Ocean Defenders Program 2019


For our weekend-long, overnight Ocean Defenders Program, we welcomed 13 girls from Girls Inc. Sarasota to live aboard Field School’s R/V Garvin for the weekend, learning about marine conservation, trying new outdoor exploration skills, participating in a shark research expedition, and being mentored by women in science!


Our Ocean Defenders Program welcomed 13 girls aged 10 – 15 from Girls Inc. Sarasota to Miami on the weekend of May 4th. From the moment they arrived on Saturday morning, until the moment they left on Sunday evening, we made it our mission to pack in as much hands-on learning, fun, and exploration as we could! So, what did we get up to? Read on…

After our participants had arrived and sorted their things into Field School’s R/V Garvin’s bunks (our home for the weekend), we headed to Hobie Beach across the causeway on Virginia Key. We started off by splitting into teams designated by patterned Waterlust headbands, which are made from recycled pre-consumer waste and fabric scraps. These 3 teams were: Team Cosmic Coral, Team Abalone, and Team Sun-Kissed Sea. We worked in these teams to first design and then build BRUVs, or Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems, that would passively record the plant and animal community of Hobie Beach’s seagrass bed ecosystem. The girls named these impressive structures “Patricia 0.5” and “Unigo”, and we filled their bait cages with delicious, slimy, and smelly mashed Menhaiden bait before we deployed them in the shallow seagrass beds for a few hours. After completing our BRUV engineering activity, we geared up with snorkels, masks and body boards to survey the seagrass ecosystem with our own eyes. The body boards were useful to keep our feet off the seagrass and the water clear. Since one of the functions of seagrass is to trap sediment, shuffling around it stirs everything up and reduces the visibility in the water to pretty much nothing! While we were enjoying our snorkeling adventure, Field School Director Dr. Catherine Macdonald and interns Kylie and Marissa pulled a seine net through the water to catch small creatures living in the seagrass. Despite us not seeing much other than swaying seagrass meadows during our snorkeling, seining seemed to catch everything that we couldn’t see! We put our catches into small jars and passed them around so everyone could get a good look while Kylie and Marissa taught us all about the incredible creatures. These finds included:


  • Juvenile pufferfish, juvenile blue stripe grunt, pygmy seahorses, pipefish, orange-throated pikeblenny, blue crab, hermit crab, decorator crab, dragonet, grass shrimp, white shrimp


  • Variegate sea urchin, purple sponge

After our snorkeling and seining adventure, we headed back to shore to dry off and learn about a major issue in the environmental crisis: marine pollution. Each participant was given one fact to read aloud to the group, and had to follow it up with how it made them feel. Some of the facts included: (1) Over 90% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs; (2) Miami disposes of 700,000 straws per day; (3) By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight; (4) 1 in 3 species of marine mammal have been found entangled in marine litter; and (5) Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. Unsurprisingly, all of our participants reported feeling depressed, sad, and disgusted by these facts. We followed-up this discussion with a service component: a “flash” beach clean-up. Our girls worked in their teams to see who could collect the most trash off the beach in our 20-minute time period, and the results were… depressing, sad, and disgusting. It was all too easy for our participants to fill their paper bags with pieces of trash big and small – from the beach, from the water, from the bushes, from everywhere they looked.

We finished up at the beach and headed back to the Rickenbacker marina to shower and settle into Garvin for the evening. After a well-deserved dinner, we dove into a conversation about women in science, answering questions like “what are the barriers that prevent girls and women from pursuing STEM careers?” and “why do you think there are specifically so few women of colour in STEM careers?” This lead us into a discussion of the factors contributing to climate change, and how each and every one of us has a responsibility to change our lifestyle to ensure the safety of our future. We decided to each make a pledge, writing down 1 thing that we would commit to doing. We refused to accept “recycle” as an answer, because an estimated 10% of materials put into a recycling bin are actually recycled. It simply isn’t enough! After our very long day, we let our participants hang out on Garvin for an hour or so before heading to sleep.

