Every semester, upper-level undergraduates from around the United States who are interested in marine biology convene at Bonaire, a small island in the Dutch Caribbean, to participate in the CIEE Tropical Marine Ecology & Conservation program. Students conduct field-based research about human impacts on the marine environment, the viability of local protected areas and species, and the effectiveness of conservation measures on the island’s natural resources and pristine coral reefs.
Research benefits local ecosystems
This research often influences students in their future studies, and provides sustained and invaluable resources to the Bonaire National Marine Park and surrounding community.
“In the 15 weeks that we spent on Bonaire, we have been able to see the effect that we as a society have had on our reefs,” said spring 2012 participants Gabrielle Lout, Amber Packard, and Madeline Roth in an introduction to Physis, a scholarly journal students write and publish at the end of each semester program. “We were able to study and witness extraordinary events – from monitoring sea turtles, to the intricate relationships between corals and algae, to the self-healing capabilities of sea pearls.”
Physis offers students the opportunity for a comprehensive experience in scholarly research, publication and presentation.
“CIEE showed me what it would be like to follow through the entire research process, from coming up with an idea, to writing a paper and presenting in front of a public audience,” said Sarah Heidmann, a student at Oregon State University studying biology with a marine option. She participated in CIEE Bonaire in fall 2012.
“The goal is to provide an integrated program of excellent quality tropical marine ecology and conservation,” said Rita B.J. Peachey, Ph.D., resident program director and president of the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean. “The field-based science program is designed to prepare students for graduate programs in marine science, or for jobs in marine ecology, natural-resource management and conservation.”
As part of their CIEE Bonaire experience, students become certified in scientific diving through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.
“My diving skills improved immensely, from an open-water diver with about 10 dives to a certified scientific diver with rescue skills and over 100 dives,” said Heidmann. “With help from CIEE Dive Safety Officer, I was able to become a scientific diver at Oregon State.”
A critical site for marine science
CIEE Bonaire’s program leverages the students’ work on local issues to enhance dialogue about critical issues facing Bonaire’s coral reefs and ecology. The program has hosted more than 100 public lectures by visiting scientists, as well as a number of scientific meetings. Physis, now in its 14th volume, has become a significant part of scholarly literature on tropical marine ecology, and students present their findings at meetings.
“Before Bonaire, I had never really worked in a group to get something done, other than for small projects in class,” said Heidmann. “It was satisfying to take scientific papers written by students, and put them all together with pictures and figures to create a journal that was a symbol of our time on the island.”
Another important component of the participants’ experience is sharing what they’ve learned with local schools and communities. Outreach programs combine hands-on inquiry with field trips and interactive classes to help local Bonairestudents grasp the importance of understanding and conserving their local ecosystem. In fall 2012, CIEE students held the program’s first Sustainability Fair, with local groups, including the Karko (Conch) Foundation, Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, Bonaire Animal Shelter, and the marine park's Junior Rangers program participating.
Despite this emphasis on research and outreach – as well as handling a rigorous six-course academic load – students have ample time to explore the island during their time on Bonaire. On the northwest end of the main island, students can take a walk on “the wild side” at the Washington Slagbaai National Park.
And just a half-mile away is Klein Bonaire, an uninhabited island rimmed with a white sandy beach, where students enjoy snorkeling along the pristine coral reef, amidst amid a rainbow of tropical fish and plant life – and an occasional dolphin. The more adventurous try kiteboarding, sea kayaking, water skiing, mountain biking or caving.
Building skills students use again and again
Most students who participate in the CIEE Tropical Marine Ecology & Conservation program say it has a profound impact on their academic and career pursuits.
“Although it has been four years since my work with CIEE, I continue to call on the skills and inspiration that I gained on the coral-laden coastline of Bonaire,” said Anna Malek, who participated in in 2009 and is completing a doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “I rely upon the intuition and experience I gained in Bonaire to develop research projects, monitoring protocol and sampling methods to assess the environmental impact of offshore wind-farm development.”
Learn more about CIEE Study Abroad programs in Bonaire.