Directed Research: The Midden Myth!

After finishing our Resource Management, Marine Ecology, and Environmental Policy courses, we have a few weeks set aside to focus completely on our directed research projects. The 34 of us divide up into several groups, all focusing on different scientific questions relevant to South Caicos. Some groups are focusing on coral, others on fish. New coral diseases and other parasites are even being seen and classified for the first time here. I have the pleasure of conducting a unique project with queen conch, Lobatus gigas.

We counted over 300 of queen conch in our experiment! This is a picture of of a younger one, lacking a fully developed lip.
You might recognize the queen conch by the beautiful shell, often purchased by tourists.

Queen conch are a commonly fished mollusk on South Caicos, making them an important export and essential aspect of the country’s economy. Understanding how queen conch react to the historical fishing habits of the locals is a challenge surrounded by superstitions and various myths. Our project, titled “The midden myth: The behavioral response of queen conch (Lobatus gigas) to shell middens,” addresses one of these myths. When fishermen catch the conch, they typically “knock” them, removing the meat from the shell to ease the shipment process on their small boats. Typically, the shells are discarded in piles on the ocean floor, which are called “middens.” We hypothesize that queen conch actively move away from the presence of a freshly knocked midden pile. Would you want to sleep in a graveyard? The literature indicates that olfactory cues and stress signals may be involved.

To debunk the myth, we all SCUBA dive to conduct visual surveys at specific sea grass bed sites in the East Harbor Lobster and Conch Reserve. Unlike any other project, we also spend hours interviewing local fishermen about their thoughts on the midden myth. Combining the experiment and social science aspects really produces an interesting and well-rounded result. Updates to come!

The 6 students involved conduct the visual survey together around a 20-meter radius circle. I’m taking notes in the outer ring (the red arrow!).

 

A Tiny Island: The Perfect Place for Self Reflection

It’s the final stretch of my time abroad, and I’ve realized I’ve come across some important lessons along the way…

Try to put yourself in my position! Imagine going to a place where you leave all of the common thing you identify with behind. You don’t have access to both the big and small defining characteristics of your day to day. From getting lunch with your best friends, driving your own car, or walking across a campus to the small things, like smelling your favorite shampoo, listening to city traffic, or ordering an iced coffee. Everything is different. You’re left with just your physical self, none of your favorite clothes, favorite people, or favorite classes. Being sunburned, barefaced, salty, and sweaty are the only consistent features your peers see. The “things” you’ve truly brought to identify with are your physical self and your idea of who you are. More importantly, your deep down sense of self… but who are you, really?

Of course, we’re all told that we are much more than our material things, but how do you proceed from there? I know that my desire to have the latest IPhone or computer can be a strange, modern social pressure, but now what?

When it’s just you with no material or physical distractions, how you present yourself and interact with others is the most telling of who you actually are. Especially in a small community of 34 students, you can’t just run away from the people you have differences with. You are forced to confront, forgive (hopefully), and reflect. When you make a mistake, do you forgive yourself and accept consequences or lie to protect your ego? When someone else makes a mistake, do you genuinely forgive them or hold a grudge, only going through the motions of a successful apology? You can’t hide in your room when there are corals to go observe, reports to write, or children to entertain. You can’t skip dinner when you have a strict community meal time or have to clean all the dishes. You can’t avoid someone when your living space is one open room. You have to approach new situations and conversations that may make you feel vulnerable. How you handles these interactions and your willingness to grow can help you understand who you truly are.

To even further this idea of self-discovery, you are much more than your ideas of who you are or who you should be. Everyone is told to never lie and to learn to forgive, but when are you ever so blatantly forced into those painful situations?

This study abroad opportunity has allowed me to let my beliefs and priorities be reflected in how I treat myself and others. My advice on a bench, my conversations at breakfast, and my unconditional acceptance of others. How I act, learn, work, or speak paints who I am. I am much more than a girl removed from her “normal” college student identify for 3 months. I am a whole person ready to love, grow, forgive, learn, and reflect with wisdom and eternal appreciation.

Thank you, South Caicos. You’ve shown me who I am now and where I want to grow. 

