Grad Dispatch from Paradise -- Maui
For two weeks in April, Biology graduate students Katrina van Raay and Eliza Heery had the opportunity to serve as chaperones on Garfield high school’s annual marine science field trip to Hawaii. They recount their experiences below and their photo album is linked at the bottom!
Standing in the airport parking lot of the car rental company, I couldn’t believe I was here, and how different it was than I imagined. The sun beat down on us while roosters and hens pecked the dirt by the check out station and palm trees swayed in the wind. The mountains surrounding us were covered in low, lush foliage and birds I had never seen before flew around us. I had never been in a more beautiful parking lot. Our six-passenger mini vans arrived slowly, despite our long-standing reservations, which I soon learned was a reflection of “Maui time”, and illustrated the slower, more relaxed pace at which things seemed to happen here. Waiting for us back at the airport were 42 excited high school students from Seattle, mostly freshman and sophomores, who had come to Maui for 12 days as an extension of their Oceanography class.
I had no idea what to expect when I volunteered to be a chaperone for this trip, but it turned out to be extraordinary. Along with the kids, I was seeing ecosystems and animals that I had only read about or seen on nature specials. There was an abundance of life, both above and below water. Katydids and praying mantises regularly visited us at our beachfront campground, and if you looked carefully you could see humpback whales breaching in the distance or a monk seal chasing fish.
|A Spanish dancer|
On our first snorkel, we were graced with a visit from an endangered green sea turtle. I had no idea what a regular occurrence this would become, and bemoaned my choice of leaving my camera at the beach so as to better assist new snorkelers (no assistance was necessary, as the kids dialed into their amphibious sides and became adept swimmers in no time). A Maui marine naturalist and opisthobranch expert, Cory Pittman (Sea Slugs of Hawaii), came with us on most snorkels and dives and could detail the life history of any organism you presented him with. Every snorkel and dive was filled with a myriad of coral, reef fish, turtles, eels, sharks, and if you looked closely, a nudibranch or two. On our night dives we saw octopus, reef squid with gorgeous iridescence reflected from our dive lights, the beautiful Spanish dancer (a dorid nudibranch), and bioluminescence when we turned off our lights. Nearly every time we were in the water we could hear humpback whales singing.
The little time we spent out of the water was spent exploring the island: a sunrise visit to the volcano Haleakala where we saw the rare Silversword plant (found only on Maui’s mountains), and a hike into its dry, hot crater, where we heard (and saw?) the elusive Nene bird. We drove on the Road to Hana to experience the lush tropical rainforest with tall flowering trees so different from the dry part of the island we had spent most of our time on. I think this trip inspired the inner naturalist for many of the students, and it reminded me why I became a biologist.
There is indeed something magical about the Hawaiian Islands – something that seemingly cannot be characterized scientifically but that nonetheless inspires the scientist and naturalist in all of us. Whether it was snorkeling, diving, hiking, stargazing, or otherwise, our experience in Hawaii with 42 high school students was never separate from nature. By day, we were leading students underwater, into lush forests, and up the sides of volcanoes. By night, as they tried to keep up with their school work and assignments, they were confronted by geckos, praying mantis, giant moths, and stinging centipedes, along with various manifestations of the elements (sand in everything, strong winds while they slept, a hot sun in the early morning).
We were lucky to have a tremendous group of students, all inspiring and hilarious in their own way. Inevitably on a field excursion with teenagers there are challenges and obstacles that arise, but their humor made them impressively resilient. They themselves were also a very lucky group, as they managed to see a wide variety of species in the field that are not always seen by visitors to Hawaii. This included monk seals (underwater), squid, spinner dolphins, octopus, and a several different species of eel. To top off the list, we had a spectacular viewing of a lunar eclipse about halfway through the trip that was clearly visible from camp.
Overall, it was a fantastic adventure. I haven’t laughed so hard and so frequently for years. For those who love spending time with teenagers, I highly suggest serving as a chaperone for Garfield or Ballard on future trips. The experience was valuable to me personally on so many different levels and provided an exciting opportunity to work closely with high school students as they discovered the wonders of the natural world first hand.