To tourists, the white sandy beaches and blue waters of Bonaire, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela, are the perfect backdrop for rest and relaxation. But for Ariana Snow, Bonaire is more than a beautiful retreat. The island and its surrounding oceans and coral reefs have become her temporary classroom, research laboratory and home, as she studies and researches life beneath the surface of the island’s tranquil waters.
Snow, a University Honors College junior studying marine biology, is joined by 13 other students, six of whom are peers from Oregon State. The group is working and studying at the Bonaire station of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). CIEE is an international exchange organization with programs all over the world, that operates a well-known marine biology research station in Bonaire focusing on the conservation and preservation of the island’s coral reefs.
Snow recently shared the experiences she’s had so far on an island known as a diver’s paradise.
What inspired you to study abroad in Bonaire?
My love and passion for marine science started at a very young age. I grew up in Imbler, a tiny town in Eastern Oregon, hundreds of miles from the nearest aquatic environment. My first experience visiting a tropical marine habitat was on a family vacation; ever since then I have been hooked. As a teenager, my family vacationed to an area where the coral reefs were suffering due in large part to the impacts of human activities. That experience led to an interest in the conservation of coral reefs and how we can minimize the human impact of these diverse ecosystems.
This passion is what drew me to Bonaire. Bonaire is also home to some of the best reefs and dive areas in the Caribbean, making it the ideal place to research and learn diving techniques that we will have the opportunity to use in future research experiences. I really wanted to participate in a program that was applicable to the real world and this project definitely fits that criteria.
How did you hear about this opportunity?
During my freshman biology seminar a student who had studied in the same program with CIEE in Bonaire came in and gave a presentation. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to do something like this during my time as an undergraduate. I mentioned the opportunity to my academic adviser, who is familiar with the program, and he highly recommended that I pursue it. From there, the Study Abroad Programs office helped me with the application process through CIEE and the logistics of spending a term away from campus. Oregon State advisers really helped me through the details and made the procedure really easy!
How did you prepare for your time in Bonaire?
I knew going into the program that the classwork was going to be intense. We cover a lot of material in a relatively short amount of time. During my first two years, I worked hard to do well academically and learn as much as I could about marine biology. All science is connected, so I developed a good background in biology as well as chemistry. I also tried to keep up to date on trends and research being done in the marine biology field and find out as much as I could about the field. This past summer, I finished all of the paperwork and logistics necessary to travel to a foreign country and got all of my scuba gear together for my time here in Bonaire.
What other courses will you complete?
We have a total of six classes. Coral Reef Ecology, Marine Ecology Field Research Methods, Advanced Scuba, Conservation Biology, Independent Research and the Culture and Environmental History of Bonaire.
Basically in our classes we learn everything from fish and coral identification to basic lessons in the native language of Bonaire. It is all incredibly hands-on. To practice our identification of fish and coral species in the Coral Reef Ecology class we dive with the professor and she will point out the different species as we write them on our underwater tablets.
What are you researching for your project?
My individual research project essentially tracks the progress of the loss of live coral cover on our home reef. I am laying a total of 20 transects (a transect is a count of the different species living along a line) at different depths and locations. I use an underwater video camera to film the reef along these transects. Then I take the video back to the lab and upload the footage to Coral Point Count software. The software lays 15 random points on each frame and I work to identify what is under each point (coral species, algal species/type, sponge type, substrate type, live animal, etc). The software is then able to use the random points as information to generate percent live coral cover and percent algal cover over the different areas.
Basically, as coral succumbs to disease and mortality due to reef stresses, algae begin to grow over that area. As coral dies, more algae grows, making it difficult for coral “recruits” (or baby corals) to settle on the substrate and generate a new colony. Eventually, the reef will pass a point of no return and will continue to degrade irreversibly. I will eventually be comparing my data to that of previous researchers and analyze the changes of the reef over time to see trends in the reef health.
The interesting, yet challenging, part of my project is that no survey has been done within such close proximity to the capital city of Kralendijk. I expect that due to heavy traffic and impact from the city, that coral cover will be lower at the study site than other sites around the island. It is too early to determine trends in my data, but I am excited to see what the results will show.
How often do you spend in the water doing research or studies?
We have been in the water just about every day and usually dive at least once if not more during a given day. I have scuba dived for a couple of years now. During my first term at Oregon State, I took a PAC class on campus and became certified through Oregon State. I also have the opportunity to refine my skills here while taking Advanced Scuba. This class gives us each the opportunity to get advanced certifications in diving, get trained in rescue diving and have some basic emergency first responder training. Basically, the class will prepare us for anything that we may encounter while we are under the water doing research. It is important to be in control and have efficient diving methods so that we don’t touch the coral and can handle the expensive equipment with confidence. For my research project, I film approximately two transects per dive and have several dives planned each week over the next few weeks.
How does your learning experience differ in this setting from classes on campus?
By doing all the hands-on activities here, I am able to learn the lessons and immediately go out in the field to answer questions and see pieces of marine biology in their natural habitat. All of us are all more motivated to do class work, are less worried about grade percentages, and are generally happier — not just because we are in the Caribbean, but because we are truly passionate about the work we are completing. A lot of the work we do in the field is actually used scientifically and our data is put into global databases — so we feel like we are doing something that really matters! The hands-on experience is truly career preparation and a good taste of what we can do later on in life.
The field work has also allowed us to really see the effects of humans on the environment — from pollution, physically destroying habitats, developing land use, etc. We have learned so much from seeing this degradation and are more motivated than ever to do something about it — in contrast to hearing about it or seeing figures presented in a classroom.
What is it like to live on the island?
Bonaire is such a fun place to live. It is really active and we occupy our free time with a lot of different activities. We had a windsurfing lesson from previous Olympians, we go on runs mostly every day, swim all the time, camp, hike, basically anything outside. The locals are incredibly welcoming and accepting of American tourists. As a culture, Bonaire is noted for its diversity. The people come from a huge range of backgrounds but everyone gets along really well and they are proud of their heritage. Because of this collection of cultures, everyone speaks with a little different accent so it is kind of entertaining to listen to everyone talk. Life on the island is on “island time.” It is relaxed, no one is ever on a tight schedule or in a rush and everyone takes long lunch breaks in the middle of the day. It is definitely going to be tough to transition to the faster pace of life back in Corvallis.
What’s next for you?
After my time in Bonaire, I am headed back to Corvallis for winter term. Then during spring term I will be studying at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Next summer, I have an internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I was selected in June to be part of the Ernest F. Holling Undergraduate Scholarship Program, and just found out that I will get to spend the summer researching and helping with high school education programs on Coconut Island, Kane’ohe Bay, Oahu. I am super excited!
I want to work in coral reef research and conservation in the future, so this program really is giving me everything that I need to get started: the research methods knowledge, a basis in reef ecology and the great experience in diving.
Anything else you would like to add?
This truly has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I would recommend it to anyone dedicated to marine biology. It is also really special and unique that I get to share this experience with so many of my peers. They only let 14 people into the program, and half of us are from Oregon State. That really speaks to our program and the level of students and research that we have going on at Oregon State. It is a great feeling knowing that we are working to make changes to a major problem and learning how to protect and conserve the fragile coral reef environments.
For more on Ariana’s experiences visit her blog at http://arianasnow.tumblr.com/.