Tropical ecology explored in Bonaire

(NOTE: Diving photo on MC homepage taken by Gavin Dougherty '20)

Tropical ecology explored in Bonaire

June 14, 2019

The study of tropical ecology – specifically coral reef ecology and conservation – came to life for a group of Maryville College students last month, when they had the opportunity to travel to Bonaire.

The 14-day field-based component of the semester-long spring course, BIO403: Tropical Ecology, took the students to the premier diving site in the Western Hemisphere – and the only island globally in which the entire reef is a national park.

“The diversity offered by its reef and the diversity on land (ranges from desert to sub-tropical jungle) provides a haven of learning for students,” according to the course description.

Led by Dr. Dave Unger, MC associate professor of biology, and Dr. Nathan Duncan, MC assistant professor of chemistry, the course provides students “with a very literal ‘hands on’ experience” once they have learned the book and lecture material, said Unger, who began taking MC students to Bonaire in 2014, shortly after his arrival at MC in 2012. During the course, students also gain SCUBA certification – a unique skill for which they are certified for life, he added.

“During the lecture portion, students learn the basics of coral reef ecology and conservation and are then immersed in learning to identify 150+ species of fish, 50+ species of invertebrates (sea stars, urchins, lobsters, eels, clams, shrimp, etc.), many different species of corals and sponges, and 75+ species of birds,” Unger said. “They learn the history, geology, climate, customs, economy, government and basic life of the island of Bonaire.

 “Once they have mastered this information, they travel across the Caribbean to the island of Bonaire, where they literally ‘jump in’ and see, in real life and up close, all that they have learned throughout the semester,” Unger continued. “In an era when coral reefs are declining globally, the only hope we have to save them is to raise awareness and increase appreciation for these miraculous ecosystems.  I can think of no better way than putting tomorrow’s decision makers and leaders directly into the habitat so they can learn, which allows them to appreciate, which encourages them to preserve and protect.”

In addition to several diving excursions (including shore dives, boat dives and night dives), the group participated in an environmental clean-up day, a cultural and historical tour of Rincon, a hike in Washington Slagbaii National Park, a tour of the island’s natural areas and birdwatching.

New components were added to this year’s trip, including a chartered private dive excursion that took the group to very remote parts of the reef where very few people dive, giving students the opportunity to visit areas of the reef that are “very close to being ‘untouched.’”

“Some new research was conducted during our trip, including comparing the fish diversity of the primary island (Bonaire) to that of a disconnected micro-island called ‘Klein Bonaire,’” Unger said. “We continued and improved a previous project attempting to quantify the health of coral reefs by way of measuring their Biofluorescence, or light that is emitted when stimulated by UV light.”

“Perhaps the most important change to the 2019 trip, however, was the inclusion of Dr. Duncan as a leader on the trip,” Unger added. “This was Dr. Duncan’s first time leading a study abroad at MC, and his inclusion was an immense improvement to the trip in almost every way. In addition to a myriad things with which he assisted both above and below the water, he was truly the ‘bird guy’ on the trip, getting students excited about finding and identifying unique birds as well as showing them the finer points of bird photography.”

Becca Roberson ’22, a biology major from Trinity, Fla., is the first freshman to be accepted to the Bonaire study abroad trip (the course is open to any major, but it is an upper-level course). This was not her first time abroad, but she said it was “definitely my favorite.”

“Personally, I’m very passionate about marine ecology, and it’s something that I want to do as a career, so this experience really added to my motivation towards research and protecting coral reefs,” Roberson said. “Seeing the beauty and connectivity of the reef ecosystem definitely impacted me as a person, because it made me think of how my own actions affect the natural world around me. It also helped me see what some of the things I might do in the future would look like.”

She said the lecture portion helped prepare her by studying coral reefs, as well as the species the group would see in Bonaire.

“I think that knowing the species actually helped me enjoy diving more because I had a deeper appreciation for what I saw and knew what it was and/or how rare it was,” she said.

“One of the moments that really stuck with me was the first dive, when we were introduced to the reef. As we approached the reef, it was incredible. I don’t remember a second of that dive in which I wasn’t amazed by all that was around me, and I was just absolutely happy to be there diving. It was like being welcomed into this whole other world. Everywhere I looked there was life and color. I just couldn’t stop smiling the whole time.”

Gavin Dougherty ’20, a biology major from Barnegat, N.J., said the classroom and lecture portion contributed to the enjoyment the group had on each dive.

“Throughout the semester, we learned about the biology behind how the coral reefs function, as well as learning how to identify all the different species that we would see throughout the trip,” he said. “I know for a fact that the dives would not have been as memorable if we had no clue what we were looking at. It also made me stop and appreciate the smaller things that we saw, because if I didn't know what I was looking at, I probably would have just passed right over it.”

He said the biggest takeaway from the experience was “an appreciation for uninterrupted time spent with people and the quality face-to-face interactions that come when you are able to remove the modern technology that we are so accustomed to.”

“The instructors on this trip put so much emphasis on pleading that we disconnect from our phones and social media during the trip, and looking back, I wouldn't have had it any other way,” Dougherty said. “The most memorable parts of the trip for me were the little moments that I had with both my dive buddy Ian and the other students while diving under water and immediately after surfacing from a dive – whether that was just four of us spotting something cool underwater and sharing that moment together, or the whole group getting to share the moments they had themselves after a dive was over.”


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”