Mid-Semester Break: Mudjin Bay, Middle Caicos

After about six weeks on South Caicos, we finally made it to our mid-semester break in North Caicos, Middle Caicos, and Providenciales! One of my favorite places we visited was Mudjin Harbor, Middle Caicos. After camping with 1,000,000 mosquitoes, this hike, swim, and view made it all worth it.

Our Animals on Land and Sea

Our Furry Friends

Of course, we focus on marine science, ecosystems, and animals, but we have the honor of hanging out with these cute puppies every day. Three dogs live with us (Fluffy, Louie, and Stanley), but if you just walk out the front door, you’ll bump into many more.

Chap! Patches’ brother and Snowy’s son who just got adopted a few weeks ago! From South Caicos to Florida seems like a cool deal.
Patches! My favorite cutie. So photogenic. He’s been hanging out in the center a lot lately… adoption time?
Stan the man! Louie and Stanley are basically inseparable unless he’s napping like this, of course.

Just a few weeks ago, two different dogs had puppies! They’re just big enough to be held now. Will I take one home? Definitely maybe.

Me and this little munchkin! One of 9! Maybe he’ll be in Worcester soon?

If you’re interested in adopting a dog, I’d be happy to act as a carrier for you! Check out http://www.potcakeplace.com/ for more information about a very popular adoption agency that works with all of the islands.

Our Friends with Flippers

Of course, we extend our animal encounters to shore lines and deep seas. Here are a few pictures of different animals we’ve recently come across. These pictures were all taken by students and interns on the program within the past few weeks.

This dolphin came right up to me on my first official open water dive! We were only half way down our descent and he came just about 5 feet away!
Cool and curious turtle form the other day.
A lionfish we speared and dissected later!

Never a dull moment!

TCI and Taking Things for Granted

My introduction to the South Caicos community has been full of new experiences, adjustments, and challenges. Even though every week involves SCUBA diving lessons, snorkeling with stingrays, and exploring the nearest beaches, everyday habits and routines required more demanding alterations.  I’ve noticed a few obvious things that forced me to reflect on what I took for granted at home.

1. Laundry and Line Drying

I definitely did not enjoy doing laundry at Holy Cross. Either the dryer left your clothes damp, no machines were available, or the walk up and down the stairs was just too painful after a long week. On our lovely little island, we don’t have washing machines, dryers, or even real soap. My first experience with laundry here did not go as well as I had hoped. Laundry is done in two black buckets, one with biodegradable (fake) soap and salt water and the other with freshwater for rinsing. I sat in the blistering sun and “cleaned” my clothes with a long stick and my hands. I went to line dry everything, and with my luck, half of the clothes were left with castile soap residue, it rained, and white clothes fell in the dirt. This process of doing one load of laundry ended up taking me three days.

Salt water and Dr. Bronner’s soap to the left and fresh water on the right. Can’t complain about the view!
Where all of my clothes were meant to dry but got soaked and dirty all over again… for everyone to see.

2. Saltwater Showers Sunday-Saturday

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to swim in crystal clear, blue waters each day, but after a long day of sunscreen and saltwater, I can only take an extremely unsatisfying saltwater rinse. Using the same soap I used for that traumatizing laundry, I usually shower in one of the outdoor showers (one with walls, one without). I end up feeling equally as dirty and sticky as when I started, but at least I smell very minty and like the essential oils I’ve found here. We get one freshwater shower a week that only turns on when you pull a metal string to avoid wasting the freshwater that is entirely caught from rain. I usually take one on Saturday after volunteering!

That’s the shower! (Peep the tiny shower head on the top left.) Also, that view is of Long Cay (right), which is a perfect spot for whale watching!
Snorkeling! Something that I’ll do for an hour or two a day that would normally demand a freshwater shower after.

3. WiFi Withdrawals

Whether you’re downloading a document, sending emails, using your GPS, or texting a message, I was so used to the immediate, easy, helpful results of using my phone and WiFi at Holy Cross. If my Dinand desktop took more than 2 minutes to log-in, I readily abandoned it. If I forgot how to get to Nu Café, I could hop in my car, check the traffic, and map it. Here, the WiFi is slow and phone functioning is minimal. Though frustrating at times, I’ve come to appreciate the “unplugged” attitude. Every morning I sit on a rock wall looking over the ocean to journal instead of looking at my phone. I read before bed and play cards after dinner. Even though I could really use better WiFi here to conduct research or call home, I’ve started to establish new self-care and social routines I value and hope to bring back to Worcester.

