mattAs a Marine Biologist major in Kutztown University I could not pass up this opportunity when I was invited along for the ride by Shawn and Dr. Vagelli, the experience was just to invaluable. This was the first time I’ve ever taken a course with Dr. Vagelli and through Rutgers Camden in general, but I found the trip to be extremely exciting! I had taken a research trip before to Wallops Island, Virginia before but it was nothing like this. Each day was well spent doing fun and exciting tasks in multiple locations throughout the Keys of Florida.

The first few days were spent at Cudjoe Bay down at the docks on Blimp Road. Here is where we conducted our main experiment on the lobsters and sponges in the area. We wanted to see if the lobsters returned to the same specific sponges each day. Our job was to find sponges that housed at least one lobster though more than one per was preferable. Once we found the lobster we had to catch them so they could be tagged for later observation. The fun here was watching most of us, including myself, be outsmarted or out ran on our first attempts to catch them. Once caught and tagged they were released as close to the sponge as possible, this way there was a higher probability that they would still be at the sponge the next day or a few days later. And the end of the experiment we found that majority of the lobsters did return to the same sponge we found them at, occasionally with other untagged lobsters who could have been tagged and lost them due to multiple reasons.

Along with this experiment, Dr. Vagelli taught us how to map the ecological area to see how the floor of the bay changed as you went into deeper depths or further away from the docks along the mangroves. He also showed us different ways to catch the local fish using the nets so we could dissect them later, which would be my first dissection, to see what their eating habits were. In between all of this we would check the mangroves to see what fish would be swimming around at the time. At one point we even found a baby nurse shark hiding between the roots.

During the days we weren’t at Cudjoe Bay, we surveyed other areas such as Bahia Honda State Park, Looe Key Marine Sanctuary and a few other bays. At Looe key we took a guided boat trip to the coral reefs where some of us snorkeled while others dived to check out the area and the local wildlife. At the other bays we freely snorkeled around surveying the areas, checking the incredibly diverse ecosystem of the Florida Lower Keys. We would see tons of different species of fish, star fish and crabs. At times we would even get lucky enough to find and catch animals like mantis shrimp or witness a group of cuttlefish swim by. At each area, if you’re into collecting, you could even find a good number of intact shells, old lobster shells that had been molted off and pieces of coral.

All in all the experience I gained from this course is not something I could have obtained through a normal college lecture course. 10/10 would do again so if you take this course expect to see me there! Also here’s a little advice for any newcomers:

  1. Be prepared for 12+ hour days of being in the water. The days are long and hard but totally worth the effort
  2. If you get seasick take dramamine the night before and that morning, trust me you don’t want to make that mistake.
  3. Do not forget your gloves, you’re going to want to touch things and some things hurt to touch!!
  4. Don’t lose Vagelli’s teaching stick.