Keys teachers embark on undersea field trip

A nurse shark swims on Davis Reef. Scientists say sharks and the reef rely on each other for survival.
A nurse shark swims on Davis Reef. Scientists say sharks and the reef rely on each other for survival.

We all know that the oceans’ coral reefs are in trouble. Some experts fear that most reefs face potential collapse in the coming century.

OK, you think, here comes another story about how bleaching, pollution, overfishing and climate change are killing off the reefs.

Nope, this story is about sharks and teachers — both may play an important role in helping to stem the tide on the decline in coral reefs.

The news is filled with stories about the dramatic declines in shark populations because of high catch rates for shark fin and as bycatch in fisheries targeted at other species. 

Coastal reef shark species are also in trouble. (See

It turns out that saving sharks may also help save reefs. Why?

One theory is that a reef with fewer sharks enables more reef fish to wander farther away from the shelter provided by their coral homes in search tasty morsels of seaweed — instead of staying near home and helping reduce the  plant growth.

During November, Florida International University scientists are conducting experiments, from the underwater Aquarius Reef Base located off of Key Largo, to gather data that may help substantiate the theory.

The scientists are using combination of HD remote video, controlled from within the Aquarius habitat, and multi-beam imaging sonar to determine how different species of fishes’ behavior change when sharks are around.

Part of the Global FinPrint project (see, the study is  the first to use imaging sonar and baited remote underwater video (BRUV) to provide exact, quantifiable data on reef fish behavior when sharks are in the vicinity.

In their words, the FIU scientists are studying “The Ecology of Fear.”

Now enter the teachers.

In conjunction with the shark study, FIU launched its “Teacher Under The Sea” initiative with four teachers as mission outreach specialists to help inspire the next generation of ocean enthusiasts and ignite greater public awareness and concern for the wellbeing of our oceans and their reefs. 

The teachers, considered members of the science dive team, will use virtual classes and social media to disseminate information about the program along with experiments and interactive activities that other teachers can use.

When signing up for the program, the teachers agreed to blog before and during the mission, submit lesson plans about the science and research, and complete a post-mission survey.

Resting 60 feet beneath the surface on Conch Reef, 3.5 miles offshore in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Aquarius is the world’s only operating undersea laboratory.

Aquarius consists of the mission control center, an underwater habitat and a surface life support system that houses power generators, air compressors and data connections. The sea-base has a 400-square feet interior that includes a kitchen, lab and bunks for six divers.

To enter the habitat, a diver goes up through a “moon pool,” takes off his or her gear at a “wet porch” and, because salt water plays havoc on the equipment, takes a fresh water shower before going into the “main lock.”

Two of the four teachers selected for the teacher program are faculty members at the Ocean Studies Charter School in Tavernier, Florida.

Hillary Cassel teaches kindergarten and first grade. Prior to teaching, the University of Florida graduate, a certified scuba instructor, helped rescue rehabilitate and release sick and injured manatees and sea turtles.

Hillary says that her students love learning about the ocean, and they get to go on weekly field trips where Hillary helps cultivate their love for the water and teaches them about ocean conservation.

Martha Loizeaux teaches marine science at the Tavernier charter school. The native of New Hampshire studied zoology in college in Ohio. A study abroad experience in the Turks & Caicos brought Martha into the world of marine science.

Martha, also a scuba instructor, has taught marine science in summer programs, worked in aquariums and on dive boats, and was the assistant director for the Marine Lab environmental education program in Key Largo before starting her career as a teacher.

During 2014, two record breaking underwater stays in the Upper Keys also helped draw world-wide attention to the plight of the oceans and their inhabitants. 

From June 1 to July 2, 2014 Fabien Cousteau and six crew members spent 31 days in Aquarius for “Mission 31,” envisioned as a tribute to Cousteau's grandfather, Jacques Cousteau.

During the mission, the team collected the equivalent of two years’ worth of surface dive data, enough for 10 scientific papers.

Roane State associate professor of biology Bruce Cantrell and adjunct instructor Jessica Fain hosted weekly programs, featuring interviews with scientists and explores, during a record breaking 73 day stay in the Jules Undersea Lodge that lasted from Oct. 3 to Dec. 15.

Aquarius has endured moves, funding crises and changes in operational management. It was originally planned for deployment on a rail system, which would facilitate bringing it to the surface, near Catalina Island in Southern California,

It spent some time off the island of Saint Croix until Hurricane Hugo devastated the Island in 1989.

Aquarius was retrieved by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in 1990 and redeployed to Conch Reef in 1993. The University operated Aquarius until late 2012 when federal funding dried up.

In 2013 FIU was awarded a grant to continue stewardship of Aquarius for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Facing global climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and species extinctions, we are at a critical time in history to understand, restore and protect coral reefs. Aquarius is the only facility of its kind. It offers maximum efficiency and access for the study and exploration of a region particularly susceptible to global environment threats,” said Tom Potts, program director for the Aquarius Reef Base.

Let’s hope that the study on how sharks affect the eating habits of reef fish will shed light on another reason we should protect sharks – to help protect the reefs.

For more on the Teacher of the Sea Program go to: