Beating off the waves – Living on tiny islands

When I lived on Tortola for two years, there was much to love.  But one aspect that drove me crazy was that if I had no big plans for the weekend, I would climb in my jeep, drive round the island slowly just to check up on what was happening at all the beaches, and I would end up back at the apartment after 2 hours, max, and would have driven along every metalled road on the island.  A few islands I worked on had more room that a day trip did not mean seeing the whole island in one day.  But others were so small a quick trip in a boat over, and unless you found a beach bar or a hot sandy spot to sit in all day, you ran out of things to do fairly quickly.  For someone who enjoys driving over the horizon and beyond, to spend so much time on islands where the first horizon is often the end of any more landward travel, it could be limiting.  In fact it could drive you up the wall.

So the idea of travelling to the Maldives where even the largest and most populated islands are barely a mile across, did leave me wondering whether I would be suffering from acute claustrophobia by the time I boarded my plane home.

How do people live on islands that barely rise from the ocean waves?  Nowhere in the Maldives is more than two and a half metres above mean sea level. You can walk across most islands in ten to twenty minutes.

The archipelago is a long chain of islands, reef, sandy banks formed into twenty six atolls.  These atolls are themselves in a necklace like shape draping 500 miles across the Indian Ocean.  On the eastern side in the centre of this chain are the two Male atolls, north and south,  and the capital, Male itself, sits on an island at the southern end of the northern atoll.


Can you live on an island this small?


Blown Away – Where were you on 9/11?

I was not born before the “What were you doing when Kennedy died” day so have no memories of that.  I was crystal clear on my memory for 9/11.  I had been working with the St Vincent and Virgin Islands Governments on coastal resources for a year or two.  I had secured funding to attend a conference in Jamaica and was going to present a paper with the BVI government on the work.  We did the paper, I organised my travel.  The BVI government then stopped the travel of my counterpart and I was left to present the paper myself.

The Conference was the first Urban and Regional Information Systems Association or URISA conference in the region.  Basically they were the professional organisation for GIS people in the USA.  I knew some of the delegates from working in Barbados, my old friend Vijay whom I once trained in NRI was there from Guyana, along with a bunch of people from the US, Canada and throughout the islands plus a few Europeans and the odd South American.

The location was the Wyndham Rose Hall hotel just east of Montego Bay.  Heading from the airport along the coastal highway it was like being in the US itself – and apart from the Rose Hall Plantation House on the hill above the conference centre, there was a smattering of resort hotels along the run.

The first couple of days of the conference went according to plan.  We had the boss of the largest GIS software company giving the plenary session, we’d had a few good events and the silly things conferences did like have luncheon meetings and meet and greet sessions had gone off without too much embarrassment.


Rose Hall

I’d been in Barbados a month or two beforehand attending a meeting for some climate change work and knew the Bajian who convened the meeting, and the two Canadian consultants who had designed the training programme.  All three were at the conference and this Tuesday morning I found myself with one of the Canadians and we had a great hour or so over the melon and frazzled bacon putting the world to rights about what GIS could do for life in general.

I returned to my room in a good mood.  The conference was going well; I was telling everyone how I was to become West Indian in the next couple of months as I took up my new posting in BVI, and I went into my room to run through my presentation for the afternoon session.  Absent mindedly I turned on the TV and settled at my laptop.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Living and Dying with Earthquakes

The same is not true about earthquakes in Haiti.  Some countries live with earthquakes every day; many around the Pacific Rim frequently have violent shakes and have learnt to treat them with enough respect but also with calm and an air of normality.  Even in the Virgin Islands, it was reputed there were on average two earthquakes a day.  When I sat in my office in the corner of the Conservation and Fisheries Office, above the central roundabout in Road Town, I regularly felt my swivel chair vibrate.  I would take a look out of the office window and if there were no big trucks passing the building at that moment I determined it was a tremor.  The office was built on reclaimed land, and was therefore sand vulnerable to liquefaction and I think it amplified any effect.  I seemed to be particularly sensitive in the corner of the building as I picked them all up and would often be the informant to the rest of the office.

Many of these zones where little earthquakes happen are the safest places to be; the pressure built up from huge plates of the earth grating against each other is released little and often.  But in other places the pressure is of a nature that it does not move – maybe the plates are being forced directly towards each other, maybe a knotty piece of mountain is blocking the natural sliding that is needed to release.  But like all pressure, those forces need to be released at some time.  And in Haiti,  there had only been the effect of two earthquakes over the past two hundred years; one in 1842  and a second, centred on the Dominican Republic  in 1946.  Maybe only a handful of people could remember the 1946 event. This means not only a lack of experience by individuals on how to prepare or react to a cataclysmic earthquake but an institutional and national amnesia.  Mix in the corrupt nature of much of government, the lack of planning, limited and ignored building standards, and woeful preparedness for emergency response meant that the country was almost brought to its knees in January 2010.


