Confession: I moved to the Florida Keys during a pandemic

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Yes, in the midst of a pandemic, I moved down to the Florida Keys for the summer.

Craziest thing I have ever done? Definitely not.

Post-graduation plans were looking grim with COVID-19 after a virtual graduation, until I was accepted to the Marine Conservation Internship at Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, FL. REEF is a non-profit focused on citizen science and community engagement in marine conservation.

The 10-week internship began in the middle of June. I drove all the way down to Florida in just 2 days from Maryland with the help of my boyfriend. It was a long drive, but we were greeted by the most beautiful weather.

I lived with the other interns at REEF in a beautiful vacation rental house near about almost everything in Key Largo. Not only was our porch screened in (which is perfect because the Keys has MANY mosquitoes), but it wrapped all the way around. It provided the perfect place to eat outside, workout at night without being bitten up, and to simply enjoy the weather.

During this internship, I had a lot of new experiences and gained a lot of new skills. Just to name a few:

  • Learned more about my late Uncle Andy, his experiences with marine life, and his scuba diving career
  • Realized my passion for citizen science
  • Refined many professional skills
  • Became a Level 3 Surveyor at REEF
  • Made amazing friends
  • Grew as a scuba diver

REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project

My favorite part of this internship was learning about and participating in the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP). This citizen science project allows scuba divers and snorkelers to record and report information about marine fish populations all over the world. My favorite part is that REEF provides the training to learn how to identify fish and makes uploading data very easy. The database REEF maintains is a source for many research publications and provides data for the monitoring and management of important populations and invasive species.


Scuba Diving Accomplishments

The diving in the Keys is absolutely beautiful. Luckily, I got to enjoy it on my days off. This added up to a total of 35 dives and now my lifetime list is 60 dives.

In addition, I finished my PADI Advanced Open Water and Enriched Air Diver certification with Key Dives.

For my Advanced, I dove at Jules’ Undersea Lodge to knock out three of my dives. It is exactly what it sounds like, it is a hotel underwater! The lagoon has low visibility, so it is not an amazing dive destination, but it is a pretty cool concept and you sometimes get to see manatees!

The 5 dives I did for my Advanced were deep, night, navigation, peak performance buoyancy, and fish identification.


At the end of the summer, I decided to go ahead and get my PADI Rescue Diver certification. I am so glad that I did!

As I wrote in my Instagram post below:

This course meant more to me than I expected it would when I first set this goal. I knew that diving emergencies happen. My uncle passed away after a diving accident.

However, this summer I was part of a group who responded to a panicked diver. The situation grew to become very serious and my CPR training became my instinct.

The diver made a full recovery because of the training everyone who was on the boat that day had and the actions they took.

After that moment, I knew I wanted to learn how to better respond in those situations because although I am CPR certified, I was unprepared for how to respond in the water with scuba gear on…in three foot waves.

But thanks to @keydives and @scubavegan, I feel equipped with the knowledge and training to better respond to diving emergencies.

Accidents can happen anywhere at anytime. Although we work to prevent them, we should also be ready to respond to them!


Favorite Bites and Sips in the Upper Keys

After spending a summer in the Upper Keys, I definitely have some places I would recommend! I did not get to go everywhere, so this is definitely not everything…just what I could do with COVID-19 around!


Saying Goodbye to the Keys was not easy

However, I can confidently say this more about the Keys than any other place I have been: it is not goodbye, only see you later.

This was an invaluable experience an undoubtedly has given me a new perspective on my life and connection with marine conservation.

I also gained new ideas for future projects and I am excited to share those soon.

Until then, don’t forget to check out my new Instagram!


El último mes

*Sometimes I use affiliate links in my content. This won’t cost you anything and will not harm our mother earth. I just might get some funding to go toward filling my logbook and sharing more with you.

After spring break, my 2nd to last course began. Families were visiting, people starting talking about home, and before we knew it there was only 6 weeks left in the Galapagos.


Back to class!

