Montserrat Beach, Nicola Weber

The people and places of Montserrat

4 minute read

Amdeep interviewing fisherman in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands

Amdeep Sanghera, UKOT Conservation Officer

14 Sep 2021

We're part of an exciting project on the island of Montserrat, one of the UK’s Caribbean Overseas Territories, working with local communities to help recover and manage turtle populations.

Since our last blog from Dr Peter Richardson, the team in Montserrat have been busy. We've already heard about the team’s first days of freedom where they spent time checking nearby turtle nesting beaches and observing these magnificent marine wonders in local waters.

Now our UK Overseas Territories Conservation Officer, Amdeep Sanghera, tells us more about meeting the fascinating communities of the island.

Meeting the locals

Amdeep Sanghera with local, Montserrat, Peter Richardson

Amdeep receiving some cassava bread from Eleanor Silcott after a CVM interview

Credit: Peter Richardson

As our 8-seater plane descended over the heady cliffs of Montserrat in preparation to land, I couldn’t help but think about the people living in the kaleidoscopically-coloured homes dotted below us. Well, with our quarantine period having come to a welcome close, it was time to venture out and meet the people that called this island home.

One of our first engagements involved meeting Sarita Francis, the respected and experienced environmentalist and Director of the Montserrat National Trust. We were also joined by Vernaire Bass, a Montserratian-born woman who had returned home from many years of life in the UK, and was now running her own local media outlet. Their insights into the nature of Montserrat and its people were invaluable.

Vernaire offered to personally introduce us to Montserrat’s movers and shakers, so we followed her into Little Bay, a picturesque beach area flanked with breezy restaurants, bars playing the latest calypso hits and sparse fishermen hangouts.

On the way to Little Bay, we met with Sharlene Lindsay, a Trinidad-born radio show host and popular media personality. Her energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and on learning about our turtle project she recommended we meet her fisherman uncle right away. It was a short hop in the scorching heat to her uncle’s vibrant and makeshift seafood restaurant. A tall Rastafarian with a calm demeanour, he spoke about the cultural tradition of preparing turtle soup. It was abundantly clear that Sharlene and Vernaire were now on a mission, and in the next hour we were taken on a spontaneous and whirlwind tour of Montserrat’s key fisherfolk, community leaders and water-sports companies.

In almost 15 years of engaging communities in conservation, I’d never experienced anything quite like this! We watched in awe as Sharlene and Vernaire worked their magic and connected us and our project to the community. They also helped us in setting up Community Voice Method film interviews exploring local relationships with turtles. Things were starting to fall into place!

Enchanted by ancient creatures

Swimming with turtles, Montserrat, Amdeep Sanghera

Dinari swimming with sea turtles at Isles Bay

Credit: Amdeep Sanghera

We met with Veta Wade, a Montserratian ocean activist whose youth program – Fish N Fins - is supporting local children to swim and snorkel in the sea.

By providing a safe environment to experience and gain benefits from the ocean, young people are also gaining in overall confidence while helping to destigmatise traditional views of the sea as a dangerous place.

We met Veta and a Fish N Fins graduate, Dinari, at the turtle hotspot of Isles Bay and hoped these ancient creatures would once again grace us with their presence. Within a few minutes of getting in the water, we‘d spotted an adult male turtle, calmly gliding away while keeping us in the corner of his eye. A female green turtle gently passed us before disappearing into the blue void leaving no trace. Looking back at Dinari, he could hardly contain himself as we continued to observe these magnificent animals.

It was back on shore when I learnt this was Dinari’s first in-water encounter with a sea turtle, which made me wonder about the untapped benefits these animals could provide to Montserratian society and how this could support their conservation.

We also attended the Davy Hill Kids Summer Camp and spoke to the class about turtles. We’d improvised, using cardboard cut-outs of turtle flippers and had the children tag them, with the kids clearly demonstrating the reasons behind why we do this. We were unable to match the energy levels of the children, and it was a special afternoon connecting with the younger generation and future stewards of Montserrat.

Connecting with the Community Voice Method

The last time I got involved in a Community Voice Method project was in the Turks and Caicos Islands eleven years ago. I was feeling a little nervous about my rusty interviewing skills, but as we began filming participants I relaxed into the process… and began to listen.

Our interviewees spoke highly of their love for their island, mentioning its unique peace, tranquillity and the ability to leave one’s house unlocked. “How the Caribbean used to be” one participant told us.

We heard emotional accounts of the volcanic eruption and how the clear sky filled with ash and instantly darkened as if night had appeared, and how this devastating event had seismic impacts on the future of the Montserratian community with many thousands being displaced from their island. Having also experienced the catastrophic hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was clear Montserratians weren’t unfamiliar to crises. A strong resilience shone through the interviews as many people shared their optimism for the future, including young voices who had bold visions for their nations.

Amdeep and fishers after CVM interview, Montserrat, Peter Richardson

Amdeep (left) with David Lane and James Weekes after a CVM interview - both long time fishers

Credit: Peter Richardson

What about the turtles? It was clear that fishing for turtles is a shadow of its past (due to many fishers and consumers displaced by the volcano). However, many interviewees discussed its cultural importance and need for it to be acknowledged. It's clear turtle conservation is a small issue with the other challenges facing Montserrat today, but it has an important part to play in many peoples’ vision for the island. Montserrat as a renowned turtle ecotourism location… it’s more than possible!

I can’t wait to get back next year to screen the film and enable local voices to help shape a better future for their turtles.

Big thanks to the UK government’s Darwin Plus Initiative, the Government of Montserrat and our partners at the University of Exeter. Read more about the project here.