Snowfall lifts off Bonaire… But only temporarily!
As I write this final post I am adjusting to life without my Bonaire family and the reefs and island I came to love – as an escape from the cold weather of Eastern Oregon, I am flying over the Pacific ocean destined for Honolulu, Hawaii. In a few hours, I will begin the next adventure in my marine biology training and conduct a site visit for my internship with the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But, before I describe this amazing opportunity, Bonaire deserves some acknowledgement for the most amazing four months of my life.
Our last week on the island was emotional to say the least. It seemed unreal that we only had several days left and the time went by faster than we could keep up with! For the most part, we refused to talk about “life after Bonaire” and we enjoyed all the wonderful opportunities the island has to offer, one last time. A few of us took time to snorkel up and down our home coast a couple times to take the chance to soak in the tropical scenery one last time. I found a new appreciation for all the little marine critters we came to know well. The island had never seemed so beautiful to me than it did in the past week – I was not just saying goodbye to my human friends, I was saying goodbye to my marine life buddies!
And of course, we could not leave the island without taking a couple more dives! We did another sunrise dive in a large group and had a great dive! The reef was lit perfectly by the sunrise and was illuminated in golden color with huge schools of fish waking up from their dormant evening state. I spent a lot of time on this dive examining all the corals in close detail – down to the individual polyps and the tiny organisms burrowing in crevices. As a coral biologist-in-training, it was the best way to spend my 75th dive!
Even though the sunrise dive was no less than gorgeous, we did have one dive that blew it out of the water. On a spur of the moment decision, a group of us took a taxi with our tanks and gear over to the East coast of Bonaire to Baby Beach, just outside Lac Bay. The windward side of the island is not an easy access point – the coastline is jagged rock and cliff with difficult entry for divers. The surf is high and powerful, which was more of a problem on the exit than entry! In fact, it was pretty fun riding the waves – the only part that wasn’t fun? Pulling sea urchin spines out of our hands and legs later on that day! But, that could hardly have ruined our day. On the East coast, coral is not consistent benthic cover but is found in large colonies. Gorgonians cover most of the substrate, along with algae, and make the bottom look like an underwater forest. The marine life on the East coast is phenomenal! We saw over 20 turtles (both green and Hawksbill), 5 blacktip reef sharks, a nurse shark, ocean triggerfish, tons of juvenile fish species, and many other species we hardly saw on the leeward side. We went down to about 100 feet during this dive and spent more time in the shallow areas for a total dive time of 75 minutes… 75 minutes in heaven!
The last days in Bonaire were not all fun and games, however! We had two finals in Coral Reef Ecology and Tropical Marine Conservation Biology classes. The tests went very well and all that time spent studying sure paid off! We also finished our editing of Physis: Journal of Marine Science and have the PDF version ready to print when we get time!
Soon, the journal will be available at cieebonaire.org… Be sure to check out the product of all our research and hard work over the term!
But after the work was finished, we knew it was time to start wrapping up our stay on Bonaire and say our goodbyes. We had a large end of the year BBQ (with tons of lionfish, yum!) where we watched a few slideshows, gave out awards, and thanked everyone for all their help and the opportunities we were given due to the amazing staff and CIEE program.
If it were not for the fantastic interns, dedicated staff, and cooperation among students and faculty, we would not have had such an amazing experience on Bonaire. I cannot convey how thankful I am for all of the help and support given to us by the staff members. Never have I had such a positive and wonderful connection with my teachers and mentors – and the experience is one I will never forget! Thanks to our professors’ knowledge and hard work, we have learned so much about the marine environment and now have the basic tools and experience needed to seek further opportunities.
My fellow students deserve just as much credit for making this experience so fantastic. Living with 14 people in one house for 15 weeks is no easy task. Our group was not only able to live together peacefully (with a few, minor discrepancies), but we successfully collaborated to produce a journal, complete projects, and make the most of our academic opportunities. But through this process, most importantly, we became a family. From Thanksgiving dinner to group study nights, and fun dives to camping, we did everything together. I am proud and grateful to have studied with such a driven, motivated group of future marine biologists. Even though we are facing monumental challenges in the next few decades, I feel confident that with people like us in the field, we can and will make a difference.
The last night we were on the island, we went to a nice restaurant and enjoyed one last dinner together. And since we left so early the next morning, we decided to just stay awake all night – why sleep the last night in our favorite place on Earth? So, we did just that. And the next day, we said some emotional goodbyes to our East coast friends, clambered into the van one last time, and watched the sun come up as we lifted off the ground.
What awaited us on the other side? Cold. Snow. No sun. But what was also waiting for us? Friends, family, and the comforts of home we would soon rediscover. I was so thrilled to see my family and my home. We took time to go cross country skiing on our “backyard” mountain and I was able to spend time with my best friend – my horse. It’s the little things that remind me why I love my home so much and how lucky I am to have a family that supports my goals and aspirations. I know that I will be living life a little differently now that I have some long term traveling under my belt – using less, appreciating more, and living in a way that always has the bigger picture in mind – by making choices to make small differences in the world – and encouraging others to do the same.
And now, I can look forward to what future opportunities I am fortunate enough to take part in. As part of the NOAA Hollings Scholar program, I will be completing a 10-week internship this summer with the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island. I will be assisting with the Science/Education Inquiry program that offers marine biology courses to underprivileged/underrepresented high school students interested in marine science. I will also be developing and conducting a personal research project in coral reef conservation in cooperation with the HIMB Coconut Island Lab. I am honored to have been selected for this position as it connects my two passions – researching the marine environment and educating others on the importance of the marine ecosystem. Before I spend the summer in Hawai’i, I will be completing Winter Term back at Oregon State University and will spend Spring Term at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR studying intertidal coastal biology. I am eager to begin this next step in my education!
Its no doubt that for many of us, Bonaire is the start of it all - the start of our careers and our lifelong goal to preserve and protect the marine environment. When we look back in 10, 20, 30 years we will see our experience on the island as the starting point for everything that is to come. I could never express in words the value and worth of this experience, and I will probably never fully understand just how much impact it will have on my future career. I am so thankful for the opportunities that I have had on Bonaire and know that I will miss the island, the culture, and the oceans immensely. Snow has left the island of Bonaire, but won’t be absent for long!