JESSICA PALMER IS A GAP-YEAR STUDENT, AND A BIT OF A SUN BUNNY. While the other volunteers fill out their survey reports in the shade, she takes her notes outside and works on her tan.
"I did my A-levels in June, then applied to Coral Cay Conservation while working hard to earn some money to pay for it," she tells me as we sit in the afternoon sun at the end of the pier. "I managed to save enough for two months on the expedition." Clearly not superstitious, she adds: "I arrived on Friday the 13th on a Russian turboprop aeroplane!
"The trip is exactly what I hoped for," says Jessica. "Lots of people getting on well together, all interested in the science and enjoying the diving.
"The living conditions and food are better than I expected, because before the trip I'd seen pics of camping in Belize. I haven't missed home at all. The lack of communications made it easier; I could just forget about home completely."
Jessica has learned to dive on the expedition. "Completing the course was one of the high spots and I hope to do Rescue Diver before I return." Another highlight was provided by a pod of dolphins: "We saw them from the base and rushed out in a boat to snorkel with them. They rode the bow wave, then we drove ahead, jumped in and watched them circle and pass."
Ten years ago, I joined one of the early Coral Cay Conservation expeditions. I spent three months at Southwater Cay in Belize, learning about corals and fish, diving, surveying the reef and lagoon, and doing my share of the chores.
I left Belize feeling I had achieved something. Pete Raines, one of CCC's founding directors, had told me the experience would change my life. I couldn't see it then, but it was part of a chain of events that resulted in my giving up the corporate rat-race and writing for Diver.
CCC has grown since then. It now has a full-time expedition in the Philippines, short-term expeditions have been completed at several other locations and new projects start this year in Fiji, US Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Eritrea. CCC has won international awards for its work with coral reefs and its use of volunteer-workers.
The Belize expedition moved north to Calabash Cay, built a marine research centre, completed its scientific work in Belize and moved south to the Bay Islands of Honduras, first Utilla and now Roatan. I visited the site for a couple of weeks last November to see how things were going.
The expedition runs on a monthly cycle, starting with "Science Week", an intense period of training in survey techniques and identification of fish, coral and other reef species.
Afterwards surveys are conducted by teams of four divers swimming transects up the reef and recording what they find, starting at 28m and finishing at 4m. Each diver has an assigned role, such as identifying and counting fish, corals, other creatures and algae, and doing the physical survey.
Results are entered into a database from which London-based staff build environmental maps. CCC works with local conservation bodies and governments to advise on how the environment can best be conserved amid the competing pressures of development, tourism and fishing.
Non-diving volunteers arrive a week early to be trained up to PADI Advanced Open Water Diver standard. My visit coincides with their arrival. Next week, more experienced divers will join the expedition and Science Week begins.
No one is paid to work here. Even the on-site expedition staff usually fund their own flights and insurance.
Rick Friedberger, 27, has been Project Manager here for two months. He started with CCC as a diving instructor on the Utilla expedition in January, before becoming its Expedition Leader. With five months to run as Project Manager in Roatan, he plans to take time out before taking over as Expedition Leader in the Philippines.
"The toughest part was at the tail-end of Utilla, when Roatan was just starting up, but it turned out that some of the best work was completed during that phase," he tells me. The high point? "Swimming with sperm whales."
Rick handles liaison with Honduran organisations and the government, but day-to-day running of the operation is the responsibility of the Expedition Leader who, as Rick puts it, "makes or breaks an expedition. Their personality sets the whole character of the team."
That task falls to Ali Beck, who has packed an immense amount of travel into her 34 years. She learned to dive several years ago, though mountain sports are her big thing - she has led overland expeditions in Africa, Asia and in particular Latin America, where her Spanish and Portuguese come in useful.
Before joining the expedition, Ali attended one of CCC's staff selection and training weekends: "The people I met and the fun I had during the weekend was one of the things that convinced me to accept the post," she says.
That weekend she met Sara Ketteley, now Medical Officer in Roatan. This 31-year-old doctor trained as a GP and psychiatrist, then took a year off to travel and dive. She decided that among similar organisations CCC had the best balance of out-of-the-way tropical locations and diving.
Sara had planned to be a volunteer but, realising that she would end up helping out on the medical side anyway, decided she might as well join as MO. She takes her responsibilities seriously: "Before joining I studied up on tropical medicine and worked for a couple of weeks in A&E to brush up on my skills."
So far she has dealt with one confirmed case of decompression sickness, which occurred following a previous incident in the UK, and a false alarm. Both incidents were treated by the chamber at Anthony's Key resort at the west end of Roatan.
