Sixth form/ High School
Dominica – School Expeditions
Structure of the expedition
This expedition is run in one of the most unspoiled islands in the Caribbean. Forests cover much of the island and there are many deep unsurveyed gorges. Steep forested cliffs rise straight out of the sea and sheer slopes leading into deep canyons with huge waterfalls have made use of mechanical forest clearance methods impossible in Dominica and thereby protected the forests. 20% of the island is now protected as national parks or forest reserves and the island has the largest stands of primary forest of all the Caribbean islands.
The students spend their first week in one of two forest camps located in the centre and east of the island and will be on site with an international team of academics who are collecting data on biodiversity of key taxa (birds, bats, various aquatic and terrestrial invertebrate groups) and examining the impact of invasive species (e.g. a Puerto Rican anole that has invaded the island and spread rapidly). The second week will be staying in student accommodation in a renovated British fort in the north of the island. The students will be completing a PADI Open Water dive training course or a Caribbean reef ecology course which consists of two lectures and two in-water activities each day. In addition they will learn about the whale research taking place just off the coast, as well as possibly seeing Sperm Whales and other marine mammals.
The first day will be spent on lectures and orientation. The first part of the Caribbean Island ecology course will also be run on this first day and will cover topics such as the importance of the Caribbean biodiversity hotspot, the formation of the Lesser Antilles and biodiversity of Dominica and survey techniques being used on the various projects during the week. The group will then divide into teams and complete the activities below:
- Volcanology or Canyoning day: During this day the students will attend a lecture at the research camp given by an experienced volcanologist currently living in Dominica. The students will learn more about the volcanic origin of Dominica and the Lesser Antilles and how it influences everything about Dominica’s biodiversity and culture to this day. A particular focus will also be given to geothermal energy production, which is currently a ‘hot’ topic on Dominica. Geothermal energy production is typically considered a ‘green’ alternative to burning fossil fuels and would provide cheap, clean energy for the island. However, there are many conservation concerns associated with geothermal energy production which are often overlooked and call into question the environmental impact of geothermal energy for Dominica. The groups will then be taken to visit a number of volcanic sites where they can see Dominica’s geothermal energy first hand, where sulphurous gases bubble up, heating the water in pools and streams.
- Alternatively, students will have the opportunity to complete a half day canyoning course and rappel (abseil) down into the deep gorges that cover much of the island. This course is an optional extra and is run by Extreme Dominica for a discounted price of US$120 per person. It is an amazing opportunity to see some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the island and do something really adventurous.
- Bird survey team: Students will spend one full morning joining the ornithology team to record and monitor bird diversity around the research camp as well as on sections of the newly created Waitukubuli National Trail, which covers 115 miles, spanning and twisting the length of Dominica. During the morning, the team will conduct mist net surveys for birds. These data will be used to create a species inventory and record local abundance for those sections of the trail. Data will also be collected opportunistically on other taxa along the way.
- Herpetofauna team: One day will be spent with the herpetofauna team. The main focus of this team is to investigate the current distribution and competitive interactions between the endemic Dominican Anole (Anolis oculatus) and the invasive Puerto Rican Anole (Anolis cristatellus).The endemic Dominican Anole has been pushed back by the Puerto Rican anole that was recently introduced to the island, probably in cargo delivered to Roseau, and has then spread rapidly across the island and become invasive. The team will be helping to monitor the spread of this invasive species but, most importantly, will also be investigating to what extent they are competing for the same habitats and thermal environments. Students will spend half a day in the field and half a day testing physiological responses of these lizards in the laboratory. Opportunistic records will also be made of all other reptile and amphibian species encountered during the field surveys.
- Freshwater ecology team: The freshwater ecosystems of Dominica are of such importance, not only for their role in sustaining biodiversity, but because of the reliance of the Dominican people on them as their only source of clean drinking water. However, as the island develops there is increased risk of contamination and degradation of these freshwater environments. By developing a freshwater biotic index for the island it is possible to have a standard against which to monitor freshwater ecosystem health and will allow long-term monitoring of the rivers and streams around the island by Operation Wallacea. All sites visited will be characterized for species diversity, abundance, water flow rate and light intensity. The team are also concerned about reports of an invasive crayfish (Procambarus clarki) having been introduced to the island, so it will be a key goal to assess current distribution and impact of this species if it has in fact been introduced and been able to establish itself in Dominica’s rivers and streams. Students joining this team will spend half a day away from the research camp surveying a stretch of river and in the laboratory identifying the species obtained.
- Invertebrate team: There is still incomplete knowledge of the diversity of a number of the invertebrate taxa and there will be an invited specialist invertebrate taxonomist each season working on completing collections of specimens from across the island. Initial taxa to target will be beetles, arachnids and invertebrate pollinators. Typically, the team will spend half a day working within the research camp grounds or off site at remote field sites and then half a day in the laboratory at the research centre sorting and identifying the specimens collected.
- Bat team: During their stay, each group will have the opportunity to join the bat research team to help survey the diversity and abundance of bats around the research centre grounds. Bats can be important seed dispersers, so monitoring their populations is very important.
- Marine invertebrates: Currently the ambient pH of the sea is 8.1-8.2, but with ocean acidification it is predicted to drop to 7.7 in the next 100 years. Champagne reef in the south of Dominica provides a unique opportunity to look into the future and predict how marine species will survive at a lower pH. Champagne reef is named as such because there are CO2 bubbles coming out of vents in the sea. The CO2 bubbles have lowered the pH thus this site can be used as a natural experiment, one of only four sites like this in the world. Students will snorkel during this survey and complete a number of water sample transects, measure the pH, and collect intertidal invertebrates to look at adaptations to the lower pH. Please note this survey is subject to research permit approval.
On the Sunday groups will travel to Roseau, the capital of Dominica, where they will join a sea mammal search on a small catamaran. Here they will learn about some of the sea mammal research taking place around Dominica, and hopefully locate a sperm whale pod using hydrophones. The sea mammal search will end in Portsmouth in the north of Dominica where groups will make the short transfer to Fort Shirley in the Cabrits National Park. The fort grounds have stunning views out over the island. During their second week students will be completing one of the following:
- PADI Open Water dive training course: This course involves a combination of theory lessons, confined water dives, and open water dives to gain an official SCUBA qualification.
- Caribbean reef ecology course: This consists of lectures and in water practicals either by diving (if a qualified diver) or snorkelling. The lectures cover an introduction to coral reef ecosystems, coral and algal species (growth forms and common species), mangrove and seagrass ecology , tourism development impacts on Caribbean mangroves and reefs ecologically important invertebrates (lobster fishery, conch fishery), identification of coral reef fish (main reef fish families), reef survey techniques (quadrats, transects, stereo video), threats to reefs (climate change, fisheries, invasive species) and marine conservation strategies in the Caribbean.
Accommodation in the forest camp is in tents or shared single sex dormitories. There are flush and dry toilets, showers, lecture facilities and meals are taken in the communal dining areas. Accommodation at Fort Shirley is also in single sex dormitory rooms, in a renovated barracks building overlooking the bay. All meals, lectures and diving/snorkelling will be run from the fort.