Kathleen Jehoul's Diary
Coastal Ecology of the Bahamas

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Monday, July 19, 2004
Sunday, July 18, 2004
Saturday, July 17, 2004
Friday, July 16, 2004
Thursday, July 15, 2004
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Monday, July 12, 2004
Sunday, July 11, 2004
Saturday, July 10, 2004
Thursday, July 8, 2004
Monday, July 5, 2004
Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Related Sites

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

What a sleep-in this morning! I woke up at 7 a.m. all by myself, without the sound of the alarm going off. Now that the project is over, my body is finally set to Earthwatch time.

We’re heading to the boat at the docks in George Town where captain Sue is waiting for us for the last time. Only one snorkeling session to do today with the different teams focusing on algae, fish, and coral. Since we were anchored close to rocky shore, it was a good place to check on inter-tidal snails, too. The snails attach themselves to the rocks, and you need a lot of power to remove them, especially for the bigger ones. We saw hundreds of mini-snails with very fine patterns on their shells--as if they were drawn by an artist.

When we arrived back in the docks, sweet Sue blew the conch horn for the last time and we said goodbye to our loyal captain.

The conch is the national Bahamian symbol and also the dish that is served most on the islands. On every menu in every restaurant in the Bahamas, you will see conch salads, conch fritters, etc. The conch is a snail that feeds on algae by hopping along the sea floor on a large muscular foot. When it’s one month old, it settles to the sea bottom and develops a shell. In a later stage, it migrates deeper into the ocean. After about four years, the characteristic shell lip is formed, which means that it reaches sexual maturity. Only conchs that have formed this shell lip can be taken out of the sea for food. Conch is the primary source of protein for islanders. It’s widely sought after for its sweet white meat. Growing demand for conch has raised the price, leading to overexploitation and the gathering of immature snails. In 1992, the conch was put on the international list of threatened species.

We had to get back to the apartments by noon for lunch since Chris, the manager of the Exuma resource center, was taking us for a trip around the island. Chris is British but has lived here in George Town for about 40 years, so he has a wealth of information about the history of the island and its evolution from the times of slavery to its current state of a relatively busy holiday destination.

And this tour around the island meant the end of this whole Bahamian experience. I really can’t believe that it’s all over. These have been 10 amazing days spent with great people.

Many thanks to the staff: Kathleen, Vanessa, Kate, Sanford, Lester, Dave, Jean, Keith, and Chris for taking good care of us and for sharing your incredible knowledge and experience with us. You were all fun to work with/for.

A warm heartfelt thanks to all the fellow volunteers: Mariana, Marcus, Lynne, Tara, Sarah, Ali, Sheila, Lindsey, Graham, Kirkland, and John. It was great to get to know you, and I think we formed a great team.

And finally, I would like to say many thanks to Alcoa, which has given me this fantastic opportunity to come and help out in this Bahamian coastal ecology project. I can certainly recommend it to all Alcoa employees! It’s rewarding, fun, enriching and--even though it may be small--you get the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of at least one spot on this globe.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Early kick off today with the alarm buzzing at 5:30 a.m.!

Mariana and I are on for water sampling today. With five shore sites and three water wells to measure, we’re having a lot on our plate this morning. At almost all the sites, we took a surface and a bottom sample to get information about the salinity of the water, its level of oxygen, conductivity, temperature, etc.

We were lucky today. While other volunteers were stalked by mosquitoes on previous occasions, we had a nice breeze both during the morning and the evening water sampling session, so it was a bug-free job for us.

All the water-sampling sessions have to be done as a part of Jean’s Ph.D. at the University of Dublin. Jean is a staff member in this Earthwatch project and is testing two nutrient-loading models that quantify groundwater nitrogen discharge. So, she’s the earliest bird every day in this project, since the morning sampling session has to be done before the photosynthesis has taken place in the water.

