It was a warm August afternoon in Port Royal. As usual, the small town was moving in slow motion. (I always find it impossible to imagine Port Royal as “the wickedest city,” with buxom wenches, swashbuckling pirates and other clichés – 21st century Port Royal is considerably more laid back).
Somehow we took a wrong turning, but eventually found the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Port Royal Marine Laboratory (PRML), tucked into the tip of the peninsula where Kingston Harbour meets the open sea. It is a quiet spot, with calm water lapping on the shore, small boats and neatly painted buildings. Iguanas stand like statues in a tall cage, shaded with dry palm fronds. Occasionally a large ship glides, quite close but almost soundless, in or out of the mouth of the harbour. One could easily lose track of time here. The Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard, however, can very quickly shake you out of your reverie – either when a “go fast” boat comes racing in, or when the soldiers decide to do a little shooting practice. They are right next door.
I was there to meet a group of teenagers (the “Mariners”), who were participating in the final section of the PRML’s summer camp, Marine Mania.” A lot of “maniac” kids have passed through the Lab this summer! This, the oldest group of campers, are the young people who weren’t just sent by their parents. The teenagers were there because they were genuinely interested in environmental science. When I arrived they were tying each other up. Well, that doesn’t sound very wholesome, but just to clarify: they had just been learning knots (reef knots, bowlines and the like) and were practicing them on each other.
The summer camp is now in its fifth year. Campers are shuttled to and from the UWI campus each day. Chauntelle Green, the Camp Coordinator and PRML’s Outreach Officer, told me the July 10-14 camp for the youngest age group (six to nine year-olds – the “Sea Squirts”) was oversubscribed, with a group of 25 participating; next year, they may have two camps for the young ones. They were busy with a recycling project, toured the mangroves and watched birds, did a super-fast coastal cleanup, and got tactile with the “touch tank” and handling specimens. They also helped PRML staff with planting mangrove seedlings for its nursery. Oh, and they had great fun, I hear, with a beach trip and arts and crafts.
The second group of 21 ten to fourteen year-olds (the “Shore Trekees”) did their treks through the nearby mangroves. They collected zooplankton (the very tiny animals that drift around in the water), learned of their importance as a part of the marine food chain and identified species in their samples through microscopes, back in the Laboratory. They also visited Recycling Partners in Kingston to learn more about solid waste management, and researched the sources of marine litter. Snorkelling at Lime Cay was also on the agenda. All the campers made great use of the UWI/EFJ/PRML Biodiversity Centre, funded by the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ). And since they are right on the sea, there was emphasis on boat safety and using boats in general – hence the “tying each other up in knots.”
I was pleased to learn that the campers in these two age groups not only had the opportunity for plenty of hands-on science, but were also introduced to good conservation practices. The issue of solid waste is closely linked to the pollution of our marine environment – mainly plastic. The Squirts also learned about the importance of the parrot fish, which grazes on our coral reefs and keeps them healthy, while creating our white sand beaches via its digestive system (I am chagrined that the famous fish restaurant in Port Royal, Gloria’s still sells parrot fish on a regular basis).
Green – herself a former wannabe geologist turned marine biologist, who loves doing outreach work – told me that the closing ceremonies for the two younger age groups are important. The Marine Lab invites family members, friends and sponsors to visit on the final day and find out what has been happening; it’s a great learning experience for them, too. Campers become tour guides, hosting their family members and conducting tours of the facility.
“Campers show their family members our various displays, educating them on adaptations, diet and interesting facts. They are also allowed to interact with some of the animals. We always stress that each camper represents a household and by introducing a family member to environmental attitudes and values, we can hope for a multiplier effect,” says Green.
The Mariners were at the PRML from August 21-26. “It’s a week as a Marine Biologist,” says Green; these young people are considering going on to Marine Science studies and a possible future career in the field. Activities included data collection, science experiments, nature treks, snorkeling at Lime Cay and an overnight at the PRML’s “sister lab” in Discovery Bay.
The campers were having an indoor afternoon, with presentations from the PRML’s Director Dr. Suzanne Palmer, Ms. Green herself – and me. This was to be followed by a showing of the excellent Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.” Ms. Green gave some great advice to the young people, which really applies to life itself: “Be with like-minded people.” Don’t waste your time with those you have nothing in common with; it’s time to start focusing on what really interests you. Ms. Green told me that many of the campers go on to study Marine Biology at UWI, and will likely return as volunteers – I met some of these student volunteers, who were helping out with the kids.
Dr. Palmer gave a fascinating presentation on the beginnings of her career as an interdisciplinary coral reef scientist. Dr. Palmer lectures in Coral Reef Ecology at UWI and is the Principal Investigator for the Coral Monitoring and Coral Nurseries project at Alligator Head Marine Laboratory in Portland in eastern Jamaica. Her photographs of scientists “coring” sediments in swampy areas in order to investigate “past environments” sparked a twinge of envy in me. So did pictures of her fascinating field work as a post-graduate student, in Paluma Shoals near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (keeping an eye open for saltwater crocodiles!) It made me wish even more that I had a real aptitude for science at school (which I certainly did not). Ah, well!
Dr. Palmer also spoke about Goat Islands; she was involved with the Waitt Foundation’s survey of coral reefs in the area, which I wrote about here. Contrary to the perception that the environment was already quite degraded around Goat Islands, the team’s assessment of the reefs in 2015 was that they were in reasonable shape. She said the scientists are planning to return to the area later this year for a “re-survey.”
What did I talk to the campers about? I spoke about my experience as a non-scientist, who tries to research, understand and interpret the environment. Dr. Palmer asked me what I find it hardest to explain, and I told her it had to be climate change; that is a challenge. I also talked about how my love of the environment developed, from childhood, because of my father’s influence. I recalled long birding walks along chilly seashores and through dripping wet woodlands in England (it never seemed to be good weather when we were communing with nature). I told the students about my adventures in Monterey Bay, California with three humpback whales, and a pack of hunting orcas. And I told them about my father’s lifelong love of the sea as a sailor.
By the way, the Sea Squirts collected 133.5 lbs. of garbage from the Port Royal Beach in just under thirty minutes during their Power Beach Cleanup in July. That’s impressive! Shore Trekkers did 120 lbs and learned how to do the data collection cards that are an important part of cleanups. I hope they are all signed up for the International Coastal Cleanup Day on September 16!
As we left, the head waters of the harbour were flat, sparkling, almost sizzling in the afternoon sun. The hills of Portmore opposite were a heavy dark mass. Grey cloud blurred Spanish Town, gradually dissipating over Kingston. It hardly rains in Port Royal, I’m told.
PS Big ups to Jamaica Money Market Brokers (JMMB) for sponsoring branded water bottles. Mine is a nice memento. Thank you!
For more information on the Port Royal Marine Laboratory, contact Chauntelle Green, Outreach Officer, Department of Life Sciences, UWI.
Tel: (876) 967-8344. Email: email@example.com