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04/01/99 by Staff Writer
From the April 1, 1999, issue of the Salisbury Post
The diesel engine whined low as the Catawba College students made their last adjustments to their scuba gear. The captain signaled to enter the water, and two by two, they rolled backwards off the boat.
They entered a silent world, making their way through the bubbles to a buoy line stretching down and disappearing into the depth. Like climbing a rope, only downward, they descended until the wreck became visible.
“It was an enormous barge that had flipped on its side long ago,” says Dr. Wear Jr., associate professor of biology. Its cargo had spilled on the sea floor 80 feet below the surface.”
The barge was alive with bright coral, sea fans and sponges. Large schools of fish called glassy sweepers swam around the boat. “But the most fas- cinating of all were the stingrays,” says Wear, “as many as 50 of them, all circling and gliding just above the surface of the wreck. And there were two Jewfish, probably 500 pounds, that moved slowly over the barge like large guardians.”
This was the culmination of a course at Catawba College on coral reef ecosystems. “The stingrays were so docile,” says environmental science major Jon Klimstra, a junior from Hendersonville. “It was like we had walked into a pet shop and they had let the puppies loose. They came right up to you. You could pet them and touch them. To have a creature like that come up to you, especially when you’re in their environment, is something else.” Besides Klimstra, Catawba students who participated in the trip were Wes Knapp of Cornish, N.H., Nic Sexton of Winston-Salem, Peter Stango of Southampton, N.J., and Sarah Martin of Yorktown, Va.
The trip gave the students a chance to explore coral reefs and artificial reefs, such as boats that have been intentionally sunk for use as reef sys- tems. “In class we’d see pictures of the fish and other aquatic organisms,” Klimstra says. “But once we were under water, it was really an eye-opening experience. I learned so much.”
For Klimstra, the most exciting part of the trip was diving on the first wreck. “You see these ships on TV and in pictures that are underwater, and you don’t really get a sense of how massive they are until you’re diving on them yourself,” he says. “A ship sitting on the ocean floor is such a picturesque scene. It’s just awe-inspiring really.”
Wear, director of Catawba’s Center for the Environment, notes the importance of experiences like these. “If you go to a large aquarium, you can watch fish in big tanks,” he says. “You can see them moving back and forth, but you really don’t understand because you haven’t examined them in their habitat. On a trip like this, you see the parrot fishes eating algae that grow on coral. You see the puffer fishes peeking out of barrel sponges. You get to see a vast array of different types of organisms in their natural environment.”