More common are colds, ear infections and minor ear trauma, and regular visits from one particularly accident-prone volunteer for cuts and abrasions.
Psychiatry? Sara reassures me that the pressures of expedition life have yet to reduce anyone to a gibbering wreck, but she sees the MO's role as bridging any gaps between volunteers and staff. People often prefer to approach a doctor about personal problems.
CLEAR OF CHEESINESS
Scuba Instructor Nick Carre, 28, is about to return to his native Guernsey, leaving Rick to cover for him. Watching Nick teach a PADI Open Water course, I am impressed by his easy familiarity with the material and the way he steers clear of the commercial cheesiness that so often permeates such courses.
The volunteers regard him as an excellent instructor. Many take the opportunity to do a Rescue Diver or Divemaster course. Nick has been so busy, he has barely broken double figures on his own survey dives.
"My main motivation was to learn more about marine biology," he says, when I ask why he has taken an unpaid job after travelling the world as a paid instructor. "From an instructing point of view, it's nice being able to develop divers properly rather than the 'cert and goodbye' culture of resort work.
"It's been very rewarding to train divers from raw beginner to Advanced or even Divemaster, and watch them develop into competent and independent divers."
Nick now wants to get into video work and gain some technical-diving qualifications - just for fun.
Supervising the survey work and science training is the "Science Führer", as Arndt Stenzel, the expedition's Austrian Science Officer, refers to himself. Arndt, 28, learned to dive seven years ago while completing a degree in marine biology, and went on to do an MSc with a thesis in dolphin behaviour. He joined the expedition to gain experience and build his CV.
"I am excited about the new volunteers, as they will be the first group whose science training I have been solely responsible for. Seeing them succeed will be a measure of my own satisfaction," says Arndt. By the time I depart they are doing quite well, passing their coral ID exams and getting good results on their fish ID practice.
WHO DOES THE COOKING?
Ten years ago in Belize we did everything from shopping and cooking to driving the boats ourselves, but CCC's policy is now to hire local staff.
"It's good for relations with the community and we make use of their local knowledge," says Rick. "It's actually cheaper to hire Andy [the cook], because though we pay him he knows how and where to get food at the best price. Meals are better and the volunteers spend more time doing science."
The other Honduran, Cheslee Dilbert, drives the boat for survey dives. He lives just along the beach and his family owns the buildings CCC uses.
One of his projects is the Calbash Bight marine reserve. Well before CCC arrived, the community had declared two miles of coastline a marine park, aiming to restore fisheries and improve the quality of the marine environment for tourism.
They were influenced by the success of a no-anchoring and restricted fishing zone at the west end of Roatan, created in 1987 by the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), which reports that fish stocks have dramatically recovered both in the reserve and in surrounding areas.
Calabash Bight has no BICA involvement, but all the pieces are there for the data and management plans arising from the CCC's survey work to play a major role in helping the community.
The reputation of the Bay Islands for some of the best diving in the western Caribbean is based on the success of the marine reserves at Roatan and Utilla, but all my diving in Roatan is near the CCC base and, had I not known how surveying works, I might have been disappointed.
While most of the "old" volunteers are off on a long weekend touring nearby islands, Rick and I go diving for fun. Cheslee looks over the side of the boat, judges the precise shade of blue, puts it in neutral and announces our arrival. Descending, I can see the top of the wall at 20m. I remember from my CCC training that a wall followed by a gently sloping fore reef to a shallow reef crest is a typical pattern.
The wall is OK, nothing fantastic. As we drift slowly with the current, the condition of the reef varies. Some parts are healthy-looking stony corals, huge outcrops of star and brain corals, with sponges and soft corals protruding. Other parts look less healthy, and in some places algae hangs like ivy from an old building. I find myself getting back into a scientific diving mindset.
A few hours later we make a second dive, a short way further along the reef. I can't put my finger on why, but everything comes together here to create a beautiful rather than a drab view.
A resort dive would take you only to the most spectacular parts of the reef, but CCC surveys everything, good and bad, deep and shallow, reef and sand, corals and sea grass and even the silty mangroves. Somewhere along the line it clicks, and you start to appreciate the whole reef ecosystem rather than just a few carefully selected sites.
That has been the experience of Will Budenoch, a gap-year student. He's an old hand, having learned to dive six weeks before and done survey dives almost every day since. Soon he will travel around Central America before doing a stuntman course in Australia. Later he plans to study archaeology - he's a budding Indiana Jones. If you haven't guessed, he is also the MO's regular customer for minor injuries.
