BY MIKE VASHER – When was the last time you had the opportunity to be invited onboard a fishing vessel to get to meet and speak with one of the world’s most well-known artists, scientists, explorers, and conservationists, Dr. Guy Harvey?
With a little perseverance, Capt. Sandy Melvin, owner of Gasparilla Outfitters and a director of Boca Grande Charities, Inc., was able to put such an outing together with Dr. Guy Harvey and his research team on the morning of June the 5th, 2015. Along for the day were two very lucky rising 8th grade students from our local L.A. Ainger Middle School in conjunction with this year’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Camp! Lizzie Ahlers and Jacqueline Maguire were the two very lucky students, out of 24 of this year’s STEM Camp participants, that submitted essays to compete in and win a “contest” to meet Dr. Guy Harvey and to fish in the “Gasparilla Kids Island Classic Tarpon Tournament” that was held on Saturday, June the 6th, 2015. Lizzie, Jacqueline, one of L.A. Ainger Middle School’s assistant principals, Brad Gibson, and Mike and Curtis Vasher met with Dr. Harvey and his research team on the morning of June 5 at the dock of the “SEAFARI,” a 42’ custom-built center console fishing machine built by Invincible Boat Company in Opa Locka, which was operated by Captain Marco Gaona.
As we were at and leaving the dock to cruise out to Boca Grande Pass to check out the tarpon fishing and to see if any hammerhead sharks had been spotted for the researchers’ shark tracking program, Lizzie and Jacqueline had the opportunity to speak with Harvey in regard to their STEM Camp projects and school.
While out in the Pass, two of Harvey’s researchers with the Guy Harvey Research Institute, Dr. Mahmood Shirji from Nova Southeastern University (where GHRI is located at and of which, the GHRI, is supported in-part by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation) and Dr. Brad Wetherbee from the University of Rhode Island also spoke with Lizzie and Jacqueline.
Dr. Shirji had one of the Institute’s satellite tracking tags onboard to show to the students. They use them in their intensive research to gain a better understanding of the migration patterns of various species of sharks, blue marlin, and sailfish, to name a few, that they are researching to help with conserving techniques for them and their ecosystems worldwide.
He also shared with the students GHRI’s website, ghritracking.org, where the public can track, in real-time, various fish that they have tagged around the world. You can even view an animated dated sequence of the individual fish’s satellite tracked migration patterns based on their satellite communication.
Wetherbee had the opportunity to discuss with the students their interest in marine biology, the classes they like at school, what they would like to be when they grow up, and about the trip they were on with Harvey as their prize for winning their essay-writing contest.
After the excursion, the students were very excited.
“I had an awesome time and I’m glad I entered the contest!” Lizzie exclaimed, and said she is very interested in continuing to study science and, in particular, marine biology.
Jacqueline was also excited about the trip and said, “it was a really cool experience!” She also stated that she thought the work that the researchers are doing is amazing, and that by having the opportunity to learn more about their research she has actually changed her career path to now go into their field of research.
Lizzie and Jacqueline’s STEM Camp projects were conducted over a two-week period at the Wildflower Preserve, owned by the Lemon Bay Conservancy, Inc., and in the classroom at Lemon Bay High School from Monday, June 8 to Friday, June 19, at the same time that the other 22 student campers conducted their projects.
The ponds at the Preserve serve as a juvenile tarpon estuary that professional researchers, such as those from Mote Marine, have been researching. All of the research that the students performed had some tie-in to maintaining and improving this estuary for the tarpon, and other animals and elements within its ecosystem.
Lizzie’s research project utilized the Preserve’s tarpon population directly by testing dissolved oxygen levels in two ponds both scientifically, and by utilizing the tarpons’ frequency of rolls or surface gasps of air that they take to survive in low oxygen level environments via their air bladder.
She originally had motion sensor cameras set up to record the rolls, but the tarpon were too far away from the camera view to record accurate counts. Instead, she sat at each pond for an hour at a time and visually recorded the number of rolls, and then correlated the data with her scientific measurements of the dissolved oxygen levels in the areas where the tarpon were rolling. Her findings proved her hypothesis correct, that where the levels of dissolved oxygen were the least, the tarpon came up for air the most.
For Jacqueline’s research project, she had originally set out to take a census of the frog population in the Preserve. However, due to the lack of daytime frog activity and likewise, having to be at the Preserve at night time to view them, she had to change her initial game plan like a lot of scientists do. She teamed up with fellow student camper, Laura Keller, and they researched whether the ponds in the Preserve have been, or are, on the path to being restored to their proper nutrient levels. They tested and compared the Preserve’s ponds’ pH, nitrate and phosphate levels to those of two local active golf course ponds.
Their hypothesis was that the active courses’ ponds would have lower levels of pH, nitrate, and phosphate; however, their findings spoke somewhat differently.
Utilizing some very advanced technological chemical measuring tools, they found that the pH and phosphate levels were higher in the active courses’ ponds, disproving their hypothesis. Their hypothesis did prove true, however, in the case of the nitrate levels in those ponds.
The STEM Camp was sponsored by the Lemon Bay Conservancy, Inc., the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce’s “World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament,” the Boca Grande Charities, Inc.’s “Gasparilla Kids Island Classic Tarpon Tournament,” the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Charlotte County Public Schools. Students from L.A. Ainger Middle School and Lemon Bay High School participated under the direction of L.A. Ainger teachers, Natalia Emery-Shea and Andrea Green, and Lemon Bay teachers, Susan Chabot and Jenee Mora.
The camp ended on Friday evening, June 19, with a banquet. The scope and range of the research projects that the students conducted and then presented in PowerPoint presentations at the banquet were of a collegiate and professional level, and truly showed that many of our youth are well on their way to becoming the next generation of world-changing scientists and researchers.