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ASU honors students contribute to reef restoration in Tobago


Barrett Honors College students posing as a group in a forest in Tobago

Barrett, The Honors College students completed reef restoration work with the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville in Tobago through an honors study abroad program this spring. Photo courtesy Emmalee Jones

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June 09, 2023

Amaya Tanhueco, a psychology major in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, had no scuba diving experience when she signed up to participate in a reef restoration project on the small Caribbean island of Tobago.

The project — part of Barrett’s Global Intensive Experiences initiative, which gives students opportunities to study abroad for seven to 10 days and earn up to three honors credits, and GlobalResolve, an international service learning program at Barrett — required that participants know how to scuba dive and be Professional Association of Diving Instructors certified in order to do hands-on underwater work.

Barrett Faculty Fellow Georgette Briggs, a GlobalResolve mentor for the Trinidad and Tobago team and leader of the HON 494 GlobalResolve Lab, said students received scuba training and lifetime PADI certification through Devil Divers at ASU, a club that focuses on diver training and dive trips for certification and recreation.

Briggs said students, who scuba trained for about four months, had to learn “peak performance buoyancy” so they could dive in shallow waters without harming delicate coral reefs, gardens and nurseries in Tobago, the smaller of two islands that make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

“The certification process was enjoyable and not overly stressful. Although I was initially scared, the experience was incredible, and I loved every moment of it,” Tanhueco said.

After they achieved PADI certification, Tanhueco and 13 of her Barrett peers traveled earlier this spring to northeast Tobago to work with the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) on its Coral Garden and Reef Restoration Project. Students were accompanied by Briggs and Barrett Faculty Fellow Tom Martin, a diver himself who took to the water to record the students’ work.

According to the ERIC website, the Coral Garden and Reef Restoration Project is an effort to promote hard coral recovery in the Caribbean, where there has been an estimated 98% loss of the region's two most important hard coral species — Acropora cervicornis and Acropora palmate — due to factors such as climate change, coral bleaching, overfishing and coral disease.

The project aims to create a healthier ecosystem by propagating corals on PVC pipe structures in the ocean, called coral gardening. This creates a nursery from which coral can be harvested and returned to grow in the reef, making the reef healthier.

“These corals are extremely important for biodiversity because they make up a reef that provides a habitat for small fish and other species, as well as a wave break for the coastline where there is a lot of (wave) action that can cause erosion,” said Aljoscha Wothke, ERIC director and CEO.

Photo of Barrett students flashing Forks Up in Tobago

Barrett students take in the beautiful scenery while flashing the ASU "forks up" sign on a study abroad trip to Tobago. Photo courtesy Emmalee Jones

Students must be able to dive safely while performing tasks individually and with partners, including cleaning the structures on which corals are hung like ornaments on a Christmas tree and checking reef conditions, he said.

“It takes coordination, attention to detail and trust in the people they’re diving with. It is about the experience itself, finding your boundaries, determining what you can do, what you’re comfortable with and what you like to do,” he said.

But there is more to it than diving and working together in the water.

“It’s a holistic way of learning. They’re not just coming to learn about coral. They learn something about history, agriculture, society, the economy and project management … that conservation doesn’t exist in isolation,” Wothke said.

Tanhueco said the project opened new horizons for her.

“As a psychology major, I was excited about the opportunity to do something completely unfamiliar and out of my comfort zone. I had never left the (United States) before, never scuba dived, and never had an interest in environmental science,” she said.

“However, through this experience, I gained lifelong memories of a different world and culture on the island and in the Caribbean Sea. I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this program and to have expanded my perspective.”

It also piqued her interest in world travel.

“For me, this experience has been life-changing and has inspired me to travel even more,” she said, adding that she’ll be traveling across Europe this summer.

Emmalee Jones, a sophomore forensic science major in Barrett, said she and her classmates learned about coral reef restoration, cleaned coral nurseries, prepared coral pieces for planting, performed reef checks and made a presentation at a local school about the importance of coral reefs and what can be done to protect them.

“This work is important because it is vital for our future that we take care of our environment. The Earth will survive our transgressions against it but we may not,” she said.

“One jarring thing I learned from the trip is that the Tobago coral reef we worked with has decreased dramatically in our lifetime. It was beautiful, but mere years ago there was a lot more life and diversity. It is important to take control of our future by helping to protect our environment for ourselves and future generations,” she added.

Even with that knowledge about the degradation of the coral reefs, Jones said she “felt renewed after helping with coral reef restoration.”

“It is one thing to learn about science in a classroom but to go out and do something that matters is something else entirely. My passion for science was reignited.” 

Briggs said the study abroad program in Tobago will be offered again for Barrett students next spring.  

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