The six of us here have all been given an amazing opportunity, through funding from the National Science Foundation, to participate not only in field research while we are still students but also to experience a different country. Lough Hyne itself is a beautiful, peaceful place, and simply studying here for a month would be a great way to learn about the marine ecology of Ireland and the culture of West Cork. That is exactly what we get to do, and so much more.
Other students have posted blogs about the various events in and around Skibbereen that were part of Ireland’s National Heritage Week so I encourage you to read all of those (below). Each event taught us more about the culture and history of this part of the world than I ever expected to come out of this experience knowing. My favorite was the touch tanks because we (the students and mentors) were then an integral part of a Heritage Week event. We helped collect animals from the lough and set them up in tanks for the public to see. We also took turns answering questions and explaining the biology and ecology of the Lough. We are foreigners, which is very evident to everyone by the way we talk (no fancy Irish accent), but Lough Hyne has a rich history of scientists coming from all over the world and the public was happy we were there and able to tell them more about their beloved lough.
We are also having great experiences outside of Heritage Week. On a couple of the weekends, we were able to go into Skibbereen for the Saturday market. I have been to Saturday markets in a couple different places in the U.S, but neither of them can compete with the Skibbereen market. There are stands selling everything from food and crafts to small livestock. The food stands are full of freshly baked homemade bread and fresh vegetables. There are even refrigerated stands that sell fresh meat. The craft stands sell everything from assorted antiques and books to hand made jewelry and clothing. The small livestock consisted mostly of chickens and ducks, with an occasional rooster and even baby chicks. Adults, children, and even dogs were there enjoying a wonderful Saturday morning.
Everything I have experienced here has been wonderful, but I think my favorite part was when we went sailing. We were going out into the ocean around Ireland’s southern islands to take offshore plankton tows and we were originally supposed to be on a twin-hulled catamaran, but we ended up on a sailboat (due to engine problems on the catamaran). Before we even left the dock, the crew brought us tea, coffee, and cookies, on real dishes to enjoy as they readied the boat. The skipper had us help with all the ropes to deploy the sails, which was a lot of fun, but the best part was that he let us take turns driving! I have driven small boats before, but nothing that big (the boat was 54 feet long) and never a sailboat. The weather was perfect, though the wind was not very strong so we did have to use the motor sometimes. I was able to drive for about an hour and in that time I had to go through a gap between two islands, which looked tiny as we were approaching it, but turned about to be about three times as wide as the boat. I was expecting the captain to take over as we got closer, but he let me keep the wheel. We went into a different port (Cape Clear ...the site of a world-famous bird observatory) to stop for lunch before continuing home, and I again expected the skipper to take the wheel to park the boat, but he had me do it. It was scary, but not as hard as I had anticipated and it went smoothly. Then we were brought more coffee and tea along with cookies, crackers, cheese, grapes, bread, hard-boiled eggs, ham, and home made scones with jam. It was an unexpected, but delicious lunch! We, unfortunately, did not see any whales while we were out, but we did see lots of different sea birds and some gray seals. I think we all really enjoyed the sampling trip, just as we are all thoroughly enjoying this entire experience.
By Caitlin Plowman