Always on duty, too, for water sampling is Graham, a 17-year-old high school student from Lancastershire who was part of this project as a volunteer last summer and who decided to come back. Everybody loves his great British sense of humor. Today, he got help from Kirkland, also 17 and born and raised in the Bahamas. At first sight shy and reserved, he can surprise you with his remarks and jokes. Since he has lived here all his life, he has a lot of knowledge about the flora and fauna on the island.

The rest of the day followed the same schedule as the other working days: loading our snorkeling gear and all the measuring material on Sue’s boat; heading for the first snorkeling site; snorkeling for fish, algae, coral, or epifauna; having lunch on the boat; heading for the second snorkeling site or going on land to do plant transects or zip levels.

The day was extra long since I had to go on the evening water sampling session shortly after returning from the boat.

Tomorrow will be our last working day. On Thursday, all volunteers will be flying out of George Town. We’ll go on the boat for the last time and for one last snorkeling session. In the afternoon, we will be taken with the whole team on a tour through the southern part of the island, which has apparently a lot of history to reveal. Looking forward to that!

Monday, July 19, 2004

I didn't get to go with the fish team today; Vanessa wanted to measure algae, and she needed some more help in her team.

Now, how on earth do you measure algae? Close to the shore, one end of a rope is fixed underwater with a heavy weight so it doesn't move with the currents. The other end of the rope is laid down in the sand 25 meters farther seaward. Every meter on the rope is marked with a ribbon, along which a quadrant of about a square meter is placed. The quadrant has a grid of ropes that divides it in intersections. When the quadrant is placed next to the rope, two people dive down and check whether there are species of algae growing on the 25 intersections of the quadrant, and the species' names are written down. For example: three (intersections with) turtle grass, one mermaid's shaving brush, two hamelia, four pineapple algae, three shoal grass, five sand, one rock, etc.

In a second phase, some intersection points on the quadrant (which has an X and a Y axis) are randomly chosen for actual measuring purposes. Another person has to dive down to pull out a sample of the algae on those intersection points, and the length or height of these samples is measured with a ruler. All the information is written down on slates and entered into Excel sheets when back in the resource center. In a later stage, when enough data are collected, a profile of the island's algae population or part thereof can be drawn up and an analysis made.

I was on the team together with Alison. She came to this expedition with her best friend Sheila. They are both from Boston (USA) and have just finished their tenth grade in high school. They are the youngsters of the team, together with Lindsey from Florida (USA). One year older are Tara and Sarah from Toronto, also best friends. This bunch of youngsters is full of life; it's fun to have them around.
Since Ali and Sheila, Tara and Sarah always wanted to be on the same team, Kathleen started to call them our Spice Girls. They haven't really decided who was going to be Posh, Scary, Baby, Sporty, or Ginger Spice, though.

It's my turn to do water sampling tomorrow with Mariana. This normally means that you have to be up and ready at 5:30 a.m. (before photosynthesis has taken place) to take water samples at fixed places. For one reason or another, it's decided that we will leave at 6 a.m. We'll have to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants and take lots of mosquito repellent. They are very fierce in the morning, especially when there is no breeze.

The same water sampling process is repeated at 4 p.m. In between the morning and the afternoon water sampling session, we'll go to two different sites on the island where I'll be part of the fish team at the first site and part of the plants team at the second site. Enough variation for the day, I would say.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

This was such an amazing day! Mariana, John, Sanford, and I had two spectacular dives this morning--one at "Stingray Reef" and one at "Turtle Reef".

The reefs were just gorgeous and very healthy, with an abundance of exotic fish. Diving is such a peaceful and calming activity. The surface may be choppy and the boat rocking until you get seasick, but once you go underwater there is only floating elegance. Corals gently follow the current's movements as if they were waving you welcome. Some fish come and have a look at these strangers that dare to intrude into their paradise; others cannot be bothered to stop feeding on the corals and are just watching you from the corner of their glazy eye. The lobsters are hiding in their caves, and only their huge antennas sticking out are betraying their presence.

Once your neutral buoyancy is established, you become part of the surroundings, moving quietly and smoothly in the water. Everything is slow-paced, and the outside world does not exist. There is only you and sea life.

