During this semester’s Fall Break, eight intrepid Marine Ecology students squeezed themselves into the ENVS departmental van alongside microscopes, buckets, and zooplankton nets, and made their way down to Florida panhandle at Apalachicola Bay. After a brief orientation to the ecosystems of Apalachicola Bay, St. Joseph Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico provided at the Apalachicola Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Nature Center in Eastpoint, FL, the crew headed west to accommodations at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Center, which served as a base of operations for the three-day trip. Surrounded by large tracts of state lands, the Preserve Center itself offered exciting opportunities for birding, “herp-ing”, and plant identification, and the watch tower overlooking St. Joseph Bay provided sunset views (and a brief respite from mosquitoes).
The goal of the trip was to explore three local marine ecosystems and to assess the location as a viable field station option for future marine ecology courses. Students snorkeled over a seagrass bed, waded around a small Apalachicola Bay oyster reef, dragged a seine net at a sandy beach site, and collected zooplankton samples for later exploration under the microscopes. Alongside Dr. Keogh and four other marine ecologists colleagues (Rebecca Atkins, a PhD student at UGA; Dr. Alyssa Gehman, Dr. Paula Pappalardo, and Dr. Tad Dallas), the students made observations about the sites and the species they encountered. All participants exhibited the willingness to “dive right in!” that typifies ENVS students, and the inaugural trip to this location was highly successful in terms of learning more about the marine ecosystems and their inhabitants.
The trip was unfortunately cut short by the impending arrival of hurricane Michael. Instead of spending an afternoon exploring a newly-established population of black mangroves in St. Joseph Bay, the students gallantly assisted Reserve Center staff in preparing for the storm by flipping over picnic tables and filling tubs with freshwater before loading up the van and returning to Atlanta a day early. The peninsula unfortunately experienced nearly a direct hit from the category 4 hurricane. Before-and-after pictures from NASA show that the road the class traveled on Monday to visit the giant sand dunes of the St. Joseph Bay Peninsula State Park was completely washed out by the storm, and it appears that the seagrass beds that the students explored during the trip were also wiped out. The trip participants are all feeling lucky to have had the opportunity to see the ecosystems prior to the hurricane, and our thoughts are with the dedicated staff and residents of the Preserve Center and all of the residents who were displaced by the storm as they work to recover from its impacts.