Letters from Diego Garcia

March 21, 2009

I ate my last curry and left India 12 days ago. Vacation is over. I'm back at work for the University of Maryland. My new assignment is on the island of Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory. I'll be teaching algebra and astronomy here for the next two months.

For those of you who don't know, here're some facts about this remote place:

  • Diego Garcia is in the Indian Ocean, latitude 7 degrees south, longitude 73 degrees east.
  • The island was uninhabited until it was discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s.
  • The French imported slaves and established copra and coconut plantations here in the 18th century.
  • The British acquired the island from the French after the Napoleonic wars in 1814.
  • From 1814 to 1965, Diego Garcia was a dependency of Mauritius.
  • In the 1960s, the British closed the plantations, relocated the native population and converted the island to a US military base.
  • Today, there are about 300 US soldiers stationed here. They come here unaccompanied for about a year, so there are no spouses or children.
  • There are also about 500 civilians here who do technical, administrative and maintenance work. Most of the civilians come from the Philippines.
  • The island is an atoll. If it were stretched out in a line, it would be 60km long, 1-8km wide and no higher than 6m.
  • The island is shaped like a foot, with three toes (islands) at one end where the lagoon opens out to the sea.
  • The lagoon is 19km long, 8km wide, up to 30m deep ... and full of coral and tropical fish.
Classes start on Monday and I haven't had much time to explore the island yet. I only just rented a bicycle yesterday (for 50 cents/day). What I do know is that this will be a wonderful place to teach an astronomy class. There's zero air or light pollution. One can see every star on the star charts -- and more. I've never been someplace where I could see The Big Dipper and the Southern Cross in the same sky.

Future emails will include photos of local flora and fauna. I hope to get an underwater camera.

I'd invite you all to come and visit me ... if I could. Unfortunately, there are only three flights a week here and they're not commercial flights.

The Lagoon

The Dining Facility


UMUC's office
Dr. Beck standing

March 30, 2009

Classes started last Monday. I have 12 students in College Algebra and 18 students in Astronomy. The local astronomy club has loaned me four tripod mounted binoculars and three telescopes. The combination of no light or air pollution and or location almost on the equator makes this an ideal place to look at the sky at night. The Milky Way blazes across the sky from horizon to horizon.

I did some exploring this weekend at the old copra plantation on the east end of the island. This is where the French set up their coconut farms in the 18th century. There's an old stone storehouse standing like a ghost in the jungle. Walking through the lush, tropical greenery is like walking through a greenhouse. I like knowing that there are no snakes, poisonous spiders or large predators here. However, I know now why I was warned on my arrival never to get drunk and fall asleep in the jungle. There are crabs everywhere.

The most notable inhabitant of the jungle is the coconut crab (bottom right in the crab photo). This 4-5 kg monster is the only creature on Earth with the strength and claws to crack open and eat a coconut. Reportedly, coconut crabs taste like lobster. Their only predator is humans. Consequently, they are endangered or eliminated from the rest of the world -- but not in Diego Garcia, where they're very protected, with heavy fines for their capture. Coconut crabs are voracious eaters of everything organic. They keep in check the local bird and rat populations that share their habitat. I saw about 100 adult coconut crabs in an hour's stroll through the jungle yesterday.

Diego Garcia is also full of Red Land Crabs, aka Warrior Crabs (top left). There's a smaller species of black and white crabs (top right) that I haven't identified yet. These fellows show up everywhere, in showers, tents, closets, laundry rooms, trash cans and squashed on the roads. I had one in my office last night. And then there are the comic Ghost Crabs (bottom left) that live on the beach. When they dig their holes above the high tide line, they throw sand into large piles. When they meet each other on the beach, they dance around each other, wagging their eye stalks with great animation, as though arguing.

I was snorkeling and happened to meet a Hawksbill turtle having lunch in a coral bed. He was a teenager, with a shell only about 50 cm across. He eyed me suspiciously from about 2 meters away. The lagoon is a nursery for this endangered species.

And then there are the cats -- Hobicats, that is. The marina rents them for $2/hour. Nice!

It's Monday morning here and time to organize my lesson plans to tonight's classes. The moon will be aligned with the Pleiades tonight.

The Old Storehouse

4 types of crabs

Swimming with turtles

Lasers at the marina

April 5, 2009

Here are some snapshots to give you more of an idea of what this island is like.

FlagArms.jpg -- If you had shown me this flag a month ago, I wouldn't have guessed that it's the national flag of the British Indian Ocean Territory, of which Diego Garcia is the only part that remains above water at high tide. Diego Garcia's coat of arms features the Hawksbill and Green turtles. The Hawksbills live in the calm, warm waters and reefs inside the lagoon. The larger Green turtles prefer the seaside of the island, feeding outside the surf line and occasionally coming ashore to lay their eggs in the white sandy beaches.

This photo -- which I didn't take -- shows what the island looks like from very high altitude. You can see why the Navy calls this island "the footprint of freedom". Downtown is where everyone lives and works. The rest of the island is inhabited exclusively by crabs, birds, geckos, rats, turtles and donkeys. Yes, donkeys. The French brought donkeys here in the 18th century. They've remained as a small herd of about 100.

