La Grange and Western Springs seniors get up close and personal with marine life
With a net in hand, Isabella Fiermonte, a senior at Nazareth Academy,, prepares to take samples of plankton populations near Bimini in the Bahamas. | Photo courtesy of Isabella Fiermonte
Updated: May 20, 2012 8:15AM
High school students might grumble about taking a class on hitting the beach, but two seniors from Western Springs and La Grange found the preparation paid off for spending a week in the Bahamas.
Abigail Kittler of Western Springs, a senior at Lyons Township High School, and Isabella Fiermonte of La Grange, a senior at Nazareth Academy, were selected in a highly competitive process to attend the Shedd Aquarium’s High School Marine Biology program in March and early April.
“We studied all aspects of marine biology and a lot of history and lessons on the culture of Bimini,” Fiermonte said of the classes for five weeks at the Shedd in Chicago.
Kittler said she found tips on identifying fish by their characteristics helpful.
“Toward the end of the trip we would see fish and know what they were,” she said. “We saw a lot of surgeonfish and lionfish, and I also saw three barracudas.”
Students worked in pairs on a research project while they lived for a week in tight quarters on the Shedd’s floating classroom, an 80-foot research and collecting vessel, the Coral Reef II.
“My roommate and I had the first bunk with only two small feet of walking space,” Fiermonte said. “We all got to be very close, literally, that week and built some great friendships.”
Kittler studied the effects on mangrove trees of a resort development on some of the Bimini islands, part of the Bahamas.
“The development down there for the most part has cut down a lot of the mangroves,” she said. “They provide an important habitat, a nursery for lemon sharks, dolphins and juvenile fish. We didn’t have time to restore any of the mangroves.”
Fiermonte researched differences between artificial and natural reefs off the Bimini islands. Coral ecosystems are of particular interest, and she said she’d like to work on conservation of coral reefs.
“Ship wrecks served as a few artificial reefs,” she said. “Many times, artificial reefs help to build up coral reefs, which are being diminished but are helpful in protecting the shoreline against hurricanes.”
Both students said the trip’s highlight was the chance to snorkel and get close to an array of marine life.
“It was amazing, absolutely breathtaking,” Fiermonte said. “The highlight was definitely the spotted eagle rays. We saw lots of sea turtles, angelfish, damselfish, a couple of dolphins and a few nurse sharks.”
Kittler said she, too, was impressed with the eagle ray’s 8- to 9-foot wingspan, as well as a nonstinging variety of jellyfish that were everywhere.
“We also got to go to the shark lab where they study lemon sharks and nurse sharks in semi-captivity,” she explained. “They’re still out in the ocean, but contained.”
After the trip’s eye-opening experiences, Kittler said she’s leaning toward a career in marine biology, possibly involving sharks. She plans to major in biology at Michigan State University next year, but is keeping her options open.
But for Fiermonte, the week aboard the Coral Reef II, underscored a childhood dream and will give her a jump on majoring in biology and marine science in the fall at the University of Miami.
“I’ve been fascinated by marine life ever since I was 3 years old and my parents took me to a beach near my grandpa’s house in Boca Raton, Fla.,” she said. “I saw all sorts of animals and jelly fish.
“That was the best week of my life,” she said. “I got to do all of my favorite things packed into one week.”