A few years earlier this airfield was covered in a tented village that served as the base of operations for the search and rescue teams

Search and Rescue teams, aid agencies, government assistance, NGOS, the Red Cross and military struggled to reach the country in the days after the quake, and remained for months treating the wounded, feeding the survivors, trying to prevent disease (although the relief effort itself exacerbated the issue there) , and try to re-establish the basic infrastructure.  But everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong; the civil service was decimated which meant local and national government had all but collapsed.  A city which was already a powder keg for violence and abuse now became a security nightmare.

The months of struggle to get relief to the affected people turned to months of struggle to put the country and its inhabitants back on their feet.  The large international donors – the USAID, DFID, the EU and others poured not just money in but technical expertise to try to not only make Haiti operational but to start looking at ways for it to become more self sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

A tale of two swamps – Fisherfolk and their secrets

Ian has vast experience of talking to fisherfolk, and back in UK is a keen fisherman himself, so he can relate easily to their experiences, despite the different cultures and locations.  And that is so necessary.  Fisherfolk I have met have similar traits; they are suspicious of people who ask them too many questions, especially if it is about what they catch and where they catch it.  I found it extensively when I lived in the Virgin Islands.  With a junior fisheries officer there we devised a method of capturing information about what fish were being caught in the inshore waters.  No fisherman would tell you exactly where his nets and traps were, but they would begrudgingly tell us within a four kilometre square.  Of course I, personally, could never ask them directly; even after two years in BVI I was still an outsider, but my colleague from the west end of Tortola was connected enough to the big extended families of BVI to be trusted with the information. He would head off no his own every morning to the one big Fisheries Complex just outside the capital Road Town with a map showing these two kilometre grids, and would ask them to point.


The British Virgin Islands – would you tell where you put your nets for the best fishing?

Why fishermen are like this puzzled me for years, and my answer is still an untested theory, but I think it because the resource being taken is not static and where no-one truly has ownership of areas of an extended fishery it is much more competitive than agriculture where land is owned or rented and what is produced on that land is your responsibility to do what you want.  In the sea or in lakes, people lay out equipment and leave it, and they don’t really want to let others know what is happening, but of course there is little cover out in the lagoons or sea, and so you are constantly being observed by your fellow fishers and others passing by.  It tends to produce a lot more reticence to share experience.

Life on Mars – Introducing Edsel

I had been back in the UK for a couple of years, and had started my own consultancy.  I had worked a few times in the Caribbean and helped an ex-NRI colleague with some work on rats in Africa.  I had also started to work with a Kittitian called Edsel Daniel.  Edsel had been a PhD student and when I was working for NRI, a friend in St Lucia, Keith Nichols,  had put me in touch with him to give him some GIS advice for his thesis on modelling beach erosion in his home island.  Edsel had worked for the Planning Department in St Kitts but had decided the world was bigger and had moved to the very reputable Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee.  We corresponded by email for several months and he sent me chapters of his thesis, which confused me greatly as it plotted its way through empirical and physical models of sand dynamics on Caribbean beaches – all I ever wanted to do was to lie on them.

While in BVI, I finally got to meet Edsel.  I travelled over to St Kitts for a long weekend – it was only about 40 minutes flight from Tortola.  He showed me the sights of this wonderful little nation, but also he discussed a lot of his ideas for GIS in small island nations.  His ideas and mine tallied so closely that we thought we would either become deadly rivals or the greatest of friends.  Since he was a lot larger than me, I decided it was in my interest to go for the latter.

We started to develop project ideas and came up with one for Anguilla that after I left BVI, we were able to develop and deliver.  It concerned mapping coral reefs and other coastal resources of this little Overseas Territory.  Edsel invited me over to Nashville to give a guest lecture to some of his students about our work, which I delivered then was able to stay over to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend.

We met Edsel’s boss at Vanderbilt just before the holidays  and started to talk about where the ideas for these GIS for small nations might go.  I glibly reeled off a list of islands, mostly UK overseas territories as if they would all do our bidding and we had a career set up.  As luck would have it, the conservation officer from the island Brendan had been waxing lyrical about, Ascension, emailed me while I was in Nashville and asked us to put together a proposal for just such work.  Brendan had told this lady about our work in the Caribbean and she felt it was a good idea to have a similar system for Ascension.  So during that Thanksgiving weekend,  we sat around stuffing ourselves with roasted turkey sandwiches late into the night writing a proposal for two years of funding.


Edsel Daniel


Life on Mars – Proposition over a daiquiri

cane garden

Cane Garden Bay

Brendan put together some great projects for BVI and we discussed at length the overlap between our pet subjects, GIS, environmental management and conservation.  I had done a lot of work in Africa and the Caribbean to date, and Brendan had worked in many countries tracking turtles, including Trinidad and Cyprus, but one place fascinated me…. he had seen an amazing collection of turtles on Ascension Island.

