The sensational Instagram account of Memoir of a Mermaid follows the account of Andrea Godoy Mendoza's life as an island-at-heart girl who moved from her native city of Tegucigalpa in 2018 to live on the island of Utila. Andrea who is just 26-years old is now the Community Outreach Coordinator for the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Centre (WSORC).
Some would consider me a full-on capitalina but, as much as I hold my hometown awfully close to my heart, I do not think it is where I truly fit in.
She first came to Utila with a college class (her degree is in Biology) to pursue her Open Water Diver certification, during which trip she along with her classmates sat through a couple of introduction conferences with leaders from some of the most prominent conservation NGOs on the island.
It was during one of these sessions that she first heard about the WSORC and the scholarship opportunity that they offer exclusively to Honduran nationals twice yearly. This scholarship opportunity enables Honduran budding marine conservationists to pursue diving qualifications all the way up to PADI Divemaster, as well as to intern for the center as a Research Assistant for 3+ months, at no cost to the recipient (except for the PADI fees and your own food and other expenses).
This pretty much gives you hands-on experience on how a conservation NGO operates and active participation in all their ongoing research projects, which is HUUUUGE for anyone who wishes to work as a (marine) biologist in Honduras, especially early in their career.
As soon as I heard about this, I made it my mission to be next ‘Jim Engel Ocean Steward’ scholarship recipient and, luckily for me, I got accepted! I arrived on the island on January 2019 to participate in WSORC’s Marine Conservation Internship program that lasted a total of 4 weeks. After successfully completing the MCI, I got dive training all the way up to Divemaster through the Bay Islands College of Diving. Once I became a certified PADI Divemaster, I returned to WSORC to fulfill the role of Research Assistant for 3 months.
She was meant to leave in June, which is when her scholarship placement was due to end, but her direct supervisor at the time deemed her presence and performance throughout her placement worthy of a permanent position at the organization. Andrea was then offered the role of Community Outreach Coordinator of the center and of course she said yes. The rest is history she says.
Q. How have you found the cost of living on the island?
A. I will admit that moving to Utila was when I officially moved out of my parents’ house, so it was my very first experience living “alone”. It is probably shocking for anyone who just became an independent individual to realize just how expensive it is to live but it is especially surprising to see the cost of living on Utila when it is your first time truly venturing out in the world by yourself.
Rent is significantly more expensive here, compared to the one and two-bedrooms you can find in some places on the mainland, and the groceries and electricity bills can also get quite high compared to mainland prices.
Q. What about your job? I know you currently work at the WSORC. What does the research center exactly do and what is your job there?
A. The Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center is a conservation NGO that has been on the island since the late 1990’s. As you can probably tell by the name of our organization, one of the subjects we focus a lot of our research efforts on is the Whale Shark. Whale sharks are gentle giants that can be observed around Utila year-round. We study their behaviors and try to evaluate the causes of the decrease in sightings in the past couple of years, as well as evaluate what specific conditions draw them to island waters. We also have a very robust lionfish containment program that aims to reduce/control the populations of this invasive species that has proven to be super damaging to our reefs because of its voracious nature and rapid reproduction rates.
The WSORC has recently teamed up with Utila Coral Restoration, the biggest coral restoration organization on the island, to aid in the recovery of our vulnerable and highly threatened coral reefs by maintaining coral fragments of different species in “nursery” environments to give them a head start before they are then outplanted back onto the reef. Similarly, we also have a mangrove restoration program that aims to restore these important ecosystems that have been subject to destruction and degradation for the sake of ocean-front properties on the island.
I am the head of Community Outreach for the organization, which is another important component of the work that we do at the WSORC. My job mainly consists of building bridges between the local community and our organization to work together to achieve our conservation objectives through education and effective engagement techniques. I visit local schools and teach kids about different conservation topics and interact with local leaders and stakeholders to evaluate their perception and behavior towards natural resources.
As part of the internship programs we offer as an educational facility, I also fulfill the role of teacher and instructor to students from all over the world who aspire to become marine conservationists or are already on their way to and wish to gain practical experience or further their knowledge.
Q. How did your blog Memoir of a Mermaid come about? What is it that you want to transmit or let people know through your blog?
I originally started it to showcase the incredibly cool activities I was involved in during my scholarship internship placement at the WSORC. I wanted to keep a “memoir”, if you will, for myself, but also for the people close to me who wanted to see what I was up to. It soon became clear that there was potential for this blog to be more than just a passive initiative and I started to use it as a means of doing science communication and environmental education. I believe that there are things that I have been made aware of through my college education and professional experience that are worth sharing with my family and friends, their friends, and the public in general.
I also learned a lot of new things during my first six months on the island, both about marine biology in general and the local ecosystems, that I strongly believe people need to see, if not first-hand, at least through social media and alternatives other than scientific journals and papers. We often do not realize the impact of our senseless and harmful actions on the marine environments because they are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind for many people. So, overall, I aim to raise awareness about several topics pertaining to marine biology and conservation.
I hope I can make relevant, but often highly technical information, “digestible” to the people who have the power in their hands to make a change with it. I hope I can transmit a message of hope, but also inform others of what is at stake if we continue to ignore the clear signs from nature that we are devastatingly close to an ecological collapse due to humanity’s largely detrimental endeavors.
Q. What is the coolest animal you have encountered underwater?
A. This is a tough one! I have thoroughly enjoyed and been left absolutely in awe after all the encounters I have had with whale sharks on Utila. It always comes as such a surprise for me to realize just how huge these gentle giants really are once you get in the water to swim with them. Each encounter has been a unique and humbling experience. However, I must admit that the coolest encounter I have had so far comes to a tie between a giant manta ray and a pod of killer whales (orcas), the former while diving and the latter from a boat. I have always found manta rays to be incredibly interesting and the encounter I shared with this one individual was quite special because I had the opportunity to watch it feed just a few meters above me for several minutes.
It was truly magical.
I must admit, though, that the encounter that has truly made an impact on me is the encounter I had with orcas, right here on Utila. This is probably the rarest of all my underwater encounters as there are very few reports of orca sightings in the Caribbean and I was SO lucky to have been on the boat that spotted them and spent almost an hour watching from a boat in April of 2019.
Orcas are hands down, my favorite animal for as long as I can remember so I guess orcas in the Caribbean would be the coolest thing to have ever happened to me. I mean, how often do people get to see their absolute favorite animal in the wild and see them behave like they naturally would, in their absolute purest form?!
Q. What cool things would you like to let people know are the best perks of your job?
A. I get to dive into the second largest barrier reef in the world almost on a daily basis, I interact with people from all over the world and from many different backgrounds regularly, I get to teach people about my favorite ecosystems and make an impact on people’s lives through science and education, I work closely with the local community to get them involved in our conservation projects, I can show others the breathtaking beauty of the underwater world, and above all, I get to live my dream of working as a marine biologist/conservationists.