Utila Time


I have now been at WSORC for ten weeks. Upon arriving in Utila, I did not quite know what to expect. But as soon as I dropped my bags, I was immediately plunged into an amazing atmosphere that has created countless and unique memories. Here is a look into my experience here at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Centre…

 

I arrived on the 6th of June, ready to learn and experience life working for an NGO. After settling into our house, it was time to begin the internship. The first week comprised of presentations given by our program coordinator and the Research Assistants (RA). This, along with a tour of the island and general introductions to the many people who I would grow to adore, was a lot of information to take in. We had activities such as visiting the freshwater caves on the island. We participated in our first of many beach clean-ups, where we experienced the devastating impact of plastic pollution. Everyone enjoys taking part in the beach clean-ups, you spend a morning on a beach, with great people, and best of all, an amazing lunch made by a resident restaurant owner.

 

After the introduction period at the beginning, the Marine Conservation Interns started their diving courses, while I and a Dive Master intern started to develop our fish identification skills by diving the reefs and taking along slates and pencils. This gave me the opportunity to fall in love with diving even more, as I spent all my bottom time looking for the smallest fish and naming them, like the juvenile French Angelfish, probably my favourite juvenile fish. After taking an exam, all of us became certified Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) surveyors, and contributed data to a multinational database run by the REEF foundation.

 

At the same time I leant to undertake diver impact surveys, which consists of following divers and taking note of the times they come into contact with the fauna underwater. This has made me pay attention to my diving, as hitting a coral with your fin can damage it, and it will take a large effort and countless years to rebuild itself. I have to admit it is fun being the “diver police,” but with power comes responsibility.

 

During the first month I was also introduced to Ocean Safaris, which are the trips where we go looking for whale sharks and other megafauna. As an RA, I would eventually be running these, so it was important for me to see the other RAs in charge, organising the boat, and acting as the leader with customers. Sadly in my ten weeks here, I have yet to see a whale shark, however I have had several great encounters with spinner and spotted dolphins, in particular the day we swam with roughly 80-100 dolphins, jumping out of the water and diving under us. That was an amazing experience. Speaking of notable animals, I have also had the fortune to meet the nurse sharks that live on the North side of the island, and the endemic swamper iguanas.

 

After my first month, the group of Marine Conservation Intern (MCI)  that arrived with me departed the program, so it was time to start being more autonomous, as I would be helping to train the next group of MCIs. In our down time, before the new arrivals, we planned out the activities of the month, and more importantly of the first week, as myself and the other two RA’s would be running the centre independently, which was very exiting because it allowed us to be part of all the behind-the-scenes operations.

 

The second month was a great experience, and the whole team had a lot of fun, especially during the annual Utila Carnival. During the boat parade, WSORC and Bay Islands College of Diving, our partner dive shop, paraded our boat represented with pride. For the float parade we danced the streets all dressed as marine animals, with myself as a lobster, and the girls all dressed as mermaids. I started assuming more responsibilities at the centre, such as running the welcome desk a few times a week, and leading the new interns on their fish ID dives and transect surveys. I learnt a whole lot that second month, like which are the best places to have dinner (my favourite being the asian restaurant: Foo King Wok).

 

If I am describing my experience here on Utila, I cannot leave out the fun times I have had. The big group of 15 that we once were had several hilarious nights out at local bars Tranquila and Coco Loco, and great times taking a boat to a tiny island with palm trees and hammocks. I also cannot leave out the fun times i had riding around the island in an ATV. As you can see, I could go on and on naming fun times, but that would take too long…

 

Now I only have four weeks left, which on Utila time, flies by in the blink of an eye. I am currently creating a lion fish spearing workshop, which hopefully will teach others to spear lionfish responsibly.  I am super happy to have been given the task, and to be trusted with running it in the coming weeks. When my last week comes around, however, I will be sad to be leaving this wonderful island, its amazing people and atmosphere. I will be leaving to go back to university, but coming back will not be out of the question, who knows…