The British own this island and let the American Navy and Air Force operate here, hence the two flags outside headquarters. Besides being a military base, this island features three 1-meter reflecting telescopes that keep watch on all the stuff that orbits our planet, both satellites and asteroids. This is also an important NASA site for communicating with our manned space missions.

Twice a month, the marina organizes a regatta of lasers shown here. I think the hot pink sails are for visibility. This photo was taken just before today's race. I've been in two regattas now and finished 6th in a field of 12, both times. I think I should be doing better, but I'm still learning where the currents and the reefs are.

Here is the view from the deck at the Officer's Club at sunset. What more can I say!

Flag and
Coat of Arms

Aerial view of
Diego Garcia


Ready for the regatta

Sunset from the O'Club

April 30, 2009

After a few weeks of transitional monsoonal flow, the skies over the tropics cleared. Hooray!

For Earth Day weekend, I volunteered to join a crew of Royal Marines and US sailors to do habitat restoration and wildlife studies at Sea Cow and Danger Islands. We sailed there aboard the HMS Marlin, a ship based in Diego Garcia which patrols the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

H.M.S. Marlin

Seacow Island

Danger Island

Shark-infested waters!
These two islands are located on the west edge of the Chagos Bank, about 10 hours sail north of Diego Garcia. The islands are about 4-6 km in circumference. They're two of the most untouched and unspoiled places on Earth. Fewer humans have walked on these islands than have climbed Mount Everest. They've never been inhabited because they're surrounded by shallow reefs ... and sharks. Because boats can't get past the reefs, we swam the last 100 meters with our camping gear and supplies.

The Chagos Archipelago is a critical link in the ecosystems of the Indian Ocean. These islands are home to large bird and fish populations that have been hunted to near extinction in the rest of this part of the world. The hope is that by maintaining large healthy populations of endangered species, these islands can some day reseed the biodiversity that has been lost elsewhere.

Sunset landing

Carrying water

Beach cleanup

Red footed booby
One of our projects was to catalogue garbage and clean up turtle nesting sites. About 25% of the garbage on these pristine beaches is styrofoam. Another 25% is plastic household items and shoes. The rest is plastic water bottles. All of this garbage travelled thousands of kilometers before washing onto these shores. This will make me think twice before I buy bottled water again.

We spent the rest of our time doing wildlife studies, such as counting bird nests and estimating flock sizes. Because these islands are so isolated, the birds are unafraid of humans.

Millions of birds

Maj Carr & a Lesser Noddy

Laughing with birds

Rainbows over Danger Island
This was an incredibly beautiful and memorable weekend. With my limited internet connection, I can only send you a dozen of my 300 photos. Ironically, my camera died just before I could take a final photo of dolphins swimming through rainbows. No kidding. On our last evening, we watched the sun set while a pod of dolphins jumped over the waves towards a pair of rainbows framing Danger Island. Wow ....

May 19, 2009

Today is my last day in paradise. This has been a lovely place to teach, sail, snorkel, write, play guitar, walk on the beach and look at stars. I would gladly remain here another 2 months, but I've been called back to Japan for my next teaching assignment. I fly to Tokyo tonight.

Diego Garcia is a unique location with some unusual functions. During the past few weeks, I've learned more about some of its special purposes.

GEODSS is a Ground Based-Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance observatory, consisting of three high-speed telescopes that track satellites and other objects in space that orbit or pass near the Earth. The one meter diameter telescopes can detect an object in space as small as a basketball at a distance of 20,000 miles. There are similar sites in Hawaii, New Mexico and Spain. Together, they ensure that the 11,000 objects that orbit the earth don't bump into each other and come crashing down on our heads. GEODSS also provides early warning in case an asteroid is going to collide with the Earth. The attached photos show my astronomy students on their field trip to GEODSS. Naturally, the students asked whether GEODSS had spotted any aliens. Our tour guide would neither confirm nor deny having identified alien spacecraft.

ASTR100 students

1 meter telescope

Supply ship
USS Sgt Button

Loading deck

100's of Hummers
On any given day, there are 7-10 supply ships anchored in Diego Garcia's lagoon. I took a tour last weekend of the Sgt. Button. It's a gigantic ferry, full of 100s of brand new Humvees, tanks, jeeps, and amphibious landing craft. It's also stocked with supplies and equipment for delivering water, food and fuel. Everything on these ships is ready to go at a moment's notice to deliver tsunami relief or tactical support to anyplace around the Indian Ocean. The deep lagoon is a protected site for these supply ships. Because of its location, Diego Garcia is a natural place to be a supply depot for this part of the world.

As I leave Diego Garcia, plans are in place to build a public observatory for use by the staff and sailors who live here. I've been asked to return and teach another astronomy class in the coming year. I've said yes, of course!

I send my best wishes to everyone. I hope all's well and look forward to seeing some of you soon.

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