While most of us are still struggling to drag ourselves through the cold and snow for class, there are nine University of Rhode Island students who are probably having a much harder time than the rest of us.

Over J Term, these students received 3 credits in NRS 475X,  a coral reef conservation and analysis class,  while studying in Bonaire, a small island in the Caribbean off the North coast of South America, adjacent to the better-known island of Aruba.

Bonaire is known for having some of the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean, despite the fact environmental and human destruction of reefs is often hard to avoid.  It has been the mission of the Bonaire National Marine Park to both maintain and restore the ecosystems, biological diversity and ecological processes of their reefs since 1979.  They have been able to achieve this through means of education and outreach, research and monitoring, among other methods.  In recent years, URI students have been able to contribute to the reef’s conservation as well.

Throughout their time on the island, students closely examined three different case studies that structured where they dived and the methods they used for collecting new data.  Most days, students were making as many as three dives a day to collect this data, each of which lasting roughly an hour.

“The data is mostly collected so that the class can learn how to do conservation work in practice, but because the data ends up being actually pretty good, we send that report information out to the park because they collect information that researchers gather,” said Dr. Graham Forrester, program director and professor of natural resources science at URI.

Forrester also commented that the marine park is a “well managed park, and they make good use of the scientist that come.”  Information gathered by researchers in the past has helped change park management methods as new data portrays the changes in reefs from year to year.

For the 10 days they were in Bonaire, students filled their time on the island with classroom lectures, scuba diving, underwater data collections, data analysis and even dissections of lionfish in the lab. Though the course is heavily science based, the program is open to any major and anyone with an open water diving certification – in fact, only four of the students who attended the trip were marine biology majors.

When first arriving to Bonaire, students quickly learned to identify different types of species of both coral and fish for the purpose of surveying methods.  By the end of the trip, they were able to not only identify the organisms that lived there, but were also able to determine coral cover percentages and reef topography for their findings.

Though the class was intensive, as Forester designed it to be, students describe it as an incredible, unforgettable experience.  “If you get the chance, go see a coral reef,” Kayla Nitzberg, sophomore, said. “If you’ve never seen a coral reef, you need to experience the magic and diversity of life that lives on the reef.”