I am currently a master’s student in the biology program here at Rutgers-Camden. I completed my B.S in Biology in spring of 2014 at Rutgers-Camden as well. I wish to pursue a field in medicine, however I would like to first expand my knowledge of biology and become a more well rounded student before embarking on my medical journey.
I have had the opportunity to take two courses offered by Dr. Vagelli. After taking Ichthyology during the Fall 2013 semester, talks about a field ecology trip started to emerge. Although this was a thought after completing simple field work in the southern New Jersey coastal region, the idea of accomplishing unique and substantial fieldwork in the Florida Keys slowly started becoming a reality. Planning for this course began during the October and November months of the Fall 2013 semester and snowballed into a promising and feasible opportunity. Hourly meetings every week before the “Evolution of Aquatic Systems” during the Spring 2014 semester paved the way for serious planning. This planning was incredibly challenging due to uncertainty because the idea of field study outside of New Jersey had not been implemented in the Biology Department nor was it an idea that many administrators took seriously. Dr. Vagelli and the handful of students pushed on until this goal was achieved. After doing extensive research on the area of study and logistical elements, Rutgers-Camden recognized this idea as a course in the Summer 2014 course catalog. After booking cabins, plane tickets, and purchasing gear, the students of the “Marine Field Ecology” course were ready to embark on a unforgettable and unique academic experience.
Day 1: July 7th, 2014 [Arrival]
All the students arrived at Miami International Airport (MIA) around 2pm. The final destination was a three hour drive from MIA to the KOA campgrounds in Sugarloaf Key. Dr. Vagelli took four individuals, including myself, while Mike Monteleone drove the other four individuals. The long drive consisted of viewing significant landmarks and talks of the coming days ahead. Dr. Vagelli had been to this location before and was familiar with specific areas in regards to marine and terrestrial life. It was an absolute privilege to have an opportunity to work with a professor who was so knowledgeable about an area that has been famous for its marine environment. At this moment my excitement for the trip escalated as well as for the experiences to come. The group arrived at the KOA campgrounds around 6pm. Everyone was exhausted from the traveling, however used the time wisely to get supplies for the next seven days from a local grocery store. After arriving Denise, Karl, Sean and myself enjoyed “testing” out the water for what to expect during our stay in the Keys at the neighboring campground beach. Afterwards, the group met to discuss plans for the next day and identify goals that should be achieved. These goals included obtaining a new perspective for fieldwork and implement a “hands-on” approach to learning. Having fun was also a mandatory requirement!
Day 2 & Day 6: July 8th, 2014 / July 12th, 2014 [Bahia Honda State Park]
Our first day brought us to the Bahia Honda State Park. This was a beautiful beach and it was hard to think that any marine biology work was going to be achieved in an area that seemed more like a ‘kick back and relax’ atmosphere. The group was able to find a nice corner of the beach to put all our belongings. After seeing many families swimming and enjoying their time at the beach, it seemed surreal to think a group of six Rutgers-Camden students were out to study marine ecology. We were able to snorkel about 200ft from the shore to observe, record, and evaluate what we saw in the waters of Bahia Honda. The biodiversity in these waters were completely astonishing. The large quantities of sea grass, coral, anemone, and a whole host of fish captivated me from the beginning. I had never witnessed an area with such richness in various plant and animal species. As I snorkeled around the area, I recorded and took pictures of whatever I could for analysis at a later period. Dr. Vagelli made it a priority to make sure everyone was close and within a safe boundary, however this was also to show the students interesting aspects of the environment that we may overlook. I had never taken a field study course and at this moment I had realized that this experience was remarkable. To learn in a textbook and regurgitate information is nowhere comparable to the amount of information learned and experience gained in the field. The amazement of the diversity in the sea grass occupied my thoughts for quite sometime. I would not have not expected to swim by sea grass and find such a dense amount of observational knowledge, however Dr. Vagelli stopped the class to discuss the importance of minute occurrences that many of students would not think twice about. The other task accomplished this day was conducting a 20m transect. This method was discussed in class numerous times while reading the “materials and methods” section of articles, however after recreating the methodology in these prominent articles, the students where able to realize the practical and inaccurate ways of assessing the data collected. Using underwater paper and cameras, students were able to record particular plant, animal and anything else worth noting for further evaluation during out lab lection.