My morning journal view!
A rainbow by our boats and dock, where we get ready for our dives and snorkels.
… and of course, the group of amazing people that I’m so excited to be living with!

Holy Cross vs. Turks and Caicos Islands – What’s New?

1. Tiny Island Life

I will be spending just over three months living on a little island within the Turks and Caicos archipelago, South Caicos. If you don’t know where Turks and Caicos is, that’s fine. Nearly half of the people I introduce this program to blankly await further explanation. Turks and Caicos (TCI) is at the southeastern tip of the Bahamas and is both a great vacation destination and hub for marine research. South Caicos is not decorated by your typical resorts, lavish pools, or palm trees like the main islands, but rather, it has a very small population of 800-1,000 that mainly lives on the southeastern shore (where I will be, too!). That’s roughly a third of the Holy Cross full-time student population… There are very few amenities on the island, and the food is imported in every two weeks!

South Caicos is highlighted in blue!

2. Diving & Fieldwork

With this School for Field Studies program, comes the decision to snorkel only or get further training and certification to SCUBA dive. Though I’ve never been diving a day in my life, I couldn’t turn down the unique opportunity to learn how to. A huge obstacle with packing is that I really don’t know enough about diving gear in general to find what I’m missing. I can barely spot fair prices or even understand what everything does. To get some help, I went to a local dive shop, which was surprisingly busy for it being the middle of the winter in Massachusetts, to get my gear serviced and actually learn what an “o-ring” and an “alternate air source retainer” are. Thankfully, Wayne at Divers Market Scuba Center in Plymouth, MA, was absolutely exceptional. They put a rush on my gear servicing and even taught me how to read a dive computer, which was pretty cool considering I barely knew how to put on the BC vest. So many new things, and I’m still on Cape Cod!

More info @ www.diversmarket.com – Thanks Wayne!

3. Showering (?)

Another new and strange feature that seems to alarm my friends, family, and hairdresser is that I only have one freshwater shower a week. I’m often greeted with the responses of “Did you know about that BEFORE you signed up?” or “How will you ever feel clean?” or “You need some serious detangling spray immediately!” Yes, I’m aware of ALL of this. I’ve been in touch with other students going with me to TCI this semester and a few that have gone before, and there is a nice list of recommended eco-friendly/biodegradable soaps to use. I will most likely be using the same soap to wash both my hair and clothes with salt water… should be interesting.

I guess it’s hard to complain about the showers when the research center looks like this! (fieldstudies.org/centers/tci/)

4. Sharks/Dogs

I was in touch with a wonderful HC alum who attended this program several years ago, and he provided a wealth of information from the student perspective. I was SO grateful! I highly advise trying to reach out to someone who has gone on your program before (and hopefully loved it!) because there are just a few questions no one else can answer truly as accurately. Of course, the Study Abroad Office and the School for Field Studies itself had every answer to any technical question I could think of, but getting in touch with a HC/SFS TCI alum was great for answering the tough questions, such as my big one “Were you ever actually in a position where a shark could seriously hurt you?” (His response equated sharks to “underwater dogs,” and hey, I hope he’s right.) Being from Cape Cod, seeing sharks as dogs is a hard vision to complete.

What a cute dog! (fieldstudies.org/centers/tci/)

5. Small Team of Students

The maximum number of students for this program has usually been around 30, and I’ve been told we’re reaching this capacity. There is only one other Holy Cross student going, and the rest are total strangers from around the United States. Everyone in the program’s Facebook group seems very friendly and ready to get started! I’ll be living in very close quarters with them (around 3 sets of bunk beds per room)! Yes, I guess I did live in a Carlin 6-man, but there were three bedrooms and a common room, SO there’s a difference there for sure. Fingers crossed the semester is drama free and that saltwater showers do the job!

Though our living space was much larger, I don’t think any program could top this level of closeness!