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Fall 2015 Gap students tell us about their first week!

At 6:15 am the alarm goes off every morning, waking us for a day filled with the fresh possibilities of discovery. Here, at the Island School, we partake in a program that focuses on not only challenging us mentally, but also pushing us physically, to accomplish more than we thought ourselves capable of.

Gappers head out on their first expedition on the boat.
Gappers head out on their first expedition on the boat.

Our first morning here on Eleuthera, we walked straight out the front doors of our dorms onto the beach. Before entering the water, we laid face down on the beach, digging our hands into the sand, talking to the microscopic pieces of shells, coral, and rocks, asking them, “where did you come from?” “how did you get here?”. It is this humility of submerging yourself into the natural ecosystems that drives our learning here at the Cape Eleuthera Institute. We then made our way into the warm water, with our fins and masks and snorkels ready to travel to a world only accessible to those seeking it. This is the magic of this program, the opportunity to uncover and explore the world from an ecological perspective.

On our first full day on Eleuthera we made our way to the marina. There is a filleting station that the local fisherman use, which the sharks take full advantage of. We got to watch four nurse sharks and a southern stingray eat the discarded fish. It felt extremely surreal and humbling to see sharks feeding in the wild, as opposed to the stereotypical aquarium feeding experience. We then jumped right into The Cut.

Phoebe observes fish interactions in the roots of the red mangrove
Phoebe observes fish interactions in the roots of the red mangrove

The Cut is a lazy river that is a spot we are going to frequent often; it connects the marina and the ocean. So far, this has been one of our favorite places to go. It is filled with snapper, grouper, anemone , stingrays, and Phoebe’s favorite conch! Phoebe found a group of five empty conch shells that were all connected. Though extremely heavy she felt it very important to pick them all up. This sent us all into a fit of laughter, as she was barely able to keep her head above water, while refusing to put her “jackpot” down. Needless to say it was an incredible day filled with exploration, adventure, and more knowledge about the ocean then I have ever received.

Together with our leader Liz, we are a group of eight, in this short seven days we have become incredibly close. We feel like we have known each other (the gappers) for much longer than just a week. The sense of community and purpose at The Cape Eleuthera Institute and The Island School is overwhelming. Us gappers have been welcomed with open arms and enthusiasm by everyone here. And we are nothing but looking forward to the next eight weeks here in our new home!DCIM100GOPRO

-Molly Brigham & Phoebe Colvin Oehmig

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Throwback Thursday – Last week EPs hosted Brookwood School!

Photo taken from the Brookwood School blog.
Photo taken from the Brookwood School blog.

Last week, the Educational Programs team was fortunate enough to host 28 amazing 8th grade students and four chaperones from Brookwood School in Massachusetts for five days of learning, exploring, and unforgettable nature experiences. During their time here, the students got the full Island School experience; they were up each morning at 6am for morning exercise, they participated in dish crew duties, they nominated caciques for each day, and they spent fun-filled days learning about the various ecosystems around Eleuthera.

One highlight of the trip included a morning spent with the Center for Sustainable Development crew learning about biodiesel, solar power, and aquaponics, where the students actually got to make a half-gallon batch of biodiesel, build a solar powered light bulb, and fillet tilapia from the aquaponics system! Another afternoon, after a lesson on sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, the students went out to CEI’s aquaculture cage where they got to snorkel with schools of jacks and spadefish, and were lucky enough to spot multiple large reef sharks and two turtles! For many students, this was their first time swimming in the deep, open ocean, and though it was intimidating, every student tackled the challenge with excitement and ended the afternoon with some fun time spent jumping off the roof of the Cobia into the deep blue waters below. The students also enjoyed a dinner out at Sharil’s where they got to eat her famous fried lionfish, and followed that up the next morning with the lionfish team, learning more about the invasive species and dissecting multiple lionfish.

To finish the week off, everyone sat around a campfire on the last night, roasting marshmallows and reflecting on their experience. Many students commented on how much closer they felt with their class, and how they hoped to bring those stronger relationships back to school to enrich their 8th grade year, while others talked about their newfound love of the ocean, everything they had learned about sustainability, and what they were going to do back home to help protect our environment.

