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My Summer by the Sea

            This year I decided to use my last summer at NC State to travel abroad. I always heard stories of the amazing trips students could take, but never looked into myself. So for my last chance, I signed up for a Conservation Biology Study Abroad on Andros Island in the Bahamas. It was a short two week trip in June that completely changed my entire world view. That trip created a passion in me for traveling that I did not know existed. I am grateful I was able to travel with such an amazing school and see places and meet people I would have never experienced not taking this opportunity.

            My trip was split into two groups. A human dimensions group and a wildlife group. Being a senior in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology with a minor in Forest Management, you can guess which group I chose. Our project was going to be centered on a small fish no bigger than a minnow. The fish of interest was called Mosquitofish, Gambusia hubbsi found within and around the island. The populations of these fish that we focused on was found in blueholes scattered on the island. A bluehole is a vertical cave that filled with water about 15,000 years ago when sea levels were fluctuating. Blueholes consist of a layer of fresh water on top a later of saltwater. Since then, these mosquitofish have been isolated from their ancestral predator, the Atlantic Needlefish. Some blueholes however have another predator living with the mosquitofish known as bigmouth sleepers. So the wildlife project was centered on this interconnected relationship between these three fish particularly the mosquitofish’ antipredator behaviors. Our project was looking to test that if mosquitofish without any predators in the blueholes were retaining their antipredator behaviors or had lost them through centuries of no predators and high cost of maintaining such a trait. Or if the mosquitofish with the new piscine predator, the bigmouth sleeper, had retained their antipredator behaviors just in a more generalized form. These questions were the focus of our project.

            This being my first trip out of the country made for a scary adventure ahead of me. I made it to Miami where I met the rest of the class and all nine loaded onto a plane that looked no bigger than a model airplane and sounded like a lawn mower. We landed in Andros at this building that at the time I thought was the smallest airport I had ever seen only to find out later that it was in fact the biggest building on the island. The main highway running north to south on the island was a dirt road riddled with potholes. The air was muggy and hot and air conditioning was nonexistent, I was beginning to question my decisions. Arriving at Forfar, the research station I would be staying at for two weeks was right on the ocean front. It was a scene from a postcard.

            The cabins however were of a different scene, They were old, smelly, filled with bugs, we had to sleep under mosquito nets at night, our legs were eaten alive by sand flees, and we even had a crab living behind our bathroom sink for a few days. On top of all that there was no cold water, you had to take a sailor’s shower that consisted of turning the water off to scrub and only turning it on to rinse, and we only had one box fan to spread over five bunk beds of girls. The island also had a tree species known as poisonwood. It was the island’s dominant tree species, its bark, leaves, roots, and fruit were coated with a substance that if touched had similar effects of poison ivy back in the states. I had patches of it all over my body by the time I left, not to mention that sunburn that was inevitable no matter how much sunscreen you applied. All in all, it was AMAZING. Through all the struggles, I could not be happier to be in another country experiencing a culture I had never been exposed to before. I was taking in every moment I could.

            We went snorkeling in the ocean, at ship wrecks, in tidal creeks, blueholes, and even at night. I fell in love with the people and the land. We visited locals a few days, went hiking to bluffs and caves, jumped off cliffs, and even went to a crab festival. I saw reef sharks, held a sea hare, which is like a giant underwater slug, pet a porcupine fish, and even held a reef squid. I saw so many amazing marine life and corals. I even swam with some wild dolphins one morning and collected many different conch shells It was a wildlifer’s dream come true. The project was very demanding and exhausting, but I loved every minute of it. The island was a never ending source of adventure waiting to be explored and the science we were learning was only growing my interest in the island more and more. If the plane had never came back for us, I think I would have been okay with that.

            Before I knew it my trip was winding down to the last few days and I was dreading that last day. My time on Andros Island opened my eyes to the privileges I had in American that were taken for granted constantly. These people were not rich, did not live in fancy homes, or even drive cars, but they made the best of their lives by living off the land and living as a community. I fell in love with the island and the people, making it a second home to me.

            Returning to the United States was more difficult than I thought it would be. I was happy I was going to see my family and boyfriend, but I was leaving a place I had made my home. I remember when we unloaded from the little toy airplane in Miami that had taken us to Andros the first time and we walked into the airport, my first reaction was “oh my goodness, it is so cold in here, what is that?” It was the air conditioning. Something I thought I could not live without when first arriving was now something that seemed like such a luxury, making me miss my salty warm home I had just left. I fell in love with Andros and its people. My only regret I have now leaving state in a few months is not taking more trips to even more amazing places.