School by the Sea

REEF (Research & Environmental Education Focus)

Tabor contributes research and data, collaborating with several government agencies, on a long-term study of coral reef ecology among the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
Every other winter, students have the opportunity to learn about the history, culture, and unique ocean ecology of the Caribbean through our R.E.E.F. (Research & Environmental Education Focus) Program. Seven groups of 15 students fly to the Virgin Islands for eight days using the SSV Tabor Boy as a floating laboratory from which they collect data for the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Department of the Interior for a long-term study on the health of the Elkhorn coral and the waters in and around Virgin Islands National Park. These students have a unique opportunity to combine history, cultural, and scientific studies from the classroom with hands-on investigation, research techniques, and skills into the fullest possible educational experience.

(NOTE: We will not be going to the Caribbean in 2019 as Tabor Boy will be getting a new Deckhouse! Instead, we will travel to the Gerace Research Centre in San Salvador, Bahamas, to research the reefs and learn more about their success in repopulating decimated reefs in their area. )

Researching Elkhorn Coral

Elkhorn is one of the most important reef building corals, but since the 1970’s there has been an 85% decline in their population. To assess the population and health of the Elkhorn, Tabor students hit the reef in small groups armed with a personal desktop assistant (PDA) and an underwater camera. Assigned a defined section, students map and document each and every Elkhorn colony in the transect area prompted by questions on the PDA. Meanwhile, the group photographer documents the colony with photos that back up their answers to the questions on the PDA. Teamwork and communication are key, and each group quickly develops the skills and strategies to best tackle the task.
As the Elkhorn are greatly impacted by water quality, students take fluorometer measurements from which the concentration of chlorophyll in the water is determined and nutrient concentrations are inferred. As we collect water samples, we analyze them for their concentration of dissolved oxygen, dissolved carbon dioxide, phosphate, nitrite, iron, and copper using Snap Tests. Students also deploy and monitor a HOBO Logger containing dissolved oxygen, conductivity and multiple temperature sensors at each study site. To better understand the currents and their speeds within the bays, groups release and track readings from tilt and drag meters created for this purpose. All this is crucial to the effort to understand the whole picture of the state of the reefs in Virgin Islands National Park.
Through this unique program, students have the opportunity to participate in real, scientific fieldwork where the data they collect impacts policies made at the national level regarding the protection of our coral reefs. Using the SSV Tabor Boy as a platform for this work adds to the experience, as students live and learn about life aboard a working sailing vessel. Lessons supporting Tabor’s mission abound when combining service, community, and science!


“Having chaperoned a REEF trip, I realize how well the program encapsulates the Tabor Academy mission. It is easy to see the role the research might play in life long learning and the pursuit of the highest level of achievement. But additionally, our home on SSV Tabor Boy allows us to foster personal responsibility and the promotion of community.

Group work allows bonds to form. Research teams must learn to communicate with each other both above and below the water. Starboard and Port watches must do all of their chores together. The entire group – Cap, crew, chaperones, and students - gather each morning on deck and jump in for the 6:40 morning dip. The result of running the ship together is that we are more observant, more careful, less wasteful, less self-centered.” — Cindy Muther, chaperone


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