Me profile picture for blogI am also a non-traditional student like John Dell’Angelo. My previous career was retail management. I grew discontent over the years as I felt I was meant for more; that I was able to contribute to the world more effectively than selling items to consumers everyday. I kept thinking there had to be more to life; I had not reached my full potential. I talked to many different people through my retail career, and found out most of them were discontent and not working their dream job. In addition, they felt it was too late to change and accepted the fact that they were stuck with what they currently had. After a rough year in 2011 (two deaths in the family and my aunt suffered from a severe stroke, which left her horribly disabled), I decided to change, no matter how difficult it would be. I randomly applied to Rutgers midsummer, thinking I would not get in. When I received my acceptance notice, I did not get my hopes up because I had no funding. So, I applied for financial aid. Before I knew it, I was a college student and school started in two weeks! I left my comfort zone (full-time job, financial stability, and my car) for the unknown and never looked back. Now, I am going into my senior year as a biology undergraduate, with absolutely zero regrets with my decision to pursue my dreams.

This marine field ecology class was more than just a class to me. It was a stepping stone in reaching my dreams. Professor Vagelli is a very intelligent and experienced biologist. I was super stoked to have an opportunity present itself to go out into the field with him. It was like realizing that I was sitting on a gold mine. I told myself that I had to go; that I would become a sponge and absorb all the knowledge he had to offer. However, I had a major dilemma: money. As stated previously, I gave up my financial stability to go back to school. I had no money to pay for this summer class. I continued to go to the meetings, anyway, to show that I was interested, and to see if the class was going to happen since it had never been offered before. Once it was decided that the class was indeed a reality, I focused on getting a job as soon as classes ended. I had less than thirty days to come up with the cash to go. I pulled double and even triple shifts to raise enough money working two jobs. I fought tooth and nail so I could go on this trip. I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and refused to let it pass by. As you can see since I am writing my post response, I was successful in my endeavors.

The first day of class, we went to Bahia Honda State Park to survey the area. We snorkeled for roughly seven hours. In my opinion, there was nothing too special going on in the area, at first. It was more flora than fauna, but I was expecting that. There are more barren areas in the oceans than enriched areas; fauna-wise. Technically, there is life everywhere, especially in the least likely areas, but anyway. I imagined most people getting bored quickly. However, I was in complete bliss. I thought to myself, “If this is all we do for the entire week than the trip is a complete success in my book.” Professor Vagelli showed us pockets of diversity in rocks and sponges. We even found huge tarpon scales, which meant that something even larger came into the area and attacked it! I got to witness so much wildlife first hand and the class just started! I retired that night, horridly sun burnt and completely content simultaneously.

I was nervous and excited for the second day of class. We were going diving in the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary. This was my very first ocean dive and my dive instructor was not with me. She had been with me on all my dives up until that moment. I had no idea how everyone in our group would be; good or bad divers, the jury was still out on that one. I took solace in the fact that the deepest part of the reef was thirty feet; training depths. However, I remembered reading that people have died in less, so I was still cautious. We assigned dive buddies, even though everyone was supposed to stay together as a class underwater. Professor Vagelli and Adriana were a set, Sean and Mike were paired together, and I was with John. Karl and Pradhan were snorkeling buddies. I was the first in the water and waited for everyone to join me for our descent. Everything went smoothly except I had a little bit of trouble clearing my left ear on the first dive. We all experienced the diversity of life that I had only seen on TV or read about in books. We saw eels, parrotfish, gobies, lionfish, Christmas tree worms, and, of course, tons of colorful coral. It was so beautiful. We learned that Looe Key was a conservation project started thirty years ago and it was thriving! It gave me hope that humans can reverse the damage we have caused to the world. It is not too late, yet.