My next class was Marine Ecosystem Based Management. I was not sure what to expect since all of the classes in the past were research and science based. However, our professor made sure we had plenty of enriching activities.

One of our projects consisted of looking at human impacts on the coastline of the island. We split up into groups and surveyed different beaches and areas for plastics, species present, fishing activity, invasive species, or man made structures. We took this data and used GIS (mapping software) to show different impacts and where they were more severe. This was an interesting project for me because I was really excited to use GIS again after learning about the software last semester.


We also got to go on fun trips. First, we went to Isla Lobos, a small islet not more than about 30 minutes from the main port on San Cristobal. The island is named after sea lions, which is lobos in Spanish. We began the tour with a hike around the islet. Unfortunately it was raining and our feet got caked in mud, but that did not stop us from viewing frigate birds and blue footed boobies up close. It was so amazing. I wish I had my camera. Of course you can see sea lions on the island and like most places in the Galapagos, there were marine iguanas.

After our hike, we put our snorkel gear on and started exploring around the area. The sea lions here were extra playful, which definitely was the highlight of the trip.

Our second trip was to Española Island, the southernmost island. The beauty of the island is breathtaking. To access the island, you have to take a dinghy to the makeshift dock.

The upcoming photos are all mine!!! (usually all photos on the blog are mine unless otherwise stated)

We went around the whole island during the hike and got to see amazing wildlife. Many of the species on this island are endemic to it due to its isolation. For example, mockingbirds, lava lizards, and waved albatrosses. There are also Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, Galapagos doves, and like all the other islands, marine iguanas and sea lions.

Although we did not have the chance to see a waved albatross, we did see the Galapagos Hawk!

At Suarez Point, there is an area is the rock where water splashes up into a blowhole and shoots up into the air. It was pretty amazing!


Next, we went scuba diving and got to see the marine life below the island.

I really enjoyed this class and being able to discuss the policy and management side of the Galapagos ecosystem. We also learned a lot about the government structure and events in the past that had influences on current policies. The island is beautiful and has a rich environment, but there are also people living there and it is difficult to find compromise sometimes. We simulated these issues in debates where different people took on roles of different stakeholders involved on the island. Even today, policies are not perfect and enforcement is not efficient. However, when you bring in the locals, tourism agencies, fisheries, and scientists, finding solutions everyone can agree on is extremely difficult, as we learned in our debates. I hope in the future for the Galapagos that conservation can continue effectively and human impacts can be diminished as people still enjoy the islands.


Photo contest

Shortly after my trip to Isla Lobos, photos were due for a photography contest between all student at GAIAS, including study abroad and local students. The theme of the contest was what Galapagos means to you. It took a lot of narrowing down my picture pool, but eventually I chose a photo from my snorkeling at Isla Lobos and it ended up winning 1st place! I won a free dinner for two at Muyu Galapagos, the restaurant at Golden Bay, a luxury hotel on the island. A lot of my friends on the island work there and so it was a really great night.

The winning photo with the caption: ” A sea lion with curious eyes, I have delved into the unknown to discover more about myself, these enchanted islands, and my role in our interconnected web – the world.”

Under the stars

The weekend after my class ended, I went camping on the beach!!! On San Cristobal, you can camp at Puerto Chino, one of the most gorgeous beaches. First, you have to get a permit from the Galapagos National Park, which includes writing up a letter with names, birth dates, passport numbers, etc. and pay $10 per person camping. If you do not have a tent, no worries! You can rent tents on the island for pretty cheap!

Next, you take a taxi to the beach and make sure you arrange for them to pick you up the next morning because there is no cell phone service. When we arrived, there were people to check our permit and our bags. We then were able to go onto the beach and set up our tents before sunset.

We spent the night listening to music, stargazing, walking in the water, hiking up the rocks, and enjoying the sounds of the ocean. It was absolutely unreal. Other than scuba diving, it was probably one of the most amazing things I did on the island and the best experience. I got to practice taking star pictures, sleep on the beach, listen to the sound of waves, and wake up to watch sunrise on the beach. We even went swimming in the morning before it got too hot.