Every time you are breathing out, big air bubbles are coming out of your regulator, splitting up into smaller bubbles as they make their way up to the surface. Above each diver, you can see a column of air gently burbling up. Just floating on your back and looking up at your own bubbles with the sunlight filtering through the water surface is heavenly.

After the dives, the skipper dropped us off on Stocking Island, which is an island opposite Exuma. We had a relaxing lunch and enjoyed some reading time on the beach. After the ferry had brought us back to George Town and we had taken dinner with the whole group, another fantastic day had passed.

This morning, we had to move from the Exuma research center--the place that we stayed at up until now--to holiday apartments a little bit farther down the road. The women's and men's dorms are history; we have now been assigned spacious flats with a kitchen and a separate bathroom for four people. I'm sharing with Mariana, Lynne, and Marcus.

I haven't told much about the other volunteers in this expedition, but I will try to write a few words about everyone before we wrap up on Wednesday evening.

Mariana is a 22-year-old woman from Spain who has just finished her fourth year of biology at the University of Madrid. She was sent by her university to this project. She's an amazing girl; very alert and enthusiastic about people and about what she is doing in life. Diving is her big passion, and she can't get enough of being in the water and learning about all these exotic fish and sea creatures. We will fly together to Nassau on Thursday morning and do some more diving on New Providence and Paradise Island before she returns to Madrid and me to Brussels.

Lynne and Marcus are from southern California, and this is already their fifth Earthwatch expedition! Previously, they have participated in "Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon," "Mexican Megafauna," "Killer Whales" in Washington (USA), and "Octopuses" in Costa Rica. They are both retired teachers and have traveled to many places in their lives. Since their retirement, they have been alternating traveling for fun with volunteering in projects all over the world. I'm taking my hat off for what they are doing, for being so young at heart, and for dealing so naturally well with these basic working and living circumstances.

Tomorrow, the normal week schedule starts again, although we will do offshore snorkeling and not go with Sue and Tina on the boat. I'm on the fish team again with Mariana and John. The morning session will be the last one under Sanford's lead. We will surely miss him and his sheer unlimited knowledge of fish and the many nice conversations we had about life, too. Sanford is a retired radiologist whose passion for fish grew from fishing and spear fishing. And besides that, he is a very talented handball player. His team even won the world championships in his age category this year! He's flying back to his home in Miami tomorrow to resume his busy life!

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Today was a pretty relaxed day. Breakfast was "only" at 7 a.m., and it was laundry time between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

No boat to catch today, so no Sue and first mate Tina to guide us through the Exuma waters and to drop us off at the patch reefs. Today, we were doing two offshore snorkeling sessions along the beach between the research center and George Town.

Looking at fish, coral, algae, sponges, etc., is becoming more enjoyable every day. After a week of being filled with tons of information about the sea creatures and getting illustrated explanation while snorkeling, you actually start recognizing species without help and even remembering their names. Very exciting!

When coming on land again after the first snorkeling session, John and Kirkland cracked some coconuts that we found lying around on the beach. How lucky and privileged we are to work in this paradise environment....

I was part of the coral and epifauna team today, but the first snorkeling location was not so rich. There was a lot of bleaching coral, which is an indication that the corals are not healthy and are even dying off.

The second session was a lot better, but I must admit that after a while, I was looking more at fish than at corals and sponges. The fish that we have seen up until now are absolutely amazing--from the smallest, inch-long, tiny little fish swirling around the corals to the big barracudas watching you suspiciously from a distance, ready to attack if you come too close.

The fish teams are always under the lead of Sanford. He has an incredible knowledge of fish. Through his years of experience in fishing, snorkeling, and diving, he can tell the names of almost any fish that we see. It's great to have his trained eye around!

Vanessa and Kate cooked dinner for us tonight. Great spaghetti and a yummy chocolate cake! Feast for the kings!

Tomorrow is our day off. Mariana, John, Sanford, and I will be doing a two-tank dive. Can't wait to go to those famous drop-off reefs! With Sanford's eagle eye around, we'll see a lot more.

