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.


Madelyn In TCI: Hunting Lionfish

October 23, 2019

Today was a rather busy day for me but it’s difficult to complain when I enjoy everything that I’m doing! In the morning I went with my professor to help clean up Sargassum from one of the beaches on South Caicos. We drove in Big Red to a spot near the other side of the island; it was a beautiful drive! All of the rain in the past weeks has transformed the entire island, bringing up lush grasses and turning the leaves a vibrant green. Compared to the brown, straggly shrubbery that dominated the island when we first arrived, the island seemed to me nearly a rain forest (with just as many mosquitoes). Unfortunately, the dirt road to our destination was flooded for a significant portion, so we had to turn around and hope to try again the following week.

Flooded Road

When we got back to the research center, I went to elementary school for community outreach. Today I was in the kindergarten classroom and showed them about Australian animals; I found the best way to occupy the young children’s attention is by showing them pictures of animals and acting them out. I might actually be getting the hang of how to interact with kids! 

Hanging with Kids

After lunch, I had a lionfish hunting dive. Lionfish are a terribly successful invasive species. They’re very beautiful looking and were traded as exotic aquarium fish. They first appeared in the ocean off the coast of Florida in 1985, and since then have spread all throughout the Caribbean Sea and up the east coast of the U.S. Their venomous spines protect them from any potential natural predators, and they eat an absurd amount of all fish species, decimating local populations. Lionfish have a very fascinating method of hunting: they fan out their fins and spines to corral their prey into a corner, then unhinge their jaw and quickly suction their prey into their mouths.

Lionfish

For our dive, I laid out a 100 meter transect while the rest of the group followed slightly behind me and looked around the rocks and in crevices for lionfish. Although it took a little while, one of our group members finally spotted a small lionfish and pointed it out to our professor, who had a spear. The lionfish’s invulnerability was rather evident in its behavior; it hovered in front of a rock, seemingly unperturbed by the approach of a human. The spear went right through the lionfish and crunched on the rocks behind it, a very abrupt sound underwater. As the lionfish was put into the bin carried by our waterfront assistant, we recorded the time, depth, habitat, and other useful information about the capture.

When we got back to the research center, we dissected the lionfish. First, we had to cut off all the spines to avoid getting pricked; they’re still dangerous after death. Our professor dug through the fat and found the stomach, which had 2 fish inside of it; one of them was missing its head. Both fish were surprisingly large in comparison to the size of the lionfish. Once we had collected all of the necessary information, we added it to a large spreadsheet with all of the information about lionfish captures in the area. Since the lionfish have no natural predators and are very destructive to the ecosystem, there has been a lot of research and effort to control their numbers and spread. That’s one of the projects that School for Field Studies in South Caicos is working on. The staff go out every Sunday for these lionfish hunts, which appear to be fairly successful when done this often. It was very interesting to help out with the project, although I honestly felt a little bit morally unsound with taking part in killing another creature. It’s an odd dilemma: on one hand, the lionfish are extremely harmful to the environment and the other organisms that live there. On the other hand, a lionfish is still a living creature that is just very well-adapted and was born in the wrong place. I suppose this is a common dilemma when dealing with invasive species, and I’ll just have to figure out how to excuse it. So much for science always being black and white!


Madelyn In TCI: Classroom Outreach

October 10, 2019

This Wednesday it rained, hard. I woke up at 6:30 when the rain began, and it sounded like the entire sky was falling down on us. The wind blew the water sideways and I moved my things away from the windows to keep them dry. We don’t have classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays; they’re dedicated to waterfront and community outreach. After breakfast, we learned that all of the dives for the day were cancelled, on account of the constant thunder. Instead, I signed up for as many outreach events as possible. It was still pouring when we got in the truck, ‘Big Red’, and drove to the Christian elementary school. There were five of us, plus our staff member. We ran from the truck into a small building that looked more like a house, and the woman who ran the school opened up the door for us as we ducked inside, already dripping from the rain. Inside, we found the teacher and only one, small, lonesome student. Apparently, nobody else showed up on account of the rain so the teacher cancelled class, but this one girl ‘snuck in’. The teacher didn’t have a number to call for the girl and didn’t know who she was staying with now. The idea that this 5-year-old girl was being shuffled around in homes on the island struck me as very odd and concerning, but I didn’t feel it my place to pry. 

