Dominica - Week 1

Published: July 3rd 2018
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Sunday June 24 - (continued from Martinique)

Charlotte, the woman organizing the biodiversity surveys in Dominica, picked me up at the ferry and we drove back towards the 3 Rivers Ecolodge where we stay. It took an hour to drive there, but we could not drive the entire way. Last year the island was directly in the path of Hurricane Maria and was quite devastated by the storm. You have to cross two rivers to get into the ecolodge, and the bridges are still out, so we had to walk in. Although I knew this, I did not know exactly what it meant until I saw it. I had to cross a river with my two bags holding onto a rope so I wouldn't fall. In the dark. I changed into my shorts and sports sandals, put my headlamp on and hoped my laptop would not end up in the river. I found it a bit scary, but after the ferry, I was kind of numb to the fear. The second river was easier, but with no rope, so Charlotte took my smaller bag so I could focus on my footing. I made it.

I was offered dinner when I arrived, but could not think about eating after the ferry ride. I was shown to my living space, on the second floor of a bunkhouse. I am sharing a room with four other women - the other three on the bat project and one studying insects - and it is dark and crowded. There are four beds in a row that are touching for the four bat girls, and one across the room by the sink that is covered with tons of bottles of booze. All the beds have a mosquito net. There is nowhere to really put anything, but there are a lot of hooks on the wall where people hang their clothes. There was a bit of a party when I arrived on the balcony outside my door, and despite wanting to sleep, I stayed up to be social until about 1am. Too late. I met a bunch of the scientists and everyone seems friendly, but no way would I remember their names yet.

Monday June 25 - I woke up around 7:30 and eventually found my way to the dining area. Breakfast is at 7:30, but since the bat team is out late every night, they hold our food for us when we are ready. I was presented with a tupperware of porridge and it was ok, but cold. Like most meals, I will eat here, due to my schedule. I sat around at the dining place for much of the day, meeting people and learning their names and what they studied.

The OpWall program looks at the biodiversity of habitat, insects, reptiles, birds, bats, etc in an area over the long term, depending on the site, and there are sites all over the world. It is also a program for teachers to bring interested groups of students to learn about ecology and participate in the data collection. Here in Dominica, they spend time out with each scientist, learning about what they do and how they do it.

I got to know my direct partner, Megan, a bit as we went out at night for our first survey together. I was told we work 6pm - midnight, but really it's longer. We left at 3:30pm to grab the equipment and move it to the right location, and then we had to set-up the three nets we use every night. I haven't done this for at least 15 years, so I asked Megan to talk me through the whole thing to remind me. It will take me a couple days to get used to it again. Megan was told she is my "assistant". I feel it is the opposite. We agreed to be partners. We use mist-nets that are very fine and hard for the bats, especially the fruit bats, to see. They are either 3, 6, 9 or 12 meters long. One of the nets is two nets high, so it is on a pulley system. We open the nets at 6pm and close them at 11pm, spending the rest of the time pulling down the whole set-up. We also have a group of students who come to see the bats each night, and we can show them what we do and how we measure the bats. If we don't have a bat, we have a small powerpoint to show them on an ipad instead.

In the past, there were many bats caught on most nights, but after the hurricane last year, much of the forest has changed, and capture rates have been low. In this first evening, we caught four bats, each a different species, including the endemic insectivore, a fruit bat and one that drinks nectar. We also had another insect eater that has no fur across the back, but rather a continuous wing membrane. Pretty cool. We were able to show the students the two we had when they arrived, which was nice. In return, they bring our dinner, which means we eat really late. The kids eat around 7pm and get to us maybe around 8pm and when they leave, we can eat. This could be 9pm, it just depends on how long they stay. It started to rain while the students were there, and it rained on and off for the rest of the night. I think I will be spending a lot of my time wet. Megan and I ate our food ravenously in the rain hiding under some trees.

