Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – A Perfect Little Island

We had lunch at a little beach bar in Spring Bay and then headed over to a lovely bar in Princess Margaret Beach in Admiralty Bay.

Princess Margaret's Beach

Princess Margaret’s Beach

The Mule, which had struggled along all day ( we had had to have a couple of runs at getting up one hill and we had teased Kurt that the donkeys on the road side were overtaking us), finally gave up the ghost in Port Elizabeth.  We finished our day in taxis.  I sat in the bar and downed a few rum and cokes under the stalks of palm trees who lost their heads during Hurricane Lenny.

Leaving Bequia

Leaving Bequia

The weather cleared and the afternoon was fantastic.  I looked around the bay at the cluster of yachts, a power boat or two, and the delightful gingerbread style houses around the hillside, and thought, I could live here.  I swam, I chatted, Kurt, the workaholic, sat at the table, his diary open and his mobile on most of the afternoon.  I like Kurt enormously, a Grenadian who was born and brought up in Canada.  He had a passion for the Caribbean, his beloved Cays and the Grenadines in particular, and his commitment to conservation efforts in the region were driven by a marvellous energy.  He would be the first to admit that he was a bit of a loose cannon in SVG politics, as he tried to conserve the cays, but he also put that drive to good use in my visits and has helped my work out more in SVG more than anyone else.

Bequia at Sunset

Bequia at Sunset

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Liming – St VIncent and Bequia – The Mule and Brother King

We piled into Kurt’s car.  I say car, and I know I have ribbed him about it many times, but his Kawasaki Mule was more of a golf cart.  It was the perfect size for Bequia’s little winding concrete roads, but it coped badly with the numerous hills, and it took a little time to get up to his house in Mount Pleasant.

The Mule and Kurt's House

The Mule and Kurt’s House

His mother and her daughter lived in the house above, Kurt had a den next to the huge cistern on the lower floor.  Water is such a precious commodity in most Caribbean Islands, particularly the small drier ones, that it is essential to capture every last drop.  It is a legal requirement in building regulations to include a suitably sized cistern in every house, fed by pipes from roof gutters.  Even so, long drought periods can dry out the tanks, and those vats of water I had seen on the Barracouda have to transport expensive supplies.  That day a large thunderstorm brew over Mustique to the east and headed our way, but it missed the island by half a mile and went on to dump its load over St Vincent.  Kurt told me that so many times the clouds gather only to dissipate before relieving Bequias shortages.

W End of Bequia

W End of Bequia

 Bequia is cute.  A population of barely five thousand, most packed around Admiralty Bay, the houses are a normal size, but it all looks cut down to scale.  The roads are narrow, the vehicles move at a slower pace, indeed the whole life of the island seems laid back even by Caribbean terms.  It’s a perfect example of how a Caribbean Island should be, but even here the development and water issues are special challenges to this little piece of paradise.  As for me, I was scared to go back to Kingstown at the end of the day, as the big city seemed too much for me.

E Side of Bequia

E Side of Bequia

 We drove through the centre of the island, a dark forested area, and down past the little bays of the north east side of the island.  At the east end the shrubby vegetation all but gives out and you are left with a pockmarked crumbling volcanic rock that falls once more into the bounding ocean.  Back a way, Kurt allowed me to drop in on Mr King, who single handedly had reared thousands of turtles from eggs collected from beaches across the Grenadines.

 In an open sided wooden shack, he kept a series of concrete tanks, a load of plastic ones and buckets and containers of all sorts of other sizes, packed full of turtles.   It was the first time I got close up to hawksbills and greens.  He graded the turtles by age and size in the different tanks.  In the plastic tanks there were hundreds of little dark green turtles, all scurrying around for some space.  He pumped salt water through to keep it fresh, but even so it looked crowded.

