Notes from a Very Small Island

Mindfully Wired’s once-Intern Jacob Ashton has returned from ‘Montserrat’s magnificent underwater world’ reincarnated as our new Policy & Communications Officer. So, of course, the first thing we asked him to do was write a blog about it. Read about his experience volunteering for educational NGO Fish N Fins - turtle encounters and all.

Four thousand miles from the UK, on the eastern edge of the Caribbean, lies a small island nation named Montserrat. It is nicknamed the ‘Emerald Isle of the Caribbean’, not solely in honour of its many inhabitants of Irish descent, but also as a nod to the verdant forest-clad hills that make up its interior.

Colourful coral reefs, brimming with turtles, barracuda and stingrays, encircle its shores. In the south of the island lies the ominous Soufrière Hills volcano, permanently enshrined in cloud. Villages are small, and signs of the tourism industry virtually non-existent. It’s the sort of place that the more adventurous travel brochures might label a ‘hidden gem’.

Setting off on a journey to a hidden beach

Setting off on a journey to a hidden beach

Despite appearing pristine at first glance, Montserrat is still recovering from a devastating series of natural disasters. Most famous were the catastrophic volcanic eruptions that began in 1995, which resulted in the destruction of the capital city and has rendered two thirds of the island uninhabitable.

Refugees resettled in other Caribbean islands and in the UK (since Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory). Only 4,000 people currently inhabit the island - for reference, that’s a tenth of the population of Rutland, the UK’s smallest county. It feels less like a nation and more like an extended community.

I have always been drawn to small islands: from the evolution of unique flora and fauna, to the self-sufficient cultures that develop among the people that live there, there is something fascinating about the insular life. I spent a month on Montserrat, volunteering with a fantastic little NGO called Fish ‘N Fins, which teaches ocean literacy to local children - both practically, through swimming and snorkelling tuition, and in the classroom, via lessons on ocean ecosystems and environmental stewardship. It was a unique opportunity to put the skills nurtured at MWC into a practical context.

Veta Wade, the founder of Fish ‘N Fins, teaches fish anatomy

Veta Wade, the founder of Fish ‘N Fins, teaches fish anatomy

My main role with Fish ‘N Fins was assisting with their summer camps, along with the three other volunteers present. We were taking groups of Montserratian children into the water and teaching them basic strokes, how to use a mask, snorkel and fins, and the names of the fish and coral that we passed. Back in the clubhouse, our lessons covered corals, threats to marine ecosystems and environmental awareness. The kids loved it all, especially spotting the brightly coloured creatures that inhabit the reef. Who wouldn’t?!

A number of Ocean Leaders, teenagers who were keen to become the next generation of ocean stewards, were also helping out at the camps. As international volunteers who all had experience in the marine sector, we helped advise them on how to champion the marine environment through career choices, activism or advocacy. Aside from the camps, I was putting my MWC-honed muscles to work: writing grant proposals, blog posts and website content. The wonders of transferable skills!

Hawksbill turtle

Like much of the Caribbean, swimming ability is rare among Montserratians, especially older generations. To a Western perspective, this can seem startling: why on earth, when your home is surrounded by warm waters and stunning coral reefs, would you avoid going in the sea? After talking to the islanders, there are several very valid reasons how this has come about. Chief among them are fears of drowning, sharks and other terrors that lurk beneath.

There is a dark legacy behind these fears: for ruthlessly pragmatic slave owners back in the 18th century, convincing slaves that the ocean spelled death simply meant that fewer would try to escape. This phobia has persisted for generations since, passed on from parents to children. I met one Montserratian woman whose mother had instilled such a fear of the sea in her that she had later sought therapy for recurring drowning nightmares.

Fish ‘N Fins is working hard to break the chain. Hundreds of children have passed through the clubhouse doors, becoming confident in the water and experiencing first-hand the incredible array of life that inhabits the underwater realm. Nowadays, on a visit to Little Bay, the island’s most accessible beach, it is common to see children, teenagers and even adults snorkelling over the reefs. This would have been almost unheard of only a decade ago.

Peace!

Peace!

This is fantastic progress for a number of reasons. For starters, Montserrat boasts outstanding natural beauty both above and below the water, and it is only right that the people that call the island home have the means to explore and appreciate these riches. But there is also a deeper reason for this work. As good old Sir David Attenborough says: “No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

This is painfully clear on Montserrat, especially when it comes to the marine environment. For many residents, for instance, sharks are feared and loathed: “The only good shark is a dead shark,” is a phrase often bandied about. Sharks are often caught in fishing nets (albeit often unintentionally) and are taken for their meat, the fins discarded on the quayside in a tragically ironic mirror image to the infamous shark finning industry of the Pacific. This lack of appreciation extends to government; there are plans for a new port to stretch across Little Bay, a project that will likely destroy the very reef where so many of the Fish ‘N Fins kids have had their first snorkelling experiences.

Snorkelling over the Little Bay reefs

Snorkelling over the Little Bay reefs

And yet, with the work of Fish ‘N Fins and the wider environmental community, awareness is building. As more and more islanders experience the coral reefs on their doorstep, so more and more will fight to protect them and the species they hold. Turtle hunting, for example, is now much less accepted than it was in the past, as is plundering their nests for eggs (although it still happens). Young people are yet to become set in their ways and have an underappreciated influence on their relatives’ behaviour. Exposing them to marine life - and the threats that face it - is a tried and tested way to change attitudes. When attitudes change, positive action follows.

Montserrat is a beautiful island full of passionate people, and it was a privilege to play a part in the marine engagement work taking place there. It is rare to be able to witness attitudes changing before your eyes, yet this is what takes place on Fish ‘N Fins’ programmes. One big advantage of small communities is that change can come about rapidly; with this in mind, and having seen the progress already made by local marine advocates, I am optimistic about the future of Montserrat’s magnificent underwater world.


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