When Andrea Mackay flipped open a diving magazine in early 1998 she had no idea that what she found inside would change her life or indeed, the lives of many others. Andrea was one of 21 volunteers to join the first ever GVI program. 20 years later, she considers many of the volunteers lifelong friends but reflects back to the time when they were just 21 strangers suspended in a tiny propeller plane over a stormy sea, while rain and lightning crashed down around them. Andrea took the time to share the story that changed the course of her life.
I have always loved the sea. There is something so soothing and at the same time exhilarating about swimming in the warm, clear waters, finding out more about the secret life that flourishes underneath. I grew up in Hong Kong, which meant I spent many holidays in nearby Thailand — the perfect place to enjoy the ocean.
My mom is a nurse and my dad is a haematologist, so I grew up immersed in medicine, but when I was 18 I thought I’d try something different rather than just following my mom into nursing. My brother had studied Hotel Management at a college in Switzerland and I followed in his footsteps because I wasn’t sure what else to do. After graduating I started working at hotels and realized one day that I just didn’t enjoy working in the hospitality industry.
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I had a real passion for Drama and English literature because I studied these subjects at school so I looked at getting a job as a dresser. I was lucky enough to get a job on a Canadian touring production of Phantom of the Opera in Hong Kong. From there I moved back to the UK and worked in the London’s West End from dresser all the way up to wardrobe mistress. It was a fantastic job and exciting because everything had to be done ‘Live.’ It also allowed me time to travel. I would work on a show in the West End or on tour around the UK for maybe three to four months and when the show finished I could choose to find a new show or take some time traveling before coming back to another show. The flexibility was great.
My time with GVI was during one of those breaks between shows. I was looking for adventure but also something more than just being a tourist in a new country. I wanted a more in-depth feel of a new place, and I wanted a challenge. I thought I would try to give something back through volunteering.
In search of my next adventure I got hold of ‘Diver’ magazine. It still feels like fate that I ever saw the GVI advert. It had no pictures, just text calling for volunteers on a coral reef expedition in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras in Latin America. I called the number that afternoon and told them I was interested.
The advert had mentioned that this was an ‘Advance Expedition’ but I didn’t completely know what that meant until I spoke on the phone to Ben Greig, who would be a marine biologist and dive instructor on the trip. He said that we would be the first group of participants to volunteer on a project with GVI. I loved the idea of being the first group out there. It was an exciting thought that we would be laying the foundations for subsequent groups.
I will always remember the night that we arrived on Roatán. We reached San Pedro Sula on the mainland of Honduras and then transferred onto a small propeller plane to fly over to the island. By this time it had started raining heavily and as we flew across to Roatán we were surrounded by a lightning storm.
Although it was a rather scary trip, we arrived safely on Roatán. Ben met us all at the airport and they drove us to our lodgings in the pouring rain. When we arrived the house was filled with candles due to a power outage. We were all very excited to have arrived and most of us congregated out on the balcony with a beer.
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It was pitch black so we had no idea what the view from the balcony was like. And then the lightning struck again and the sky lit up as though it were daytime. We saw the sea, right in front of the house. It was a breathtaking, an uninterrupted view. Mandy, one of the volunteers who actually ended up staying on Roatan told me she has never seen another lightning storm like the one that night.
I don’t remember what time I woke up the next day, but I do remember waking up and being able to hear the sea while I was lying in bed. I was so excited about that. We started the day with tea and toast and then a fish and coral identification lesson by Ben Greig, whose passion for the work he was doing and his love for the sea was immediately obvious and completely infectious. You couldn’t help but be drawn in by his enthusiasm for marine world.
When it came to diving expertise not all of us were on par, but we had to get up to speed fast to get to work on surveying the reef. I was one of the volunteers who still needed some training and practice so I would go with the others in the late morning to the lagoon just outside our house to take lessons from Ben. After being there a couple of months it was almost possible for me to tell if the sea was too rough to go, dive, before I had even got out of bed just by the sound of the waves crashing. I was even able to complete my PADI Advanced Open Water while in Roatán.
Back at the house, you’d often find volunteers on the balcony overlooking the lagoon trading little snapshots of fish and coral, quizzing each other on whether we could get the names right. The view from the base was approximately north-west and afforded us some spectacular sunsets. We’d put on some reggae and take it in turns to make dinner while the others played pool. Sometimes we’d also head out to the restaurants and bars at the port.
Once we could tell a series of fish and coral species apart and Ben felt confident that everyone could dive safely, we started our work monitoring a section of the reef, which had already been prepared before we arrived. Marker pegs had been hammered into the reef and each day we would go to the dive site with a measured length of chain that was made up of one-centimeter links, which we would hook very carefully over the marker pegs.
To get close to the reef without damaging it, we would dive upside down, kicking our legs above us, instead of near the delicate corals. Diving inverted like this was challenging enough without also needing to also make notes on underwater slates. We looked at a patch of coral just underneath the chain and took note of the types of corals found there and its state of health.
