Study abroad program members receive snorkeling lessons
before heading to Bonaire (above). Photo by Elizabeth Boyle.
A typical Bonaire beach (below). Photo by Penny Stevens.
It’s definitely winter here in the mid-Atlantic region, but for 16 University of Delaware students, winter intersession is going to be downright tropical. This January, two College of Marine and Earth Studies (CMES) professors will lead a team of undergraduates on a unique study abroad program where they’ll help a group of researchers study coral reefs and marine protected areas off the shores of the Caribbean island Bonaire.
“The reefs of Bonaire are some of the most pristine in the world. They set the present standard for reef quality and conservation, making it critically important that we understand more about their health and status,” said Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences Art Trembanis, who is leading the UD trip along with Associate Professor of Oceanography Doug Miller and geological sciences graduate student Hilary Stevens.
Located about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is one of the best scuba diving locations in the Caribbean. Its reefs, which have been legally protected since 1979, are much healthier than others in the region. One study suggests that coral reef coverage in the Caribbean has dropped by about 80 percent in the last 30 years, and scientists say much of that damage is due to human-related causes, such as pollution and overfishing.
Researchers want to know why the reefs off Bonaire’s shores remain healthy while many reefs in the Caribbean and around the world are threatened. To learn why and to see how they’re holding up, the UD team will meet up with scientists from several organizations -- including the Virginia Institute of Marine Science; the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; and the University of British Columbia -- to map Bonaire’s reef system using cutting-edge technology.
Multiple autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) will help them obtain critical information about Bonaire’s waters and reefs. In addition to taking pictures and other visual data, the underwater robots will gather information on salinity, temperature, oxygen levels and other water quality parameters.
Once they’ve gathered the data, the team will compare it to surveys completed in the 1980s to see what has changed in the last three decades.
The research, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be highlighted by NOAA’s Ocean Explorer web site. Visit http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov beginning Jan. 7, 2008, to follow the team’s progress and learn about members’ experiences through photos, explorer bios and written updates.
In addition to the research they’ll conduct, Trembanis and Miller said it’s the opportunity to meld their research with their teaching that makes them excited about the month-long trip.
“I think we do our best teaching when it’s informed and influenced by our science,” Trembanis said, explaining that he’s looking forward to seeing the students work alongside members of the science team.
And that, for the students, is what will make the trip one to remember. In addition to taking a course on tropical field biology and one on carbonate geology as well as an independent study, they’ll contribute to the larger research project in any number of ways. For example, students will participate by going on shallow dives to help take video and photos of the sea floor or by helping organize the wealth of data the research team will generate over the course of the trip.
Mostly juniors and seniors, the students, whose majors range from geology to wildlife ecology, bring a range of strengths and interests to the program. One student, senior Jonathan Gordon, raises corals in his dorm room. Two others, senior environmental sciences major Chris Coccaro and junior wildlife conservation major Kat McCole, will use their skills as advanced divers to help the science team with technical dives in deeper waters.
McCole worked with Miller as a summer intern and science and engineering scholar last summer, and Coccaro is one of five returning student members from the twenty-seven who joined Trembanis and Miller in New Zealand during the Winter 2007 intersession.
Coccaro said he appreciates the fact that students on the trip will get to design their own experiences by choosing how they’d like to be involved with the science team’s research project.
“It’s not just like a normal study abroad program,” he said. “I’m actually taking part in research, which is an opportunity that very few undergrads get to do and I had to take advantage of that.”
To learn more about the CMES Bonaire trip, visit http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov beginning Jan. 7, 2008.
For more about CMES, visit www.ocean.udel.edu.