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GVI Volunteer Diary Extract

Name: Ollie Oakenfold

Age: 38

Gender: Male

Country of Residence: United Kingdom

Start Date: 18 January 2011

Volunteer Program: Punta Gruesa, Mexico Marine Expedition

Having returned from Belize the first of my conservation projects was imminent –
just one day in civilisation to complete the last-minute shop for sheets, blankets,
boat shoes, treats, secret stash of rum and most importantly, gallons of mosquito
repellent. With the shopping complete and a 5am start looming, the sensible
thing would have been to grab an early night. However, with over half the
volunteers already in town we slowly coalesced as a group around one of the 5th
Avenida bars and proceeded to get a bit carried away with the ice breaking. It
was definitely a great way to make introductions – the booze a perfect excuse for
no-one being able to remember each other’s names for most of the night. By the
time we started laying into the weirdnesss of fermented cactus cream that is
Mezcal, nobody really cared any more and before we knew it, father time was
knocking at the door and the few of us dirty stopouts left decided to call it a

Early the next morning we gathered at the pick-up point and filled out our
paperwork in a moaning, seething mass of hangover before being bundled into
minibuses for the 5 hour ride south and east into the middle of nowhere.
Leaving the last town (Mahahual) behind we carried on over progressively
worsening roads, where it finally sunk in that we really were going to be quite
isolated. When we finally pulled in to the little beachfront strip that is to be our
home for the next few months, any lingering doubts were immediately dispelled
– this place is beautiful.

Nestled between miles and miles of mangrove and a shallow beach of white sand
and seagrass, Punta Gruesa is basically a beach commune serving as a
conservation & research base. Originally built for cruise ship visitors then used
as a place for seasonal fisherman to base themselves for weeks at a time, GVI
(the conservation organisation) took it over a couple of years ago and has been
slowly improving and adding to it since. There are two proper concrete buildings
which house the ‘dive shop’ (for secure storage of our gear) and an office, each
of which sleep staff upstairs. There is a large, circular wooden shelter with a
thatched roof called a ‘Palapa’ which we use as our communal area, school room,
dining room, cinema and dance floor on party nights. Then there are 4
bamboo/wooden huts thatched with palm leaves providing bunk accommodation
for 6-8 of us in each, as well as shelter for the dogs, mice, scorpions and – as we
discovered last night – a baby boa constrictor in the roof. And that’s pretty much
it - between the buildings is just white sand, palm trees with a few well placed
hammocks, a makeshift bar and the odd washing line. The view is fantastic:
calm, shallow waters off the beach with gardens of sea grass teaming with life
during the day, and sparkling with phosphorescence at night. A little further out –
about a half hour swim – is the start of the reef, comprised of big ‘bombies’ of
coral with phenomenal numbers and types of fish, and further out still
(accessible only by boat) is the reef proper, where depths drop from a few
metres to around 30m, the sea life goes ballistic and where the bulk of our
research and surveying will be taking place.

Our first dive was a suitably epic introduction to the marine world here. It was
just a simple check dive to brush up on basic skills and go for a little swim
around. As we surfaced and passed our kit onto the boat, enthusing about the
wonderful fish we had seen, the captain looked up suddenly and shouted
‘dolphins!’. We all grabbed our snorkels and stuck our heads under and sure
enough, after a few minutes of hearing their underwater clicks and calls we
found ourselves at the centre of a huge pod of 12 spotted and bottlenose
dolphins, including two calves. They were playful, very inquisitive and totally
unafraid, bombing in repeatedly from all directions in pairs, trios and bigger
groups – clearly loving it as much as we were to the point that they were overtly
showing off with co-ordinated swims, surface jumps, paired crossovers, barrel
rolls and tail flicks. They were very interested in us gawky creatures bedecked
with fins and bubbling appendages on our heads, and would come up to within a
foot or so of us, one of them slowing down and looking at me squarely in the eye
to check me out for a few moments before bolting off into the distance with a
flourish, leaving the next pair or group to come up for a closer look. Eyeballing a
10ft long wild bottlenose from less than a metre away is an awesome experience
and anyone who doubts their intelligence needs only to do this once to know.
This all went on for a good 25 minutes or so before sadly, the sun started to set
and we had to get back on board the boats to head back. They followed us all
the way back to the shallows, racing the boat, criss-crossing the bow and leaping
out of the water alongside in perfect synchronisation. We were all absolutely
gobsmacked – it was totally out of the blue but without doubt one of the most
profoundly affecting things I have ever experienced. I know you can get close to
dolphins in marinas & theme parks, but spending half an hour up close &
personal with them in their own environment, so clearly enjoying themselves and
messing around with us simply because they wanted to….. well, it was
something that goes well beyond words.

As for life on base, we are now all pretty much settled but the first week was
quite a shock to the system. The day starts with alarms going off at 5:30, and
duties start at 6am sharp. For the first few days we cycled through the different
base duties getting to know them: cleaning the dive shop, prepping the boats &
emergency medical gear, raking the sand to disturb the sandfly eggs, communal
area cleaning, toilets, vehicle checks, beach clean-ups, tropical bird surveys,
working the compressor to fill the dive tanks, radio operations and the dreaded
kitchen duty – providing 30 people with 3 meals a day out of a kitchen with no
electricity or running water. After morning duties we basically spend the day
studying both out of and in the water. Dive training is interspersed with biology,
oceanography and conservation lectures, and whatever spare time we have has
to be spent learning and memorising the myriad tropical fish and corals that we
will eventually be surveying. Tests, exams, presentations, spot dives, emergency
first aid training & scenarios and base improvements take up the late afternoon
and dinner is served at 6:30pm. By the time we have finished eating and
consumed our maximum allocation of 3 very warm beers, most people are
completely k.o’d and in bed by 8 o’clock. It’s a heavy day but now we are used
to the routine it’s actually really nice to be mildly institutionalised – no decision
making is required, you just get up and do what you are directed to do and
before you know it you’ve had a long and rewarding day.

