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On our Pacific Islands program, team members will take part in firsthand investigations of the tropical land and seascapes of the remote Mariana Island archipelago through a comparative study of three islands: Guam, Saipan and Rota. Travelling from island to island, we will compare how human populations impact the marine life residing in the emerald green waters and examine the ecology, culture and conservation challenges faced at each location. We will spend our time investigating each islands diverse marine ecosystems and unique limestone forests. We will evaluate how climate change is currently affecting the Pacific Islands as well as explore its future impact, and learn about the challenges facing the local people.

Through investigating the marine habitat of these islands, we will learn about species diversity and co-evolution. We will discover the complexity of coral reefs and how they form the foundation of these reef ecosystems. We will come to understand how many different species can co-exist as we learn about their interactions. On each island we will have the opportunity to consider land use impacts on the island’s marine ecosystem, and talk with locals about mitigation and conservation. The signs of climate change can already be seen in the coral reefs surrounding the islands, through coral bleaching and loss of marine life. Additionally, sea level rise is predicted to impact these islands greatly. We will spend time discussing potential impacts and conservation initiatives that could protect each island.

In addition to exploring the crystal waters of the Pacific, we will investigate the karst limestone forests and tropical ecology of the islands. Here, among bird’s nest ferns and mossy crags, we will learn about endemism and the vulnerability of endemic island species to invasive species. To gain a greater understanding of ecological research techniques, field study members will be trained in key ecological sampling methods and will undertake independent research projects. We will discuss what the future holds for these unique islands and what strategies are in place to protect them.

The comparison of a highly habituated island to one with almost no human population gives us ample opportunity for discovery and discussion as we explore this unique archipelago.

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Background Information

Situated over 1,000 miles away from any major land mass, the remote Mariana Island archipelago sits as a crescent moon in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands support a multitude of endemic terrestrial species and boast an incredible diversity of marine life, from sharks and turtles to octopi and clown fish. Our course will explore three of the southern-most islands, Guam, Saipan and Rota. Guam, the most populated island, is home to one of the world’s most destructive invasive species, the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis), which has caused the extirpation of almost all native birds. Consequently, it is an ecological experiment for conservation and restoration ecology as ecologists and researchers aim to remove this perilous snake and return Guam to its native species. On Saipan, an island to the north of Guam, the forests are alive with emerald skinks, native fruit doves and golden white-eyes. Vast cliffs rise above historical war sites, dotted with native pandanus and cycads. Here we will examine a more pristine island ecosystem, and evaluate the effects of Saipan’s moderate population. Our final island visit will be to Rota, a once a busy hub and major tourist destination, but now a relatively unpopulated island. With the tallest peak of the Mariana Islands in its center, its rich and untouched forests are home to a multitude of endangered flora and fauna such as the Mariana fruit bat, the endemic Mariana crow and the Rota blue damselfly. In its pristine coral reefs, a plethora of wonderful marine life thrive. Our comparative study will uncover the significant impacts of human use on marine and terrestrial ecosystems, while allowing us to see successes in restoration and recovery.

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Program Goals and Activities

The Pacific Islands course will provide abundant opportunities to study both marine biology and terrestrial ecology. We will focus much of our attention on the critical themes of 'climate change' and 'conservation'. Teaching will be done through field work, lectures and seminars by visiting scientists, and through assisting on local conservation and restoration projects.

Our first theme for consideration will be “climate change and its impact on the marine ecosystems.” Coral reefs are considered the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, being impacted by ocean acidification, invasive species, over fishing and pollution. It is estimated 75% of the remaining coral reefs are under threat, with climate change being one of the main factors. This part of the course will focus on marine biology and the threats faced by marine ecosystems.

We will split our time between our three Mariana Islands. First, we will explore Guam, the largest and most populated island, where there is a long history of invasive species and unsustainable fishing practices. On Guam, students will snorkel among bomb craters from World War II and see first-hand the impact of long-term use on the marine environment. We will then travel to Saipan, a relatively well protected island whose emerald green forests rise above powder sand beaches. Tourism has been limited to small sections of the island so students will get to witness relatively intact coral reefs with a variety of fish species. Finally, our travels will take us to Rota, the smallest and most remote island. A forgotten gem between Guam and Saipan, it boasts an incredible array of marine life and tropical forests. Here sharks, octopus and rays can be readily seen in the pristine coral reefs off the island's lagoon. We will compare the reefs of these three islands and discuss the threats to their dynamic yet fragile marine ecosystems. Additionally, we will explore how a rise in sea level will impact the Pacific Islands and its people.

