The Amazing Jimi Phillips and His Steel Pan

Jimi Phillips playing pan!

By Ann Sebring

What a treat it was to watch a great performer and maker of the steel pan create one before our eyes. The latest invented instrument takes about five to six hours to make from old oil drums. Then it is sent to a factory to cover it in chrome. Then more hours of work for fine tuning again to give the pan that perfect ring. After Jimi walked us through the steps of turning an oil barrel into a beautiful and widely respected instrument, he demonstrated the tuning process. It was so magical to listen as he hammered and hammered until he finally created the first note in a new pan. The second we all heard that beautiful ring of the steel pan, “oh”s and “ah”s arose as our hearts melted at the amazing sound just pounding on metal from top to bottom could create. It was obvious he had won us all over at that very second.

Jimi Phillips - tuning a steel pan - Photo by Chaylee Posson
Jimi Phillips – tuning a steel pan – Photo by Chaylee Posson

The steel pan industry, though, is having a hard time producing good steel pans due to the diminishing quality of the steel used to make oil drums. Jimi, who has always loved being on the cutting edge of steel pan technology, is therefore in the process of turning sheet metal into steel pans. He’s made the first type, and it seems it is successfully satisfactory. The man is certainly an inventor and it was a joy to watch the progression of his ideas manifest themselves in a sort of time lapse, followed by the spirit of his talent as he played for us quickly after the demonstration. Later that night, he filled the air with beautiful melodies during our last dinner at the Pax Guesthouse.

Caroni Swamp

By Leah Pyne

As a plant and tree lover, going to Caroni Swamp was one of the activities I was very excited for. In my head, it was going to be lush and green and full of tangled roots reaching up out of the water. I was not disappointed.

We arrived at the swamp a little late due to heavy traffic through Port of Spain, but the people running the boat tours were able to call the last boat back for us since it had just left and there had been enough room left to accommodate our group. I was grinning from ear to ear as we sat in the boat and entered the channel.

Our guide pointed out the three different kinds of mangroves as we entered the swamp: red, white and black. White had broader leaves than black and red had roots that hung down rather than grew out of the water like the black and white mangroves. As we went along we spotted a snake chilling in a tree. And a little further on we encountered two more, a male and a female, told apart by their size. We also encountered a few blue herons and some scarlet ibises roosting in the trees. They stood out like gems in the green of the leaves. I loved looking into the mangroves and seeing the tangle of roots with the sun shining through the leaves making everything dappled in light.

Caroni swamp is the second biggest mangrove wetland in Trinidad and Tobago and is an important habitat for the scarlet ibis which come to roost in a particular set of trees every night. It was these birds we had really come to see. They came in flocks of bright red flashes and speckled the trees like berries on a bush. Their color was so vibrant it didn’t seem real to me, especially in such large quantities.

We were looking at their trees across a large lagoon so they were far enough away so that they seemed more like spots of color than birds. But with the help of binoculars they were quite easy to pick out of their deep green background. Our guide told us that the juveniles didn’t get their color for a year or two and you could tell them apart from the adults because they were a blue grey color. Knowing this, it was interesting to see that the juveniles came in separate flocks from the adults although they all roosted all together.

As we left the swamp the sky turned orange and yellow in a beautiful sunset. A wonderful way to end our last day in Trinidad.


Seeing My Home Through New Eyes

Adam, looking out at to where  the Atlantic and Carribean meet - Photo by Heather Barron
Adam, looking out at to where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet

By Adam Eckert

I’ve been traveling to Trinidad with my father for 17 years now (since I was 2), but this is the first time I’ve been with a group of people my

Father & Son
Father & Son

age that I know. This was different, but not so much because I was with a group, but because I was playing on the island with friends as opposed to doing data collection/processing or exploring with

people I didn’t know. I think that the coolest part of it for me was being able to experience that feeling of new discovery vicariously through my peers.

Riding in the truck
Riding in the truck

While I’ve always had fun and love going to what has become my second home, I hadn’t experienced the pure excitement and joy that accompanies doing something that for many was so new, so different, and so unbelievable. Seeing all of the incredibleness that is Trinidad unfold before the eyes of my friends was one of the most rewarding experience I’ve had there.

Adam with some of our group
Adam with some of our group

Connecting with Trinidadians

Francis, one of our fearless and wise Nature Seekers guides
Francis, one of our fearless and wise Nature Seekers guides

By Beth Ann White

My favorite part of the Trinidad trip was getting to know the locals. I absolutely love talking with people from a different culture and discovering what we have in common. By hearing the philosophical minds of these Trinidadians, I drew connections between my life and theirs and realized how alike we humans are. I find communication breaks down the material barriers which suggest we are different from each other and brings into light the Soul we all share.

