Exploring the reefs of St. John

As Nate Lumsden snorkels through the water admiring the sea turtles that graciously glide by, in the distance he sees what most people fear.

A barracuda.

Intrigued, Lumsden swims over to it to get a closer look, and in seconds, the barracuda had made its way behind the sailboat.  He then began to follow it and took a shortcut under the boat to the other side and was greeted with ferocious teeth.

The barracuda had darted right for him, but luckily Lumsden swam away unscathed.

This past spring break, Castleton students and professors Cynthia Moulton and Mary Droege headed to the St. John in the Virgin Islands to partake in reef checks and individual research projects.

          Each day, everyone would wake up and be at the beach by 8:30 a.m. Once in the reefs, the group began setting up for the reef check.

          “I would take the measuring tape, about 100 meters, and would put it on the sub straight of the ocean floor. It just sinks and you go through and you identify different species that you see for the 100-meter stretch,” Lumsden said.

Each student was assigned fish or invertebrates to count and Moulton and Droege would have the final sweep of the ocean floor.

 “We would gather all our data and that is how you can determine whether or not the reef is healthy, based on the species you find,” Lumsden said.

          The group used a waxy, waterproof paper you can write on underwater, even with a normal pencil.

          While most of the students were busy with reef checks, senior Kyla Leary was focusing on her own research on the Brittle Star, a species closely related to a sea star.   

          “I did surveys. So basically I took a piece of rope and marked a meter around and I cut them into five different meter sections so that I could create a square,” Leary said.

          In the square, Leary would turn over rocks and put them in a clear container so she could observe them. Along with observing, she took measurements of their arm lengths and central disks, the central region of the Brittle Star.  She also recorded their colors.

Leary presented her work at the recent Scholars Celebration.

This wasn’t the first time Lumsden and Leary have gone to St. John. Last semester they both took Tropical Biodiversity.

          “I liked this spring trip more in terms of the animals because the first time I went I was all excited to see all the shiny tropical fish because that just blows your mind. But then when you start realizing the other animals that are there that the last time I didn’t pay attention to. So when I went back this year I noticed cooler animals. Like I saw Christmas Tree Worms and they are on the outsides of coral and rocks and you can go up to them and poke them and they go back inside in the coral. I never paid attention to little worms living on a rock because I was too busy looking at all the fish,” said Lumsden.  

          Droege had always wanted to go to St. John and this year she finally got the chance.

          “The snorkeling is the highlight of that particular area. It’s just a phenomenally, completely different experience then anything else because you’re suspended in their world and as long as you are not chasing anything, they don’t react to you being there,” she said.

Senior Mason Brown was just excited that she was able to fulfill one of her life-long dream of exploring the coral reefs.

“Ever since I was young, I have always had a love for marine life. This was the first opportunity that I was able to take and I knew immediately that this was something that I had to do,” Brown said.

Moulton, the Castleton professor and author of “Interconnected,” is the women behind this trip who helps students follow their dreams of being immersed in this underwater ecosystem.

“I’ve been going to St. John since 2001 and my first student group I ever took there was in 2002. So I have been studying there for quite some time and I have wanted to write this book for at least 10 years and it finally happened while I was on sabbatical,” she said.

Moulton spent six months of sabbatical writing her book, half the time at home and the other half immersing herself in the island atmosphere.

“I feel like having the sabbatical to spend more time there was crucial and it made the writing flow much faster. The writing was easy once I had the time to do it. I have been struggling to write ever since I have been back from sabbatical, so I’m going to have to relegate to summers,” said Moulton.

Along with her trips every year with students in October and sometimes April, Moulton spends the month of July teaching local kids at Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station how to swim. A lot of kids on the island have fears of the water. At camp they try and help them feel more comfortable by teaching them to swim and snorkel.

          “A lot of what we do at the camp is getting them comfortable seeing what is in the water and having them begin to value their own environmental resources all around them,” said Moulton.

Since the trip, Brown is applying for a counselor position at VIERS this July to hopefully follow her passion for the island.

          Castleton Alumni, Tucker Stone who went to St. John as a student as well, is now re-living island life and is currently going to school at UVI and is continuing research in the Virgin Islands.

“Obviously I have been learning a ridiculous amount about the ocean, but I was hired by the school to build a mathematical model that identifies frogs based on their call and I work as a research assistant on NOAA Marine Debris Grant. I’ve advanced through scuba training and have memorized more names of fish and corals than I’d like to admit,” said Stone.

Stone had previously been a camp counselor at VIERS for two years.

Moulton reflected on this trip and is very impressed with her students and their ability to connect with the reefs. She was very happy and relived that her students were able to appreciate the sea urchins and the role that they serve.

          “It was great that they didn’t say, ‘oh there are long black spines that are going to really hurt if I go near them.’ It made them not the enemy and I really loved that,” said Moulton with a smile.

“The idea is that everything is interconnected and it might be a distant connection, but there are so many valuable lessons to be seen in nature. It is a trip of a lifetime for students.” 

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