For the past 33 years, Professor of Biology Sandra Gilchrist has taken groups of students to the northern region of Honduras to study the rich ecosystem found in the shallow reefs surrounding the island Cayos Cochinos, where the group usually stays. For the first time ever, the research trip will now be a credited summer course. With seven New College students in attendance – including one thesis student – two high school students, and one student from another college, the class will bring a new twist to hands-on marine research in a beautiful, practically untouched location.
Before traveling to Honduras the class will stay on campus for a week in order to study introductory course material such as the geology of Honduras (particularly the Bay islands), the biology of reef organisms, and the culture of the local Garifuna people. The group will then fly into San Pedro Sula and take a van across the countryside to La Ceiba, where they plan to spend the night. The final destination is the island Cayos Cochinos, where the group will stay at Turtlebay Eco Resort for the remainder of the trip.
The island is located in a marine reserve so a permit is required from the Honduran government in order to work there. Gilchrist has the permit specifically for invertebrate research and it allows her to bring along students to take part in coral reef study.
“The island is part of the tail end of the second largest barrier reef, actually off Belize, and where we [stay] is part of a collapsed volcanic realm that sticks out of water,” Gilchrist said.
The visibility in the water is about 45 meters, remarkably clear, and the group will be able to see a lot of underwater life. Gilchrist will be bringing eight of her own underwater cameras with which the students will practice photography.
“I once saw a huge ray called ‘abuela,’ the grandmother, and it was probably about two and a half meters from tip to tip of the wings – that’s a sobering sight to see an animal that large,” Gilchrist said. She has also seen an endemic pink boa, special to those islands, hunt on the edge of a creek near where the group stays. The island is rich with biodiversity; in fact there are more hummingbird species on that one island than in all of North America.
“I have a few goals for the trip, the first is to expose students to a different culture because I think it’s very important to see things that are not you to get a perspective of your place in the world,” Gilchrist said. “The second thing is to teach them about coral reefs and weave in a little bit on how humans are affecting them through eco-tourism, global warming and that kind of thing.”
The thesis student on the trip is continuing a project begun by other students in the past which focuses on the distribution of a coral disease called White Plague. The group, led by Gilchrist, will be looking at coral genetics to see what the relationship is between the corals’ susceptibility to the disease and its cells. This is done by collecting mucus given off from the coral that is filled with rejected food, waste and live cells. After this substance is collected, there will be a lab back on campus in which the group will learn to isolate the cells for genetic analysis. The applicable idea is to culture and restore potentially resistant coral.
In addition to this project, students will be doing several different projects catered to their own interests including studying coral, crustaceans and algae. Students will also be collecting trash from the reefs while snorkeling. All research and study will be conducted through snorkeling but the students have the choice to scuba as an extracurricular activity through the resort’s diving business. The resort often shares the group’s research and study results with diving groups.
“It’s a great way to have people interact, you don’t have TV – you can’t run to McDonalds, you have got each other so there’s a lot of time to talk and really get to know the people and relax,” Gilchrist said.
The cost of the trip varies per student due to the applied tuition, which can be in-state, out-of-state, or $800. The cost of the hotel and stay is $1,899 for three weeks, about $100 a day. This includes lodging, food, boat rides and various other expenses.
Thesis student Robert Manley participated in the 2014 summer trip to Honduras, collecting data for his thesis by filming mantis shrimp. “I needed approval from Dr. Gilchrist and to fund my own way down, which I did with scholarships and grants. I received support from the CAA, SRTG, and Latin American and Caribbean Scholarship,” Manley said.
“I would say being in the water every day almost all day [was the best part of the trip],” Manley added. “Living on that island for three weeks and having access to clear water every day was fantastic.