Dive Time with Tim Grollimund

Pilot program involves intense work for students

August 29, 2013 

A friendly green sea turtle greeted the REEF survey takers. (Photo by Tim Grollimund)


About a year ago, I got a call from a fellow from Harvard. He is a retired airline executive participating in a leadership program, and decided his new calling was to help educate young people on the importance of, and issues facing, the world’s coral reefs. Meet Dave Wing, the founder of Project Coral Rescue (http://projectcoralrescue.org).

I read his project plan, and had the opportunity to dive with them last week. Conch Republic in Tavernier Creek Marina provided the vessel. These are bright kids, and from what I read in the project plan, they have a busy year ahead. I would love to see something like this spread as far and wide as possible. Funding has come from local donors, including Keys Ahead Inc. As they pursue outside funding, most of those sources require a local cash match so they will need ongoing and new local support.

Dave’s main partners are David Makepeace, the former marine biology teacher at Coral Shores High School, and Loretta Lawrence, the program coordinator for RECON. Their organization (SEA Inc.) manages the RECON program. REEF and the Coral Restoration Foundation are also part of the curriculum. That is a lot of homework, a lot of time in the water, and a lot of experience in the field. What a great resume-builder! The pilot program kicks off this year.

Andy Thiery and Chris Calderwood from Coral Shores and Island Christian School each have students in the program. The idea is to provide marine science education in a real-world setting, using a service learning model. The field work the students will perform includes learning and executing REEF fish survey and RECON benthic analysis protocols, assisting CRF in the nursery and transplanting coral and assisting in lionfish outreach with REEF.

The classroom and civic parts of the program include photo and video documentation to produce an electronic portfolio; planning and managing an underwater photo contest, delivering presentations to local organizations, and publishing newspaper articles about the coral reef ecosystem.

The project has targeted outcomes, including building a better-informed citizenry that understands the importance of individual actions on the surrounding ecosystem, having students, through direct experience, gain a deeper knowledge about physical science and learn the complexities of sustainable solutions for the oceans, and providing advanced development opportunities for students who choose marine science careers.

Lofty goals for such a small program, in our little section of the world.

But Project Coral Rescue has no plans to stay small. They envision opportunities to scale up and replicate the program throughout the rest of the Keys and to other marine sanctuaries. Ultimately they have their sights on imperiled marine habitats in the U.S. and Caribbean and even the Coral Triangle in the Pacific.

On our fist dive, I went with Loretta to do the RECON part of the tasks. This involved identifying and logging the size and condition of corals on a section of the reef. The second part of the dive was used to learn about setting a transect and taking the benthic survey along the line.

The second dive, Alexis Balinski from REEF had a group of students doing a fish survey. This dive was a lot of fun for me, and a lot of work for the students. About halfway through the second dive, as I was shooting the fish census takers, Alexis signaled me to follow her. As soon as I got to the top of the ledge, she was hovering next to a beautiful green sea turtle nestled in a sandy spot on the bottom. The turtle sat there for a few minutes, quite comfortable and indifferent to our presence. I think he knew we were just there to learn. At least, that’s how he acted.

Talking to the students added a new dimension for me. As I’ve said before, these last few months have been like being in school for me as I devoted a lot of time getting a better understanding of our ecosystem. That’s what they are doing in this program — and they have a lab, dive boat and terrific instructors!

Cole Houser has been here all his life — a true Conch — snorkeling, spearing and lobstering for as long as he can remember. He has been a certified diver for three years.

“It’s a great program. Living in the Keys gives us an big advantage to be in the water and learn first-hand about the reef and the ecosystem. Our lifestyle can’t be duplicated anywhere in the country, and it’s important we learn how to respect what we have and protect it for the future.”

He feels that, while we have the advantage of living here, all students can get involved through online programs, classes and projects.

Morgan Champagne came here about four years ago. Her parents own Key Dives at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina. She works in the shop and also as a mate on the boat for snorkel trips. Morgan has an interest in becoming a medical professional, but will always have a place in her heart for learning about the reef ecosystem and helping RECON, REEF and CRF.

“The marine studies program has opened my eyes to enjoy what we have in our ‘backyards’ and actually know what we have back there. I would encourage every high school student that has an opportunity like this to take full advantage of it, and enjoy it,” says Morgan.

It speaks volumes to know that Project Coral Rescue is forming alliances and creating programs that bring these important ideas and facts to the students. As they expand to other sanctuaries and venues, the hope is a new generation of students will have a greater understanding of the ocean and all it takes to observe and conserve a balanced ecosystem.

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at tim@timgimages.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com.

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