For the last three years I have had the privilege to be a part of my father’s Marine Field Ecology class. And while the general themes of the class have stayed consistent, it is impossible to anticipate what each year will have in store for his students and I.
I am currently a freshman at Penn State University and plan to major in biology. While I am still unsure of which field I’d like to enter, this class has had a tremendous influence on my decision. What makes this class the most anticipated event of my summer is its ability to grasp the complexity of a marine environment and mold it in a way that I can understand.
As his students have mentioned, we have spent a great deal of time in places like Cudjoe bay, Bahia Honda and Looe Reef each year. While returning to the same places may seem redundant, I have the privilege of observing these environments under different conditions, how they’ve changed and how they’ve stayed the same; for instance, the cushion sea star was an organism I saw in large numbers in the bays we studied but this year I had not seen a single one. But one thing is always for certain, when you step in the water you’ll never know what you’ll face.
When comparing Bahia Honda with Cudjoe Bay, a feature that really differentiates them is the amount of diversity. Bahia Honda is a high level energy environment that connects to an ocean channel. This creates the possibility of seeing much more marine life than Cudjoe Bay. The lack of silt attached to the flora in BH, something very apparent in CB, shows that there is constant movement in the water. Other variables such as more oxygen present, salinity levels, and exposure to strong currents creates challenges that the organisms in BH would have to be equipped to prepare for; therefore, challenges that the organisms in CB may not be able to handle as successfully.
While Cudjoe Bay is a much lower energy environment, it still has its surprises. The bay coastline is made up of mangroves, an environment known for sheltering a diversity of juvenile fishes. Before this class I had never heard of mangroves but upon exposure they quickly became my favorite feature of the class. Their large roots allow you to get very close and peer inside to see anything from nurse sharks to juvenile barracudas to anemones. So while Cudjoe bay is a very stagnant environment, its mangroves definitely make up for it.
While the notion of entering the water and never knowing what you’re going to get is very exciting, the chance also runs that conditions will not be in your favor. During each class we struggled one way or another in trying to beat the tide schedule. Unfortunately, some days the tide would be too low for us to get much done. This year when we took the boat out we came across a mangrove island during an extremely low tide. My first impression was that we had arrived at a sandy beach but I quickly realized that any areas with sand would normally be underwater. It was fascinating to see how this environment put up with all the stress created by the sun. Each rock had several crabs hiding under it in order to stay sheltered during the extremely rare low tide. The organisms suffering in the heat could prove that this occurrence does not happen often.
I have been lucky enough to scuba dive at Looe Reef many times but it is the ultimate example of an environment that you’ll never know how the conditions will be. I have dived there when the visibility is as great as it gets and got to see all kinds of reef sharks and colorful fish. But I’ve also dove there when the current is much stronger, causing less visibility. The coral reef environment is so dynamic and its really worth to take a second to look at which fish are better adapted to swim in strong currents and which ones hide in the coral. No matter the conditions there is always something valuable to be taken away from it.
Apart from going into the actual environments, many nights of the class are spent in the little “lab” my father has set up for the students. This is a time where we take a closer look at samples we have collected, discuss the events of the day and plan what we will do the succeeding days. The lab portion of the class is essential for understanding what exactly we saw earlier in the day. It is a time where a lot of students discover species of organisms they had never heard of before. We fully utilize the microscopes, perform dissections and try to identify unknown species. My dad always says he could spend a whole semester teaching a class on just one plankton net sample.
Before this class if I went snorkeling or diving anywhere I would look at what was around me but I never really observed it. I have learned to do more than just look for the shark or the sting ray; I learned to find the smaller aspects of a community just as fascinating and important in the structure of a marine environment.