Bahamas trip excites North Central students about marine dream jobs
North Central grad students study ecosystems in the Bahamas
Amanda Williams jumped into 2,500 feet of the most perfect, stunningly blue water off the coast of Bimini island in the Bahamas and emerged crying.
The 29-year-old North Central College graduate always has wanted to go into marine-related work because she's had a passion for sharks since she was 4.
But as with any career path, there are questions, doubts.
All these worries subsided for Williams when she traveled to the Bahamas with a class she took through the Shedd Aquarium.
There, she and about 10 others from schools in the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area participated in ongoing research and practiced identifying the animals and plants they'd studied in class.
Williams connected with a scientist who shares her interest in sharks, kissed a sea cucumber for seven years of good luck and experienced the "disorienting and humbling" sensation of that most amazing water -- blue above, blue below, nothing else in sight.
"Everything that I ever questioned in my life just came together in that moment," she said. "This is exactly what I want to do and this is exactly where I want to be. It was a very validating feeling."
She took a pause and let the tears flow.
Then it was back to paradise and to pursuing her dream: working in conservation in the Caribbean establishing marine protected areas for sharks.
Williams, a Frankfort native, was one of four students from North Central College in Naperville who completed the Shedd's upper-level course in marine and island ecology and recently returned from a nine-day trip to the Bahamas aboard an 80-foot research vessel.
The trip aims to introduce students interested in biology to new potential careers in conservation and to give them experience identifying the types of fish, invertebrates and sea plants native to the tropical environment.
"We focus a lot on the students learning the scientific names, the Latin names for a lot of the species that they're seeing in order to start to understand how species diversity influences a community," said Rebecca Gericke, manager of conservation and research programs at the Shedd.
"We take them snorkeling on a coral reef and they can identify the species and recite the role they play in the ecosystem," Gericke said.
Learning these interrelations from books and lectures is one thing, but seeing it in the Bahamas was quite another for North Central student Elizabeth Thrun of Batavia.
The difference between a coral reef and a mangrove jumped out through the lenses of her snorkeling goggles as she explored off the Exuma Islands.
"Seeing the coral was mind-blowing and colorful and then you go the mangrove and it's just totally different," Thrun said. "The mangroves are more neutral-colored and you can tell that the fish were tying to blend in instead of trying to stand out and find a mate."
Students also helped two researchers with long-term projects studying iguanas and conch snails.
They caught a dozen iguanas and tagged them for one researcher, then helped count the population of conch snails for the other.
A lot of their exploration took place in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
"This is an area where populations are really healthy compared to other areas," Gericke said.
"There's no fishing pressure and there's a lot less human impact on the system," Gericke said.
Thrun and Williams both said they came away from the islands with a sense of how small humans are, how intricately connected to the rest of the natural world.
Thrun has one more year left at North Central to get a degree in biology before pursuing graduate studies in marine biology.
Williams started her graduate studies through Miami University in Ohio and the Chicago Zoological Society on May 26 -- the day after she returned from the Bahamas and her moment of "cosmic connection" to the watery world.
"To not have any doubts on that trip was just the best part for me," Williams said. "It was incredible."