The following morning, we were awake at 7:30am to get prepped before embarking on our day of shark research! But before we could get into the action of it, we had to learn about boat safety and shark safety. While our all-female crew of researchers for the day had an extensive amount of experience working with sharks, it was imperative for everyone on board to understand the risks and how to avoid them. We learned from Field School’s Directors Dr. Catherine Macdonald and Dr. Julia Wester how we would be sampling the sharks once caught, which included measuring 3 different lengths, tagging the shark, taking a tissue sample from the dorsal fin, and testing the shark’s eye reflexes as an indicator of stress. Dr. Kristine Stump taught us how to set out our fishing gear, complete with big chunks of barracuda as bait, and we got right into it! We set out our first 10 lines and left them to soak for an hour. In the meantime, our participants worked in teams to conduct informal interviews with the 9 women in science that we had on board. These interviews included questions like “what was the greatest challenge you faced in getting into your career?” and “what’s the most exciting part of your job?” By the time we’d finished with this activity, it was time to check our lines! We caught our first shark on the 6th line of our first set, and she was a beautiful 118 cm, full-grown blacknose shark that had previously been tagged by another research team! It was a special experience to get to find a recaptured shark, which highlights the residency of some of these species. Two lines later, we caught a much bigger shark – a sub-adult female nurse shark that measured in at 200 cm. Fortunately, nurse sharks are very “hearty” and can withstand extended periods of time out of the water before they become physiologically stressed. While we didn’t push this theory to its limits, we did allow all of our participants to come down to Garvin’s back platform to get to feel the shark before she was released. Our favourite reactions are always the “oh my god’s!” and “oh, wow’s!” Sharks are incredible creatures, and it’s a moving experience for us every time that we’re able to facilitate the invaluable connection between humans and wildlife. We set out our next 10 lines and Instructor Marissa showed participants Sloan and Miranda how to sample salinity, or the measure of the ocean’s salt concentration. This process involves an instrument called a “refractometer” that is held up to the light to give a reading of salinity. During this break, we also started to practice our bowline knots. For anyone involved in marine science that works on boats, the most important, practical, and versatile knot is the bowline! We decided to turn this into a competition, judged by who could tie a bowline the fastest. After about 20 minutes of practicing and re-practicing, we finally held our competition and Ashley came out victorious at 4.37 seconds! The girls really got into this competition, and ended up being able to tie this knot with their eyes closed and behind their backs! Colour us impressed. For our final set of the day, we flexed our muscles and pulled in 1 – 6 with no bites. But on the 7th line, we struck gold, pulling in a gorgeous mature female blacktip shark, measuring in at 177 cm! The blacktip shark is different from our previous nurse shark in many ways, but the one we were concerned about most was its stress tolerance. Blacktip sharks are known to be quite sensitive to stress, therefore we had to work even faster than usual to ensure that she was properly sampled before being released back into the ocean in great condition. We pulled in our final 3 lines empty and wrapped up all of our gear for the day, celebrating together that we’d had a phenomenal day on the water with 3 truly spectacular female sharks.

As we headed back to dock, we collected all of the Chaperones and Instructors and decided together who would be the recipients of our weekend’s prizes. From our beach clean-up and knot-tying competitions, we had 3 final participants that were in a tie. Their tie-breaker involved having to list as many of the species we’d seen over the course of the weekend as possible (which totalled over 30!). Participant Anjolie came in first, with Navaeh in second and Ashley in third. As we got back to dock, collected our things, and said our goodbyes, we presented 3 final awards. Two were selected and presented by the Girls Inc. Chaperones Alex and Jessie to the participants that had impressed them with their enthusiasm and engagement over the course of the weekend. Congratulations to Hailey and Lillian! The final award was presented by Terranaut Club’s Secretary and Instructor Emma, to Sloan, who was a ball of happy energy and interest over the course of the weekend. These 3 recipients were presented with the hooks that we’d caught our sharks on that day, but dulled down so as to not present a safety concern. We posed all together for one final group photo at the dock before seeing our participants off. It was truly an unforgettable weekend for everyone involved, and we’re so grateful to all of the parties involved for their time and effort.

Most notably, we offer our sincere thanks to the Fulbright Canada and Maple Leaf Foundation EcoLeadership Grant for sponsoring this opportunity. Thank you also to our seriously amazing participants and chaperones from Girls Inc. Sarasota, including Luisa Moreta-Carrasco, Jessie Wingar, and Alex Perez, as well as our volunteer Instructors and staff from Field School, including Dr. Catherine Macdonald, Dr. Julia Wester, Kylie Spado, Marissa DeBonis, Dylann Turffs, Katherine Giesy, Dr. Kristine Stump, and Captains Christian Pankow and Nick Perni.

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