Author Archives: Catalina Burch

About Catalina Burch

Hi I'm Catalina and I am studying at the School for Field Studies (SFS) in the Turks and Caicos this semester. I am a Biology Major and Art Minor at Whitman College. This semester I will be descend to 100 feet as I listen to the migratory songs of the humpback whales echoing through the water. I will be actively engaging in the community on South Caicos and be learning about the fishery management policies on TCI.

Rodeo Queen

(Cat and Corndog with green sea turtle)

Yesterday we went out turtling, which means driving around on the boat looking for turtles swimming in the shallows. After a turtle is spotted, we chase it with the boat until we get close enough for someone to leap from the boat onto the turtle. You wrestle it to the surface and bring it onto the boat. This is called a rodeo.

Once the turtle is on the boat it is identified and measured. If it is a green turtle we release it, and if it is a hawksbill turtle we tag it then release it.

Little did you know that last summer I worked on a cattle ranch as a farmhand and official cowgirl. Needless to say, I’ve been to a couple rodeos in my day. This is why when our professor Aaron asked who was going to be the one to do the rodeo, I was nominated. The only person on the boat who didn’t want me to be the the rodeo queen was Conner (otherwise known as Corndog), who was seeking redemption for missing a turtle the other night.

We spotted a turtle and began the chase with everyone in the boat on their feet. I ran from port to starboard to port, ready to jump at any moment. Finally, the turtle comes right under the boat and Aaron yells “JUMP!” I leap overboard, arms out in front bracing for contact and come up with nothing. I missed it! I open my eyes and see the turtle a couple feet in front of me swimming tiredly, so I begin the chase. Arms like propeller blades I swim like a madwoman after the little guy.

The boat comes back around with Conner perched on the gunnels rearing for action. They make a pass and Conner dives off the boat. With a streamline swan dive to make his 9th grade swim coach proud, he comes up screaming with turtle in arms.

I swim over to Conner and together we bring the turtle back to the boat full of cheering students. Maybe I’m not as big of a rodeo star as everyone expected, but at least we put on a show. As for the turtle, he was not harmed, and was quickly released.

Extraterrestrial Contact

You and your partner are floating weightless, gazing out into the dark abyss. It’s cold in your suit, and the oxygen tank makes your movements slower because of the extra weight and bulk. You can’t hear much outside the noise of you breathing into the regulator.

Quietly, between breaths, you begin to hear creaks and clicks and long whistles. You look over at your partner, but she doesn’t appear to hear anything unusual, so you go back to your business, occasionally glancing back out into the blackness.

Suddenly, something begins to materialize in your peripheral vision. Two huge dark figures come swooping out of the darkness. Are they coming straight at you? You look over at your partner and her eyes are as wide as flying saucers. It registers. Aliens! Two huge alien space ships are flying at you and you are frozen.

They’re humpback whales, not aliens, silly.

(Camilla and the aliens)

(Camilla, Tess, and the aliens)


Ok, I have not suddenly become an astronaut, I’m still in the Turks and Caicos, but yesterday I had an out of this world experience. Our dive team got a greeting from two humpback whales, and my dive partner, Sophie, momentarily thought that we were having extraterrestrial contact with aliens. It was unequivocally the best dive I have ever been on. The whales passed within 60-80ft of our dive group, swimming along the edge of the TCI deep water trench. Camilla cried underwater, and I’m sure one of us peed a little in their wetsuit. With the seemingly infinite visibility of the Caribbean, we watched them glide across and back out of view into the dark blue waters.

After the whales were out of view our dive group had an underwater party. We danced and hugged, and high-fived, and used up all of our air in our excitement, so we soon had to return to the surface.

(Story inspired by this wonderful dive buddy Sophie who thought we were having an extraterrestrial encounter)

On another note we also saw two massive nurse sharks on this dive.

(Me just trying to blend in with the local crowd here. Ft. two 20ft nurse sharks)


PSA: It’s not all fun and games out there kiddos.

[Pic left to right: Sophie, Tyler, Cat (me), and Olivia rocking the eye protection on our dusty ride back from our first exam of the semester]

This post is for all you people out there thinking, wow this looks like a lovely vacation! She must be getting such a nice tan.

PSA: It’s not all fun and games out there kiddos.

Ok so it’s pretty fun, and yes I am getting a very nice tan, but we do a lot of pretty awesome work out here too. Most days are actually spent in the classroom with time split between our marine ecology class, resource management class, and environmental policy and socioeconomic values class. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we dive (weather permitting) and do community engagement. Throughout the week we rotate through cooking and cleaning crews, and student of the day responsibilities. We have homework assignments and exams, in fact, yesterday we had our first exam, and I can now give you the genus and species for over 30 Mangrove community organisms.

When studying and learning it is common to face challenges, and the challenges just look a little bit different here. Sometimes learning involves getting stung repeatedly in the face by a Cassiopea sp. jellyfish while “snorkeling” in 1ft deep water, because you can’t stand without getting sucked knee-deep in mud. Or maybe sometimes it means suffocating in a wetsuit on a boat facing 5ft wind swells as you wonder what puking in a regulator would be like. Last night, learning meant staying out on a sharking research boat till midnight on Valentine’s Day, making bad puns about being a master at bating hooks, all the while catching zero sharks.

Challenges and all, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. The complete emersion of this program gives us the academic tools to explore the world in a new and incredible way. Every day I am amazed by the welcoming and respectful actions of the students, community, and staff who live and work here. Just this morning I got the grandest of welcomes from a hawksbill turtle who swam over, so close that I could have (theoretically) reached out and touched him, and said hello.

[Pic left to right: Olivia, Tess, and Camila baiting hooks for the sharks that never came]