After the dives, the skipper will drop us off on Stocking Island, a beautiful island opposite Great Exuma, for a bit of relaxation and after-dive talks.

Friday, July 16, 2004

I'm starting to get used to the rhythm of very early mornings. Well, I'm not saying that I'm jumping out of the bed as fresh as a lily when that alarm goes off at 6 a.m., but I'm doing better every day. At home, I usually don't go to bed before midnight, but after a long day of physical efforts, you're glad to crawl into bed by 10 p.m. After having been in and out of the water during a big part of the day, you can feel the tiredness coming around dinnertime.

For the snorkeling sessions, I was on the algae team today. During the first session, we checked out the channel reef patches. At this place, there used to be a large and long coral reef. During the World War II, the reef was dynamited into two halves with a big hole in between to let the ships pass through to the navy base on the island. Even up until now, boats are passing through this channel, so there has never really been a chance for the reef to grow back.

Algae are usually a bit overlooked when diving and snorkeling recreationally. You only tend to look at the corals and the fish because they are so much more obvious than algae. Such a shame, because there are so many beautifully formed species to be seen.

While Vanessa was showing us algae, Kathleen was leading a group on epifauna and sponges. After some more explanation on the collected sponges and filling out the collection datasheet, we all got into the water again for a little bit of educational fun. Kathleen injected several sponges with a fluorescent dye. The sponge "inhaled" the dye through its numerous in-current pores and released it almost instantly through its only out-current pore so that a fluorescent smoke curtain was slowly making its way up to the surface. The smoking sponges….

Like every day, we had lunch on the boat with the whole group and, of course, with Sue, our devoted captain, and her first mate, Tina, a 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier. Sue is the most amazing and amusing person. Always busy, calling everyone "lovie," making sure that everyone is all right, caring about our safety, bringing us from reef patch to reef patch and putting us safely on land again.

Tina has been her loyal first mate for many years, and she keeps an eye on everyone. As soon as we are getting our snorkeling gear on and are getting prepared to jump into the water, Tina barks herself almost to a heart attack, as if she were yelling "man overbooooaaard!!!" No, little Tina wouldn't want to see anyone disappearing while she's on duty!

Tomorrow will be a day of off shore snorkeling. Two staff members, Kate and Vanessa, will cook spaghetti for us tomorrow night!

Thursday, July 15, 2004

This morning, we were basically continuing what we had started in the previous days. Labeling and measuring trees, putting up a plant list, and laying out a grid on the project plot.

The mosquitoes are still doing their utmost to get some of our sweet blood. No matter how much you are spraying yourself with bug spray, they're still after you all the time. I guess they have become immune to all those chemicals.

While making our way through the bush on the plot, we cut out as much of the invasive jumby tree as we can to fill up our composting bin. One of the purposes of "organizing" the plant and tree life on the plot is to make a trail along the bigger trees on the land and to point out to local people and visitors the native Caribbean flora and its capacities.

We have cut some branches from the native Gum Emeli tree, and Kathleen is teaching us how to make tea from the leaves. Tea from the Gum Emeli leaves is believed to be strengthening. In fact, many plants that are growing here are assigned all kinds of exceptional capacities. Two Bahamian ladies between their eighties and nineties who live on the island have a wealth of knowledge about local plants and their effects. They know hundreds of recipes from the top of their heads, all gathered in the course of their lives. They are very secretive about it. They are brewing up special drinks and extractions that cure all kinds of aches and serve all kinds of purposes.

The Gum Emeli tea tastes nice, although a small spoon of sugar makes it go down a little bit easier.

The rest of the morning and the early afternoon are again reserved for snorkeling sessions on the coral reefs, for measuring shore profiles, and for inventorying plants on some selected cays.

When the first session is finished and everyone is back in the boat for lunch, gray clouds start heading toward the boat, and they don't look promising. We're forced to return to the harbor again. Just upon docking, the rain comes pouring down in buckets. By the time we got out of the boat, packed our stuff, and loaded it into the van, everyone was completely drenched. I must say that a pour down here is a much more enjoyable experience than in Belgium. The rain is hot here, and soaked clothes are drying easily.

