Garrett in Bonaire – Mi trep na Kursou (My trip to Curaçao)

October 16, 2014

The time was 6:15AM. All 11 students climbed aboard the trucks and were off to Flamingo International Airport. As part of the program, my classmates, professors, and I hopped islands and took an extended two-day field trip to Curaçao.

The group of students and professors at Flamingo International Airport ready to hop over to Curaçao at 6:15AM.

The group of students and professors at Flamingo International Airport ready to hop over to Curaçao at 6:15AM.

For those of you who don’t remember, Curaçao is the “C” in ABC islands and is the largest of the three islands. Curaçao lies only about 30 miles west of Bonaire, making for a short 20-minute flight. Similarly to Bonaire, Curaçao was once a part of the Netherland Antilles. However, in 2010, when Bonaire became a municipality of the Netherlands, Curaçao became its own independent country. So, here I am, taking a casual field trip to another country for class during my study abroad experience in the Caribbean.

My classmates and I enjoying the sun in Curaçao!

My classmates and I enjoying the sun in Curaçao!

The itinerary for this trip was jam-packed.

First up: The Sea Aquarium. The aquarium itself was much like any other aquarium with a plethora of marine life on display in various tanks. However, nothing beats swimming with the same fish on the reef outside my residence hall, so I was slightly unimpressed by the inside. The outdoor facilities were another story. As the aquarium is oceanfront, they have multiple lagoons that have channels leading out into the ocean where they take care of a dozen or so dolphins. Let me just say, the Dolphin Academy is amazing! We got a behind-the-scenes tour from the leader of the dolphin program. He has been working with these dolphins for over 20 years and knows them so well. He took us around to the different lagoons stopping at each to tell us about the dolphins. In one, three male teen dolphins were participating in a snorkel session. Here he told us about the reproductive tendencies of dolphins, which are extremely interesting (if you’re ever bored and want to read up on their habits). In another lagoon, dolphin trainers had just finished putting on a wonderful show and were beginning afternoon training sessions with the dolphins. The next lagoon over was occupied by three female dolphins, two of which had given birth in the past month and the third is due in the near future. We stopped here to watch the two-week old dolphin interact with its mother and hear an explanation of dolphin familial structure and group behaviour. In the last lagoon, a dolphin therapy session was underway. The Dolphin Academy on Curacao is one of the best dolphin therapy facilities in the world. Here the dolphins help children of varying disabilities overcome challenges. While they are not the actual therapists in the scenario, they are used as a reward system for the child. Just look at these guys! No wonder they connect so well with children!

The two-week old baby dolphin swims alongside its mother and offers a shy smile for the camera!

The two-week old baby dolphin swims alongside its mother and offers a shy smile for the camera!

Up next: The Curasub! Just down the pier from the Sea Aquarium was Substation Curaçao. That’s right, a submarine. And not just any submarine; a 5-person scientific mini-submarine. In fact, the day before our arrival, the Smithsonian had taken the sub down to 1,000 feet and brought up countless specimens for analysis in the lab. While we weren’t there to bring up samples or anything, we still got to take a trip down in the sub. It sure was cozy! All complaints aside, the experience was breathtaking. The sights were just beautiful and it is eye-opening to just witness the vast array of life that occurs at that depth. Once the majority of visible light disappears from the water column, corals slowly start to fade out and sponges take their place. As a member of the marine biology lab on campus that focuses on sponge research, this was sponge heaven! Continuing past 200 feet, marine live gets even sparser and more interesting. Our max depth was 530 feet! On our way back up, we stopped by a wreck site of two tugboats, which were teeming with life, including countless lionfish, multiple green moray eels, and all kinds of sponges. The whole adventure was absolutely incredible!

Smiling before I drop down into the Curasub for my first submarine ride

Smiling before I drop down into the Curasub for my first submarine ride

My buddy Graham and I smiling out the glass dome of the sub.

My buddy Graham and I smiling out the glass dome of the sub.

A view from inside the sub looking out at the reef. Note the depth of 510 ft!

A view from inside the sub looking out at the reef. Note the depth of 510 ft!

The following day: Kura Hulanda, possibly one of the best museums I have ever been to. Kura Hulanda is a cultural museum, with a focus on slavery and its impact on the world, specifically in the Caribbean. In the US, when we are taught history, the topic of slavery is often glazed over and its horrors are hidden from view; instead we focus on the Civil War and the biggest battles. However, slavery has killed more people than the Holocaust and this museum shed some light on their stories. During our tour of the slavery museum, we saw the devices used to torture slaves that were disobedient, we ducked inside a model of a ship’s hold where the slaves were kept during the trans-Atlantic voyage, and we heard the terrible tales of the conditions they were exposed to throughout the trek. The museum really opened my eyes to the horrors of slavery and offered another cultural lens with which to view the practice as a whole. It was interesting to learn and be exposed to the history of slavery from this other perspective.

