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A Unique Summer Opportunity: Viewpoint’s Marine Science Students Conduct Field Research in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

On June 18, twelve Viewpoint Upper School students traveled to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, for an eight-day scientific opportunity of a lifetime.
On June 18, twelve Viewpoint Upper School students traveled to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, for an eight-day scientific opportunity of a lifetime.

Led by Craig Didden, Chair of Viewpoint’s Science Department, and Assistant Head of Upper School Katrina Fuller, the students will be actively involved in researching coral reefs, deploying scientific equipment, and collecting data as part of an ongoing 25-year research project on the island of St. John. The program is a collaboration between Viewpoint School, California State University, Northridge, and the United States National Science Foundation (Research Experience for Teachers—RET).

“This is an incredible opportunity for students to engage in research sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation, and to apply what they have learned in the classroom to natural processes,” said Mr. Didden. “The experience is targeted at students with a serious interest in biological careers, which will involve extensive coursework at the university level, and a commitment to science.”

Our students are excited to see firsthand how coral reefs of the Caribbean have changed over the past 25 years, and what scientists are doing to better understand their biology. “Long-term monitoring of the coral reefs in St. John is extremely important to develop an accurate picture of the health of the reef,” explained Mr. Didden. “Such activities are now underway on most coral reef systems in the world, and it is a rare opportunity for our students to have the chance to be a part of this research.”

The students are staying at the Virgin Island Environmental Resource Station “VIERS,” which is located in Lameshur Bay on St. John. “This is a rustic field station nestled behind the mangrove swamps of the bay, and it provides unrivalled access to a fully natural and pristine environment,” said Mr. Didden. “The absence of air conditioning, street lamps, TV and the normal distractions of urban life make this a location where transformative educational experiences occur.”

Enjoy these journal postings from the students and check back often for more updates.

Monday, June 24
Written by Khai F. ’15
Wow, the second to last day! Time has crept up so quickly on me. The first day at VIERS seems like it was just yesterday. Anyway, today we collected data for our science projects. My partner Tallulah and I observed the behavior of damselfish, which are small fish that are known to be pugnacious and aggressive. We floated above the fish and watched as it scared away fish that were sometimes four times its size! The data collecting required a lot of patience, as we had to wait for fish to come into contact with the damselfish. After collecting the data, we came back to camp and worked on our projects. After crunching numbers, we watched a movie and went to bed.

Written by Brad M. ’13
Wow, can you believe it? It is our last full day here on St. John. Time really goes by fast when you are snorkeling, hiking, and eating really good food all day. This has been an amazing trip and the worst part is that I feel like I cannot appreciate it enough. Also, we are finishing up our research papers today and presenting tonight. Jack and I are doing a project on the distribution of gorgonians in the bay at camp. Yesterday, we collected data by laying transect lines and quadrats to count the number of gorgonians in different areas of the bay. We were both pretty tired by the end of it and we still have a lot to finish before tonight, so I think I’m going to go do that now. We will be home soon and will tell you stories and all of that good stuff. Thanks for everything .

Sunday, June 23
Written by Tallulah T. ’15
So we are on day 6 of the trip, and it is a lovely, warm, and on-and-off rainy evening. Since Emma is also writing a blog tonight, I will spice things up by writing in second person. The subtropical heat has gotten to me I guess, so I’ll use that as another excuse for writing deliriously in second person. So here goes:

You wake up at 6:45 a.m. to Melina and Kiersten returning from a run and then proceed to realize you are only one of the three out of 12 who has slept in, and not done something productive in the early morning rain. You then sleepily put on some shorts and a shirt (both of which smell like Deet because the mosquitoes believe you taste quite nice) and get ready for breakfast. The bell rings, so you walk outside and realize it isn’t raining anymore which is nice considering you have to go on a hike soon, and head into the dining hall. Randy and the VIERS crew are serving nice breakfast sandwiches and such so you enjoy a filling breakfast, and then make your turkey sandwich which you will take with you on the hike today. Shortly after, you realize that HOORAY it is your turn for dishes. You and Kiersten work on the dishes while everyone goes to get ready.

