Science in Paradise

For the students in GEOS 29002, even spring break in the Bahamas was hard work.
Photo by: 
Hannah Bleecker
One of my last sights of the island was a sign at the small airport. “San Salvador,” it said, “The Ultimate Escape.” For a week, it was.

I spent a significant portion of my spring break this year sitting on breathtakingly beautiful beaches in the Bahamas, shoveling sand into a plastic bucket with abandon. Was I taking a drastic and much-needed study break from the rigors of UChicago? Quite the opposite.

This past quarter, I was enrolled in GEOS 29002: Field Course in Modern and Ancient Environments. My class was a group of 28, including nine graduate students and 16 undergraduates. Most of us were upperclassmen majoring in fields like geoscience, biology, or environmental science, though our number included an English major as well. Our destination was San Salvador, an island merely 12 miles long in the Bahamas, and the place where Columbus was said to have made landfall in 1492. Our mission, however, was not to establish a new trade route to India, but to learn about San Salvador’s geology and biology.

Our ragtag band was led by two irrepressible faculty members, Sue Kidwell and Michael LaBarbera, referred to affectionately as “LaB.” Kidwell has led this trip four times in the last 10 years, and she’s nothing if not intrepid. “I’m not your parent, I’m just your crazy aunt who lets you do cool things,” she’d say cheerfully, before instructing us to wade knee-deep into some opaque, sulfurous lake. Out in the environment, we’d struggle to keep up with her.

This trip was personally enlightening in several ways. I’ve never been much of an outdoors person—my idea of “roughing it” is not showering for a while. I harbor an entrenched fear of deep water. Before we departed, we had all been asked to purchase our own snorkel gear, and we spent a snowy evening in February learning how to snorkel in the deep end of the Ratner pool. But there’s a huge difference between staring down at the pool’s lane lines and staring at iridescent butterflyfish flitting their way through a gently waving bed of seagrass. I still haven’t gotten past my fear of deep water, but sometimes it’s worth it to leave your comfort zone. I also earned the dubious distinction of getting my very first sunburn.

Kidwell emphasized early on that we were to consider the group as a big, happy family. We were encouraged to converse and seek advice from the graduate students, who were the epitome of cool because of their expertise on corals, gastropods, or marine ecology. Kidwell and LaB were always on hand and receptive to questions such as, “What’s that bird over there?” or, “Why do those rocks look like that?” Such questions, they reassured us, were the first steps to learning something new.

And there was a lot to learn just from looking around. In the field, we saw ospreys and great blue herons, periwinkles and conchs, brain corals and fiddler crabs. We even spotted a beached Portuguese man o’ war, which we warily admired from a distance to avoid its venomous tentacles. In the field exercises, we reconstructed the history of an ancient,fossilized reef, saw the destructive might of Hurricane Sandy from the boulders it displaced, and thoroughly discussed the life and times of the mangrove tree.

In many ways, being in San Salvador was taxing. We were out in the field every day, hiking up and down the land for hours under the sun, snorkeling in the island’s clear waters, and learning, always learning. We were sunburnt, our legs were speckled with the itchiest of insect bites, and we were constantly coated with a fine layer of carbonate sand, sunscreen, and sweat.

So much for spring break. But in the time I spent there, I didn’t think once about the papers I’d had to write or fret about the grades I got that quarter. One of my last sights of the island was a sign at the small airport. “San Salvador,” it said, “The Ultimate Escape.” For a week, it was.