As a nine year old kid I ordered a set of goggles, snorkel, and fins from Montgomery Ward Catalog. I taught myself to snorkel in the college pool as my Dad taught his Water Safety Instructor courses. As the students swam their laps and did their tasks I dove in and among them imagining all kinds of scenarios with me being in the Bahamas; diving the warm Caribbean waters instead of the chlorinated, heated pool at Chadron State College.
In these imaginary adventures there were any number of animals; sharks, rays, morays, and octopus. Now, years later, (and we won’t count how many…though the reference to the “Monkey Wards” Catalog should give you a hint) here I am actually in the warm waters off the sands of Warderick Wells Cay in the Bahamas. I’m here having adventures with conch. Yea, there are sharks, rays, morays and octopus around…be we are concentrating on the queen conch.
A friend sent me an email about the Community Conch project and said he thought I might be interested. I looked into it, and I was. I contacted Catherine and said I was very interested in coming to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park and helping any way I could with the project. She said come on down.
So I did. I wanted to observe the methods and protocols of their conch surveys. We do similar survey work along transects, only in terrestrial habitats. Our work revolves around the effects of different grazing schedules on grass, invasive weeds, and breeding birds. One of the major problems is always in insuring your sampling is unbiased and that your subsequent analysis is accurate. Community Conch has the same concerns and coming from such a different environment to watch and learn from them helps me to evaluate our sampling and our monitoring work.
One aspect of the surveys, towing an observer behind the boat, head and mask in the water looking down and counting conch, reminds me of doing large mammal surveys from an airplane…flying above and counting only those viewed through a special frame on the plane…though in doing that you don’t have to worry about the speed of the plane pulling your swimming suit down to your ankles. OK, that only happened once! However, this compare and contrast activity, or “cross fertilization” as Martha calls it, is exactly what I had hoped for.
If nothing else this has been a wonderful change for me. First, as you would expect, the Bahamas in July are about as different from Nebraska in July as you can get; secondly, I’m working in sea water instead of the open grasslands or the gravel mine lakes that I frequent at home. Lastly, while I’ve been on any number of recreational dive trips over the years, the diving here is quite different.
On a recreational dive you are schooled to slow down, relax, don’t exert yourself. Here, the dives last about 40 minutes with 28 of those minutes consisting of active swimming. Two divers go down. One navigates a square while the other searches for conch. I’ve never been able to stretch out a tank full of air in relaxed recreational diving and with these dives, because of the exertion; it is a challenge for me to simply get to the anchor again before I begin to run low on air. However, they are working around my limitations and I’m really enjoying the dives.
Today, however, I won’t be diving, I will again don the snorkel, mask, and fins and we will go looking for conch in shallow areas. Once we locate the conch we will free dive and try and find individuals that fit the size range we need for our study.
Our two-week adventure is drawing to a close and it has been great. The weather has been very good, the diving fun, and the people I’m working around fantastic. All things come full circle and today, years after playing out my dreams in the pool, I’ll grab my snorkel and fins and live those dreams of diving in the clear, warm waters of the Bahamas.