Hello from sunny Bonaire where our students are fully immersed into a new world of diving, marine biology, new friends and exploring this beautiful island! Below is a recap of our last couple of weeks of adventuring and new experiences on Bonaire where are students are having a blast and learning new things every day!
Most of the students arrived and got settled in to life at the Residence Hall. There was a healthy mixture of anxiety and excitement in the air as the students filed in and familiarized themselves with their home for the next 3 weeks. It was a pleasure finally meeting everyone after all the preparation prior to their arrival! The students had their first dinner from our local caterer, Gibi, and once all fueled up, the students were ready for the activities of the upcoming week.
The students began the day with a hearty breakfast in preparation for program orientation. Next there was some paperwork to be filled out for dive gear rentals and for the marine park tags as the island is protected. Once all the paperwork was filled out, we were able to get the students their dive gear and go exploring the northern end of the island! We finished the day off with a BBQ at the local park, where the students enjoyed an amazing sunset dinner and took part in some very entertaining, ice-breaking games.
Group photo time at Seru Largu, with a view of the south of the island behind and Klein Bonaire to the right in the picture
Monday began with a lecture on Scuba theory led by our Dive Safety Officer Astrid Verstappen followed by a small swim test. Everyone did just fine and we were thoroughly impressed by everyone’s initial comfortability in the water. After a break for lunch, we resumed in water training with some practice breathing using a snorkel. This is usually a bit tricky as it requires isolating the mouth from the nose when breathing but everyone did a fantastic job.
The students began their confined water dives today, staying within the shallows of the designated swim area which is sectioned off from the rest of the waterfront. They learnt skills such as how to clear their mask and recover their regulator whilst having their first taste of the world underwater! The students also began thinking about what topic they would like to pursue for their independent research projects.
The students continued with their remaining confined water dives while beginning to finalize on their research topics. They submitted their initial outlines by lunch and received feedback on them in the afternoon. After their individual project meetings, they had a lecture where they learnt about external fish anatomy and top tips in identification. They were also briefed on the ostracod night snorkel planned for that evening at Oil Slick dive site. Ostracods are tiny bioluminescent crustaceans that spawn a few days after the full moon. The male ostracods attract their mates with a dazzling display of light with a similar appearance to stars in the night sky. It was a beautiful sight and the delight and giggles from the students could be heard all around!
Sunset at Oil Slick Leap divest before the ostracod light show!
The students continued with their remaining confined water dives alongside beginning to finalize on their research topics. They all have some great ideas and are getting excited about their topics which they will present to the group during their final week.
The students began their morning with a lecture on coral reefs. The students got to apply their knowledge during an afternoon snorkel at 1000 steps dive site, where class was taken outside and they were able to identify corals using in-water identification sheets. That evening learning was conducted through the art of cake and sweets through a 'make your own coral polyp' activity! The students showed what they had learnt that day through creating their very own coral polyp using cupcakes and sweets. Best of all, they could eat their work after explaining their model to the group!
Group photo before the snorkel at 1000 steps dive site!
The students with their coral polyp creations!
The weekend came around super quick but it meant a visit to Washington-Slagbaai Park! Here we got to see some of the main attractions in the park, including a secluded, hidden beach and a blowhole. We had lunch in Slagbaai and went for a relaxing snorkel in the bay. The evening was reserved for box jelly collection and gonad extraction. Box jellies come up to spawn usually a week after the full moon has passed, so timing was ideal for specimen collection.
Students taking a look over the windward side of the island
More independent research project working time followed by both fish and coral identification workshops. We took the afternoon to relax and play volleyball at Coco’s Beach and returned in time for individual project meetings followed by dinner. We then watched the documentary, Racing Extinction, an eye-opening documentary discussing how we as humans are responsible for the potential loss of half of the world’s species. We concluded the evening and the first week of the program with a somewhat somber yet engaging discussion regarding the documentary and what we can do to mitigate the stresses caused by us, humans.
Monday, June 19th
Today marks the beginning of Open Water dive training! Now students get to put the skills they have practiced in confined water situations to use in deeper water. After lunch was a tour of the southern side of island. The students visited slave huts, remnants of the old days of salt production, and salt pans which are still in use today for commercial salt production. And it just so turns out the flamingos like these areas for nesting as well! We finish the tour at Lac Bay on the eastern side, where we snorkel out to amazing stands of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) and thickets of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis). These corals were once primary reef builders throughout the Caribbean, but disease and anthropogenic disturbance have severely impacted the population. It was quite an experience for the group to see them as they may have looked half a century ago!
Exploring the south of the island then a snorkel to the awesome Acropora patch!
Tuesday, June 20th
This morning students kayaked and snorkeled through mangrove forest with staff from the Mangrove Info Center at Lac Bay on the east side of the island. There are three types of mangrove on the island- red, black, and white- but we learned that only red mangroves have the special salt-filtering root structures that allow them to be one of the few flowering plants to grow in full-strength seawater! The students saw first-hand the unique ecosystem these plants create that has so many uses: filtering silt from rain run-off, nursery habitat for juvenile reef fish, a shoreline buffer against storm surge, and nesting and breeding grounds for pelicans! In the afternoon they looked at plankton, using nets to sieve a variety of phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water and then identify them under the microscope. Fun fact: phytoplankton produce half of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere!
Wednesday, June 21st
Dive day! Completing the second Open Water training, students are passing the halfway point on their journey to becoming certified divers. It is exciting to see their comfort and proficiency in the water building, and I can say we are all excited to get out on the reef soon! In the afternoon students had some time to relax in town, with Luciano’s coffee and Gio’s gelato being the highlights for many and guilty pleasures for program leaders.
Thursday, June 22nd
An invasive species is a plant, fungus, or animal species that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species), and which has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health. Today the students all about the invasives affecting Bonaire and then got to dissect lionfish, one of the main aquatic invaders, in the laboratory! The smells were exceeded by the excitement as they learned hands-on the external and internal anatomy of these unique fish. Afterward it was the afternoon excursion over to Klein Bonaire, the small uninhabited island that lies 800 meters to the west of Kralendijk and is home to some of the best sandy beaches and reefs of Bonaire!
Students during a lion fish dissection!
Enjoying the beautiful white sandy beaches at Klein Bonaire
Friday, June 23rd
Today was a big day of diving! The group is progressing through their Open Water training well, which means soon we will have a new batch of certified divers. Students are really getting the hang of skills and neutral buoyancy underwater and they are developing a keen eye for spotting fish. Highlights from the dive include adorable juvenile filefish and trunkfish as well as a salp- a colonial tunicate that floats in the open water column! In the afternoon there was a lecture on invasive lionfish behavior in response to control efforts by program leader John DeBuysser. The group posed great questions and analyzed data patterns to develop conclusions on lionfish population management. A great batch of future marine scientists!