It Starts With the Youth
As children, we often dream of big things, with open minds and pure hearts. We want to believe that the world is good, that people are good, and anything is possible. This type of hope, optimism, enthusiasm, sympathy, and empathy is what makes children so special. Their ability to learn, change and form opinions as well as relate to people and situations on a real emotional level is why it is so important to educate them on actual situations that occur in this world that will affect them and that they should care about.
There are many individuals know why it is so important to educate the youth about climate change, rising sea levels, protection of the oceans, and creating an overall more sustainable world, but as our class was in Union Island collecting research underwater to better protect coral reefs and the ocean, we realized that many of the locals know little about the ocean and reefs that surround and support them and why they are so important. As a small island, everyone should be aware of the magnificent reefs that protect their coastlines from dangerous storms and support a great deal of biodiversity in the oceans. Without the protection from the reefs, the coastline of the island would be quickly eroded. And without the biodiversity, climate change could quickly worsen, and many would lose their jobs as fisherman, the population would go hungry, and drought would be even more of an issue than it already is. Although most Unionites are typically feet from the ocean, they do not always realize the magnitude of the situation regarding the importance of their oceans or the protection of it.
When planning our outreach and presentations for some primary school children of Union, we wanted to make sure that the children understood why we were there, and why it was important to protect our oceans, and specifically their oceans and coast lines. We had four groups of students working with children of four different grades. Difficulties proved to be apparent when working with young and excited children, but it was nothing that we were not prepared to handle! It is an exciting thing to have others in their school, especially foreigners, teaching them and interacting with them. Some of our groups chose to teach through games and others through presentations although the goal was the same for all of us: to keep them engaged, compassionate and excited. It was such a joy to experience the smiles on their faces and the excitement and understanding of why it was important to protect and respect the oceans! At then end of the day we were all just excited to spread our knowledge and compassion.
Culture of Union Island
By Danielle Gaus:
During my two week study abroad trip to Union Island, I learned a lot about the culture of the island and what it is like to live here. We took a visit to see some members of the Imani tribe, where we were able to see and participate in some of their cultural dances. I remember being amazed watching the children playing the drums to match the rhythm of the songs because they were able to make it look effortless, while our group found it to be difficult to learn. We learned about how the dances are not as easy as they seem, and that each separate move has a meaning to the overall dance and helps coordinate the drumming. It was a very educational experience and we were excited and grateful to learn about the cultural practices of the tribe.
On one day during our trip, we took a break from diving to go on a hike. During this, our hiking ranger educated us on some of the history of the island and what the people are like today. In the 1700’s, a man named Samuel Spann owned many acres of the island and decided to name it Union Island after his first ship in the area. Slaves were brought to the island for many years, and French and British invasions occurred. We were told that the people living on the island today are very united, and that whenever there is a disaster, everyone comes together to help each other out. According to our trip collaborator Katrina, Union Island differs from the other nearby islands for this reason.
During our trip, we ate a variety of new foods. For example, on one of our dives, we were given some Soursop fruit to try out, which is a commonly eaten fruit on the island. It was my first time trying it, and although I personally was not a fan of the fruit, a large portion of our group thought it was quite tasty. We also learned throughout our trip that a lot of the food we were eating was grown or caught locally. Some of the fruit markets located near where we were selling locally grown fruits, and for the meals that consisted of fish, we learned that the fish were caught around the island. I thought this was really great, as most of the food I eat at home is not locally produced. When we were eating our meals, we often had dogs standing by our sides begging for food. On the island, there are many stray dogs roaming around, which was very surprising to many people within our group as stray dogs are not a common sighting from where we are from in the United States.
Overall, this trip was absolutely amazing and I learned an incredible amount about scientific diving and about life on Union Island. Going on this trip was a major step out of my comfort zone, and I am so happy I decided to go on it as I feel like I have grown so much over the past two weeks.