A common device used to torture slaves. Disobedient slaves were stripped and placed in this metal chair in the scorching sun, often until they died.

A common device used to torture slaves. Disobedient slaves were stripped and placed in this metal chair in the scorching sun, often until they died.

Replicate model of the hold of a slave ship. Our tour guide estimated that close to 100 slaves would be crammed into this small space. And to think, it felt crowded with just the 7 of us in the tour group

Replicate model of the hold of a slave ship. Our tour guide estimated that close to 100 slaves would be crammed into this small space. And to think, it felt crowded with just the 7 of us in the tour group

Lastly: Bus tour. With such a limited time on the island, we didn’t really get to see much more than the cove where the Sea Aquarium and our accommodations were located. The bus took us around Punda and Otrobanda, two quarters of the capital city of Willemstad. Literally meaning “other side,” Otrobanda is located directly across Sint Anna Bay from Punda. Together, these quarters are important not only for tourism, but also their history and their proximity to the ocean, which allows for easy trade. In addition, to touring the city, we also were taken to Fort Nassau, which provided a stunning 360 degree view of the city, as well as Fort Beekenburg, which was an old military fort stationed at the back of the bay meant to keep pirates and the British off the island.

A view of Punda across the channel from Otrobanda.

A view of Punda across the channel from Otrobanda.

A few of us pose for a picture with the capital city of Curaçao behind us.

A few of us pose for a picture with the capital city of Curaçao behind us.

Fort Beekenburg standing tall.

Fort Beekenburg standing tall.

All in all, while we were only on the island for less than 36 hours, the country of Curaçao was amazing! I absolutely loved the field trip and appreciate the experience! Guess I can check “Go 530 feet underwater in a submarine” and “Visit Curaçao” off my bucket list too!

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Garrett in Bonaire – Sopi Yuana i Ekperens Nobo (Iguana Soup and New Experiences)

September 23, 2014

After a busy first week of learning to identify 82 fish, mumbling through our first Papiamentu lesson, and completing the Open Water diver certification, we were ready for the weekend. Kicking off our first weekend we had Dia di Boneiru, Bonaire’s national Flag Day, a holiday filled with high-spirited displays of patriotism – something I would liken to Fourth of July in the States. During the day, we walked a few blocks and strolled around the local booths selling handmade jewelry, artwork, and various other knick-knacks.

My buddies and I milling around downtown Kralendijk during the festivities of Dia di Boneiru

My buddies and I milling around downtown Kralendijk during the festivities of Dia di Boneiru

When we went back a few hours later, the scene had changed dramatically as the sheer number of people milling around the plaza in downtown Kralendijk had increased 100-fold. Local musicians were jamming out on stage, everyone was on their feet dancing the night away, and the smell of booze and street food filled the air. After realizing that we couldn’t read much of anything on the menus, which were entirely in Papiamentu, my friends and I approached a vendor and attempted to decipher the menu. With some help from other locals who spoke some English, we quickly realized that “Everything on the menu is $10” was not something that could be ordered and were goaded into ordering sopi yuana and karko stoba. We were handed a small cup of iguana soup and a plate of conch stew served over rice, plantains, and pumpkin pancakes. It was positively delicious! Now I can check “Eat iguana” off my bucket list!

My friend Jack's dish of karko stoba, or conch stew, served with rice, pasta salad, mashed potatoes, plantains, and a pumpkin pancake. Yum!

My friend Jack’s dish of karko stoba, or conch stew, served with rice, pasta salad, mashed potatoes, plantains, and a pumpkin pancake. Yum!

The following day we set out to cross another item off my bucket list – cliff jumping! While on a tour of the island last week, one of our professors mentioned a dive site a few miles north of the residence hall where one can jump into the water off a cliff and return via a ladder. So that afternoon, six of us took out our bikes and began the 4-mile trek to Oil Slick. In what seemed like no time, we were there. We all took turns jumping off the cliff, which admittedly was only about 15 feet above sea level. Nevertheless, it was quite thrilling to jump into the crashing waves of the ocean below!

Selfie atop the cliff at Oil Slick!

Selfie atop the cliff at Oil Slick!

And the habitat! We were only a few miles up shore from our normal dock; however, the habitat differed greatly. It was a blast to get the chance to get out of the house and explore a new section of the reef!

A photogenic banded butterflyfish (Chaetodon striatus) poses with a soft coral and a brain coral!

A photogenic banded butterflyfish (Chaetodon striatus) poses with a soft coral and a brain coral!

