MOUNT PLEASANT — Living in Mount Pleasant, Emma Graves does not have to drive far to get to the lake. But it’s the ocean that calls to her.

When snorkeling in the Atlantic Ocean, the ocean itself — and the creatures within it — amazed her, seeming to go on forever, she said.

“You would dive down and you wouldn’t get any closer to anything,” Emma said. “It was all so vast and blue.”

A week spent learning the ropes of research in the Bahamas showed Emma just how much she loved marine life.

Emma was one of 20 high school students accepted into the Shedd Aquarium’s High School Marine Biology program, designed to give them marine research experience through the Chicago-based aquarium and on a research trip with the aquarium’s scientists.

She applied for the competitive program based on her skills in science courses and her love of dolphins, which began as a child.

After a five-day “crash course in marine biology” at the Shedd Aquarium, the students flew to Miami to board the research vessel Coral Reef II and head to the Bahamas, said Sadie Norwick, learning programs manager for the aquarium.

From July 1-8, Emma lived aboard the Shedd Aquarium’s research vessel, learning about the day-to-day tasks involved in research.

Students tested the water for temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen levels, and they conducted plankton tows, where they observe microscopic water creatures collected using a net dragged through the water by a boat, Norwick said.

Emma loved every research method she tried, though she quickly found out each test does not always go the way it was supposed to.

When surveying the shoreline for fish biodiversity, Emma and the group got zapped by a small, stinging organism called a hydroid.

“It doesn’t always go as planned,” Emma said. “You’ve always been told that before, but you don’t always expect things to happen.”

Through snorkeling sessions and swims, Emma got up close to other dangerous creatures of the sea, including stingrays and sharks.

The Bahamas are more diverse than she realized before the trip.

An educational game

The group played “fish-tionary,” during which one person had to draw a fish with enough detail so their team could guess it.

The game became more difficult — and competitive — each time they played and learned more about Bimini’s sea creatures. The game was a blast, she said, but she also learned quickly from it.

“It was really cool because we could look down in the water and I could really tell which fish were which,” Emma said.

But the fish she didn’t find — hammerhead sharks — were the ones that intrigued her group.

During the trip, the ten students developed a smartphone application that would help them find out more about the elusive creature.

The app would allow tourists who spot a hammerhead shark to take a survey on the animal they saw, and researchers could then use that information to learn more about when and where the sharks make an appearance, Emma said.

Future marine biologist?

Emma thought that she wanted to pursue marine biology before the trip, but now she is convinced.

She found her passion not only in the environment, but also matched in all the other students in her group, as well as the researchers working and living in Bimini.

“You could talk about ocean things at home and nobody really listened, but all these people understood.”

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