Andrea Kohidine Steger's Diary


Thursday, November 23, 2006 Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Thursday, March 29, 2007 Thursday, April 5, 2007
Thursday, April 19, 2007 Monday, April 23, 2007
Friday, May 8, 2007 Thursday, May 14, 2007
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 Friday, November 16, 2007
Saturday, November 17, 2007 Sunday, November 18, 2007
Monday, November 19, 2007 Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Wednesday, November 21, 2007 Thursday, November 22, 2007
Friday, November 23, 2007 Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thursday, November 23, 2006 When I first saw the email about Earthwatch some days before, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have been working for Alcoa’s AFL business for 12 years, but this was the first time that Alcoa employees in Hungary could apply for these projects.
 
It took three days until I got answers to my questions. I browsed among the former diaries of Alcoa employees and on the Earthwatch website and decided to apply.
 
I applied for an Earthwatch fellowship so that for the first in my life, I could help not only my immediate surroundings but those farther from home as well!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007 Unfortunately, I was not selected as one of the 15 Alcoa employees for the Earthwatch fellowship program, but my colleague Dóra Hermán was. I was really glad that she would present Alcoa Mór in Alaska.
 
I was sad but not depressed. I resolved immediately to apply again next year, because I was sure that everybody who was selected would accept the offer to become a volunteer.
 
I was calm and organized a trip to Croatia with my family and with friends for the beginning of September.

Thursday, March 29, 2007 Can you imagine my surprise when I got an email from Earthwatch to take part in the Belarus Wetlands expedition at the end of August and beginning of September due to a selected Alcoa employee being unable to participate? Unfortunately, this was when I was going on vacation with my family. I would never wish the feelings I had over this on anybody!

Thursday, April 5, 2007 After explaining the situation to Earthwatch, I got another chance. I can study the coral reefs in the Bahamas in November!
 
This fieldwork in San Salvador will be the greatest challenge in my life, as I will be learning about coral, reading about a foreign country, being trained in snorkeling, etc. I think you should know some things about my background to understand this further….
 
The Bahamas are the dream vacation destination for most Hungarian people. Hungary is a little country (93,000 square kilometers—35,900 square miles) in Central Europe without a piece of seashore. More and more Hungarians can visit remote countries, but the Bahamas are unique because of the long distance to travel and the totally different climate (we have four seasons, and in November it is winter) and culture.
 
On the one hand, I am very thankful for Earthwatch and Alcoa. On the other hand, this trip and the fieldwork will provide me with a lot of personal possibilities I have only dreamed about: support the research of scientists, see and measure coral reefs, and more.

Thursday, April 19, 2007 Nobody in my social circle has ever been to the Bahamas. When my relatives, friends, and colleagues first heard about my trip, none of them could believe it. And neither could I!
 
I said in my application that I would inform the local community about my experiences on this trip through the local television station. We have had a very good relationship with the staff for ages (they have been following all our volunteer actions for years).
 
One of my first calls was to my former classmate, Karcsi. His reaction was very memorable: “You must be joking! Don’t tell me! You should inform our former schoolmaster (he taught us geography and biology)! I will work with you on a report before and after your trip.” He had a lot of ideas and was quick to be excited for me.
 
In the first days, I was euphoric, and I have been since then. I am doing my best to be prepared thoroughly.
 
First, I needed to get my airline flights booked. Through Alcoa, I have dealt with travel arrangements, daily allowances, etc., since 2002. I began to choose the optimal route to get the Bahamas. I remembered what I always say to my colleagues: the sooner we book, the cheaper the ticket will be. I cannot book overseas travel, so I did it through a travel agency.
 
My next plan was to buy a guidebook in Hungarian. It sounds like it would be easy, but it wasn’t! I have bought books every month, so I have good contacts with the bookshops. I ordered books several times by Internet, and I asked even travel agencies, but I couldn’t find a good book in Hungarian! I could find books on the Caribbean, but they had only a few sentences about the Bahamas. So, I bought a book in English. Of course, I can find a lot of information on websites, and I do read them.