This is his first long stay away from London. "For the first few weeks I didn't really feel part of the expedition," he tells me. "It was just a holiday in basic conditions and I was an observer. Then it clicked and I really felt part of it. It felt good when we got the compressor shed finished."
'WISH I HAD MY KNIFE'
Back from the weekend off, Will says: "At the end of it I found myself looking forward to coming home, and home was the expedition." He is now helping with Science Week, leading new volunteers on dives and quizzing them on fishes and corals.
"I suddenly realised how much I was in control and the responsibility I had to pass knowledge on." Living conditions? "The expedition is more comfortable than I expected - toilets, showers, room fans, etc," says Will. "Even so, it would be nice to have more creature comforts and late mornings. I was surprised to find that the staff are unpaid, yet they work much harder than many people with highly paid jobs in London.
"The pace of organisation among the locals can be frustrating," he goes on. "Everything is left to the last minute and later. I brought way too many clothes. I've only used bathers, shorts, a couple of T-shirts and one pair of trousers. The rest is festering away in my bag. I should have brought a mosquito net. I gave up on pills after I forgot them four or five days running. And I really regret leaving my penknife at home. This is probably the only time in my life I would really have got to use it!"
Three marine biology students from the National University of Honduras have been learning to dive with the expedition. CCC provides places for local students on all its expeditions, aiming to improve countries' ability to manage their own marine environment.
"I teach corals to younger students and the main challenge here was learning English common names where I am used to Latin names," says one of them, Claudia Lardizabal. "The fish are tougher to learn, as I don't have so much experience. Overall, the science is much more thorough and serious than I expected." What about the accommodation? "It's OK, much better than on many field projects where I have had to camp and toilet in the bush."
Mia Helmer Jensen is a pre-university student in the middle of a three-month stay. She found she fitted in better with the more mature group. Because of work-experience breaks in the Danish education system she is, at 21, a few years older than most gap-year students.
"I was originally looking for some voluntary work, perhaps teaching languages," says Mia. "I found CCC by mistake. It looked interesting and caught my imagination. I had always had a fantasy about diving."
Mia was originally offered a place in Utilla before being changed to Roatan. "I was glad because I wanted something more remote. I'm not so sure about the isolation now. It is virtually impossible even to send a postcard. But I expected it to be physically more arduous. The work and camp regime is actually quite easy to live with and I am surprised that there are opportunities for spare time. Science Week is a lot of fun."
Mia found the expedition awkward to fit into at first.
"I joined a cabana with five 18-year-old girls. Being Danish, I didn't bother locking the bathroom door and came out of the shower naked. Some of them were a bit shocked. By the time I realised, the damage was done and I was outside the group. Some girls can be a bit bitchy."
During the long weekend, Mia has got to know the other long-term volunteers better. "I felt a bit depressed just before the long weekend, but now I am really happy. This week is the best so far - the group is maturer and I fit in better. I am glad I am here for so long. If it was just one month I would have gone home disappointed, especially after the bitch cabana!"
Summer is a popular time for students to join the expedition, either kicking off a gap year, on summer vacation or, in the case of recent graduates, travelling before starting work. By autumn the mix begins to change, with broader backgrounds and age range.
Steve Allsop, an ex-Navy technician and now an ROV operator, is, at 39, the oldest of the new volunteers. He originally joined for a fortnight, barely long enough to finish Science Week and do a few surveys, but is now trying to reschedule his flights to extend his stay. If that doesn't work, he plans to return.
His motivation is a mixture of diving, learning something about the reef and wanting "to put something back".
"The science is much more involved than I had anticipated, but it's enjoyable because of that," says Steve. "I'm learning much more than I expected. The corals are easier to ID when diving than in the classroom. I'm looking forward to survey work, putting it all into practice. It's already changed my outlook on diving."
He also appreciates how existing volunteers help out with the science training. "The old volunteers are very helpful, they want us to become part of the team and be working on surveys ASAP."
Some of the volunteers think that the camp routine is a bit strict, but Steve disagrees: "It's fairly relaxed really - easy compared to the Navy."
Celina Kerr, the only BSAC-trained diver among the predominantly PADI-qualified group, is marketing co-ordinator for an engineering consultancy. She is proving the hard way that you don't need to bring much luggage. She has flown in via New York and Miami, but her bag has gone elsewhere.
"The CCC diving equipment is OK, but I would much rather be using my own gear," she says. As for the rest of it: "The first night I slept under a towel, but now that's wet and I'm sleeping under a sarong!"
CLEAN SHORTS AND UNDERWEAR
What about the science? "I'm surprised how much I have learned so quickly. The training is intensive but it obviously works. This is the best place to learn; theory ashore and then practical on the reef straight after."
