Saturday, 20 May 2017

In Retrospect: A week at UNF

I knew going into this that this course was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. I also knew that it was going to be filled with opportunities to learn, grow, and also to face challenges. As we end our first week, I can gladly say that so far, it has lived up to expectations. I arrived at UNF on Saturday. I was greeted with new and friendly faces. We were all teeming with excitement about what the week might bring. 

Sunday morning was our first introduction to our amazing instructor, Dr. Kelly Smith. She gave us an opportunity to introduce ourselves to one another, as well as a chance to get familiarized with the schedule for the week. After our small breakfast together, we had to do a swim test to test our swimming capabilities and our snorkel equipment. After our little dip in the pool, we were greeted with a presentation from Carissa King, a graduate student from UNF. Her presentation gave us some insight into what we might experience tomorrow, as well as a look into her research on the effects of sound on local dolphin populations.

We used hydrophones to listen to any natural or anthropogenic
sounds in the river.
Monday was the beginning of our days out in the field. I was able to ride with Carissa and ask her questions about her research and how she got into her field. When we arrived at the marina, we all got into two vessels and traveled along the St. Johns River, stopping at marked quadrants. When we reached these quadrants, we took water samples using turbidity tubes, Van dorn collection tubes, and YSI meters. We used these to measure turbidity, salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen at different points along the river. Carissa also set up a hydrophone and allowed us to listen to sounds underwater. We also were able to see many dolphins swimming up and downriver. I quite enjoyed being able to get hands on experience with the scientific equipment like the YSI meter.

My favorite find of the day, a Mottled Shore Crab.
Tuesday was our introduction to ecosystems along the beach. To be more specific, we learned about barrier islands, natural and man-made inlets, as well as beaches with coquina rock formations. First we traveled to The Marineland, where we scoured the coquina rock formations for any creatures that might live in the intertidal zone. We found a plethora of crabs, barnacles, juvenile fish, and even some anemones. After our time there, we drove to Summer Haven to observe the dredging that was occurring to restore the community's river. From there it was on to St. Augustine Inlet and the Matanzas Inlet. In St. Augustine, we saw how man-made jetties protected the inlets. At the Matanzas we saw how a natural barrier island protects the inlet with the help from the protected dune habitats.

Our GA, Casey, tells us about this young Scalloped Hammerhead.
Wednesday was my absolute favorite day of the week. We went out on to Tolomato river with Dr. James Gelsleichter who works in the UNF Shark Biology Program. While we were out on the river, we participated in setting bottom longlines in hopes to catch some sharks. I was able to bait the hooks with mackerel, pull in the line, and release any bycatch (i.e catfish). On the boat, we managed to hook a juvenile Scalloped Hammerhead shark. We took measurements and collected a fin sample for genetic testing. After this, we released the shark back into the water and finishing pulling in the line. During our day, we also ran into some complications while on the water. While we were setting our second longline, we ran aground on an oyster reef that was submerged just below the surface. A few of us jumped overboard and helped push the boat free from the reef and back into open water. Shortly after, while we were pulling in the longline, the anchor became stuck on the oyster reef. After a few minutes of careful maneuvering and teamwork, we were able to free the anchor and finish our work. After that ordeal, we made our way to the shore, where we swapped out with other students. Once on the beach, we ate a short lunch and Dr. Smith had us conduct a seining of the area around a small creek. We collected the organisms from the net, placed them into aerated buckets of water, and began measuring them.

We measured the mangroves for height, branch diameter,
 and canopy width.
Our final day of field work was on Thursday. Our group journeyed to a field site near GTMNERR (Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve). We assisted researchers from the GTMNERR Environmental Education Center with their survey of mangrove plots that have been growing over many years. We split up into groups and trekked our way to marked plots of vegetation. From there we made estimates as to the amount of plant species coverage, and we also took measurements of any tagged mangrove trees. While it was a little hot, I quite enjoyed the hikes through the brush and mud.

Overall, this first week has been so much more than I could have imagined. While I am only scratching the surface, I have been able to get a glimpse into the daily lives of marine scientists. While it may seem strange, I am also quite grateful that we ran into a few challenges along the way. Not every day in the life of a marine scientist goes smoothly, in fact, it doesn't very often. I enjoyed running into obstacles and being forced to overcome them as a team. Even though it has only been a week, I have learned so much. I am so thankful for this opportunity, and I cannot wait to see what our adventures bring us in the weeks to come. Next week, we are headed to the Florida Keys, which I anticipate will be my favorite stop along the way.

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