The chaperones also kept a blog throughout their week here to keep families back home updated on all of their kids’ adventures, including detailed accounts of each day’s activities and some great pictures! Throughout the week, the chaperones provided students with various writing prompts to respond to and reflect on, and some of those responses are included in the blog as well. One prompt asked the students to write as if they were speaking to grade below them, 7th graders who would get the next opportunity to visit the Island School. One response stood out in particular:

“… everything about this place is amazing! Even the morning exercises I dreaded turned out to be some of the most fun things I’ve ever done. In school, you think so many times that you won’t apply things that you learn in school to life in general. However, here at the Island School you will apply everything you learn in about an hour and the whole time while learning, while applying, and while experimenting. You will have the most fun you’ve ever had. So step out of your comfort zone and join your classmates in a trip to the Island School.”
– Kishan P.

We’re so glad this incredible group had as much fun at the Island School as we did having them here! We can’t wait to see Brookwood back next year for another amazing week.

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CEI represented at American Elasmobranch Society Meeting!

In the month of July, Alp Gokgoz, past CEI Research Technician, attended the 31st annual American Elasmobranch Society meeting in Reno, NV, with support from CEI’s professional development fund. Florida State University and Shark Research and Conservation Program graduate student, Brendan Talwar, also attended and presented his research on the post release mortality of the cuban dogfish and the gulper shark. It was a chance to meet many peers in the field of elasmobranch (belonging or pertaining to the Elasmobranchii, the subclass of cartilaginous fishes comprising the sharks and rays) research and learn of their studies and findings while sharing some of the research they had been involved in this past year at CEI.

Brendan Talwar presenting his thesis research at the American Elasmobranch Society meeting.
Brendan Talwar presenting his thesis research at the American Elasmobranch Society meeting.

The presentations and posters included findings on various aspects of elasmobranch biology, including morphology, genetics, ecology and physiology to name a few. Researchers deployed tags and BRUVS, collected DNA samples or even opportunistically examined specimen and behaviours using methods that were familiar and established but occasionally new and innovative. Listening to these talks allowed Alp and Brendan to gain a new perspective on the science behind this taxa and how it is conducted.
After speaking to various peers and attending a workshop on integrative biology in elasmobranchs, the main lesson Alp took from the meeting was that we must ask questions that integrate many aspects of an organism’s biology. In other words, focusing on the system as a whole, using the focus taxa to answer the question. For someone intent on a career in research, this might have been one of the best lessons from the conference. It has changed how he thinks about approaching a question but also guided him towards pursuing a master’s degree.

We hope to see Alp back at CEI in the future as a graduate student!


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Anderson Cabot Family Leadership Gift takes Sharing Solutions Campaign to the Crest of the Wave

Ed Anderson and Linda Cabot with Chris Maxey at the Anderson Cabot Hall dedication ceremony

Ed Anderson and Linda Cabot step up to the top of our giving pyramid with a $2 MM total pledge. In addition to helping us build the new Anderson Cabot Graduate Hall, the new leadership pledge allows us to focus on our campaign promise to Share Solutions. The commitment will help us leverage over $1 MM toward our endowment and $350 k toward developing a communications journey that will enable the school to share best practices with a wider community. In addition, funds have been allotted to collaborate with From the Bow Seat and help build awareness around the serious global challenge of plastic pollution in our oceans. Lastly, there is an effort to develop a film that can help call attention to the successful model and power of experiential and collaborative learning. In the gift letter Linda sums up their desired outcomes,

“Ed and I believe in the Island School mission and the transformational power of experiential learning. At the Island School students tackle real world sustainability issues, conduct independent research, engage in collaborative learning and challenge their personal best. These powerful experiences develop meaningful skills that will help students thrive in the real world and protect our natural environment. This is why we are proud to make a gift that will help sustain the curriculum and enable the school to inspire and share best practices with learning communities around the globe. We hope our actions inspire others to give generously as we believe that community efforts yield the largest and most positive effects”.

