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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Add this to your bucket list

URI students swim with whale sharks in Mexico as part of summer shark class
URI student Alexa Farraj snorkels above a whale shark in August off the coast of Mexico. (Photo by Choy Aming)

University of Rhode Island students interested in learning about sharks enjoyed the experience of a lifetime last month by swimming with blue sharks in Rhode Island waters and with hundreds of whale sharks – the largest sharks in the world – off the coast of Mexico. 

They all returned home motivated to pursue careers in marine science and excited to get back in the water with these charismatic animals.

The harmless, plankton-eating whale sharks provided the most memorable experiences for the students.

Bethany Deloof approaches a whale shark URI student Bethany Deloof approaches a whale shark swimming off the coast of Mexico. (Photo by Choy Aming)

“I went into the class with the expectation that we’d see only a few, but before we even got in the water on the first day we saw the dorsal fins of hundreds of them swimming around our boat,” said Bethany Deloof, a junior marine biology major from Strongsville, Ohio

“Once we jumped in the water, it was an incredible experience snorkeling with huge sharks swimming all around me. There were so many that one even bumped into me.”

“We were surrounded by them from all sides and it was an extremely beautiful experience, but also a humbling experience,” added senior Alexandra Farraj, a Park Ridge, New Jersey, native studying marine biology. “They were just so large and yet so gentle, not even caring that we were there.”

Brad Wetherbee, the URI professor who taught the class, calls whale sharks “the gentle giants of the ocean.” Although they can grow up to 60 feet long, most of those swimming around the students were about 30 feet in length.

Maranda Ealahan swims with a whale shark
URI student Maranda Ealahan swims with a whale shark during a shark ecology class. (Photo by Choy Aming)

Twelve students were enrolled in the two-week class designed to introduce them to shark ecology and shark research methods. 

The first week was spent at URI, where the students attended daily lectures followed by boat trips into Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound to fish for dogfish – a small common shark – and snorkel with blue sharks. 

The second week was spent at Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, Mexico, where scientists discussed their shark research and the students swam with whale sharks and snorkeled at coral reefs. At night they observed sea turtles nesting on area beaches. Each student was also required to give a presentation about whale shark research.

“They could sit in a classroom for a hundred days and not learn as much as they did in this class,” said Wetherbee. “The ocean was our classroom, and it was a great learning experience for them.”
The students all agreed.

“I especially liked being in the field and meeting scientists who do this work,” said senior Maranda Ealahan from East Lyme, Connecticut, a marine biology major. “We met multiple researchers from different countries who do research on different species of sharks and rays. Being side by side with them while they did their job was very cool.”

“What I enjoyed most was being able to finally see animals in person that I have only ever read about,” added Laura Berard, a senior marine biology major from Cumberland. “I also found it to be a different experience seeing certain animals in their natural habitats versus seeing them in an aquarium environment.”

Not only did the students have great adventures and learn about sharks, they also learned a great deal about themselves.

“I learned that sometimes you just need to go out of your comfort zone,” said Ealahan. “Before this summer, I was scared of being in the water with sharks. Then, on our last day in Rhode Island, we had the amazing opportunity to swim with blue sharks. I was pretty scared at first, but I decided to just jump in with a 9-foot long blue shark. It made me appreciate large sharks even more.”

Perhaps most important, the class affirmed the students’ interest in marine science and inspired them to work even harder to achieve their career goals.

“I greatly enjoy the research environment, and taking this course confirmed that I love being involved in field research,” said Berard.

“This class showed me how different people can navigate this field and have amazing careers doing what they love,” Farraj said. “I’ve always wanted to study coral reefs, sharks or marine mammals, and this class definitely gave me a new appreciation for marine biology and for sharks and coral reefs.”

“After taking this class, I have no doubt that I want to be in the field as a marine biologist,” said Deloof. “Sitting on a boat looking out at the open ocean, I realized that was how I want to spend every day of my future career.”