Monday, April 23, 2007 Dóra and I made plans on how to communicate our trips on the Alcoa website and how to present our experiences to Alcoa employees and the community. We were extremely open to news connected with climate change, Alaska, or the Bahamas, and we collected more and more information.

Friday, May 8, 2007 I checked on the Internet and found that I need a visa to go to the Bahamas. As the islands are a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, I could apply for the visa at the British embassy in Budapest. I called for an appointment, but I was told it is too early since the visa is valid only for three months and it takes four to fives weeks to get it. My new appointment is for the middle of September.
 
Today, I contacted the three other Alcoa employees who will be participating in the same expedition at the same time. Alexandra is from Russia, Gavin is from China, and Khurram is from the United Kingdom. I am looking forward to hearing from them!

Thursday, May 14, 2007 Happy day! I have received answers from the two guys. They introduced themselves and agreed to keep in touch. I will send them my route plan. I will fly through London, and maybe we can meet before the long flight to Nassau.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 As an Alcoa employee, I know very well how important health is. Today, I got two “cocktails” (shots)—one in my left shoulder and another in my right shoulder.
 
I consulted with our physician, and he recommended vaccinations against hepatitis, tetanus, diphtheria, and malaria. In Székesfehérvár (30 kilometers—19 miles—from Mór), there is a department specializing in infectious diseases where I could get these vaccinations. For hepatitis A and B, I received just the first shot. I need to get the next shots after a month and before leaving.
 
After these “cocktails,” I had to wait for half an hour in the office. Maybe I would have an allergic reaction or could faint, but neither of them happened. It was a good time to tell the staff how I got to go to the Bahamas and about Earthwatch and Alcoa.

Friday, November 16, 2007 Nassau, Capital of the Bahamas
After arriving in London yesterday, I slept really well in one of the airport hotels. I woke up early, fresh, and full of great hopes. I mustn’t miss my plane today! So, I went to Heathrow Airport earlier than required. There, I saw a wide range of nationalities. Sometimes I could just guess where this or that man was from.

It was easy to find the gate for the flight to Nassau. The passengers boarded on time, but our bags did not. A few of them were missing, so we had to wait more than an hour before takeoff. The flight time was about 10 hours, and we landed at 3:30 p.m. in Nassau. It was a little strange, because we had already gotten dinner on the plane.

I was surprised even at the airport by the intense colors of the buildings and by a national band playing Caribbean music! After getting my bags (minimum 45 minutes), I took a taxi to my hotel. I put all my stuff in my room and left the hotel to go into the city. Even on the way in on the shuttle bus, I got a lot of experiences: local people were very polite, helpful, and singing local songs with the radio.

I could just do a short walk into the city center. At the wharf, I caught the last bus back to meet John—one of the project’s scientists—in the bar of my hotel. He wrote in an email that he would be there after 7 p.m., and everybody could join him.

I had some photos of him in the briefing document, so I recognized him easily. He was there with Michelle, a young lady who was also from New York. Both were very friendly, and we could talk about everything. After 9 p.m., I was getting really exhausted. It was the longest day in my life: 29 hours!

Saturday, November 17, 2007 San Salvador, Bahamas
In the morning, I took a taxi with John and Michelle. At the airport, the crew was calm and smiling. Everything happened at an easy pace. Our airplane was at the gate for 1.5 hours without anything happening. We just waited and waited. I was getting used to Bahamian time.

During this time, we were joined by Elizabeth, a nice lady from Earthwatch, and Eric and Kimberly, volunteers from the United States. After a one-hour flight, we arrived in San Salvador. We realized only at the airport that the whole group was onboard, even Khurram, another Alcoan from England!

In San Salvador, there was bright sunshine. Tom, the young housekeeper at the Gerace Research Center (GRC), was waiting for us with a truck.

My roommate, Kirsten from Minneapolis, is a similar age as me and has two children.