Linda Cabot cuts the ribbon and welcomes everyone to Anderson Cabot Hall

Ed and Linda’s leadership comes at a pivotal moment in our history as we look down the last year of our five-year campaign. With their gift we are approaching $17 MM and feel confident to be able to announce now that our new campaign goal is $20 MM. Mary Kate Barnes, Island School parent, Board Vice Chairman and Chair of our campaign shares, “It is amazing to witness a young school embark on a bold first campaign effort with the potential to stride so far past goal. Much of this effort is designed to build an endowment and strategic sustainable fiscal plan that looks out generations. I am also proud of the young development team, Mary Assini Sp 00 and Cameron Powel Fall ’04, both alumni living the mission of The Island School — Leadership Effecting Change.” The Cape Eleuthera Foundation Board thanks Ed and Linda for believing in us and helping The Island School strive towards a new level of sharing.

Both Ed and Linda are proud to say that their daughters Georgianna Sp ’11 and Noelle Sp ’13 both graduated as Class Caciques and to this day lean back on The Island School experience as the most transformative time on their journey through school.


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Bonefish Research Trip to the Northern Exuma Islands

Forest Thomas, Regional collaborator from Hummingbird Cay, Exuma, shares his experience as he teams up with CEI for a Bonefish Research Adventure

Bonefish 1
The team sets up camp on the Exuma shores.

The trip to the Northern Exuma Islands started off as you would expect: everything coming together at the last minute. Team members included Dr. Liz Wallace (FWC), CEI staff: Aaron Shultz, Zach Zuckerman, and Eric Schneider, local guide Manex Newton, and me- Forrest Thomas, the do whatever-he’s-told guy.

The purpose of this research trip was to collect data from the northern Exumas cays for the bonefish genetics study being conducting with research partners Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fisheries Conservation Foundation, and Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

A special thanks goes out to the Bahamas National Trust and Department of Marine Resources for giving us permits to conduct this study.

On day one we started out feeling good, had a plan and worked hard. However, the first few spot seines didn’t collect any bonefish, so we found a creek to block with the net. While we waited for low tide, we had lunch on the boat. We worked until sunset, which made setting up camp harder but way more interesting. In addition to the daytime seining to collect adult bonefish, the team deployed light traps in the evenings to collect larval bonefish. This would allow the researchers to better understand bonefish recruitment patterns and how closely related local populations are around Exuma Sound.Bonefish2

Over the next couple of days we explored more of the northern cays. We seined at several promising locations, but found no adult bonefish. However, the light traps, deployed every evening were collecting many larval bonefish. Examining the catch in the traps every morning was fun, as other interesting larvae (like the tiny octopus pictured below) were also observed. Other species seen in the traps included eels, pipefish, filefish, Atlantic silversides, and mantis shrimp.bonefish6

On day three we captured our first two adult bonefish! Fin clips from their dorsal fins were collected for genetic analysis, and they were tagged with uniquely numbered dart tags to help track their movements.

The next day we collected, tagged, and fin clipped 20 fish. During a fuel stop at Highborne Cay, we got some advice on another spot to find bonefish. After checking the map of the new area, it looked great; we were all excited and couldn’t wait to get there.

On our last field day we got to the new site at high tide, and set the net across the neck of the outlet. However we didn’t see any fish, so went looking. Further up we found a school of 60+ fisbonefish5h. This was a great way to end the trip. It took us a good 2 hours to tag and fin clip all of the fish, but the time flew by because of all the excitement.

In the end we had an awesome and successful trip. We fin clipped and tagged 82 adult bonefish, and captured over 300 larval bonefish in the light traps. I personally can’t wait for the next big adventure with Aaron and the team. Thanks for a great trip guys and I’ll see you all soon!!


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Exploring the ponds of Eleuthera

Link to video at bottom of post

Everyone on Eleuthera has driven past a pond, but very few have been in one.  These inland ponds are unique ecosystems that are rarely visited, let alone studied.  These ponds, found all over Eleuthera and throughout The Bahamas, are termed Anchialine ponds, pronounced “AN-key-ah-lin”, derived from the Greek anchi meaning near, and halos meaning sea.  Do not confuse these ponds and blue holes; blue holes are formed by collapsed caves and tend to be much deeper than ponds. The ponds contain brackish water, have some underground connection to the sea, and are an important resource for bird life.

