Throughout Alannah Vellacott’s life, there were key experiences that were vital to fostering the dedication she currently has for wildlife and the ocean.
Alannah received a full scholarship to attend the Island School in Eleuthera and participate in a six-month paid internship at the Cape Eleuthera Institute. This experience launched Alannah’s career in marine research and conservation. Since then, she has worked and volunteered for a number of environmental organizations, including the Cape Eleuthera Institute, BREEF, the Bahamas National Trust, Community Conch, The Nature Conservancy, and, most recently, the Perry Institute for Marine Science.
With 17 years of experience in diving, Alannah has travelled widely throughout The Bahamas and the Caribbean working on a variety of marine research and outreach projects. Some of her experiences include conducting AGRRA coral and fish surveys, establishing coral nurseries, outplanting nursery-grown corals to coral reefs, and even shipwreck mapping and blue hole ethnography.
Alannah has recently teamed up with other Bahamian activists and Only One to speak out against the exploratory oil drilling taking place in The Bahamas.
During our interview, which has been edited and condensed, Alannah speaks about the importance of thriving marine ecosystems for the Bahamian people and economy, the impact of Hurricane Dorian on her community in Grand Bahama, and what she would like every Bahamian to know about oil exploration and climate change.
Kara Jamie Norton (KJN): What sparked your passion for ocean conservation?
Alannah Vellacott (AV): I grew up in a neighborhood in the middle of a mangrove creek system, so I was always surrounded by ocean life. I had a myriad of marine animals outside my back door. My neighbors were also subsistence fishermen. That was their livelihood. Everything that they made, all of the profits, went to their children going to school, putting food on the table, making sure that the power was on—it was their main income and they did really well for themselves! I met them and their children at about six years old and I found that they were just as wild and adventurous as I was. Though we understood how important the ocean was to their livelihood, as children, we saw fishing as a whole lot of fun! We would go fishing together any chance we got on the weekends or during holidays. We would get lost in the mangroves and come back covered in mud and fish scales. We would pick up conch and spear fish and crawfish to sell to our neighbours and save up for cool things we wanted, but would never clean out our fishing spots. I learned about the ocean through the lens of a fisherman but understood the concept of saving some for later—I just didn’t know that was called conservation.
But I think I really understood what marine conservation was when I got the opportunity to become an Island School student. There was a program, called the Bahamas Environmental Stewards Scholars (BESS) program, that was supported by BREEF, the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation. They would send Bahamian students to the Island School in Eleuthera and I was selected to be in their second round of students. This program really gave me the chance to channel all the passion I had for being in the ocean and learning about animals into a future career.
KJN: What role does the ocean play in the lives of Bahamians?
AV: The ocean is the backdrop for everything that we do here in The Bahamas. Our main industry is tourism, and people come here to see the sun, the sand, and the sea—but the ocean is more than that to Bahamians. Our waters may be considered the world's water park, but to us it is literally our backyard, our kitchen, our doctor’s office. It is how we've built our lives out of what was left for us post slavery. If you think about the midwestern United States, they are all about farming. They turn the land to make a living. In The Bahamas, we turn our oceans to make a living. The ocean is a part of so many aspects of Bahamian life: medicinal uses, going for a swim to clear your sinuses or to dry up cuts or rashes, everyday items—hard head sponges for a kitchen sponge, construction material—mixing sand and ground conch shells into cement, parties, birthdays, baptisms, morning prayer. The ocean is our do all, cure all—our go to for everything because it has always been there for us. We need it.
KJN: What served as a catalyst for you to become a climate justice advocate?
AV: The aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Seeing so many of my fellow people and their homes swallowed up by Dorian, including my own home.
Because of climate change, so many of us have lost our homes or have had to move or sell our property because of hurricanes, because of climate change. A lot of families still have not recovered from Hurricane Dorian. Grand Bahama still does not have island-wide potable water. The volume of seawater that flooded the island was so massive that our wells in the water table were intruded by seawater, contaminants, and sewage. Even a year later it is still undrinkable. A future-proof RO system is currently being constructed, but only time and good environmental stewardship can bring our water table back to its original pristine condition.
KJN: Why do you choose to stand against oil exploration coming to The Bahamas?
AV: Like I said, the ocean is the backdrop for everything that we do. It is intimately woven into our culture. It is the story of how we got here, it reminds us of how blessed we are, it brings us peace, comfort, joy, and so many deliciously nostalgic tastes, sights, and sounds. It keeps us fed and protected, it sustains and entertains us.
Drilling for oil is absolutely a step backwards for the country. Being one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, a snowballing catastrophe caused by oil consumption, it is totally backwards to support oil exploration! It is removing the hand that feeds us, it is hypocritical. Furthermore, we can’t be a part of the Paris Climate Agreement and say we’re interested in investing in agribusiness, sustainable energies and the “blue economy” with one mouth, but give a pass for oil with the other. I understand that the current government met this agreement when they came into power, and it was reported that they had no choice but to renew the license. But if you are the leader of a country, you have the power to do whatever is in the best interest of the country. Drilling for oil is not in the best interest of The Bahamas.
KJN: What is your call to action to the Bahamian people?
AV: The ocean affects each and every Bahamian and visitor, whether directly or indirectly. If you work at a hotel, the tourists come to see the ocean. If you work in a dive shop, remember that the divers come to see the ocean. If you are a fisherman, you need the ocean to provide healthy catch to sell. If you love eating conch salad, grouper fingers, fried fish, you need a healthy ocean to provide that.
Though one can practice any religion in The Bahamas, most Bahamians identify as Christians. There is a verse in the Bible states that, “We have dominion over nature.” However, I urge Bahamians to interpret this verse as that we are a part a nature and have been charged with the responsibility of its care and its prosperity, that we must take up this responsibility and claim ownership for our oceans. Our ocean takes care of us and we should return the favour for its sake and our own.