Recently, the 2013 Guam and Palau course came to a close. This is the fourth year that my co-instructor Jim Haw and I have run the program, which was offered for the first time in 2010. Since then, we have accompanied nearly 100 undergraduate students to Micronesia to investigate marine and coastal ecosystems (see link for details). This year’s cohort (26 students total) was our largest, and, arguably, one of the most accomplished (GPA ≈ 3.7) groups that we have worked with.

While traveling for three weeks to tropical and exotic locations with a group of fantastically bright and motivated undergraduate scientific divers-in-training is not always a guarantee of a successful field course, it certainly is an incentive. Similarly, the academic content and educational experience offered to students cannot be overlooked, and the Guam and Palau program is no exception.

Three essential educational approaches for the 2013 course included: 1) reflective writing, 2) situated learning in the field, and 3) teaching with technology. For several years running, we have had the opportunity to share the first two of these educational approaches with the Scientific American community in the form of student-driven blogs (a feat wholly attributed to Blog Editor Bora Zivkovic who gave us a lot of latitude on content this year – thank you!). The ‘teaching with technology’ component, however, is a new addition to the program in which we’ve geared up with iPads and GoPro cameras so our students can record, analyze, share, and interpret scientific data collected in the field. An outstanding example of this is a video blog by three participants (Justin Pearce, Lauren Stoneburner and Richelle Tanner) from this year’s course.

As described in Justin, Lauren, and Richelle’s video blog, the first leg of the 2013 Guam and Palau course started at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Each of the 26 student scientific divers-in-training spent an intensive week reviewing and practicing their in-water dive skills, which included advanced navigation techniques, as well as underwater survey and data collection methods. The students also were required to attend a series of daily lectures, which provided an overview of the course objectives, and a crash course in coral reef ecology, natural resource management, and marine governance.

During intensive periods of diving activity (diving multiple days in a row), the propensity for ear and sinus related maladies skyrockets. This year’s course was no exception as our ever-trusty volunteer dive instructor Tom Carr (whose day job includes time spent as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff and USC Hyperbaric Chamber Supervisor) was required to make the one-hour, windy, dusty drive to the Catalina Medical Center in Avalon with sick students at least once. With a little TLC and antibiotics all recovered just fine, though some were unable to dive for the duration of the trip.

Arriving on Guam, there was a palpable excitement in the air. From the instructors’ standpoint, we were pleased to find all of our luggage and dive gear present and accounted for (nearly 60 pieces of baggage in total), whereas the students were just plain excited to be standing on a genuine tropical island (a US Territory, no less) on the other side of the world. For most of the kids, this was the furthest distance they had ever traveled from home, and for some, it was the first time they had ever left the US mainland. Course objectives on Guam included examining the impacts of overfishing and invasive species, conservation management, as well as the ominous military buildup (especially amongst the extensive coral reef habitats within Apra Harbor: see link for Apra Harbor video blog).

Our first full day on Guam started with an old friend and colleague Brent Tibbatts and his colleagues at the Guam Division of Wildlife and Aquatic Resources in Mangilao. Brent and the GDWAR staff provided our students the opportunity to interact with critically endangered birds (e.g., Guam Rail and Micronesian Kingfisher), mammals (e.g., Micronesian Fruit Bat), and handle a juvenile Brown Tree Snake, an invasive and mildly venomous viper.

It should be noted that students went from holding one of the world’s rarest birds (i.e., endemic Guam rail) to handling the very animal (i.e., invasive brown tree snake) responsible for their demise. Later in the week, Brent took us on a tour of the Masso Reservoir located in the Asan-Piti Watershed where the students learned first-hand about the interplay between terrestrial and coastal resources and the importance of ‘ridge-to-reef’ management.

After four days on Guam, we boarded a plane and made our way to Palau where we arrived just in time to eat a late dinner. If the students were excited to arrive on Guam, they were beyond ecstatic to make it to Palau, as I had been telling them for months about how the diving in this region is amongst the best in the world.

