel anything but happy.

Me On The Cliff

My Friends

Although it’s sad that the program is over, it feels so amazing that we did it!

When we got back on the boat, the sun was setting, casting a lavender glow over the clouds. A rain cloud was coming over South Caicos, casting a rainbow through half of the sky, while the full moon floated between the rainbow and the cliffs of Long Cay. It seemed as if South Caicos knew we were leaving, and gave us every bit of beauty it could offer for our last evening.


Madelyn In TCI: Black Spot Parasites

December 9, 2019

Time to talk about my research project here! There were many options of directed research, and I requested the one with my favorite professor here, even though it didn’t have a SCUBA component, only snorkel. Our project is analyzing how the presence and severity of a certain parasite that causes black spots on the body of its host might affect the Ocean Surgeonfish.

Field Work

The Ocean Surgeonfish eats a lot of algae on the coral reefs, which keeps the ecosystem healthy and allows the coral to grow further. But this parasite is one of those creepy ones that changes the behavior of its host. It basically hijacks the brain of the fish and makes it act very different. Our research is observing the Surgeonfish behavior and trying to determine a trend in the behavior changes of infected fish. We hypothesize that this parasite is causing the fish to behave more erratically and suppressing its anti-predator instincts, which would increase the likelihood of the fish getting eaten by an osprey, which is the next host of the parasite’s life cycle.

So, what does our actual field work look like? We go out every afternoon snorkeling for two hours and split up into buddy pairs. One of us videos the fish, while the other one records what the fish is doing exactly every 30 seconds when our timer goes off, and also records the number of bites every 30 seconds. We follow each fish for 10 minutes and record the number of black spots it has.

Recording Data

I really enjoy this type of field work because it forces me to focus on things that I typically wouldn’t notice. We are now well-acquainted with the typical behavior of the fish and notice when they do strange things. Then it’s easy to notice when the highly infected fish act strangely. We joke that they appear to be drunk, swimming erratically and running into rocks. We snorkel for about two hours each day collecting data, and usually by the end of it we’re all freezing cold and our hands are too numb to keep writing.

One day, after collecting behavioral data on many fish, we began to swim back to the boat. I dived down to swim along the sea grass upside down, looking up at the water surface. The change of perspective from doing this is always interesting- gazing at the waves distorting the sun rays that manage to filter through, I feel more as if I belong in this underwater reality. As I swam in this strange manner, I tilted my head back just a bit farther  to see where I was going, and realized that an eagle ray and I were swimming right towards each other!

A cute squid


Madelyn In TCI: Final Exams

December 4, 2019

This week was a bit of a marathon with our final exams. Our classes on this program end early, and the last few weeks are entirely focused on our directed research projects, which is exciting! But it also means that there is a lot of information squished into a small amount of time for our classes, and that can be a bit stressful and intense. On Tuesday we had our Environmental Policy test, which was open note… so easy, right? WRONG! It was 17 open-ended questions and four essay questions, and we had four hours. Needless to say, it was not my best writing. It was rather frustrating because I knew the information, but I didn’t have enough time to write properly and demonstrate my knowledge. In the afternoon we had our final for Marine Resource Management, which was a presentation we had been working on for several weeks. My group’s task was to develop a proposal for mass market tourism on the island of South Caicos, redesigning the protected areas of the island and explaining how we will feasibly develop the island to sustain 4,000 tourists per week. The irony of the entire project was that absolutely none of us would ever want to do that. South Caicos, in its rural, undeveloped state, has stolen a piece of all of our hearts. We’ve made friends with the locals and would never want to ruin their private paradise by introducing an influx of so many visitors on the island. Regardless, we made a presentation on it, and tried to create hypothetical policies to mitigate the effects. I think that we did well, but we haven’t gotten grades back yet!

After a few days of directed research work, we also had our Marine Ecology final. The final was scheduled from 9am-5pm, which seemed pretty daunting, but none of us thought it would actually take that long. The first half of the exam was closed-book and I had studied well. I was able to regurgitate all the information about the effects of hurricanes on coral reefs, the root structure of sea grass, and the different effects of parasites on fish behavior. I finished that part within an hour and began the open-note section. Our task was to design a 20-minute presentation on Mangrove Soil, a topic never covered in our course. Since the internet was down all week, our professor provided us with a folder of scientific papers on a variety of subjects to do with mangroves and relevant pictures. While reading through the papers, I learned a lot! I learned that some crabs love to eat mangrove leaves and will actually store leaves in their dens until they become rotten. Apparently, the tannin in fresh leaves are too bitter, and the crabs like the taste after they’ve decayed. I learned that mangroves can save lives by blocking the majority of the destruction from tsunamis, essentially sacrificing themselves. What I found particularly frustrating though, was that I didn’t have enough time to put everything that I learned into the presentation, and it certainly didn’t look nice. At 4:59 I added a theme to my slides and threw in two pictures, then submitted it.

