Island School provides eye-opening environmental experience

Sixteen Trinity College School students and two chaperones – Mr. Justin Murphy and Ms. Laura Baragar – spent a week in paradise, learning about marine ecosystems and participating in environmental activities in partnership with the Island School in Eleuthera, Bahamas. During the day, the students were involved in experiential learning while in the evening they listened to educational presentations and reflected in their journals.

On Saturday, November 30th, the group set out in winter darkness at 4:10 a.m., and finished the day on a sunset beach framed by palm trees. In Nassau, we were greeted by 24̊C weather and clear blue sky. Although the layover was long, we were able to pass the time by stepping out for a breakfast sandwich at a local chip truck and playing cards. The “puddle jump” to Rock Sound airport was a highlight as our group piled into the small plane and enjoyed 25 minutes of the spectacular views of the tiny sand islands and sandbars that make up the Exumas. After a brief introduction to the Island School campus, we had dinner and helped clean up after as part of the legendary “Dish Crew.” The Island School prides itself in being an intentional community where the structure of the day reflects its core values. Having everyone on campus, including guests and the headmaster, participate in daily chores reinforces the message that we are all responsible for contributing toward a positive and sustainable community.

The first full day on the island was packed, beginning with a scavenger hunt-style tour of the campus. We learned about buildings that are insulated with discarded denim and toilets that refill using the grey water from washing your hands. We also toured the wet-lab that farms fish for the campus kitchen and spawns other species that are released into the ocean to help declining populations. In the afternoon, we had a presentation about the importance of coral, the factors that threaten its population, and how the Island School researchers are working to restore the health of local reefs. The day finished with snorkeling at Cathedral Rock to see a thriving reef up close.

Monday morning, students were up early to watch the sun rise, snorkel and learn about the chemical formation of the famously exfoliating ooid sand that is unique to the Bahamas. The rest of the day was spent out on the boats anchored near a mangrove. In groups of four, the students went in a small boat to spot and then track green sea turtles. The students were directed on how to safely catch a turtle and bring it to the larger boats for the researchers to study and then release. Every student got the chance to catch and/or carry a green sea turtle!

Tuesday started with the iconic Island School Run-Swim. At sunrise, we jumped off the boathouse dock for a series of runs, swims and team building challenges, each stage lasting for about a minute. After a hearty breakfast, we helped plant avocado, mango and papaya trees as well as fill raised garden beds so that the campus can be less reliant on imported foods. The students then went to the Island School recycling centre for an audit of their impressively detailed eight-stream sorting system. The Bahamas is implementing a law banning single use plastics, and the recycling audit is one of many that will track the amount and types of plastic being used on the islands. Comparing results before and after the law is implemented will provide information on how policy can affect the volume of plastic waste and pollution that society creates. To finish the day, the students participated in a lionfish dissection as part of a presentation on invasive species.

We began our fourth full day with “Water Polo Wednesday,” playing a lively game in the ocean within our group. Then, after breakfast, we loaded up and went to Deep Creek Middle School to meet the Grade 8 class and help them line their nature path with colourful stones that we had painted. The nature path is meant to re-connect the younger students to their local plant life. In the afternoon, we picked up litter at local tourist attractions. We saw caves that were carved out by underwater rivers, a Banyan tree that was 300 years old, and a swimming hole that is connected to the ocean through an underground tunnel that is several kilometres long. Although each one was beautiful to see, the amount of trash was eye opening.

A highlight of the trip took place on Thursday as it was another exciting day out on the boats. We went offshore into the extremely deep Exuma Sound where researchers have set up a Fish Aggregation Device (FAD) 10 metres below the surface and over 1,000 metres above the bottom. These devices are used by fisheries to attract schools of fish which are then netted into a processing ship. The FAD allows researchers to collect video data on the types of threatened species that live in these areas, along with common baitfish that are harvested for food. We also set a “long line” with 72 different hooks at varying depths with the goal of catching and tagging a shark to track the effectiveness of the Bahamian Shark Sanctuary. We managed to hook a tiger shark, which is very rare. Unfortunately, the shark broke free before the data collection process could begin. Initial estimates were that the shark was 3 metres long but that value continues to grow as the incident gets retold!

The last full day began with a run or cycle to High Rock at sunrise. Once there, we were prompted to reflect on our experiences and think of individual changes that we want to implement when we’re home as well as any challenges we will likely face. Once prepared, we jumped into the water to symbolize our leap forward toward positive change. In the afternoon, we learned about the effects of microplastics and did a beach clean-up to see the oceanic plastic problem firsthand. We also spent some final moments in the ocean snorkeling, helping to spot invasive lionfish so that the Island School staff could remove them in order to maintain the biodiversity of the reef. Finally, we learned about the effect of tourism and how, if done properly, it can really benefit the local economy. This message was capped off with dinner at a local restaurant where we were served freshly prepared lionfish.

The following adventurous spirits comprised the 2019 Island School group: Abi Aicardi, Kai Blackstock, Abby Brewer, Leah Chesney, Ryan Cummings, Chloe Desjardins, Grant Frost, Libby Howatt, Yena Lee, Charisse Lee, Gracie Menzies, Charlotte Neal, Josh Paddock, Allie Riihiluoma, Anthony Viscardis and Charlie Wadds.

- By Justin Murphy and Laura Baragar, faculty chaperones