Skyline students snorkel for science

September 1, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Allen Suner, of Skyline High School, places a point intercept quadrant over a section of coral reef to take field measurements in June off the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas.

Allen Suner, of Skyline High School, places a point intercept quadrant over a section of coral reef to take field measurements in June off the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas.

Teens help research reefs in Bahamas

Seventeen current and former Skyline High School students did more than tan on a beach on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas this summer — they snorkeled in the name of science.

While it may sound like fun and games, the students and their three chaperones put their noses in the water for hours on end to conduct scientific research with the Earth Watch Institute on one of the largest coral reefs in the world.

Though Gretel von Bargen, an International Baccalaureate biology teacher at Skyline, has been traveling the world, participating in projects with Earth Watch Institute for years, it is the first time she brought students along, she said.

“When I was in high school, I traveled with a teacher and that made such an impression on me. I always felt I should return the favor,” she said. “But I also really like my students. Well, I love my students and I love biology. It’s a way to combine the things I love.”

The project was started 17 years ago by research scientists John Rollino; Dr. Garriet Smith, of the University of South Carolina at Aiken; and Thomas McGrath, a professor at Corning Community College in New York, to monitor the health of the coral reef.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” said graduate Jameson Gardner. “We saw what new species can do to an area. There is a whole world down there and if we lose it, a lot of the natural marine life is gone.”According to the project’s Web site, coral reefs throughout the world are in jeopardy due to climate change, coastal development and overfishing.

“It was sad,” said senior David Zong. “My dad has real coral and I’ve seen it in National Geographic or the coral off Hawaii, which is really colorful. That isn’t what we saw. Here, the health of the coral is poor and they lose their vibrancy.”

By monitoring the coral reef in San Salvador, researchers hope to better understand how surrounding environmental conditions, like algae covering the coral that contribute to its weakening, impact other marine life, fisheries and tourism.

During their time in San Salvador, the students helped conduct field measurements on the reef.

The research conducted by volunteers throughout the years, has not only led to a better understanding of how coral reefs support our oceans, but also helped researchers pilot innovative programs to help mend the reefs with artificial materials to help bolster their survival.

“They have methods that work with artificial surf and allow the coral to grow and build up,” Gardner said.

“It’s like replanting a plant, except it’s called transecting,” said graduate Emily Suebert. “It allows the coral to grow in new areas.”

When you’re in the Bahamas, though, even if you’re doing scientific research, a little fun is expected.

Students were able to watch barracuda hunt, snorkel to a shipwreck and go on a night snorkeling expedition, during which they ran into a swarm of jellyfish.

“That was incredible,” said student Lexi Szymaszek. “We were out there with a buddy and a flashlight. When it came time to come in, I didn’t want to get out of the water because of the mosquitoes, but I ended up getting stung by a jellyfish anyway.”

Time away from the ocean was spent exploring the island full of lakes, tide pools, friendly people and underwater caves, the students said.

“Not having traveled with students before, I was enormously impressed with them,” said von Bargen’s husband Curtis Creager, who acted as a chaperone. “A few of them have never been outside Issaquah, let alone outside of the country, and they all did a great job.”

Von Bargen’s next expedition is already planned. In April, she is going to Trinidad to assist in a leatherback sea turtle project and she’s asking students to join her. However, the trip is an expense for which they will have to raise money, she said.

The price for the Bahamas trip was $2,450, excluding airfare and personal spending money, she said.

Students pulled money together in a variety of ways, including working part-time jobs, asking family members for donations and finding corporate sponsors, like Microsoft, as Zong did, as well as obtaining discounts from Discount Divers in Seattle and Hilton Hotels.

Details about the Trinidad trip weren’t available on the Web site yet, but preparation meetings will begin soon.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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