Student Ivo Damen encountered 2 hurricanes and the Dutch royal family during his internship in Saba

News 5 April 2018
Ivo Damen - HAS Hogeschool

Ivo: "I had just arrived on Saba, where I would be spending my 5-month internship on a fish monitoring project for Wageningen University, when the warning came that hurricane Irma was heading straight for us."

Two hurricanes, 1 of which was the strongest ever to hit the Atlantic Ocean. And then he was standing face-to-face with the Dutch King and Queen, giving a presentation. This is the result of Ivo Damen’s internship on the island of Saba for the study programme Applied Biology. It was an exciting adventure that Ivo ended up in. Ivo has only been back in the Netherlands for a few weeks and has barely enough time to report on what happened before he starts on his internship at Burgers’ Zoo.

Tell us Ivo: 2 hurricanes and meeting with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima!

“I had just arrived on Saba, where I would be spending my 5-month internship on a fish monitoring project for Wageningen University, when the warning came that hurricane Irma was heading straight for us. It was quite a scare but, luckily, we had 3 days to prepare. Our building was sturdy and it was anchored into a mountain. Even when the eye of the storm was almost on top of us, there was still relatively little damage. We waited in a shelter for the storm to pass, not once but twice! A week after Irma, Maria also passed by, although the eye of that storm was further away from us. Oh, and storm José as well, but that wasn’t actually a hurricane.”

Were you scared?

“No, I don’t really scare easily. I even went outside to take a look. I felt safe enough in the shelter. There was a lot of damage on the island, but Saba remained relatively intact compared to Sint Maarten. My fellow interns, colleagues and I had a lot to do to help with the clean-up. Our project was at a standstill for quite a long time. The natural resources had also been badly damaged: I think that around 80% was damaged. But it recovered quite quickly: the island was green again when I left 5 months later. After the hurricane, the Netherlands issued a negative travel advice for Saba and HAS protocol is actually that you have to come home. But that was simply not possible. When you fly to Saba, you have to go via Sint Maarten, and no flight traffic was possible there. So, I stayed put.”

That’s when you got the chance to meet the King and Queen…

“That’s right. The royal couple came to look at the damage, but also took a dive in the Saba Bank, an underwater coral island. They used this dive to bring attention to the importance of coral reefs. A lot of coral has already disappeared. The Saba bank is also threatened by pollution and unsustainable fishing. My boss asked me if I wanted to give a presentation about the fish monitoring project that focusses on fishing regulations in the area. Who would say no to that?”

Ivo Damen - HAS Hogeschool

What did the fish monitoring project entail?

“For the project, I monitored local fishermen. I spent a lot of time quayside and kept track of what they caught. I would also regularly go with them out on the boat. There’s a powerful current near the Saba Bank, so you need a strong stomach. But that wasn’t the biggest challenge for me: the fishermen are stubborn people, and you need strong communication skills to get real contact with them. I’m proud of myself for achieving this. The fishermen fish for spiny lobsters and red fish (snappers). The aim of the project is to prevent overfishing by implementing and enforcing rules.”

What are they like, the King and Queen?

“I was pretty nervous, because I had to give my presentation in English. Various dignitaries were present, in addition to the royal couple. There were also people from the government and the WWF. I lost track at one point during the start. That’s when I realised that the King and Queen are also just people. “Take your time,” they said and “Become zen.” That really helped. I was allowed to shake their hand afterwards, and I was also present during the dive.”

How do you look back at your internship?

“There were ups and downs, but I would do it again anytime. I could have gone home asap. But I wanted to make the most of it. And I did!”