Exploring Ecology and History in Bermuda

by |July 30, 2014

By Carmen Cusido

A proud nerd, I always try to combine traveling with educational opportunities. The goal is to have enriching experiences instead of just wandering aimlessly like a lost tourist (though I’ve done that, too).

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Photo Credit: Octavio Franco

I learned about the coral reef ecology course in Bermuda offered through the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability (EICES) at Columbia University after developing an interest in marine science over the past year. My background is in newspaper journalism, but I’m now a communications professional at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), devoted to promoting the great work of our scientists around the globe, including those in marine conservation. My supervisors and peers encouraged me to seize the opportunity to take the class since continuing education is something that’s valued at WCS.

Our instructor, Kaitlin Baird, packed a lot into our four-day stay at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) in March 2014. She taught us about the basics of corals – including their growth, reproduction and recruitment. Corals are an important part of our daily lives through tourism, fisheries and coastal protection. We learned about the many threats coral ecosystems face as well as conservation efforts that aid their preservation. Corals, for instance, are susceptible to animal and plant diseases. They also act as data recorders: scientists can use carbon isotopes to date the corals and have a record of what the ocean looked like when the coral skeleton was laid down. We also learned techniques used by marine biologists to analyze corals and food chains.

One of my classmates, Anthony Francisco of Atlanta, said he took the Bermuda course because it counts toward his Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability at Columbia.  A certified diver, Francisco said having the opportunity to go snorkeling was appealing. “I like that the class was hands-on and that it was four days instead of five weeks,” said Francisco, whose background is in accounting. He aims to work in corporate sustainability.

Baird, the science education officer at BIOS, said usually between nine and 15 students sign up for the Bermuda course each year, with at least one person coming from WCS annually.

“My philosophy has always been to give people an experience connecting with something. Even a brief connection with a reef system could leave a lasting impression when you make environmental decisions,” Baird said.

Not only did I feel more invested in learning about coral reefs after spending hours in the water, but I became more interested in my own organization’s history thanks to our diverse itinerary. One of the most fascinating things about my trip was snorkeling at Nonsuch Island off Bermuda’s east coast. Once there, I came in contact with William Beebe’s sunken ship. Beebe was a naturalist, ornithologist, oceanographer and an executive of the New York Zoological Society, now named the Wildlife Conservation Society.

© Kaitlin Baird

Photo Credit: Kaitlin Baird

As Carol Grant Could writes in The Remarkable Life of William Beebe, Beebe spent years in Bermuda, establishing a research station on Nonsuch Island and conducting a thorough study of an 8-mile square area of ocean, documenting every living thing he could find from the surface to a depth of two miles.

Beebe made a series of 16 dives in a spherical submersible called a Bathysphere with its inventor Otis Barton from 1930 to 1934. On August 15, 1934, Beebe and Barton reached a depth of 3,028 feet off the coast of Bermuda. Until that point, no one had ever gone down more than 350 feet and survived. They couldn’t go any further for lack of rope line, according to historical records located in the WCS Archives.  A couple of replicas of the Bathysphere can be seen at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, which we also visited on our class trip.

© Carmen Cusido

Photo Credit: Carmen Cusido

Though I’m not ready to dive 3,000 feet myself, by the third snorkeling session, I was eager to jump in the water.

Just like my graduate-school days at Columbia’s Journalism School where I learned more from the hands-on classes than those focused solely on theory (I traveled to Ireland with my “Covering Religion” course in 2009. We interviewed people from different faiths and had strict deadlines for the daily articles we published in our class website), identifying corals and certain fish helped me retain scientific information that I could have otherwise forgotten. My favorites were the grooved brain corals that form large, rounded colonies and look like the surface of human brain.

We’re so connected and dependent on nature that it’s important for us to learn about and find solutions to complex environmental issues. The fact that this course counts toward a Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability makes me consider taking other hands-on courses and learning more about the science I help promote each day.

Carmen Cusido works in the communications department of the Wildlife Conservation Society. She obtained a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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