Otterbein Senior Shares Her Experience as an Intern at Marine Conservation Non-Profit in the Florida Keys

Posted Apr 16, 2021

Alyssa Fogel  
Majors: Environmental Science and Biology 
Minors: Sustainability Studies and Earth Science 
Class of 2021
Hometown: Westerville, Ohio 

As an environmental science and biology major, my interests lie strongly in marine science, oceanography, and geology. I had an initial plan to travel to Samos, Greece to complete a 12-week “GIS for Marine Conservation” internship during the fall of 2020. I had been accepted to the program and begun planning my Honors research project, which I intended to complete on site. When it came time to purchase flights, coronavirus had begun to make its way around the world — rendering international travel to an island in Greece near impossible.  

Later, after my Greece experience was cancelled, my dad stumbled across an internship opportunity with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, Florida. I had heard of REEF before, through Dr. Lescinsky’s Coral Reef Ecology course. REEF’s goals and mission align very closely with my own interests and goals, so I went out on a limb and applied. Several weeks and one phone interview later, I found out I had been selected as one of four fall REEF Marine Conservation Interns. (Ironically, I received this news not 10 minutes after arriving in the Florida Keys for a family vacation! What’s more, my original destination, Samos, was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on October 30, 2020. I would have still been on the island for the GIS internship if it had not been cancelled, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have been elsewhere.) 

REEF is a marine conservation nonprofit organization whose multiple programs aim to educate and utilize citizen science to contribute to marine research. REEF was founded in 1990 by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach, debuting the Volunteer Fish Survey Project. This program allows divers and snorkelers alike around the world to record the abundance of each fish species positively identified at any given site. REEF volunteers then enter this data into the REEF database, which is publicly available for researchers, scholars, tourists, or anyone who is interested.  

REEF has since expanded by adding an Invasive Species Program, Ocean Explorers Program, Conservation Partner Program, Survey Trip Program, and Grouper Moon Program.  

I worked with REEF in Key Largo for four months. I lived in a house about one mile from the REEF campus with three other marine conservation interns and two lead program interns. We worked at the REEF campus each weekday. Daily office activities included answering phone calls and emails, processing donations, photographing and modeling for promotional photos, completing store inventory, and creating graphics for social media, among so many other tasks. 

In addition to physical office tasks, one REEF staff member took time every week to lead a fish identification workshop for the interns — this was something I always looked forward to and learned so much from.  

Working with REEF illustrated the importance of donor relations to running a successful nonprofit organization. REEF goes out of their way to show appreciation for their donors—one way they do this is by providing each donor, each year, with a hand-painted fish affixed with a name plaque. We would often write handwritten thank you notes to donors, speak with donors about our lives and interests outside of REEF over the phone, or meet local donors on dive boats. 

As most other internships and experiences during 2020, Covid-19 presented unique challenges for the REEF internship. Interns are typically responsible for teaching several courses to various groups at the campus Interpretive Center, but on-campus gatherings were, and still are, on hold until the organization feels it is safe enough to resume. Interns are also responsible for the bulk of REEF event planning, but many of these local events were also cancelled this year. To compensate, interns were able to take on more office projects, such as assist more heavily with graphic design and social media promotion.  

We did get to assist in running the 2020 Upper Keys Lionfish Derby. Lionfish are an invasive species that threatens the well-being of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems, including the commercially and recreationally important fishes that depend on them.  

Spearfishing teams have two days to get as many invasive lionfish as possible off of the reefs. It was incredible to witness the impact that the community was able to have on lionfish removal— a total of 1,321 fish were removed in one day. As interns, we assisted with team check-ins as the coolers of lionfish were dropped off, posted Facebook live streams of different portions of the event, and the measured and recorded each fish’s length.  

Outside of the office, I was the only intern that was not a certified scuba diver but I completed my Open Water Certification through Key Dives, an absolutely amazing, conservation-oriented dive shop located in Islamorada, the second weekend I was in the Keys. I was later able to complete my Advanced Open Water Certification. Key Dives, as well as several other shops in Key Largo, graciously allow REEF staff and interns to dive for free as long as we use those dives to complete REEF fish surveys. Needless to say, the interns and I spent much of our free time underwater!  

We also attended the monthly art walks in Islamorada (the Florida Keys equivalent to Fourth Friday) where we were able to meet many members of the Keys community. I spent two to three evenings a week working part-time at Divers Direct, a dive gear retail store. This was also a fantastic way for me to meet community members, learn about different brands and types of scuba products, and add another facet to my experience in Florida.  

Towards the end of the internship, we met Paul Humann, co-founder of REEF and co-author of the Reef Fish, Coral, and Creature Identification books. He told us several stories — from his first experience diving to how he came to found REEF. Having used his books as a reference for years, it was unreal to meet him and hear his life stories firsthand. 

My long-term goal after graduation is to become a professor at a small university similar to Otterbein. All of the things that will come between graduation and my long-term goals are unclear — but if the REEF internship taught me anything, it is that even when plans don’t happen as intended, other, better opportunities come along and life tends to work out for the best.  

REEF was the right place for me at the right time. I made a best friend for life, learned how to dive, and was able to spend what would have been a wintry, cold portion of the pandemic in the sunny Florida Keys!