Hanging out with Francis, weathering a storm while he tells us stories of his life
Hanging out with Francis, weathering a storm while he tells us stories of his life

When we went out in search for the Leatherback Sea Turtles, each team was assigned a Nature Seeker to be their guide throughout the night. Our groups would part into the separate zones and settle by a log for the stretch of the night. What better way to spend the evening than in conversation? I can remember two conversations in particular which are melded into my memory. One

Nature Seeker supporting the research we did
Nature Seeker supporting the research we did

was with Francis, one of the original Nature Seeker volunteers. He shared his wisdom with us from his past experiences and reiterated powerful words to live by, which I heard before in Suzan’s(the founder of Nature Seekers, and Francis’ sister) talk about how to successfully make a change.

Serving us fresh coconut - the guides told us about the different stages of a coconut and the water and "jelly" or meat inside. Mmm, delicious!
Serving us fresh coconut – the guides told us about the different stages of a coconut and the water and “jelly” or meat inside. Mmm, delicious!

Another conversation was with John, also a Nature Seekers guide. I learned he’s married with two kids and only five years older than me. He had his first kid when he

More coconut
More coconut

was my age and still finished college! This is crazy for me to think about.  John let us in on the mind of a Trinidadian and explained why we receive the attention we do in town (they treat us as if we are celebrities!). It was enlightening to hear his perspective on race and just life in general.

I was amazed to see what deep thinkers the people in this country are. Not that I thought otherwise, I just didn’t expect to hear

Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste, the founder of Nature Seekers and an amazing woman!
Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste, the founder of Nature Seekers and an amazing woman!

such inspirational words when I saw their village in such a different state than how I see most American suburbs. Although it was evident some families were surviving with the bare minimum, that didn’t seem to stop them from stretching their minds far beyond material limitations. Witnessing these people carry so much hope has served as a valuable lesson. It is clear Suzan has started a ripple effect in this country, promoting a brighter future through sustainability. And all this came through her love of keeping the Leatherback alive.

“Goodbye, Emma!”

By Gaby Mejia

I remember the times when my mother would tell my sisters and I not to name an animal we knew we couldn’t keep. We would pout and look down in disappointment as she told us that it was best “not get too attached”. Needless to say, we rarely followed her advice.

As some old habits never die, we named every turtle we worked with- Betsy, Beatriz, Martha, and all the Ninja Turtle names (which we modified into more feminine versions like “Donatella”). They were all hard working mothers who pushed themselves beyond all limits the moment their flippers first landed on the shore. One could watch as they (with their incredible biceps) dragged themselves to the perfect spot on the beach. Sometimes they would find this perfect nesting place right away, and sometimes it would take them over 30 minutes of upper-body work out to roam around the beach until it was found. This was not an easy task, but it was one they were willing to take to guarantee the safety of their eggs.

Tonight was our last night to work with the sea turtles. After much star-gazing, story-telling, and snack-eating for a couple of hours, our last turtle finally came determinately out of the water. Unlike the other turtles, this one was a smaller one with a carapace of 141cm in length. She moved all the way to the end of the clear path of the sand and rummaged around until she finally settled and began to dig her nest. The process was done like most, artistically and gracefully, by digging her rear flippers into the sand and carefully twisting and lifting it to dump it to the side. I knelt down by her side to witness in admiration this astonishing process. I placed my hand on her back and soothingly caressed her. Now and then her carapace would lift up and her head would slowly shake from one side to the other as she drew heavy breaths.

“You are doing so well, you are almost there” I softly whispered to her.

Curious to feel her breathing, I gently placed my ear on her soft carapace. The feeling was incredible, she was so precious. At that moment I thought of a name for her.

“Have we named this turtle yet?” I asked.

“Not yet, have any ideas?” Leah responded as she was getting ready to tag her.

“Yes! How about Emma?” I answered.

One of the definitions of the name Emma is “complete and whole.” Even though I did not know it at the moment, the sincerity and gentleness of the name instantly made it seem right, and I was happy to later find out what it meant. Emma was demonstrating the perfect example of life with all its completeness and wholeness.

Once we finished collecting the needed data on her, we stood aside. She rushed towards the crashing waves the same way she had when she emerged from them. She had finished her job for tonight, but we all knew that, even though we weren’t going to be present, that she was going to come back to do the same process five or six more times. We also knew that each time she would do it as dutifully and diligently as this one. It’s what it took to be a mother and Emma knew it.

“Good bye Emma! Good bye!” We cheered and waved happily after her as she finally submerged completely into the ocean.


