The last of my coursework before completing a Marine Science degree at Stony Brook University was spent studying abroad in the great archipelago of Fiji. Titled Tropical Marine Ecology, the course’s primary focus was on coral reef ecosystems: the corals, their reefs, and the many other organisms that interact within this environment. In the reefs of Fiji, there are approximately 1,800 species of fish alone… and counting! That number doesn’t include the hundreds of echinoderms, mollusks, arthropods, and other marine vertebrates that also dwell within the reefs.

 The best part of my trip was certainly saved for one of my last days there. The top three things I wanted to see in Fiji were any species of sea turtle, any species of shark or the elusive manta ray. When we first arrived in Kadavu, the island where we stayed, the very first scuba dive was set up for a site called Manta Reef. Unfortunately, I was not yet dive certified and thought I had missed out on my only chance of seeing a manta ray. However, on that first dive, the manta rays were nowhere to be seen, so talk had already begun of returning to Manta Reef during the second week of the course.

 Fast forward to the following week: I was finally certified and could join the rest of the class on Manta Reef. Words could not express my excitement! As we swam through this site, our eyes darted in every direction trying to locate a manta ray, but to no avail. Needless to say, everyone was very disappointed.

 The next dive location was at a site called the Golden Chimney. While taking in the new environment, trying to get over the possibility of never seeing a manta ray, my friends and I swam slowly behind the rest of the group. My dive buddy signaled to a spotted eel field to our left. As I turned to look, I immediately heard her scream “Greg!” from her regulator, pointing behind me.

 I quickly turned to see what she had been pointing to, and about 60 meters away was a large black mass. My first thought was, “whoa, that’s a really big fish,” until the black mass gracefully spread its wings. I knew right away that what I was looking at wasn’t a fish but a manta ray. We watched in awe as the majestic creature slowly swam away off into the distance. When it came time to resurface, we had asked the rest of the group if anyone else had seen the manta ray. As it turns out, the three of us were the only ones who did. We ended up being the only ones to see a manta ray for the entire trip.

 My time in Fiji was truly an experience I will never forget. As issues with our world’s oceans continue to escalate, there also grows a greater need to educate today’s youth on the marine environment. Hands-on experiences such as my own can lead to a greater personal connection with the water and can generate the motivation needed to protect our oceans and the planet. Though we cannot send every student on a study abroad program, we can create similar connections between our local environment and the 6,500+ students who walk through the WaterFront Center’s doors.