Ever since Sanibel Sea School opened as a nonprofit, we have been dreaming of coral reefs and of taking a group of teenagers to study and explore them. This past week, our dream finally came true. And it was even more fun that we could have imagined. Fourteen high school students, accompanied by three Sanibel Sea School staff members, spent the week at Forfar Field Station on Andros Island in the Bahamas studying coral reefs and becoming confident, capable free divers and reef ecologists. These students ranged from Maddie, a Sanibel Sea School veteran who has been attending and volunteering in our programs since we opened in 2005, to Ondrej from the Czech Republic who visited us for the first time last fall.
The general plan for the week was to spend as much time in the water as possible. One of the best things in life is having the ability to calmly dive down through crystal clear water, check out some colorful coral or reef fish, hang out a while, then float back up, clear your snorkel, and do it again. At the beginning of the week, this type of comfort in the water was a challenge. At the end of the week, it was as easy as breathing – above water or under. We swam through coral arches, we checked out a peacock flounder at the very bottom in the sand, we followed a hawksbill sea turtle and dove down to peer under a coral head at a nurse shark – we even swam through a little cave in the wall of Rainbow Blue Hole, one of the gorgeous geological formations that helps make Andros Island a world famous diving destination. We visited both oceanic and land-locked blue holes, many of which are actually connected to each other – a fact discovered by the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, who once-upon-a-time actually stayed at the same field station we visited.
Along with general ocean exploration and free diving practice, we had an important agenda on this trip. As many people now know, coral reefs are in trouble. To understand how to conserve them and keep them healthy, it is important for scientists to have a good idea of how they have been changing over time. In order to contribute to this effort, we set up a study site at a coral area called Dave’s Patch Reef. Using simple but elegant research techniques, we surveyed the fish, invertebrates, corals, algae, coral diseases, and surrounding seagrass at our study site. We kept detailed records of our findings, and these data are the first in what will become a long-term database of coral health at Dave’s Patch Reef monitored by Sanibel Sea School students annually.
We exercised our scientific and creative talents by completing either an individual art project or a small group research project throughout the week. The presentations at the end of the week were very interesting and showed what an impressive group of teens we had. One group made a to-scale map of nocturnal crab activity all over the field station by following their tracks in the sand; Cameron made a beautiful watercolor of a parrotfish, a colorful and important reef fish that munches on coral and poops out sand; another group explored the success of natural versus man-made materials as artificial reefs. Outside of this assignment, one teenager, Dara, learned to weave a traditional Bahamian palm-frond basket from one of the island elders who lived down the street.
If you would like to learn more about Sanibel Sea School or be put on an email list for information about our next trip, please give us a call at 239-472-8585 or email email@example.com.