What do you get when you combine marine scientists, researchers and a world-class yachting membership club? A unique partnership that allows for further research and exploration of our oceans.

This new partnership is made up of Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, the International SeaKeepers Society® and Fleet Miami. And recently, they embarked on their inaugural research cruise to study sponges in the waters off the Bahamas. Joining this research group was staff from the Public Television (PBS) series Changing Seas, which was filming for an episode to air in early 2016.

“This was a great opportunity for us to get to and spend time in Bahamian waters to study sponges, their microbiomes and marine environs,” said Jose Lopez, Ph.D., professor and researcher at NSU. “Plus, getting to travel on an 87-foot yacht as our base of operations isn’t something that we get to do that often, so that made things quite interesting. I feel almost spoiled after being on such a boat.”

During the expedition, Lopez and NSU student-assistant Amanda Costaregni joined fellow researchers as as they dove on Andros and Nassau reefs to identify existing sponge species and collect sponge, sediment and water samples. Samples were brought back to laboratories at NSU where they are undergoing further analysis and genetics work. Results from this expedition and continuing work will tell scientists about the species diversity and connectivity between Florida and Bahamian reefs. Examination of sponge tissue samples and associated bacteria found living with sponges could be used in the development of pharmaceuticals. The expedition location was important to Dr. Lopez from a personal standpoint.

“Some of the first relatively “pristine” reef habitats I ever saw were on Andros Island over 20 years ago,” Lopez said. “The Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata) was so large they stuck out of the water at low tide.”

Lopez is also the founder of the Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance (GIGA), an international organization of diverse scientists who will promote comparative genomics and bioinformatics research on non-insect/non-nematode invertebrates including sponges of course.

One day of the expedition “dove” into Bahamian culture – i.e. the native spongers of Andros Island. Residents of Red Bays Village on Andros Island demonstrated the sponge industry process and explained the history and significance of sponging to the local culture and economy.

The expedition was hosted by Fleet Miami, which provided the 87-foot Warren D/Y Mystique yacht to serve as the base of operations and at-sea laboratory in the Bahamas. The vessel allowed scientists access to remote reefs off New Providence Island and Andros Island. This is the third SeaKeepers DISCOVERY Yacht expedition supported by Fleet Miami. Additional expedition support was generously provided by Albany Marina and Resort on New Providence, Bahamas.

“Our goal is to have this be the first of many research expeditions involving NSU, International SeaKeepers Society and Fleet Miami,” Lopez said. “The more opportunities we get out on the water for researchers and students, the more we learn about the marine environment and, of course, the more we can do to help protect the world’s oceans and all the creatures that call it home – knowledge is key.”

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