By McKinzie Wilgus

On our third night out on Matura Beach patrolling, my crew spotted our first sea turtle to experiment on. I’ve never seen something so exhilarating! Many Marine Biologists have never even seen a Leatherback sea turtle, and I had the opportunity of doing so. About 10 turtles to be exact!

My team’s experiment involved testing the thermo-regulation of the female during her nesting process. Leatherbacks swim in deeper, colder waters, compared to the other six genera of sea turtles, which prefer warm coastal waters. Then, they come onto a hot sandy beach. So how do they prevent from overheating?

I was charged with testing the internal temperature by putting a thermometer probe 25 cm up her cloaca (where the eggs come from). I also tested the internal temperature by putting the thermometer inside a yolkless egg (which has no embryo).The external temperature was tested using a infrared thermometer and putting it up to her neck.

As we begin to look at our data and draw conclusions, we will be looking for a correlation between the internal and external temperatures and at what rate they change. From this, we can determine how she prevents from overheating with such a severe temperature change in her environment.

I’ve wanted to work with sea turtles all of my life, and I have finally had the opportunity to work with my second species of sea turtles, the Leatherback. After long walks on the beach and waiting and waiting to see a leatherback emerge from the water, I can finally say that this has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Toco & Grand Riviere

By Colleen Klehm

Today we woke up early for breakfast at 7:30. We had bread, eggs and watermelon. Then we got on the bus and headed off to the lighthouse in Toco (which is a town on the east tip of Trinidad) . This trip took us down some very small twisty curvy roads, but when we arrived it was definitely worth it.

The lighthouse was sitting up on some large ocean bluffs overlooking the convergence of the ocean on either side of the island and also had some pretty cute green turtles in it. We hung out there for a bit and then headed off to Grande Rivière where they have the largest number of nesting leather backs on the island. Once we arrived we were told a little about their organization and then had lunch cooked by the wife of one of the organizers who is known for her cooking!

While we ate, we were read some beautiful and funny poems about turtles and everything they go through. While lunch and poems were happening we had our first drenching rain in Trinidad and it was amazing! Once the rain had settled and we were done with lunch, and many encores of the poems, we walked out to Grande Rivière beach to body surf and sun bathe.

Some people bought things for family and friends in a local shop on the beach. We were there for about two hours and then said our thank yous and goodbyes and headed back to Suzan’s Guest House. Back at the house we got to look at and buy the pottery, jewelry and trinkets that Nature Seekers had made to promote the love of sea turtles. We had a lovely dinner and headed to Matura beach around 7 to see our beautiful sea turtle friends one last time.

“In the Name of Science…”

By Melissa L’Heureux, Emily Swanson, Elissa Matheny and Marshall McCurties – aka “The Audio-Visual Crew”

Marshall, Emily, Elissa & Melissa in action
Marshall, Emily, Elissa & Melissa in action – Photo by Heather Barron


Last night, our group had our first successful experiment of behavioral modification. As a group, we were trying to see if we’d be able to manipulate the turtle’s path on its way back to the water following the nesting process.  We wanted to figure out if the turtles rely more on visual senses or auditory senses to find their way back to the ocean.

To perform our experiment, we put a dark sack over the turtle’s head to eliminate her sight after  she laid her eggs and started to position herself toward the water.  Instead of continuing toward the water

Our first attempt with a bandana for a blindfold - which ultimately failed, but led to using a cloth bag instead
Our first attempt with a bandana for a blindfold – which ultimately failed, but led to using a cloth bag instead

like we assumed she would do, she ended up spinning in two full counter-clockwise circles.

After five minutes, we put noise cancelling headphones on with prerecorded waves sounds in just one ear.  The turtle started to spin clockwise, in the direction of the ear which we were controlling the sounds level. After another five minutes, we changed which ear we were playing the wave sounds in. However, she still continued to spin in the same direction after we switched ears.

After 15 minutes of controlling her senses, we removed everything to see how long it would take for her to reorient herself with the water. She aimed her body toward the ocean within 1 minute and 40 seconds – a very short time,- and then continued into the water and we lost visual contact at 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

After seeing a Leatherback for the first time the night before, and due to how our first experiment went, we started to loose faith that we would walk away with any substantial data from this trip.

Students collecting data - Photo by Heather Barron
Students collecting data – Photo by Heather Barron

Underestimating exactly how massive these creatures are, we didn’t think it was possible to actually manipulate their behavior. Because of that, we were very excited to have such substantial data after tonight.

It was also really inspiring to work with John, one of the Nature Seekers guide, on this experiment.  After chatting with him quite extensively throughout the evening, it was fun to see how driven he was to learn about Leatherbacks. We asked him to share his thoughts with us after the experiment was complete.  He told us he didn’t expect anything to happen, but after seeing the results he had so many questions.  He was hoping to work solely with our group for the rest of the trip to see how our future experiments go.

