Islamorada, Florida: From free diving in pursuit of Caribbean king crabs to being stewards of the world’s first sponge nursery, the experiences of Norah Mendoza and Reanna Jeanes at I.CARE (Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education) are as diverse as the marine ecosystems they work to protect. I.CARE is dedicated to restoring the reefs of Islamorada and its mission is to incorporate local businesses, residents and visitors in the restoration and maintenance of the coral reef communities in Islamorada. The two women recently offered a candid glimpse into their lives and roles within the coral restoration organization, from the rigors of day-to-day operations to the broader lessons in marine biology and community collaboration.
An Intern’s Journey
Norah Mendoza, an intern with I.CARE, has a surprising background. She started as an art major, switched to Spanish, and ended up in marine biology. Her journey has been unconventional, but it reveals the unrelenting pull of the ocean. Norah’s time in Costa Rica studying tropical marine biology ignited her passion, leading her to pursue certifications in diving and ultimately to apply for an internship with I.CARE.
A typical day for an I.CARE intern is busy and varied. Fridays and Saturdays are “outplant” days (outplanting is where nursery grown corals are planted on reefs). These days are dedicated to guiding volunteers on local maintenance trips to the reefs or on coral outplanting expeditions. Mid-week is dedicated to monitoring, surveys, and data inputs, while other tasks include cleaning tanks, coral husbandry, and the labor-intensive coral outplanting process.
Education and Adaptation
As the Education and Outreach Coordinator, Reanna Jeanes has a significant role in I.CAREs mission. With a background in marine biology, Reanna’s current focus is on community education, flexibility, and innovation. Her journey started with high school AP Biology and led her to a career that combined her love for marine biology with education.
For Reanna, flexibility is paramount. Coral conservation is a field that can change quickly, and adaptability is crucial. For instance, the organization had to switch from a focus on coral outplanting to maintenance mode due to rising water temperatures. This constant adaptation keeps the team on their toes and ensures that they can respond effectively to the ever-changing challenges of their environment.
Lessons and Legacy
Both Norah and Reanna emphasize the importance of looking at the bigger ecological picture. Focusing solely on the coral would be a mistake; instead, the entire ecosystem must be considered, from macroalgae to the fish communities and beyond. The intricate balance of the marine environment impacts the coral, and factors like pollution, water temperature, and poor waste management can have devastating effects.
Policy and permitting also play a vital role in conservation efforts, as Norah discovered during her internship. Reanna also highlights the importance of collaboration, whether it’s the establishment of the world’s first sponge nursery or engaging fishermen to help with research.
As a non-profit, I.CARE faces funding challenges, but remains committed to providing a robust internship program. The year-long internship is designed to immerse the interns in all aspects of coral restoration, from hands-on tasks to computer work, surveys, and dives (most interns will have 400+ dives in one year). Opportunities to gain experience as a deckhand, help with obtaining a boat captain’s license, and working and running a dive shop round out the robust experience offerings an internship can expect. I.CARE provides professional growth and mentorship to all its interns and the current interns step up by assisting prospective interns apply and also provide a sounding board of what to expect in the I.CARE organization.
The team’s small size fosters a collaborative environment where everyone is needed to accomplish their shared mission. An unofficial “lead intern” structure helps new hires feel connected, and the close-knit community within I.CARE provides support and mentorship.
A Shared Purpose
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the work at I.CARE is the shared passion for marine conservation. From Norah’s memorable experience collecting Caribbean king crabs with the help of local fishermen to Reanna’s fulfillment in assisting in the establishment of the first sponge nursery with Norah and other I.CARE interns, the team’s love for the ocean is palpable.
Despite the often-disheartening nature of conservation work, the support and community found within I.CARE have allowed both women to persevere and find hope in their endeavors. They offer inspiring stories for anyone considering a career in marine science, demonstrating that with passion, a positive attitude, and determination, even the most unconventional paths can lead to rewarding and impactful careers.
For those interested in exploring a career in marine science, learning about the organization’s conservation efforts, or applying for an internship with I.CARE, visit: https://www.icareaboutcoral.org