Ecotourism Meets Cultural Heritage

For some travelers, sun and fun on a popular beach surrounded by creature comforts, modern amenities, and easy accessibility to restaurants and shops is their idea of vacation. More and more people, however, are hoping to truly experience something unique in a place that is hard to get to, that is surrounded by sites and sounds entirely different than the familiarity of home and that involves a certain degree of adventure.  Ecotourism is a way for people to really capture the pulse of a place and to discover the spectacular wonders of the natural environment.  When I am in Dominica, I am always amazed at the sounds of birds at dawn and at dusk, I find peace in the quiet solitude of a mountain overlooking the sea, I feel the exhilaration of jumping into a crystal clear river and I tap into my sense of adventure with a hike through the cinematic rainforest.  Exposure to these kinds of special experiences is the real magnetism behind ecotourism.  Additional value comes in the preservation of the environment, the economic benefit to indigenous people and the introduction of guests to the cultural heritage.

Dominica is perhaps the greatest location for ecotourism in the entire Caribbean.  It’s biodiversity is still intact and the cities have not been overdeveloped like other places of tourism.  For that reason Dominica is often a destination for reality TV shows that showcase adventure travel, secluded resorts or extreme competitions.  I have literally hiked a jungle trail, swam up a river gorge to a waterfall, and relaxed on a black sand beach all in the same day.  You can easily experience a whole lot with a vehicle and a roadmap, but if you hire a local guide for the day you get the backstory to everything that you are witnessing.  For example, you can travel to the village of Belles and hike the trails carved out by the maroons who had escaped into these forests during the days of slavery.  An African chief name Jacko was the pioneer and leader of an entire encampment in the rainforest.  Large steps, some three feet high, gave them an advantage over the French and English soldiers who had battled over this island for years.  Ruins of military fortifications still exist in places like Cabrits National Park near the village of Portsmouth.

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Dominica also offers the opportunity to connect with the living history of the Kalinagos, who are the largest remaining colony of Carib Indians in the world.  Travel to their territory, taste the cassava-coconut bread, watch them make wooden boats by hand, purchase some of their intricately woven baskets and if your timing is right you can experience some of their cultural celebrations that reveal ancient dances and traditions.  Their everyday lifestyle already reflects principles of sustainability and their new developments are considerate of these same values.  Their cultural center, for example, is running on electricity generated by solar panels.  I had the opportunity to meet the Kalinago chief and he said he would welcome the opportunity for university interns to come and help them develop new strategies that generate employment for their mountain community.

These days, information about cultures, cuisines and customs can be found on the internet and television, but it is so much better to encounter the people for yourself and enjoy a great big world beyond the screens that are always in our faces.  I encourage you to discover Dominica at least once in your lifetime.

Jerry

 

 

 

 

 

Journey to the Sea – Leatherback Hatchlings at Rosalie Bay

Journey to the Sea – My Experience with Leatherback Hatchlings at Rosalie Bay, Dominica. (Be sure not to miss the video posted lower down in this blog)

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Through the rainforest on winding mountain roads we set out for Rosalie Bay. We had left the tranquility of the Western coast of Dominica and the Caribbean Sea for the unique opportunity to witness sea turtle hatchlings on the Southeast, wilder Atlantic coast.  Between March and July of each year leatherback turtles weighing up to a thousand pounds complete their migratory journey to Iceland and right back to the place of their birth, here in Dominica. The views along the jungle roads were spectacular, the air was cooler at the higher altitudes and for a time it felt like we were someplace else. Our 4WD vehicle was driven by my internship supervisor, Mr. Renneth Alexis, who shared his thoughts on entrepreneurship and tourism along the way. Traveling with us was my friend Pastor Eddie George and his daughter Charissa.