On our third day, I got a taste of what it is like to be on an adventure, out exploring the wild. We chose an island that seemed like a good destination, and Professor Vagelli entered the water to investigate the area, while we waited on the boat. Once he was satisfied that it was a decent area for learning, we dove in and snorkeled the entire island for hours. I unintentionally kept getting separated from the group. Professor Vagelli told us to pick a spot and stay still to observe the wildlife. Apparently, I did this for so long, that when I surfaced, I was practically right next to two great egrets (Ardea alba). They just stared at me. “Success!” I thought, “even the birds are ignoring me,” so I went back to observing the environment. Then it hit me, where was everyone else? I did not hear anyone talking. I resurfaced and confirmed what I thought, I was completely alone. Survival 101 in the wild: safety in numbers. My number just went from eight to one. Low survivability if an incident occurs. I backed out of the mangrove area avoiding the upside down jellyfishes and started my way down the right side of the island looking for everyone, staying in the deeper water to keep silt to a minimum while maximizing my kicking. Halfway down the island I came upon Mike, Karl, and Pradhan. My number just went back up to four; not eight, but it is better than one. There was an isolated patch of mangroves right next to the island that they were exploring. Naturally, I joined in. I started circling the ‘mini island’ until I came across a bunch of very large and very dead lobsters swaying in the current on the seafloor. I wondered, “What ate all of these? This must be a feeding ground.” I surfaced to talk to the guys about the lobsters and I realized that I was alone! Back down to one, again. They must have finished the area as I started. I listened for a minute to see if I could determine which direction they went with no success. I decided to continue my advancement around the island to the right. Low tide was upon us and I was swimming against the current. I stopped to gain perspective and a quick rest. The water was so shallow that I was able to sit, so I sat with the current against my back. Doing this allowed me to see the ‘mini island’ from a distance. That is when I saw them, the lobster killers! The entire top portion of the isolated mangrove was covered with different species of birds. Huge pelicans sharing the mangrove top with great egrets and cormorants. I captured some pictures and videos, then continued my search for my class. This swim was a long one. Along the way I witnessed and documented mangrove snappers and groupers swimming in, out, and around mangrove roots. It was truly amazing. There, of course, was other wildlife, but these guys were the most prominent in the area. These mangroves are vital for survival for many life forms. By the time I caught up with the class, I swam almost completely around the island! I did catch up with them in time to witness the horseshoe crabs having sex. Perfect timing, in my opinion. Finally, my number is back up to eight. “Full safety,” I giggled to myself knowing that the thought is a false sense of security. Mike and John filled me in on the nurse shark encounters and how John sat on a jellyfish. I figured this time I would get the jump on everyone and head out early, before I was left behind again. Going to the right was working out well for me, so off to the right I went. As I was rounding a corner, I came across a nurse shark. We realized one another simultaneously, locked eyes, and it swam into the mangroves for safety. My first wild shark encounter! I was so thrilled! Eventually, we all made our way back towards the side of the island with the boat. I went back to my original spot when we first arrived, while the guys witnessed the birth of yellow stingrays. I was called over and able to witness and hold one of them.  Later that evening, we had our first lab. The main course, was a “mucus bubble.” Professor Vagelli had all of us guess what we thought it was and why. Then, he opened it up for a closer look. It was our “worms,” whose species is still currently unknown.

The fourth day of class, was the most anticipated day. Mike was able to set us up with a conservation group from University of Miami to do some shark tagging! Everyone was hoping to pull in numerous sharks and I had hoped for a large diversity. The RJ Dunlap team explained the ropes and how we would be helping out. I was super excited to be able to take part in a conservation effort. I am well aware of the dwindling shark numbers. After we dropped the first ten lines in about 100ft of water, we made our way to a shallower area (about 25ft) and snorkeled around the boat. The only wildlife that was witnessed in this area were three juvenile skipjacks that stayed near us for protection. I cannot get over how blue the water was! We did not snorkel for long, about twenty minutes; enough for the lines to gain potential sharks. Our first, hooked line was a great hammerhead! I can still see it being pulled in as if it just happened right now. It was a beautiful site. The day ended up being extremely successful in the terms of sharks. We brought in many nurse sharks, lemon sharks and a sandbar shark. I believe it was on the end of the second set of lines, the last line pulled in contained a tiger shark. Everyone was so excited! It was the fifth species we witnessed that day.

Ooops! This is getting lengthy. I have so much more to say, but I will cut this short. Overall, I walked away with numerous life experiences interacting with different environments and gained so much knowledge. It is impossible to bring the world into a classroom. This class gave me a taste for what I want to do: marine field work. I know now, more than ever, that this is what I want and it is within my grasp. I am still in training, but being in the right hands, I will learn properly to reach my full potential and help to hopefully transform the world for the better.

I want to thank everyone in my class. Every single one of us played a vital role: Mike handled the financial affairs, John contacted the dive shops, Pradhan made our class movie while I constructed the blog, so we could share our experiences, and Karl was the final touch. Thank you Professor Vagelli for being such a great biologist, mentor, and friend. Also, thank you for sharing all your knowledge with us. I will never forget this!

I hope Rutgers will help to make this class become an annual event. As far as prerequisites, future students need to realize that this is not a vacation, we snorkeled for six to seven hours straight each day. A SCUBA certification brings the most benefits, so the underwater world can be experienced fully. UV protection clothing is highly recommended. Sun block needs to be reapplied roughly every hour, and being out in the water for multiple hours at a time, does not allow for proper reapplication. Comfortable water shoes and walking shoes are a must. Lastly, a desire to learn is needed.