Jumping off the dock at Regatta.

By 5:10 I was running out of the center with a bunch of my fellow students. We ranted our way to the nearest beach, all of us venting the same frustrations from our finals. When we arrived at the beach, we ran/fell into the water and collectively screamed under water, then swam over and climbed onto the dock. Jumping off the dock was exactly what I needed in that moment, and it just seemed to entirely release all of the stress and frustration from the entire week. Regardless of how our finals had gone, at least they were over now and we knew we had done as best as possible. Now we just have directed research to look forward to!

Sunset on the boats.


A Deep Dive

November 21, 2019

This morning I had a deep dive with just one other girl and a waterfront staff. It was lovely to dive with only two people, especially because we were all friends. Communication underwater is sometimes very difficult, since words can’t be used and it can be hard to get somebody’s attention without the ability to yell out their name. For small groups though, it gets much easier to understand everybody and know where all dive members are throughout the dive. Quite shortly after descent, I grabbed my dive buddy and excitedly put the side of my hand against my forehead to sign “Shark!” Sometimes I get a little too excited with this signal and end up wacking my head repeatedly with my hand. A black tip reef shark was swimming along the drop-off in front of us.

We watched as it swam away, and then looked at each other and danced underwater. Seeing sharks never seems to get old. Then we descended along the wall of the drop-off. Seeing the corals at these depths was absolutely amazing. At shallower depths, corals tend to form in mounds or boulders, but at deeper depths, they grow in flat plates to maximize the light they receive from the surface. As we were swimming along the wall, the distinct line of difference was so fascinating! The wall turned into a slight overhang and corals of various fluorescent colors covered the surface in strange patterns. Bright purple sponges hung down like alien stalactites, and a lionfish was tucked inside one of the corners of the rocks, its black and white striped fins drifting slowly with the current. Looking down, I saw two humongous orange and black crabs, at least two feet across! I wanted to swim down to look at them closer, but remembered to check my depth. The perfectly clear water of the Caribbean makes it difficult to remember just how deep we actually are, and I was shocked to realize I was already at 100 feet, the maximum depth for recreational diving.

Diving

As we swam along further, we noticed a nurse shark swimming along the wall towards us. I always enjoy seeing nurse sharks – they seem so sweet and harmless. Sharks really get a bad reputation in general. Here, we are a bunch of environmental nerds and seeing a shark usually makes our day!

Being relaxed for the dive made it a lot easier, and my air consumption was very low: I still had a third of a tank left when we ascended! Having such a good dive always puts me in a great mood for the rest of the day, and I feel very fortunate to be able to get in the water every day here.


Madelyn In TCI: Another Perspective

November 11, 2019

This morning I woke up at 6 am for a bit of peace before classes. The sun was just beginning to rise: plum clouds towered against a peach backdrop, a silver crescent moon still shining high in the sky. Our first class was presenting our results from surveys that we did the week before on Providenciales (or Provo, as the locals call it). We went along the beach and shops hoping to find tourists willing to fill out our one-page survey. The experience taught me sympathy for anybody who approaches me asking to fill out a survey in the future, because it wasn’t always fun. Fortunately, a lot of the people we asked were very friendly and didn’t mind taking a few minutes to fill it out. My group was investigating tourists’ willingness to learn about environmentally friendly choices while traveling.

We found that most tourists were very interested in learning more about making simple yet impactful decisions they can make for the environment, and that most hotels and resorts aren’t providing this information to their guests. Tourism can be very harmful to the local ecosystems, mainly due to lack of knowledge. For example, most tourists don’t know that standard sunscreen has chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. Worse, the brand “Reef-Safe” sunscreen still contains oxybenzone, which is the primary damaging ingredient. If you’re looking for a sunscreen that is actually safe for the environment, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the best active ingredients. Presenting our results to our classmates was interesting, and we recommended that hotels and resorts begin providing their guests with more eco-friendly information to mitigate the impact that tourism typically has on the environment.

