In the Summer of 2011, I spent five weeks fully immersed in the culture and ecology of South Caicos, Turks and Caicos Islands as part of a short term study abroad program. The intensive course focused on the biodiversity within the coral reefs and mangroves of the island, as well as the threats of tourism and the success of marine protected areas.
The School For Field Studies:
The course was offered through Boston University's Field Studies School (SFS), which is one of the oldest and largest environmental programs in the nation. The mission of SFS is to work in partnership with communities in developing nations to discover practical ways to manage natural resources and deepen the understanding of the relationship between environmental sustainability, social justice and economic development. To learn more about SFS visit their website: The School for Field Studies.
Turks and Caicos is a chain of seven small islands and associated cays at the south end of the Bahamian archipelago chain. The islands have a total landmass of about 170 sq. miles and each of the islands has its own distinct flavor.
South Caicos, where I was, is one of the smaller islands with a total landmass of ~8.5 sq. miles and is surrounded by some of the most pristine and biodiverse coral reefs in the world. The island itself is a small, quiet fishing community with 1,200 local residents and very little to do. It currently has one operating hotel but has plans for two more. With the best natural deep water harbor in TCI, South is the capital for fishing the region and most of the residents are either fishermen or work in one of the several fishing plants that process the catch for both local consumption and export. Each day, small wooden boats equipped with on board engines and given names like Baby Girl and Bobby, leave one of the two docks in Cockburn Harbor early in the morning and return with their catch in the late afternoon. The daily catch includes conch (the main food), lobster (not in season while I was there) and any bonefish that would bite (especially endangered groupers and grunt).
My Studies at SFS:
While I was in South I learned about the local ecosystems as well as the impacts of resort tourism on TCI as a whole. Course work included the memorization of both the English and Latin names for the common fish, aquatic life, corals and mangroves and two extensive group research projects. The first project investigated the potential impacts of ecotourism on TCI and created a hypothetical coastal management plan that balanced tourism with conservation. In the second project, we conducted reef surveys inside and outside marine protected areas in order to determine the effectiveness of these reserves in maintaining biodiversity. The field work included biodiversity counts of coral and fish, transect measures, benthic cover and height of coral measurements.
The highlight of my stay in South Caicos was without a doubt the twice weekly dives in the surrounding coral reefs. This was my first experience scuba diving and, each time I dove, I experienced a totally new world, every inch of which provided something incredibly unique and inspiring. All the dives put me on sensory overload as the colors and variety of species were unbelievable and impossible to do justice to in either writing or with my limited photography skills.
I truly believe that if more people had the opportunity to dive in enormous healthy corals reefs and swim among hawksbill turtles, garden eels, barracudas and bat rays to mention just a fraction of the fish I saw or experience a bioluminescent light show there would be a greater universal commitment towards protecting and sustainably managing these fragile marine ecosystems.
The Island is struggling to reduce and dispose of garbage properly and frequently it collects in areas like this.