For the last two years, I have had the great opportunity to participate in Marine Field Ecology with Dr. Alejandro Vagelli down in the Florida Keys. Even though I am currently on the pre-medical path, participating in a program like this has opened me up to a different field of biology and I am grateful for such a privilege. Currently, I am senior biology student pursuing a minor in chemistry and economics at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. I initially found out about this course when I was in general biology as a freshman. My professor, stated that there was a marine field ecology course that upcoming summer and students who wish to explore alternative realms of biology should check it out. Here I am, two years later, grateful for the experiences that I will never forget.
I took interest in this course because it was a hands on experiential class that took place in a diverse environment. I remember from our first meetings with Dr. Vagelli, that this was a man with immense knowledge and expertise. Even though Dr. Vagelli knew exactly what he was doing from all the years he has run this trip down in the Florida Keys, there was quite a bit of flexibility and catering to student’s schedules and modes of transportation. However, even though the pre-trip meetings were fun and exciting, it was not until we met in Miami where the adventure began.
The first day consisted of a traveling day. Everyone left New Jersey via their own mode of transportation and arrived at a common location around Miami airport. From there, we packed in cars that consisted of a combination of rentals and student vehicles and headed down Route 1 to our desired location in Cudjoe Key. We picked up food for the week at a local supermarket and headed over to our rental houses which were conveniently located in the same community. After getting settled in and resting up after a long day of travel, we began our first day much like the rest; waking up early, having our early morning planning meeting, and then traveling to a location to go snorkeling and exploring various marine environments.
Our main habitat we explored and worked in was at Cudjoe Bay on the gulf side. This is where we spent countless hours swimming, observing various marine species and learning the techniques that marine biologists use in the field. Some of the common species we observed were upside-down jellyfish, moray eels, spiny lobsters, horseshoe crabs and nurse sharks to name a few. When we came across an interesting organism, Dr. Vagelli would stop and hold a lecture in the middle of the water to explain whatever we found or if he had something interesting to show us. Each day we would learn different techniques to collect samples and research these marine habitats. We learned how to conduct transects of the environment, tag and track the movement of lobsters, extract fish, specifically toadfish, from conch shells and catch lobsters.
We spent four days at Cudjoe Key and split the rest of our time in different locations off of Summerland Key, Looe Key, Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf Key and at Bahia Honda State Park. At Looe Key, we chartered a boat and took about a 30 minute ride out to the Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area to the coral reef. Here was the opportunity for divers to get in some diving while the snorkelers enjoyed the reef just as much from above. Even though coral bleaching is present, it was still an amazing experience to see a coral reef and tropical marine life up close. Here, we could see various species such as lionfish, nurse sharks and other tropical fish. However, the real sight of the day was the enormous grouper that was catching some shade under our dive boat. This fish was massive, but was perfectly content with hanging out under the boat while we went about our business. I have always heard of huge fish, but seeing a wild 400 pound grouper at an arm’s length is something that words cannot explain.
After each of our days in the water, we would come home to the houses, wash up, eat a well-deserved meal and then meet at Dr. Vagelli’s house for evening lab. Dr. Vagelli conveniently set up his house to mimic a lab with microscopes, various samples we collected throughout each day and dissection kits. Even though the labs were laid back, students still had the opportunity to observe organisms under a microscope that they saw in the water, dissect and learn anatomy of fish, and talk over what was seen throughout the day.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that this was one of my favorite courses taken at Rutgers University. Not only did it take place in a biologically rich and diverse environment, but the hands on approach combined with the expertise that Dr. Vagelli provided is unparalleled compared to any other course. This class taught biology in its intended habitat and gave students more than just a textbook visual to study and relate to. Dr. Vagelli is truly a master of his craft and takes a great deal of pride in providing the best education for his students. His teaching approach is unique, but gets his students thinking in a critical manner which is demanding yet effective. I highly recommend this class to any and all students no matter what major you are because it is a truly an extraordinary experience that cannot be matched anywhere else.