The beach in Provo.

After lunch, we had class at 2 pm. Our professor and all of us were fairly exhausted from the previous days so we watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a film that takes aspects of our culture that we take for granted and turned it into a bit of a parody, showing the absurdity of everything. I would highly recommend the movie; it’s a good laugh but also subtly introduces deep philosophical arguments.

After, we had a bit of a break, so I took a walk to the Boiling Hole. The Boiling Hole is in the center of the Salinas, where they used to collect salt. It is a hole where water rises during the high tide and goes down during low tide. The islanders built a cement wall with a door around it, and they used it to control the amount of saltwater in the Salinas to optimize salt collection. Now it is a historical site on the island and a peaceful place to sit and think. The walk typically features flamingos and many other migratory birds that birdwatchers find interesting, but I don’t know many of their names.  

After dinner we went out to the basketball tournament. Once a year, South Caicos hosts a basketball tournament against teams from the other islands, and the community is very proud of their team. Rightly so, South crushed the team from Provo, the mainland, 86-0 the first night! Even though I’m only a visitor here, I felt a sense of pride and satisfaction to watch South win. These are same kids I help weekly with math homework, who’s high school is still being rebuilt after the hurricane two years ago, who face more challenges in their young life already than I can even imagine. Yet despite that, they won so completely against teams from much more privileged places in the TCI.

Sunset over the Sea.


Madelyn In TCI: Exploring the Islands

October 30, 2019

This past week we had our mid-semester field trip, which ended on Providenciales (Provo). It was incredible to see the other islands and experience such different cultures within the same country. First, we took a ferry from South Caicos to North Caicos, and the difference between the islands was drastic. North’s soil is much more fertile than the other islands, and it was quite evident when looking at the vegetation. There were so many large trees replacing the basic shrubs that survive the droughts on South. At times it felt almost like a jungle on North, and the mosquitoes were just as bad! We went to Wade’s Plantation, which is a historical site of the oldest plantation in Turks and Caicos. The tour of it was somewhat brief because of the mosquitoes, but we learned more about it later that evening. Apparently, the original historians who looked at the site got EVERYTHING wrong, but made signs around the site labeling each building (incorrectly) that now can’t be taken down as it could damage the structural integrity of the buildings. We also learned that the majority of residents of the TCI have ancestors who used to be enslaved on Wade’s Plantation, or other similar plantations.

After we left Wade’s Plantation, we drove to Mudjin Harbor, on Middle Caicos. The second we saw the water, everybody’s jaw dropped. It was beyond stunning. We went swimming for a while and felt that we were in the most beautiful beach in the world.

Overlook at Mudjin Harbor

After Mudjin Harbor, we headed over to the Conch Bar Caves in Middle Caicos. There are many different species of bats inside, which our guide pointed out to us. They were all very cute and sleeping, so I was guilty shining my light on them. I know I’d be pretty upset if somebody came up to my bed in the middle of the night and shined a bright light on me. We also learned that the cave system had been occasionally used by the Lucayans, the now-extinct natives. We learned later that the Lucayans used the caves more as a punishment for ostracized members, believing that it was connected to the underworld. One room was named the Christmas Room, because it was believed that the Lucayans came in there to celebrate Christmas and sing hymns, due to the wonderful acoustics. Despite the fact that Lucayans would’ve never heard of Christianity. The first historians who tried to define the TCI did not do a very good job, but their misnomers appear to be a bit of a joke now.

We had a little break in the late afternoon to rest at the community center where we would spend the night, then went for dinner and a bonfire at a local’s house. He goes by Naqqi and seems to know everything about all of the islands. Naqqi studied at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, which happens to be where my parents went to college! Sometimes the world feels very small. He told us more about Wade’s Plantation, the Conch Bar Caves, and history of the island in general. It’s amazing how well-informed many of the locals are in their history and culture; talking to them is always a treat and offers a lot more information than any class can cover. I would’ve enjoyed staying to talk to him more about everything, but many of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I had at least 40 bites despite long pants and several reapplications of bug spray, and I was one of the more fortunate in our group. That night we all had a make-shift slumber party on floor mats in the community center. We were all quite dirty and gross, but without a shower available, we consoled ourselves with the understanding that we were all in the same boat. It was a busy, adventurous day. I really enjoyed exploring different parts of the country and understanding more about what happens outside of South Caicos.


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