Classrooms in the Sea and Swamp

Dr Stanton Belford is a Trinidadian marine scientist from Temple Street, Arima who is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator, Biology at Martin Methodist College in Tennessee USA.  One of his significant research studies is on the reefs of Toco. Until he can bring his students back to visit Buccoo Reef and the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, he believes that residents of Tobago and Trinidad should become familiar with these well-loved assets. Photos courtesy Dr Stanton Belford


Recently I saw Dr. Anjani Ganase, Associate Member of SpeSeas, speaking to The Now Morning Show (TTT) and The Morning Brew (TV6) about public online access to a 360-degree viewing of coral reefs in Tobago through the Maritime Ocean Collection website. I was ecstatic, because now I could sit at my computer in Tennessee, whilst viewing corals, fishes, and other organisms located in Tobago. How can we learn more about the vast oceans, whilst not being able to visit our beaches? I thought of Dr. Diva Amon (Director of SpeSeas) who was recently highlighted by National Geographic for her work on deep-sea organisms. How can we learn more about the deeper parts of the ocean, even if we cannot visit the shallow nearshore areas? These women in science, are two marine scientists in Trinidad & Tobago, who continue to be trend-setters virtually holding our hands, and introducing us to various parts of the oceans through online access. Surely citizens of T&T should be as knowledgeable and appreciative as my Tennessean students, who now have to wait to be assured that it will be safe to travel.


The Buccoo Reef tour: the popular glass-bottomed boat Cool Runnings makes a stop at Pigeon Point, then to the Nylon Pool, and lastly to No Man’s Land before heading back to the starting point.


Recently, permission was granted to citizens to visit the Buccoo Reef and the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Although my personal experiences at these pristine nature sites were extremely positive, I wondered what were the experiences of my Tennessean students? I realized that the answer may be located in their journals about Buccoo Reef, Tobago. In my five years of bringing international students to my home Trinidad & Tobago, visits to Buccoo Reef were by far the best experiences for them.

For example, one student noted, “Our glass bottom boat ride was so much fun. We were able to learn about sea creatures and coral reefs, and this was very helpful in connecting what we learned in class to the real-life first-hand experience.” Another student said, “We were having class in the middle of the ocean at the Nylon Pool, and having fun while learning about the sea creatures we read about from our textbook.” Yet another mentioned, “We were miles away from land, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.” Many students also remarked on how knowledgeable the tour guides on these boats were, and their enthusiasm and high-octane energy throughout the tour.

But what else did students experience while visiting Trinidad? On a visit to Grande Riviere to see the leatherback turtles, one student remarked, “That night we went to see the leatherback turtles nesting, and this was such a life-changing experience for me. It was amazing to be able to witness the beauty of another species giving birth.” Another said, “This tour was extremely informative, and the tour guides informed us that leatherback turtles lay about 100-200 eggs. I believe this was one of the most memorable moments in my life.” Another remarked, “I got to hold a leatherback turtle hatchling heading to the street, and the tour guide said I could pick it up and place it towards the ocean.” Students felt like this trip brought them closer to nature, these experiences were in many cases emotional to them, but in a positive way.


Students of Martin Methodist College, Pulaski, Tennessee and local T&T citizens point to the Scarlet Ibis nesting area during Kalpoo’s Tours at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary.


I continued to review the deeper impacts of students’ visits to various parts of T&T. What other trips made an impact in their lives? Of a trip to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary with Ravi Kalpoo, one student wrote, “I thought the birds would be in a cage, but it was a boat ride on the river, where we saw an ant eater, snake, and the coolest, most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen, the Scarlet Ibis.” Another wrote, “We all expected birds in a large cage, but we learned that the national bird of Trinidad & Tobago is the Scarlet Ibis, and the nesting of these birds was stunning to see.” Can you imagine a bird sanctuary for tourists in a giant cage? You see that’s what foreigners have, and they don’t have the luxury of a boat ride on the river, where they see an ant eater, a snake, and scarlet ibis, a river trip seasoned with the taste of mango and pineapple chow. Their minds and eyes exploded with interest and enthusiasm.

In Trinidad and Tobago there are many working in the tourism sector who are dependent on the foreigners for international income; and in the current situation, many have succumbed to economic hardship. Many will say there is no way we can return to a consistent and dependable income from tourism, but we who live here can do our parts, even in the absence of international tourists. Let us tip a little extra and pay full price for services, and not take a discounted rate, therefore allowing many in the tourism industry to hang on for a little while longer. Let us all share with each other, to show our love and support for all forms of tourism. Let charity begin at home as citizens swap positions with foreigners, thereby providing income. So, take a weekend off and go see the Caroni Bird Sanctuary and another for the Buccoo Reef, which will remain uncrowded for the while. I’ll await my turn, looking forward to the day I return to my Sweet T&T.



Viewing the leatherback turtle at Grande Riviere during nesting season.




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