What did we Learn?

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Our last day on island was one of moving and reflecting….We left VIERS at 8 a.m. and arrived back at Hollins at midnight.  Plenty of time to reflect on our action-packed Journey.  In only 10 days on island we: snorkeled in the day at 17 different sites; did two night snorkels; cleaned up 4 beaches and removed over 205 pounds of debris (mostly plastic); hiked at night,  in silence, without flashlights, on 4 different occasions; watched at least two sunrises; visited 6 sugar plantation ruins and wrestled with the pain of the sugar-coating of the brutality of slavery which shapes this landscape and its people;  laughed; sang; danced; ran; swam; and collected data to find out answers to our research questions.  While we were each one of 20, we came to value that as a group we were even greater than the sum of our own individual experiences.  It was difficult to realize that our group would soon be dispersing.

Snow greeted us on our return providing the perfect backdrop for three intense days of data analysis and the development of research posters which will be presented in April at the 57th Annual Hollins Science Seminar.  Below are summaries of our findings:

The Brainiacs:  Ashley, Mae and Natasha

brainiacs collecting data mae collecting data

We were interested in the impact of water pollution on coral health. So we compared brain coral health in watersheds with varying levels of human development on the island of St. John, USVI.  Using 10 meter circular transects, the number, size, and relative health of brain coral was assessed in 9 different watersheds – a total of 27 transect surveys were conducted. Analyzing the data collected, we found that there was a significant increase in the density of coral in watersheds with low disturbance  when compared to those with higher levels of disturbance. Larger sample sizes and more sites in higher impacted areas could shed more light on this issue.  We are definitely ready to go back next January and dig a bit more into this issue!

Queen Conch Fritters – Sam Cline

sam with conchIn shallow water environments in the Caribbean, the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) mollusc plays an important biological role as an algal grazer and detritovore.  Because it is an important fisheries species as well, its populations have declined (at one inshore site off the island of St. John, USVI, the Queen Conch population declined by 97% over a 5 year study period 1986-1991).  As a pilot study, I was interested in determining the current population density, size, and age class of the Queen Conch in sea grass beds  of St. John, USVI. Shell length, lip thickness, depth, location, and signs of harvest were recorded during each ten minute swim survey. I found a total of 32 live conch were found (21 juvenile, 11 adult). No empty conch shells had indication of illegal harvesting.  There was a significant positive correlation between shell length and depth at which conch shells were found. While these findings suggest an overall decline in Queen Conch population compared to historic population estimates, the 1.9:1 juvenile :adult ratio suggests that there has been some recent reproductive success and that the population may be able to recover.  Additional survey sites and survey replication over time will provide important information for Queen Conch population size and may help guide regulation patterns.

Getting to the Point:  Urchin Populations and Coral Health – Natalie and Brittany

Natalie and Brittany UrchinsThe health of coral reefs are dependent on organisms that graze algae such as the long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum.   According to Lessios et al. (1984), the condition of USVI coral reefs was significantly impacted by a tremendous die-off of the long-spined sea urchin in the 1980s. We were interested in surveying the population of long-spined urchins and in correlating their population density to coral population patterns.  We carried out 20 minute swimming surveys of long-spined urchin numbers in four bays surrounding St. John USVI and found that there was a significant relationship between urchin population number and the number of brain coral classified in a  “small”  size class.  This positive relationship with urchin density and young brain coral suggest that the population rebound of urchins may benefit the regeneration of brain coral on reefs.

Stripes and Patterns – Felicity and Brenna

Felicity and Brenna pic schoolmasterThe Lutjanus apodus (Schoolmaster) fish experiences metachrosis prompted by a variety of external and internal factors including change in background color, habitat, excitement, courtship, feeding and threat of predation. We were interested to see if we could detect a relationship with color change in this species with its activity level and habitat.  We collected data in three different habitat types: Mangrove, reef and grassbed. At each site we would swim from one end of the bay to the other and note the number of schoolmasters seen, striping patterns, activity level and whether or not they were in a structure. We found the highest population density of Schoolmasters in the mangrove and grassbed habitats but surveyed more reef habitats. Most schoolmasters detected were striped, however, we found no relationship between striping patterns and activity level and habitat. We concluded that further research and a larger sample size are necessary to achieve more definitive results.