Brother King's Turtles

Brother King’s Turtles

 I went past some bigger tanks, and watched a few larger hawksbills, ready to be released, follow me round the edge expecting to be fed.  In another tank four or five hawksbills of a smaller size swam around.  They occasionally went up on each other’s backs, bit each other here and there.  I could see occasional algal growths on their back.   But generally they appeared healthy and vital.  Brother King, who had lived in Bequia for many years, had been amongst the many people who had realised that turtles were on the decline.  Years back, every Caribbean island had thousands living in amongst the seagrass beds and coral reefs.  Hoards of females would come up on every beach each season and lay hundreds of eggs each, and despite the huge natural gorging of lizards, seabirds and sea creatures, a small percentage survived, and a small percentage of millions of eggs is still a lot.  Locals fished them by hundreds, ate their eggs and flesh and made the shells into all sorts of useful items, combs, buckles, crockery.  A turtle shell is like a plate of stained glass, in ordinary light it appears dull and slightly patterned, but shine light straight through it and a myriad of patterns shoot back at

Turtle Hatchlings

Turtle Hatchlings

you, dappled, striped, contoured or patchy, there are a million designs.  The jewellery trade became interested in this and the items became prized.  The offtake grew and gradually the natural replenishment of the population was curtailed.  Even in the 1950’s and 60’s I have heard of local West Indians being able to catch great Green Turtles offshore with ease.  Now in many areas they are struggling to find one or two hawksbills.

 Not only the trade in turtles or becoming the local food, but also the pace of coastline development has curbed the turtles’ distribution.  Female turtles love quiet sandy beaches, but with the tourist trade these are becoming few and far between, the turtles are turned away from beach front lights, and if they do nest there, the hatchlings often become disorientated by any lights and head inland instead of towards the relative safety of the sea.

 Efforts are widespread both to increase the protection of turtles and to understand their mysterious lives.  Nesting sites are being monitored, egg stealing is a crime, and the trade in shells has ceased under the CITES agreement.  More importantly, the life cycle of the turtle is gradually being understood.  Until recently, people only interacted with turtles when they came up to lay or when they came across the older turtles in the coastal waters.  No-one really knew what happened to the hatchlings or youngsters, no-one knew whether the turtles only laid once a year or more.  The myth was the same beach was used by a female year in year out.  No-one knew whether the populations of turtles in different parts of the Caribbean were all part of the same family strain, or whether they were discrete.  Gradually, international collaboration in science is piecing the story together.  Using tagging, we can see where turtles go, the little internationally coordinated metal tags have a contact in Barbados to whom you can write if you see a turtle.  The tags are good, but some turtles are adept at rubbing barnacles off their backs and would treat a tag in the same way.  Microchips are now put in the necks of some turtles, which cannot be rubbed off and can be picked up by a scanning instrument.  Genetic samples are now being taken to see what the similarities in the DNA are between populations in the west and east Caribbean.

 Turtles emote great sentiment amongst people and the groundswell of support amongst American and Europeans has been incredible.  Many tourists visit the Caribbean and give thousands of dollars to the save the turtle campaigns.  Local populations have different priorities, but even where turtle is still seen as a vital food, the need to conserve that supply is appreciated, and conservationists have made a good deal of headway in persuading local populations to help understand these wonderful creatures.  They also use them as conduits to get the general public interested in other (and possibly more important) environmental issues such as beach development, underwater habitat conservation, pollution control and fisheries practices.

In amongst all this is Brother King, who has taken it upon himself to save the turtles of the Grenadines, but, as Kurt spelled out to me later, his methods are rather suspect.  Firstly should he really be digging up all the nests and moving the eggs?  He would say a far higher proportion survive raised in captivity than left to the vagaries of beach life.  Second, what affect does having them live so closely together have on the turtles?  Most turtles seem to live quite solitary lives, and the behaviour in the tanks, such as the clambering on each other and biting, is sad to see.  The densely populated tanks, no matter how much sea water you pump through, allows breeding of disease and the growth of algae, which was only too readily visible.

 Kurt was even more worried about what happened once he released the half grown turtles.  He would not necessarily release them at the beach they were laid on.  Nobody really knew whether there was any tie for the beast to a particular location, and whether some disorientation could occur from being put into water miles from home.  And no-one really knew what sort of life they would be able to lead once put into the wide ocean after months of confinement and congregation.  And what affect on the wild populations would his release have in that bay?  He tended to release around Bequia and down to Savan Island but was planning at the time to go to Petit Bateau in the Tobago Cays to do a release.  Kurt was really interested in that.  He was the warden of the Tobago Cays Marine Protected Area and would want him arrested if he dabbled in the biology of that area!