We came to a break in the canopy that opened up to a village community along the Rosalie River.  We crossed over on a bridge that literally had no railings and you could see where it emptied out into the Atlantic Ocean.  Up the mountain was the village of Grand Fond, and in the valley below, just beyond a field of bananas and plantains was the Rosalie Bay Resort.  Once a site of grand plantation, it is a perfectly situated flat piece of land with a river on one side and a mountain on the other.  As a private resort it is really the tropical escape that many people are looking for; but beyond the pool, spa, fitness center, restaurant, garden and first class lodging, is an environment meticulously created with green principles including renewable energy through a 225 kW wind turbine, really clean spring water that is sand filtered and treated with UV light, eco-friendly sewage disposal, organic produce, responsible seafood, locally sourced building materials and marine habitat protection. Rosalie Bay resort owners Beverly Deikel and Patris Oscar are true visionaries with green initiatives, excellent hospitality procedures, and generators of local employment.

Activities director, Judy Joyce took us on a resort and garden tour where we learned about all kinds of native plants, the production of bay oil with bay leaves, varieties of tropical fruit and nuts, herbal remedies and flowers.  She picked a flower and said, “Smell this flower. This is Elang Elang and they make Chanel No. 5 out of this stuff.  Here, smell this leaf!  What does that smell like to you?”  “It smells like Cinnamon.” I responded.  Enthusiastically she sounded: “Exactly!  Here now; take some in your pocket and when you get home tonight, boil it in some water to make your cinnamon tea.  You are going to love it.”  And you know what?  I did.  It really was delicious.

Back to the story.  Judy led us on a trek all the way up to the humongous wind turbine, which she said has the potential to generate enough energy for the resort and surrounding villages.  After returning to the valley, we had a delicious fish lunch and set out for the beach to look for turtles.  Judy introduced us to the president of Rosalie’s Nature Enhancement Team (NET), Simon George who spends a whole lot of his time on that beautiful black sand beach.

IMG_2676“Welcome to my humble maternity ward.” Simon announced.  “Three species of sea turtles come to nest here at Rosalie Bay: the Green Sea Turtle, the Hawksbill and the Leatherback.  The Green Turtle mothers which can weigh between 500 and 800 pounds, will most often crawl up high onto the beach to lay their eggs.  Hawksbills will climb up even higher into the vegetation above the beach.  But the leatherback mothers can weigh between 800 and a 1,000 pounds and it takes them around two and a half hours to leave the ocean, come ashore, select a spot, prepare it, dig the chamber, enter into a trance while laying their eggs, bury the eggs in the sand and camouflage the site. And, that is if everything goes right.”

Simon went on to explain that because of their size, it is more difficult for leatherbacks to come up far enough on the beach to lay their eggs in a safe location.  Often times the tide rises and the water table drowns the nests.  Sometimes the ocean erodes the sand, scattering the eggs all over the place and washing them into the water.  After the mother returns to the sea, the eggs are on their own without any protection.  Turtle eggs are vulnerable to poachers and young hatchlings are vulnerable to predators.  For this reason, the Nature Enhancement Team (NET) at Rosalie Bay has developed a plan to improve the chances of survival for the leatherback turtles.  Volunteers scan the beach everyday looking for mother turtles, hatchlings and nests.  Simon identifies new nests that are in poor locations, digs up the leatherback eggs and relocates them to the turtle hatchery. Each nest in the hatchery is placed in a grid system, 90cm apart from each other and organized by the the date when it was placed in the grid.  Knowing the time frame that it takes for turtles to hatch, they can expect turtles to start crawling out after about 60 to 70 days. Here in Dominica, they’ve noticed that it takes around 65 days.

When a leatherback turtle lays her eggs about 80 out of 100 will be fertile eggs.  She lays those eggs first, followed by yolkless eggs which create space and cushion for the fertilized eggs below them.  The yolkless eggs vary in size from golf ball to marble.  The turtles have an egg tooth which allows them to break through the eggs and follow each other up through the yolkless eggs and sand.  Those who lag behind do not have the advantage of several turtles pressing to the surface simultaneously.

