Anna Ortega was born in the USA but spends her summers as a marine science teacher at SeaTrek BVI, a summer camp in the British Virgin Islands. For the rest of the year, she is a graduate student at the University of Western Australia where she is part of a collaboration to save the Eastern Pacific leatherback sea turtle.
Please tell us about yourself!
I was born far from the ocean in Flint, Michigan, but that has yet to stop me from being a marine scientist. I’ve done work on coral disease in Turks and Caicos, climate change in the Great Lakes with NOAA, studied spotted eagle ray behavior in the Meso-American reef, protected Eastern Pacific leatherback sea turtles with Upwell, and my current job is teaching at SeaTrek BVI. There, students are immersed in sailing, scuba, and marine science in the British Virgin Islands. I have taught the marine science part for three years. In that time, I have reinvented the science curriculum, and have been promoted to Program Director and the lead of our science-focused program.
How did you get into marine science teaching?
I used to catch snapping turtles in butterfly nets and release them, utterly fascinated to be up close with aquatic life. I fell in love with the ocean on a family trip to the USVIs and begged to spend my summers at science camps (Sea Turtle Camp and COSA). I got my bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan where I studied many things.
Marine science is interdisciplinary, which means that it encompasses more than one field: ecology, physics, statistics, geology, chemistry, biology, scientific writing, and communication, etc. You have to understand the foundations of each before you are able to take “marine science” courses.
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My degree is in Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity, so I was hired by SeaTrek BVI as a marine science teacher for my science knowledge. To teach in a classroom, you would have to earn a teaching certificate by taking specific courses like the foundations of teaching and the history of education and pass all of your teaching exams.
What does a typical day look like for you as a marine science teacher?
At SeaTrek BVI, our classroom is a 48’ sailing catamaran. Each day is packed with open-ocean sailing, scuba adventures, and hands-on science activities. One day might start with a hike to study island geology, a morning dive to practice our invertebrate identification, an afternoon sail to a dive site where we monitor the health of the coral reefs, free time for watersports, an evening plankton presentation accompanied by a microscopic plankton survey, and end with a night of stargazing across the Milky Way.
My duties are a lot of behind the scenes work: lesson planning and preparation, cleaning equipment, practicing presentations, participating in the dives and hikes, leading the science activities, and being available for any student science questions. I am also part of the boat crew, making sure the boat sails smoothly from location to location and we are on time for all of our exciting activities.
What are some of the highlights and lowlights of your job?
My job is to sail the Caribbean and teach students about the marine world, so the highlights are countless.
My favorite part is that the ocean has no doors, so every splash into the water is an anticipatory “I wonder what we will see today”. Sometimes you drop below the surface and a constellation of sea stars is waiting for you, and sometimes it’s humpback whales.
The hardest part of my job is meeting people that are apathetic and show no concern about the health of our oceans. The biggest challenge I face as a marine science teacher is finding out how to communicate my marine knowledge and passion to each person I meet so that the awe and importance of the marine environment reach them too.
My most memorable project was tracking stony coral tissue loss disease in South Caicos. It was my first official marine science research project and I loved every moment: from the 1 AM coding chaos to the hammerhead shark that surprised us 90 ft underwater while we took pictures of our disease. We got to work in teams, research dive twice a day, and present our findings to the local community, it was such an incredible experience.
Are you a scuba diver or freediver?
I am an avid fan of both scuba and freediving, and I am still learning both. I’m PADI Advanced Open Water certified and working on my NAUI Rescue and Master Diver as we speak.
Read More: The Differences between PADI vs Naui
My first ten dives were in 40°F (4°C) freshwater, and the last 150 have been in the crystal-clear, always-warm Caribbean. I love freediving Eustatia Sound Barrier Reef in the British Virgin Islands because it is a massive reef but never deeper than 30 ft, so you can hang out and see some fabulous creatures down there.
My favorite dive is The Grotto in South Caicos where the welcoming committee to 100 ft (30m) includes sharks casually swimming by, a four-foot stingray with no tail, a curious sea turtle, resounding whale songs, and a 3,000 ft wall covered with massive corals… it is absolutely unforgettable.
What is the coolest experience you have had as a marine scientist?
I am so fortunate to have so many answers for this question!
The most life-changing experience I’ve ever had was when I got to tag my first sea turtle. To understand sea turtle migrations and life history, the Caribbean has an extensive sea turtle tagging program. Each summer… Read More