Finding the Answers

The work of McGill University's Caribbean-based research institute in Barbados

Director of the Bellairs Research Institute, Dr. Wayne Hunte. Photograph by Hazel OxenfordField research: a Barbados green monkey in the wild. But who’s studying who? Photograph by J. HorrocksFlying fish larvae hatched in the laboratory at Bellairs. Photograph by Hazel OxenfordNew-born Hawksbill turtles. Photograph by Scott A EckertResearching flying fish numbers off Dominica: Dr. Hazel Oxenford

It is late at night. Savage waves pound the shoreline of Barbados’s rugged Atlantic coast. Emerging from the turbulence, a l80-pound Hawksbill turtle makes her slow and lumbering biennial trek up the beach to lay her eggs.

But suddenly poachers descend on her and drag the flailing creature off to a waiting van. An outraged resident, unable to stop the abduction, calls the Bellairs Institute; the Director, Dr Wayne Hunte, alerts the police. Armed with the licence number, police trace the van’s ownership and swoop down on the poacher’s home, where they wait for the culprits.

So the slaughter of another endangered marine turtle is averted. But not so long ago, the scene would have ended quite differently, right on the beach, with little hope of intervention.

The Barbados-based Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University changed that. Though Bellairs is a research facility, its impact on the region in recent years is a source of tremendous pride for scientists there.

Under the guidance of Dr Julia Horrocks, Bellairs launched the Marine Turtle Management Project eight years ago, and with it a tenacious public awareness campaign that converted an indifferent population into a guardian community. Notes Dr Hunte: “We have seen a remarkable change in public attitude and enforcement during our eight years of work.”

The project, which now includes neighbouring islands, monitors and manages the nesting and hatching activities of endangered marine turtles in an effort to rebuild the population. It involves round-the-clock public calls on nesting and hatch sites, to prevent poaching and ensure that nestings occur in appropriate locations. Scientists relocate poorly sited nests, and if necessary incubate eggs in the laboratory where they get good hatch rates. Calls also help scientists ensure that hatchlings emerge from the nest and reach the sea safely.

While Dr Hunte admits the project is “very rigorous and demanding,” he notes: “It is extremely valuable to Barbados because it has increased local interest in animal conservation, and, given the strong visitor interest in this activity, it is also a working example of eco-tourism.”

But there is a lot more going on at this west coast Institute. In fact, Bellairs serves as an educational and research base for universities and scientists across the globe.

Now a collaborative institution between Canada’s McGill University and the University of the West Indies (UWI), Bellairs is Canada’s lone tropical teaching and research facility. Post-graduate theses and scholastic research projects dominate, but the 40-year-old facility is also the setting for a variety of other short and long term scientific projects, ranging from the maritime sciences and primatology to tropical agriculture, geology and archeology.

Bellairs has a comprehensive marine science library, a computer centre and darkroom, as well as boats, oceanographic equipment, several labs and accommodation for up to 35 people. It is regularly used by North American and European universities, government laboratories and research institutions.

It is a base for short term field studies, workshops and conferences, hosts regional training workshops in the marine sciences and acts as an advisory body to a number of organisations and government departments. “It is also a lab at which marine public health analysis projects are conducted,” Dr Hunte explains. It undertakes extensive environ- mental and conservation research, often for government or corporate clients, and has worked on all the major regional issues, from beach erosion and the impact of effluents on the marine environment to reef deterioration and over-fishing.

Research is often solution-oriented too. Research done at Bellairs has helped to rebuild sea egg populations, estimate sustainable catch rates for flying fish, and identify the pollutants responsible for damaging coral reefs.

The first facility of its kind in the Eastern Caribbean, Bellairs was born out of shattered hopes.

Commander Carlyon Bellairs was a British parliamentarian under Churchill. But after World War II, when the British electorate voted Churchill and his party out of office, he left England vowing never to return. Relocating to Barbados, he and his wife built their home on the west coast. After his wife’s death and his own health began to fail, Commander Bellairs offered his property to several Canadian universities as a marine research facility.

The offers, hand-written in fairly shaky script, weren’t taken seriously, but McGill’s principal happened to be vacationing in Barbados and, on a whim, investigated. That visit led to the Commander’s endowment and the founding of the Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University in 1954.

Bellairs quietly functioned for many years as an academic research facility, but the 1982 appointment of its first Caribbean director, Barbadian Dr Wayne Hunte, changed that. Applied and contract research work was introduced, with new emphasis on user fees; interaction with the region accelerated and much-needed revenue began to appear.

Forty years of scholarly and investigative research and findings fill Bellairs’ library. In the last decade alone, Bellairs has generated 251 publications, 36 theses and 63 technical reports. It has undertaken work and training in many Caribbean islands, and is increasingly used as an international tropical research base. In 1992, Bellairs recorded its highest ever number of “user days”, and 1993 matched those figures.

“When Bellairs is asked to provide a service that reaches beyond the expertise or time of the core staff, we can draw from an excellent pool of competent regional and Canadian specialist scientists,” Dr Hunte says. “We know who the experts are in a particular field. And one of our greatest assets is that we can identify the right people for a project and provide a certain quality control in the task itself.”

Dr Hunte wants to see Bellairs “consolidate and strengthen as an international tropical research, training and advisory facility” finding “workable marine resource and environment sustainability for the region.” Under his direction — his regional and international reputation already assured – there is little doubt about that.

When asked what he hopes to achieve next, he replies: “If you allow me to answer perfectly honestly, what I would most like to do next is take two months off and sleep in a hammock on the east coast.” But no-one’s taking any bets on that happening.