The underwater world is one that has vastly been overlooked. Different classes of thought can attribute this to different things but one prevalent reason is the shift from terrestrial exploration to astral exploration. The ‘moon craze’ of the 60’s turned societies outlook to space, hoping to learn more about the moon, stars and planets. The oceans were regarded as big, deep and devoid of anything worth spending resources on. Other than some of the key players – whales, dolphins, coral, etc. – the ocean just seemed like a dark and empty place where as space held infinite possibilities.
With 95% of our oceans unexplored, the ocean leaves much to be learned. I’ve been PADI scuba certified since the age of 11 and living in Florida made it accessible to dive when and where I wanted. I have always loved marine biology, not with enough passion to pursue any sort of graduate school program in it, but enough to want to expand my knowledge. Between my environmental science classes and biology, there was always a section that focused on marine science. The extent of this information was mangroves, trophic levels, zooxanthellae/coral, and climate change related effects on the ocean. Due to the impracticality of bringing 40 high school students out to visit the ocean (unlike visiting the everglades, or terrestrial ecosystems), the classes were never met with a hands on component. I thought a large part of what was missing was being supplemented for the fact that I had been scuba diving for 6-7 years by that point.
Coming to OTS and having a week in Boca Del Toro provided an educational component that I had been looking for throughout high school. Class was a mixture of lectures and snorkeling. During this week, Jocelyn and I were the leaders of our faculty led project. We explored the question of “the impact of structural complexity on benthic community composition”. I had, while very limited, some previous knowledge about the subject. I understood the relationship between algae and coral and that algal cover was smothering our reefs. However, my idea of this was very one-dimensional. I thought the process was only: nutrient run off adds nitrogen and phosphorus, this aids algal growth, algae blocks the sun and hinders coral reef health.
Starting the project, we began to learn about the impact of herbivorous fish and some invertebrates on reef stability. It had completely slipped my mind, or was never there in the first place, that there were agents that so thoroughly controlled the algae. I knew herbivorous fish ate algae but I was unaware of their immense impact on the reef, on stability and on biodiversity. Going forward with the project, we looked at herbivory, rugosity, herbivorous fish and territorial fish frequency, and sea urchin abundance. What we found, while not necessarily groundbreaking, was revealing for me. There was low algae cover across all three sites and high coral cover (which is opposite to the trends seen all over the world). In areas of low territorial damselfish, the herbivorous fish were there to keep the algal population at bay. When there was high damselfish frequency, sea urchins ate the algae and kept algal abundance low. Two mechanisms for controlling algae cover, while they ‘make sense’ when you think it through, were two things that I never connected the dots with. Through lack of formal education on it, and a simple oversight at what I had been noticing while diving, I had missed a crucial understanding of reef management.
This OTS course has given me many things – from wanting to incorporate fieldwork to a better working knowledge of the tropics—but most recently it has renewed my interest in marine ecosystems. College is a time where different majors, minors, and certificates all are thrown at you trying to get you to join their department. My passion for the environment has never wavered but different interests within this realm come and go. As I continue growing and deciding my future, this simple classroom activity will sure to stick with me.