Food and Culture of Union Island
By Victoria Ross:
St. Vincent & the Grenadines are multiethnic communities and is the combination of the native culture as well as the French and British settlers who brought slaves to the island. The food is primarily sourced from the island, ocean, and its neighboring islands. The national dish includes roasted breadfruit with fried jackfish. Juices that are homemade may include fruits from mango, tamarind, ackee, coconut, and soursop. Some drinks are considered very sweet, and others are very bitter. The rainwater that is collected and filtered can limited therefore the juices can be very refreshing.
Prior to arrival we expected to be able to source most of our meals from the grocery store. We quickly discovered that could not be the case most small grocery stores only had the bare necessities including flour some local snacks and soap. Our food was catered with the different restaurant that sourced their products from other locals or from the ferries. Breakfast was often sourced from a local bakery. We asked how most residents source their foods and our dive boat captain told us that they get fresh produce from the market and both meat and seafood are sold fresh so there is no need to freeze it. Some seasonings and condiments are all they really need from the local stores. Packaging is very different than in the US you don’t compare brands or pricing because there is only one. In packaging it is the basics with very little advertising which was different from what I had been used to. Trash can be found through the streets but because packaging is so minimal and there is little waste our carbon footprint was very low. Bottles are aggressively recycled because there is a system in place to return them to the manufacturer. We were also told many small businesses including the restaurants on the island closed because of the lack of business caused by both covid and the hurricane season. Overall, it was very rewarding to know that our food was sourced from the island, and we tried many popular native dishes.
Chatham Bay Forest
By Sabrina Joval:
Many people believe the most valuable treasure is hidden somewhere locked within a chest, but truth is the treasure surrounds us like a comforting hug. In Union Island, the Chatham Bay Forest welcomed me with the whistles of the birds to the crunch of the leaves. Each step led to a story untold, trees entangled hiding the unknown, and waves crashed into a beautiful whispering tune. Learning about this protected gem, Chatham Bay Forest, was a mystical journey one could never forget. From the Naked Indian Tree that is used to make small craft boats to the Brasilia, the fourth most dangerous plant that can send you to the hospital with a little scratch. As the healthiest dry forest on the island, Chatham Bay inhabits the Red Footed Tortoise, the Chakalaka bird, the Grenada flycatcher, the Frigge, white snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, and the Union Island Gecko. Reaching the highest peak in the Grenadines, 999 ft above sea level, history unfolded in front of our faces as knowledge was shared with us. Whether it was knowing William Pit Younger was the youngest prime minister at 21 years old or that out of the 2,500 residents only 40% of them are locals, this hidden treasure was beyond remarkable to experience.
Below the waves of union
By Nicole Maleski:
Before even boarding the plane to Granada we were expected to be able to identify 18 different fish that are common in the Caribbean, and by the 5th day in Union we were expected to be able to identify 90 different fish species. For fish data collection we didn’t need to know all the species, but it was still tested on. The important fish families on the reefs were all we needed well collecting data such as Surgeonfish and parrot fish for their important herbivore behavior and Groupers and snappers because they are fished for food. From above on the boat the sea was just many shades of blue, but as soon as we submerged under the waves it was a whole other world. Schools of brown chromis and creole wrasses from our earlier test swarmed around us like we were not even there, Cautious groupers peaked out under rocks. Each dive site was full of fish and other aquatic life of all sizes. Even with the 90 fish species we needed to memorize there was still many fish like lizardfish and squirrelfish that could be found at almost every dive site. Once back on the boat the schools of sergeant majors disappear bellow the blue waves and once again the beauty and diversity were hidden from our eyes.
The Union Island Gecko Initiative
By Alexis Madrid:
The Union Island Gecko, Gonatodes daudini, is a critically endangered species whose population can only be found on Union Island. This elusive lizard is generally tiny, roughly 3 cm full-grown, with a dark-colored body and jewel-like markings. There are less than 10,000 Union Island Geckos in existence, these declining numbers are mostly due to reptile poachers capturing the gecko for the exotic animal trade. The people of Union Island understand how precious these species are to the island’s unique biodiverse ecosystems, so in 2015 The Union Island Gecko Initiative began to conserve the remaining gecko populations and prevent extinction. On June 10th, our class joined the wardens from the Union Island Environmental Alliance on a guided hike through Chatham Bay Forest Preserve. We had the opportunity to observe several species of reptiles and birds native to the island while hiking to the highest peak in the Grenadines. Although our class didn’t find any geckos on the way up the mountain, one of the park wardens found one for us to observe. My first impression was that the gecko seemed much smaller in person, and I can’t imagine how difficult they were to find throughout the dense forest. Being able to see the Union Island Gecko in person was an experience of a lifetime I will never forget.
