Having worked in several overseas territories, predominantly on environmental projects, I had got to know an amazing group of enthusiastic scientists who valued the special nature of the small islands they conserved. A group called the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum had been established which brought these specialists together at a conference every couple of years to talk about their successes, their trials and tribulations. As well as people from the OTs themselves, many of the agencies that helped them out were involved too. This included some big players that are well known in the UK, like the Durrell Foundation, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. When I had been in the BVI, I was give the chance to go with a large delegation to one of these conferences in Bermuda. Flying via New York, we arrived on the island in the middle of the night. It being March, I was amazed what a different climate it was from Tortola – most of the time it was dull and misty, and fairly chilly! Despite this there were plenty of coral reefs and palm trees around and I was confused by the mix of tropical and temperate signals I was getting.
As well as the conference, the field trips around Bermuda were fantastic, especially to Nonsuch Island. Bermuda is one of the most urbanised of the OTs, and predominantly expensive properties which gave it the air of looking like Surrey but with fringing reef. Surrey with the fringe on top, as it were.
taken by UKOTCF , me in green t shirt
Several years later, with me back in the UK, I was approached by members of the forum to present at another of these conferences in Grand Cayman. It was to be about the Ascension Island work and I was pleased to have a place to talk about the stuff Edsel and I had done. Moreover, I was delighted to be able to meet up with so many familiar friends from around the OTs and it would be fantastic to get another chance to explore Grand Cayman properly after the curtailed trip the previous year.
The hotel had a different view and were not keen on having onlookers. They wanted as much as possible to close the hotel down. They set up a desk near reception to help people rebook their flights, they slipped messages under your door a few times every day giving you advice on what to do and saying they had no obligation for your safety if you chose to stay at the hotel. I tried to ignore these as the best option to me seemed to sit tight, and if I was stranded in Cayman after the hurricane, maybe I could help out with any relief effort.
The Conference gets under way
It was a shame the conference had to be curtailed. The local organising committee had put a huge amount of effort to showcase Cayman and provide a long list of social events, including a trip on a boat and dinner in a historic location on the island. A massive fireworks display had to be cancelled – we did manage to have one social event which was moved into the hotel grounds. Even this was a bit of a chance taken – the wind was already a bit fresh.
I was due to moderate one of the conference sessions. More or less the only people there in this large room were the ones delivering talks; including myself who was subbing for my friend Vijay who had decided not to travel from Guyana in case he got stranded in Miami for days on end.
The conference was emptying, as were all the hotels, and looking out over the beach you could watch the Cayman Airways planes working overtime shuttling back and forth between Grand Cayman and Miami. Every time I met a reception staff I was gently asked whether I had arranged my own evacuation.
I headed off on a Saturday, taking the BA flight via Bahamas (where the previous conference had been). I got from the airport to the Ritz Carlton – quite the most stupendous hotel the conference had been in so far – on the famous Seven Mile Beach in west Grand Cayman. The Chief Executive of URISA, a most wonderful and generous lady called Wendy Nelson, lived in Ann Arbor in Michigan – where summer occurred for three days in August and most of the rest of the year was frost, snow and ice. She travelled the lower 48 year on year and although she loved her job, the two year conference in the Caribbean was her highlight and she ensured she took time off when she travelled down to relax after all her hard work. So she never liked to have any budget hotels for URISA; it was a resort or nothing. But even by Caribbean standards the Ritz Carlton was special. OK most of the delegates like me were in the “garden” suites – that meant facing the swamp on the inside of the estate, but we had access over the road bridge to the ocean side, its pools and gardens and the stretch of white sandy beaches. And the Caribbean Sea of course, which was as hot as it ever gets. To lie one of the loungers and be handed a flannel that has just come from the freezer was completely a flagrant waste of energy, a total luxury, a dreadful excess and totally lovely to feel that cold against your hot sweaty cheeks.
Hot and Steamy at the Ritz Carlton
I met Wendy and her divine colleague, Pat, on the beach that first day and sat having a nice easy catch up with a couple of cocktails. Indeed the first day of the conference went well. But people were looking at the weather reports. Hurricane Gustav was developing out in the eastern Caribbean Sea and the track was heading straight for us. That year the conditions were ripe for strong storm development. Just putting a toe in the water at seven mile beach was enough to tell you how much energy was stored up in that sea.