“We both applied for the Teachers under the Sea Program through the Aquarius Program at FIU (Florida International University). Teachers from all over the world can apply; you have to send in an application and a video. There were 4 spots available but they chose 5 teachers.
We were both chosen! We were awarded 2 of the 5 spots. We were so lucky!!
The Aquarius Program is ran by FIU from their Islamorada location; Aquarius Underwater Habitat, the world’s only undersea research laboratory which is located 60 feet below the water surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Scientists will go on missions down there to study for longer periods of time underwater so they don’t have to surface for hours. Astronauts also use the Aquarius as a space analog training facility.
FIU thought it would be a cool idea to invite some teachers to participate while some scientists were doing their research so the teachers could become more educated and help out, you know, Citizen Science. We also did skype sessions with schools all over the world while we were there. We were either helping the scientists, or holding the skype teaching sessions. Having the teachers help and teach from Aquarius was to also help raise marine research awareness, get kids excited about it, and give more teachers information to share with their kids.
We were scheduled to spend one night inside Aquarius, but it was canceled due to bad weather. They have to seal the doors and lower the pressure inside to atmospheric pressure for us to stay without all the training usually needed. They are going to reschedule the overnight stay.”
Hillary – “For me, this program was the culmination of all my life’s experiences into one. I was a zoo keeper, I am a scuba diver and instructor, and now a school teacher. This experience combined my passion for animals, the environment, the ocean, scuba diving and teaching; it rolled them all into one experience for one week. We got to see fish, sting rays, sharks (not as many as we would have liked), so many beautiful creatures! We got to participate in a study that can really improve our oceans and I got to teach kids about it and hopefully get them excited about it at the same time! It was everything I love rolled into one!”
Martha – “I had a similar reaction to the experience. Before I started teaching at a school I was a dive instructor and taught environmental education out on boats. That has always been my passion. I got more into the educational side after I had children. It was an opportunity to combine both my passion for the ocean and teaching; and in an intense way. It was all day, every day for a week, and we were able to make these connections with the scientists and other teachers. The fact that this happens here, at home in the Keys, made me remember why I wanted to live here in the first place.
While we were skyping with our own school, there was this feeling of wholeness. I could see my son’s face watching and listening with the rest of the students we love so much. We were underwater sharing the experience and information with the kids. It was wonderful combining all the things we love together instead of having to sacrifice one or the other.”
Hillary – “We literally got on the boat every morning at 7 am and didn’t get off the boat until about 6pm; then we would have exactly 1 hour to shower and eat, then we would go to the base in Islamorada to help the scientists analyze their data and watch the research videos that were recorded from the day. It was about midnight when we were able to get to bed. It was so exhausting, really intense, we were delirious, but it was so much fun and the people were amazing. The scientists were a blast. This experience inspired me to want to go back and get my master’s degree; it was so interesting and exciting to experience what the scientists do first hand.”
Martha – “It inspired me to get more involved in science. Right now, I am really wrapped up in teaching, and we have so much science happening right here in our school! It has inspired me to get out and volunteer during my summer and get more involved in the science happening right here.
The study they were doing while we were there was about the impact sharks have on the coral reef’s eco system. They were looking at how the presence of the sharks impact the fish and how much the fish would feed on the algae; the algae is what is actually taking over the coral reefs and smothering it. The thought was that maybe, because there is a lack of sharks in this area, the feeding behaviors of the fish is changing, the fish aren’t eating the right algae so the algae is over growing. It is called ‘trophic cascade’’; one thing stems from another. The scientists were looking at how the fish ate when sharks were present verses when sharks were not present.”
Hillary – “We got so lucky, it was, like, the only 5 consecutive days with no wind in months. Our dives were beautiful. It was amazing, and going into the habitat was the coolest thing I have experienced in my whole life. It is like an out of body experience.”
Martha - “I think the cool thing about it is, you’re in your normal realm but you’re not confined; you can move around and you can see everything you can normally see, but you’re not confined with the tanks and all of that. It is a new kind of freedom.”
Hillary – “When you’re showering off in the habitat and you look out the window and see fish swimming by, it’s such a strange, amazing feeling. We were sitting at the table and a Goliath grouper decided to swim by and we were sitting right there! I got a picture with him and it was like I was sitting at my kitchen table with that Goliath grouper. It’s just the coolest thing ever!”
Martha – “Yea, I think if we could do that every day, we would!”
Hillary – “I could do that every day!”