10/10 recommend.


Last class…

My last class on the island was Techniques of Marine Research II. The professor was different for this class than our first techniques of marine research class. We had Alex Hearn, who everyone calls the shark guy because of his previous research. Everyone was super excited to have him and he was a really great professor. His lectures were always so interesting and he used his own research as examples. He also worked for Charles Darwin Foundation and has worked in fisheries research on the Galapagos for years. The stories and experiences he had were fascinating and reinforced our understanding of regulation issues in the fisheries sector.

For one week of the class, we went to Santa Cruz island to go on diving trips, where we did research to add to a database from many years. Many of us decided to go that Friday after class to enjoy the weekend there before class trips began on Tuesday.

That weekend we went to Las Grietas again for snorkeling and to enjoy the cool waters. We also walked to Tortuga Bay for one day to play in the waves and soak up the sun.

Beach fun

On Monday, our class was not arriving until later in the afternoon, so one of my friends and I decided to go on a dive trip.

I went diving at Gordon Rocks, again. I just could not stay away!

It was a good dive (although I think my other one was better) and I got some amazing footage of hammerheads.

After our dive, we came back into town and tried on gear for our dive the next day. The class was split into 3 groups and we had different sites we were going to with different agencies.

My first dive day was to Santa Fe. For each trip, we each had a partner and a research role, and we changed roles every dive. As a group, we put out a transect line (which is like a long meter tape) on the sea floor. Along the line, we had some people recording species and abundance of fish and macro invertebrates. Our third group use a quadrat every 5 meters to record the species and abundance of sessile species, such as algae.

This was my first time doing field work while scuba diving and with the currents, it definitely was not easy in some places. However, it was still a really great experience.

Example of the quadrat to study sessiles

The next day, our dives were to North Seymour and Mosquera. After we finished our research in Mosquera, we continued our dive and saw some amazing Galapagos sharks.

GAIAS students got talent

The evening after we arrived back on San Cristobal, we had a talent show and pizza party for our whole program. It was a really fun night together and I showed off my hula hooping skills!


Rays and sharks, oh my!

That weekend, I had the opportunity to join my professor and go out to do research with his team. One of my previous professors was also on the boat. I went to the dock at the crack of dawn and we started our expedition to different sites around the island. Their goal was to look at abundance of juveniles in nursery areas of sharks and rays, using a drone survey and a variety of nets. It was a long day, but really awesome to learn different research techniques and see different parts of the island that I never went to before.


And just like that…it was the last week on the island.

Unfortunately, since it was also the last week of the module, we also had a lot of work to finish for our class. But we still made sure to spend some time on the beach and at our favorite spots.

Finishing homework on the beach……

I was really going to miss the island and I was becoming stressed about the thought of going home because at home I would have so many more responsibilities and would be moving to Virginia for my summer internship. I was also thinking about the change in culture. There were so many things that changed while I was there about myself and my lifestyle. I was going to miss so much. I enjoyed the small island community, although sometimes it is frustrating that everyone knows everyone. However, that gave a level of comfort. This was my home and I was so happy to be able to walk everywhere. Not to mention I enjoyed refining my Spanish skills.

I made a lot of great friends in my program and on the island. Looking on the bright side, now I have friends from all over the United States, Ecuador, and South America. I was even already visiting a friend from Ecuador in Peru after leaving the island before coming back to the United States.

That still did not make the goodbyes any easier.

Goodbyes were long hugs and sometimes a few tears, sometimes a lot.

At the airport on the day we left, the tears were everywhere. I did manage not to cry until the plane actually took off and left the island. I knew I would not feel the emotions until I actually left the place.

I landed in the island crying with happiness and I left the island crying with sadness.

These were some of the best months of my life and I will never forget them. This was not just a once in a lifetime experience because I know I will be going back more in my lifetime. The friendships and the memories will always be close to my heart.

Me and my host mom

Gracias por todo Galapagos ❤