Marine Biology class travels to Belize over Spring Break
Gaby Jansen | Tuesday, March 21, 2017
A Saint Mary’s marine biology class took in-depth learning to a whole new meaning. The class spent spring break in Belize at South Water Caye applying what it learned in the classroom life to the natural world.
Saint Mary’s assistant biology professor Laura Kloepper said marine biology had not been taught in years, but the department now plans on regularly running the class.
“For the past few years no one has been teaching that class,” Kloepper said. “So we’ve resurrected the marine biology class and we plan on teaching this every two years. This trip to Belize was part of the lab component for our marine biology class that we offer here for majors.”
Kloepper said studying Belize was an obvious choice because of its diverse environment. She said it provided a unique opportunity to learn more about a field that is not as prominent in a landlocked state like Indiana.
“If you’re teaching marine biology in Indiana doing a lab is a little difficult. So we decided to make our lab one big field trip to Belize where it is a very diverse coral reef ecosystem that’s pretty easy to get to,” Kloepper said. “It’s also one of the few coral reefs that is still fairly unaffected by coral bleaching.”
The class went boating in the morning and worked on their individual projects in the afternoon. Kloepper said the students would also go to the reefs in the morning together.
“As a class we were doing a marine life census,” Kloepper said. “We are [going to] be sharing those data with an organization in Belize that tracks the organisms across the reefs.”
Kloepper said the class spent the afternoon independently studying topics such as coral bleaching, species composition in sea grass beds and hermit crab competition. Senior biology major Casey Moorhead said during the trip the students saw what they learned in the classroom come to life by actually seeing the fish and algae of Belize.
“We’ve been learning about fish identification, algae [identification] and we were able to apply what we learned in the class in the field over break,” Moorhead said. “It was nice being able to actually see certain fish and actually say ‘oh that’s a Blue Tang.’”
Senior biology major Ally Pudlo said in an email that the class learned about how different organisms interact as well as their roles in the environment.
“We learned about the different interactions that occur at the reefs between fish and the corals,” Pudlo said. “We also learned about how vital the mangroves are to the environment and what they provide for the fish and the people.”
Moorhead said the main purpose of the trip was for the class to learn first-hand about coral reefs.
“Mostly this trip was going out in the field and learning about different composition of the different reefs around there,” Moorhead said.
Among the coral reefs they saw, students saw colorful reef fish and larger predators in them, Pudlo said.
“We also saw larger fish, like barracudas, and large predators along the reef, like nurse sharks,” Pudlo said.
Kloepper said the best way her biology students can learn is by experiencing and dealing with a situation when nothing is going according to plan.
“When you’re out in the field doing field work nothing ever goes according to plan,” Kloepper said. “So it was really good for the students to be able to … learn how to adapt their experiments according to these real world scenarios.”
Kloepper said her students adapted to field research quickly while facing challenges.
“The students became very good field biologists overnight,” Kloepper said. “There was a lot of frustration, but a really important part of science is understanding that those frustrations are natural and learning how to change your experiment based on any challenges that come up.”
While there were some frustrations, the students said overall they had a good time. Moorhead said she enjoyed the class’ night snorkel where it saw animals that were only out at night.
“We did a night snorkel one night … we were all with our dive lights swimming around the reef and you would look to your left or right and it would just be complete darkness,” Moorhead said. “So we saw an eel, stingrays and then a sea star that opens up at night which was really cool.”
A favorite memory for Pudlo was when the class took their last snorkeling class at the Angel Reef.
“We enjoyed the beautiful coral reefs, and afterwards we got to swim around in the water and take pictures of each other swimming in the water,” Pudlo said. “This was an incredible trip, and I had a wonderful time with everyone who went on it.”