Marine Biology Field Trip
Randolph Students Become Citizen Scientists On Trip to the Bahamas
By Michelle Holder
On January 6th, while Vermonters were bracing for a winter storm, a dozen Randolph high
school students and their chaperones took off for the Exuma Cays, in the Bahamas, for a
seven-day scuba-diving adventure at sea. Their mission: to help save the coral.
RUHS science teacher, Deb Schaner, began preparing students for the trip over the summer by
offering a scuba diving certification course to RU and RTCC high school students and teachers.
Along with 12 hours of online classwork and an exam, divemaster Marley Merry from Concord,
NH, helped students learn how to dive by practicing in the VTC pool and nearby lakes.
With her newly certified divers, Deb began organizing the trip in partnership with the Perry
Institute of Marine Science to help students practice what is known as citizen science. Citizen
scientists are people who have skills that can help with scientific work. As certified divers, our
students were equipped with an initial skill useful for coral preservation and restoration.
Once arrived, RU students Jeb Hickin, Austin Tobin, Blake Baker, Ethin Boyce, Peyton
Johnson, Colten Ashline, Silas Abbot, Korey Leicher, Parker Cornell, Ava Ferris, Ryan
Quevedo, and Alex Scalera boarded a 65-foot sailboat that would serve as their home for the
next seven days.
Students were in good hands with 5 crew members and two scientists from the Perry Institute
as well as their chaperones RU science teacher, Deb Schaner, RU teachers Erik Sievert and
Lauren McKeon, and one parent, Melissa Scalera.
Before they could clean coral, students needed to refresh their diving skills and learn how to
navigate the choppy ocean waters, which were quite a change from the calm Vermont lakes in
which they had practiced. Controlling their buoyancy was key to being able to clean off the
algae that grew on the PVC pipes and filament, components of the coral nursery. The coral
pieces that grow big enough will later be planted with epoxy in places where the coral
population has declined due to environmental damage.
Diving to depths of 30 to 40 feet, students put their new skills to work. “It was difficult,” said
RTCC junior Ava Ferris.“You had to be really precise on your distance [from the coral] because
that could affect how well you could clean off the algae. It was also difficult because you had to
stay in one place and hold these two brushes and brush away the algae, and you also had to be
monitoring your own vitals underwater.”
Perry Institute scientists Kate Harrison and Duran Mitchell also taught students how to identify
the different diseases that can affect the coral. One of these is the highly lethal Stony Coral
Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which has affected over 20 species of Caribbean coral. SCTLD
causes lesions on the coral and leads to rapid tissue loss and death within months or even
weeks of infection. Identification and conservation efforts are key to help reduce the spread.
RU sophomore Colten Ashline said seeing the impacts of SCTLD made a strong impression.
“All the coral was white and dead on the ground.” Seeing how quickly coral could die made him
realize the importance of their work. “It is catastrophic,” said sophomore Korey Leicher. “It
basically kills the homes of [the wildlife] in the coral reef. When the coral dies, the life dies.”
Students performed around 15 dives, some at night. They also got to see firsthand the vast
array of wildlife they had only learned about in school, and got to put their fish identification skills
to work. Students got up close to a variety of sea creatures, including dolphins, sharks, spiny
lobsters, rays, and many different kinds of fish and sponges.
At the end of the trip, all students received a Reef Rescue Certification from the Professional
Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). It's a type of dive certification that not many people
have, and it can allow students to continue to pursue this kind of work in the future.
For RTCC junior Ava Ferris, the trip was life-changing. Ferris had a fear of the ocean, but when
she heard about the summer dive class offered by the school, she saw an opportunity to face
her fears. Science was something she had never thought of pursuing. “I thought I wanted to be
a writer,” she said, “but now I want to live on a boat. I realized how much difference I could
make by having a skill set like diving. Realizing how much life relies on the ocean makes me
want to save the ocean.” Ferris now hopes to go to school for marine biology and conservation.
These kinds of trips are important opportunities for students who might not otherwise be able to
travel. For Korey Leicher, school trips have been inspiring. “It made me realize how big the
world is. I’ve been out of the country one time before (also on a school trip), but being on the
ocean and seeing how vast it is made me realize how lovely our small town is. But it also made
me realize that there is a lot out there that I want to see.”
This trip was made possible with grants from The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, The
Randolph Rotary Club, and generous donations from family and community members. The
school also received a grant that allowed them to have their own masks, booties, snorkels, and
Deb Schaner hopes to pursue similar trips in the future. “It is so important for all kids to have a
chance to have these opportunities,” said Schaner. “Students realized that they have the skills
to do real ecological work that has an impact on our Earth.” Colten Ashline said that for him, that
was the best part of the trip. “It felt like I was actually helping,” he said.
“It was difficult. You had to be really precise on your distance [from the coral] because that could affect how well you could clean off the algae. It was also difficult because you had to stay in one place and hold these two brushes and brush away the algae, and you also had to be monitoring your own vitals underwater.”
- Ava Ferris - Student
“It is so important for all kids to have a chance to have these opportunities. Students realized that they have the skills to do real ecological work that has an impact on our Earth.”
- Deb Schaner - Teacher
“It made me realize how big the world is. I’ve been out of the country one time before (also on a school trip), but being on the ocean and seeing how vast it is made me realize how lovely our small town is. But it also made me realize that there is a lot out there that I want to see.”
- Korey Leicher - Student