When young turtles begin to leave the nest, Simon ensures that they are counted and protected from predators.  On the average, the leatherbacks lay around 100 eggs, but not all of the turtles make it out of the nests successfully.  Some never develop, some never mature and some turtles never dig their way out of the sand.  For that reason, Simon will dig out the remaining shells and contents from the nest.  He does this for three reasons.

  1. To rescue the remaining hatchlings that were straggling behind whether because they were weak, deformed, trapped or just having a hard time digging out.
  2. To collect data on the nests
  3. To get rid of all of the residue in the nests, so that they do not attract predators like dogs and frigate birds.

When it is time for the leatherback turtle nest to be excavated, members of the Nature Enhancement Team document the remaining contents in the nest and complete a “Dominica Sea Turtle Nest Excavation Form.”  This form requires time, date, name of principal observer, beach name, location, turtle species, tag numbers associated with the mother turtle and the nest, evidence of an existing nest (tracks, hatchlings, depression), hatch results and number of turtles released. Hatchling Release information must also include date, time, number to turtles, and number of guests witnessing the release.

The hatch results are differentiated by the following descriptions:  Live/dead hatchlings out of nest; live/dead hatchlings in the nest; hatched shells; rotten eggs; undeveloped but not rotten eggs; pipped (partially hatched) live/dead turtles; full-term live/dead embryo; early-term (premature) embryo; yolkless; deformed embryo (twins, albino, undeveloped flippers).

All the collected information is submitted to a database managed by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network out of Duke University (WideCast).  This is the parent body that gives guidance to Sea Turtle Conservation to 40 countries in the Caribbean.  There are seven species of sea turtles in the world and six of them frequent the Caribbean waters.  The Nature Enhancement Team is a member of the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSetCo).

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Leatherbacks come to Dominica between March and July and during that period each mother lays eggs around four or five times.  They do this in nine day intervals.  At the end of this time period, the leatherback turtles head north to Iceland, feeding on jellyfish along the way.  DomSetCo and the Nature Enhancement Team puts transmitters on some turtles so that they can monitor their travel routes.  They have watched mother turtles swim out thirty miles and then come back to the beach after nine days to lay more eggs.  The mother leatherbacks do not come back every year because they have to build up fat and calcium.  It takes between two and five years for them to return.  Adult male leatherbacks have no reason to come ashore and primarily stay out at sea.

This has been a great year for sea turtles at Rosalie with hatchlings being released almost every evening.  In the two days that I visited Rosalie Bay Resort, which were a couple of weeks apart, 34 turtles were released on the first day and 60 the next.  They do not place the turtles into the ocean but rather give them a stretch of beach to crawl so that the location of their birth and their journey to the sea will be imprinted upon their memory and then around 25 years later those who have survived will return.  One in a thousand will live to become adult sea turtles.

I watched a Simon stretched the entire length of his arm into a nest to remove the egg remains and rescue any trapped turtles.  He said with a smile, “Did you know that when young turtles are hatched it is unknown whether they are male or female.  Because turtles are reptiles, it is believed that the temperature of the sand can determine the gender of the turtles, hotter sand revealing more females and cooler sand revealing more males.  Look, here is a lively one!  Hopefully this one will return back to Dominica and we will learn if it was a male or female.”

We watched as these baby turtles took their journey to the sea.  It was a remarkable thing to see them take their first steps down the beach and their first flipper strokes into the ocean.  Even more remarkable to consider is that somehow these turtles will remember this experience.  I know that for me, I will never forget the turtles and the people of Rosalie Bay.  I keep thinking to myself that somehow I am now part of a greater story and that one day, 25 years from now, some of these same turtles will return and someone else will be looking out from this black sand beach, watching as giant sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach where they were born.  This is the stuff that produces the stories of legend and fantasy.  Come and experience Dominica for yourself.