At 8:30 a.m. you head out on a hike with the whole group. You head to the petroglyphs, which are just about 2.1 miles away and suffer through—I mean enjoy—the uphill both ways (or so it seems) hike, and once you check out the petroglyphs you head to the beach. Everything is so green, and you come across some ocean views from up high on the hill that are absolutely incredible. On the way, you and the group come across the ruins of an old sugar mill plantation and you check out those, and find some adorable bats hanging from the roof. At this point, you are basically at the beach. Once you have arrived, you first sit to nibble at your sandwich and once that is done, enjoy a molasses cookie. Then, you get up and sun block up to go into the water. After an hour of just wading and floating in the crystal blue ocean, you head back to the sand out of the water, and find Emma who had stepped on a Diadema (sea urchin) and had a bit stuck in her toe. After Mr. Didden gets out the little Diadema spike, you head back to camp.

Mr. Didden states that you will meet with the whole group in just a little bit to head down to the beach and work on projects. After getting your stuff together and reapplying sunscreen, you head out with Beth, Khai, Vince, and Adam to Little Lameshur Bay. Vince and Adam work on their project while you and Khai observe Damselfish and their behavior for your own project. You end up collecting data on about 10 fish, and after 2.5 hours you head to the dock to meet up with the rest of the group who had gone to various parts of the surrounding beaches best suited to their own project’s needs.

Finally, you head back to camp, relieved that you get a break before the night snorkel tonight, and that dinner is relatively soon. As you are changing out of your wet swimsuit and finally sitting down to relax while enjoying some Mumford and Sons, Ms. Fuller stops by your cabin and asks you and Emma to write a blog. You say of course, and head over to the classroom and log into the computer. So, that’s how you ended up here. Now you’re writing this sentence, rockin’ out with Emma to Alt-J. You just heard the dinner bell and you’re hoping it is spaghetti. Fingers crossed. You also can’t wait for tonight’s night snorkel, and after that, to get some sleep after a long hard day of fun and work in the beautiful St. John.

Emma A.’ 15
A bunch of us volunteered to wake up an hour early to help Beth’s research with the tiles by the dock. It was a start to a great day although we could barely keep our eyes open. Kiersten and Melina went for a run. By now all of our clothes are dirty, damp, and smell great. It was decided that the breakfast today was the best so far with breakfast sandwiches and potatoes, which is saying a lot because the food here is so good (or we are all just very hungry). At 8:00 a.m., we left for our long and beautiful hike over the mountains and hills of the island. The humidity was intense and every couple minutes you could see people lunging awkwardly in an attempt to not step on a giant hermit crab in the middle of the trail. On the hike we were encouraged to switch every once in a while who we were walking with and get to know someone new, which was very enjoyable and I’m glad we were encouraged to do that. At the end of the hike was an abandoned sugar plantation. It was operated by slaves in the early 1800s and looked like old ruins. The very high ceilings had little bats holding on to them.

A few feet from the ruins and through the trees was a huge sandy beach that we learned is where a lot of nurse sharks hang out. The beach seemed very sandy, but in fact it was extremely rocky and shallow, but still nice to float in and enjoy the waves. I kicked a sea urchin, a Diadema, and one of its little spines went into my toe, which Mr. Didden had to remove. Later we all divided and conquered different areas and different bays for our individual/pair research projects in the rain.

A lot of people have been talking about how this place is starting to feel like a home and we are becoming more used to life here. The first couple of days went by slowly as we were acclimating to our new surroundings and different lifestyle. But as the days go by we have become more comfortable and it’s sad that we have to leave in only two days. In an hour, we leave for the night snorkel where we will spend an hour in the ocean in the dark with our flashlights.

Katrina’s list of amazing things we saw today:
Sugar mill ruins, bats, petroglyphs from the Taino civilization (approx. 2,500 years ago), Nimble Spray Crabs, Banded-Arm Brittle Star, Giant Basket Star, Redlip Blennies, Indigo Hamlets, Bar Jacks, Caribbean Squid, huge Porcupinefish, Spotted Moray, and Sharpnose Puffers.

