At the beginning of July a team from the RGS, Guildford CCF set out on an expedition to the Caribbean Island of Montserrat. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory that hit the headline news in 1995 due to the reawakening of its volcano leading to a mass-evacuation of the islanders and a subsequent eruption in 1997 that partially destroyed the capital of Plymouth. The location is an excellent place to take an expedition as it has warm oceans to scuba dive in, rainforests to explore, and the unique volcanic history, and all on an island that has seen very little change in the last 20 years so is not developed like other Caribbean Islands and is off the normal tourist trail.
The team arrived on Montserrat having flown from Antigua in small 9-seater planes that gave everyone an amazing view of the island and the areas devastated by the eruption. Land Rover transport was then used to get to the field base for the expedition that was located in Old Towne, on the edge of the current volcano exclusion zone. The field base was run by the cadets completing duties, preparing meals, and maintaining the upkeep of the site. The team’s basic admin and catering skills were extended to a new level for most.
The group visited the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and were briefed by one of the research scientists on the techniques used to monitor the active Soufriere Hills Volcano. A tour of the facility followed before a Q and A session. Not only was this interesting from a scientific point of view, but the opportunity to speak to several locals who lived through the eruption and were subject to the mass evacuation was fascinating.
One of the main foci of the expedition was scuba diving. All the cadets had completed their PADI Open Water certification before departure, with the goal of passing their PADI Advanced Qualification in Montserrat, as well as diving on the islands newly developing reefs. The cadets successfully passed the dives required to qualify including Deep, Navigation, Boat, Fish ID and Underwater Naturalist. The 28oC clear waters, teeming with aquatic species was a revelation to many of the cadets who had only dived in UK quarries before. Turtles, squid and rays were the highlight. The boys were trained and guided by a team from the charity Coral Cay, who have been tasked to survey the development of the reefs since the volcanic eruption. This survey experience added an additional dimension to the team’s sub-aqua skills.
The cadets also carried out some basic land-based surveys of herptiles in the rainforest. The best time to capture and record species is at night, so after some basic training on species identification and basha construction the group trekked into the forest and set up their bivvies for the night. After darkness fell, the cadets split into small groups and followed marked transects and managed to capture Montserrat Anoles and Southern Leeward Dwarf Geckos, as well as spotting a tarantula!
Since 1995 many of the settlements on Montserrat have been evacuated due to the volcanic threat and them being located in the exclusion zone. Some of these have recently been reopened, however due to the lack of power and water and the fact that many owners left the island 20 years ago, they remain abandoned. The boys hiked into one of these settlements and were able to step back in time by 20 years to homes and hotels that were evacuated rapidly and have since remained untouched. Newspapers and calendars from 1995 added to the intrigue.
Other activities included helping the Coral Cay staff teach local children at a session run at the library. The cadets weren’t afraid to get stuck in when making their own squid out of the ubiquitous toilet roll tube! We were also fortunate to host a Q & A with the Acting Governor of Montserrat, where after 40 minutes of discussion we were able to present him with a CCF crest.
R and R was spent snorkelling off Rendezvous Beach, the only white sand beach on the island, as well as meals out at the island’s “Yacht Club” and local bar/restaurant eating Caribbean Roti.
All too soon, the expedition was over, with the cadets leaving in the small planes that delivered them, having learned new diving, surveying and survival skills as well as bonding as a cohesive team ready to return home to spread the word about what they achieved as CCF cadets.
Thanks must go to the Ulysses Trust and the Berlin Infantry Bde Military Trust Fund, both generous donors, for providing sponsorship that made this superb experience accessible to a larger group of participants.
The expedition tweets can be viewed here: https://storify.com/RGSGEOG/montserrat