 For all Kurt’s qualms, and my own, there was a level of conviction and devotion in his work that was commendable in Orton King.  At least he was trying to do something, you might say.  You might also say, if only that energy could be put into collaboration with the more scientific methods at saving the turtles, the mutual benefits would be so much greater.

Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – A more civilised trip to Bequia

I did not land on Bequia itself till later on that year on a return visit.  I only had a week on St Vincent and one Saturday to spend on my own.  A very good friend of mine, Kurt Cordice, lived in Bequia, and I invited myself over.  This time, instead of little Black Jack I took one of the yellow ferries.

Ferries in Kingstown

Ferries in Kingstown

A short walk from the Cobblestone inn, the grey warehouses of the port look rough and dangerous, but although there are large ragged looking stevedores liming on every corner, the bustle of activity around the ferries is safe enough.  I went straight on the car deck and paid the man for my return ticket, and went upstairs to the passenger deck to watch the ferries being loaded.  Next to the Bequia ferry stood a similar shaped black and white ferry, the  Barricouda.  Although you can go back and forth to Bequia three or four times daily, the other islands are served merely by the Barricouda once every two days.

Kingstown Ferry Dock

Kingstown Ferry Dock

Although it has never had an accident, many Vincentians and Grenadinians are suspicious of travelling on it – it sometimes only has a crew of two and both of the may be down below sorting out the engine while the ship steers itself, or so goes the story.

 I was impressed by the efficiency of loading on both boats.  Everything from people and cars to livestock, bags and water were being loaded on.  Vast black vats of water were being shipped from rain-rich St Vincent to the drought ridden Grenadines.  While the Barracouda was still being loaded, we quietly slipped out into the harbour and across the forbidding Bequia Channel.  But despite a good wind, there was little swell and progress was even and comfortable.  I was able to watch the south coast of St Vincent open up behind me, first Kingstown then its surrounds, then the mountains behind the town revealed themselves one after another and finally the whole island could be seen in one view.

Arnos Vale Airport

Arnos Vale Airport from the channel

Looking the other way, the sinuous island of Bequia changed from a silhouette to a colour picture, to a 3-dimensional model.  Then the birds flying over the cliffs, the yachts cruising around the coast gave it life, and we sailed into Admiralty Bay.  Kurt was waiting for me, another passenger on the ferry and for some mail, indeed much of the island was down there waiting for something; a parcel, a loved one, a goat.

Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – Surveying and Whaling

Mervin in the water

Mervin in the water

When we passed the extreme of the island and headed along the southern coast, we saw some thick dense seagrass and against the artificial breakwaters of the extended airstrip, little coral heads were forming.  We entered Friendship Bay, guarded by some good reef and a couple of islands, one of which, Semple Cay, housed a solitary goat nibbling at the scarce vegetation.  The engines stopped and we surveyed a couple more points here; I threw up once more because the rhythm had changed again.South side of Bequia

 In the afternoon, we headed over to two more islands.  Leslie had said he would not chance travel over to Mustique, lying low on the horizon to our south east.  In my current condition I was happy to agree with him.  I was not sure how I was to last back to Kingstown.  Instead we went to Petit Nevis. In a sheltered cove, a concrete hard reached up to some winch equipment and a small hut.  In front of the hut, two large tail fins and a backfin stood high in the air.  The bones of two whales were strewn around the hard and the whole area, including the water nearby, was stained with yellow oil and dark red blood.

Whaling landing site

Whaling landing site

Whaling still goes on in St Vincent, one of the few remaining states that conduct it.  In a special dispensation from the International Whaling Commission, they are allowed to take two humpback whales a year, as part of their artisanal tradition.  The whalers use Petit Nevis as their station and the week before there had been headline news that this year’s quota had been caught.  In the fish market that week, greasy bottles of whale oil stood side by side with huge hunks of red fibrous meat.  It was greedily bought up by Vincentians and most people seemed to feel it was not only a delicacy but a right they should never be banned from demanding.

