Semester at Sea Program Teams With Soufriere Marine Management Association of St. Lucia and Reef Check to Survey Reefs in Caribbean

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In October of 2008, 14 students from Sea|mester, a semester at sea program, conducted Reef Check Foundation surveys in Soufriere, St Lucia for the Soufriere Marine Management Association. Students sailing the Caribbean abroad Sea|mester's schooner Ocean Star spent part of their semester at sea doing this important work since the program's inception a decade ago.

In October of 2008, 14 students from Sea|mester, a semester at sea program, conducted Reef Check Foundation surveys in Soufriere, St Lucia for the Soufriere Marine Management Association. Students sailing the Caribbean abroad Sea|mester's schooner Ocean Star spent part of their semester at sea doing this important work since the program's inception a decade ago.

Reef Check is an international organization whose mission is to protect and rehabilitate reefs worldwide. The Soufriere Marine Management Association (SMMA) was established to protect the coral reefs off the coast of Soufriere, St Lucia from the ever-increasing demands put on them by fishermen and tourists.

SMMA uses protocol established by Reef Check to protect the rich bio-diversity along its coastline. While there is no formal relationship between Sea|Mester and either Reef Check or SMMA, teachers and students feel the work is important and they continue to participate.

Students from Sea|mester began their semester at sea in the British Virgin Islands. After preparing for a month diving and taking Marine Biology and Oceanography classes as they sailed towards St. Lucia, they were ready to begin surveying.

Park rangers and staff from SMMA briefed participants before they set out to survey three separate sites: Rachette Point, Superman's Flight and Grande Caille. To facilitate the work of the three teams of students, rangers had laid transect tapes (a type of tape measure) along the reefs to be surveyed. The first team counted certain fish species within their transects, while the second team counted invertebrates. So that students don't have to learn to identify hundreds of different species only certain species, deemed 'indicators" of reef health, are counted. The third team noted live and dead coral, algae, sand, rock, sponge and other organisms along the transects, findings used to calculate changes in the coral and other covers.

Like most of what the students do during their semester at sea, it's experiential learning that just can't be matched by the traditional classroom. Marine biologist and Chief Marine Scientist Chantale Bégin explains it this way. "It's a brilliant way to combine theoretical things one should learn in a marine biology course and practice them in the field, not just regurgitate information in a quiz from pictures seen in a book."

But the experience has meaning for the students beyond lessons in marine biology. "Because the data is used by an international organization to assess changes in our coral reefs, the students are a lot more interested and take it a lot more seriously. They feel their work is truly worthwhile. And it is," Bégin says.

For student Tina Doran, it was one of the highlights of her semester at sea. "When Ocean Star anchored in St. Lucia, we split into seven buddy pairs and divided ourselves between five and ten meter transects. At each transect, a team surveyed fish species, invertebrate species, and substrate.

"Even though we were technically doing work underwater, my buddy and I had a lot of fun swimming around and staring at all of the life we encountered. Some areas of the reef were developed and diverse, and we got to see some pretty amazing things first-hand, rather than out of a textbook. I remember learning about the color change made by egg-guarding Sergeant Majors just the night before, then the next morning spotting a dusky colored Sergeant Major swimming territorially around a purple egg patch. Aside from the incredible hands-on experience, the survey made me more ecologically aware. So many of the corals my partner and I encountered were dead or dying, and some stretches were simply barren. But it felt good to know I was doing what I could to help."

Jessica Fry, Chief Marine Scientist aboard Ocean Star says, "I think that many students gain a great deal of experience in research during their semester at sea, and a better understanding of what exactly is involved in undertaking marine research work. They develop a real passion for marine life and say that participating in research like this makes them feel like 'real scientists.'

For Sea|Mester students, it's only one of a number of similar programs they have the opportunity to work on during their semester at sea. Participants also take part in a turtle tagging project and a study of the threatened Elkhorn Coral. According to Sea|mester Director Mike Meighan, "They are all great learning experiences and a valuable lessons on our responsibility to the ecosystems that maintain the balance of life on our planet."

A very successful marine protected area in St. Lucia, the Soufriere Marine Management Association has seen a great increase in fish abundance inside the reserve compared to adjacent areas since its establishment in 1992. A model of co-management, the government and the SMMA have worked with local fishermen, hotels, and dive operators to use Reef Check protocol for monitoring coral reefs and in doing so have reduced conflicts between the groups. Sea|mester's surveys in St. Lucia have added to that effort.

Dedicated to the preservation of two of the world's critical ecosystems, tropical coral reefs and California rocky reefs, the international non-profit Reef Check Foundation works to create partnerships with community volunteers, government agencies, businesses, universities and other nonprofits; they educate the public about the value of ecosystems and the current crisis affecting marine life; they create a global network of volunteers trained in Reef Check's scientific methods who regularly monitor and report on reef health; they facilitate collaboration that produces ecologically sound and economically sustainable solutions; and they stimulate local community action to protect remaining pristine reefs and rehabilitate damaged reefs worldwide.

Sea|mester delivers a unique educational experience to students who spend a semester at sea sailing between islands, countries, even continents discovering not only the world, but their potential as well. Sea|mester is not a cruise. The program, which began a decade ago, challenges students aboard its two vessels, Argo, which circumnavigates the globe, and Ocean Star, which sails the Caribbean, with college-level academics and the responsibility of playing an active and integral part in the voyage during their semester at sea. The Sea|mester office is located in Sarasota, Florida.

Learn more about Sea|mester at http://www.seamester.com.

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