Sustainability in Union Island
By Mackenzie Miller:
Union Island is one of the smaller islands in the Caribbean chain. Because of this, the island has a very strong sense of community. The island functions much like a small town in America where everyone knows everyone, greeting each other and having brief conversations as one passes. This strong sense of community also translates to them caring for their local environment. Union island has many conservation efforts taking place on the island including things such as water retention and recycling programs.
One major conservation effort is taking place in their local government agency regarding the queen conch. A common source of income for many people on the island is to free dive and SCUBA dive to catch queen conch. This species is an expensive luxury in most places in America. Yet, the divers here must catch up to 200- 300 per day to make a living. This causes a couple of problems. The first is that to increase profit, the divers will use various breathing tactics to increase their bottom time and catch more conch in a shorter amount of time. This can be very dangerous as it increases their odds of getting a gas embolism or running out of air underwater.
Another issue caused is that the queen conch is very vulnerable to overfishing and is considered endangered in many tropical areas, such as the Florida Keys. To lessen both of these effects, the government is trying to increase the price of conch to a set price so that there are no fluctuations based on market demand. This set price will hopefully lessen the amount of conch being caught per day while still allowing the divers to make a livable wage. This will overall put less strain on the conch population, their underwater environment, and the people of Union.
The picture attached below is one of the many piles of conch shells around the island. These piles have developed over the years as the fishermen would dump them all in one place after they harvested the animal. No matter where you go on the island, there seems to be an empty conch shell nearby.
By Lily Orton:
Union island is a beautiful island with many treasures like the crystal-clear waters, beautiful forests, and their very own endemic gecko. These treasures make Union island’s income rely heavily on tourism. However, because Union Island is so difficult to get to and the cost of importing materials is so high no other industry has truly profited in Union. Although for a community relying on tourism for their daily revenue can really benefit when tourism is high, which for the islanders is the winter months. When tourism is low, during the summer months, people struggle to make ends meet. When I asked Vance, a local divemaster, how he thought tourism affected everyone on Union he told me during summer months businesses often shut down because no one is coming in, it is extremely hard for everyone on the island.
The summer months are rough for everyone when your entire community is reliant on tourism, now add the pandemic into the mix. For two years Union Island has been closed off due to the pandemic, within that time many individuals and businesses struggled to survive. And with a population of 2,000 people is it very easy for one person to get infected and the entire island then have COVID, which with the limited access to vaccines the disease can very quickly spread. Additionally, Union Island is not only more susceptible due to the small population but also because of the influx of tourists that can transmit the disease.
The increasing climate change problem that is spreading throughout the world has particularly affected Union Island and the influx of tourism. Union island is current plagued with massive amounts of sargassum around the beaches and shores of the island. As sargassum population increases because of climate change, which are warmer waters and increased nutrient levels due to fertilizer runoff and upwells, numbers soar. Furthermore, the Tradewinds push all the sargassum onto these pristine beaches that many tourists want to come to relax not to smell hydrogen sulfide which is being released by the rotting sargassum. Due to the hydrogen sulfide creating a rotting egg smell along the beaches this sargassum has also had an effect on the influx of tourists coming to Union which in turn decreases the revenue made.
As Union’s economy is based upon tourism, they have taken many hits the past couple years with the pandemic and the effects of climate change. With the world opening back up as we reach the tail end of COVID-19, travelers are more willing to travel to Union, the economy of Union is starting to get back on its feet. In terms of climate change Union Island is attacking the climate change problem with their organization Union Island Environmental Alliance. However, climate change is a problem that everyone no matter where you are from can work on and participate in making the world a better place for everyone to live.