 The controversy over whether St Vincent should be allowed to continue this practice rages on even now.  The Japanese lobby up and down the islands for support in the IWC, so that it can continue its harvest “for scientific purposes”.  Huge aid, often uncoordinated with other countries’ efforts, pours into the Caribbean from the Japanese; fishing gear and technology, new markets such as both the fish and the main market in Kingstown.  Fish landing sites, too, all sorts of special gifts to these tiny countries in exchange for a support vote.  Despite the anti-whaling lobby, even from within the country, the whaling goes on, and the quotas are being infringed.  Not only have there been years where more than two whales have been caught, there have been instances, as there was the year I was there, when a mother and calf had been taken.  This breaches the conditions of the dispensation, as it was eating into future years’ stock.  The practice was supposed to stop once the old whaling family’s oldest member died, but apparently a new generation of young whalers are carrying on.

 The situation was as messy as the remains we saw on Petit Nevis, and smelt as bad.  The reek of rotting meat passed over the harbour and upset my already fragile insides.  How the two catamarans eating lunch in the nearby bay could stand the stench I could not fathom, and I was glad we moved on within a few moments.  After another quick survey on the nearby Isle à Quatre we headed straight for the western tip of Bequia and on across the Channel once more.  Although the wind had dropped, the swell was still bad.  But now we were against what wind there was and it caused much more splashing.  At first I sat at the back of the boat where the most fresh air hit me.  Andrew sat on the wheelhouse steps grinning at me, and shouting – you are not going to stay there long.  He was right, he always was.  When the third huge wave crashed over the bows and soaked me to the skin I hauled myself with the last of my energy up the boat to wedge in next to Andrew, both completely miserable at my physical condition but content I had had another fantastic day at work.  Leslie came out and I said we were making good progress this time, as he could make better headway with the stabilizers off.  Leslie told me he had had the stabilisers on right the way across.  What that rocking and rolling would have been like without them, I shudder to think.

Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – Succumbing to the Swell

Kingstown Fish Market and Fisheries Department

Kingstown Fish Market and Fisheries Department

We had to do some field work in Bequia one day.  Unfortunately, the swell increased dramatically in the early part of the week, and by the time we were ready to set off, there were heavy rollers out in the offing.  Not having much sea experience, I was already a little bit concerned I might not be the old sea dog I needed to be.  We had to set off very early that morning and I made the mistake of only grabbing a breakfast of a banana from the only store open, and we went to the boat.  Leslie, the Fisheries Officer was in his turquoise overalls making Black Jack, our boat, ready.

Black Jack

Black Jack

Black Jack was a sizeable tub, a proper wheelhouse and a cabin below.  I suppose if the Fisheries Unit had to head to Union Island some sixty miles to the south, it had to be sturdy enough and allow overnighting.  We chugged south out of Kingstown harbour, and I remarked to Leslie how it was a bit choppy but not too bad.  He just smiled pitifully at me.  For when we reached the headland and set out into the deep wide Bequia Channel, great rollers came in from the east and little Black Jack had to ride each one.

Aboard Black Jack

Aboard Black Jack

  Trying to make headway south in this cross current was difficult and the boat struggled to make proper progress.  I could feel my stomach was free floating around my abdomen and wished I had weighed it down with some proper food before we started, but I was all right.  I swallowed my own phlegm a couple of times, I tried to steady myself against the sides of the boat, I tried to fix myself on the shores of Bequia which looked like it was getting no nearer.  People were trying to shout across the noise of the engines and wind and waves, but I could hardly hear them.  I just tried to concentrate on staying alive.

Fisheries Field Trip

Fisheries Field Trip

Up we went again on another huge roller, twice the height of the boat, a couple of times we were near vertical.  And then the jarring bang as we smashed down into the trough on the other side, the sound of the engine whirring as the propeller momentarily came out of the water and a gollop of spray hit the decks.  Just time to gather your wits about you and up we went again, another roller coming across.  Depending on our angle, we sometimes would be showered in a great spray of freezing cold seawater – it is a fallacy that Caribbean water is warm in March.

 It was less than an hour but it seemed an eternity before the north coast of Bequia cut off the worst of the rollers and I was able to concentrate on more than breathing.  But so far I had kept the limited contents of my alimentary canal to myself, and I went down into the cabin to get the charts.  Bad move.  Within seconds I was sweating hard and gulping for air and grabbed whatever I could before reaching for the deck.

