Last year, Khadija Collins could not swim.
By May of this year, she was scuba-diving off the coast of the Caribbean island of Bonaire, restoring coral reefs with a team of fellow University of Mary Washington students and representatives from the foundation Reef Renewal Bonaire.
“For something this important, [learning how to swim] was a good challenge,” said Collins, who graduated from UMW in the spring.
The trip was the culmination of a new course called “UMW in Bonaire: Coral, Climate and Conservation,” designed and taught this past spring semester by Pamela Grothe, assistant professor of earth and environmental science.
Students learned about climate change and how it is affecting coral reefs, and the importance of coral reefs in supporting marine life. They also learned coral conservation methods.
And in a partnership with The Scuba Shack, a Fredericksburg dive shop, the students got scuba-certified so they could put what they learned into practice during a trip to Bonaire in May.
Grothe said she designed the course to bring awareness to the impacts of climate change on coral reefs. During her doctoral work, she completed dives around Christmas Island in the central Pacific and watched a healthy coral reef system be “completely obliterated” during a 2016 El Niño event.
“The reefs in the Caribbean are facing far worse problems than the Pacific,” she said. “We can talk about it all day until we are blue in the face, but it doesn’t hit home for the students until they actually go there and see it for themselves.”
Collins said that when she read the course description, she thought it was “an amazing idea.”
“[Climate change] is a global issue that impacts everybody, especially in coastal communities,” she said. “[Reef restoration] is really important work.”
Coral reefs provide homes and food to hundreds of thousands of marine species, from the corals themselves—which are living creatures—to sponges, fish, clams, sea turtles, sharks and many more.
Healthy coral reefs have economic value, supporting commercial and subsistence fisheries, as well as jobs and businesses that support tourism and recreation.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs to be over $100 million.
Coral reefs act as natural shoreline buffers, helping to prevent erosion, loss of life and property damage.
And the organisms that depend on coral reefs are important sources of new medicines being developed to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, heart disease, viruses and other diseases, according to NOAA.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important the oceans are to the survival of our planet,” said Kristie Edmondson, a scuba instructor and one of the Scuba Shack’s owners. “Until you put on a scuba mask and see for yourself [the damage suffered by coral reefs], you don’t know.”
“Once the coral goes away, everything goes away,” she said.
Edmondson said she and the shop’s other owners jumped at the chance to introduce scuba diving to a younger generation.
Getting dive certified takes three steps: academic coursework, pool training and an open-water checkout dive.
The UMW students completed their pool training in the university pool in January and the open water portion a few months later at the Rappahannock Quarry.
Collins had to first teach herself how to swim—something she said “just never happened” when she was younger.
She said she watched YouTube videos, talked to people, and practiced in the pool at Gold’s Gym.
She was still nervous about diving as a novice swimmer, but talking to the instructors and dive masters at the Scuba Shack reassured her.
“They made me feel taken care of,” Collins said.
In Bonaire, the students completed three dives.
The first, which took about 25 minutes, consisted of cleaning algae off coral reefs.
On the longer, second dive, the students worked in one of Reef Renewal Bonaire’s coral nurseries, hanging pieces of coral to nursery trees made of PVC piping.
The organization has more than 100 nursery trees around the island. On a nursery tree, pieces of damaged coral have a chance to recover where water circulates freely and it can be protected from predators.
Once nursery-reared coral pieces are ready, they can be transplanted to permanent man-made reef systems or back to existing, degraded reef systems.
The UMW students got to do just that on their third dive in Bonaire.
Grothe plans to teach the course again and Edmondson said the Scuba Shack wants to stay involved.
For Collins, it was “the experience of a lifetime.”
“Getting reef renewal certified and helping restore coral reefs felt like one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” she said.