Boulder Bunch – Rory, Andi, and Lucy

boulder bunch brain coralMajor coral bleaching events in the Caribbean in 2005 and 2010 has caused significant mortality of coral in reefs surrounding St. John.  We were interested in assessing the population patterns of Grooved Boulder Brain coral (Colpophyllia natans) in mangroves, coral reefs and in colonized pavement habitats. We predicted that coral in shallow mangrove habitats would be more susceptible to temperature oscillation and might have more health issues.  Using 45 minute swimming surveys, we estimated brain coral health and size in these three environments and found no correlation between brain coral health and habitat. However, 61% of the brain coral we found was classified as small and in good health indicating that there is recruitment of this species in all surveyed areas. These findings suggest that boulder brain coral may be recovering from the most recent bleaching events. More research should be conducted to confirm these findings.

Sensitive Feathers – Amy

amy wormI was very interested in studying the behavior of a marine species and settled my research question on the magnificent feather duster, Sabellastarte magnifica, a species of stationary marine worm which lives inside self-constructed tubes exposing only their branchial crown exposed, for both respiration and filter feeding. When disturbed, these worms will retract in order to avoid predation.  I expected to find that magnificent feather dusters would display a lower sensitivity to disturbance in shallow waters or waters with high wave action.  In order to test this I approached feather dusters at different depths and in different water conditions and squirted water from a syringe towards their exposed crown.  I found that feather dusters in shallow and medium depths were significantly less sensitive to sea water administration than those in deeper water (ANOVA P = 0.02).  In addition, I found that worms exposed to greater natural wave action were less sensitive to sea water administration than those in calmer habitats (KW P = 0.004). These data suggest that magnificent feather dusters situated at shallower depths and in areas of higher natural wave action may be more vulnerable to predation – a finding that bears further investigation.

Lionizing shifts in Biodiversity and Abundance Patterns – Kristin

kristin lionfishLionfish are voracious predators that were first found in St. John in March of 2010. Their full impacts on coral reef health and biodiversity are not known, but studies have shown that the presence of lionfish on a reef can reduce the recruitment of native fishes by up to 80%.  For the past 3 years I have estimated fish biodiversity in 10 sites (four habitats).  At each site I conduct a 10 minute swimming survey and note species and relative abundance.  When comparing across years, mangrove habitats showed the highest rate of decline in abundance while the other 3 habitats (grassbeds, colonized bedrock and coral reefs) showed reductions that were not as dramatic.  The rates of decline in abundance of species on Coral Reefs were greater between 2012 and 2013 than between 2013 to 2014. These findings suggest that there are negative impacts to populations, however, improvement in the ability of species to recognize the lionfish as a predator or the continual effort by dedicated volunteers to keep lionfish populations in check may help to stabilize reef fish populations.

Do Tell:  Understanding Tourist Activity and Knowledge – Jentry, Suzanne, and Melissa

??????????????????????????????? Melissa and Suzanne surveyingEducated tourists often have less impact on the places they visit and often have richer experiences.  We wanted to assess the historical and environmental knowledge of tourists that were visiting St. John, USVI.  As such, we interviewed 111 people, 98% of whom were white Americans with an average age of 46.  Approximately two-thirds of the Americans were from the northeastern U.S and over 40% were able to correctly identify rainwater as the primary freshwater source on the island.  We did find that those tourists that had visited St. John more than 6 times were more likely to understand water issues relevant to the islands than those less frequent visitors.  Over half of the tourists indicated that slavery and plantations had important historical impacts on the island.  Analysis of this rich data set will continue, but these preliminary findings suggest that a significant number of tourists are unaware of important environmental and historical issues.

