Elise Gilchrist

Elise Gilchrist

Hello! I am a junior here at F&M majoring in Animal Behavior. This coming spring semester I am traveling to Turks and Caicos to take part in the School for Field Studies Marine Resource Management program. I will be learning marine field research methods and resource management on this island. I will also be Scuba diving and snorkeling!

 

I will admit I am a soda person, but I have never had cravings for carbonated caffeine like I get here. So my friends and I decided to take a quick walk down to Wilson’s to get a coke and maybe a candy bar. As we passed by the water we here a little squeek and then a series of very ferocious little yips coming from behind a stone wall. We peered around the corner to find the feistiest, most adorable ball of mangy fur that we had ever seen. This is how we met Nugget.

The island is covered with feral dogs and cats that lead a pretty tough life on an island with scarce freshwater and food scraps, but somehow they get by. The feral dogs are referred to as “potcakes” here on the island because sailors used to feed them the burnt up bottom of the cakes they would bake in their big pots.

It is not uncommon that puppies are running about the island but on this day our hearts melted for this little guy who was all alone panting and sick in the sun. After an hour of playing with the little guy we walked back to the center and he may have “followed” us back. We waited like little kids at the gate for the staff to get back from their dive and then let little Nugget run toward them. “Ok, fine, we’ll call Potcake Place and see if they can take her,” says our student affairs manager, Kate.

Potcake Place is an adoption center on Provo that takes in feral puppies and adopts them out to the United States and Canada. The staff here refers to it as potcake heaven because it gives these little dogs a chance at a decent life. Lucky for us we couldn’t get a hold of Potcake Place for a couple days so we had to keep Nugget in the center with us. I don’t think there was a span of longer than five minutes where that poor puppy got left alone. I myself had a glorious forty-five minute nap in a hammock where Nugget was curled up snoozing on my chest. It was a sad day when we got the crate to put her in and send her off to Provo, but we found out that one of the girls from our program was going to adopt her! Nugget beat the odds and is now living in the states with a loving family.

Potcake Place is a great organization that gives these hearty, loyal dogs a chance to get healthy and live a happy life. I fully recommend that if you are ever looking to adopt a dog to go through Potcake Place.

 

The first half of our semester is officially over and to mark this passage of time we went on a field trip to the bigger, much more developed island of Provo and were then released for six days of spring break. All of us could agree that we had severe reverse culture shock as we touched down in the “big” city.

Let me preface this story by discussing the initial culture shock we experienced coming to the small island of South. The main economy here lies in the fisheries. Other than that there may be a dozen small stores and four bars. This quiet, rundown town lives on island time and is not concerned with the latest technology or current affairs. Everyday revolves around the fishers going out on the boats and the kids going to school, unless it’s Sunday in which case the entire island spends all day in worship and celebration.
In a small town like this, everyone knows everyone else and everyone feels safe. We’ve all grown fond and affectionate of this place, and then we went to Provo. As we flew down over the island we all released gasps seeing the large resorts and commercial complexes. Driving to the hotel we gawked at the traffic and restaurants that cluttered the streets.

And then we were in hotel rooms, cold hotel rooms… air conditioning! TV, high speed Internet, showers! It was a whole new world!

That night in the hotel room we all enjoyed our first warm, fresh-water shower in a month and a half. I can tell you the only way to appreciate a luxury like heated water under pressure is to spend significant time without it. We then went on a field trip to North and Middle Caicos to explore Mudjin Harbor and the caves, two Turks and Caicos national treasures. Then another day of lectures and conducting surveys before we were released on spring break. And when I say released, I mean we literally looked like a herd of wild animals pushing to break down a fence during that last debrief, and then they said the words “Have fun, be safe” and we all sprinted toward the pool jumping in in our clothes.
The next couple days were filled with fun and festivities and all of us letting loose! I was incredibly fortunate in the fact that my family came down to visit me (although I think they didn’t have it that rough having to come visit me in the Turks and Caicos.) We experienced dining out at restaurants, shopping in grocery stores, and a much more lively bar scene than we were used to out on South.

The easiest way to get around Provo is to take gypsy cabs, which essentially means hitchhiking and giving your driver a couple dollars upon delivery. One night we were fortunate enough to hop into a man named Doughboy’s car. Immediately after hearing we were from South Caicos he refused to take any payment from us and said he just enjoyed getting to know us. Then he gave us the number of his brother who owned a bus and said that he could rent it out to the group of us to drive us around the next night for St. Patty’s day. That’s right I experienced the best St. Patty’s day ever because I was chauffeured around an island wide pub crawl in a party bus with the people I love spending time with. It was incredible.

I can honestly say that by the last day there I was ready to get back to South. I was jumpy and on edge in Provo, between the traffic and the noise and the hustle and bustle I needed to go home to the sleepy fishing village I’ve grown to love and adore. Walking back up to the center that night truly felt like I was coming home.
I do want to thank my mom, step-dad, and older brother James for coming out to see me. I had an amazing time with all of you and you definitely cleared up any vague homesickness I might have had.

