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Students enjoy Florida as part of environmental studies class

04/29/15

Seven students recently took the opportunity to combine their spring break with a study of the Sunshine State’s environment as they camped, canoed and snorkeled their way through Southern Florida – and even enjoyed some close encounters with alligators.

The students – accompanied by Dr. Daniel Shustack, chair of MCLA’s Department of Environmental Studies – kept a busy schedule as they explored Hillsborough River, Lake Wales Ridge, a restored cattle ranch, scrub, dry prairie, a sawgrass marsh, a mangrove swamp, cypress domes, the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park.

A highlight of the trip, which was part of a course on “The Environment of South Florida,” was the opportunity to canoe in the Everglades’ Nile Mile Pond.

“March is breeding season for the American Alligator in South Florida,” Shustack explained. “On our paddle, we passed about five alligators, at least one of which was a female guarding a nest in some nearby vegetation. During the breeding season, the females are protective of their nests and are less likely to leave the area when people pass through.  

“So, we had a few moments of passing quite close – less than 5 feet – from 6- to 8-foot-long alligators that were hanging out in the canoe trail,” he continued. “At other times during our trip we heard male alligators bellowing, even from our campsite.”

C:\fakepath\South Florida snorkling revised crop.jpgFor Alacin Fanning ’15, a biology major from Lunenburg, Mass., it was the first – and last – trip she would take as an MCLA student. The opportunity to go someplace new while earning upper level course credits before she graduates next month appealed to her.

While she enjoyed the “awesome” weather, the wildlife the group encountered was the most surprising part of the experience. “I developed a new respect for that,” Fanning said. “I’ve always enjoyed the natural world, so it was cool learning about it.”

In addition to canoeing, the students enjoyed snorkeling at Dry Rocks Reef and near Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.  

“The water was clear, warm – about 75 degrees Fahrenheit – and calm on the day we were snorkeling,” Shustack said. “Many in our group saw a variety of corals, fish, squid and jellyfish.”  

“Snorkeling was probably the best part of the trip,” said Amber Luke ’15, an environmental studies major from Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

Like Fanning, Luke will graduate in May. She opted to take the trip because, “I thought it would be an experience that I might not get a chance to have again.” 

According to Luke, “It was so much fun seeing all the fish, jellyfish and squid in their natural habitat. ​Also, camping for 10 days was a blast.” 

In addition to the recreational opportunities that Southern Florida offers, the experiential component of the trip made quite an impact on the students.  

“For example, when we visited a spring we saw the water pushing from the ground. We could feel the force of the water as it pushed us back when we tried to swim toward the chasm,” Shustack said. 

“Two days later, we visited an area where a spring used to exist. That spring had gone dry because the groundwater had been pumped out for use in mining operations. A spring larger than the one we had been swimming in was gone. Wow. Seeing and experiencing that made that thought sink into one’s mind in a different way, I think.”

Luke recommends the trip to other students. “It was so much fun and we learned so much.”