A Journey to Save Coral Reefs: From Eckerd to Hawaii
In an interview as a sophomore, a fledgling marine science and biochemistry double major said his dream job would be conducting coral research and conservation work that consisted of a lot of diving and laboratory experiments, in order to help save corals and rebuild coral reef ecosystems worldwide.
Austin Hunter, now an Eckerd graduate, finally achieved that dream this year when he moved to the windward coast of Oahu, Hawaii to conduct research for the Coral Restoration Project at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Originally from Jacksonville, Illinois, Hunter graduated with flying colors in both his degrees last May. Although he grew up almost five hours from the Great Lakes, Hunter always had a profound interest in aquatic ecosystems. He first began to look at corals specifically, however, when he worked at a local pet store with a saltwater aquaria section in high school. These funky polyps interested him so much that he applied to Eckerd and once he arrived, Hunter was hooked on marine ecosystems for good!
While at Eckerd, Hunter was a part of the Honors Program, and due to his academic success his freshman year, he was asked to be a Teacher’s Assistance during the 2014-15 term. Then in 2015, Hunter was among seven Eckerd College students to be awarded the Hollings for his research with corals. Also chosen to be a Resident Advisor, Hunter spent his free time working in Admissions as a Student Ambassador where he charmed prospective students with his winning smile and insider knowledge of the college’s most popular program.
Currently, Hunter is in Oahu and plans to spend most of the year, and possibly the summer, working on a coral nursery project.
"My main goal is to get research experience in my field and help my career by gaining connections that could help me for the rest of my life." says Hunter. His current project is located in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, HI, and is a pilot project at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). Hunter is conducting experiments using broken and fragmented corals to test if situ coral nurseries are a viable option for coral restoration in Hawaii. The objective of this restoration technique is to hopefully be able to “take damaged corals, grow them in the nursery, and then transplant the corals back to the reef.”
Hunter is also working on writing a guide to coral nurseries, in addition to editing a manuscript about the ongoing nursery project, which he intends to get published. When Hunter is not writing or editing papers, or working in the nursery, he is tasked with “meeting with members of the Division of Aquatic Resources, giving tours of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, snorkeling and monitoring reefs in Kaneohe Bay, and working to build collaborative efforts with other restoration practitioners and researchers.”
Outside of conducting groundbreaking coral restoration research, Hunter also enjoys going hiking, hanging out at local beaches, body surfing, trying new food, and of course, exploring nearby reefs! One of the highlights of his time in Oahu, thus far, has been snorkeling with manta rays and approximately 50 sea turtles. In addition to his research and fun adventures, Hunter is also looking for a Masters program focused on coral restoration and conservation.
Hunter believes his time at Eckerd, gave him the “confidence and knowledge” to conduct the research he is currently involved with in Hawaii. He stated that Eckerd “helped me learn how to properly conduct [research], in order to be successful within my field, and helped me build a work ethic that keeps me competitive.”
Due to Eckerd’s immense opportunities and diversity among the sciences, Hunter was able to gain experience in field research, in addition to being able to investigate coral reef ecosystems in Florida, the Bahamas and now, Hawaii. Who knows where he’ll go next, but one thing is certain: wherever he goes, it will certainly be near a reef!