During the sophomore year of our high school experience, 27 classmates and I applied for and received a spot on the Marine Biology I summer course. This course, designed by Dr. Todd Gruninger and Assistant Principal Benjamin Kirby, both Jesuit alumni, required two weeks of summer school classes in Dallas and one week of travel to the British Virgin Islands. While there, we would scuba dive, replant coral, tag turtles, and learn about the ecosystem of marine life and of the Caribbean.
Along with learning more than any of us anticipated, we all agreed that this experience was life changing and incredibly fun. So naturally, when we learned that the course would be extended for students who wanted to go again, almost half of us jumped at the opportunity and journeyed back to the islands.
The inaugural Marine Biology II class began on an extremely early Monday morning, 4:30 AM to be exact. I am not sure if I was the only one to notice, but not many of the Marine Biology II parents stayed to watch us go through security together, probably because they felt as if they had been there and done that last year. No matter, we all got through unscathed except Christian Koeijmans, who was elected to bring the poker chips. The NSA was not a huge fan of the big box needed to support all the chips and cards.
Once we arrived at our gate we all decided that we were in desperate need of nourishment, and we were soon setting out in search of a nice meal. Similar to last year, we found ourselves lined up at an airport McDonalds; however, this time we were there so early we were greeted with a metal gate as we watched the employees open to begin serving.
Stopping in Miami this year,we were already a little bit behind schedule from the year before. But things got even more interesting next when the unthinkable happened. With the entire plane already boarded and ready for takeoff, the flight attendants were going through their last checks and they noticed that a box for our emergency first aid kit would not close. This, apparently, was a huge issue and the plane was not allowed to take off with the box in this condition. Thus, we were forced to sit at the gate for over an hour and a half,waiting for a replacement box to be found on another plane, taken from that plane and installed on ours.
Finally, with our brand new first aid box in place, we were able to take off and head to the San Juan airport and subsequently the Beef Island airport.
This was the moment that all the Marine Bio II guys were looking forward too, a great big hug from Casey McNutt, a sarcastic remark from her husband and fellow Dive BVI owner, Jeff McNutt, the short boat ride over to greet Glen, our taxi driver, and the delicious Italian-pasta dinners awaiting us in our cabins.
With our greetings out of the way we all checked into our cabins and sat down to eat. With this year’s roommates, Christian Koeijmans, Buck Lyon and Alex Curry, we enjoyed a bowl of Easy Mac-n-Cheese laced with beef jerky and tobacco sauce and the sweetest Gatorade on the planet. After a short chat and shower, we all hopped into bed and began dreaming about our first day back in the Caribbean sun.
The day started off with a visit from Doc and great breakfast. Once we had all eaten our share we were introduced to our new Dive leaders and re-introduced to some old ones. For the second year of Marine Biology we would be joined by Laura and Jeff as well as Casey while the Marine Biology I guys were introduced to Jeff McNutt, Caitlin, Fernando and Pablo, all who would be captaining the Marine Biology I part of the trip. This instructors are either certified dive instructors or working towards their certification so they would be joining us on dives, briefing us before, and helping us through our first and second years of Marine Biology.
Our day consisted of a short fish quiz from Laura, a lunch at the hotel, and many of our first dives in over a year.
Then came dinner, and with it a showing of the great moral character of Jeff and Casey. After not seeing us for over a year, we were extremely surprised with the gifts that awaited us at Maddogs. Jeff and Casey had purchased each of us a ‘Graduation Present’ in the form of underwater cameras, SealLife DC1400 HD cameras to be exact. And wow were they amazing. These cameras would allow us to document our last time in the BVI with the Jesuit organization and hopefully enable us to reminisce with great feelings on the Marine Biology trips.
With our new cameras in tow, the next day we journeyed to a bay on the North Side of Virgin Gorda known for its immense and intensely populated mangrove forests. The cameras came in handy when we were tasked with photographing the mangroves, the fish living in them, and the bay the mangroves populated.
After a short game of Nuke ‘Em with almost the entire Marine Biology II class, Alex Curry set off to carve a stick into a spear to kill Lionfish. We then headed to an almost sacred area, a very rare air conditioned room, to listen to a special presentation by Dr. Shannon Gore.
Soon enough, we found ourselves heading out to take our first real dive of the trip. The dive site, called the Visible’s, for a rock that just crests above the wave, was a tricky one. This being the first real dive I had taken in over a year, I had trouble equalizing and I know my classmates did as well. A short enough while later we had overcome our ailing ears and could enjoy our submergence into a completely different world.
Later, during our dinner at Maddogs and with an ice cream brownie Sunday in hand, Casey gave a presentation about the progress our coral reefs had made over the last year. In an effort to teach us the new material and techniques we would need for our project this year, we also were refreshed on the techniques we used last year. Soon enough we found ourselves back in our rooms tossing footballs, playing poker, or just hanging out, preparing for tomorrow.
