The Bahamas is an archipelago stretching hundreds of miles across roughly 5 degrees of latitude creating an arc of unbelievably beautiful turquoise water. There are indeed hundreds, if not thousands of islands (counting the smallest rocks) within its 5,383 square miles. The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in the northern Exuma Cays is roughly 50 miles from the major population center of New Providence Island (Nassau) and 30 miles from the island of Eleuthera, but unless you have a boat to travel as the crow flies, you must fly from Nassau to connect with a flight to Staniel Cay, and then take a 45-minute boat ride to Warderick Wells to get there. Which is what we did. Because of the difficult logistics of getting to the Land and Sea Park, you wouldn’t expect to run into anybody you know from Eleuthera (or anywhere else), until you realize that the population of The Bahamas is considerably small (less than 400,000 people live in all of The Bahamas) and so maybe, the probability is greater than you’d think. So it was a real “small world” encounter when I ran into Chris Maxey and family one morning at the Park headquarters. They had traveled to the Land and Sea Park by boat and I was not entirely surprised to see them.
Chris and his wife, Pam started The Island School on Cape Eleuthera over 10 years ago. They created a place where kids (primarily high school students studying abroad) can go to learn about living sustainably, gain a sense of place and self, participate in really interesting research projects, and become better leaders. The campus models sustainable systems for The Bahamas, like the production and use of alternative energy (biodiesel, wind, and solar), constructed wetlands for waste treatment, permaculture, and aquaponics. A semester at The Island School is a life changer for its students. As a way of giving back to the communities of south Eleuthera where the school is based, the Island School helps to support a middle school in one of the settlements nearby that attracts students from south Eleuthera. They also provide scholarships for Bahamian high school students to attend a semester at The Island School and complete a 6 month internship. And this is where it becomes a really small country…
Jasmine and Ted, two of our volunteers in the Land and Sea Park, and Alannah, who was with us at Lee Stocking Island, are all Bahamian graduates of The Island School. I met Jasmine and Alannah while there assisting with shark research a couple of years ago, and was very impressed with their skills in the water, and passion for the marine conservation research. Ted joined Community Conch 2 years ago for our first surveys in the Berry Islands as part of his Island School internship. So, as you can imagine, it was a nice surprise to see the Maxeys at Warderick Wells and have a brief reunion. But that’s not all…
A few days later, I received an email from a graduate student, Erin Cash, who is working at The Island School’s research facility, The Cape Eleuthera Institute. She explained that she is studying queen conch around Cape Eleuthera for her master’s degree and is currently leading a research course on conch for the summer term. She asked if it would be possible to come visit us at Warderick Wells, because she thought it would be a good opportunity for the kids. Well, 3 days later they arrived in 3 boats full of people ready for a quick tour of the Park. They brought David Miller, a veteran teacher at the Island School. It turns out that Ted was one of David’s very first advisees when he started there 3 years ago! So again, it was a great reunion.
What do these small world connections have to do with the queen conch and conservation? Well, considering that future generations are likely to have even bigger fisheries and conservation challenges than the world is dealing with today, a little first hand experience early in these student’s education seems like it would be a very good thing.
The 20 kids who traveled from Eleuthera to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park that day all got to experience a working marine reserve, one that is protecting perhaps the healthiest conch stocks in The Bahamas. The Community Conch crew had good discussion with them about our work, and the role we are playing in conservation of such an important fishery species. This exchange took place out of the classroom, and in a real world context, so it made a big impression on them (or so we heard!).
Jasmine, Ted, and Alannah might not have joined our team this year or in previous years if it weren’t for the hands-on experience in marine science and scientific diving they gained at The Island School. They contributed a lot to this year’s mission, and will take with them a better understanding of the state of the conch fishery and conservation of the species. Not so secretly, we hope students like Jaz, Ted, and Alannah will one day find “real jobs” in The Bahamas as scientists, resource managers, and policy makers, and join the efforts underway to keep their country’s ecosystems, and the livelihoods of the people dependent on these ecosystems, in tact. It is a small country after all, and a few people can make a difference!
Finally, it is entirely possible that the populations of queen conch in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park that we surveyed are connected to populations around Cape Eleuthera where the Island School is located. (Check out the previous post for more about meta-populations and connectivity.) Conch larvae drift in the currents for about a month before settling in the place where they will grow up. Circulation of water within Exuma Sound (the body of water between Eleuthera and the Exuma Cays) could carry conch larvae from one island to the next, so Erin and her students could be studying conchs that are related to conchs that we were studying!
Thanks for checking in,