One of our primary objectives for this part of the course was to provide course participants with hands-on research experiences involving marine ecology, natural resource management, and policy issues. Faculty and students assisted Koror State Conservation and Law Enforcement officials and the Coral Reef Research Foundation in their ongoing efforts to monitor and survey the ecosystem health of Ngederrak Reef (a highly restricted marine protected area) and other reef sites within the recently established UNESCO Rock Islands Southern Lagoon World Heritage site.

This is a tremendous opportunity for our students who have benefited from working in real-time with local resource managers and scientists in the field. It should be noted that the Koror State Governor’s office and Conservation and Law Enforcement staff went above and beyond to host our group both on land and in the water.

This year’s Palau component of the course was by far one of our most productive and successful learning and research experiences in course history. Environmental survey data collected on this recent excursion (combined with 2011 and 2012 baseline surveys) will be instrumental in evaluating the recovery of coral reef resources damaged by Typhoon Bopha.

We hope to continue to assist Koror State in the coming months in the monitoring of physical and biological parameters at each of our study locations. In Summer 2014, we propose adding a "service learning" component to the course in which USC students (in conjunction with Koror State Officials) visit local elementary and secondary schools to discuss marine biology related themes, and Palau's role as a global leader in marine conservation and sustainability.

By the time we finished our underwater field surveys, the students had clearly earned a “fun” dive or two. Our final dives in Palau included two of my favorite dive locations: Blue Corner and Ulong Channel. Blue Corner features a wedge-shaped reef with vertical wall drop-offs on either edge. The contour ensures an active upwelling on the leading edge relative to any prevailing current, which draws high densities of bumphead parrotfishes, napoleon wrasses, and other reef fishes, as well as a wide diversity of reef sharks. Take my word, there is a reason why Blue Corner is consistently listed as one of the top dive sites in the world; it is a show stopping experience every time! Not to be outdone, Ulong Channel, a world-class drift dive, is equally impressive. As my co-instructor Jim Haw described the experience, “divers are swept through the channel like aircraft flying up a canyon.”

At this time of the year, Ulong is notorious for it’s spawning aggregations of grouper, nesting triggerfish, and the ever present white tip and gray reef sharks that congregate in the mouth of the channel. Perhaps one our best highlights underwater was on our final dive in German Channel (another world-class dive spot) where we spent much of the dive with three very inquisitive Manta Rays! Special thanks to Sam’s Dive Tours for their patience and support of our in-water diving activities boat needs.

In summary, this year’s course was a great success. By all accounts, it exceeded expectations (which were already high) on all fronts. Students gained valuable experience working hands-on in the field with local scientists and resource managers. Students often incorporate knowledge better and understand topics more fully by actively being engaged in an activity rather than only reading or writing about a concept. By engaging with local stakeholders involved in integrated ecosystem and conservation management, including fishermen, residents, tourism operators, park rangers, and government policy makers, students gain a better appreciation for the socio-political complexities involved in policy enforcement, and long-term monitoring and evaluation.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins

A New Faculty Member on the Team

An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact

Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich

Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity

The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island

Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences

Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do

Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor

Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?

The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?

The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle

The Effects of Climate Change on Coral Reef Health

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute in the East China Sea

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Process

Before and After the Storm: The Impacts of Typhoon Bopha on Palauan Reefs

An interconnected environment and economy- Shark tourism in Palau

A Persistent Case of Diabetes Mellitus in Guam

Homo Denisova and Homo Floresiensis in Asia and the South Pacific

Investigating the Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico Using Actam Chuleb as a Primary Example

Okinawa and the U.S. military, post 1945

Offshore Energy Acquisition in the Western Pacific: The Decline of the World’s Most Abundant Fisheries

Military Buildup’s Environmental Takedown

Challenges Facing Japan’s Marine Fisheries

Hyperbaric Oxygen: A Spectrum of Emerging Treatments

The Historical Collapse of Southern California Fisheries and the Rocky Future of Seafood

Southern California and Endangered Abalone Populations