Big Red and Little Red

After the failed attempt for the Christian elementary school, I went to the public elementary school. My goal there was to educate the 1st grade students about a different country. However, there was only one, very dedicated girl in the 1st grade classroom. Since I don’t do well with large groups of children, I was rather relieved. She was very sweet and respectful, and she was extremely interested in the presentation of Australia and Madagascar animals that we showed her during our presentations. I was honestly most impressed when she reviewed the information that my fellow scholar showed her about Madagascarian animals and described to me how a particular lemur uses its long finger to tap on the tree and listen for the buzz of insects. It was the first very obvious proof of my making a difference in the education of a young child, and I took it to heart. For the first time, I was somewhat disappointed when the hour was up and it was time to go.

The kindergarten class that I was to go to next was also cancelled, due to nobody showing up, so we went back to the research center. There, I learned that soccer practice for the afternoon was also cancelled, which was another outreach event I was scheduled to help with. As a result, the majority of my day was very relaxed, and I had time to get caught up on my work. Fortunately for me, my livelihood doesn’t depend on these activities.

I thought it was extremely strange that school should be cancelled just for a bit of rain; what should the island do if there were to be snow?! When I expressed my confusion to the staff at School for Field Studies, they told me that the rain tends to flood most of the streets in town. The arid land isn’t used to torrential downpours and doesn’t have the capacity to absorb the water, so it just flows in rivers along the streets. Since most of the students walk to school, this creates a serious problem for their attendance. It was fascinating to learn more about the circumstances that impact areas to disproportional degrees. It also made me consider that climate change increases the intensity of weather around the world. Already, South Caicos was in a deep drought from March to September, before these massive storms began during hurricane season. On a small scale, how might the escalation of these weather patterns affect simply the education of children on South Caicos? And how might it affect the general livelihoods of the residents of this island, living in such closeness and vulnerability to the patterns of the natural world?


Madelyn In TCI: Class in the Field

October 4, 2019

This morning was a relaxed one; after a simple breakfast we had a morning debriefing for the day, and then I was free for the rest of the morning while another group went out to do the field exercise. I laid in the hammock garden and did some of the readings for our classes; it’s mostly scientific papers on fishery management, which I actually enjoy. Tropical storm Jerry is coming towards us and rain is forecasted for the next week and a half, so I enjoyed the bit of sunshine while it lasted. Lunch was delicious and healthy, as always. I was on kitchen crew today, so we cleaned up the food after lunch and washed all the dishes together. After lunch, my group and I grabbed our snorkel stuff and piled into the two trucks with our professor and teaching assistants. I sat in the bed of the truck because I love the breeze and the views, despite the mosquitoes and dust. On the way to East Bay Beach we passed the salt flats and saw numerous flamingos, which never seems to get old! As soon as the truck stopped by the beach, the mosquitoes began to swarm. It’s been raining more here, which means there is standing water on the island and hordes of mosquitoes. At least we can have freshwater showers now though (we collect and filter our freshwater from the rainwater). There’s always a silver lining 🙂

At the beach we split into groups of three with our underwater slates, a 100m transect line, and a ½ meter square made out of PVC pipe. One student in each group swam directly out from the coast laying down the transect line and sat out in the water alone until joined by the other members of his or her group. Meanwhile, the other two snorkeled along the transect line and dropped the PVC quadrat at 5 random distances, and on their underwater slates recorded the percentage of different seagrass coverage within the quadrant. Once they reached the third group member, they swam back all together and recorded all of the invertebrates they saw.

