By Alexx Noumena and Mark Walker
On May 18, 2019
Carmabi, the Caribbean Marine Biological Institute right here on the shore of Curaçao is the largest field station in the Southern Caribbean Sea. Each year, Carmabi helps approximately 250 scientists in their research and education related to coral reef ecology. For the last seven days, our group of University of South Florida students have been learning the basics of scientific diving and have had the absolute pleasure of sharing our knowledge and experience with local students from KAP Kolegio Alejandro Paulo, the only public higher-level secondary education school on the island.
On Friday morning, myself and my diving buddy, Mark Walker, along with our teaching assistant and four other students greeted a room full of 45 students in the classroom at Carmabi. For this introduction, we put together and presented a slideshow highlighting some of the projects and skills that we are working on while in Curaçao as well as photos of reef fish, corals, and other wildlife. We discussed some basics of ecology, introduced a few common coral species, and emphasized the negative impacts of pollution. We then talked about scientific data collection techniques used for estimating fish and coral populations and shared some images from our diving excursions. One of these techniques involves laying a transect meter tape down onto the reef and recording the life that is seen directly beneath the tape. To get the students involved, we organized a game where four volunteers lined up in the front of the room and were given underwater slates to write on with underwater pencils. We then dropped a myriad of different colored pencils down the isle and had each student write them down in order without stepping on them, stopping to write, or bumping into their peers. This activity was a simulation of what it is like to move along a transect tape and record data without damaging the reef by kicking or stepping on corals. The student that was able to complete this task first was given their very own personal slate and underwater pencil as a prize.
The second half of our presentation focused greatly on what a scientific diver’s schedule looks like day-to-day and why this type of research is important. It was at this point that Abigail Vivlamore, our teaching assistant took over and shared her personal experience working at USF’s College of Marine Science mapping the Gulf of Mexico and identifying fish species. This presentation was especially interesting because she was able to share videos and images of the vessel that she works on and the cameras and monitors used when scanning the sea floor. At the end of her presentation, I quickly suited up and surprised the audience with a full dive gear breakdown. Dressed head to toe in a wetsuit, boots, BCD, regulator, and air cylinder, I walked down the isle to the front of the room where I explained what each piece of equipment was and how to put them together. Many students volunteered to try on the gear while I demonstrated some of their functions including inflation, air release and regulator use. The students had many questions about diving at this time, especially regarding cases of emergency and what to do when one arises. This portion was especially fun because it gave the teens an opportunity to feel what it’s like to carry the weight required for SCUBA diving and prepared a nice segue into action-packed details of emergency procedures.
After the presentations were completed, our group had a chance to talk individually with the students and learn more about their background and upbringing on the island. To our surprise, the vast majority had shockingly little interest or passion for marine science. When asked as a whole if any of them would choose marine sciences as a possible career path, no one raised their hand in reply. Many students said that they were interested in the medical field and that that particular career path was highly encouraged to them by their mentors. One of the students’ teachers even said that he was unsure that marine biology had many job openings and that it did not appear to be a “sexy” field. In response, our group explained individually how our strong love of the natural world influences our desire to learn more about marine ecosystems. We emphasized our own personal perspectives on this statement, making sure to choose at least one example of career potential. We stressed that working in a field we are passionate about is integral to our lives and that all types of technological and medical areas of expertise can be applied to conservation and biology. After this, a few students stated in conversation that they found marine biology interesting but had limited knowledge of the subject.
A large portion of this meet and greet involved an abundance of questions about life in the United States and particularly, U.S. colleges. One student had a strong attraction to software development and wished to gain some advice as to how we selected USF for our college educations. Others wanted advice on making friends in a new country and what career path they should choose. One of the most recurring themes in conversation with the high school students was that many of them spent their whole lives in Curaçao and felt it was too small and quiet, and in their experience, limiting due to its small size. Many wished to travel overseas to the U.S. or Netherlands and gain new experiences attending university. In Curaçao, there are only about 171 square miles to explore and a local language, Papiamento. Interestingly, the local students and teachers seamlessly switched from English to Dutch or Papiamento in their conversation with us and one another. However, some students did not know all three languages and did not appreciate being required to learn all three. One student had even chosen not to become fluent in Papiamento and instead studied German because it held greater interest to him.
Overall, presenting to the Curaçao students was an incredible learning experience and we unequivocally gained greater knowledge and appreciation of the culture and society here. We wish the best for these young minds and hope to spread our passion for the ocean to many more in the future.
The authors of this blog are students enrolled in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, field courses run in the Caribbean by the University of South Florida. In 2019 and 2021, the course went to the Carmabi research station in Curaçao and dived around the island over a 10-day period, for training and to carry out research projects. In 2018, the group went to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, and took part in various projects in partnership with the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.