After work one tea time he had arrived back in the Conservation and Fisheries Office in Road Town and I was just tidying up the day’s work before thinking of heading home.  We decided instead of heading straight up to my apartment (where I usually cooked Spag bol or scouse) we would take a pass to Cane Garden Bay, one of the most touristy of Tortola’s beach villages and have a drink at Myetts.

We sat on the stools under the grass roof, still dressed in sweat drenched work shirts and chinos – amongst the others in their surfing shorts and humourlessly themed t-shirts (American tourists thinking they were being ironic, or as many would suggest, “ionic”).  Brendan was renowned for his beer – he drank two Caribs to my one and would always finish up a table of beer if someone had left some.  His large hands were made to carry four bottles at a time from the bar.  But something about the tropical ambience of Myett’s made him choose a strawberry daiquiri.  It came in a frosted cocktail glass, the bright pink liquid specked with ice and yes, the umbrella (a bright mixture of pastel and deep tropical shades ) bobbed about on top.  I went for my favourite mix; brown rum and coke.  His daiquiri would have been blackmailable enough, but he drank it too quickly, his sinuses froze and he suffered the agony of an ice cream headache.  He was lucky smartphones were not around just then.

Enough embarrassment to poor Brendan.  He was doing his usual mixture of talking high philosophy and emotion mixed with base jokes and working class cultural references, with a smattering of logical scientific reasoning thrown in which always made him a delight to be in his company (if vaguely annoying if he decided to act all lecturer like and pull you up for tautology, non sequiturs or even getting the wrong name for some type of grammatical error you had ever suggested he might have made).  And he raved about this small island in the middle of the Atlantic that he visited. He told me of the thousands of green turtles that come ashore every year and lay eggs there, kicking the few leatherbacks on Tortola into touch.  He had visited for several years and monitored them on four main beaches but they were present on almost every scrap of sand on this island. Ascension also had the most amazing bird colonies, huge land crabs, and a Marsscape of recent volcanic activity.

Brendan visited my islands a couple of times while I was on BVI (and we met up once when we were at a conference in Bermuda with other overseas territory conservationists) and introduced me to more of his turtle colleagues.  He would often embarrass me by introducing me as the guy that told him the disgusting joke about Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and a jar of lemon curd.  I had great respect for his method of work, balancing the pragmatism of working in someone else’s country with having the integrity of your science.

Life on Mars – Turtle Hunting on Anegada

Another time with Brendan I accompanied him to Anegada, the second largest island in the BVIs; a flat coralline landmass amongst shallow turquoise water.  At that time there were no regular ferries to Anegada, and you flew the ten minutes from Beef Island airport, sometimes stopping off at Virgin Gorda en route.  The approach to Anegada was stupendous ;  because of its flatness it was barely visible from the other Virgin Islands, but once in the air the large fat sausage shaped landmass drew nearer; the large salt ponds in the centre where flamingos played and the stunning set of coral reef heads in the shallow turquoise sea were an unworldly sight.


Loblolly Bay – Anegada – Sun, Sea and Sand

We went out with two fantastic fishermen to these coral heads, Damon and Jim.  Damon piloted the boat to the circular coral heads in the sandy shallows and we spied hawksbill turtles sparkling in the sunlight.  Once spooked they would flee into open water and by following them closely we ensured they did not have time to take breathe.


Damon and an injured Hawksbill Turtle

Instead they had a habit of dropping to the sandy bottom to conserve energy and it was a relatively easy job to slip over the side of the boat and reach out with your hands and grab them.  It was essential to make sure you held them behind their front flippers so you could not have your fingers snapped at.  It was one of the few times I was able to open my eyes as I dived underwater and was jubilant as I brought this hawksbill turtle to the surface to be measured, the skin snipped to obtain a DNA sample and tagged.


The one and only time I caught a hawksbill turtle

Brendan and I also walked almost two thirds of the coastline of Anegada, from the Anegada Reef Hotel on the south coast round to East End Point, the long way.  We looked for evidence of hawksbill and green turtle nesting, and in that day saw the most amazing lagoonal landscapes; shallow seas, great banks of seagrass, the odd nurse shark, waders and land birds, and all the thick scrubby vegetation types that vary over this coral land.  Anegada is a coral reef island and is often thought to be flat and boring to the occasional visitors; most head straight for the eye-aching white beaches and the magnificent coral reefs offshore, but in that day, by treading every mile, I saw the subtle changes in the land from the sandy dunes in the west, the “highlands” of the central north shore with low limestone cliffs coming down to the beach and the long rocky shoreline of the east, where pitted limestone flagstones made walking difficult.  From the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore we saw man’s litter – lightsticks used by fishermen, hundreds of trainers, nets, ropes, tyres, even part of an old hovercraft.  We met up with Shaun Kadison, a colleague from my work, and Bill Bailey, an amateur turtle expert who lived on Tortola and had spent many years carefully cataloguing the records of turtle nesting and hatching.  With him we learnt a lot about the turtle fishing, now illegal, and how a boycott of one supermarket because it sold turtle meat led to that territory-wide ban. Tensions between conserving turtles and the ancestral rights of fishermen (some of with whom I now worked in Conservation) were high and like many other projects, it showed that a purely scientific study of such a creature was nary possible.