 

NET grew out of the original “Rosalie Sea Turtle Initiative” (RoSTI), which was founded by Rosalie Bay resort owners Beverly Deikel and Patris Oscar.  Judy shared that several universities have come out to study the leatherback turtles at Rosalie Bay.  Students from the University of South Florida interested in studying or interning here can prepare by viewing Rosalie Bay’s website, Facebook page and reading their project reports and history online at http://seamap.env.duke.edu/seamap2.5/widecast/references/dm_105.pdf  Students can also coordinate with Beverly and Oscar or Jerry John Comellas to organize a trip.  Simon said that BBC TV was recently out at Rosalie Bay filming a documentary for children called “Our Ocean, Our Future.”

Rosalie Bay Resort was the first to launch a sea turtle conservation program in Dominica and their example has encouraged other turtle protection programs around the island.  In 2012, Travel+Leisure Magazine awarded Rosalie Bay with the “Global Vision Award for Conservation.”  The resort makes turtle conservation a part of the sustainable tourism experience for all of their guests and even provides wake up calls for those who want to be notified when turtles come ashore at night.   (Rosalie Bay, 2015)

 

Works Cited

Rosalie Bay. (2015). Sea turtle nesting and hatching at Rosalie Bay. (Website and marketing by Madigan Pratt & Associates.) Retrieved 2016, from RosalieBay.com: http://rosaliebay.com/activities/turtles.html

 

 

 

Down Time in Dominica

There are a routine number of activities that are common among the locals on the weekends: Saturdays involve time in the garden, going to the market and washing clothes; Sundays are about going to church, eating a big lunch and taking a long nap.  And when time allows, you fill find them hiking forest trails, swimming in the river or relaxing on the beach.

For me personally, I just spent a whole week lining up appointments, creating surveys, making phone calls, sending emails, popping in to government office buildings, connecting with tourism organizations and networking with people on the island for the development of my capstone internship project.  So to get a little down time over the weekend has been a real joy.  On Saturday I participated in an amazing ecotourism adventure called Hike Fest, which I will write about in another blog.  So let me tell you what I did today.

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Today is Sunday.  After attending a local church service filled with island style music, dancing, special artistic presentations by the youth and some powerful preaching, I decided to hike into the jungle forest to try and find that cocoa fruit that I had promised to show you guys.  As I made my way to the trail head I could smell the lemon grass that had recently been cut and all the evidence of a tropical island was around me.  The Caribbean Sea was shimmering in the distance. Village streets were lined with trees adorned by mangos, bananas, kokoi-plantains, limes, soursop, breadfruit and pawpaws (papayas).  I passed three kinds of nut trees too – coconut, almonds and cashews. (I try to avoid the cashew tree even though it has a tasty plum;  I’ve learned the hard way that tampering too much with a raw cashew nut can cause a severe allergic reaction.) Moving on.

As I entered the trail I was greeted by five baby goats that were leaping on and off of a large stone – cute and curious.  The trail meandered along a river which created the soundtrack for my afternoon trek.  I found several guava trees along the trail but the fruit was still green; so I helped myself to some of the young red leaves to make into a delicious tea later on.  I located some cocoa (cacao) trees but most of the fruit that remained had already dried up.  Finally I found a ripe one, but it was so high up I couldn’t get to it.  I started to climb the tree, but I had to step on a termite mound… so I changed my mind.  I threw a couple of rocks at the cocoa even making a direct hit but that thing was not coming down.

I decided to walk further up the mountain trail toward one of the Waitikubuli entry points (the Waitikubuli is the longest hiking trail in the Caribbean).  This segment of the trail has a primitive but adventurous swinging bridge like a scene right out of a movie.  Passion Flowers, Flamboyant Trees and wild Caribbean Orchids gave color to the green landscape.  Bananaquit birds were chirping loudly all around me, Green Throated Carib Hummingbirds buzzed by quickly then darted into the trees and two Jaco Parrots squawked overhead. At last I found more chocolate trees and one of them was ripe and in reach.  Hooray!