A shame for the second shore profile session, though. Shore profiles of cays and islands are determined by dividing the cay into different sections: beach, front dune, back dune, palm grove. The boundaries of each section are indicated on a profile graph. After that, the inclination of the shore is measured from the waterline toward the inland. A certain point along the measuring line is considered as point 0 and is taken as a reference to indicate the difference in height with the other points along the line (fixed every two meters).

Most of the volunteers are having the rest of the afternoon off, but those who want can assist in drilling water wells in George Town. I'm happy to join—it's always nice to learn something new. The center of George Town has a little "lake," and the wells will be drilled in this populated area between the houses on the slope and the water. This way, the quality of the groundwater that has sunk in where people are living can be measured before it reaches the lake. As said previously, there is virtually no sewage system in the Bahamas, and all septic waste coming from the houses is drained toward the sea by the groundwater.

The day ends with dinner and a briefing meeting for tomorrow. I'll be on the algae team, looking for different species of algae and collecting them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Another hazardous night of sleep! I went to bed around midnight with the sound of snoring people and a squeaky air conditioner. But at least the room was cool enough to sleep in, which is not so evident here in the Bahamas.

The first people had to get up very early to do water sampling, so the first alarm clock went off around 4.30 a.m. I'm on kitchen duty today with Tara and Dave, which means that we have to get up at 6 a.m. to prepare breakfast for the rest of the group and wash the dishes afterwards.

In fact, it's quite enjoyable to be up so early in the morning. At this time of the day, temperatures are still manageable. As soon as the sun comes out, it starts hammering on your head, and the humidity makes you feel sticky. On the other hand, the mosquitoes are very fierce in the morning, and they're coming after you by the millions!

The first week of the project follows a schedule of doing plant and tree work on the project site in the very early mornings (from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m.) and snorkeling between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. in different teams (coral, algae, fish, shore profiles, and plants).

In the early morning, our team starts with labeling the trees above six feet (1.8 meters) on the project plot and measuring their diameter at chest height. Apparently, this is a reference used by foresters to tell how much lumber they can get out of the tree. While doing this, the mosquitoes are almost eating us alive.

At the same time, we are laying the foundation for a trial compost project that—if successful—will be used by hotels and property owners elsewhere on the Bahamas. First, we have to cut, or preferably tear out by the root, non-native (invasive) plants and put a thick, well-stamped layer on the bottom of the composting bin. This is the carbon layer. We next fill it with a layer of food remains, which forms the nitrogen layer. After that, another layer of carbon, etc. The big challenge with these temperatures is to keep the composting bin humid to secure the chemical breakdown process.

The reason for removing non-native plants from the plot is that some of them are very aggressive and have made many native plants disappear in the course of the years. Some of the islands on the Bahamas are developing fast, and land property prices are rising rapidly. And most of the development is not really ecologically justified.

Another problem is that there is no sewage system in the Bahamas, so a lot of waste is dumped directly into the sea. At many places, you can see the pipes running straight from the houses or hotels into the sea. The more construction, hotels, and houses on the island, the more waste that will eventually end up in the sea. This is all detrimental for the beautiful sea life in the Bahamas.

In the afternoon, I'm in the fish team with John and Kirkland. Sanford, the fish expert, is leading the team. He is taking us to different patches of reefs around Rolle Island and Crab Cay, not far off Elizabeth Harbor. Meanwhile, two other teams are doing coral and algae research. And two teams are on land to assess the shore profile and the plants on both islands.

The number of different species of fish you can see here on such small patches of coral reef is absolutely amazing. And even more amazing is that Sanford knows all their names by heart.

The weather is somewhat cloudier than yesterday, and there is a threat of thunder and lightning in the far distance. The period from June until September is supposed to be the rainy/stormy season, but so far we've been really lucky.

And very lucky we are, too, with the staff team of this project. Getting a team of 10 inexperienced volunteers working in an organized way is not an easy job, but if feels all very well structured and prepared. Kathleen, Kate, Vanessa, Lester, Keith, Sanford, Dave, Jean—they are all so knowledgeable, and they are stuffing us with tons of information. Great experience!