Day 3 & Day 7: July 9th 2014 / July 13th, 2014 [Looe Key Reefs]
This day consisted of a trip to a coral reef. The coral reef observation was without a doubt my favorite portion of the trip. Seeing the diversity within a coral ecosystem is remarkable. It is a completely different experience when read in a book vs. actually being in the field. The area of Looe Key is a protected environment and it shows, the environment is in spectacular condition. Many of the experienced divers and snorkelers have stated that this area is one of the best areas to view species diversity. I can attest to this statement after visiting. Interesting species of plant and fish with florescent colors where incredible. Swimming along side stingrays and sharks was also an experience I will never forget. The group was divided with two snorkelers and four divers, however each individual was still able to see a wide array of fish. Divers also noticed lionfish and eels. We were able to spend at least 2 hours in the water exploring, while this seems like a long time, we could have spent another four in continued exploring. Two days were focused in Looe Key because observing coral reef diversity was one of the main objectives of the trip.
Day 4: July 10th, 2014 [Mangrove Observation off of Looe Key]
We were able to rent a boat for a more personal trip to a destination of our choosing. Dr. Vagelli had in mind that a good place to explore would be a mangrove environment. This unique environment would help us look at a different interaction between species and their environment. We explored a small island off of Looe Key. This would be an area that many would drive past in their boats, however they are also sometimes the areas with vast amounts of knowledge to obtain. One of the lessons learned from this trip was to be patient while observing. When I stood still close to the mangrove roots, the fish were comfortable enough to come a few inches away from my goggles. You were able to see the fish come from the deeper sections of the mangrove roots and out to you. This was the area that we were able to witness the birth of baby stingrays. There were three stingrays that came out of the mother during this time and we were able to observe newly born stingrays. Dr. Vagelli was able to give a spontaneous lecture about the yellow-spotted stingrays. These are experiences that can never be replicated in a classroom setting. To witness the birth of these stingrays while a professor conducts a discussion in the middle of the field is so invaluable. Later that day we went back to Bahia Honda State Park to record any differences seen from the previous visit. A memorable observation during this trip was a community of various fish, anemone, and sea urchins, within a rock formation. Within this large area, small community interaction was evident.
Day 5: July 11th, 2014 [Shark Tagging Trip in Miami]
This was a defining day for our trip to Florida. Shark tagging in Miami with University of Miami students was absolutely exciting. The morning started off very early because the drive was about four hours from our KOA campground. The day consisted of preparing bait, reeling in sharks, tagging, fin clips, measurements, reflex tests, and one shark received a satellite tag. Almost ten sharks were reeled in and had work done on them. These included nurse, lemon, tiger, hammerhead, and sandbar sharks. The experience was unforgettable due to the close interaction with sharks. Every person in the group was able to participate and become part of the procedure from start to end. There are hundreds of pictures that can be seen, which a photographer took during the trip, which helps visualize the intensity of this trip.
Day 6: July 12th, 2014 [Snorkeling in Sugarloaf Key Mangrove Channels]
While exploring the area of Sugarloaf Key, Dr. Vagelli was looking for some hidden gems to explore. These areas are not a common spot for exploration, but can be of high value. We did not have a boat this time to investigate islands, however we were able to go into our own backyard and explore different mangroves, shallower areas, and hidden streams. It was interesting to see the various algae buildup on the bottom of these streams. These areas have been not been interrupted by outsiders or boats, which allowed for the growth of various microorganisms that may not have been possible in other areas with high traffic.
Day 8: July 14th, 2014 [Snorkeling in Sugarloaf Key Mangrove/Octopus Sighting]
On our last day in Florida, we went to an area that was scoped out days earlier. When we first arrived at the area the low tide made it impossible to observe anything, however after learning that high tide would arrive in just a couple of hours, we came back to the location after lunch. This was one of best decisions we made because we were able to spot an octopus and interact with it for quite sometime. This was the first time I had ever played with an octopus especially in the wild. I found it incredible to watch the octopus camouflage after releasing it because there could have been numerous times where I would have just swam past an octopus. Besides this exciting find, we were able to also see a small nurse shark resting within the mangrove. Like the other mangrove locations, I was able to pick a spot and patiently wait for the fish from within the mangroves to come up and swim around me.
I could not have had a better team to travel with. There was a shared passion for learning and everyone was there to experience a new type of field study course. I can tell at the end of the trip that everyone had a new sense of what a three-credit course could look like through traveling, discussions, lectures, and most importantly hands-on learning. I hope to see more field study courses that incorporate the varying dimensions of student interests. I am sure that many professors would love to incorporate a sense of fieldwork in their teachings. While this experience was unique, I have also been involved with smaller field study courses, which encourage student learning and enthusiasm. Thank you, again, Dr. Vagelli for bringing this opportunity to Rutgers, and I hope to continue working with you for sometime to come!