Mobile phones did not work on the far side of Anegada at the time but Bill had a ship to shore radio that he used and he called up a bar, Neptune’s Treasure, to ask them to prepare lunch for us.  It also proved useful when we were leaving to do the final isolated stretch of the coast, we realised the easiest way would be to walk back to Neptune’s Treasure and grab a taxi back to the little airport.  We got back to Neptune’s Treasure after it had shut for the day, but the barwoman had left an ice cooler of much needed beers behind the bar, and once Bill had radioed the other side of the island for the taxi, we had a while to get them down our parched necks.

Life on Mars – Brendan

This tale starts with a strawberry daiquiri.  Or soon gets to the strawberry daiquiri.  I had been working as the National GIS coordinator in the British Virgin Islands (or BVI) for about four months.  Apart from a quick trip to the UK for Christmas, and a few promises from people to visit when they had time, I had hardly seen a Britisher since I had arrived.  I was not particularly complaining, I was enjoying the weather, the new work, getting to know both the Tortolans and the others who worked with me, and exploring  novel new environments.  But there is something about your native psyche which is inexplicable to foreign minds, and you crave company from your own native land to share a joke, use idioms and can mention references without explaining them.

An email dropped into my inbox one day regarding a Scottish turtle expert who was visiting the BVI to see if he could start a collaboration with the department I worked in, Conservation and Fisheries.  I forwarded it to my boss but replied that I could help out if he wanted.

In the February of that year, this expert turned up at the office.  A huge sweaty Scotsman –rugby build, in a hurry, hassled in the way only any consultant on his first trip to a new country can be – entered my office.  I was lucky to have a corner office at the front of the block overlooking the busiest roundabout on Tortola.  People from the rest of the office would come to me not just to talk to me but to seek sanctuary from the craziness in the open plan office outside.

This expert, Brendan Godley was his name (he would often introduce himself as Godley, next to god,  although I doubt he ever saw himself as so), sat in my office and talked about how difficult it was to get anything organised in BVI.  Of all the people he had contacted before he set off from Swansea where he was a research fellow, I was the only one to reply positively, and he had arrived on the island for a couple of weeks and had no plan of action.  He was staying in a fairly rotten hotel in Road Town (the capital) which had no email facility.  I later learnt what an email junky he was (regularly receiving 50 – 300 emails a day), so “no email” was a total unknown.

I listened to him talk and saw how much difficultly he was experiencing to get his project ideas going.  It was troubling for me, once a fellow consultant type,  to see him floundering when time was limited.  I had spent several months making life bearable on the island (the months of trying to get a bank account, electrics set up, equipment, pay, car, understand how expensive food was), so anything I could do to ease a fellow Brit’s problems, I thought was a duty.

The hotel and lack of email were obviously the biggest bottlenecks so I said, well, I have an apartment with a spare room, and would be happy for him to stay there; it has dial up but it’s a strong connection, and as long as you pay for some food up there, I would be happy for him to crash with me.

So started a comradeship which extends to this day.  Brendan moved up to my apartment just off Tortola’s Ridge Road, and in amongst trying to make sure he could make progress, we had many a long conversation about our histories to date, our overlapping pasts, and life on small islands.  Brendan with his partner, Annette, were turtle freaks.  They studied every aspect of every species of turtle, them beaching, laying eggs, the hatchlings, their DNA, their diseases, their many-miled migrations across the Atlantic.   Tortola was of particular concern as it had a fragile population of leatherback turtles beaching there, the largest and most enigmatic of the turtle species.  I learnt so much from him and trooped the beach at Josiah’ Bay one night to wait for the leatherbacks to arrive. Alas nothing that night but one day later on I was called out from the office in Road Town to Josiah’s to watch a female who was laying eggs in the sand during the daytime; an uncommon occurrence.  She was hot and dry as she deposited fifty eggs in the sand, covered them with her huge back flippers and struggled back to the sea.  But how majestic it was when she reached the sea and this huge tank like body, so clumsy on land, became the perfect marine vessel and we watched her head out to the surf, come up once for a huge gulp of air then speed off into the Atlantic Ocean.