The walk back home was just as nice and natural as the walk up the trail and it concluded with a not as natural dip in the swimming pool, but hey, I’m not complaining.  Come discover Dominica for yourself.

Cocoa (Cacao) Fruit

One Lump or Two?

Saturday morning in Dominica is when most people head to the open market to purchase their organic produce for the week.  My favorite stop is for the coconut water, affectionately called Jelly Water in Dominica, because after you drink the water, they will split the young coconut for you so that you can eat the coconut jelly inside.  The coconut has so many uses as food, drink, oil, lotions, crafts and other uses.  Here’s a picture of my good friend Eddie and I enjoying some jelly water at Saturday market.

Coconut Water in the Market

Another favorite is the homemade cocoa that is made from the cacao fruit that is grown in gardens and even wild throughout the island.  There is a delicious white pulp around the cocoa beans that tastes sooooooo delicious, I wish I could make a juice out of it.  After the beans have been dried, roasted, peeled, pulverized into a paste and formed into sticks, they can be boiled in coconut milk and spices to make cocoa tea (a version of hot chocolate).  Once while making the tea, I didn’t have coconut milk and so I used hot water which made it kind of thin, but someone had told me that a little flour could thicken it up.  I had no idea what I was doing and I ended up with lumps of flour floating in my hot chocolate.  I would have preferred marshmallows or even lumps of sugar over lumps of flour.  That story traveled fast and to this day the locals all laugh at me for making cocoa dumpling tea.

In another blog post I will have to show you the fruit that surrounds each cocoa bean – so delicious.  But for today feast your eyes on a cocoa stick used for making hot chocolate or as they say here, “Cocoa Tea.”

Video – Cocoa Tea in Dominica with Jerry John Comellas

The Other Dominicans

Tomorrow I begin my internship on the Nature Island of the Caribbean.  When I tell people that I will be working on the island of Dominica (Dom-min-EEKA), their responses are clear that they have never heard of the island nation. “Do you have to learn Spanish to go there? That’s the country that shares an island with Haiti, right? How come you pronounce it Dom-min-EEKA… isn’t it supposed to be Duh-min-ni-kah? Ohh, I have a friend that is from the Dominican Republic!”

After a quick geography lesson, I explain to them that the Commonwealth of Dominica is a Windward Isle located in the Lesser Antilles and they are closer to the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe than they are to any Spanish speaking islands. The people of Dominica speak English and a version of French Creole called Patois. Dominica does not share an island with Haiti, Great Britain, France and not even the United States for that matter.

Truly, these “other Dominicans” do not like it so much that people have no idea that they exist. Cristopher Columbus sailed there too; and he encountered a tribe of Island Caribs, the Kalinagos, when he landed there. Slaves were brought to that island too and provided the work force for both French and British occupation. Dominica is the true quintessential volcanic, tropical paradise. The island has the second largest boiling lake in the world, the longest hiking trail in the Caribbean (the Waitikubuli) and beautiful coral reefs that are on the path of whale migration. Tropical fruit trees and coconuts are there in abundance. Green forests define the landscape along with magnificent waterfalls and a “river for every day of the year.” The only living species of Sisserou Parrots live in Dominica. The country has its own government, departments of government, education system, healthcare, seaport, airport, tourism and even an American Medical School.

The point that people are unfamiliar with the island nation reveals the reality that Dominica has not received the development attention and investment that many of the other Caribbean Islands have received. Some might say this is both a blessing and a curse; others might say that it is both a problem and an opportunity. However one defines it, due to the lack of attention their economy is fragile and employment outside of subsistence farming or fishing is limited. Some innovative community leaders have done well and have created jobs for others. Ross Medical School also provides some jobs. Carnival Cruise Lines now comes into port there. Expatriates from Europe and the United States have also sought opportunity in Dominica. Eco-resorts, health tourism, and organic island living are becoming popular buzz words associated with the island.