Celina's luggage eventually arrives some six days later and she celebrates having clean shorts and underwear. Her clothing has been on a trip to Bermuda.
Fitting the expedition into a longer work-break is Megan Evans, an IT consultant. Megan caught the diving bug while working in Singapore. She has travelled through South-east Asia, Australia and Papua New Guinea, where she worked as a divemaster.
She had hardly set foot back home before making a late application to join CCC. "Packing was easy," she says. "I just put everything back in my bag from the last trip. There wasn't really time to think about it."
After two months on the expedition she plans to travel to Guatemala and Costa Rica, perhaps dive Cocos Island, learn Spanish, meet up with friends, then go on to Panama or further south.
Megan likes the balance of volunteers on the expedition. "It's nice to have a good mix, I was concerned it would be too young. The existing volunteers have gained a lot of responsibility fast. They are excellent divers and also good teachers."
The expedition has strict diving rules, with a maximum depth of 28m, all survey dives made on tables, safety stops and maximum dive time of 40 minutes. "I thought CCC dive plans would be too conservative, but it's necessary for the inexperienced divers," says Megan. "At the same time, it would be nice to have a bit more scope on recreational dives."
Another established long-term volunteer, 30-year-old Mark Ormesher, describes his science training a month before as "much more in-depth" than he had expected.
"The pressure was a bit high with all the science to learn and adapting to the camp regime. I could easily have gone home at that point, then suddenly, after two weeks, I had a 'wow' experience and realised what a special place this is."
Mark has travelled and dived a fair bit and his observations on the reef reflect my own. "The reef here is not the best, but the science more than makes up for it. Reef-diving is very different once you know what things are and how they interact."
In addition to the usual camp and expedition work, Mark is taking a Divemaster course with Nick, all part of his grand plan. He intends to move on to do an instructor course at a resort at the west end of Roatan.
"When I did my original Open Water course I was firmly indoctrinated with 'look, don't touch'. I am disgusted at how some divers mistreat the reef. When I'm an instructor I want to be able to educate my students.
"Maybe I could come back as an instructor. The training here is very thorough and effective. Even newly qualified divers are incredibly proficient compared to newly qualified divers in the average resort. After just 10 or 12 dives they are all really capable."
Originally from Germany, Anja Wolter had been travelling for seven months before arriving at the expedition, including some diving in the Galapagos.
She now has three months with CCC, then another two travelling before returning to London and her job as a project manager. Anja joined to "learn about coral and fish, get lots of diving and train to Divemaster".
She picked CCC because "it has a good reputation among prior volunteers" and "with 10-plus years history I would expect the CCC system to be well-tried and tested".
Like everyone else, Anja is impressed by the training and by the skills and enthusiasm of the existing volunteers, though less sure about the way the expedition is run: "I can see that it's necessary to have strict rules for diving, but the camp regime could be more relaxed - more motivation and less regimentation".
Now in the closing stretch of a year away, she expects to be a different person when returning to work: "I don't consider work to be such an important part of my life."
On a shorter break from work, Eve Nolan, a 26-year-old telecoms engineer from Dublin, says: "I saw an ad in a diving magazine, looked at the CCC website and within a week had told my boss I wanted three months off!
"When I get back to Dublin I hope to get work to pay for a Divemaster course as management training."
Eve has been diving for several years and is considering a career change: "Something to do with marine conservation or sharks, even just working for a shark feed."
Like all the old volunteers, Eve has been involved in building a compressor shed. "It was hard physical work, and we still had all the camp work as well as the science and diving.
"I have had to become more domesticated. School-leavers are not necessarily easy to work with on camp chores. I prefer the more balanced mix of people here now, compared to the gap-year mob a month ago.
"The locals are all nice people, though not all are enthusiastic about diving tourism. Some think that divers damage the reef."
The longest-serving volunteer is Eleni Andreadis, a recent graduate in business and environmental management.
After two months, she has one more month to run. "That will be about right. I have had a terrific time, but feel no burning desire to extend."
Arndt has made Eleni Assistant Science Officer. She is now on her third Science Week and feels proficient at the programme. Among her tasks is to announce the Fish of the Day. At breakfast she describes the chosen species and during surveys we all have to keep an eye out for it.
"I pick the ones I'm interested in, ones about which there's something to say, or sometimes just to remind volunteers about fish they're not that good at," says Eleni. "Though sometimes I have special requests for very unlikely fish, such as bull sharks."
Eleni has been diving for five years and found CCC while looking for a project to join when she graduated. "I was originally expecting to go to Utilla. I liked the prospect of staying in town with lots of people and Internet cafes so I could stay in touch. The change to Roatan was made only two weeks before my departure.