The Problem

One of the many seahorses found in Sweetings Pond
One of the many seahorses found in Sweetings Pond

The inland ponds are fragile and under threat from human activities such as developments, pollution and the introduction of species.   Eleuthera has over 200 of these inland ponds and lakes. One of these, Sweetings Pond, in the north of Eleuthera, is home to large numbers of seahorses. In the Caribbean, there are just three species of seahorses that are all listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, meaning the information on these species is limited, but they are likely endangered.  The seahorses of Sweetings Pond are thought be a new species and require recognition and protection from developments that could destroy their habitat. Worryingly, there is a proposal to turn this pond into a marina, so action is needed now.  Sweetings Pond may not be the only special site on Eleuthera, as the isolation of anchialine ponds are known to result in high numbers of unique and endemic life. Knowledge is the first step towards conservation, but these ponds are poorly studied.


The Cape Eleuthera Institute Island School research class set out to explore and assess the ponds.  Specifically, we wanted to identify sites with rare species and to assess the extent of human disturbance. Over the last few months, eight ponds were visited, and four fully assessed (and no sightings of the Lusca in any of the ponds!). The most exciting finding so far has been the discovery of a red cave shrimp which has not been previously reported here on Eleuthera.  These shrimp may be the critically endangered Cuban Cave Shrimp (Barbouria cubensis) or a new species altogether.  We are working with shrimp specialists to get the species identification confirmed. Sadly, during the study we found evidence of human disturbance.  Three of the four ponds studied had an abundance of trash dumped in and around them.  However, the water quality data did not indicate high levels of pollution in any of the ponds, but these ponds were not located near farm lands or developments.

Unknown species of red shrimp discovered in the ponds
Unknown species of red shrimp discovered in the ponds

What’s next?

In summary, the findings of this study highlight the need for conservation of ponds with unique species, and the need for protection and/or restoration of ponds from human disturbance.  There is a huge opportunity to develop ecotourism at pond sites as less than one percent of the tourists that come to The Bahamas each year visit ponds.

The next step for this study is to give the Bahamas National Trust our data and to continue researching the hundreds of remaining ponds on Eleuthera. Standby for more exciting pond discoveries!

To view a video taken during inland pond research, please follow this link to the Island School blog:

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Prominent sea turtle researchers visit CEI

During the first week of May, Cape Eleuthera Institute and the Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program were honored to welcom Dr. Karen Bjorndal and Dr. Alan Bolten to our facility. Dr. Bjorndal and Dr. Bolten are co-directors of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida and collaborators on the “Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas” Earthwatch program conducted at CEI.

Research assistant of the Sea Turtle Research Program, Rachel Miller, watching Dr. Alan Bolten take a biopsy from a green sea turtle caught in Starved Creek, The Bahamas.
Research assistant of the Sea Turtle Research Program, Rachel Miller, watching Dr. Alan Bolten take a biopsy from a green sea turtle caught in Starved Creek, The Bahamas.

Dr. Bjorndal and Dr. Bolten came to CEI to discuss the program as well as scout out potential study sites for their newest graduate student to investigate the effect of green sea turtles on the carbon cycle of seagrass beds. They also accompanied the turtle team on a trip to Starved Creek. Here, Drs. Bjorndal and Bolten taught the turtle team how to take skin biopsies from a sea turtle. These skin biopsies will be used to conduct stable isotope analysis, an analysis that examines the diet of the turtle, as well as genetic analysis. The genetic analysis will help give the team at CEI an idea of which rookery (nesting area) the sea turtles came from as the green sea turtles feeding off the shores of Eleuthera most likely traveled long distances from their hatching grounds.

