Biology students earn credits underwater

Amy Olson

While studying for biology, a group of students recently went swimming with the fish — literally.
Instead of book learning and conducting laboratory experiments, 15 biology students spent a week at Anthony’s Key Resort in the tropical waters of Roatan Island in the Caribbean — observing fish and swimming with dolphins.
Located 30 miles off the eastern coast of Honduras, the students flew to Roatan Island to study aquatic life at the Institute for Marine Sciences as part of a two-week marine biology course taught by professor Frank Barnwell.
“It’s not like cramming for exams,” said Rachel Mason, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts. “It was amazing.”
The trip
The class cost $1,500, including a week of lab work prior to the trip. As part of their coursework, the students observed animals at Underwater World and the Minnesota Zoo.
During the layover in Houston, Barnwell said the students studied so they would be prepared for their first snorkeling expedition. Mason said the classroom learning helped her get more out of the trip.
Known as one of the premiere diving spots in the world, Roatan Island is approximately 30 miles long and three miles wide; half of the island’s perimeter has been made into a biologically diverse marine wildlife reserve. Barnwell said the coupling of the reserve, the Institute and resort make it a great research site.
“It’s just a wonderful place,” Barnwell said. “You talk to these students and they’ve had a profound experience.”
Julio Galindo, owner of Anthony’s Key Resort, founded the Institute for Marine Sciences in 1990.
Lindsay Edwards, a senior in the College of Biological Sciences, said the class observed different types of fish and marine animals including eels, dolphins and sharks.
Edwards said the students observed animals on an individual basis at first. After spending more time in the water, she said they began to see the relationships between animals and began to understand the food chain.
Barnwell said they saw about 65 types of fish, including large groupers and smaller tropical fish. Amy Hoel, a senior in the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, said she was surprised at the contrast between the bright blue and yellow fish that swam past her and the dull preserved specimens they studied before the trip.
The students observed other large fish as well. Robb Garni, a senior in the College of Biological Sciences, said he saw a shark while snorkeling one afternoon.
Garni said he saw a black object swimming past him and thought it was a diver in a wetsuit. As he looked more closely, Garni said he saw the shark’s fins.
“I said, Holy cow, it’s a shark!'” Garni said. After he caught his breath, Garni identified the 6-foot-long nurse shark as it swam to the bottom before sharing his find.
Although sharks are native to Roatan Island, Garni said some researchers had not observed sharks at the marine reserve for three years.
Swimming with the dolphins
For many students, the highlight of the trip was a 45-minute swim with dolphins.
The students were introduced to the two male and four female Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in a pen at the institute. After about 10 minutes, the dolphins warmed up to the swimmers.
Edwards said the students better understood dolphin intelligence after swimming with them. Dolphins find objects underwater by sending out a series of clicks, and then calculating how far away they are based on the time it takes for the sound waves from the clicks to return.
Edwards said the dolphins swarmed a student who wore a waterproof watch, adding the dolphins were intrigued by the noise it made.
Although they were friendly, Mason said the dolphins swam with her on their own terms. The dolphins pulled away at times, not wanting to be petted; at other times, however, Mason said the dolphins brushed up against the swimmers.
Keeping the 500-pound dolphins’ interest was challenging, Edwards said. The students tried to amuse the dolphins by waving seaweed.
Barnwell said the dolphins were perceptive of human reactions. One dolphin didn’t hesitate to test Garni’s reaction by opening its mouth as if to bite him. Although instructors at the Institute tell visitors not to pull their hands away, Garni said it was almost impossible not to react.
“A religious experience”
Underwater observations were not limited to daytime. The students went snorkeling one night and Edwards said the darkness made them apprehensive. Garni said the dive was in an unfamiliar area of the reef and he worried about kicking an animal or part of the reef during the snorkeling expedition.
The dive enabled the students to see animals, like eels and crabs, that feed at night.
During the dive, the students were approached by three large octopuses that changed colors under their flashlight beams. Edwards said the night dive was almost “a religious experience.” Although she was anxious, she said she was filled with awe as she saw the octopuses swim by.
Barnwell said his undergraduate students were “adventuresome souls” who got hands-on experience out of the trip.
Hoel agreed: “We kept saying to each other, Can you believe we’re getting credit for this?'”
Although the Minnesota Zoo and Underwater World provided good opportunities for students before the trip, Mason said the experience couldn’t take the place of seeing the animals in the wild.
“You couldn’t walk into Underwater World, see an octopus and have a religious experience,” Mason said. “It’s a shame that not all students can do something like this.”