With the sun posing as an alarm clock, we all got up, got dressed, and got ourselves down the hill to the Internet café at Guavaberry just in time for another presentation from Dr. Shannon Gore. This presentation discussed the maturation and development the sea turtles have gone through over time, from huge land based mammals to relatively smaller marine animals, much of it due to human intervention. Coupled with pictures of deformed turtles, slaughtered turtles, and turtles of the late 18th and 19th centuries compared to today’s turtles, we were able to see this transformation.
In an effort to continue learning about turtles, we boarded the dive boats and headed out to sea. Using a method called manta tow, where snorkelers are dragged behind a boat while scanning the ocean floor for sea turtles, we attempted to capture and bring in some turtles to tag and record for the national database in BVI. While no turtles were seen, Tucker Reed and Gavin Patterson did manage to see a nurse shark in a cave, and yes, pictures confirmed the spotting.
Almost two hours later of swimming through freezing water and not seeing a single turtle, we called it a day on the turtle tagging and headed back to the dock for some grub. This short intercession was preceded by the sun coming out and the Marine Bio II guys heading into the water for a dive.
This dive brought back some memories. Almost a year ago to the day, we had transplanted coral into this very same bay. Today, we were brought back to see how it was doing and record the growth of some of the still-tagged corals. After a short dive of less than 45 minutes, my dive buddy Buck, and the dive team Guy Harris, Gavin Patterson, Tucker Reed and Julian Michiels joined us at the surface for some hanging out in the Caribbean ocean.
This concluded the day of diving, but actually not the day of learning. After taking showers and walking to Maddogs, my dinner table, including Buck Lyon, Christian Koeijmans, Joe Wengierski and Jeff Melsheimer, was granted the privilege of sitting with renowned scuba diver and Dive BVI owner, Jeff McNutt. During our hour long conversation we learned about his past experiences in college, in diving, and, most importantly, in life. Hearing about how a born and raised Texan found himself in a college in the middle of Texas before relocating to the British Virgin Islands to dive the Caribbean everyday was absolutely fascinating. From his days playing golf with a bat at his fraternity house, to the days he would spend 100 feet down in the ocean looking into the eyes of hammerheads, groupers, and stingrays.
Before we knew it, we were halfway done with the trip and 75% done with our Marine Biology experience. Day 4 was a day dedicated to fun and boy did we have a lot of it. After a quick dive brief, Buck Lyon and I descended into an artificial reef named Wreck Ally. Named for the four sunken boats along this 500 yard span, Wreck Ally was home to blue tang, tarpon, squid and tuna.
With the dive completed, our group was finally blessed with the annual Marine Biology trip to Cooper Island and the lunch that came with it. With the first bite we could all taste the freshness of what has to be the finest Fish and Chips in the Caribbean. This paradise did not last long however because our attention was demanded somewhere else.
Back on the island of Virgin Gorda, along with Casey and Laura, our creative artsy sides were on full display as the 13 Marine Biology II members designed artificial reefs to be sunken in the Jesuit Reef at Long Bay. With two types of cement blocks available, we were all able to build very unique structures. The cinder blocks would be attached with zip ties, with certain wholes filled with cement and others left open for fish habitats and corals to attach. These blocks would then be sunk at the Jesuit Reef and we would use dive bags to lift them and move them into place. With the designs down, we took cement, filled the proper holes, and placed dowel rods approximately 6 inches in length halfway into the cement in order that we might attach coral to them the next day.
For the day’s conclusion and dinner, we were forced to do something all Marine Biology guys would hate doing. With this being our last night we would eat at Maddogs, we were forced to say goodbye to the restaurant and we can only hope for a very short time to Inga, our host. I think it our nightly blog said it best when someone wrote,
“While saddened at the thought of not seeing Inga or the place where we spent almost every night, the mood was not sad. Rather, we were proud and thankful for the nights, the memories, the bag toss and ring toss, the games of football and the nights spent talking, and most importantly the graciousness of Inga and her staff.”
Inga, you will be missed and from all the Marine Biology kids you fed and kept company, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Whenever we think of Marine Biology, Maddogs, your brownies, you will be right along in the memories with the stingrays, octopus, and corals.
Our 5th day on the island came and went without much time for anything other than dives, and coral. Combining with the Marine Biology I guys for the day, our entire group rode out to the Jesuit Reef, which was officially named in 2012 and can be found in Long Bay, and descended to move our reefs into place. While the Marine Biology I guys were collecting coral, the Marine Biology II men were using lift bags to carry their cement reefs into designated patches of sand.
After a resurface, a lunch, and a dive brief, my Marine Biology I partner, Nick Rickionni, and I attached 3 pieces of coral onto the structure. This simple act could one day be the difference between the death or life of this coral reef. That’s pretty cool to think about.
