Cayos Cochinos sits a dozen miles off the coast of Honduras, a speck on the map. There are five or six homes, and one hotel.
There are ceiling fans, and screens on the windows; no air conditioning, but there is hot water, most of the time, at least. In the words of one frequent visitor: “There’s nothing there to do except be in the water.”
But that water has driven what has become a unique program for New College. In 2010, National Geographic described it thusly: “The waters around this collection of coral cays are a marine biologist’s dream: protected by the government, off-limits to commercial divers and fishermen, and busy with creatures that may not yet have names.”
Simply put, it’s heaven.
Last summer was the 30th year that New College students have gone to Honduras. This year marks a first for the program: Until now, a handful of students have gone at a time, doing research for a thesis or a future ISP. This year it’s a full-fledged summer course, drawing a half-dozen Novo Collegians, plus five students from other schools.
The constant is Sandra Gilchrist, professor of biology. She first scouted the marine reserve back in 1983. While much has changed since then, one aspect never does.
“Each time I go, I find something new and interesting in this dynamic system,” Gilchrist said. “I find it fascinating to see students discover their own interests simply by being in the environment.”
New College’s Honduras program began with a cold call from an enterprising and good-hearted hotelier.
Julio Galindo owned the Anthony Key Resort on Roatan, a large island about 25 miles from the coast. He saw “dolphin encounter” tour groups, and that got him thinking. “His idea was to contribute to Roatan by enticing scientists to come there and study,” Gilchrist said.
So he created the Roatan Institute of Marine Science (RIMS), in a building that most recently had been a casino.
But there were at least some basic lab facilities, and accommodations, and still-pristine reefs offshore. So Gilchrist got a grant from the New College Foundation, and she and biology Profs. Al Beulig and Leo Demski headed south.
Prof. Beulig split off and partnered with another program in Belize but Gilchrist and Demski stayed in Honduras. She began her ongoing work with hermit crabs, and he studied squirrelfish – reddish in color, and known for their huge eyes – that normally are deep- water fish but were attracted to Roatan’s reefs.
Their work, in a way, outlived the reefs. Galindo retired, and his son was more business-minded, bringing in more high-school groups that wanted to use the RIMS labs. A new port on Roatan brought in cruise ships and massive dive boats, sometimes putting 100 divers on the reef at a time, stressing the delicate corals and potentially disrupting the ecosystem.
Nature itself would deal a bigger blow. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras. It hovered on the coast for days, submerging the smaller islands and scouring the reefs. “It just sandblasted them,” Gilchrist said, “and badly damaged one of their research sites.”
The New College professors faced a difficult decision, whether to stay where they had invested nearly two decades of work, or to accept that this onetime paradise was no longer the same.
Looking for solutions, Gilchrist visited Cayos Cochinos – a small island a dozen or so miles off the coast of Honduras. “I fell in love with it, because it has so much invertebrate life, and the reef is right there off the shore,” she said.
And so the Honduras Coral Reef program began again.
Now, every June, the one hotel on Cayos Cochinos briefly becomes New College’s southernmost campus. Students haul in cameras and lab gear, and they also bring along school supplies, something the island’s children have come to depend on.
Students’ projects have included the symbiotic relationship between certain fish and corals, and the predatory behaviors of the mantis shrimp.
Gilchrist continued her two long-running projects, on how hermit crabs acquire their shells, and on how increased warming influences coral disease distribution.
Hermit crabs fascinate Gilchrist – for example, their détente with octopus, living near the predators’ dens to acquire scraps of food and cast-off shells. Their work determined that hermits probably use scent, as well as sight, to find the shells.
How do we know? That’s why Gilchrist ships hundreds of pounds of shells to Cayos Cochinos.
She and students will place the clean, dry shells – identical to shells from the reef — in the hermits’ environment, and see what the crabs choose. They pick thenatural shells twice as often, she said.
She also has examined how long hermit crabs on land will keep a particular shell – four years is the longest they’ve found, she said.
Shipping shells to a tiny island has its drawbacks, though. Three years ago, for the first time,
Honduran officials seized the shells, saying she needed a biological items permit. The ensuing hassle truncated her project for three years. But there were plenty of other projects to keep her and her students busy.
She and her students also have looked at various aspects of coral disease, and why it affects one colony while a neighboring colony stays healthy. They eliminated ocean currents as a disease vector, and now are focusing on a particular fish as a carrier of the disease.
Some of her students have continued that work, one of the best aspects of the program, Gilchrist said: “The shared interest in ecology and coral reefs allows students to form lasting scholarly connections with each other and with their faculty mentor.”
Like 2008 graduate David Anderson, for example. He came to New College in 2005 already planning on a career studying coral reef biology, and he made the most of his time here: he went to Honduras four separate times.
“It’s amazingly beautiful. It’s pristine,” he said. “Dr. Gilchrist sits with you and has breakfast and asks what you’re going to do.”
For Anderson, it was spend three to four hours a day in the water, with clipboard, underwater paper, pencil and measuring tape, finding creative ways to accomplish his research objectives.
In his first visit, he observed how some corals were diseased, while others were not, or did not yet show symptoms. That led to his thesis project, examining whether diseased corals shared a genetic marker. In subsequent visits, he gathered samples, conducted his own genetic sequencing in New College’s labs, and wrote a paper with Gilchrist on his findings.
Anderson went on to a doctoral program in Puerto Rico, where he conducted World Bank-funded coral surveys across the Caribbean. He is now a National Science Foundation fellow pursuing a doctorate in immunology at Washington University.
Other colleges have similar programs, Anderson said, but the undergraduates usually are just contributing to a professor or graduate student’s project. In New College’s Honduras program, students develop and pursue their own ideas.
“I think it fits in perfectly with the New College vision, what it promotes in all of its students, to be a creative thinker and an independent thinker,” he said. “My experience there was formative. I would not be the person I am today without it.”
Asked for a particular moment that has stayed with him, Anderson demurred; the whole experience is almost overwhelming.
But he immediately thought of the mornings when he went out at 4 a.m. to snorkel on the reef. “The
feeling of calm on the reef in the daylight … is completely the opposite of the feeling at night,” he said. “It’s spooky, and fun, and a different population comes out, with predatory fish and octopus on the prowl.”
And one morning he emerged from the water and was confronted by armed Honduran park rangers, who saw his flashlight and figured him for a poacher. “Luckily,” Anderson said, “I had studied Spanish at New College, too.”