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

I almost killed the alarm at 6 a.m.! The early bird catches the worm, they say. Well, they can have all the worms in the world if I could just sleep a couple of hours longer.

I was awakened in the middle of the night by someone snoring in the bed next to me. And it was not just breathing heavily—it was the real stuff! The more I was getting fixated on it, the louder I could hear it and the longer it lasted before I could fall asleep again. Well, the joy of sleeping in a dorm. The traveling memories are all coming back to me.

After breakfast at 6.30 a.m. (how brave we are), we get a tour around the project plot from Keith the botanist. It's hard to imagine how many different plants and species there are in that small area of six acres (2.4 hectares), and there are even poisonous ones. The area is also full of solution holes. These are big holes of collapsed limestone that can be very deep. They occur both on land and in the water. In fact, the Bahamas are very famous for these "blue holes" in the water. They are very popular diving spots.

After Keith's info session, the group is split into teams. The first team puts landmarks on the project plot so a grid that divides the land in cells can be made. Each cell will get a plant inventory, after which the exotic plants will be removed. Two other teams are touring the site to make a list of all plants and trees growing on the project plot.

By the time this work is done, it's only 9 a.m. but already very hot (around 30° Celsius, 86° Fahrenheit). During a 45-minute briefing, Kathleen tells us what we will do in the afternoon. The whole group is going snorkeling from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. in the George Town bay. We are split up in teams, with each team headed by a staff member. One team focuses on algae, a second team on the coral reefs, and there are two teams concentrating on the different fish species. I'm on the coral reef team.

After lunch on the boat, we pick out different patches of coral reef in the Elizabeth Harbor area, and off we go with the team! The harbor area here in George Town is not like a harbor area anywhere else in the world. We're not snorkeling between the container ships and the fuel fumes. There are some houseboats and a couple of great yachts at the most. This is a beautiful place to be!

After more than an hour of snorkeling, everyone gets in the boat again with their samples and wrinkled skin.

On our way back to the project site, we were able to find a hardware store that—I couldn't believe it—actually sold adaptors of all kinds! Great news, that is. Otherwise, I would have dragged this laptop all the way to the Bahamas for nothing!

The rest of the evening is filled with dinner, a briefing for tomorrow, and a new team split up. Tomorrow, I'm on the fish team!

Monday July 12, 2004

Today is Bahamas' independence day! It became an independent nation in 1973 after having been ruled by the British for 325 years. But in spite of this long and quite recent ruling period by the Queen's subjects, the Bahamians are happy to mix their British past with American influences. For example, they are driving on the left-hand side of the road, but the car's steering wheel is also on the left-hand side. American cars, but British road courtesy.

You would expect big festivities on a country's national holiday, but not so in the Bahamas. Some official speeches were given before the weekend, and a firework was cracked on Friday night. But today, only the closure of the shops could betray that this is a public holiday.

Bahamians are a very laid back, friendly, relaxed people. "Come time" is an often-heard expression here. It's the equivalent of "pole, pole" in Kenya and Tanzania.

At 4 p.m., all volunteers are gathering at George Town airport. We are being picked up by Kathleen Sullivan, the principal investigator who's in charge of the project, and some of her staff. The team seems to be a lot bigger than I first thought. According to the briefing that we received by mail, there would be seven volunteers and four staff members. It turns out to be a "crowd" of almost 20 people. There are nine Earthwatch volunteers and two college students from the U.K. and the U.S. who help out during their summer holidays. Then there is Kathleen's staff—Lester, the project co-leader; Keith, the botanist; Sanford, the fish expert; Vanessa, Kate, and Jean, who are doing research for their theses; Dave, who was an Earthwatch volunteer before in this project and is helping out again during his time off from work; and Kirkland, who is joining as an assistant to Lester. Putting names to all those faces is the challenge for today!

After a quick tour around the project site and being assigned to our beds (there is a women's dorm and a men's dorm), we get a briefing from Kathleen about what we will be doing in the next 10 days.

