Thirteen University of Central Florida biology students swam among nurse sharks, sea turtles, eels and lionfish this month as part of a hands-on summer abroad course.
The students spent a week studying more than 60 species in the depths of the Glovers Atoll, about 35 kilometers off the coast of Belize. The atoll is considered one of the most diverse sources of coral reefs in the Caribbean, providing a nursery for sharks and turtles among other creatures.
“I am a firm believer that study abroad and other intensive experiences are essential for truly engaging our students and preparing them for 21st century jobs,” said Biology Professor Linda Walters, who led the group. “It is expected that marine science undergraduates have field and research experience to make them marketable for graduate school or the workforce.”
The two-credit hour course included some classroom instruction at UCF and then a flight to Belize, where the group stayed at a remote facility in the atoll. The entire team snorkeled each day to observe and photograph dozens of species that call the atoll home. In the evenings they discussed the tropical marine biodiversity they had encountered and the impact of threats to the world’s oceans, such as climate change, overharvesting and acidification. They also collected data, completed some analysis and put presentations together on what they learned.
“I would say that the moments that affected me the most were seeing the health of different patch reefs,” said Michelle Shaffer, a junior. “On some patch reefs, there was more algae growth than corals or sponges.”
Shaffer, of Lake Mary, described how some patches of the reef were bleached as a result of disease linked to rising levels of acidity in the water.
On the upside, she had a chance to see sharks, which she hopes will become the focus of her career after graduation.
“My aspiration is to be able to work for an organization like OCEARCH. For example, one OCEARCH project is tagging and tracking great white sharks,” she said. “This can give us valuable information in regards to the sharks’ behavior and breeding areas. In general, I want to work with GPS tracking on many different marine organisms. I find it interesting to see how an organism navigates the ocean and why. This can also help us establish what parts of the ocean need to be protected.”
Chelsea Landau, of Daytona Beach, also dreams of working with sharks after she graduates.
“I feel like this experience was beneficial because I learned about conducting field research (underwater) and how to work well with others,” Landau said, a senior. “I learned that one can plan something down to the minute but it might not actually go as planned, and you have to adapt.”
And while many students lamented the sickened reef, its sheer beauty struck some.
“The most memorable thing for me about the trip was seeing giant corals that have been there for thousands of years,” said junior Lacie Anderson of Grand Island, Fla. “I can’t imagine all the stories they would tell if they could talk. It was like being in an old growth forest, a sight I will never forget.”
For Emmi Curtiss of Waterford, Wis., the trip was more than she was expecting.
“I wanted the opportunity to go somewhere to learn something in the field not from a text book, but from real life,” said Curtiss who is a biology major in her senior year
Not only did she learn, but she got a close encounter with the rare hawksbill sea turtle.
“Sea turtles have been my favorite animal since I was a young child, and I never had the pleasure of being in the water with one before,” Curtiss said. “They are beautiful and magnificent creatures. Though my time was short with the hawksbill, it was a moment I will never forget.”