After having some sandwiches for lunch, we went to Cockburn, a little village next to the small airport. We went back for dinner (always at 5:30 p.m.). In the evening, we had lessons on how to behave at the Gerace Research Center, about our main tasks (looking for incidences of coral disease, known as bleaching), and how to recognize hard and soft corals (soft corals float and move in the water, while hard corals do not).

For the past three decades, observers have witnessed and recorded a serious decline in coral reef ecosystems. One cause for the decline in hard corals is coral bleaching, which is when coral animals expel the zooxanthellae algae that live inside them and impart their color to the coral. Without algae, the coral has no color, and the white of the limestone shell shines through the transparent coral bodies.

If corals fail to recover soon after bleaching, they die, and algae take over the reef. These changes pose a serious threat to coastal human populations and communities.

We gave each other our presents. I brought DVDs about Hungary and some bonbons.

Sunday, November 18, 2007 San Salvador
The coffee here has neither color nor taste, but Elizabeth from Earthwatch brought a mobile coffee maker and made us all very delicious coffee in the morning.

At 8:45 a.m., we went to Monument Beach. This is in memory of when the flame from the 1968 Olympic Games was taken through the Bahamas to Mexico.

This was the first time in my life to snorkel in the ocean! I have seen some photos and films about coral reefs, but what I could see at Monument Beach exceeded all my expectations! We could identify several hard and soft corals, but my favorite was the big purple Venus fan.

After two hours of snorkeling, we came out from the water and were tired. John said it is normal and encouraged us by saying it will be easier and easier in the following days.

Lunch wasn’t tasty. Fortunately, it was recommended in the briefing to bring some spices, and so we did.

In the afternoon, we went to another reef but couldn’t go into the water because of large waves. Instead, we had theoretical lessons in the lab till 9 p.m.

There are more than 500 species of coral. Some look like brains and others like fans or the antlers of a deer. All are made up of tiny coral polyps.

Reefs grow best in sunny, shallow, clear water. The best temperature for coral reefs is between 25° to 31° Celsius (77° to 88° Fahrenheit), and the best salinity is between 34 to 37 parts per thousand. Around San Salvador, there are barrier reefs separated from the shore by wide lagoons.

Coral reefs are important for many reasons, including the following:
  • Most important, they provide protection and shelter for many different species of fish;
  • Coral is very important in controlling how much carbon dioxide (CO2) is in the ocean water. Without coral, the amount of CO2 in the water would rise dramatically; and
  • Coral reefs protect coasts from strong currents and waves by slowing down the water before it gets to the shore. That is why they are called barrier reefs.


Monday, November 19, 2007 San Salvador
The wind was stronger than yesterday, but we went again to Monument Beach. Surprisingly, the waves weren’t high.

Yesterday, I was a member of John’s team (John has a sense of humor that is above average), but today I could join Elizabeth’s advanced team because I felt comfortable in the water with my snorkeling gear.

Elizabeth is a born teacher. She’s very patient and explains everything very well, and her English is easy to understand.

We could identify some corals easily, but some of them looked to be something else. Elizabeth said never mind. In one to two days, most of them will be well known.

Alexandra, another Alcoan from Samara, Russia, arrived before lunch. I was very happy to see her, and we soon formed a friendship.

That afternoon, we began the real work. We formed three teams. Alex and my team leader was Michelle, and the other team members were Karen, Elizabeth II (a volunteer) and Eric.

We first measured the air temperature on the shore (25° Celsius, or 77° Fahrenheit) and then on the water. For the latter, I held the thermometer two minutes over a marked point and read 25.2° Celsius (77.4° Fahrenheit).

We next set transects that we used to check the coral. Transect work involves stretching a five-meter (16-foot) line from point A to point B, and then swimming along the line with a meter stick to check for coral within a half meter on each side of the line. We then stretch the line from point B to point C (another five meters) and do the same.

A                    B                    C
.-----------------.-----------------.

After that work, we took water samples from three areas: at the left and right ends of the transect and in the center.

