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Gainesville native studies marine ecology in Caribbean
Haley Haynes dissects a lionfish. Haynes is enrolled in a study abroad program at CIEE on the Caribbean island of Bonaire.

Haley Haynes is a typical college student. She wakes up in time for her 8:30 a.m. classes, geared toward her ecology major.

But unlike the typical college student, the 21-year-old Gainesville woman is learning her lessons on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, off the coast of Venezeula. And after class, Haynes straps on scuba gear and dives into the nearby ocean to put her morning education to work.

“Each day has been its own adventure,” she said.

This semester Haynes is studying abroad with CIEE, a nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization. Specifically, the University of Georgia student is learning about coral reef ecology, tropical marine conservation biology, marine ecology field research methods, scientific diving and a cultural history of Bonaire. She puts those classroom lessons to work under the sea.

“While under the water, we record things on paper and use that later to analyze our data,” Haynes said. “After the dive, we rinse our gear, do a dive debriefing where we talk about things we learned during the dive, things we can work on and things that we, as buddy pairs, did well with.”

After the debriefing, Haynes sometimes sits through another class or works on other assignments until 5 p.m. Some days are class-only days. Others days students spend longer periods of time learning at a different location on the southern Caribbean island.

But Haynes also looks forward to her time underwater.

“Having the ability to walk out of my door and around the corner to get in the water and dive is unbelievable,” she said.

Prior to heading to South America, the 2013 West Hall High School graduate had minimal diving experience. She earned her open water certification in spring 2015 through a class at UGA and received her rescue diver certification on the study abroad trip.

“(It) has definitely given me skills that I would not have obtained in the states,” Haley said.

She hopes her CIEE experiences will set her apart from other job candidates in her field in the future.

“I love marine ecology and I have really wanted to explore the scientific diving area of marine ecology,” Haynes said. “Not many organizations that I know of can provide this type of hands-on, underwater experience.”

The rare but costly experience —  it cost $27,000 for the program — does have drawbacks. Haynes has been away from home since Aug. 27. She will reunite with her mother, Terri, on Dec. 3. The duo plan to celebrate Thanksgiving with their family the following day.

A single mother, Terri said she has missed her daughter while she’s been away but is thankful Haley got the opportunity to study abroad.

“She’s had a dream about doing marine biology for quite some time and I’ve always supported her in any direction of education,” Terri said.

Terri said she thought Haley might try for a two- or three-week program in Australia, but found the full-semester program in Bonaire.

“I’m very, very proud of her for doing the research and the analysis and figuring it all out,” Terri said, adding Haley worked with UGA to ensure the program’s credits would transfer to the school.

Haley’s work in Bonaire has allowed her to meet people with different personalities and upbringings.

“I think it’s important that she can experience a different culture and have the opportunity to explore different people from all over the world,” Terri said.

Haley doesn’t have a specific career goal in mind, but said she hopes to work in marine ecology or scientific diving when she graduates from UGA.

Still stationed in Bonaire, Haley talked to The Times about the program via email.

Question: Describe your study abroad program and what you do?

Answer: Many of the assignments have been scuba diving-based where we conduct projects on the reef. I learned about many of the common species on the reef and am able to identify most of them. I also had to do a independent research project that I came up with. I looked at algal preference in two different species of sea urchins.

We have gone on many different trips looking at different parts of the island like the mangroves and seagrass beds to learn about the different ecology of each place.

Q: What is your favorite thing you’ve done there?

A: My favorite thing would have to be the diving. The coral reefs here are some of the best in the world. After watching Discovery Channel and National Geographic as a kid and loving all of the documentaries and shows on the ocean and then being able to see all of corals and fish with my own eyes is amazing. I’ve been able to swim close to turtles. I even have become certified through Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire to help with coral restoration projects. I can clean and transplant corals on the nursery, which is really exciting. Picking one favorite experience is almost impossible.

Q: How do you think this study abroad trip will help prepare you for the future?

A: It has definitely given me skills that I would not have obtained in the states. I feel it has set me above other people that I might be competing for jobs against and has really given me a leg up. I have also been able to make some good connections here for future internships or job opportunities in the future.

Q: What are the skills that you would not have obtained in the U.S.? How has it set you apart from others you may be competing for jobs with?

A: Some of the skills would be AAUS scientific diving skills like carrying extra gear for transects or quadrats (tools that allow people to quantify the relative abundance of organisms in an area) , extremely good buoyancy and underwater problem solving skills.

The rescue skills like first aid and CPR are definitely a good thing to have as well. It has certified me for those things above and in the water, which is nice for anywhere I would look to apply for a job. It would help me looking for jobs because my employer would have to spend less time training me to be able to do these things that I have already learned here. I feel like it shows that I have been working toward improving myself for the future in the field that I want to be a part of.