Mike Monteleone Looe Key 2.0I first would like to thank Dr. Alejandro Vagelli for being an incredible professor, mentor and friend, and for creating this amazing opportunity for us.  It is testament to the dedication and care he has for his students and profession.  I also need to thank Fund For Teachers for their generosity through the grant that made this trip possible for me.  I am so excited to bring the many extraordinary experiences we encountered back to my classroom!  Finally I want to thank my student colleagues: Captain Sean, The Hitman, Special K, Dee-nice, and The Godfather.  I truly am thankful for the friendships that we have forged and you all greatly augmented this experience for me – it was a pleasure learning with you.

I am a husband and a father of two amazing boys.  I am also a proud graduate of the University of Miami with a B.S. in Marine Science / Biology.  After college I spent a few years in the M.D. / Ph.D. program at the University of Miami School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology.  While I absolutely loved what I was learning, I was unsure if this path would allow for the many other things I wanted to include in my life.  After great deliberation, I left south Florida with my wife and moved back up to southern New Jersey to start a family and be close to our parents once more.  For the past 14 years I have been a Biology teacher at Delsea Regional High School and although I miss many parts of what I was doing, I have to say that teaching is absolutely my professional passion and I have no regrets.  I am very fortunate to work with a fantastic administration and staff, and the kids are truly wonderful and keep me coming back each year with renewed enthusiasm!

To say that this was the greatest week of learning I have experienced to date is an understatement. Even though I have logged countless hours underwater in south Florida and the Florida Keys, being with Dr. Vagelli, with his expert eyes and decades of real field research experience, opened up a whole new world to me.  In many respects, it was as if I was seeing things for the first time.

One of the many advantages of our trip was that we were able to visit many different types of habitats.  Even though they were within just a few square kilometers of each other, to observe first-hand the differences between the outer reef, sea grass beds, sand flats, mangroves and bay waters was eye-opening.  The diversity of flora and fauna was staggering both within and among locations.  Moreover, it was fascinating to see how organisms utilized various aspects of their environment.  It made me realize how seemingly insignificant things such as rocks, channels, common sponges and especially red mangroves have such a profound effect on the distribution and survival of many other organisms.  The need for aggressive conservation is more apparent to me than ever.  Understanding too how some habitats are crucial for the reproduction / recruitment of various species was especially interesting.

Another vital component of this field course was seeing the interactions among organisms with both the living and the non-living parts of their environment.  We learned a lot of information in class that in retrospect was very isolated and 2-dimensional.  Being in the organisms’ habitats and fading into the background to allow them to interact in their natural manner was absolutely fascinating and instructive.  Possibly my favorite part of the whole week (and it is impossible for me to pick just one thing) was snorkeling back under the mangrove roots on the rising tide and becoming motionless so that the fauna ignored me as if I was invisible.  For many minutes, I hovered and witnessed the interactions of the different fishes, crustaceans and other invertebrates, algae and plants … it was surreal.  Never before was I in a situation like this, it felt like I was in the middle of my own documentary.  No experience ever allowed me to fully appreciate and comprehend the myriad of organisms and interactions taking place among mangrove roots.  And most people zoom by above the water with no clue what is happening literally right under their noses.  The importance of managing this vital ecosystem has never been more apparent to me.

Dr. Vagelli went to great lengths to ensure that we had a functional wet lab at our campground cabins. This was a surprisingly important and really enjoyable aspect of the course!  We were able to take specimens from the field back to the lab and after waking up early and working in the field until dark, it was nice to shower and reconvene for discussions of what we had experienced that day and investigate the many new and unique questions we developed.  Of particular interest were spherical gelatinous “bags” which we encountered in several places in different habitats.  We generated many hypotheses, but only after bringing a specimen to the lab and examining it under the microscope did we discover that it was an egg mass!  Further brainstorming and team collaboration narrowed it down to a probable polychaete origin.  We continued to monitor the development of the organisms and witnessed their transformations along the way.  An unexpected and one of many absolutely fascinating finds that we were able to examine with the resources in our make-shift laboratory.

Finally, it was very interesting to learn and implement various field research modalities that until now, most of us had only read about in scientific journal articles. Not only did we experience the efficacy of various techniques and gather data using them, but we saw the trials and tribulations of doing actual field ecological studies.  Besides being useful and instructive, this has also allowed us to be much more critical readers of scientific literature involving ecological studies which utilize these methodologies.  When a scientist talks about seining or setting up a transect in a particular habitat, we can completely relate and visualize what was done because we experienced it ourselves first-hand!  And in some cases when a scientist uses data obtained in a certain way, we can evaluate the credibility of such evidence based on how reliable the technique was in the area utilized.  I cannot imagine a course or a substitute experience that allows students to develop this critical analysis ability.

In case it has not been blatantly obvious, this was one of the most amazing weeks of my academic life.  I learned so much and have developed such an increased appreciation and understanding of marine ecology it’s unreal.  We snorkeled and SCUBA dived with sharks, witnessed stingray births, took part in shark tagging with the RJ Dunlap group, observed the invasive lionfish … the list goes on and on.  I have always been interested in marine science, but this course has reawakened the drive and passion and LOVE I have for the sea and all its inhabitants.  I started pursuing my Masters degree thinking it would make me a better high school teacher; bringing new and current topics and techniques into my classroom … exposing my students to things they never knew existed.  As a result of this course though, the young boy whose love of the ocean brought him to the University of Miami has resurfaced.  I can see perhaps teaching topics in marine science at the college or graduate level and maybe even pursuing a second career in marine conservation down the line.  It’s impossible to know where life will take me … and I guess that’s okay – because I sure am enjoying the ride. 🙂