‘The river’ flows on, continuing its teaching ways

Amanda Alker
Amanda Alker, who grew up near the Indian River and studied at FAU Harbor Branch, is now a doctoral student at San Diego State University. She is the diver seen in this issue’s cover of Indian River Magazine.

When I was a child, I had the good fortune of growing up on the Indian River.

It was the playground of my childhood. My best times were spent on the river, whether it was fishing, motor boating, skiing or, my favorite, sailing. Back then we called it the Indian River or simply “the river.”

Today, it is commonly referred to as the Indian River Lagoon, a term scientists began to use several decades ago to more aptly describe it as a largely enclosed waterway more like a lake instead of a free-flowing river with headwaters. Old habits die hard, so forgive me if I continue to refer to this grand waterway as the Indian River or “the river.”

At about the age of 12, some of my siblings and I found a shrimp net on the river bank. The net was hand-made, with a square of hardware cloth framed by 2-by-4s and a longer 2-by-4 running up the middle and about 3 feet above the frame.

We’d push the net through the sea grass and caught shrimp, ostensibly for fishing, but we’d also learn about the incredible marine life the river held. Only as an adult did I learn that the waterway I was dredging my net through was North America’s most diverse estuary.

We’d catch pipe fish, baby sheepshead, stone crabs, horseshoe crabs, sea horses and a small baitfish we called pogies, all of which we would turn back unless we could use it for bait. Our success prompted me to begin to hold some of the marine life in a small 10-gallon aquarium.

I would also cast net for mullet and found a spot in the river where a freshwater stream flowed and caught baby snook. Not knowing it was illegal to hold them, I put a few in my aquarium. It was incredible to watch the snook gobble up the shrimp when dropped in the aquarium.

When my seventh-grade science fair rolled around, I put the aquarium on exhibit in our school auditorium and created a poster showing the marine food web I witnessed in the river. I put the snook at the top of the web.

But there was a problem.

About a day after the fair began, a schoolmate told me that a game officer was looking for me. He said the officer told him holding the baby snook was illegal. The game officer, apparently a parent visiting the fair, never caught up with me, but the snook quickly went back in the river. Nevertheless, I was one of the fair winners and went on to the district competition in West Palm Beach.

At about the same time my dubious but brief life in marine research played out, a few miles up the river, an actual marine biology concern was sprouting that would become the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

While initially founded as a research group, it gained an additional mission as an education institution in 2007 when it came under the umbrella of Florida Atlantic University. That same year, Harbor Branch partnered with the St. Lucie County School Board to create the Marine and Oceanographic Academy, a school to improve scientific literacy of high school students.

Which brings us to our cover.

For each issue of Indian River Magazine we produce, we consider many photographs. When the decision was made to focus on Harbor Branch for the cover, we looked through hundreds of photos in their archive and ours and assigned some current photos of our own.

In the end, we decided on the photo of former FAU student Amanda Alker diving into a sea of crevalle jacks in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off Texas and Louisiana on behalf of Harbor Branch during a federally funded research expedition. Alker had grown up in Jensen Beach and was a student in FAU’s Wilkes Honors College. After graduating from FAU, she received a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship and today is nearing completion of her Ph.D. at San Diego State University.

Alker, who lived near the Indian River growing up, says her interest in marine biology started during a summer camp in elementary school at which she learned about the effects of freshwater discharge from Lake Okeechobee on the river. Later, at FAU, her research focused on the effects of freshwater discharge on the St. Lucie Reef, the most northern tropical reef documented on the Florida Reef Tract.

“Ms. Alker epitomizes how FAU undergraduates can become involved in marine research through Harbor Branch and use that experience and relationships here to launch their scientific careers,” said Joshua Voss, Ph.D., who oversaw Alker’s work as a researcher in his lab from 2013 to 2016. “Students of her caliber drive innovation, exploration and research success at FAU.”

Not every student who comes through Harbor Branch becomes an Amanda Alker, but the exposure for anyone who comes through the institution’s doors undoubtedly fosters a love for the Indian River and a respect for the global marine environment. For me, the interaction with the Indian River prompted me 15 years ago to name a magazine after it.

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Gregory Enns
Reach Gregory Enns or 772.940.9005.

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