The spring field trip to the Florida coast was a glorious adventure of sun and scuba diving, but in a way it made Carla Seiwert ill.
Spending two weeks on a boat with other college students — swimming among coral reefs, counting fish, taking water samples — sounds like bliss, except for the spilled oil looming offshore, said the Creighton University senior.
“It's a sickening thought.”
While she practiced collecting data in the teeming, aquamarine waters, she said, the oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico was “always in the back of my mind. I'll see something new and think, is this going to be gone?”
Seiwert, of Minneapolis, was one of six Creighton students on the trip, an annual exercise that biology professor John Schalles organizes. The journeys alternate between fresh water and salt water, to lakes on the plains one year and ocean shallows the next, to expose students to a variety of marine ecology.
This year was different.
For starters, Schalles said, the first stop, to a marsh reserve at Grand Bay, Miss., was canceled. Administrators there decided they couldn't accommodate a student group while mounting emergency defenses against an oil slick a few miles away.
The trip's other stops — St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay in the Florida Panhandle, Summerland Key off Florida's southern tip, and Sapelo Island on Georgia's Atlantic coast — were farther from the oil but still threatened, depending on how winds, waves and currents spread the crude and how long it takes to successfully plug the seafloor gusher.
The students' work, though mainly designed to familiarize them with research methods, now is of greater significance. The water-quality and biological data they gathered will help form a baseline, or “before” picture, of areas that could become important to measuring oil damage later, said Schalles, a specialist in aquatic ecology.
The students, who spoke to The World-Herald before driving back to Omaha over the weekend, followed an itinerary that took them from west to east along the coast — roughly the same path as worst-case scenarios for the oil.
“More or less we're trying to stay ahead of it,” said John Olley, a graduate student who served as teaching assistant on the trip.
“You can't really complain. We're out on the boat, in the sun,” said the Hawaii native, who was supposed to play baseball for Creighton until he injured a knee, then got interested in aquatic science. Yet the group couldn't help being preoccupied.
“I think everyone in our field is,” Olley said.
“It's tragic they can't get it under control,” said Danielle McCulloch, a junior from Phoenix. “It makes me sad to think about it. It might be the last time we can see this.”
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