It took more than two hours to complete all these tasks. They sound easy, but in the water the work is anything but. We were tired but had a good feeling because we could contribute to the data collection that has been going on here since 1992. We did a good job!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 San Salvador
The wind was blowing very strongly all through the night, so I couldn’t sleep well and we couldn’t go snorkeling because of the high waves. After breakfast, we hiked to the lighthouse, which was built in 1859 and works nowadays on kerosene. There are two lighthouse keepers who take care about it. The view was breathtaking from its top!

After going through a little jungle, we arrived at a cave that was partly under seawater. I supposed it would be cool, but it wasn’t. The only necessities were a lamp and a swimsuit. There were beautiful holes and many small fish in the water.

We went back to have lunch, which consisted of some stew and sandwiches. In the afternoon, we went to Rocky Point to do beach profiling—measuring the slope of the beach from the vegetation to several meters from the tide line.

It was the most magnificent beach I have ever seen. It looked like paradise: calm turquoise-blue water, soft white sand, sunshine, and nobody there. This place became our favorite. After work, we plunged into the water and really enjoyed the beauty of nature.

After dinner, we had a little party. Everybody introduced her/himself, including Paula, who arrived today and is an expert on coral reef fish.

The night was beautiful. We just saw all the stars and were sitting outside in the moonlight (full moon) till midnight.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 San Salvador
We did the morning beach profile on two spots: Rice Bay and Lindsay Beach. The method was the same as yesterday, and after work we couldn’t help but go into the water and the high waves. Next to Rice Bay, there were schoolchildren playing basketball on the beach.

After lunch, we were going to see “some fish.” Snapshot Reef was rocky on the shore, but the view we had 400 to 500 meters (1,310 to 1,640 feet) from the shore was a world of wonders. If this was a conference for fishes, everybody was there—parrotfish, trumpetfish, surgeonfish, grouper, butterflyfish. I couldn’t account for every species of fish, and their colors were very intense. Fortunately, the visibility was very good. My favorite was the parrotfish, which swam using just their pectoral fins like they were opening and closing a window at a 90-degree angle. They have all the colors of a rainbow.

We could see every coral we learned about, beginning with fire coral through Venus fan, finger (even dead man’s finger), and staghorn corals. Nature gave us a wide assortment of its beauty. Before swimming out, we could see a 1.5-meter-long (five-foot-long)barracuda. A large barracuda is capable of cutting a large fish in two with a single bite and causing severe injury to a human. He was like a king in his huge and beautiful kingdom. At that time, we were only floating.

In the evening, as usual, we had lessons in the lab.

Habitats are continually being damaged by human activity. There are two ways in which humans have contributed to the degradation of the Earth’s coral reefs: indirectly and directly.

Indirectly, we have destroyed their environment. Global warming caused by the greenhouse effect has raised the temperature of the oceans so high that the coral get sick and die. Even a rise of one degree in the average water temperature can hurt the coral. The most obvious sign that coral is sick is coral bleaching.

The warmer water also encourages the growth of harmful algae on top of the coral, which kills it by blocking out the sun. Algae is usually eaten by fish, but because of over fishing, there isn’t enough fish left to eat all the algae. The pollution we dump in the ocean is just what the algae needs to grow.

The direct way in which humans destroy coral reefs is by physically killing them. All over the world, but especially in the Philippines, divers often blow up a coral reef with explosives and then catch all the stunned fish. This completely destroys the reefs. Another way that divers catch coral reef fish is with cyanide, which is a poison. The divers pour this poison on the reef, stunning the fish and killing the coral.

Thursday, November 22, 2007 San Salvador
We again had a beautiful morning—sunshine and some breeze. Breakfast was some type of oatmeal and French bread. Nobody knew why it was French, but it was.

The only sad event today was that Michelle left us. She became one of my friends in the last six days.

In the morning, we went to Pigeon Creek. There was a very nice bay with mangrove trees all around. The water was shallow next to the shore, but we could float on the current. We could see a lot of conches.

