Eckerd students off to study marine sciences in Cuba

ST. PETERSBURG — They will be tagging sharks, studying reef fish and catching invasive lionfish.

They’ll also be hunting down some cigars, shopping for guayabera shirts, and salsa dancing.

A group of 10 Eckerd College marine science students was scheduled to leave this morning for Cuba on a two-week excursion where they’ll join a team from the University of Havana on a research vessel and spend some time doing on-shore projects.

“I’m super-excited to interact with other undergraduates from the University of Havana,” said Takoda Edlund, a senior in marine science from Waitsfield, Vermont. “It’s one thing to go into another culture from a tourist’s point of view. We’re going to do some tours around Havana and see some stuff, it’ll be fun, but to actually interact and have conversations with some other same-age students just like us … I’m interested in what their schooling process and their schooling system’s like.”

The visit is the first in what Eckerd professor Bill Szelistowski hopes will be “a long history of interactions” with the Caribbean nation.

“We plan on continuing our educational programs and sending students to Cuba and maybe bringing Cuban students here,” said Szelistowski.

That once far-fetched plan is increasingly likely as the United States and Cuban governments thaw what had been a long-standing adversarial relationship. Private Eckerd and the University of Tampa have been sending students to Cuba over the past several years, although state law prohibited students and faculty from public universities including the University of South Florida from spending state money on travel there.

In December, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, and last week, the administration removed the island nation from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

It was not clear how that move will affect public universities.

Researchers have been champing at the bit to study Cuba and its environs 90 miles south of Florida. The Eckerd students will dive the nation’s pristine coral reefs, considered living laboratories, and conduct experiments from the research vessel RV Felipe Poey.

They will catch and study lionfish, previously found in the Pacific Ocean but now a scourge in the Caribbean.

Ashore on the Isle of Youth, they’ll research manatees and sharks.

Sean Rowan Laughlin, a senior in environmental studies from Denver, said he wants to check out some of the island’s endemic species — the Cuban crocodile, the Cuban blue iguana, and the Cuban tree boa. “I’m pretty excited to scuba dive in an area where most Americans don’t get to dive,” he added.

The Eckerd students are aware of their role as junior ambassadors to host students who may have never met Americans. Most said they have adequate enough Spanish to get by, and they’re boning up on cultural do’s and don’ts, such as hand gestures Cubans might find insulting.

“I’ve heard so many stories about the culture of Cuba, I just want to see it for myself and compare it to stories that I’ve heard,” said Connor Zink, a senior in marine science from Lincoln, Nebraska. “I’ve heard the whole time-capsule effect,” and, in a reference to the jalopy-jammed streets of Havana, added, “I’m a big car guy.”

Eckerd has at least four more trips to the island nation scheduled next January.

Christina Rosetti, a senior from St. Petersburg, was among a group of economics students who visited last January.

“It was extremely eye-opening,” she said. “We saw it from a very touristy perspective, because they only let you go to places you’re allowed to go. The most rewarding thing for me was when we drove through the countryside and saw what the real Cuba was like.

“I think their (experience) is going to be even better than I could have possibly had, because they’re working with fellow students,” she said of the newest group. “I’m really excited for them.”

By Jerome R. Stockfisch, The Tampa Tribune

June 1, 2015

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