Finally, the annual Marine Biology Mass came. While serving as an altar server is always a special experience, this church and this group of people made it an almost transforming experience. After the priest ended the mass, we all filed out to the parking lot where the entirety of Spanish town could be seen. This almost iconic view of Virgin Gorda is reason enough to travel to this place.
The last two dinners are always dinners where emotions run high. On our second to last night in BVI, we had a barbeque on the beach, filled with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chips and Hawaiian Punch. However, the highlight of the night had not yet come. When we all had our fill, we donned our wetsuits and headed out for a night dive. This combination of cold water and complete darkness was enough to send a few chills down your spine. While my dive buddy Buck was terrified, I made sure to comfort him by holding his hand and letting him hold the flashlight.
Our final morning in the BVI began at a nice and early 7:15. After a short and easy breakfast we took to the seas for our final dive of the trip, as well as our service project, lionfish removal. Sometime during the early 2000’s Lionfish, a species of fish native to the Mediterranean, started being spotted off the Florida coast. Soon enough, these ravenous fish were found in the thousands all over the BVI and Caribbean. Although beautiful to look at, there are three major problems with them: they can produce 30,000 eggs every 3 months, the Caribbean is not their native region, and their main diet consists of small fish that clean the coral reefs. This new addition has completely shifted the food chain and threatened the health of the Caribbean coral reef system as a whole.
During the grueling 45 minute drive out to the dive site, a couple of us caught some shuteye while others did their best Titanic impression at the front of the boat. While this dive might not have been the deepest, a lot of us agreed that this dive was a favorite. The chance to dive down about 25 feet and look around rocks, under corals, and into caves for the brightly colored Lionfish provided a final relaxing and stunning finish to the trip. Not to even mention our entire group removed 15 lionfish.
The final afternoon is the second to last item on the agenda and it is always a fun one. Because the pressure difference prohibits divers from diving 24 hours before a flight, we were “forced” to sit on the Guavaberry beach and soak up some rays, play football, and watch the sun sink closer to the horizon.
The final night came and with it, heavy hearts. We would dine for the last time in the Marine Biology course. Ribs, rice, chicken, rolls and vegetables covered our tables and surprisingly, a common trend was noticed throughout my table. Normally, when feeding a pack of 20 hungry teenagers, not much is said because our mouths our full of food. Nevertheless, tonight’s food was eaten at a snail’s pace while the conversations and stories about what we saw, touched, and learned, flowed out of us. It was at this moment that most of the Marine Biology II guys came to the realization that this trip meant so much more than fish and coral.
What these members of Dive BVI and Jesuit were teaching reached far beyond us. We were taught to learn from experts, love our world and praise the God who made it, love each other, respect each other, and respect this global community we are all a part of. This night may have been the last meal we will ever have with Casey, Jeff, Laura, Jeff, and Caitlin, but the lessons we learned, the experiences we had, and the friendships we strengthened will always be there.
Mr. Kirby had this to say about the inaugural Marine Biology II class, “it was very successful, we had more guys sign up than we expected. We had 13 of 27 that we could of. The planning went well, all of the things we did went great. So it was a great inaugural year.” He also talked about the design of the course, “a lot of it had to do with the guys that were coming back. There’s a lot of the camaraderie that is built in the first year and you can’t really see it until the second year,” this group “got along well, had a lot of leaders and a lot of different types of leaders so yeah the course is self driven and that’s what we intended it to be.”
During his second year on the trip, similar to the Marine Biology II members, Coach and Spanish teacher Austin Nevitt saw transition in class style. “It was fantastic, it was much nicer than the first one because it was less learning how to do stuff and more being able to pick up where we left off the year before.” Similarly to Kirby, Nevitt sees this course as a class that will continue for a long time to come. “I get to go back and see what we’ve done and then prepare for what to do later. It’s something that we can keep building, probably the best part is that this course is always progressing, its new stuff, fun stuff, you know always evolving.”
Dr. Gruninger talks about what the Marine Biology I guys have to look forward to if they decide to come back. “There are more things that we can add to make it a little more advanced yeah but like you guys got to shoot lionfish,” with the community service project the Marine Biology I group was able to clean up a beach and “it was one of those things that if you saw the pictures at the end, you would know that yeah this is something that really matters.” When asked if there was anything different planned for Marine Biology II, Dr. Gruninger had this to say, “Yeah there are some things that we are working on. We haven’t solidified anything, but this was definitely a year where Mr. Kirby and I felt most comfortable.”
So to all the sophomores and juniors out there thinking about applying for the Marine Biology program, do it. Apply, get accepted, and go. You will find the most incredibly nice woman living off the sea with her sarcastic and funny husband, and a group of people that care more about you than some of your friends back home. But most importantly, you will develop a newfound respect for the oceans and the worlds that come with a simple hand gesture, the releasing of air from your BCD, and the descent into the vast world of Marine Biology.