Colleen – I am a second year Ph.D. student in CEE and member of the Castillo lab. I received my B.S. in Marine Biology with a minor in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I am currently interested in the effects of predicted climate change (ocean acidification and ocean warming) on Caribbean scleractinian corals.
Diamond – I am a third year Ph.D student in CEE studying social vulnerability following large wet weather disturbances. I received my B.A in Environmental Studies and B.A in Journalism with a minor in Creative Writing from New York University. My research focuses on the interplay of humans and nature in urban ecosystems.
What was your favorite part of TAing this course?
Colleen: My research is in Caribbean corals so this was a unique opportunity to teach students about my specific research. I loved the opportunity to share my knowledge and excitement about coral reefs with all the students. In addition, I was really excited to explore the reefs of Saint John because they are the same reefs were my undergraduate advisor really had her career take off. She was a member of the all-female dive team in the 1970s underwater Tektite II project (they lived in an underwater research lab for several days and conducted research). It was a neat experience to see where she carried out some of her graduate work!
Diamond: My research is on urban areas and with humans, so my favorite part of TAing this course was learning about the fascinating wonders of the Caribbean coral reef systems. I had never gotten the opportunity to closely study coral reef ecology – only briefly in a Environmental Science course in my undergraduate career did I even talk about corals – so this was a new and fascinating experience for me.
Tell us about your first day on St. John?
Colleen: I went with the early group so our first night was full of making sure we had all the tents we needed (apparently people didn’t want to sleep under the stars)! As for the first full day, we spent the day at the Salt Pond site snorkeling. Right away, students were finding sea turtles all over the place. After some lost snorkels and pre-lunch sunburn, many of the students actually took the 1-mile hike to the top of the cliff for an amazing ocean view. We then headed back to camp and then into town to meet up with the rest of our crew.
Diamond: I came with the second group, so we got off the boat, only to be greeted by the first half of the class, sitting in a taxi waving and smiling at us! We immediately packed our things onto a taxi, and went to go explore the town. That night, we watched the UNC basketball game and cheered our team on all the way from the Caribbean. Then our entire group traveled back to the tents (which were pretty luxurious – mattress and all). We spent the next full day on a beach, snorkeling all day. This was my first time snorkeling, so it took a little bit of adjustment. But it was so much fun!
What was your snorkeling experience?
Colleen: This is my place! I love the ocean and everything about it so I was very happy to be in the water for 5 hours each day. It is especially fun to challenge yourself by staying down longer and reaching deeper depths!
Diamond: MORE PLEASE!
It was amazing! Before this trip, I had barely swum in the ocean before, so it was truly an interesting experience. The snorkeling part was not that difficult – learning to breathe through your mouth isn’t as hard as you think. But for some reason, I couldn’t get a hang of those fins. Mine were a little long for me, so I would suggest anybody really try out their fins for a while before going on a Caribbean adventure like this. But there’s nothing like being in the ocean, seeing the animals and wildlife you’ve only seen on postcards or in National Geographic magazines. It was great.
What are some of the cool species you saw?
Colleen: Since my research is focusing on the actual corals on the reef, I was mainly paying attention to the bottom and looking for my study species. I was able to find all my study species with the exception of one. My favorite of my coral species was the Symmetric Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa). Another cool find for me was the Orange Cup Coral (Tubastraea coccinea)! It is the only invasive stony coral in the Caribbean and this trip was my first sighting of the coral in its nonnative environment! As far as non-corals go, I am a huge fan of Queen Triggerfish (Balistes vetula) and I was really excited to see a couple big ones while snorkeling!
Diamond: I SWAM WITH SEA TURTLES! Well, just the one to be precise. But that was the most exciting species I saw, and maybe my favorite part of the trip. I saw an array of fish: Ballyhoo (Hemiramphus brasiliensis), Bar Jacks (Caranx ruber), Flat Needlefish (Ablennes hians), and the Southern Sennet Barracuda (Sphyraena picudilla). That last one was small, but intimidating!
What advice would you give to students considering taking this course?
Diamond: Do your research on gear – go to your local dive shop! And if you are afraid of trying something new – whether that be snorkeling, swimming with sting rays, or camping – TRY IT. You won’t regret it.
We focus on experiential learning here at UNC. What advantages are there to taking a course like this?
Colleen: I think this class is a really unique experience at UNC. It allows students to learn about organisms common (and not so common) to the Caribbean reef ecosystem. Students are then able to apply those identification skills in the field, something easier said than done, while also enjoying the natural beauty of the island. For students who may be curious about pursuing a Marine Science Minor, this is a great opportunity to explore that interest. The class introduces many basic concepts in marine science so people can get a taste of what would follow in the minor. Additionally, it exposes students to coral reefs, and ecosystem many do not have the opportunity to explore for recreational purposes. Overall, I think this is a great exposure class for students who are, or might be, interested in any kind of work with marine systems, whether that is in academic research or policy and conservation.
Diamond: This course is so valuable if you have been considering Marine Biology or Marine Sciences as your major. This will be the trip to help you get a feel for the type of work you might be doing in the future. This is also a great introduction to aquatic life in general. If you, like me, have ever had an interest in aquatic life but aren’t in the field, this course is the opportunity to build upon that passion and learn things you might not get the chance to learn or experience otherwise.
What was your favorite part of the trip?
Colleen: As much as I love snorkeling and camping, I loved seeing all the students get excited about being able to ID different organisms or when they found an uncommon one. People got especially excited when they ‘conquered’ the ocean at night for the night snorkel! This was definitely the highlight for me!
Diamond: SWIMMING WITH TURTLES! But also, I enjoyed the cultural landscape of the island. Although we didn’t focus on this throughout the class, the history of the island is intriguing. The tourist economy in itself is an interesting phenomenon that we don’t experience much in the continental United States.
How was camping for a week?
Colleen: I love camping, love it! I think spending that time away from technology and everyday life is amazing. Being in that environment makes you exempt from social norms, like showering every day. Yes, I was that person that only showered a couple times over the trip because I could! I will admit that not everyone shared my love for camping. I had to make several rescues of tents with bugs in them, chase birds out of tents, and make sure people were waking up (even though the 3AM rooster call should have done that job)! Despite some ‘learning experiences’, I think everyone enjoyed camping in the end!
Diamond: It was not too bad, if I must say so myself. I’m a city girl with a love of nature, so a week of camping seemed a little intimidating. But this was more of a Glamping experience than one where you rough it; we had mattresses and a nearby restaurant! It wasn’t bad at all. And the community of students we went with were great – we all bonded by the end of the trip. And I love deer, so waking up to a couple deer trying to break into your food cooler everyday was just hilarious to me. One thing though – those 3AM rooster calls were not pleasant. But hey, nobody ran late!