Choppy Seas, Bequia

Choppy Seas, Bequia

We rounded the northwest point and at long last the relentless rollers ceased.  Before me was one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, Admiralty Bay.  The little town of Port Elizabeth was tucked in the top right corner, but we were not landing, we wanted to survey some of the substrate types in the harbour, so we headed to the opposite side, a shallow bight called Lower Bay.

 The engines stopped, and while the field teams got ready to snorkel, I started to look at the satellite imagery and the maps we had created.  Tiny waves lapped gently on the side of the boat, the shifting bodies aboard moved it from side to side.  My stomach, still rolling around as if out on the open sea, could not handle the new motion, and finally gave up its secrets.  Gagging over the side, I watched as a trail of my insides drifted out to sea.

Bequia seas

Bequia seas – the closest I would get to Mustique (in the distance).

Being sick made me feel no better, and while I bravely managed to coordinate the field session, I was unable to contribute a lot to the day.  As we travelled around the bay looking down at the dead coral and seagrass (a hurricane had poured sediment over much of the old reef there, some pollution from land and yachts had probably killed the rest), my body did settle a little, and I began to enjoy myself.  Even so I had to lie on the cabin roof as still as I could and hum to myself with my eyes shut to forget where I was.

Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – Back down the coast

Windward coast

Windward coast

As is always inevitable, we had to turn for home.  We could not see St Lucia across the channel – the haze was still too much, but it did clear as we headed back down the Windward Highway.  We stopped off at Black Point, a renowned picnic site for locals.  There were a few cars there with CD players belching out music, kids screaming as they ran around and several generations of adults fiddling with napkins, plates and hunks of food.  We stopped to look at a dramatic tunnel gouged out of a headland.

Black Rock Tunnel

Black Point Tunnel

It was apparently some sort of folly where a bunch of slaves were given the job by a colonel to dig a huge hole in the rock.  Over twelve feet high in places and about 350 feet long, we stepped cautiously around the numerous puddles to the other end.  The sea crashing on the rocks on the outside reverberated down the tunnel.  When we reached the end, though, we saw what a folly it truly was, it opened out onto rocks and then sea.  The intention was to help pass the sugar up and down the coast, but the sea had washed away the exit for ever.  If it was useful once, now it just stood as another legacy of the slave era.

Tunnel

Tunnel

 As we headed south along the coast the weather began to clear.  We passed the rolling hills of Argyll, where the politicians were thinking of putting a new international airport.  St Vincent is so short of flat land, the current airport sticks out into the sea and planes have to come in and out the same seaward way as the alternative is a mountain of nearly a thousand feet.  Even in Argyll, which was fairly flat, several small hills would have to be demolished.  The sun came out as we headed round the southern tip of the island, the silhouette of Fort Duvenette and Young Island against the sparkling calm Caribbean waters was incredible, hard to believe again that a few miles behind us the Atlantic pounded the beaches.

Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – Up the Windward Highway to Fancy

 One weekend, we travelled further. Arden Nelson who ran one of the Central Planning Sections, organised a trip for Margaret, Andrew and me up the Windward Highway.  It was another of those wonderful days where you cut a transect through a country and just pick up what you can.  We started by going inland up the Vigie Highway at the end of the airfield.  It rose steeply above the south coast, and at Belmont we left the urban sprawl behind and entered the plantations.  The broad deep valley below us was Mesopotamia, heart of the St Vincent banana industry.  Every scrap of hillside seemed coated in a thick green slime, the wide floppy leaves of bananas and plantains.  Andrew taught me how to spot the difference between the two plants, bananas have the green stems while plantains are red.  In the centre of the valley, the small service town of the same name, probably one of few small island towns that are not on the coast, was sleepy on this Sunday morning.  We tried to continue inland, but heavy overnight rain had washed away the road near Greiggs and we had to cut down to the small town of Biabou on the coast.  From there the road hardly left the seaside, the battering Atlantic hammering each bay; not exactly the idea of Caribbean beaches that come in to most people’s minds.  Village after village we passed through up that coast until we entered a broad boulevard that marked the beginning of Georgetown.  The settlements on the west coast are now more substantial, but Georgetown, once the capital of the island, still retained a certain grandeur.  Most of the houses were solid stone, with considerable terraces.  They all looked similar, as if built by some estate.  Georgetown had been the centre of the sugar industry in St Vincent.