The different tasks for the first days are:
  • Water sampling: Every morning from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. and every evening from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., a team of two volunteers has to do water sampling together with two from the staff. Water samples are taken at fixed places, and the quality is measured in the lab (oxygen levels, temperatures, salinity, etc.).
  • Botanical surveys: This involves setting up an inventory of the plants on the project site and marking the native plants and the exotic (imported) plants with different tags so that the exotic plants can be cleared away since they are invasive to the native plants.
  • Algae and coral sampling: During snorkeling sessions, teams identify different species of algae and coral, note them in data sheets, and collect samples if necessary.
  • Reef fish: This is the identification of different types of reef fish on different patches of coral reef.

I'm sure that many more assignments will come up during the project. Lots of stuff to do.

And then there are the "house rules." There is a rotating system for kitchen duty. Each day, a team of three prepares breakfast and dinner. This doesn't mean cooking but instead is preparing the tables and washing the dishes afterwards. Lunch is usually eaten on the boat between snorkeling sessions.

The lights go out at 9.30 p.m. (!) in the dorms—why does this remind me of summer scouts camp?—to have a kick start in the early morning. Those who want can always stay up later in one of the other rooms.

The adaptor problem seems to be solved, too. John from Australia claims to have a multi-adaptor for the main plug systems in the world. And indeed, this is true, but his adaptor is suitable for conversion from U.S. to European and not the other way around. We'll have to take our chance in the local hardware store. That'll be for tomorrow, though, since today is a national holiday.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

A day of resting and diving before the project starts! My body is not set to Bahamas time yet, but my mind is all the more! Well, it's hard not to when you're opening your window in the morning and looking onto those white sandy beaches and the turquoise water.

I've been asking around for an adaptor in the hotel or for a shop to buy one, but they are giving me little hope. My only chance is that there will be an adaptor available at the project site or that one of the other volunteers has brought one. Let's wait and see.

Mariana and I are diving in the afternoon on one of the reefs off the Exuma coast. Great stuff to see there—lots of corals and fantastic exotic fish. It's promising for future dives since we will have a day off during the project.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Early morning start! I have to be at the airport at 5.45 a.m., and I got up too late. Looking at the alarm nearly causes me a heart attack! I've got 30 minutes to get dressed, take my stuff, and drive to the airport (the drive normally takes 45 minutes to one hour). Luckily, my backpack is ready and (almost) everything is prepared. But, unfortunately, I have to skip those last routine checks of my apartment. Never mind—all will be okay (I hope). In any case, I want to discourage burglars, so there is nothing to find there!

Amazing how efficient you can be under time pressure. Ten minutes after I jumped out of the bed in a panic, I was sitting in my car with my luggage in the trunk and driving off from home. Luckily, it's Saturday morning. There's no traffic on the roads, so the drive to the airport goes smoothly.

The airport building, however, is packed with tourists queuing up in long lines at the counters. "Pfff" is the first thought that crosses my mind: this will take some of my nicest smiles and a lot of apologizing—and on a Saturday morning at 6 a.m.! But, how strange, virtually nobody is going to the Bahamas! The queuing line for Brussels-London-Nassau is no competitor to Hurghada, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Madeira, Ibiza, and the lot. And neither is the number of suitcases per person.

I can walk straight to the counter, check in, and let off all the stress. I made it…. There are no delays in any flights or connections, so after 15 hours of flying and waiting, I'm arriving at George Town Airport on the island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas.
In the airport of Nassau (capital of the Bahamas), I'm discovering that there's another Earthwatch volunteer waiting for the connection to George Town. It's Mariana, a Spanish girl who has just finished her fourth year of biology and who is now sent by the University of Madrid to work on this project on Great Exuma.

We have two days before the project starts, which gives us some time to recover from the journey and to do some diving on the famous coral reefs of the Bahamas. In the meantime, I have discovered that I forgot to buy a U.S. adaptor at home, so I hope I will be able to prepare my diary on the laptop that I brought from work.