Saturday, June 22
By Melina K. ’15
Preparation for today began the night before when most of us took Bonine to prevent seasickness. We knew ahead of time that we would spend most of the day aboard a boat riding around the East end of St. John and to adjacent islands. This morning I awoke to a torrential downpour at around 5:45 a.m., which sufficiently moistened all my belongings hanging outside to “dry.” This rain also came to my advantage and served as an excuse not to get dressed for my 6:00 a.m. run. After a morning of delicious pancakes, dish cleaning duty, and lunch sandwich making, we left the lodging site at around 9:15 a.m. to walk to the dock. Waiting for us in the bay was the lovely Sadie Sea, a petite red bottom boat that can comfortably transport 30. Our adventures began when everyone decided to sit at the front of the boat to get a front row seat of the oncoming beauty. This experience was shortened for many when the first wave Sadie Sea hit created an explosion of salt water soaking everything.
Our first stop was Flannigan’s Island, where we learned more about collecting data for scientific research. The work in the field included using quatrats and transect lines to count the number of octocoral within multiple ¼ meter2 areas. After we helped Beth with her octocoral count, we were able to snorkel around Flannigan’s before departing for our next location. The most serene and peaceful location by far was the mangrove-protected bay where ships take refuge during hurricanes. Mangroves serve as a highly important habitat because many species of fish and other organisms use this area for raising juveniles. Some highlights of this area, to name a few, include sea stars, squid, huge amounts of brain coral, and inch-long baby barracuda. We swam around for a bit and hopped back aboard the Sadie Sea for some lunch and a ride to Booby Rock. At Booby Rock we conducted another octocoral survey for Beth and then circum-snorkeled the rock encountering some unique angel fish and tons of fire coral.

Our fourth and final stop of our boating trip was in Tektite Bay, the site of the first Tektite I expedition in 1969. At this location, our science tools were put to rest as we jumped off the upper deck of the ship into the 40 foot waters below. We returned to the VIERS site just in time to take a shower and visit the Tektite museum before dinner. Once thoroughly replenished from a hearty meal of pork chops, veggies, applesauce, and apple cobbler, we gathered around a campfire to attack our research projects with constructive criticism. For the past couple of days, we were advised to keep our eyes out while snorkeling for anything that interests us and come up with testable questions. One of the oddities I noticed was the significantly higher amounts of fire coral than any other coral. Because this coral is found in such high abundance, I was wondering if there is something about the fire coral that makes it more successful than the other corals. But to be more specific in my research, I’m asking how depth affects the percent coverage of fire coral in Great Lameshur Bay. Of course, all that thinking required more brain food, so after completing our group discussion we enjoyed a sweet ending to our day with roasted marshmallows and s ‘mores.

By Kiersten C. ’16
On Saturday morning, we woke up early to rain. A few of us were going to run, but quickly decided not to because it was “cold.” After a pancake breakfast, we made sandwiches that we would eat for lunch on our long boat trip. While sailing, we visited several beautiful spots, including Flanagan’s Island, Hurricane Hole, Booby Rock, and another small bay. Here, we worked in groups to help Beth with her research project. We used transects and quadrats to take count of sea fans, sea plumes, and sea rods as part of an octocoral survey. After completing the research, we were able to swim around the area. Hurricane Hole was especially fun – the water was clear and many interesting creatures were found, including several baby squid. We swam around the shallow mangroves, which were rich in both plants and animals. At Booby Rock, our group had many close encounters with fire coral, as we had to swim through a small opening with a strong current. Towards the end of the trip, we stopped the boat to swim around. Everyone jumped off the top of the boat several times, and some even attempted backflips and dives.

When we got back, we were all exhausted. So, we relaxed and walked through the Tektite Museum located in VIERS. We discussed a paper about the experiments conducted as a part of this project. Dinner was served afterwards, and we were given time to finalize a project idea with a partner or alone. My partner, Melina, and I, were distracted by an overwhelming amount of candy during this time. Nevertheless, we finished our abstract and decided we will conduct an experiment regarding the coverage of fire coral in Lameshur Bay. We presented this project to the group around a campfire, which was moved inside due to a short rain shower. After this meeting, everyone returned outside, only to find that the s’ mores we had planned on making were wet. This didn’t stop some people, and the s ’mores actually turned out really well. The day ended after that, and everyone got ready for bed, except for Melina and I, who are currently writing today’s blog.