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Once we returned from our dive we would record the data we had collected on our little underwater slates. The idea was that we were taking a snapshot of the health of the reef. Researchers in the future could then compare their data with ours to see whether the reef was recovering or deteriorating.
But diving wasn’t always about research. Sometimes we would head out just for the fun of it. Life on the reef was abundant and it was not uncommon to spot a tranquil sea turtle floating by; encounter a group of boisterous dolphins; spot an octopus making its way across the reef; be surprised by an eel poking its head out from under a crevice; or glimpse the winged shape of a massive blue-spotted eagle ray in the distance. Night dives, slipping into the pitch black water, under a sky bursting with tightly packed silver stars, were my favorite. Any slight movement of the water would instigate a flurry of glowing, bright blue specks and swirls that would fade as the water stilled. Once you got under the water, you would be surrounded by this luminosity of the phosphorescent plankton. It was absolutely magical.
We were also treated to a spontaneous beach wedding during our trip. Inspired by the romantic beauty of the island two volunteers, who had come on the expedition as a couple, made the decision to get married right then and there. The wedding was a real demonstration of island community. Our neighbors up the beach offered their lush, beautiful garden as a venue and our other neighbors arranged the catering and a cake. GVI hired a band to play at the back of our house after the ceremony and I made Sue, the bride, a wedding veil from a spare mosquito net. While it certainly wasn’t the most extravagant affair, the sense of community, the simplicity of it all, and of course the beautiful setting, made for an unforgettable event.
I not only made lifelong friends during those three months but I met my husband, Doug, who was another volunteer on the trip. Doug and I became good friends on the expedition. Although all of the volunteers and staff often socialized together there were certainly smaller groups of tighter friendships and Doug and me were friends within one of the closer groups. Members of that group eventually became witnesses at our wedding. One even read at our first child’s naming day and is Godfather to our son.
On the final day of the expedition, most of the volunteers sailed over to the mainland. They would stay there for the night before flying out the next day. A handful of us stayed on Roatán for one last day. The plan was to fly over to the mainland in the late afternoon to meet up with them before going back home.
That afternoon Ben and Wendy, his girlfriend at the time, went out in the sunshine to freedive in the lagoon. Shortly afterward, Ben suffered a shallow water blackout, an underwater fainting episode triggered by not enough oxygen to the brain, and died. It was devastating. Although we had only known Ben for three months we had all adored him. He was funny, supportive, and full of life. For a moment, nothing made sense.
We had planned to meet up after leaving Roatán, but not like this. We met again under the worst circumstances at Ben’s funeral. Although it was tough, we all supported one another and it brought us all closer together. In the end, the members of that pioneer expedition to Roatán became something greater than the sum of its individual characters. We became something like a family spread out across the globe.
After returning to the UK I went back to working in the theatre for a while until Richard approached me about working as volunteer coordinator and office manager for GVI. My hotel management course had given me many transferable skills like customer service, languages, and accounting that were useful to my role at GVI. I worked for Richard for about a year before Doug and I moved away and I, unfortunately, had to give up the job.
After fighting it for so many years I got a job as a healthcare assistant at a hospital and returned to university to get my nursing degree. I decided to go into Emergency Services like my mom because it seemed like the most natural place for me to be. I have been working as a nurse ever since. I genuinely feel that nursing is my calling. Like working in the theatre, everything has to be done ‘Live’. But now, I feel fortunate enough to be able to help people where I can, much like what my goal was when first deciding to join a volunteer program abroad.
The trip impacted my life in so many ways. On the simplest level, the addition of voluntary work to my résumé was not only evidence of philanthropic work but also provided a great talking point with future employers. On a deeper level, the trip influenced my perception of my place in the world and my impact on it. I became more conscious of protecting my immediate and wider environment and have brought my children up to respect nature and everything in it.
Any volunteering trip is a great opportunity to not only enhance your knowledge and life skills but to give something back and help to change the world for the better in some small way. Employers love evidence of voluntary work – it demonstrates maturity and interest in a higher purpose. And although the idea of joining a group of people you don’t know may seem daunting, remember that all the people on your trip will be there for the same reasons as you. They will be like-minded and its likely that you will have many things in common.
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Pioneer volunteers are particularly lucky as they get to forge the way. Those looking to prove to employers that they have the guts, critical thinking, problem-solving and management skills to make any project a success should seek out projects like this. You’ll play a key part in ironing out the chinks that have been impossible to foresee before the arrival of volunteers. While it’s probably more of a testing experience than most it will make the end result that much more rewarding, just as it was for me.
Having spoken to many of the other volunteers on the trip over the past 20 years, there is certainly a sense that we were so very fortunate to have been part of that particular expedition. There was a certain magic created by that particular group of strangers coming together at that particular time in that particular place. Those twelve short weeks felt like a lifetime and remain one of the greatest experiences of my life.