More used to eating the local wildlife than preserving it, Michael Bailey breaks from tradition and signs up for two weeks conservation work on Tobago’s tropical reefs. Additional photography by Jason Flowers.

The 'orange elephant ear sponge'... in case you were wondering
The 'orange elephant ear sponge'... in case you were wondering

“So you’ve never actually done anything useful then?” said the girl across the table as I hit her with one of my favourite tales of the elephants in Botswana. I got the feeling my chat-up routine wasn’t going too well. “You’ve seen the deforestation, terrible pollution and animals on the brink of extinction and you’ve never wondered what you could do to help?” Yes, I was increasingly under the impression I could have chosen a better angle. “Didn’t you ever look at those exotic animals and want to conserve them instead of frying them in a curry sauce?”

It was no surprise, a few months later to find I was still single, but as I touched down on the small island of Tobago I remembered that conversation and felt that I’d turned a corner in my life. Unlike Trinidad, its larger and more industrial neighbour, Tobago’s economy is principally based on tourism and there are a good number of popular beach resorts to which I could have been headed. But my destination was a quiet fishing village with few tourists, and I was there not for surf or sand but to join a team of tank-armed volunteers on a mission to survey the reefs surrounding Tobago for the good of all mankind – and fishkind – and marshmallow-looking-like-blob-that-I’m-told-is-really-a-snail-kind.

A setting that even chickpeas couldn't spoil
A setting that even chickpeas couldn't spoil

I was feeling fairly positive but there were nagging doubts about whether I genuinely wanted to spend two weeks doing nothing but counting fish, and that lingering worry that I was about to join a group of people who own no shoes other than sandals and eat lentils for every meal. Arriving was mixture of relief and apprehension. Charlotteville was tucked into a bay surrounded by steeply forested hills. We were bunking, four to a room, in a couple of holiday homes tucked away in the trees at the edge of the village. Yes there were sandals, but then we were on a beach. Yes the kitchen was stocked with a disturbingly large bag of chickpeas, but then they were on a tight budget. In fact, there was only one vegetarian in the whole group and a fairly half-hearted vegetarian at that (not the kind of hard-core hippy that I was dreading!). Everybody seemed pretty laid back and friendly and the science officer had a face that could have launched a thousand fishing boats. I’d come hoping to experience something different but I was beginning to feel I might actually enjoy that experience too.

Getting ready for the plunge
Getting ready for the plunge

The expedition, run by Coral Cay Conservation, was broken down into staff members (generally there for terms of four months or more) and a fluctuating number of volunteers with stays of anywhere upwards of two weeks. The staff was comprised of an expedition leader, two scientists, a medical officer, for when things started biting, a dive instructor, an education officer and a boatman – a huge Caribbean beast of a man 6 foot 7 inches tall (2.01m) and twice that round the chest.

They broke me in fairly easily. I arrived on Thursday evening. On Friday they took me a few hundred yards across the bay to the nearest reef for a test dive to check I remembered which part I had to breathe through – after a couple of mistakes it all came flooding back to me. On Saturday we had a couple of recreational dives and I remembered what I love about diving. If you’ve dived or snorkelled on a tropical reef then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t then there’s a whole new world out there waiting for you. That night we competed over who had seen the best stuff (a nightly feature) and my school of about 20 squid took the majority vote.

Hold still while I measure your fins
Hold still while I measure your fins

Then it was Sunday and since that’s an enforced no-dive day we decided to try some surfing. So we all packed into a mini-van and wound our way through forest-clad volcanic peaks to the tourist side of the island. We had arranged for a couple of Tobagoans to give us some lessons and, though they did their best to keep up that world renowned Caribbean smile, I think I was a lost cause. The rest of the group kept repeating how difficult it was to stand up but I couldn’t even lie down on the board without falling off.

After the slow introduction I was beginning to wonder whether this was just another holiday after all. Then on Monday I was handed the fish manuals. If you’re in any way tempted to try this, be forewarned. There are a lot of fish on a tropical reef. There are also a surprising variety of floaty, squidgy, chalky and crawly things. Since I was only there for two weeks they told me I could get away with only learning the families, but since everybody else was there for at least four weeks they were all busy trying to learn every one of the 300+ species on the survey form. Perhaps it was just my competitive nature getting the better of me but I found myself making cat’s cradles in my hair as I tried to commit to memory the minute differences between a couple of dozen indistinguishable parrotfish. My “holiday” was over and my “experience” had begun.

...shortly before a trip to the medical officer
...shortly before a trip to the medical officer

We were up at 6am every day, except the poor individual the chore rota had selected to make breakfast. We would have a dive in the morning and a dive in the afternoon with the intervening time spent studying photos of fish. The dives themselves were an extension of this learning and it quickly became apparent that being able to recognise a stationary photo does not qualify you to identify a distant fish darting behind a rock. There were tests to passed, both above and below the water, and nobody passed them all first time.

A large part of the purpose of the expedition was to educate the locals about the damage that was being done to the marine environment and to try and persuade the fishermen of the advantages of conservation to themselves. Some of the villagers were being taught to carry out diving surveys so they could see first-hand the deterioration of the reef and the staff had set up a weekly environment club at the local primary schools. Volunteers were encouraged to help out with these activities so I got a break from studying brain corals to help out gluing glitter onto posters. With all this it was no surprise that many of the locals had grown to know the expedition quite well and – despite the nature of our project – none of us hesitated when any of the fishermen offered to cook. The dining was inevitably followed by wining, which in the Caribbean I discovered means dancing. This was met with mixed feelings by some of the female gap year students being hit on by guys twice their age.

The kids are all right
The kids are all right

One week in and I was wondering how I was ever going to get back onto the plane to London. Life was basic and included an excessive amount of porridge but I felt relaxed, I felt happy and I felt as if I would soon be calling the local parrotfish by their first names. If I had to criticise anything it would be that the organisation’s love of rules occasionally overrode common sense (the effort required to persuade them I should be allowed to go for a morning run on my own!) but overall I was wondering why I hadn’t tried this years before. Then frustration found me again.

Just raise your tentacle when I call your name
Just raise your tentacle when I call your name

We were not there, after all, to learn about fish; we were there to survey them. The surveys were a matter of rolling out a 50m rope along the sea floor and then marking down everything that was living and dying for a set distance around the rope. After a week and a half of cramming I was primed and ready to whip out my dive slate and embark on the quest to save the marshmallow snail things (which, having passed my invertebrate validation, I now knew to be ‘flamingo tongues’). And in a couple of days I was going home. The fact was that I’d learnt all this information almost for nothing. The short nature of my trip meant that I could do little more in the end than help fund the expedition. The thought was almost more aggravating than my complete failure to elicit the slightest bit of interest out of the alluring science officer. I wanted at least two more weeks to actually make use of the things I’d learned and if work hadn’t been calling me home I’d have happily stayed for months. In the end I only got to do four survey dives before I had to fly home. Was it all worth it? Well on the one hand I left feeling very dissatisfied, but on the other hand I knew it wouldn’t be the last conservation trip I took part in.

Michael flew direct with Virgin for £575.70 return. The project, organised by Coral Cay Conservation, cost £750 for two weeks, including food, accommodation and diving, but excluding dive gear.

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