Hope’s Deep Dive in Cozumel

Flamingo Tongue on a sea rod

Twenty-five feet below the surface in the Caribbean Sea’s show-off turquoise water that rolled and swelled beneath an equally-gaudy cobalt sky, Anne Sangliana ’19 discovered something she hoped she’d find. A fanciful creature with an orange-splotched body had perched itself on a vibrant coral reef. As flamboyant as it was, the little animal was actually difficult to see, what with its camouflaging proclivity.

But Sangiana had located it — a flamingo tongue, or a sea snail — and the recently graduated biology major could feel her eyes grow rounder with delight inside her scuba mask. As much as she wanted to smile, she couldn’t, not with an air-regulator in her mouth; she at least felt as though she was grinning from ear-to-ear. There under the sea, 2,981 miles away from Hope College near Cozumel, Mexico, Sangliana was getting a fresh and colorful education in a different kind of Hope classroom, one in which her curiosity and love of the natural world grew even deeper. The once-in-a-lifetime experience came courtesy of a course called “Marine Biology and Biophysics” and the two professors who teach it — Dr. K. Greg Murray and Dr. Peter Gonthier.

Many colleges and universities have marine biology classes, but few combine the topic in an interdisciplinary way with physics. Per the course syllabus, BIO/PHYS 330 “covers much of the subject matter of a traditional marine biology course, including a survey of important groups of marine organisms and ecosystems, but it also delves frequently into the ways in which physics informs an understanding of the special challenges of life in the sea and adaptations of organisms to deal with those challenges.”

Such as the way water absorbs light from the sun and how that light penetrates and provides energy for myriads of species at different spectral wavelengths at different depths. Or, how sound propagates or is absorbed in water. Or, how stingrays can sense electric fields emitted by their prey who (try to) hide under the ocean’s soft bottom but are often dug up and consumed by the hovering ray.

“Technology makes it easy to look things up, but experiencing it firsthand, identifying it firsthand and having it in your head, there’s no substitute for that.”

That sea circle of life is something no landlocked, liberal arts college student can fully comprehend without experiencing first-hand the dynamic and complex environment of life lived in the deep. Murray and Gonthier joined forces to create the class in such a way that students investigate the world’s most diverse, most populated domain both at Hope and in saltwater. They did so out of a shared love for scuba diving, a dedication to unifying scientific disciplines whenever possible, and a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Every other year since 2006 (with one exception when Murray was away on a sabbatical), they have taught their unique course as a biology or physics elective for 13 weeks on land on Hope’s campus and for one week in the “field” during the college’s spring break.

“The love of living things is what drew students to biology in the first place,” says Murray, an irrepressible, old-school naturalist and the T. Elliot Weier Professor of Plant Science. “And I would really like for them not to lose that love for critters and plants that originally sparked their interest in the natural world. So just taking them to see a lot of different kinds of living things is really, really important, I think, to keep that love alive. And it’s really satisfying for me to bring students into contact with as much of the natural world as possible.”

Prior to Sangliana and her classmates’ arrival in Cozumel, where they apply their Hope labs and lessons in lucid Caribbean water, they were first required to take scuba classes in an indoor facility in Holland. Their open-water certification, though, came on location on their first day, and the test for that was administered by Gonthier, a scuba instructor since 1994. (Murray, California born and bred, has been a certified scuba diver since 1973.)

“I was maybe in the water for an hour [for the certification], whereas Dr. Gonthier was in there for the whole five hours, training every group,” Sangliana marvels. “I just remember coming up and being so exhausted. But he was there for everyone the entire time.”

“To me, it’s a great joy to see the students develop skills in scuba diving,” explains Gonthier, who has been a professor of physics at Hope since 1983. “The first day they are just all over the place, but by the last couple of days, they look so much better in the water. At first, they’re using their hands wrong, or they look like they are riding a bicycle under water. At the end, they look pretty good.”

The class dives — sometimes up to 80 feet — for five days, three times a day, including some night dives, a time when the ocean’s sounds change just as much as its sights. And while the students get especially excited to see larger vertebrates – such as hawksbill sea turtles, eagle rays, triggerfish, and green moray eels – less conspicuous smaller species, like those sea snails, also inspire awe.

“You go down there, and you see all these animals you’ve never seen before,” says Sangliana. “I know I can take for granted how vast the world is, and in Cozumel, I felt so small when I went scuba diving.”

It’s not just all underwater-learning all the time in Cozumel, either. Murray and Gonthier expose the students to other lessons found only on land. They teach about seagrass ecosystems — the most widespread coastal ecosystems on the planet which actually reduce exposure to bacterial pathogens that affect humans, fish and invertebrates — and about the absorption and desorption of nitrogen in various tissues as a function of pressure. Due to that last lesson, the group cannot fly on a plane for at least 48 hours after their last dive since residual nitrogen remains in their muscle tissue. So, on their last day in Cozumel, time is spent solely above water, where more physical and biological experiences abound.

“We always rent a couple of vehicles and drive around to the other side of the island, where we visit several places in mangrove communities,” Murray explains. “And there’s a really nice park that we go to as well, where we see some seabirds and some wading birds and, in fact, they have American crocodiles. We do a fair bit of botanizing, too.”

On campus and in the tropical paradise, the vast volume of wisdom and knowledge imparted by the two profs may seem overwhelming. Clearly, there is a tremendous amount of information and concepts taught and subsequently learned. Yet Murray and Gonthier present it all in such a way that joy and thoroughness are tandem dive partners.

The class dives – sometimes up to 80 feet – for five days, three times a day, including some night dives, a time when the ocean’s sounds change just as much as its sights.

“They’re both like encyclopedias in the realms of what they teach,” says Sangliana of her professors. “You can tell how passionate they are about their subjects. They go far beyond what is probably required. That’s why they probably decided to teach this class — out of their pure interest. They could keep that to themselves, but I’m so glad they choose to share this part of the world with us.”

Gonthier and Murray’s conviction to teach about a sea world is driven by their unending scientific passion. For students, the experience is a kind of educational denouement. All of the marine biological and physical lessons they learned in the classroom, lab and beneath the waves converge. In the end, they are affirmed as the scientists they’ve been taught to be.

“Taking this class has helped me realize that the importance of being able to identify yourself as a biologist means being able to identify the things you are studying,” Sangilana says. “Their phylum. Their class. Their species. Technology makes it easy to look things up, but experiencing it firsthand, identifying it firsthand and having it in your head, there is no substitute for that.”