 

As of this morning I have officially logged eight dives here in South Caicos and a total of six and a half hours under the water since my certification. Compared to the freezing cold Pennsylvania quarries with a visibility of maybe five feet where I got my certification, the diving here is unreal. We dive every Wednesday and most Saturdays and they are all purely recreational dives, no class work involved. There are four dive masters and one dive safety officer working here at the center, all of whom have logged hundreds of dives. So far we have seen amazing, pristine coral, a number of sea turtles munching on the algae and a couple bigger reef sharks. On one dive a reef shark about seven feet long swam only a couple feet below us. However the most amazing dive that I will probably ever log happened a couple Saturdays ago.

That morning we had a dive on a site called “The Arch.” The dive started out with a nice controlled descent and a swim to an arch made of coral. We saw parrotfish, bicolor damselfish, some wrasse and a multitude of other beautiful and exotic colors! There were huge jacks coming in and out of the arch, getting within touching distance. Then I saw out of the corner of my eye, my dive master start swimming frantically away from me, given his usually very chill underwater demeanor I knew something was up. As I turned around my heart stopped because swimming not even thirty yards away from our DSO was a humpback whale. On my sixth dive ever I saw a whale! Our DSO, who has logged over 1500 dives, had never even seen a whale when he was diving. All safety and calm breathing techniques immediately fell wayside as the group of seven of us freaked out! The rest of the dive didn’t even matter and by the time we had made it through our ascent and safety stop, we all started screaming as we breeched the surface. “WE SAW A F***ING WHALE!” Between tears and shouts and laughter we all came to realize that this would be the most memorable dive of our life.

 

Sitting here in a hammock sipping a cup of coffee and watching the crystal blue waves roll lazily by the center I realize I am perfectly content. I arrived at the center a week and a half ago now and have been involved in nonstop activity. Our first few days covered introductions and tours and formalities. Then came swim tests and dive skill checkouts. Then our fist dives and our first week of class, our first forays out into town and even our first field exam where we identified mangrove species in the water. I felt like I’ve been here for weeks and at the same time feel like no one could ever convince me to leave.

South Caicos is part of the Turks and Caicos Islands, an archipelago of about forty islands that lies to the southeast of the Bahamas. It is not in fact located in Africa as one of my friends believed when I first told her I would be studying abroad here. South Caicos, the island where my school is located, is comprised of eight square miles of coral rock with a population of around 1200. South Caicos has a rich history, once being a main exporter of salt for the area. You would never believe now seeing the stark difference between the lavish tourist destination of Providenciales and this more run-down island that South Caicos was the first island in the TCI to have a hotel and also had the first international airport.

The island’s main economic activity now lies in the fishing industry. Queen conch and spiny lobster are harvested and processed here before being shipped off to Miami. South has been relatively protected from the effects of tourism, but with contractors working on some large-scale hotels here, concern for the sustainability of the pristine reefs and the already weakening fishery has increased. That is why the School for Field Studies set up a site here nearly two decades ago to conduct research that can then provide guidance about sustainable practices.

There are thirty-six students here, four interns, a dive instructor, three professors, our student affairs manager, the site director and her husband, and the site maintenance guy. The students share bunk beds in modest rooms, but no one spends time there because the rest of the center is so incredible. We have a pavilion that covers a big eating space and our “games room” which contains a ping-pong table and dart board. Outside of that there is a salt-water pool, about eight hammocks and a sand volleyball court right outside our gates. There is a small classroom and computer lab as well as a dive and snorkel shed. The edge of the property lines a wall that drops straight to the ocean where the four boats are docked and where we like to snorkel at night.

We have class four days a week, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays we go for recreational dives in the morning and have community outreach in the afternoons. Wednesdays we will be going to the public schools to help teach and on Saturdays numerous projects happen at the center that include swim lessons for the local youth as well as a project to build a green house on the island. Sundays are our days off, but we all made a pact to never let a Sunday go by sitting at the center. We will snorkel or explore or in some way learn to appreciate the environment as well as the culture on the island. South Caicos is definitely on island time but the students and staff certainly intend to stay busy and enjoy every second of time here.

If anyone has any interest in following my photo blog:
elise-anne.blogspot.com

 

How does one pack and prepare for a three month stay on an island without a modern grocery store or freshwater showers? This is an intriguing question that was presented to me about three months ago when I was accepted to study abroad in Turks and Caicos. When friends and family have asked me recently where I will be going next spring the response is always the same when I tell them, “Oh well that’s not school that’s a vacation!” I can’t help but get excited with them at the prospect of scuba diving for class and lounging on the beach in my free time. But I also remember that this is not a trip to a fancy resort where I will be fanned with palm leaves and served fruity cocktails with the little umbrellas. I am traveling to a remote island with limited resources, the most restricted being freshwater. After relaying these details to my family a look of horror replaces their jealous smile, “You bathe in the ocean?!?”

Packing was my first struggle. I am allowed two checked bags up to fifty pounds each but not exceeding 75 pounds between the two. Ideally all I would need to pack is a couple bikinis and be done with it. Unfortunately it is not that simple because I recently became SCUBA certified which means I need to find room in my bag for fins, a wetsuit, a mask, a snorkel, and a plethora of other supplies necessary for safe diving. I also need to bring enough sunscreen and biodegradable shampoo to last me three months, as well as clothing and school supplies. Luckily years of having tetris on my phone has made me a master. I got all 73.5 pounds of gear into two duffel bags, now its off to the islands!!