The Parrotheads – Sarah, Caleb, Captain Morgan, Commander Renee

caleb and sarah stoplight initialsThe status of parrotfish populations are a good indicator of coral health, as they play a key role as algae grazers in sustaining coral reef habitats. Without this grazing, algal growth may inhibit photosynthesis of  the coral’s symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) as well as promote bacterial growth. Our project is focused on understanding the abundance and sex ratio patterns of parrotfish in different marine habitats (colonized pavement and coral reefs) in St John over a two year time period. We compared abundance patterns  between these two habitats  as well as between years and relationship to protected park waters.  Parrotfish were found to be more abundant in reef habitats and showed a decline in abundance from 2013 to 2014.  Two species which showed dramatic declines in abundance exhibited a decrease in the ratio of initial to terminal fish.  These findings suggest that there may be weak recruitment of initial parrotfish which are all female over the last year.  This finding bears further investigation as parrotfish populations are an important component in maintaining coral health.


It has been a grand learning experience – one we were privileged to lead!


How much can we do on our last day?

With the sad, certain knowledge that today was our last day, the group decided to pack in as much as possible!  If we had to go home, we would go home having experienced as much as possible.  Unfortunately the Unitarians that were sharing the field station for the night decided to sing, loudly and somewhat off key until 10 p.m. Saturday night.  We will never be able to listen to American Pie or Sound of Silence again!

Most of us arose at 5:00 for a last sunrise hike.  We were glad to have VIERS volunteers John and Pam join us for our silent walk in the moonlight and our quiet witness to the changing of the guard – moonset and sunrise!

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The first hints of red in the sky were such a welcomed sight!


This sunrise was different than our first – a quiet change to red then back to gray and then a magnificent burst of color.  We could probably watch sunrises here everyday of the year and never see the same one twice!

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We gathered for one last picture in the early morning rays.


And we headed back down the trail – though it was hard to leave, particularly for the seniors Sarah and Kristin!

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But the beautiful color on the mountains and blue cobblestone soothed our heavy hearts on this our last day.

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With a good breakfast in our bellies we headed back down the muddy road finishing our 4th beach clean-up at Little Lameshur.  We definitely left St. John a bit cleaner and have a new sense of trash!

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???????????????????????????????After lunch we had a rousing game of volleyball – keeping that orange ball alive for 25 hits was an accomplishment.

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Our last daylight snorkel was the wild point of Yawzi….Down a cactus lined trail we found our entry point.

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And gathered for a last picture in the water and some data collection!

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Natalie and Brittany collecting data small

And we found the tunnel – 15 feet below the ocean’s surface and 6 feet long….a challenge some of us decided to conquer!  Amy claims she is scared and then there she is under the water and through the tunnel!


Back to VIERS for siesta and a rousing game of spoons – such viciousness amongst good friends!



A quick dinner and then many of us headed out to snorkel the Octopus Garden in the dark for our 2nd and last night snorkel.  We started the day at 5:00 a.m. with a silent walk in the moonlight and ended it with a silent walk in the dark to Leinster bay, a 40 minute night snorkel and a quiet walk home….Exhausted we took our last drive back to VIERS – heavy hearts but also a good deal of satisfaction.  We embraced this last day to its fullest!

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Notes from a Windmill

After a late night stargazing at the dock and an early morning run, we were allowed to sleep in an extra half hour (7:30!) before our pancake breakfast this morning. Covered in sunscreen and bug spray,  we soon headed out for an adventure to find the only known Baobab tree on the island of St. John- although there are rumors 0f a second. However, these trees are abundant on the island of St. Croix. This tree was located in the ruins of the Seiban Estate, as a result of seeds carried over by the enslaved Africans. This tree is thought to be magical and sacred by many African peoples. It has many names, such as the tree of life and the upside down tree.