Tuesday June 26 - Up early again. I think it will be a habit that I get up before all the other bat girls, who get up between 10-11. But it's nice to have some time "alone" as well, over by the dining area. After lunch some of us went for a walk to try to find the best way to access the place we were planning to net that night, to keep the same transects and sites as last year. The hurricane has changed so much. We had to walk through a bunch of water and then we got to the river and I did not feel comfortable crossing it. I just couldn't. I have a bit of a fear of these kinds of things, as it turns out. They carried on, looking to see if there was an easier crossing on the other side on the way back. I walked back to camp on my own - which I was super proud of - running across cool enormous ground lizards in the meantime. I got back to camp and asked for directions to lunar pool, a calm spot in the river for swimming. This is where the others would be coming out. I waited for about 20 minutes and then they came. It got my heart racing again to watch them cross. Then they went for a dip, but I did not have the clothes for it. They are going to put a rope across the river where I would not cross to see if that will make it possible, as students should be able to cross as well. Had a crappy sandwich for lunch and then eventually it was time to set up nets. We decided to net in a different site that was easier to access for the night, as there are many sites that we use, repeating each at least once with a minimum of three days in between. All four of us worked together tonight. Lisa and Erin normally net off-site, getting data for Lisa's master's degree, but they have a flat tire and will be joining us tonight. Somehow it did not rain the whole day, and I even saw the sun. When we set up the nets I found some Mimosa plants, that have leaves that close when you touch them. Fun. Over the course of the evening, we caught 5 bats, including a very pregnant fruit bat. We had one bat to show the students, who have all been very interested so far. Some of them have spent the last two years raising money to be able to come on this trip.

Back at the dorm, there was another party outside my room. I spent very little time hanging out and went to bed early. Ear plugs are a blessing.

Wednesday June 27 - Up early. Pattern establishing. The kids ate all the porridge, so we got fresh breakfast - eggs, sausages, and salad. My only warm meal so far. Spent the morning sitting around dining area chatting when possible. Late morning the bat girls met with Charlotte to talk about which transect sites have been netted and which need to be netted again. Then we talked about how to do habitat surveys, tramping around in the bush, which we were supposed to try to do at Emerald Pool in the afternoon, Lisa's field site for the day. But her truck had a flat, and it took ages to get the guys to come help. Once they changed it, the spare also had a flat. By then it was late, so we helped carry the equipment to a van so they could take that instead.

It was a sunny day, but we wasted it with all the sitting around. I wanted to go for a swim, but Megan and I decided to set up the nets early so we would have some time to relax before netting. We were just netting the road by camp, so it was close, but just as we were halfway setting up the tall net, a jeep came down the road. It was Andy, the owner of Banana Lama, a nicer hotel down the road, and he was bringing some people who came to lunch back to their yacht. He was very nice about it, helping us take it down quickly and helping us put it back up when he drove back. After we put the nets up, we went back to the room and Megan told me how to find Mermaid pool, so I decided to walk over and went for a short swim. It was really pretty and quiet, and I made friends with a family of millet fish. I was only back at my room for a few minutes before a saw a group of students heading down there for a swim, so I got quite lucky.

Megan and I opened the nets at 6pm and we were able to hang out in camp all night, in between checking the nets. We caught no bats, but we were in camp for a hot meal. I could get my own food and eat it on a plate, which was a nice surprise. But it was crowded with all the researchers and teachers and students. We took our group of students out after dinner, but we had no bats to show them, so we showed them the powerpoint and talked about the bats instead. We were able to see them flying over us though, so at least there was that.

We closed the nets early, at 10pm, since it was an opportunistic site and we weren't catching anything. We got upstairs and there was a gathering of people on my balcony, as usual. I was a bit snippy with Erika, the non-bat person in the room, who organizes all the parties it seems. Whatever. I showered and went to bed and was happy to get to bed early. Earplugs worked well.

