What to Watch Out For When Volunteering Abroad
WorkingAbroad blog writer Tristan Ledger, who is currently volunteering in France, writes about things to look out for during a volunteering trip overseas.
June 27th 2019
“My final week in Grenada has certainly left me leaving on a high, after having days which will probably be some of the most amazing I will ever experience in my life.”
This week saw me move on from my Open Water diving qualification and into learning how to become an SSI Advanced Adventurer (PADI Advanced Open Water equivalent). To achieve this certification I would need to become more comfortable with my skills while diving and take five speciality courses. The first of these courses was perfect buoyancy. All of the specialities involve some book work on the SSI app as well as taught lessons at the dive centre, but the practical skills tests are the fun part! To complete perfect buoyancy I had to demonstrate that I could control my breathing to the extent that I could become neutrally buoyant (remain at a fairly constant height above the sea bed). However, it was not that simple as I had to be able to demonstrate this with my body horizontal, on the side, close to the sea bed with arms outstretched (mission impossible pose), on my back and flipped on my head! These were not easy skills to master but once you’re calm you can control your breathing in order to adjust your position in the water column correctly. Once we had demonstrated these skills adequately the instructor made it more fun for us by setting out weights for us to knock over with our regulators and hoops for us to try and swim through on our backs! Which in the end probably made it one of the most fun dives I’ve had. On the same first day of advanced learning, we did the navigation speciality. This involved learning how to effectively use a compass to travel in a perfect square as well as along a compass bearing and to and from a natural point of interest underwater, such as a large rock.
The second day of advanced had us almost at course completion already, as we carried out our deep diving and photo and video. The deep dive saw us dive down to almost 30 metres to a tugboat wreck. At this depth, you can no longer see the surface which is pretty scary and pretty cool at the same time! Once we were down there we played around with a few props such as a bottle that was previously filled with air and some neoprene, which had both now been squashed by the increased pressure at depth. We also saw how the colour fades and changes with depth using colour cards and cracked open an egg underwater and played with the yolk which maintained its form due to the pressure! The purpose of doing a deep dive speciality is to allow you to dive to 30 metres whereas with just Open Water you can only go down to a maximum of 16 metres. There’s a lot more to think about at depth and id scare you if I were to tell you of all the possible life threating injuries you could get if you’re not careful, but the main things to be aware of are how long you’re down there (can only stay around 15 minutes at this depth) and to remember to breath constantly! We moved on to our second dive of the day to learn about proper photo and video techniques underwater. This mainly involved playing around with a lot of cool photography equipment the dive centre had (such that I got some of my best pictures on this dive), but the main reasoning behind it was to ensure that we could take good scientific pictures while not harming the reef, by staying above it using our previously learnt buoyancy techniques.
The boat diving speciality was technically done on our third day of advanced training, despite us having dived off the boat every time we had been diving and all it involved was safely getting into the water from the boat, via a giant stride. This meant that Advanced Adventurer had been completed in just two and a half days and that I was now able to dive up to 30 metres in depth anywhere around the world! However, on this third day, we also took the opportunity to do some further specialities linked more closely to the conservation work Reef Buddy are doing, which was great as I finally got to start getting stuck into the conservation! We started with some fish identification dives. The fish had been learnt to our best ability in the classroom and through personal study and with 300-500 species of fish in the Caribbean there’s plenty to learn, however, you only really need to know which family they belong to so don’t be too daunted by the task. We did our two dives recording the different species of fish we saw and their abundance at the site and proceeded to enter this data to an online fish data collection site when we returned to shore.
The next day saw me do similar work with coral identification. This involved learning the different types of coral; branching, boulder, plating and soft and trying to determine their level of bleaching. Reef Buddy use and work with Coral Watch and we used their colour coded cards to determine the level of bleaching in the corals. To do this we had to put the cards next to corals and swim around them to find the lightest and darkest patches of colour, which corresponded to a number on the card. We had to do this for 30 corals along a depth line and then we imputed this data into the global Coral Watch website.
Lionfish containment was next up and it was what I had been really looking forward to. The previous day we had practised using slingshot type spears in the yard and in the water to shoot static objects but we had to actually go and cull the lionfish on my final day in Carriacou! This gave me just two dives to kill a Lionfish and earn my free t-shirt! For anyone wondering why we kill, what is a beautiful looking fish, Lionfish are an invasive species that has spread from the Florida Keys, via pets being released or aquarium escapees (no one is quite sure). Lionfish have no natural predators in the Caribbean and eat anything they can fit in their mouth, which their stomachs being able to expand to four times the size! Not only that but at their optimum a female Lionfish can lay up to 2000 eggs every four days, so they spread at an amazing rate! This means that they can and are, devastating the coral ecosystem, such that they need to be contained as best we can. Luckily I managed to catch a couple on my two dives, it’s not the easiest thing to shoot a spear straight underwater, but the fish don’t seem to be the smartest and often let you get very close as well as have a couple of attempts!
Saturdays and Sundays are free for volunteers and before the start of the week, I got to go on a couple of very lovely trips. The first was to Carriacou’s Sandy Island which was free and organised by the dive centre. It’s a beautiful uninhabited island with amazing long stretching sandy beaches and a great coral reef just offshore to snorkel and explore. However, the best day of my entire two weeks in Carriacou came when we went to Tobago Cays on Sunday. It cost a whopping £100 to go with the hotel manager and at first, I was sceptical, but it was 100% worth it and probably the best £100 I’ve ever spent. We did a little island hopping in the Tobago Cays marine park, first starting off with a small island surrounded by Green Turtles! I must have swum with between 12-16 green turtles in what was a relatively small shallow area of the ocean and it was amazing how close you could get with such amazing creatures. What was even more surprising was that this wasn’t even the best part of my day! We then went onto the main Tobago Cays Island where we had a lovely barbeque and then walked into the water where we were truly amazed. Baby Caribbean reef sharks, pufferfish and stingrays were all swimming in water between 30cm and 2m in depth. You would walk in and be surrounded by them as well as a vast array of fish and could swim with them all perfectly safely, if not sometimes maybe a little too close for comfort. It was truly an amazing experience and we even saw a Hawksbill turtle a little further out! I can’t express enough how much you absolutely have to go here if you come to Carriacou!
This was certainly a long blog but I packed in so much into my final week. If I could I would stay longer and get more stuck into the conservation work here at Reef Buddy, such that I highly recommend you coming for four or more weeks should you wish to really get involved in the conservation rather than just obtaining your dive certifications. Over the two weeks however, I’ve gone from having no experience to being an advanced diver with multiple certifications, 14 dives under my belt and having seen a truly amazing array of marine life. A lot of credit has to go to Alex and Katlynd for getting me through my training, with them and all the staff here at Reef Buddy being faultless throughout my stay.
Overall I leave Grenada having gone full circle, from helping bring baby leatherbacks into the world at the start of my adventure, to killing lionfish by the end! It was really an amazing trip, I’ve worked with or seen three species of turtle, and seen an incredible amount of marine life, met loads of great new friends, worked with some amazing staff, eaten some amazing food and become a qualified diver. I can’t recommend it enough and I’ll miss it greatly, but I leave with plenty of amazing memories that will last forever!
By WorkingAbroad Intern Jack Digman
To find out more about our Reef Buddy Diving Programme in Carriacou, click here.