On the way we found more sugar plantation ruins. These were the ruins of the Seiban Estate, which was created by Johan Von Seiban in 1721. It consisted of 150 acres of sugarcane, with a rum still, sugar mill, and cannons. The estate was last used as a cattle ranch when it was sold to the National Park in 1941.


After hiking back up L’Esperance trail, we hopped back into the Jeeps and drove down the road (stay to the left!) to the Cathrineberg Estate. This estate featured a well restored windmill and store warehouse. As we climbed the hill to the ruins, we were pleasantly surprised to hear the sound of tenor saxophone jazz music wafting through the air. Inside the windmill ruins was a young jazz musician named Broheim practicing his already incredible abilities. We were lucky enough to listen to him play a few songs for us as we ate our lunch before he sadly had to leave to catch the noon ferry to a nearby music festival in St. Thomas.


Inspired by this musician, the yoga-enthusiasts of our group used their “rock hard flexibility” to show us how a real headstand is done.


After learning the history of the Catherineberg Estate, we all joined together in a step dynamic photo in order to show off the architectural beauty of the storeroom arches.


During our third trip down by the Salt Pond, we crossed paths with a sociable bachelor donkey herd. Typically, young males donkeys will stay in these small bachelor groups until they are old enough to win their own herd. They were very friendly and even let a few lucky students get up close!


As the last few days on St. John near, the research teams continue to collect as much data as possible before returning to the states.


Felicity and Brenna smalldata

We returned to VIERS around 3 to allow for some time to shower, decompress, and catch up on some work before heading out to dinner at Shipwrecked! Despite some crazy light surges, everyone’s meals were amazing!

We have never been more excited for bed as we were tonight- another 4:30am morning awaits us: the sunrise hike made such an impression the first time that we have decided to go again for our last night  before we head back to chilly Virginia!

Safe sails and don’t let the donkeys bite! With love, Lucy and Ashleigh


We Won’t Sugar Coat the Sugar Cane

After a long but beautiful day yesterday we were all happy to have an extra thirty minutes of sleep this morning before breakfast. We started off our day by driving to the western edge of the island and visiting the more popular beaches and landmarks on St. John. At Hawksnest beach one of our coral research groups was able to gather data in a new watershed and our tourist survey group got a good start on their surveys. Cinnamon bay was next on the agenda. While the beach was beautiful and full of people soaking up the sun, the marine life showed signs of wear and tear. The coral in particular seemed to be damaged. During our stop here many group members chose to explore the ruins of an old sugar mill and the surrounding flora.???????????????????????????????

While the tree information signs were very interesting and provided good information; many within our group were disappointed by the lack of information on the slaves that worked the mill and their part in St. John’s history.



At our next stop, Annaberg plantation, we enjoyed a picnic lunch and soaked up the history of the site. This plantation was established in 1718 by Christopher William Gottschalk and was named after his baby daughter, Anna. When translated into Danish the name literally means “Anna’s Hill.” While today the surrounding hillsides are covered in trees, when the mill was operating the hills would have been covered in sugar cane plants.


The entire mill was constructed and worked by enslaved Africans who were brought there by the Danes. The slaves would often work eighteen to twenty hours a day during harvest season because of the short time span between when the cane was harvested and when it was processed in the mill. This mill originally used a horse or donkey to turn the wheel and crush the cane but eventually built a windmill that could harvest up to twice as many barrels of cane a day. Annaberg was the site of the first major slave escape during the colonization period when 11 slaves fled to Tortola – a British island where slavery had recently been outlawed.


While at the mill we soaked in both the information from our own research as well as some information presented to us by a park volunteer. We all came away from the afternoon with some new information and appreciation for the history of the island. We were disappointed that the information provided by the park glossed over the brutality of the slavery at Annaberg. However, as a group we spent a long time talking about the colonization on St. John and how that past is presented to the tourists by the National Park Service.