In summary, because the natural beauty of the island has been preserved and because sustainability and ecotourism are now more frequently associated with travel destinations, and because the island has so much biodiversity, forests, mountains, fresh water and geothermal activity – the opportunity is there to help create a sustainable island that serves as a model to the world of successful green and blue economies that generate employment for its people. With some creativity, we can turn current problems into opportunities for university student research, social-entrepreneurship, poverty reduction, ecotourism, pesca-tourism, agri-tourism, renewable energy generation, all of which contribute to the goals in the country’s “Organic Island Initiative.”  Follow me on my journey as I unveil some of the sustainability practices already on the island and identify innovative ways for moving forward in their Green and Blue Economies.

Sustainability and the Nature Isle – by Jerry John Comellas

WE GOT THE HOUSE

IMG_20151210_101323976Ok followers… Sorry there is no pic today, but one will follow soon.  So the main obstacle to my summer camp becoming a reality was getting the City of Tampa to gift us the second house on the property.  This is the house that I wanted to use for my summer camp… Well… We got it.  Now comes the waiting game.  We have to wait for them to survey the property and see what needs to be fixed.  It is still exciting that something I asked about in passing became a reality.  This is exciting.

camp

So that big hurdle is down and on to the next hurdles aka grants.  We have already applied for several grants.  I applied for one for just my research.  Unfortunately, the DOE did not find my research to be fascinating enough apparently.  This is going to be a very short post because I have way too much school work to do and not nearly enough time to do it.

The birth of a summer camp program

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Every story has to start somewhere….and mine starts here.  Being a professional with a career, I decided to take the leap and go back to school.  Because of this, I had to stay local for my internship.  I was already interning at Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful when they asked me if I would stay with them and create a series of eco-learning kayak tours to highlight their new Trash Free Waters initiative.  I figured this would be a great fit and be nice because I already knew everyone and it was close to my home.

So here I am… This picture is me standing down by the Hillsborough River trying to figure out what the heck I wanted to do.  They were nice enough to give me almost complete freedom to create what I felt would work best.  Freedom is great, until you have brain drain.  So suffice it to say, I stood down by the river for a while and just enjoyed nature.  Nothing is more relaxing than standing and watching time pass by with nowhere to be.

After enjoying the scenery for a while, it finally hit me what I wanted to do.  I wanted to create three tours that each highlighted a different feature and area of the river as well as each tour having a different approach to the citizen scientist model.  When I was about to walk back to our office, I noticed there was an abandoned house on our property.  It struck me as odd for it to just sit there with no purpose.  So I walked back into our office and went to see my supervisor.  I asked her what the deal with the house was.  I was told the City of Tampa owned it.

Here is that moment… The moment you open your mouth and can never turn back.  So I said “that is such a waste of a house, we could do a really cool summer camp out of that house, is there a way to get that house”.  So we can easily say that I spoke my mind before thinking.  The conversation came to a screeching halt.  My supervisor had that light bulb look in her eyes.  “That would be awesome, would you be willing and able to create one based on water conservation and trash reduction” she asked.  Me being me, I said of course… So here we stand down by the river again…..

 

WE GOT THE HOUSE

on MARCH 20, 2016

Ok followers… Sorry there is no pic today, but one will follow soon.  So the main obstacle to my summer camp becoming a reality was getting the City of Tampa to gift us the second house on the property.  This is the house that I wanted to use for my summer camp… Well… We got it.  Now comes the waiting game.  We have to wait for them to survey the property and see what needs to be fixed.  It is still exciting that something I asked about in passing became a reality.  This is exciting.

So that big hurdle is down and on to the next hurdles aka grants.  We have already applied for several grants.  I applied for one for just my research.  Unfortunately, the DOE did not find my research to be fascinating enough apparently.  This is going to be a very short post because I have way too much school work to do and not nearly enough time to do it.