Katrina’s list of amazing things we saw today:
Caribbean Squid, Spotted Eagle Rays (one with five remoras!), Black Durgon, Scrawled Filefish, Rock Beauties, Bearded Fireworms, Cushion Sea Stars, Spanish Mackerel, a Lettuce Sea Slug, lots of Queen Conch, and a Slipper Lobster. My best sighting of the day: a Lionfish! And, in Hurricane Harbor, we swam amongst mangrove prop roots which serve as a nursery for many fish species. Here we saw baby barracuda that were an inch or two long! They were amazing. We also saw baby Foureye Butterflyfish, which I love.

Friday, June 21
by Adam S. ’14
Seven of us woke up at 6 a.m. to help clean coral recruitment tiles down by the lab. Following that quick job, breakfast was served. Today’s breakfast was eggs, bacon, and potatoes. We started off the day with some discussion about a research article on coral recruitment, led by one of our graduate students, Alex. Right after that, we grabbed some microscopes and went down to the lab. At the lab, we spent roughly an hour looking at the coral recruitment tiles that the researchers had placed six months ago and recently removed. Soon afterwards we ventured into the water for a short snorkel in Great Lameshur Bay, where we saw a hawksbill turtle, a spotted eagle ray, several giant hermit crabs, and a couple barracudas. Lunch was great- you can’t go wrong with hotdogs and mac n’ cheese!

Most of us took short naps after lunch to prepare for an extra-long snorkel this afternoon. That snorkel lasted about 2 hours and 30 minutes. We swam about two miles in that time, from the dock Great Lameshur Bay, around Yawzi Point, and into the beach in Little Lameshur Bay. The variety of species and brilliant colors made it one of the best snorkels I have done. We saw turtles, giant lobsters (one was about 10 lbs!), an octopus (that I spotted), a four-foot long barracuda, and many amazing fish. When everyone washed off and started walking back, some of us decide to do a swim from one side of the bay to the other. The swim was about a half-mile long, and we saw a huge turtle, and roughly a five-foot long barracuda.

Dinner wasn’t much of a surprise (just chicken), but the guest speaker afterwards was quite intriguing. Rafe Boulon from The National Park Service came and talked about degradation of several of St. John’s ecosystems. And now I’m here, writing this diary entry, while everyone else is playing “Apples to Apples” across the table from me, talking, or sleeping. I’ll be there soon enough. Goodnight for now. Tomorrow we’re on a boat all day, hopefully nobody gets sunburned too badly!

By Dara Y. ’14
Today, we were introduced to one of the major experiments that has been taking place on the island for several years. Researchers in the VIERS lab have an experiment to examine recruitment of new corals in several locations around the island. Early in the morning, we saw the tiles that had recently been removed from the sites. We laid the tiles from the site ‘Europa’ out to dry. After breakfast and a lecture relating to the coral recruitment experiment, we returned to lab to examine the tiles under microscopes. We learned the reason why the coral larvae attach to the bottom of the terracotta tiles. We saw a preview of the way that the species of the recruit on the tile is identified under a microscope by the small differences in its septae, thecal wall, and columella. The group then split into smaller groups to snorkel for a short amount of time to look at the bay and continue to brainstorm for our own research projects.

During the time we had to read after lunch, some of us read, while others napped! Most of us were already tired before we even began our afternoon snorkel. The goal of the afternoon was to decide which question we could best research for our projects. We went as a group from the research center dock in Great Lameshur bay around the point into Little Lameshur. We continued to see more and more new underwater creatures, like trumpetfish, eagle rays, eels, purple shrimp, terminal phase parrotfish, butterfly fish, sharpnose puffers, flounders, and smooth trunkfish. We practiced using a transect line and quadrat in the sea grass near the beach before we finished for the day.

