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Hannah holding the first sea turtle she ever caught.

This is the first sea turtle I ever got to hold, one of my most favorite moments. We caught her one day while we were working on Beth’s project, tagged her, and then set her free again.

Most of us are excited and intrigued by exotic places. Places with sunshine, beautiful creatures, unique landscapes, and new adventures. Living and working in this type of environment for a summer internship is definitely an opportunity not to be missed.

This past summer I was accepted into a field assistantship in Abaco, Bahamas for Dr. Craig Layman at NC State University. Dr. Layman and his graduate students’ research focuses on coastal ecology that spans population, community, ecosystems, to evolutionary ecology. As an undergraduate interested in sustainability and exploring different potential career paths, I was fortunate to work with the Layman lab, where I knew I would gain experience in a wide breadth of marine research.

My primary assignment for the summer was assisting Stephanie Buhler, a PhD student, on the set-up and data collection for her research project investigating how habitat degradation and overfishing affect patch reef communities.

One of the reefs Hannah and the team constructed.

This is one of the reefs we constructed. This picture was taken a couple weeks after it was completed while doing a sea grass survey. The fish community is growing nicely already.

We built 16 different artificial patch reefs out of cinder blocks and PVC. The reefs had a complex or a simple structure, and either had predators (Nassau Grouper) present or absent. Once we constructed the reefs, we took fish surveys, sea grass surveys, Go-Pro videos, and water samples. Throughout the summer I was able to improve my snorkeling skills, scuba diving skills, and became newly proficient at diving on a hookah. I also got boating and kayaking experience, lab work, data collection and organization, megafauna handling, outreach, and teaching assistant experience.

In addition, I had the opportunity to help other graduate students with their field research. Ryann Rossi set up a cage experiment to see if the periwinkle snail, which lives in the dwarf mangrove forests, was purposefully doing fungal farming by creating crescent moon shaped scars on the mangroves leaves. I helped her collect leaf, snail, sediment, and algal samples as well as gained experience doing field work in a different and unique environment. I also worked with Beth Whitman on her study to see how the increasing green turtle populations may affect sea grass. The green sea turtle used to be a common food item in the Bahamas until recently, when hunting was banned. As a result, their numbers are expected to increase.

An unexpected benefit I gained over the summer was working and interacting with a different culture. Fishing is a big part of the Bahamas’ culture and income, and most of the waters in the area are becoming over-fished. It can be hard at times to work towards protecting the environment and keeping good relations with the community. You, an outsider, cannot come in and discount a tradition that someone’s family has had for years, even though it could be harming the environment. It’s necessary to work with the locals, understand their perspective, and try to help them develop a more sustainable outlook on the environment.

In addition to working on the projects, all of us volunteered with a local organization called Friends of the Environment. ‘Friends’ organizes educational camps for children to make them aware of environmental issues that the Bahamas are facing, as well as create a connection to nature so that the younger generation hopefully cares enough to preserve it. They also organize community events such as the annual Lionfish Derby, which is a competition to see who can catch the most lionfish, an invasive species from Asia that is destroying reefs and fish populations. I was able to help organize the Lionfiish Derby, which was a unique experience. Fishermen came in with hundreds of lionish ranging from 2 cm to 20 cm. It is cool to see an organization like this working towards protecting the environment, and hopefully it continues to make an impact.

Field work is not all fun and adventures, though. It is a lot of physical exertion, working in the sun and heat. Also, more times than not, something goes wrong. Whether it is a giant thunderstorm rolling in when you really need to finish setting up the experiment, to the boat motor dying while you are out on the water and having to swim the boat back to the dock, or things just taking significantly longer than planned, it can be a mental test just as much as a physical one.

Bahamas sunset

The sunset a couple feet from our front door. We lived almost right on the water, which was perfect since that was where the reefs were located.

That said, the long hours and hard work are definitely worth the experience. What started out as an adventure in an exotic and ‘glamorous’ location turned into a valuable learning experience. Living among and getting to know the local residents in a place where most people go to vacation gave a different perspective. Our neighbors nicknamed us ‘the scientist girls’ which somehow made us feel welcome and appreciated. Beautiful locations like the Bahamas have a unique set of environmental issues that require unique and creative solutions. Before this summer I had not considered field work as something that I would enjoy. However, I just recently got another field work position with a company called Smithers Viscient, which tests new pesticides on honeybees to ensure that the chemical will not do any harm. I am excited to see how my experience in the Bahamas will shape future opportunities and adventures, and where I will end up next.