Speaking of exploring the reef, the diving has been nonstop intense since my first four certification dives. Since then we have been working on becoming trained as Advanced and Rescue Divers. For a new diver, jumping straight into this is intimidating to say the least. Most nerve-racking of all – the night dive (only my sixth dive ever). We waded into the water just as the sun disappeared below the horizon. With our dive lights illuminated, we descended into the darkness. Everything aside from the beams emitting from our torches was covered in stale blackness. However, what our lights did unveil was an entirely different biotic reef community. Parrotfish were sleeping on the sandy bottom, eels fluttered across the corals, and two gigantic tarpin hovered nearby hunting for food. Oh, and moon jellies descended from the heavens. Imagine the Finding Nemo jellyfish scene, but at night. One “Cool! Look at that!” jelly turned into a crowded middle school dance with everyone bumping into the jellies. We were quick to find out that these jellies are nonlethal and quite harmless, aside from the minor panic attacks they cause. Needless to say, it was another successful and amazing dive!

Beautiful sunset before the night dive!

Beautiful sunset before the night dive!

As for the above water portion of Bonaire, we haven’t really gotten much time to do a lot of exploring. With our only transportation being bikes and the weather being as hot as it is here, it can be tough getting to places outside of the capital city of Kralendijk. However, we have weekly field trips to various parts of the island with our Cultural and Environmental History of Bonaire class. This week we took a tour of the Cargill Salt Works production plant. Salt production on the island goes back hundreds of years. Initially dubbed “the useless islands” by the Spanish for their lack of gold, Bonaire and the rest of the ABC islands were soon taken over by the Dutch and transformed into a hub for slave trade. At this time, Bonaire was discovered to have natural salt, which was necessary for keeping and curing meats. Without going into too much detail, the process is actually quite intriguing. The process here uses the energy from the sun and wind to drive salt production. Water is taken in from the sea and collected in pools. As it sits there, the water evaporates, thereby increasing the salinity. Eventually, (over-simplifying the whole process) salt is left. The process itself is actually quite beautiful!

The piles of sea salt at Cargill Salt Works

The piles of sea salt at Cargill Salt Works

Two saliñas on the Cargill property. The rosy-pink color indicates a higher salinity, which means the salt is almost ready to be harvested.

Two saliñas on the Cargill property. The rosy-pink color indicates a higher salinity, which means the salt is almost ready to be harvested.

Eating iguana, jumping off cliffs, swimming with jellyfish, and visiting a salt production plant. Here’s to having new experiences! And having many more!


Garrett in Bonaire – Mi prome siman! (My first week!)

September 8, 2014

Bon dia!

I have been on island a week now and I cannot begin to tell you how amazing this semester is going to be.

All checked in and ready to go on a 5AM flight to Bonaire!

All checked in and ready to go on a 5AM flight to Bonaire!

As I said my goodbyes at the Philly airport at 5:00AM last Saturday, I was beaming with excitement. Time seemed to drag on as I sat in the airport waiting for my flight, but once we were in the air it wasn’t long before I was blissfully greeted by the teal blue waters of Bonaire just outside the plane window.

The brilliant waters of Bonaire greet me as we begin to descend!

The brilliant waters of Bonaire greet me as we begin to descend!

Upon arriving at Flamingo Airport at about 2:00PM, two of the CIEE interns, Sasha and Noah, holding a stereotypical clipboard sign, welcomed me and another student, Jack. We then packed our luggage into the research station’s open-backed truck, hopped in, and drove off to our new home. We arrived at the residence hall to find that it was more like a large house; it has a communal full-service kitchen, living area, and study area, with seven 2-4 person rooms. We also were happy to learn that we were the first two students to arrive. There are normally 3 flights to Bonaire on any given day, and we arrived on the first. The remaining 9 students were arriving on later flights that would both get in after dinner. This basically meant, Jack and I had plenty of time to hang out before everyone else arrived. In fact, after unpacking most of our stuff, the interns took us to go swim in the ocean.

The ocean just outside of Yellow Sub will be my classroom for the next 90 days!

The ocean just outside of Yellow Sub will be my classroom for the next 90 days!

Directions: Walk one block north, make a left, and splash. Time: 30 seconds. After making the hike to the ocean, we all donned our snorkel gear and jumped into the brilliantly blue water. Just off the edge of the pier, the water is 8 feet deep. Here there are many bright colored fish, whose images I vaguely recalled from the flashcards I had made prior to coming to the program and whose computer images barely do them justice. However, if you swim just a hundred yards further, you reach the reef crest where the bottom rapidly slopes into the dark blue. This area is teeming with life! I won’t go in to too much detail here, as I will have plenty of opportunities to explore this amazing habitat that’s practically in my back yard. I mean, think about it; this is my classroom for the next 90 days!

The next day, after everyone had made it here safely the night before, we had a fun day of orientation complete with a trip to the grocery store, a formal tour of Kralendijk, stereotypical icebreakers, another dip in the ocean, and of course talks about the various logistical aspects of the program. And this wonderful day would not have been complete without a CIEE staff and student sunset BBQ overlooking the water.

