My week with the conservation charity on the beaches of the Cayos Cochinos soon fell into a routine of getting up early and snorkeling twice a day through the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second biggest reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef.
Over the few days, I spotted rays, squid, a spotted eel, a lobster and lots of impressive coral formations. There were also lots of fish in varying colours and sizes, including the big nassau grouper fish with its huge lips and the stone-like scorpion fish. I think the thing we saw the most however were the jellyfish. There were masses of them but they were tiny and seemingly harmless. Often there were too many to swim around so you would just have to go through and brush them off you.
In between snorkels, we were given classes on reef ecology. We learnt about things that we may be lucky enough to see, including dangerous creatures, algae, invertebrates and coral. We also had talks on the islands and the organisation itself as well as on survey methods, some of which hopefully would come in handy during our week.
Apart from getting to see lots of sea life, the food menu could also be a highlight of the day. The meatballs were amazing and I ran up those 107 stairs no problem at all when it was spaghetti bolognese. Waking up to scotch pancakes, fruit and syrup was also delightful. The tortilla wraps and refried beans however were less exciting. Between meals, there would often be someone on the island selling bits and pieces so we would often stock up on breads to snack on- I think it was coconut bread but it’s hard to remember.
Camping on the beach was amazing. Being in the midst of small islands with few people meant that there was little light when the sun went down, so the blanket of stars could glitter away unobscured. At night, we would wander to the end of the pier and watch dozens of rays stream past in the water. That’s not something you see everyday.
Having said that, the crabs were more problematic. When the sun disappeared, you couldn’t walk anywhere without fearing that one would end up under your foot. They would also burrow their way under our tents as we were sleeping. It was rather disconcerting to wake up and see their shapes scuttle across the floor- rather like scarab beetles in The Mummy. We also found a dead, miniature tarantula by the washing facilities.
The sun was also causing problems. The weather was amazing. Yes, there had been rain but, for the most part, the sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue. Lying on the beach in the shade with a light breeze passing over you was perfect but I ended up with some bad sunburn. When I went out for my first snorkel, I burned my back immediately and had to spend the rest of the week wearing a top that is meant to go underneath a wetsuit. It retained water well so constantly provided comfort for my sore back. My legs didn’t fare much better. The backs were red from sunbathing, the tops were almost purple from catching rays whilst I was sitting in the boat everyday but my calves were only slightly pink. I was quite a multi-coloured sight.
The showers provided a relief from the heat. Due to our location, we didn’t have running water so instead a barrel of water would be left out in the sun and we’d use a bowl to scoop it over ourselves. It may not sound like much but, after baking in the sun, it was the perfect refreshment.
During our last snorkel, we were finally sent to do a survey and collect information on algae but sadly it turned out that we weren’t able to do a lot. Over the week, it hadn’t felt too much like we were helpful volunteers but we had undeniably seen and learned a lot.
On our last night, we went to another island for a BBQ with the locals. The place was tiny and you could walk around it in no time at all. The sea was particularly bumpy, so the journey there and back was interesting and those not lucky enough to make it onto the big boat got a bit of a soaking.
Before we knew it, it was the morning and it was time to leave for the forests and the second part of our trip.