Seagrass meadows are homes for the juveniles of lots of different aquatic species; there are plenty of places for them to hide from predators until they grow up a bit. They also help keep the sediment in place and take excess nutrients out of the water, making the water more clear.

It was so much fun to do class exercises while snorkeling, and also very exciting to have a research purpose while snorkeling. It also provided a new perspective on the ecosystem; I was rather surprised at the count of live conch we found! We also found a lobster hiding in an old conch shell, several Giant Caribbean Sea Anemone, and a beautiful sand dollar.

A sand dollar in the bay

Seagrass meadows

When it was my turn to take the transect out and wait alone in the water, it was beautifully unsettling. The seagrass waved gently in unison in the surge and an occasional fish rushed by. Coming towards me from the distance I recognized a distinct, elongated shadow. Barracuda don’t actually attack humans, but they show a disturbing lack of fear around us and they simply look very mean, a perception that doesn’t improve when they allow their sharp teeth to show. They also have a very radical display when they’re hunting or aggressive: they flash black. This particular barracuda was pitch black, easily half a foot in diameter, and longer than my leg. It came up so close to me that I nervously kept my fins between us, unsure of how it might act. When my group members arrived and we swam back together, this barracuda followed us so close I was afraid I might touch it. Our data may have been a little bit skewed on the return because we were so distracted and somewhat terrified.

Laying out quadrats for seagrass coverage

When we finished our underwater surveys, my braid was entirely intertwined with a bushel of sargassum, which is a type of seaweed that has a particular affinity to my hair. It took me approximately 30 minutes under the saltwater shower to get it entirely out. The purpose of our field exercise was to collect and later analyze data on the effects of high quantities of sargassum on seagrass coverage. Sargassum is currently the highest algal bloom in all of the world of all time, and it’s causing a lot of problems all over the Caribbean, mainly with the tourism industry. Tourists don’t want to go to beaches that are clogged with rotting sargassum; it really ruins the aesthetic appeal. Researchers are still attempting to determine what is causing this massive algal bloom, but the most probable cause is from excess nutrients in the ocean due to deforestation of the Brazilian rain forest. One of our projects this semester is to help our professor determine the extent of damage that this excess alga causes on the ecosystem. It’s truly amazing to be a part of the worldwide effort to understand reverse climate change before it’s too late.


Madelyn In TCI: Diving with a Dolphin

September 23, 2019

We’ve finished Week 2 on the island, and I can’t believe it; so much happens every day! This Saturday was so unbelievably incredible. In the morning I went for a run along the salt flats of the island. The salt industry used to be huge on the island, but died off around the 60’s. Now the Salinas are a historical protected area that provide habitat for the island’s flamingos. It’s still very exciting to see their bright pink bodies apparently floating on a few feet above the water (their legs are too narrow to see from a distance). It was the full moon, which was still in the sky on the horizon as the sun rose.

Moonset over the beach.

After a quick breakfast I went on a morning dive, and the most incredible thing happened. I wore leggings and a rash guard instead of a wet-suit, which made me significantly more comfortable for the dive. The water is 85 degrees Fahrenheit, which is extremely comfortable even without a wet-suit. We dove below to the boat and there was so much coral and all sorts of fish swimming around it: Yellow Jacks, Parrotfish, Trumpet fish, Blue Tangs, and so many others that I haven’t yet learned the names to. The surf was very high, so a lot of the more flexible coral and algae swayed rhythmically as we swam along. About 20 minutes into the dive, I turned around and saw a huge shadow coming towards me. As it came closer, I wondered if it was a shark, but it wasn’t quite the right shape. After a few more seconds I realized: it was a dolphin!! It was much bigger than any of us, but I didn’t feel afraid. It swam right up to me, close enough that I could have reached out and touched it quite easily. Looking into my eyes, it swam right past me, and then circled around our group of divers, weaving between us and getting incredibly close to everybody. It also swam over top of us and I got the feeling that it was enjoying the tickling sensation of our bubbles as we exhaled under water. I was smiling so much that my mask kept flooding with water during the entire interaction, but I didn’t mind! Fortunately, somebody in my group had a camera on them and was able to film a good portion of it.

