Youth Ocean Explorers Program Comes to STX

Students study the creatures they collected on the shoreline at Salt River Bay.

After three successful years on St. Thomas, 16 sea savvy teens are getting the chance this summer to learn more about the ocean and shorelines that surround the V.I. through the St. Croix version of the Youth Ocean Explorers Program.

“The goal is to understand what a scientist is. Because what the media portrays is not what a scientist is,” said Howard Forbes, Jr. who runs the program for the University of the Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service. He went on to describe the common perception of a scientist – a geeky white guy with crazy hair, surrounded by test tubes.

The National Park Service and the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources are co-hosts of the program and provided expert staff to help teach the scientific method. The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands helped launch the program on St. Croix.

The program began with orientation and learning the basics of the scientific method. Then the physical aspect of the program began at the Salt River Bay Coastal Studies Outpost. The students, who are in grades 7 to 12, walked the shoreline and collected animals – crabs, urchins, manta shrimp, brittle stars, and others. They placed the critters in appropriate tanks, named and counted them, and wrote in their notebooks. After they collected and recorded their data, they released the animals back into their natural habitat one by one.

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Zandy Hillis-Starr of the NPS talked to and quizzed the students about the categories of sea life and how to identify them. John Farchette of the East End Marine Park and Benito Vegas of the National Park System answered questions and provided information to the students. Two high school biology teachers also are working with the program.

The Youth Ocean Explorers catalogue fish at the Altoona Lagoon with DPNR Fish and
Wildlife representatives.

Forbes said there were about 50 applicants for the program and the 16 who were chosen wrote answers to three essay questions and created a short video about why they wanted to participate. Admission is tight because those who are really interested in the field have the opportunity to earn internships and work with experts to earn degrees.

Lilah Larsen, from St. Croix, relocated to New York with her family recently. She is home for the summer and said she is interested in the program because her mother is a science teacher and she wants to learn more about marine life around St. Croix. She is looking forward to observing how the 2017 hurricanes changed environments.

“I know there’s been a lot of changes since the hurricanes, especially to the mangroves,” Larsen, age 15, said.

Nyasha Clarke attends a stateside middle school currently. Originally from St. Croix, she said she has always been fascinated by the ocean and hopes the program will “expose me to marine biology.” She is interested in deep water research and educating young people about the coastal zone.

Twelve year-old Zion Delauney already has experienced some of the benefits of the sea. He likes to snorkel at Dorsch Beach and said he wants to “expand his knowledge” of the ocean. He is interested in marine biology and hopes to learn more than the basics.

DeMario Obeios, 14, heard about the program at UVI. He filmed himself at the beach and said he told the organizers he wants to learn more about marine life and marine biology. He plans to use some of what he learns in the program for the science project he has already started for St. Croix Educational Complex next fall.

“I like marine biology, but the field I’m interested in is diving with sharks and other fish,” Obeios said.

During the two-week program, students will spend time with Dr. William Coles of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources’ Fish and Wildlife Fisheries, assisting with a fish census at the Altoona Lagoon east of Christiansted. They will kayak Salt River Bay to replant mangroves and learn about the ridge to reef ecosystem. A boat trip is planned for Buck Island to explore land and sea, and then students will use new skills to compare the life systems at Buck Island’s protected areas and the East End Marine Park.

For the last week of the program, Forbes said the students will learn about pollution, runoff and whatever affects the coast and sea. They will also participate in a beach cleanup.

“What we do on land, affects the sea,” he said.