IMG_5090Gabrielle Kostiuk
Field Ecology Personal Statement
July 6th-14th, 2015

As a graduate student at Rutgers University I was able to set out on my first field work expedition this summer.  Alongside Dr. Vagelli, and my peers, I put my recent SCUBA certification to use and snorkeled my way through the Florida Keys.  Having embarked on this journey I was able to see life and explore sights I had never seen before.  It is one thing to see pictures of marine life in textbooks or to watch sea life videos on you tube, however, to see this world first hand was surreal.  This course has had such a positive impact on me and I hope to be able to truly express and justify my emotion, experience and gratitude from taking part in this amazing excursion.

My first snorkeling experience just so happened to be on our first outing in Ohio Key.  At first I was overwhelmed by the clearness of the water, but it wasn’t until I was face first in the water that I realized that the real show was below.  The first fish I came across while snorkeling was a small black and yellow fish, known as a Sergeant Major.  At Ohio Key we set out in search of Long Spined Sea Urchins, while searching for this particular species, we came across various other memorable findings; such as a large Conch.  Before we left Ohio Key, Dr. Vagelli also shared with us some of his findings; including a sea cucumber and a hermit crab.  Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in finding the Long Spined Sea Urchins we were looking for.  We continued on to Bahia Honda, the location where I have my most memorable image from the trip.  At this site we did find some Long Spined Sea Urchins, they however were not the exact species we’d been looking for.   As we explored the bay further, I came across a variety of life such as a yellow stingray, a cowfish, and my favorite sighting, a large orange cushion sea star. I saw this by chance, as I just so happened to catch it out of the corner of my eye and I was instantly captivated by it.  I may have spoken about that sea star for the remainder of the trip…

Early the next day we made our way to Sugarloaf Key to snorkel in jellyfish infested waters.  Despite the nervousness I had swimming amongst the upside down jellyfish, it was amazing!  Just being able to swim amidst such life in their undisturbed habitat was rewarding in itself.  After escaping the nematocysts of jellyfish we had our first SCUBA adventure, which was also my first ocean dive!   We explored the marine sanctuary at Looe Key which was filled with a vast amount of biodiversity.  This was another moment that I will never forget, I stood on the side of the boat building up the courage to take my first step off into the ocean. After taking the plunge and then bobbing back up to the surface, I put my face into the water to see below and was instantly captivated by what I saw.  There were two fish swimming right next to me and further down I could see the mountains of coral serving as home to a variety of other fish.  We completed two dives on that trip, during which we came across a black tip reef shark and a large grouper.

Another day of snorkeling was ahead of us, as well as a new research experiment.  We began exploring the waters at Cudjoe Key, it was known from the trip last year that lobsters were abundant in this area, as well as two species of sponges.  After spending time surveying the area and locating lobsters, we ran through an exercise a few times learning how to perform a transect belt, which involved scanning a zone and collating information as a group.  We spent the day at Cudjoe Key really getting to know the waters so that over the remainder of the course we could perform an experiment involving the lobsters.

Before heading back to Cudjoe Key the following day, we started off with a boat trip out to Mangrove Island.  We snorkeled around the larger island and the mini-mangrove island which was swarming with bird life.  At this site we came across our first juvenile nurse shark and also a couple of yellow stingrays, we even came across a large cluster of polychaetes, which we dug up to bring back to the lab.  Over at the smaller island, you could watch the various parrot fish swimming all around inside the mangroves.  It was like being inside a tank at the aquarium, truly an awestruck moment.  From here we made our way back to go and pick up supplies to begin our lobster experiment back at Cudjoe Key.   We sought out ten sponges, a mix of species one and species two, each occupied with lobsters.  We tagged the lobsters with colored ribbon to identify them and match them to the sponge where they were found.  The goal was to see by the end of the experiment whether these lobsters still occupied the same sponge and whether they stayed together.

The following day we went back to Cudjoe Key to check on the lobsters.  We searched the marked sponges to see if the lobsters had remained in the same spot and also to see whether they stayed together gregariously.  There were few lobsters remaining at the same sponge we had tagged them at. We did find some of the marked lobsters located at previously unmarked sponges.  With some more investigation of the area we came across a rubber tire that was crawling with lobsters.  We decided to tag roughly half of the lobsters present in the tire.  We would use this as another source to collect data from.

Before checking the lobsters, we headed out on our second dive.  This dive trip was much more gratifying than the first and the visibility of the water improved the experience as well.  We had the chance to see a lion fish and a green moray eel, but best of all, shortly into the dive a black tip reef shark swam right in front of us, which was a truly astonishing experience.  All of the fish we saw on this dive were so colorful and vibrant, they were all so captivating.  There were also a lot of tight areas in the coral to have the chance to swim through which gave it more of an adventurous, exploratory feel.  This was an amazing dive trip and I am already looking forward to my next opportunity.  After the dive we needed to check on the lobsters and so we headed back out in our snorkel gear to investigate whether the lobsters stayed with their sponge and/or with each other.  The findings were similar to that of the previous day.

Instead of ending the experiment there, we kept it going another day.  On the final day, we set out to record the last of the observations in Cudjoe Key.  When we finished recording as much data as we could, we cleaned up the experiment and set out.  This concluded our lobster experiment, as well as the trip.

This trip was truly a remarkable journey.  I highly recommend aspiring marine biology students to take part in this course.  I believe there is no greater way to learn than being hands on and immersed in the field.  I could not have gained the knowledge I did from having been part of this class, from sitting in a lecture hall.  While snorkeling and diving, Dr. Vagelli pointed out key sights and species to ensure we learned from them and saw how life interacted with its surrounding habitats and with each other.  Another lesson Dr. Vagelli gave us was to not only view the surroundings, but to listen and focus on sounds in the different waters.  We also practiced different types of research methods and conducted our own experiment.  Altogether, this class really prepares you and teaches you what marine biology truly entails.  I walked away from this class with an enriched focus on my future.    I am very thankful for this opportunity as well as being greatly appreciative of my peers and Dr. Vagelli.  Everybody truly came together in helping make this trip an unforgettable experience.