Thursday June 28 - Woke up at 7:30 and stayed in bed until Erika came and went, around 8:05. She left the light on, which is annoying. Came down to breakfast and there were still a bunch of groups here, so it was more lively than I expected. Have been spending time talking to Shelley, a former biologist and current "cosmic gypsy" who is cool and pretty interesting. Jem gave us a small tour of the place, including the dorms and a treehouse owned by the neighbors that left after the hurricane. Shelley is thinking about moving into the treehouse. I'd like to spend my days productively, but the other girls sleep or are up in the room maybe sleeping, so it's hard to know when I can make noise. I did go for a "swim", but I only waded up to my knees or so. There was a group down there, so I just went to hang out really. We netted at night, up at 300m on one of the trails, and it was steep to walk there. Not too steep, but I felt exhausted. I walk really slow here for some reason. Is it the heat? The humidity? Exhaustion? Another dimension? Not a great net site, and no bats to show the kids, but we did catch a juvenile fruit bat late in the evening. It rained as soon as we set up, and we had a fort set-up, but it leaked and was pretty gross, so I didn't sit in it much. Erika was asleep when we got back (yay!) but there were still people drinking on our porch, including the others who somehow got back before us due to the rain. Maybe we could have closed early.

Friday June 29 - Woke up early, anticipating a trip to town with Shelley, Megan and Jem and found that there was a slight change. Jem and I would leave with Charlotte and the people she was driving to Champagne Reef, and Megan and Shelley would get a ride into town with Lisa and Erin. We had to go quite immediately, and Charlotte dropped us off in town. Jem walked me to the ferry ticket office and left me to buy some tickets, and then I went to an ATM, got my first Eastern Caribbean Dollars, and then met him at a cafe on the waterfront. I got a quiche for breakfast, which Charlotte paid for, and checked my email and initially, it was super slow, but then Jem went for a walk and disconnected his three devices and the speed picked up. I sat around waiting for the others, and eventually, Charlotte showed up. The others were at a different cafe, so we walked over there. I had a banana-mango smoothie and a chicken roti for lunch since Shelley mentioned there were sandwiches for lunch back at the ecolodge. I hate the bread here. It's just so...blah. European bread has ruined me. I had time to run to the pharmacy for some gravol, a sea sickness medication. It only cost $2 for 8 pills. Amazing. I had to order it and then wait in line to pick it up and pay. In line, the only thing I passed were displays of condoms and horny goat weed powder and the like. On the drive back to camp, we had Megan and Shelley, and I spent time asking Shelley about her "cosmic gypsy" title and about her sound therapy and crystal singing bowls. I have never heard of either. Seems interesting but weird.

We walked back to camp from the main road, since Charlotte had to get back to Champagne Reef to pick up the others. We got back in time for me to get a little organized - not much - and go for a swim. Ben was there at the pool, sleeping on the big rock, so I got in quietly, and over a seriously long time since I'm such a wuss. I just sat there, relaxing, but it got a little cold in the water, being cloudy. Ben was meditating when I left, and when I got back to Ocean View, I saw that the kids were heading down to the pool. Good timing. I wish I now remembered what time that was exactly so we don't accidentally overlap.

Megan and I headed out at 4:15pm and it took until almost 6pm to finish the mistnet set-up. The tall net was a bit problematic. It was a long night. We didn't get any bats, but there was also no rain. Pretty good, since our "fort" would not have weathered the storm. We did get an early dinner, though. One of the students asked if he could bring us our food at the start of dinner, which was so kind. He walked it up to us around 6:45pm. So early! And just so nice. We ate and then a group came out to see us, but we had no bats. By the time we sent them back, one of the girls wanted to stay longer, so her teacher stayed with her and the four of us hung out for an hour. Still no bats, but nice dedication. If the weather looks good tomorrow, we might set up one net to see if we get any to show the three groups who didn't see a bat yet.