"Initially I found it daunting to be so isolated, but now I'm used to it and enjoy the location.
"It's not bad, just different. In the long term I would like to work in environmental consultancy, but there aren't many jobs available. It would be nice to do another expedition, maybe in the Philippines."
CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS
I join the old volunteers for a survey dive. The location has been pre-programmed into a handheld GPS.
Everyone has bits of additional equipment. Jessica is assigned to the physical survey, her task to lead the dive, navigate, and record depth, time and distance.
To measure distance, she is at the front of a 10m length of rope which the team caterpillar up the reef towards the crest. During the dive she opens sample bottles and waves them about before resealing them to take water samples.
Mia is making the fish survey, from the front of the team so that the fish can be seen before they hide. A range of species are scored for abundance from 0 to 5.
I try to stay clear to avoid messing up Mia's counting. She is towing a marker buoy with a loom of rope attached. Survey transects often take more than one dive to complete and the rope has to be strong enough to tie off and mark a position between dives.
At the back end of Jessica's 10m rope, Eve is surveying corals. This involves getting in close to identify similar varieties by the shape of their polyps. Corals too are scored from 0 to 5.
As Eve moves forward, the rope floats up in a loop. When she reaches Jessica, she holds the position on a small outcrop of dead coral while Jessica moves forward to the next 10m segment.
Bringing up the rear, Will takes samples of algae and records non-swimming creatures - Christmas tree worms, shrimps,lobsters and anything else that hides in cracks.
Algae can be hard to identify, so Will has to spend time later with ID books and a magnifying glass to confirm the species he has collected.
Apart from Mia, who is floating neutrally buoyant above the group, everyone works head down, feet well away from the reef and careful to touch only dead parts of the coral.
Having started at 28m, no-stop time soon approaches and Jessica signals to end the dive. She and Mia tie off the buoy line and we ascend to our safety stop. The rest of the transect must wait until the next dive.
This is by any standards a professional, well-organised team, and it's hard to believe some members have been diving for only a month.
The accuracy of survey teams during training is checked against baseline surveys made by CCC science staff. Data gathered in this way played a key role in the Belize barrier reef being designated a World Heritage Site.
Diving gear washed, everyone sits down to transfer the notes on their slates to the official survey record forms, one for each aspect of the survey. Occasionally an unusual fish is recorded and books have to be consulted.
The team then disperse to various camp jobs. It's Eve's turn to mind the compressor. Mia is boat-marshalling for a training dive. Will and Jessica are helping to put the finishing touches to the compressor shed, which includes hanging a Tenko sign above the door.
At a remote location, evening entertainment is pretty much what the expedition members can make for themselves. During Science Week, the evenings are taken up with formal training and private study. After that they might be studying for diving qualifications; writing up surveys or entering data on the computer.
Otherwise they have the option of making for the expedition bar and Rick and Arndt's ongoing chess tournament.
Volunteers are encouraged not to overdo things at the bar during the week, because everyone has to be fit to dive in the mornings.
But Sunday is a no-diving day and Saturday night is party night. Before anyone grasses me up to Beachcomber, I will admit to having had one or two too many rum and cokes one Saturday, as did a few other people.
If I can't hold my rum, I am at least holding my own at chess by the time I'm due to leave.
Then, of course, there is the "Coral Cay Romance". Many longer-term volunteers form relationships. Some are just "holiday" things, others become long-term.
The number of marriages arising from CCC expeditions are now into double figures, which is a better level of success than Cilla Black can boast of, although I think mistaking an expedition for a dating service would be a mistake.
You have to want to learn about the reef to get the most out of a Coral Cay Conservation
GETTING THEREJohn Liddiard travelled with BA to Miami, American Airlines to Honduras, then domestic airline SOSA to Roatan. Other routes used by CCC include New York and Miami; Houston; and Madrid and Miami.
QUALIFICATIONS:Experienced divers are always welcome but beginner's courses run each month. No previous biology or science training necessary.
FUNDING: Volunteers pay for flights and expedition fees (from £715 for two weeks to £2950 for 13), though many arrange individual sponsorship. Staff work for free and many pay for their own flights. Corporate sponsorship, grants and conservation awards raised by CCC go towards headquarters costs and providing places for Hondurans to join the expedition. John Liddiard's flights were sponsored by BA and the Rohan clothing company.
FURTHER INFORMATION:CCC has stands at the Dive Shows and many travel exhibitions. If a group of people are interested, it can arrange for a staff-member or previous volunteer to visit and make a presentation, 0870 0668 or www.coralcay.org