All in all, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to use this as an initiation into the world of science!

Melissa thanks the turtle for helping us learn more her and her species
Melissa thanks the turtle for helping us learn more her and her species

Day Three – Rio Seco Kayak Adventure

Leah Pyne (l.) and Kelsy Brawn (r. and the author of this blog) prepping to kayak up the Rio Seco
Leah Pyne (l.) and Kelsy Brawn (r. and the author of this blog) prepping to kayak up the Rio Seco

We experienced the Rio Seco in a different form today than yesterday’s waterfall pool plunge, and instead kayaked up its waters. We began at a point where the river meets the ocean at a public beach, which was bustling with people. We took everything in. The clear flowing water under our boats, the lush green plant life

The bridge at the beginning of our kayak
The bridge at the beginning of our kayak
It's so lush here!
It’s so lush here!
Up the Rio Seco
Up the Rio Seco
Heading up river
Heading up river

surrounding us, the locals waving to us as we passed by, and the blue blue blue sky. It all made for an amazing adventure!

After paddling for about 20 minutes, we then left our kayaks on a bank to explore! Most of the group walked a little ways up the river, while a few individuals stayed back. However, both groups ended up wading in the water and skipping stones. But we soon found out that no one OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas a match for Francis’ (our trusted guide and NatureSeeker) rock skipping skills! We all stood on awe. He inspired us to greatness, and we paddled away with a few tips to improve our throws. After making the return trip, a group photo was taken to document the journey, and then back to the guest house we went!

The tiniest frog you’ve ever met! These little guys were like bugs scuttling all around our feet. They are the size of a small pinky fingernail! Photo by Adam Eckert

My First Leatherback

Gaby Mejia (l.) and Kelly Adams (r. and the author of this blog post) loving a momma turtle while she lays her eggs
Gaby Mejia (l.) and Kelly Adams (r. and the author of this blog post) loving a momma turtle while she lays her eggs. Photo By Heather Barron

By Kelly Adams

We’d been walking on Matura Beach for about 1.2 km when our Nature Seeker said to our small research group, “It is important to look at all your surrounds.” As we looked around, right in front of us was a large Leatherback sea turtle that had just came up from the water. She was trying to find a good place to nest.

Momma Leatherback - Photo by Heather Barron
Momma Leatherback – Photo by Heather Barron

The turtle was feeling the sand with her rear flippers to test the warmth of the area (the movement she was doing looked like windshield wipers). I couldn’t believe that right in front of my eyes was the first Leatherback sea turtle I had ever seen! I was so excited that I wanted to jump and scream. But I had to contain my inner excitement because I did not want to disturb her. We radioed other groups to come to our site so we could go through the process of how to fill out the data sheet, tag, and microchip the turtle.

Once she was ready to dig, she anchored her front flippers and wedged them into the sand. This was a sign of her readiness to dig her nest. Her digging process was fascinating. She used her back flippers like shovels and scooped out the sand below her. At one point, during her digging, she resorted to digging with only one flipper while she used the other flipper to block the sand from falling back into the deep nest.

Laying eggs - Photo by Beth Ann
Laying eggs – Photo by Beth Ann

After she was finished digging, she was ready to lay her eggs. This is when we were able to begin the process of inserting a microchip and tagging the turtle (which we did because it was an untagged turtle). Our group was not able to get our research data on this turtle since we were not quite fast enough pulling out her eggs before she started covering her nest and packing down the sand (read further for info on our research project). “Camouflaging” the nest was her next step, and she did this by using her front flippers spewing sand everywhere. She then made her return to the ocean.

Our next step was to search for a new turtle. After about 15 minutes, there was a call on the radio that there was another Leatherback. Our group headed that way. Since our group collected the data and tagged the first turtle, we let another group experience and learn what to do.

Our group decided to collect our individual project data on this turtle. We first collected the eggs from the nest as she laid them,

Yoke Egg
Yoke Egg
Yolkless eggs
Yolkless eggs

placing them into a bucket. The eggs were white and felt soft. They could also be indented easily, like a ping-pong ball. There were two types of eggs in this nest: yolk eggs and yolkless eggs.

We counted all the yolk and yolkless eggs, weighed them, measured the diameter of the eggs, and the volume of how much they take up in a nest. Other groups around us evaluated behavior responses to turtles based on sensory removal (does she use more vision or hearing to orient herself to the ocean?), measured the carapace (her back) width and length, the correlation of the sand’s temperature and the Leatherback’s choice of nesting spot, and the correlation of the external and internal temperatures in relation to thermal regulation. Even though we only saw two turtles, it was such an amazing experience and I cannot wait to work on more turtles this coming week!