By Reef Check EcoDiver Course Director James Hewlett
In January, eighteen students from the University of Minnesota traveled to the Bay Islands of Honduras as part of a Coral Reef Ecology course students can take as part of the university’s new Marine Biology degree program. Students participated in a weekly seminar during the fall 2014 semester where they learned about Reef Ecology and in December of 2014, the course wrapped up with the classroom portion of the Reef Check EcoDiver training course. EcoDiver Course Director Professor James Hewlett led the training and along with Dr. James and Sehoya Cotner, helped prepare the students for the field portion of their course which took place at Anthony’s Key Resort on the island of Roatan. Roatan’s reefs are part of the Mesoamerican Reef region in the western Caribbean, which is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, stretching nearly 700 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula down through the Honduran Bay Islands.
The EcoDiver field training was integrated into the field course so that students could utilize their training as part of their own individual research projects. In addition to their training, students were provided opportunities to further their education as part of a series of workshops from Jennifer Keck, who serves as the Education and Research Coordinator at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS). At the workshops, students were introduced to the biology of sea turtles and dolphins, learned about ongoing research at RIMS, and were provided opportunities to practice their fish and invertebrate identification skills. Many of the students were newly certified in SCUBA and were given many opportunities to practice their new skill during a week of spectacular diving on the west end of Roatan. After finalizing their training, the group was able to complete two full Reef Check surveys along a portion of the reef that students were using for their research projects.
The Caribbean Sea rewarded the new EcoDivers on the last day of the course. As the students were returning to the resort from their last day of diving, three whale sharks appeared on the horizon. For the next hour, students were able to snorkel alongside these amazing creatures – an experience that several students described as “life changing.” In the end, the course produced 18 new certified EcoDivers and a new group of ambassadors of the ocean. For more information on the University of Minnesota degree program, visit http://cbs.umn.edu/learn/undergraduates/cbs-minors/marine-biology or contact Dr. Sehoya Cotner.