Taste of Union Island
By Delaina Ross:
Feeding 20 people simultaneously on a small island has been a challenge. Organizationally, one must remember that we are living on island time- 12:30 means 1:15 and that just must be okay.
Breakfast has been fried dough balls, cinnamon bread, onion and cheese and meat enclosed in bread made by a woman who runs a shop right across from the hotel. On weekends we do fresh baked bread with peanut butter, Nutella, and Jam. On top of that everyone has been to the outdoor market area to stock up on mangos, bananas, and starfruit all grown on Union throughout neighborhoods and yards. We keep it light and simple before loading on the boat for our two survey dives.
The first 4 days of lunch was the same local dish, Roti. A tortilla with large chucks of potato, curry, and chicken. Though it had to be dissected to remove all bones.
Despite being surrounded by the water the main part of each meal is usually chicken, occasionally ribs. The style here is bone-in everything. Kill, pluck, spice and cook without much else done to it. As per usual for most places around the world, rice is always a side dish.
For those who don’t eat meat, we’ve been getting whole fish. Eyeballs, spine, tail, fins, some scales. It’s been a learning process to remove all the tiny, needle-like bones.
The island has no central water system. They rely on cisterns to collect rainwater and use it for all needs. It’s advised that because we are not accustomed to it, we boil the water before drinking it, but I just drink it straight from the tap and don’t have any complaints. Usually with meals we get various locally made juices.
Some have embraced what the island has to offer more than others, but we are all happy to buy snacky foods from the small shack vendors on the main street. This is the slow season and the people have been very happy having us come by to get our fill of snacks.
By Stephanie Medo:
Scientific Diving is scuba diving with the intent to work underwater to pursue scientific knowledge. If you choose to become a scientific diver with USF it can be very rewarding and allow you the opportunity to see beautiful places and creatures. Not only will you get the chance to travel but you collect data for scientific research and help make a difference in conservation or build knowledge. However, it can also be stressful and dangerous, you need to ensure that you understand the safety measures of scuba diving and take them seriously.
Let’s begin with the basics; to become a scientific diver with USF you must be, at minimum, an open water scuba diver. Once this is complete you will need to pass a series of check out dives and swim tests with USF’s diving safety officer. USF does a great job of laying out the details of becoming a scientific diver in the following link:
The website provides you with a checklist, PowerPoint presentation with step-by-step directions, waiver, health documentation and more. I’m going to be honest, I was very overwhelmed when first presented with the information. I was wondering if I would have enough time to complete all my certifications, would I be able to pass the swim test? Or would I even enjoy scuba diving? I was presented with two options, complete all the certifications on my own or take a scientific diving course with USF. There are two scientific diving professors on campus, Dr. Chantale Begin and Dr. Jason Gulley. The course provides you with all the books to read on scuba diving and every certification you need, plus more. Throughout the course you will become First Aid and CPR certified, Nitrox certified and can eventually become a Rescue Diver. The course will involve diving throughout the semester to master basic scuba skills. Once this is complete you start to add on more tasks to be able to conduct different surveys underwater. Adding small tasks underwater may seem easy but comes with added pressure, literally. A small task like navigating to a certain coordinate can seem simple at the surface but once underwater you are not able to communicate with your buddy and need to always remain calm, even if you are lost. Scuba diving is tolling on the buddy, it may not seem like it when you are swimming around looking at marine life, but you are always excreting energy, especially once task loaded.
USF offers many additional research programs that allow you to continue to scientifically dive and use your certifications. This is such an amazing opportunity that USF offers, and I am so grateful I get to be a part of this. I highly recommend it to any avid scuba diver or anyone looking to get started. I’ll see you underwater!
The authors of this blog are students enrolled in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, field courses run in the Caribbean by the University of South Florida. In 2019 and 2021, the course went to the Carmabi research station in Curaçao and dived around the island over a 10-day period, for training and to carry out research projects. In 2018, the group went to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, and took part in various projects in partnership with the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.