Lunch was typically American: hamburger & pommes frites (French fries), and it wasn’t by chance. The third Thursday in November is always Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and that’s why we didn’t have much work today. In the afternoon, we could do recreational snorkeling. Elizabeth from Earthwatch showed us sea biscuits, which look like sea urchins, and from Sarah I got a sand dollar.

The dinner we got this evening was really delicious and typical for an American Thanksgiving: turkey with gravy, jam (sweet potato), vegetables, and pumpkin pie. There were flowers on the tables and “HAPPY THANKSGIVING!” written on the board.

In the evening, a representative of the Bahamas National Trust gave a presentation on how to protect the living jewels of the Bahamas: turtle, grouper, conch, and lobster.

Queen conch are vulnerable to over-fishing, because they mature slowly and are often harvested before they can reproduce. Legal harvest requires the shells to have a well-formed flared lip, which is not easily broken by hand.

Nassau grouper are especially vulnerable to over-fishing during spawning. In the winter months, there is a closed season during which it is illegal to capture, buy, or sell the fish.

We bought CDs and T-shirts supporting this organization and its efforts.

Friday, November 23, 2007 San Salvador
This was our last working day here, and I wasn’t the only one very sorry about it. Everybody wished that we would stay for one more week.

After breakfast—pancakes with syrup—we went to Lindsay Beach to take different measurements: point intercept transect, rugosity testing, and fish observation.

Point intercept transect:
Toss a one-meter-square grid onto the reef and count the number of the following below each point where the lines meet: hard coral, soft coral, rock, sand, algae, and other.

Rugosity testing:
Stretch a five-meter (16-foot) line above the reef, and use a five-meter chain to check the three dimensions of the reef. The chain was 1.75 meters shorter than the line, which allowed us to measure the difference (which is the rugosity)

Fish observation:
Within a marked eight-by-eight meter quadrat, we observed for five minutes how many of the following fish appeared in this area: blue tong, parrotfish, doctorfish, surgeonfish, and damselfish.

The most popular was—not surprisingly—fish observation. I was again surprised by the variety of colors and forms.

We were late back to the research center, but that day we were going to have our lunch outside at a local bar/pub that is full in the evenings. We got fish and bread, tuna and chicken, brown rice, and a local pasta with cheese. It was even more than I could eat. Finally, we had got a Bahamian dessert: guava duff. Guava is a fruit, and guava duff is like a slice of bread with rum sauce. It was really delicious!

In the afternoon, we took a nice trip with Elizabeth from Earthwatch to an old colonial-era plantation. This trip was like a bird-watching project, as we saw a lot of birds. It was getting dark when we arrived back.

Dinner was a little bit strange: Chinese food in the Bahamas! Afterward, we went to the lab to end our work by doing the water chemical testing (salinity, pH, nitrate, phosphate, bromine and strontium).

John appreciated our work and said thank you. We, in turn, thanked him, Elizabeth, and Paula for their work, patience and the knowledge they shared with us.

Fortunately, we found just two instances of coral bleaching, which means the reefs are not sick this year.

Saturday, November 24, 2007 San Salvador and Nassau
It was the last beautiful morning that we could spend here. We woke up early in the morning and began to pack all of our stuff. It was sad to say goodbye to the others, who become friends since last Saturday. We made a list of our emails.

For the last time, we went with Alex to the shore after breakfast to walk barefoot in the sand, see the turquoise-blue water, and hear the waves. After some “last pictures,” we put all our stuff on the truck and Tom took us to the airport. We had time to share how to get home because our plane had not even landed at 11:50 a.m. when we should have taken off. Bahamian time meant a 50-minute delay on that day. From the plane, we could see Cat Island and Eleuthera.

I had some time until my flight to London, so I went out in the city center in Nassau. I will never forget the land of the sun, the sky, and sea!

Thank you, Earthwatch, and thank you, Alcoa, for this unforgettable trip and experience!

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