Back at the cabin, there was another party going on outside on our balcony. It makes it hard to even remove my shoes, let alone hang up wet clothes, socks, etc. I took a shower and then went to bed, and Holly, one of the marine girls, came in to tell me not to feel isolated and to join them, that I was welcome to hang out. Very kind, but I'm just not interested at that time of day. I was tired - kept falling asleep in between net checks - and wasn't in the mood to talk. I don't know how they all do it every night. I went to sleep around 12:45 and there was still a lot of talking, and then at 2am there was all kinds of noise. I found out from Megan that she was locked out somehow after Erika went to bed, and they were finally able to jimmy the door open. The others came back then as well, so it took a while to settle. And I think the party outside was still going at the point. Tomorrow will be worse - it's Erika's last night.

Saturday June 30 - Got out of bed closer to 9am but feel exhausted. Spent the morning chatting with two of the teachers traveling with their students, which was nice. Ben showed me how to use the washing machine, which is manual. You add the water with a hose, turn it to 15 minutes, rinse out the clothes in a bucket, wring them out and then put them in the "dryer", which spins them. Pretty hard core. It was in use at the time, but I plan to give it a try soon. I thought Megan and I were going to take a hike to find a nearby waterfall today, but she dumped me in a hot minute when she had the chance to go to town with some of the others. I wasn't invited. I decided to give it a go on my own, and got directions from Jem. He was shaving his head when I found him, and there was hair flying all over in the breeze. The directions boiled down to this: follow the road past Banana Lama, take the path to the river, get into the river at the bridge and wade upstream until you see a smaller river on the left, and then wade into that until the end. Ta-da - waterfall.

As soon as I got in the river, I was a little nervous and uncertain. It looked rather deep in places, and it is sometimes hard to tell where you are putting your feet with the reflection from the near constant clouds above the rainforest. I crossed to the other side and decided to leave my backpack behind in some bushes, rather than chance dropping it in the water. I found after a while I could walk on the rocks on the side, rather than through the water itself. I slipped a couple times and hit my shin on a rock once, but it was ok. The smaller river was fine too, but then I slipped and my hand came down hard on a tree or stick or something, and I cut my hand at the base of my thumb. Not too bad, but annoying. The more concerning part is just trying to make sure that it stays clean and does not become infected. I got nearly to the end of the smaller river when I came upon a large downed tree across the whole thing. I tried for about half an hour to make it past but I couldn't. It had collected lots of dead wood around it and I went under lots of it, but just couldn't make it to the waterfall. Ben had been there at some point, but he is 18 and doesn't think too much. He later said he slipped a bit going for it. Either way, I wasn't going for it.

On the way back, I came across an agouti in the road. It's one of two species of mammal on the island that are not bats. It's like a tiny capybara or a large rodent on stilts. I took a video of it, thinking that it would run off right away, but I don't think it could see me well and for three minutes it walked towards me, sat down, wasn't sure, walked towards me again, and so on. It was so indecisive, it could be my spirit animal. I got some good footage to show over dinner. After dinner was quiz night, and I was the one to read out the questions from the bat slide. Megan went over the answers with them afterward. After that was a horrible party that never ended. My building is the only one where staff are allowed to drink, and to me, they act like they are in high school and their parents have left them home for the weekend. It was Erika's last night and they started drinking at 9:30pm. Eventually we moved from the balcony to inside my room because of the rain. I fell asleep on my bed at midnight and at 2am the lights were still on and people were still inside, drinking and talking. Most of the 18-year-olds I've shared hostel dorms with are more considerate than these scientists. At 2am, Holly recommended they turn off the lights and go on the balcony. Later the lights were on again. At some point, they went swimming and Erin banged herself up on a rock, but I don't remember hearing them leave or come back. I think the earplugs were in by that point.

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7th July 2018

Dominica the Garden Isle
This is one of our favorite Caribbean Islands. We spent two weeks there diving, exploring the water falls and canoeing. Great rivers. Looks like you are having a blast. Thanks for taking us along and thanks for jogging our memories.

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