Under our theme of conservation, our team will investigate local conservation and restoration initiatives to learn about current and future threats to our three focal islands. Students will participate in ongoing research projects, gaining insight into how scientist form research questions and learn the best methods to carry them out. Additionally, our team will participate in current restoration and conservation projects, experiencing first-hand the practical realities of research. We will cover both marine and terrestrial conservation, climate change, water shed management, invasive species as well as participate in coral and fish monitoring programs.

And finally, students will have the opportunity to learn about the unique culture of the indigenous Chamorro people. A resilient culture, the Chamorro have endured occupation from outside groups since the mid-1500s. Historically, the Chamorro were expert seafarers and skilled craftspeople, holding close their core cultural value of inafa'maolek, translated as "doing good for each other". Today, because the Marianas are a part of the United States, the Chamorro people enjoy greater economic opportunities than many other Micronesian peoples. We will have the opportunity to meet Chamorro locals and participate in a variety of cultural experiences, enabling us to better understand this historic culture and their values toward stewardship.

By the end of the program students should have a clear understanding of marine biology, the threats marine ecosystems are currently facing, and future restoration and conservation challenges. They will also have a better idea of the vulnerability of island ecosystems to climate change and invasive species, and what can be done to mitigate these problems.

No prior field research experience is required. All field methods and skills for data acquisition will be taught on this course. We expect students to have a positive and engaging attitude throughout the course. In exchange, they will be rewarded with an incredible experience, exploring a remote area with unforgettable marine ecosystems that few people get the chance to visit. Teaching will be done in the outdoor setting, through hiking, visits to protected marine areas, and student-led independent research projects. Seminars will be led by Wildlands Studies staff, local conservation organisations and researchers.

Tentative itinerary:

The first three weeks of our island program will be spent on Guam. Here students will learn about threats to the Pacific Islands, current research being undertaken and local conservation initiatives. We will participate in a number of research and conservation projects to examine first-hand how invasive species have affected the ecosystems of Guam. Students will start to develop their own independent project ideas, and undertake our initial marine surveys to form the basis of our three island comparison.

The following ten days will be spent on Saipan where students will learn the impacts of poorly managed tourism on the local environment, and potential ecotourism initiatives. On Saipan, we will spend a significant time in the water, learning the biology of coral reefs and their associated fish communities, ocean acidification and the effect of pollutants such as plastic on marine life. Students will further develop their independent projects, many of which will have a marine focus. We will spend a small amount of time in the forest comparing the bird communities of Saipan and Guam.

The final ten days will be spent on Rota. Here students will experience a pristine tropical island ecosystem, allowing them to imagine Guam and Saipan as they once were. We will attempt to understand why Rota's coral reefs are so intact and discuss additional protection initiatives Rota could undertake in order to further ensure the protection of its coral reefs. Additionally, we will reflect on our experience on Guam and Saipan to propose future conservation programs and restoration initiatives. Students will finish their independent projects on Rota.

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Academic Credit

Students will receive 15 quarter credits/10 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in three courses:

ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

ESCI 437B, Environmental Field Survey (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

ESCI 437C, Wildlands Environment and Culture (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

Students will be evaluated on the basis of: 1) active participation in all scheduled class and field activities; 2) examinations and quizzes; 3) field journals; 4) independent research papers/essays; and 5) the design, implementation and presentation of a group project.

Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety, or welfare of any course participants. We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.

 

Team Logistics

Participants will fly into Guam, and meet at the Guam International Airport. Participants can decide whether to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in region to travel on their own.

All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our program in the Pacific Islands, travel arrangements can remain tentative until the traveling actually takes place. Weather conditions may affect our plans. Wildlands Studies has put together an innovative, unique program in the Pacific Islands, and team members need to be flexible, patient, and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments. Participants are required to provide their own tent and camping gear, including a mattress pad, appropriate sleeping bag, cooking equipment and water filter.

 

Accommodations

Primarily camping, occasional hostel or rural lodge.

 

Official Documents/Visa/Insurance

Guam is a territory of the United States. Ideally, you should bring a current passport that does not expire until six months after the end of the program, especially if you plan to travel internationally at the close of the program. However, it is possible for American citizens to enter Guam with proof of USA citizenship. Non-USA citizens will need a valid passport and meet USA entry criteria.

 

Language

The course will be taught in English.

 

Pre-Program Mailings

Detailed information regarding travel and visa information, equipment requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical and vaccination recommendations, and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about 10-12 weeks before the program begins.