Also, now we are used to base life we are managing to squeeze in a bit more
leisure time. Snorkelling over the sea grass, volleyball, beach cricket, capture the
flag and musical hammocks are the activities of choice. At night we play cards,
watch the occasional movie on someone’s laptop or spend the evening
stargazing and playing with the frankly mindblowing phosphorescence on the
sand at low tide. Standing still, once your eyes have accustomed to the dark you
can see the entire beach flashing in a constant display of little green sparkles
firing off around you every few seconds. As you walk across the sand you leave
glowing footprints behind you and dragging a stick through it leaves bright green
traces on the floor. In the pools of seawater little colonies of god-knows-what
bunch up and streak through the water in bright blue glowing blobs before
morphing into jellyfish-like shapes, pulsing neon blue then dispersing slowly into
darkness. Standing on the beach in the middle of this, with the surf catching the
moonlight and so many stars visible that they blot out most of the sky, you just
have to stop talking and suck up the beauty of it all.

On the counterside, it’s not all earthly paradise. Pre-dawn starts have never been
legal in my book, and climbing into a sandy bed every night that remains
constantly damp and clammy from the humidity is definitely not going to be
missed. Never really being clean is an irritation as well – due to the lack of
running water we get a 2 minute cold shower (fed from our well) once every four
days – for the rest of the time it is a case of rinsing off in the sea (this goes down
well in our mixed huts as you can imagine). Worst of all though is the insect
Armageddon that descends upon us every night at dusk. Surrounded by
mangroves, our little outpost is clearly the well advertised and much-frequented
feeding ground for every mosquito, sand-fly and horse-fly for miles around. We
are actually starting to suspect that the insect community organises package
tours and day trips from surrounding regions to come and feast on the bounty of
human flesh at Punta Gruesa. They laugh uproariously in the face of insect
repellent and obviously wean their young on pure deet. They can bite you
through several layers of Kevlar and have all been extensively trained in the arts
of mosquito net penetration and co-ordinated distraction attacks. A few of the
volunteers who seem to be reacting worse than the rest of us to the sandflies
(blistering with every bite) have had their lower legs effectively flayed by the
little buggers and are understandably starting to lose the plot.

Thankfully we do get a break from this though - weekends are short but great fun
and, at 36 hours, plenty long enough to make it into Mahahual. This is the local
fishing village, now a burgeoning tourist trap, mysteriously but thankfully bereft
of flesh-eating insects. Despite its remote situation and diminutive size, being at
the centre of a biosphere reserve has earnt it the dubious honour of being a
regular port for many of the Caribbean cruise ships. So, twice a week it is
invaded by floating cities which offload wealthy tourists in numbers that dwarf
the local population. It does mean that the place is well equipped for parties –
the GVI base is well known and well liked for its policy of directing its custom to
the smaller, family-run businesses so most places offer a healthy discount on
accommodation, food & drinks. We take the opportunity to buy up the best hotel
rooms in town and share them between big groups, basically just using the room
to take turns hogging the hot shower for 45 minutes apiece. I simply cannot
describe how incredibly precious a simple hot shower becomes, but four day’s
accrual of salt, sand, sweat, sun cream, mozzie repellent (why do we even
bother?) and soot & grime from the 12-hour kitchen shifts leaves your skin the
texture of used sandpaper and your hair stiff & crunchy enough to clean toilets
(not actually tested that yet though). Anyway, the weekends are a welcome
release from the routine and workload on base, and a good opportunity to
overload the local internet connection and make contact with the outside world

All in all, a great start to the project. More than anything else I’m really
appreciating the people. Despite (or maybe because of…) the relative hardships
of communal living, everyone is pulling their weight and continuing to be
respectful of each other’s needs and idiosyncrasies. Amazingly, all the 24
volunteers and 7 staff are getting on resoundingly well. There are no obvious
schisms in the group, and the huge range of ages, interests and backgrounds of
the people here make it continually intriguing to slowly peel back the layers as
people gradually let down their guards and reveal more about themselves.
There are some really lively & gregarious characters, and some quieter or
reserved members too, but overall we seem to have been seriously lucky in that
the melting pot works. I’m sure there will be fireworks eventually but I can’t see
where they’ll come from just yet….

So that’s Punta Gruesa – all in all an amazing place full of amazing people all
sharing in a truly life-changing experience. I can’t recommend it enough – life
really doesn’t get much better than this…..

About Global Vision International (GVI)

GVI is an internationally based volunteer abroad organisation which offers
volunteer programs in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Formed in 1998, GVI provides support and services to international charities,
non-profits and governmental agencies through volunteering opportunities and
direct funding, filling a critical void in the fields of environmental research,
conservation, education and community development. Various types of overseas
volunteer work are offered including volunteer holidays, gap year volunteering,
short term volunteering, long term volunteering, volunteer internships, intern
abroad programs, student volunteer abroad programs and employee
volunteering trips abroad. Available subjects include marine biology,
environmental research, teaching and scuba diving courses in various locations
around the world.

For more information on volunteering abroad, please visit