Dinner was followed by a great lecture from a marine biologist who has on St Johns for his entire life. He talked about the threats facing the Virgin Islands and both the solutions that have been enacted and are in progress. We learned about the ways in which natural occurrences like hurricanes, rainfall, and soil runoff are becoming detrimental to reef environments due to visitation, development and species introduced by humans. Mongeese, goats, pigs, cats, donkeys, and rats are animals that are nonnative and are damaging the island environment. Lionfish, which were dumped out of a couple of aquariums in Florida in 2010, have quickly spread across reefs and patch reefs across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. They eat other fish and are threatening to the biodiversity in reefs. Boats are also threatening to the mangroves and reefs. We also learned that due to perseverance in environmental policy, people can stop the total destruction of marine environments in order to bring them back. We know new ways to help the reefs, and we are looking forward to a full day on the boat tomorrow!

Katrina’s list of super awesome things we saw today:
An octopus, a Spotted Eagle Ray, Spotted Drum Fish, more Hawksbills Turtles, a Peacock Flounder, a Scrawled Filefish (a super cool fish!), a Green Moray, Giant Hermit Crabs, some gorgeous tunicates (Blue Bell Tunicates), many sea cucumbers and cleaning shrimp (including Banded Coral Shrimp, Pederson Cleaner Shrimp, and Spotted Cleaner Shrimp), a Bearded Fireworm, a Greater Soapfish (which I had not seen before), tons of Ctenophores (comb jellies), lots of Yellowhead Jawfish, Flamingo Tongue Snails, Caribbean Spiny Lobsters, Spaghetti Worms, beautiful French Angelfish and Queen Angelfish, and of course, more barracuda and stingrays!

Thursday, June 20
By Jack L. ’14
Today marks the third day of our adventure in St. John. We started the day off with a wonderful breakfast of French toast, made by Randy (VIERS manager), followed by a scenic morning snorkel in Great Lameshur Bay, just off the dock of the VIERS research lab on the island. The morning swim lasted two and a half hours and we encountered many wonderful aquatic creatures along the way. Our group witnessed countless small fish, come Caribbean squid, two large puffer fish, and even a juvenile Hawksbill turtle, not to mention the plethora of different soft and stony corals.

After a hefty lunch of burritos and a short break, we headed back out for a second swim where we saw a large Spotted Eagle Ray, another sting ray, multiple lobsters, and some stunning parrot fish. Although there was non-stop rain yesterday, today we had beautiful weather all day and were able to experience the true beauty of St. John and the Caribbean weather. Tonight we had a lecture lead by Beth, a graduate student at California State University of Northridge (CSUN), about the research projects we will be conducting in Lameshur Bay throughout the remainder of our stay here in St. John. Tomorrow we look forward to a lecture and experiment by another graduate student at CSUN, Alex, on the topic of sediment tiles and coral density. As well as tomorrow's experiment, we will be doing another swim to help create our own hypothesis and formulate different questions.

Thursday, June 20
By Oliver R. ’13
There we were, 12 youths eager to get started in our journey. At 6:30 p.m. we left Viewpoint to LAX. On the bus we swapped stories and ideas on how VIERS was going to be. As the only returning member, I was asked many questions. After two hours in the airport, we boarded the flight. After five hours of in-flight entertainment and restless sleep, we ended up in Miami. Due to the time change, we had been awake for only a day, but two days passed in actuality. We traveled to St. Thomas where both tropical rain and humidity assaulted us. We continued through the rain via taxi and ferry to St. John. We were taken aback by the almost-Indiana Jones feel of the tropical forest. Today we began our first "typical" day for us. Meaning, we ate breakfast, swam for two hours, ate lunch, swam for two hours, showered, had a discussion about several papers, ate dinner, and ended the day extremely tired. I expect to fall asleep by the end of this blog entry.

Katrina Fuller's list of super amazing things we saw today: a huge Nurse Shark (!!), a Spotted Eagle Ray with a remora attached, several Caribbean squid, a Hawksbill Turtle, a Southern Stingray, an Upside-down Jelly, a couple of Great Barracuda, six giant Tarpon, Houndfish, Trumpetfish, Porcupinefish, a gorgeous Smooth Trunkfish, and countless Parrotfish, Wrasses, and Damselfish. All-in-all, it was an awesome day!

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