The whole interaction lasted about 2 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. It was truly the most amazing experience I’ve had. There are very few, random dolphins around Turks and Caicos, and I wasn’t expecting to see one this semester. Our dive master told us that he had been here for 25 years and had never had a dolphin interaction to that extent. I felt so blessed to be here and to have such an incredible opportunity. When we came back to land and I called my mom to tell her about it, I saw two eagle rays in the water just off the edge of the shore. It wasn’t even noon yet!

In the afternoon, we had our weekly outreach time, which is when children from the community come to our campus for games, swimming or snorkel lessons, and an all-around good time! The kids were so excited they were waiting outside over an hour before we opened the gates. This week I went out with a small group of children to the local beach with gloves and bags to pick up trash, as it was Environment Awareness Day. It wasn’t exactly fun, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. There was a very simple but profound satisfaction with every piece of trash we picked up, and especially looking at the collective result at the end of the hour.

Picking up trash on the beach.

All cleaned up!

 We are working on a project to decorate and set up large trash bins at this beach because litter is a regular problem here. To be completely honest, I would really enjoy doing this more in my free time here. There’s so much plastic waste and I know that I can’t clean it all up. Even so, I stayed hopeful by imagining that every bottle I picked up was one less fish that would get sick or killed from pollution. Every bit counts!


Madelyn In TCI: A Morning Dive

September 16, 2019

Hey y’all! So far I’ve been on the research base for nearly a whole week. Our actual classes begin on Monday; this week has been dedicated to tours of the island, the water front, and swim/snorkel/dive tests. Our schedule is usually packed with activities from 7am to 8pm, Monday through Saturday. Saturdays are particularly fun though! This Saturday I woke up at 5:30 am (it was still dark!!!) and enjoyed some quiet time to read until breakfast at 7am. I usually sit on a bench by the conch wall, which drops down to the ocean about 30 feet below, and the sound of the waves on the rocks is very soothing. After breakfast a group of us headed out onto the boat to scuba dive for the first time of the semester. We went out to a dive site where a plane had crashed and formed an artificial reef for many different and colorful fish to congregate around. From the boat, we sunk to the sea floor, which was about 60 ft. down. There were little patches of coral with all sorts of organisms. I saw a giant Caribbean Sea Anemone and the invasive Lionfish almost immediately. I’m currently having some issues with my underwater camera but will be including pictures in future blogs, so stay posted!

On the boat to explore the ocean.

We followed our dive leader to The Wall, where the seafloor drops from 60 ft. to about 300 ft. We felt like Nemo, going to the edge of the coral reef to stare out into the great expanse of open blue water. Along this edge a Great Barracuda saw me and began swimming directly towards me, probably curious. Their scales flash black if they’re truly being aggressive and this one remained silver, but it was still a little unnerving and I was relieved when it turned away. As the group meandered our way back to the boat, I saw a Green Sea Turtle swimming through the coral off to the side. I’m always fascinated by how unbothered and relaxed sea turtles look while they swim. A bit further on in the dive, a huge black fish took an interest in our group. It was about two feet tall and long and kept swimming around all of us and getting very close. Our dive leader and interns didn’t know what kind of fish it was, but it was very cool to get checked out by a fish. The experience just emphasized the idea that we were visitors in another creature’s home.

One of my favorite parts of diving and snorkeling is experiencing such a different world without harming it. We will be doing a lot of this for my classes this semester and I’m very excited to learn more about the marine environment and the creatures that inhabit it! I’m also excited to become more comfortable and skilled underwater with all of the practice. It’s going to be a very fun semester!

Watching another beautiful sunset over the ocean.

A Caribbean sunset.


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