Georgetown

Georgetown

Now all but gone, the small Sunset distillery the only real user of the white gold now, Georgetown is almost a ghost town, and on a Sunday morning the lack of any signs of human beings emphasised its neglect.  A few rolling bales of tumbleweed were all that were needed to show this to be a frontier town.  Indeed it was, for as we left on the northern road, the tarmac faltered then disappeared altogether and much of the rest of the route north was on gravel tracks.

 To the west of us lay the huge looming flanks of Soufrière, a 3000 ft volcano.  Wide rivers come flooding off the sides, pulling down so much of the soft material that the volcano has spewed from its crater.  One river in particular was more sediment than water, the Rabacca.  About five hundred feet wide, huge shoals of gravel sat in its bed.  Water did flow, but most of it was in tunnels beneath the piles of sediment.  Only at peak periods would it reach the surface in more than a few places, and at those times you would not want to be in the bed, as the gravel would sweep you out to sea.

Rabacca

Rabacca

 Soon afterwards we entered the Sandy Bay area, one of the few remaining Carib settlements in the Caribbean.  The Caribs were a group of Indians from Latin America who pushed through the chain of islands displacing the Arawaks in the south and the Tainos in the north.  Caribs got a fearsome reputation amongst early explorers and settlers, and there is some dispute as to whether these were hyperbole, just a few isolated incidents or the bloodthirsty truth.  The period of estates and slaves drove them to near extinction, but some efforts in a few of the Windward Islands have re-established some land and rights for the remaining descendents.  In St Vincent many have intermarried with the other populations, and it is difficult to see much difference between these and other lighter coloured Vincentians.  Despite there being land for them, it is often the poorest quality and isolated from the rest of the country.  The area around  Sandy Bay was home to them.

Sandy Bay

Sandy Bay

Driving out of Sandy Bay and up the cliff on the north side, the clouds had built up and the combination of drizzle and seaspray made the village seem drab and foreboding.  We looked back from the top and Arden pointed out to me a pile of rocks in the sea.  He said when he was a child that was a playing field.   Many squatters had built their chattel houses in amongst the palm trees on the beach, and often cut the trees down to make more room for their chicken runs.  The unforgiving storms that came in wiped away the beaches, unprotected by palm roots, and houses too were often swept away.  The coastline had eroded some hundred feet in the last twenty five years.

Owia Lunch stop

Owia Lunch stop

The weather cleared as we entered Owia, the last substantial village on the Windward Highway.  We met several of Arden’s friends here and dug into the sizeable lunch which had been collected in Georgetown.  Great hunks of chicken, fish and fruit, some banana bread and a clutch of coconuts which Andrew set about with a machete to create a drinking vessel.

Andrew feeding a pig at Owia

Andrew feeding a pig at Owia

Anything we could not eat went to two pigs sat in the back of the trailer ready for the abattoir.  I might be eating them in a couple of days when I next ordered bacon and eggs.

 There were four miles of road left to the west of us along the narrow north coast of St Vincent.  At the end of this winding gravel track was a small village; Fancy.  Although less than thirty miles from Kingstown it looked a world away. Indeed when we returned to the capital, a woman in one of the cafés who had lived in St Vincent all her life told me she had never been to Fancy.  Electricity had only recently been provided here, the road was in a terrible state.  The sea bashed against the cliffs below the little houses clinging to the sides.  Up the hillslopes tiny plantations grew, merging gradually with the rainforest beyond.  Arrowroot was grown in many of these hidden valleys.

Fancy

Fancy

Once popular in cooking or for medicinal purposes, it had gone into a serious decline in the 1970’s.  Ironically, the space age have given the crop a new lease of life, as it is now used to coat computer paper used in printers.  These crops and others also look similar to marijuana, and there is a practice of intercropping in these fields.  I hope they manage to distinguish the two, or else, be careful if you lick your fingers next time you handle computer printouts.  The Americans, paranoid of misdoings in their backyard, have occasionally come storming in to Caribbean countries and tried to clear drug crops.  They sprayed from helicopters in St Vincent one year, with hardly a by-your-leave.  What damage it did to the legitimate crops I do not know, but it was a knock back for the poorest communities in one of the poorest Caribbean countries.