Students, interns, staff, and professors gather for a BBQ dinner overlooking the setting sun over the ocean!

Students, interns, staff, and professors gather for a BBQ dinner overlooking the setting sun over the ocean!

As the program is only 13 weeks, Monday, even though we had been here less than 48 hours, meant the start of classes. Luckily, our first day of classes consisted of a snorkeling field trip to the other side of the island to a protected shallow bay, which is one of the few seagrass habitats on the island. Not only is Lac Bay known for its seagrass and mangrove habitats, but it is also a perfect place for windsurfing, as it’s protected by the reef from heavy wave action, yet catches the wind all the same. While here, we took advantage of the opportunity to talk to the owner of the windsurfing club, Elvis Martinus. He was the first local to view windsurfing as more than just recreation and instead as a way to get the kids of the island involved in a sport and produce world-class level windsurfing champions. It was amazing to hear the about the culture of windsurfing in Bonaire, straight from the guy who started it all.

Later in the week, after some classes on how to identify various fish, corals, and coral diseases, it was time for our first scuba dives! Coming into the program, I had only acquired a PADI referral. This basically means that I had no prior open water diving experience. So these dives would count towards my four Open Water certification dives. Spread out over two days, we completed four open water dives exploring the reef just off shore and with that I am now a certified Open Water diver!

Congrats to Graham, Allison, and myself for completing our Open Water certification! We are the three newly certified divers!

Congrats to Graham, Allison, and myself for completing our Open Water certification! We are the three newly certified divers!

As you can probably tell, I’m having a blast and cannot wait to further explore the island, the culture, and the reef of Bonaire!


Garrett in Bonaire – Bon dia!

August 29, 2014

Bon dia!

(That is “Good day!” in Papiamentu, the official language of Bonaire.)

My name is Garrett, and I am a rising junior at the University of Richmond as a Mathematics and Biology double major, with an as-yet-undeclared minor in Integrated Science. However, this upcoming semester I will be studying abroad in Bonaire as a part of the CIEE program in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation.

First thing’s first. I know most of you are asking “Bon-where?” Well, it is in fact a small Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. It is a special municipality of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and was formerly part of the Lesser Antilles. It is located in the southern Caribbean as a part of the ABC islands, along with its neighbors Aruba and Curaçao.

Fifty miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is situated in the southern Caribbean along with the rest of the ABC islands From Google: http://www.harbourvillage.com/art11/bonaire/image001.jpg

Fifty miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is situated in the southern Caribbean along with the rest of the ABC islands
From Google: http://www.harbourvillage.com/art11/bonaire/image001.jpg

The island itself is approximately 114 square miles and is home to about 17,500 people. To give a size reference, it is less than half of the size of New York City (that’s including all five Boroughs) and has a population size that falls somewhere between the undergraduate student populations of UVA and Virginia Tech.

A map of Bonaire shows that it is only about 24 miles long and 3-5 miles wide. From Google: http://www.lovebonaire.com/images/BonaireMap-MED.gif

A map of Bonaire shows that it is only about 24 miles long and 3-5 miles wide.
From Google: http://www.lovebonaire.com/images/BonaireMap-MED.gif

Additionally, you may be wondering about CIEE. Well, my specific program is not run through a foreign university like many people would think of a stereotypical study abroad experience. Instead, my study abroad experience is run through the Council on International Educational Exchange or CIEE. Through their program, I will be staying at a research station, with 12 other students, in Kralendijk, Bonaire, where we will be taking classes in marine biology and conducting our own marine research. And that is precisely why I chose this program. Not only can I take upper level biology classes that transfer credit back to UR, but I will also be getting a once in a lifetime experience living on a Caribbean island steps away from the ocean, where I will be scuba diving for my classes and gaining firsthand experience in a potential career field. In a week’s time, I will be out in the water with the coral reef as my classroom.

I can’t believe it. I leave in 4 days!

It may be because just four days ago I was moving my sister into her dorm room for her first semester at Arcadia, but right now, I’m experiencing the same emotional rollercoaster that came just before I moved off to college two years ago. Nervous because I don’t exactly know what is to come. Detached because I know all of my friends at UR are having a great first week of school. Excited because I know it’s going to be an amazing experience. Worried because I still have yet to pack. Stressed because, apparently, memorizing 100 fish ID’s in a week is something I also need to fit into my schedule. Eager because everyone tells me Bonaire has some of the most beautiful diving in the world. Whatever my emotions are now, I tell myself that I have to stay open-minded and be ready for new experiences.

Change is on the horizon, but it’s going to be the best sunrise I’ve seen in awhile!

Stay tuned for my adventures!


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