I am currently an undergraduate majoring in Biology at Rutgers Camden. I will be graduating with my B.S in Biology this coming semester and wish to pursue a career in the medical field. I found out about this course through a student in one of my classes who emphasized the stature of the class and the professor himself. When it came time to register I found out it was a graduate level course only. After talking to Dr. Vagelli about this, he made a few phone calls and emails. After a few days the department made this a course designed for both undergraduate and graduate students. I decided to take this opportunity and registered for the class, booked my round-trip flight to Miami, and packed my gear. After all, I am a firm believer that majority of knowledge comes from experience and hands on work within that field, and this is a great course for that.
After a series of meetings in Dr. Vagelli’s office and the round tables in the café, everything was starting to look organized and set in stone. Houses were booked, cars were reserved, gear was bought, and plans were set. Now it was time to just wait until July 8 to board the flight to Miami.
I landed in Miami around 12 pm on July 8th where I was picked up by one of the other students. We made our way to the local sports bar where we met up with the rest of group and had a meal before we made our departure to the lower keys. Highly recommend the wings by the way! Once everyone was ready, we loaded up the vehicles and made our way down to Cudjoe Key which is where our house was. The car ride consisted of getting to know each other, jokes, and talks about the days to come. Oh, and the scenery was absolutely magnificent. One straight road all the way through the keys with the clear blue Atlantic water surrounding us on all corners. Talk about Kodak moment. We arrived to Cudjoe Key around 7 or 8 pm. We settled in and got freshened up before our meeting with Dr. Vagelli. During our meeting we talked about the next 7 days and the goals that were set. Dr. Vagelli emphasized hands on work within the field instead of a regular in class structured course. For a person who barely steps in water other than his bathtub, I was kind of nervous (and very excited) for my first day.
The next day, we all woke up around 7:30 am, got ready and headed to Cudjoe Bay which was only less than 10 minutes away from our house. We met up around 9 am during low tide. Once we arrived we put on our gear and swam with the fish, literally. I was still getting used to the water and the rocks going into my fins but after a few minutes it was a breeze. We observed the different organisms that were inhabited within the area. Diversity with species was quite high. Dr. Vagelli and veterans to this course pointed out many different organisms such as polychaetes, upside down jellyfish, moray eels, horseshoe crabs, nursing shark etc. Dr. Vagelli gave us this time to get used to the water, observe the environment and familiar with basic terminology. After a few hours in the water we took a long break to rest up, eat lunch, and relax. We went back in after a few hours during high tide. High tide gave us an even better experience because diversity levels increased even more! You had different species of schools of fish swimming, lobsters hiding in sponges, and many more. Probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while. Once the sun was going down Dr. Vagelli called it a day… Kind of, we all got out of the water just to see him still venturing the sea lol. Day 2 of the keys was draining but well worth it and I learned a lot more then I expected.
Lobster Tagging
We visited Cudjoe Bay multiple times. Probably the most exciting part was Dr. Vagelli and the rest of the class trying to wrestle and catch lobsters from sponges and tagging them to see if they would return back to their original sponges. The lobsters and the sponges that they resided in were tagged with the same color ribbons.  After a few days of observing we could conclude that the lobsters did not necessarily stay in the same sponge however they did stay within the area and did not travel far away from the mangroves.
Bahia Honda
If you ever decide to vacation in the keys I highly recommend visiting Bahia Honda. It is a beautiful beach for visitors and locals. We had the opportunity to go out into the water and snorkel. Diversity was unbelievable. The further you got out the more scenic it was. I even collected a few shells, just to find out it was illegal to bring them ashore (sigh). Bahia Honda was probably my favorite time out of this whole trip.
Coral Reef Trip
Did I mention I barely do water activities? We took a boat to the deep sea where we had the chance to snorkel and dive in the coral reefs. The surge was ridiculous the day we went so many people got sick.
Overall the experience and trip was fantastic and I highly recommend people to take Dr. Vagelli’s Marine Ecology course next summer if they have the chance.