Our snorkeling adventures today continued at Waterlemon Cay – an island off the coast of Waterlemon beach. As we were preparing to enter the water we overheard some fellow snorkelers trying to find a missing group member, Eric. For the rest of the afternoon we enjoyed jokes about not “pulling an Eric” and keeping close to our snorkel buddies. While we were all prepared for strong currents and potentially rough waters, we were pleasantly surprised with the gentle, clear waters we encountered.


Stoplight Parrotfish

Our whole group enjoyed seeing all the biodiversity and a few groups were able to collect some good data for our research projects. Because of the lack of strong current, many of our group members were able to snorkel around the island a second time to enjoy the beautiful reefs.

???????????????????????????????Waterlemon Reefs

???????????????????????????????Southern Stingrays were foraging in the sandflats outside of the reefs.

The final snorkel of the day was at Octopus garden, a shallow patch known for sea fans and octopus, which turned out to be a favorite spot of the group. The afternoon sun illuminated the sea fans, accentuating the beautiful purple color. We all enjoyed it so much that we will be going back on Sunday for a final night snorkel before we head home. The octopus sightings were really cool and a few groups even got some unexpected, good data.


We ended the day with a delicious dinner back at VIERS and a debrief of our experiences snorkeling and at the mill. We talked about some connections between the lack of historical authenticity and some of the tourist survey responses we’ve received. Many of the tourists that have been interviewed are fairly ignorant of the history and culture of the island. A favorite among the group was a survey filled out by a woman who was adamant that she would not return to St. John unless they constructed sidewalks! Tonight many members of our group are enjoying the stars down at the dock. None of us can believe we only two days left here!


Brittany and Brenna



EcoResorts and Nurse Sharks

???????????????????????????????We were elated by the shift in the beauty of the sky as night moved to day. Once we made our way down Ram’s Head, we wound our way around Salt Pond and found ourselves on the North Shore as the waves smashed into the shores of Drunk Bay. Though Drunk Bay is a curious name for such a place, it is due to the numerous coral sculptures constructed by visitors that resemble figures passed out among the rocky shore. Many of us took this opportunity to work on our journals and collect our thoughts after the long period of silence during the sunrise.

Felicity journaling


A tradition of this trip is to construct our own figures on Drunk Bay and also a communal figure. Caleb made a magnificent rock stack precariously balanced atop a rock and topped with a mummified pufferfish. For this year’s group figure we had to leave our Hollins signature behind.  “Hollins” was spelled out and masterfully constructed by many of us from the various materials found washed up on the beach. Among the construction materials were various pieces of rope, sticks, coral, rocks, and coconut shells.  We proudly posed alongside our creation.


???????????????????????????????Upon our return to VIERS we dined on the most delicious of freshly prepared chocolate chip pancakes. Many of us took a nice reprieve from the morning and awoke feeling as though we were just beginning a new day. After a lovely lunch we headed off to visit Concordia EcoResort, which overlooks Drunk Bay and Saltpond Bay, with Rams Head in between. EcoResorts, unlike traditional resorts, are more environmentally minded. Concordia itself was built to have a small physical footprint on the St. John landscape, while also having a small ecological footprint. As in most places on St. John, Concordia has water catchment systems and solar arrays. The majority of “rooms” are EcoTents, which have a capacity of up to 6 people. The tents are made of a reflective PVC coated cloth, with specially made zip-up windows. The tents are constructed to operate on a 12 volt system powered by a solar array, with the exception of the refrigerator and sometimes an electric cooktop which are tied into the grid to ensure stability of power supply.



As we can see from the photo, the views from the cabins are looking out on a beautiful view. The room that you see on the right of the cabin is the bathroom and the greenhouse-like roof is solar heating the water tank for the warm shower.

We learned many new things about the triumphs and challenges that come along with attempting to make a resort eco-friendly. Compared to what many think of with a resort, and an eco-resort might be considered roughing it.