I'm posting pictures of some islands that we flew over on our way from Nassau to George Town. It's amazing to see those tiny pieces of land lying in the sea like a necklace.

Thursday, July 8, 2004

The start of the expedition is really close now! I'm beginning to feel the pre-departure stress of finishing off things at work, getting everything together, buying the last traveling items, packing my rucksack....

And then comes Saturday, with an early flight from Brussels through London to the Bahamas. Almost 13 hours of flying, waiting times not included. Arriving on Saturday afternoon in George Town on the island of Great Exuma will give me some time to explore the local area—that is if I'm not too knackered from the journey—before starting to work on Monday.

The volunteer team will consist of seven people in total coming from Canada, Australia, Spain, the U.S., and…Belgium. I'm really looking forward to meeting these other volunteers and launching ourselves into the project.

I will send my next update from the research station in George Town, hopefully with some good pictures of the area and the volunteers in action!

Monday, July 5, 2004

Bad news today. When checking my e-mails this morning, there was a message from Gabor Barkoczy, my fellow expedition member in the Bahamas, mentioning that he will be unable to participate due to medical problems. That is such a pity.

I think all Earthwatch fellows can confirm that the whole process—from the euphoric moment of selection all the way through the preparations to the approaching day of departure—is such an exciting time. Seeing that come to an abrupt end must be so disappointing.

I feel really sorry that Gabor has to cancel his trip when virtually on the plane. I hope he'll get better very soon and that he might get a second chance to participate in an Earthwatch expedition some day.
Gabor, take good care of yourself. I will fill you in with lots of news during the expedition!

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Only two months to go before the start of the expedition in the Earthwatch research station in George Town on the island of Great Exuma, Bahamas. All the arrangements are made: flights are booked, medical checkup is done, forms are filled out and sent back to Earthwatch, and I have worked my way through the expedition briefing. I feel absolutely privileged to be selected as an Earthwatch Fellow, and I'm looking forward to contributing to the protection of the coastal ecology of the Bahamas from July 12 to 22.

My reasons for applying to become an Earthwatch Fellow are a direct consequence of my volunteer work at Watamu Turtle Watch (WTW) in Watamu, Kenya, in January/February 2003.

WTW is a marine conservation organization committed to the protection of sea turtles and the marine environment along the Kenyan shores of the Indian Ocean. This project opened my eyes to the struggles and threats that some species and environments are facing and what the consequences are/might be for our planet. I was mainly involved in setting up an education center in the village, giving lectures and slide shows in schools, and doing general fieldwork (monitoring turtle nests, excavating hatchlings, tagging and releasing adult turtles that had been caught in fishermen's nets, etc.).

Regular action days with the local villagers were organized, such as mangrove planting days to restore the mangrove woods along the shores. Wood from the mangrove trees is very popular for the building of houses and for charcoal. But cutting the trees is having big consequences. The roots of mangrove trees are ideal breeding grounds for mollusks, crustaceans, and small fish that form the bottom of the marine food chain. If these breeding grounds disappear, the larger fish will leave the area due to a lack of food. Soon the whole food chain will be affected.

Mangrove roots are also preventing silt from entering into the sea. If cut, massive siltation would reduce the oxygen level in the water and would kill the coral reefs. Really incredible, isn't it, how one single action can generate many reactions in nature?

During my stay in Watamu, I became convinced that communication, education, and sharing experiences with other people are essential to environmental projects. A lot of damage done to nature is due to people's ignorance or indifference. Awareness and commitment of communities as well as of individuals are important to make any conservation initiative successful. I believe that by "spreading the word," we can all make our small contribution to making our environment sustainable.

Hence my application to become an Earthwatch Fellow....

Related Sites

Natural Resources in the Bahamas
Facts about Bahamian natural resources from the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development.

All about the Bahamas
History, politics, geography, economy, and culture of the Bahamas.

Bahamas Ministry of Tourism
Facts and information about visiting the Bahamas.

Photo Gallery

View the images from Kathleen Jehoul's diary.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Coastal Ecology of the Bahamas

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.