Exploring the Everglades


Photos by Ben Mancino

Ten students in Dr. Dan Shustack's "Environment of South Florida" class recently returned from a nine-day, immersive experience exploring ecosystems and landscapes dramatically different than those found in New England - and very dissimilar from what most visitors to Florida see.

"We didn't see Disney World, Miami Beach, or any of your major tourist attractions," said Samantha Lincoln '15 of Cheshire, Mass. "We got to see a completely different side of Florida. From the miles and miles of orange trees to the beautiful grasslands and large bodies of water where many animals live, I was amazed."

Ben Mancino '14 of North Greenbush, N.Y., described the trip as "deeply enriching." The highlight, he said, was kayaking beside a lemon shark in the mangrove swamps.

"The experience was thrilling and absolutely breathtaking. I was in awe," Mancino said. "My second favorite part of the trip was when we went snorkeling in the coral reefs.  I saw so many different species of marine life that I had never seen before.  There were fish that were larger than me, and I even saw a stingray hiding under the sand.  I felt like I belonged there."

For Elizabeth Pitroff '16, of North Adams, Mass., this "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" transformed her MCLA education as she gained different approachs to learning and knowledge retention.

"The trip exposed me firsthand to what I had read. Now, with every subject I study, I seek practical application and relate the information to natural instances I have encountered," Pitroff said. "Formerly, I practiced a one-dimensional 'memorize and accept for fact' style. Now, I not only seek a better first-hand understanding, but value the word of those who impart that knowledge." 

That type of discovery was exactly what Shustack had in mind.

"Learning about alligators by observing one that's 9 feet long and just 15 feet away provides a much different experience than reading about it in a book, listening to a lecture, or even watching a video," he said.

"We actually walked up and stood on one of the hundreds of shell mounds built by the Calusa (Native Americans) centuries before the European discovery of Florida," Shustack continued. "While doing that, we talked about the ways the Calusa used the coastal landscape to meet their needs and, in the process, left a long-lasting effect on the region's topography and ecology."

For Pitroff, the most enjoyable and memorable part of the trip was wading through the muck and thigh-high water in the cypress dome.

"We all had such a blast, from the first moment we watched the tour guide enter the water and thought 'Really? I did not expect our walk to be completely immersed through this sludge!' to when we reached the alligator hole and gazed upon it with such wonder," she explained. 

"How incredible to be standing in such a gorgeous habitat, so foreign and majestic with such an immense amount to be observed - from the species to the landscape," Pitroff continued. "We all learned such a tremendous amount that day."

Being in the field, said Shustack, helps students to appreciate and understand environmental conflicts like those that arise between wildlife and human development.

"So many people think they know Florida already," said Shustack. "I want to show students what they've missed."