Maryville College students dive into Caribbean ecology

Maryville College students dive into Caribbean ecology

March 30, 2014

For the 12 Maryville College students who completed scuba certifications as part of their advanced biology class, a semester’s worth of preparation paid off last week.

The students, Hana Henry, Allison Peeler, Mary Feely, Brandon Denney, David Lee Haskins, Lauren Evans, Lauren Bonee, Ravyn Thompson, Brittany Coats, Jenny Baker, Carrie West and Montana Dunn, spent nine days on the Caribbean island of Bonaire studying tropical ecology, diving down to coral reefs and exploring the island’s diverse natural landscapes. Bonaire is about 50 miles north of the Venezuelan coast next to Curacao.

If it sounds like fun, that’s because it was, according to students. Before going, however, they learned to accurately identify more than 150 species of marine life, more than 75 species of birds and a number of reptiles, amphibians and corals.

Dr. David Unger, assistant professor of biology at Maryville College, taught the students’ tropical biology class and accompanied them to Bonaire.

He said that while the primary purpose of the trip was to study tropical ecology, the students also spent six weeks intensively studying Bonaire’s economics, trade, culture, history and ecotourism industry.

“This type of study abroad takes what the students learn in the classroom and applies it in a unique setting,” Unger said. “It’s a way for them to grow as biology students and, at the same time, have the well-rounded, culturally-rich, globally-minded experiential learning students should expect from a liberal arts education.”

Diving in

Once the students returned to the College on March 23, they set about their final assignments for the class. Those include making YouTube videos, organizing their photos, writing reflections and presenting to students, friends and parents.

David Lee Haskins, a senior biology major from Philadelphia, Tenn., said the highlights of the trip included “every dive that we took part in.”

“Observing coral reefs on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic was one thing, but to actually see the reef with your own eyes and experience its beauty is another thing entirely,” he said. “The trip is definitely going to have a lasting impression on my interpretation of the planet we live on.”

Bonaire has both a desert and swaths of tropical vegetation packed onto a surface area of about 115 square miles. Its entire coral reef is protected as a national park.

While the island and its waters are gorgeous, Haskins said, they bear the marks of pollution.

“One experience that stuck with me was when we toured a coastal area near Lac Bay … the entire coastline was buried in all sorts of trash: plastic bottles, plastic bags, glass, tires and other things. Our oceans are suffering,” he said. “To actually be on the coasts that are being heavily affected was depressing but also inspiring.”

Diversity of life

Haskins’ classmate, Ravyn Thompson, of Knoxville, said the trip has given her “the urge to travel for research while also teaching about our environment and reef systems.”

“People don’t understand the vast amount of life, from microbes to mammals, that exists in our oceans unless they are scuba divers,” she said. “It’s easy to forget how much humans impact ecosystems, many of which are dying. I wondered about the reef’s health before people started diving to it, before plastic became dominant in our society and before humans impacted it.”

According to Unger, the Dutch island boasts some of the best diving in the Western Hemisphere and is “truly a hidden gem of the Caribbean.”

He said the “intense richness of its history and culture, its ecological richness and the overall beauty of both its terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” make it the perfect place to study abroad. Despite its intense focus on biology, the trip was open to students of any major.

While on Bonaire, student Hana Henry collected data on fish diversity and abundance, as well as on coral bleaching, for her senior study.

“Traveling abroad to Bonaire was a very experiential part of my Maryville College education,” she said. “Without this opportunity, I wouldn’t have been able to study the health of the coral reefs on Bonaire.”

By Gerhard Schneibel, News and New Media Writer


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.