Dr. Karen Bjorndal gives a presentation to Island School students about her work in the Bahamas over the last 40+ years. Photo Credit- Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick
Dr. Karen Bjorndal gives a presentation to Island School students about her work in the Bahamas over the last 40+ years. Photo Credit- Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick

On their final night at CEI, Dr. Bjorndal gave a presentation to the Island School students and staff. Dr. Bjorndal was a doctoral student of Archie Carr, the grandfather of sea turtle research, and her presentation gave background information on sea turtles in the Bahamas and provided insight into the research she has conducted for the last 40+ years in The Bahamas. Dr. Bjorndal initially monitored nutritional ecology of green sea turtles in the early 70’s but this has grown into a long term monitoring program in Inagua, southern Bahamas. She and Dr. Bolten also monitor abundance of sea turtles (green, loggerhead, and hawksbill) as well as growth rates of sea turtles throughout various sites in the Bahamas.

The turtle team are grateful for the time they got to spend with these distinguished scientists and look forward to their graduate student joining the team at CEI next year!

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College of DuPage: From Illinois to Eleuthera

The Cape Eleuthera Institute welcomed College of DuPage last week, our first visiting college program of the spring season!  Led by Dr. Jim Ludden, of College of DuPage, as well as Dr. Dave Philipp and Julie Claussen of University of Illinois, CoD’s 9 students formed the inaugural class to visit CEI.

As part of the Introduction to Tropical Marine Ecology course, the students were responsible for introducing their classmates to many ecological concepts, from mangrove habitat structures to local fisheries’ conditions.  They participated in a case study focused on Lukku Cairi, a proposed development in South Eleuthera, and the potential impacts upon the marine environment.  Each individual also took the time to develop a personal interest in a specific topic, ranging from the history of failed resorts on Eleuthera to shark populations, which will materialize into a research paper.

Students show Dr. Jim Ludden some love at Lighthouse Beach
Students show Dr. Jim Ludden some love at Lighthouse Beach

Countless hours of field work were logged, numerous bonefish tagged, and Eleuthera was thoroughly explored from top to bottom.  The students laid the foundation for a fantastic relationship to flourish between College of DuPage and the Cape Eleuthera Institute; we look forward to seeing them again in 2016!

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The Bahamas Bull Shark Project

Bull Turn

The bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) is one of the most infamous sharks in the world’s oceans.  They have evolved to hunt large prey in shallow coastal waters and, as a result, are thought to be responsible for more interactions with humans than any other species.  Consequently, this species is commonly portrayed in the media as the archetypical ‘killer shark’; however, the reality is very different.  Indeed, bull sharks regularly interact with divers without incident, and there are many places in the world (e.g. Mexico & Fiji) where shark dive operators regularly feed bull sharks for the tourist industry providing non-consumptive economic value for this species.

Despite its infamy and economic importance in some areas, the bull shark remains one of the least studied species of large shark in the greater Caribbean region.  Basic information relating to its biology and ecology is lacking, making any form of management virtually impossible.

DCIM102GOPROThe Shark Research and Conservation Program at the Cape Eleuthera Institute, in collaboration with its partners Microwave Telemetry Inc. and The Cape Eleuthera Resort and Marina, recently completed the first phase of its bull shark satellite-tagging program.  Five x-tags have been deployed on mature female bull sharks 246 – 291 cm (8.0 – 9.5 ft) in length which will log water temperature, depth every two minutes, and the approximate location of the animal every day.  The x-tags are pre-programed to remain attached for 6 or 9 months and when they start to pop-up in August 2014; the data will be transmitted via satellite back to the research team.

Bull Shark X TagThe bulls sharks encountered at Cape Eleuthera usually arrive in October-November when the water temperature starts to cool, and are commonly sighted in the marina until spring where they compete with the nurse sharks and snapper for fishermen’s discards.  An interesting characteristic of this aggregation it is entirely composed of large mature females, the most important reproductive component of any population.  A male has yet to be seen at Cape Eleuthera.  Bull sharks pup in freshwater or estuarine areas, a habitat which is almost completely absent in The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, suggesting that these animals’ migrations will take them north to Florida, or perhaps south towards Cuba, Haiti or the Dominican Republic in search of a safe place to give birth to their pups.  The data from these tags will help us to understand where this important demographic go when the leave Cape Eleuthera and hopefully help solve this mystery.

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