USU Students Head Down Under to make a Splash at the Great Barrier Reef

By Daniel Carolan | July 18, 2023

Don’t blink or you might miss something—that’s the sentiment of Chris Rohleder who just returned from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef through a program offered by the Department of Watershed Sciences’ Introduction to Coral Reefs study abroad course.

“There’s so much out there,” said Rohleder. “You’re paying attention to one thing and that means you’re going to miss something else. Everyone sees different things, like, ‘Hey did you see that reef shark,’ and ‘Nope, I was looking at this ray over here!’”

Rohleder, a Technology Systems major and manufacturing production supervisor, first heard of the opportunity to travel to Australia through a USU program while taking a Biodiversity and Sustainability course from Edd Hammill who teaches the coral reef class with fellow faculty member Trisha Atwood, both of whom have an appointment with the USU Ecology Center.

“I’d never seen the ocean, never left the country,” said Rohleder, “but was really interested in learning more about the ocean. I didn’t expect to get in.

While marine biology may not seem directly applicable to majors outside the natural sciences, the course instructors, who have been working for the past decade with Heron Island Research Station where the course takes place, emphasize that the experience is meant not only for those who have an interest in marine science, but for anyone curious about the ocean and learning through hands-on fieldwork. 

“We really want to facilitate students creating a connection to the ocean,” said Atwood. “The course is open to both science and non-science majors, so we have everyone from aquatic sciences to business to nursing majorsyou name it.”

Over 13 days, the immersive course included morning snorkels around the boat channel and shipwrecks, learning field techniques on the reef with its vibrant variety of sea creatures, visits to the outer reef (which featured hyper-marine diversity, like in Finding Nemo), and final group projects where students put what they learned into action. Atwood and Hammill brought their expertise and an empowering attitude to help students get used to interacting with the ocean, and even worked with a small group beforehand on snorkeling tips in the HPER swimming pool.

“Students get very comfortable being around sharks, turtles, stingrays,” said Atwood.

Shark at the Great Barrier Reef.

Students snorkeling with a sea turtle. 

The area around Heron Island has been closed to fishing since the 1950s, so the variety and quantity of sea life closely represents what an ecologically intact reef looks like.

“The fish diversity is insanely high,” said Hammill. “Not just the species you’ll see, but the conditions they’re in. You see massive, three-foot-long parrotfish that are usually one foot long, and it’s because they’re five to seven years old and have been relatively unmolested their entire lives.”

Even in land-locked Utah there is significant interest in ocean studies, said Atwood and Hammill, and they are putting the finishing touches on a Marine Science minor that will soon be available to Watershed Sciences undergraduate majors. Some students who have taken the course have even switched their program of study to the aquatic sciences. The course can be an advantage for later employment.

“Marine science is a very competitive field,” said Hammill, “and to get a position, employers are looking for proper experience like collecting data in the water, and we can help vouch for our students’ proficiencies.”

For coral reefs course alum, the trip is a high-water mark in their educational experience, and for some may lead to more ocean adventures, like Katie King, who has since graduated with a biology degree from USU. She took the class at Heron Island in 2019 and has been on a sea-centric trajectory ever since.

“I loved seeing sea turtles, and the labs and fieldwork were really interesting,” said King, who assessed coral reef health and fish abundance as a final group project where students formulate and test a hypothesis. “It solidified for me that that was what I wanted to do professionally.”

King first saw spotted eagle rays during the coral reef course and is now studying a different variety of them in Roatan Marine Park, Honduras as part of a master’s program at the University of Edinburgh. Partnering with the marine park and the non-profit Ilili, she is helping track the movements of the endangered ray in hopes of better informing policymakers on which marine areas should be protected to conserve the species.

“I definitely acquired more of a passion for conservation work from the course,” said King.

Students snorkel near the surface at the Great Barrier Reef.

Students snorkel at sunset.

For Rohleder, the experience at the Great Barrier Reef offered a broader perspective of humanity’s impact on the environment.

“A big thing I have taken out of it is seeing firsthand how climate change affects our world,” said Rohleder, after seeing coral bleaching on the reef. “We can change this—we can course correct.”

Rohleder has taken to heart a science-informed approach that he learned in the course and looks to apply it to whatever he continues to do with his life, he said.

“Looking proactively at our environment is going to be very important,” said Rohleder. “I think that’s something I can take with me to a professional field in manufacturing, as in how we can become more sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint so we can preserve those beautiful things in nature that a lot of times we take for granted.”

Those interested in more information and/or applying for the Introduction to Coral Reefs study abroad course can email and
Visit the course website for more photos and student blogs.