Maj. Sherri Tombarge
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Lexington, VA 24450

Belize: Four Credits and a Whole Lot of Swimming


LEXINGTON, Va., Aug. 21, 2014 – This summer, the biology department’s new Tropical Marine Biology course immersed cadets in the ecosystems of Belize and gave them the chance to explore everything from sharks to pufferfish in an unforgettable way.

“This is a hands-on thing; you learn the species so much easier by going down there and experiencing, seeing, feeling,” said Capt. Deanne Moosman, an instructor of biology who recently moved to the Department of Physical Education. Moosman led the group along with Lt. Col. Paul Moosman ’98, associate professor of biology. “I was excited to see the cadets in awe of all these creatures in the water.”

The trip took place May 17-24. The Belize Marine TREC – Tropical Research and Education Center – located on Ambergris Caye, Belize, hosted the group, offering cadets the chance to experience the wildlife inhabiting the surrounding mangrove swamps and coral reefs firsthand.

“It’s a field intensive course, so we weren’t in the classroom much,” said Deanne Moosman. “Most of the experience was going to these sites, snorkeling around the coral reefs or mangrove swamps, and seeing the behavior of the species.”

Having studied the species they might encounter beforehand, cadets had favorite quarries to look out for.

“One of the big highlights for me was seeing the spotted eagle rays. I was really looking forward to that,” said Vania Murcia ’17. “By the end of the trip there were two big ones swimming right beside me. That was incredible; they’re really majestic creatures.”

Besides the hours of snorkeling each day, the four credit-hour course required each student to maintain a field journal, write a paper, and take a practical.

“On the surface, it seems like that many credits in such a short period of time is undoable, but they’re spending every moment of the day in this environment,” said Paul Moosman. “It’s a different approach. It’s constantly in the environment learning all the time.”

In addition to the instruction offered by the Moosmans, the center’s experts offered knowledge about the species and their environment.

“We would have briefs on the boat from the research station’s director, Ken Mattes,” said Matthew Clausen ’15. “He would take us through a history of the location and what we could expect to find there in terms of organisms.”

Both Deanne and Paul Moosman studied at Belize Marine TREC while attending graduate school at Eastern Kentucky University.

“It worked out wonderfully,” said Deanne Moosman. “We had experience being down there, so we knew the facility, the area, the people, and the species that are there.”

The trip breaks new ground for the biology department, which expects it to be the first of many study-abroad field biology courses that will take cadets to locations where they can observe unfamiliar ecosystems.

“Part of any good field biology program, in my mind, are these courses that will allow students to go and learn in depth and have these experiential moments in the field,” said Paul Moosman. “This has opened up the door for more of these, and the department plans to do this on a regular basis from now on.”

Snorkeling at night was one of the highlights of the trip, allowing the group to see species and behaviors that are not visible in the daytime.

“It’s like a whole different world down there. The only thing you can see is where the flashlights are shining,” said Deanne Moosman. “It gets the adrenaline going too. The water is pushing you around and you don’t want to touch the coral which is all around you.”

Safety was a primary concern for the trip, and one of the prerequisites for the course was PE 101: Basic Swimming and Survival.

“The course requires a level of athleticism and swimming ability,” said Deanne Moosman. “We had several swim tests leading up to this course to make sure everyone would be comfortable in the water.”

The many hours that the cadets spent in the water led to a special connection with the location.

“You get a sense of how delicate that environment is. We can always talk about the human impact on that environment, but you don’t really make the connection until you go down there and see those species and see the human impact,” said Deanne Moosman. “The things we do in Virginia impact the environments in Belize.”

John Robertson IV

-VMI-