This past fall, I received an email from the honors college about a trip during fall break to the Florida Keys where we would be helping to restore the community after Hurricane Irma a couple months earlier. I thought it would be a nice way to spend my fall break, helping the people who were most impacted by this terrible event, but little did I know it would change the course of my college career, and even my future.
When we got there we settled into the Keys Marine Lab where we would be staying for the remainder of the trip. It was a long drive, so we were all pretty tired and we had a lot of work ahead of us. The next day we cleaned up, out, and around the entire tank system, raked, and picked up debris at the marine lab so they could get back to being functional again. It was hard, but impactful work. We had tons of fun too and the group I was with made it a good time doing good things!
In the next few days we got to restore the touch tank, where visitors can see and touch little critters we could find from the nearby ecosystem, and we also went to someones house to help them repaint their walls and catalyze the rebuilding process. What we saw was disheartening (piles upon piles of debris and gas stations fallen over, houses destroyed), but the hope and the optimism the community had was inspiring.
An image of the heaps of debris collected by cleanup efforts
For our day off, we took the boat out and visited some reefs where some members of the team collected data while the rest of us snorkeled and took pictures/video. This was the first time I had done anything that far off shore and the beauty of being in a new place among new animals was eye opening. I loved being a part of their world and beginning to understand their lives at the reef, who the fish interact with and how they interact with the reef. I saw a sea turtle for the first time along with a barracuda (which I didn’t know was a barracuda at the time), and also did my part to pick up some trash I saw. It was nothing short of perfection.
I am now a lab volunteer for the Marine Ecology and Marine Conservation Creative Inquiry and will soon be enrolled this coming fall. If I had not taken this trip and seen first hand the impact that Hurricane Irma had on the Florida Keys community and the reef communities nearby, I don’t know if I would be where I am right now. I got a chance to build relationships with the most amazing role models and leaders that I am proud to be learning from right now. Hopefully, I will make another visit and be able to scuba dive. I also hope to be a part of the data collection process and to learn more about how we can save this wonderful ecosystem.