University of Delaware
Imaging bleaching orbicella annularis with coral health indicator cards. Photo by Ashley Barnett

Underwater laboratory

UD marine science students dive deep into research during study abroad in Cayman Islands


1:34 p.m., March 1, 2016--Fourteen students from the University of Delaware’s marine studies program spent Winter Session on the island of Little Cayman, Cayman Islands. For four weeks, students resided in bungalows, dove in crystal clear waters and studied coral reef environments at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI).

The isolated island’s low population, large diversity of marine organisms and marine laboratory are what made it the perfect location for exploring coral reef environments, explained Adam Marsh, a professor of marine biosciences at UD’s Lewes campus, who coordinated the program along with Mark Warner, also a marine biosciences professor.

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Throughout the experience, hosted by UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, students took courses in scientific diving and coral reef environments, all taught in a field setting rather than a classroom. The coral reef course focused on the geology of the island, coral reef ecology and how to identify different coral species underwater. 

Both Marsh and Warner, along with diving safety officer Hunter Brown, mentored the students through the diving research methods course, which focused on diving to collect data rather than for recreation. Students completed a safety training session in the fall so that they would have some background knowledge of working underwater. 

“You have a job to do that you have to think about and do well, so your diving comfort, familiarity with your gear and diving technique need to become second nature so you can get the science done,” Warner emphasized to the students.

Ricky Rosas, a marine science major who first learned about the program during his freshman year marine science colloquium, said the trip allowed him to look ahead.

“It helped me visualize a potential future spending weeks at a time conducting research disconnected from the rest of the world as a marine scientist,” said Rosas.

Learning how to work underwater requires quite a bit of physical endurance, especially when lifting and moving heavy objects underwater. During their 28-day adventure, students learned how to control their buoyancy, navigate and position themselves relative to their research site, and conduct research, all while wearing a wetsuit and breathing from an air tank.

They completed survey dives, ran transect tapes to measure distances and took photographs with the photo quadrats they built themselves out of three-quarter-inch PVC pipe. The quadrats were 1-by-1 square meter at the base, had four legs and resembled large quadrapods with a GoPro camera attached to the top. 

The students were required to swim and work with these large structures underwater  —a tiresome job, especially when considering factors like tides and currents. Back on dry land, they used photo analysis software to analyze and identify the coral species from their photographs.

The hands-on experience engaged and exposed students to the life of a scientific diver, a potential career for many marine science majors. After completing nearly thirty dives, all fourteen students became certified scientific divers through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). 

UD junior Jennifer Riling, also a marine science major, said the diving experience helped her to feel more comfortable in the field setting, and motivated her to continue diving once she returned home.

“I would greatly enjoy a career path that involved scuba diving. I recently received an offer as the diving intern at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida for the summer,” Riling said.

Both Rosas and Riling recounted breathtaking experiences, including being surrounded by countless species of colorful fish and spotting an octopus during a night dive. Living and learning in this underwater laboratory, coupled with their admiration for the exotic sea life, made for quite a rewarding experience — but it was the diving experience and the ability to plunge themselves into the island culture over four weeks that set this program apart from so many others.

“Instead of traveling to several countries in a short period of time, students really had an immersive experience and became part of the fabric of life on the island. Here it’s not breadth, but it’s depth,” Marsh said.

Article by Laura Bilash

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