Post tour, we explored a new snorkel spot. Kiddel Bay was what Renee and Wilson had described to us a new “sweet spot” for us. Since it was new to everyone. The species diversity was wonderful for everyone. We saw many species, including a nurse shark! It was so cute!



All in all, the day felt like two days, and it was an incredible day thanks to the fact that we say the day begin at rawest part of the day. Everyone is off to bed early and tomorrow is set to be a day full of new and wonderful experiences.


Until tomorrow – Jentry and Felicity


Early to Bed and Early to Rise

It wasn’t difficult to get everyone to head to bed at 8:30 p.m. last night.  Yesterday’s boat ride had exhilarated  and exhausted and the evening stories by the flickering campfire soothed those restless minds that were anticipating a 4 a.m. wake-up for a moonlit hike to Rams Head to Watch the sunrise.  Our second time down that trail but this time with only the moon for light and the wind for company as our hike was to be in silence.???????????????????????????????  The silvery light of the moon was mesmerizing!



Though we didn’t need them, the stars were shining above pointing to North in case we lost our way.



When we arrived at Rams Head, the group spread out, finding a spot to soak up the breeze and watch the sky waltz in that wonderful dance we call dawn.  It was truly spectacular – in the words of one student, “This is the best thing I have done in my life ever!”






??????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????Our student bloggers will fill you in on the rest of our day….but wanted to share pictures of this most meaningful beginning of this day!



Ahoy there! Today, we experienced the life of real Pirates of the Caribbean led by none other than Captain Morgan ( Dr. Wilson) and Commander Renee! We began the day with a strong dosage of Dramamine and a stroll to the dock in Great Lameshur where we boarded the mighty Sadie Sea and took off for an adventure.


Five brave souls ventured to the front of our vessel as look outs for the X marking our booty. Unfortunately, no X was found, however, the fearless five were drenched in plenty of sea water, shiver me timbers! Second mates Natasha and Rory, along with crew hands Caleb, Sam, Natalie, and the rest of the crew survived the perilous journey to Flanagans Rock despite treacherous waters.


Our first stop to look for booty was at Flanagans Rock where we jumped overboard and circled the mighty Rock. No treasure was to be found but we did spot some very colorful fish despite turbid tides and several crew members turning slightly green (all fared well). Before allowed back on the vessel, crew members were initiated to prove themselves worthy of the Captain and Commander’s orders. We fought “perilous” currents around Flanagans Rock and through the gap. We encountered some colorful fire coral along the way but all crew survived initiation unscathed.

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French angel fish smallOur next destination was the uncharted Newfound Bay. Several brave souls ventured into this new water which proved to be a very interesting site. Along the way, we came across the beautiful French Angelfish.

Another crew was swimming by our ship in Newfound Bay as well, the majestic Blue Tang. It was a sight to see such diverse wildlife flourish in an area that was highly affected by the bleaching epidemic in 2005. The crew mourned for the lost coral but hoped their clean up efforts will help prevent another bleaching event.


Our 3rd destination in search of buried treasure brought us to the mysterious mangroves of St. John, a place full of life and purity. Many do not realize that the mangroves provide a nursery ground for many of our common reef fish as well as shelter for ships during hurricane season. The mangroves consist of large prop roots from the Red Mangrove trees reaching into the ocean water and creating a protected habitat.

Mangrove roots small ???????????????????????????????During our excursion into the mangroves, we spotted a very tiny Caribbean Reef Squid nestled into the prop roots. Reef Squid are one of many species that matures in the mangroves.

Towards the end of our journey a mutiny occurred aboard the Sadie Sea. All crew were forced the walk the plank into the waters where the infamous Tekktite project occurred in 1969 and 1970. When the crew finally regained control of our ship, we headed homeward into the setting sun, our minds and hearts full of joy and knowledge. Keep a weather eye on that horizon, mates!??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Hoist the colors!

Second Mates Natasha and Rory set sail, again!