Three Winters in Bermuda

Freshmen students and their instructors (right, grey shirts) from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy near Cape Cod visited BIOS for 12 days in late January and early February as part of an annual environmental studies and field training course.

When marine science professors Heather Burton and Kristin Osbourne planned a winter environmental sciences course for freshmen students at Massachusetts Maritime Academy three years ago, they slated it for the island of St. John. That September, four months before the start of the course, Hurricane Maria destroyed that island’s campus.

“We had to select a new location and BIOS immediately came to mind, mainly because I had fond memories—I had taken a marine biology course here way back in tenth grade,” Burton said.

Her nostalgia, plus a warm welcome from BIOS director of education Kaitlin Noyes, made moving the course to Bermuda seamless, she said.

“We quickly realized that BIOS and Bermuda had so much to offer our students, from offshore dives to the use of laboratory space to the many outstanding guided tours in a variety of ecosystems,” Burton said. She plans to keep the education program, held for 12 days each January and February, on Bermuda for years to come.

The annual course, held in collaboration with BIOS instructors, is designed to teach incoming students at the Academy training in field methods and integrative problem solving related to ecological and environmental sciences. Focus is given to field methodology, organism identifications, geology, and human impact on marine and terrestrial ecosystems. 

Highlights of the course each year include a guided hike involving cave exploration and botany identification with Alex “Dready” Hunter, a fish survey during an offshore dive at North Rock, and a tour of the nature reserve at Nonsuch Island and Cooper’s Island with marine science educator Kyla Smith, including a natural history lesson and beach clean up.

BIOS educator Kyla Smith dissected an invasive lionfish for visiting students during a laboratory visit. Students also participated in a number of field trips on the island, including to Lover’s Lake, where they photographed and catalogued almost 50 different animal, bird, insect, plant, and reptile species through a BIOBlitz with the Bermuda Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Burton enjoys the emotional and intellectual growth she sees in her students during the course, such as the first time students snorkeled in a submerged cave at Walsingham Nature Reserve.

“My students were visibly fearful of entering this unknown, dark, and cold environment,” she said. “Finally, the first brave soul slid into the water and the rest of the group followed. After a few minutes the mood changed from fearful to thrilled. They became so excited to explore this new environment.”

They spent several hours pointing out the cave formations to each other while talking through their snorkels, their voices echoing in the cave. After, they returned to campus to share stories about their experience with the other group members who had not yet visited the cave site.

“I knew from their descriptions that this shaped each one of them in a small but significant way,” she said. “We love these moments where we witness our students move from a state of being unsure to confident and excited. This course at BIOS truly shapes the lives of our students. It inspires them to live more sustainably, respect wildlife, and seek a deeper understanding of unique ecosystems.”

This year several of the 30 student participants wrote blog entries about their experiences in Bermuda, with several mentioning a visit to local cliffs for exploring and cliff jumping, as well as the beach clean up.

“Many of us brought our mask and snorkel with us on our last jump, later exploring the wildlife where the cliffs met the sea,” wrote student Matthew Hall. “Snappers, parrotfish, and an unusual number of pufferfish were swimming lazily beneath us, while spiny lobsters clung to the rocks in an attempt at camouflage. We recovered nearly 30 pounds of plastic garbage from underneath the dock, doing our part to leave the environment better than we found it.”