This past summer I spent three weeks in the Cayman Islands learning about aquatic medicine. The first portion of my trip was spent participating in the “MARVET Grand Cayman Workshop.” This is a two-week course in marine veterinary medicine open to 20 students and veterinarians from around the world. The course focuses on marine mammals, sea turtles, fish, elasmobranches, invertebrates, and ecosystem health assessment. The course was taught by veterinarians and experts from a wide variety of respected aquatic institutions including SeaWorld, the Shedd Aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Lab and the local Cayman Sea Turtle Farm and Dolphin Discovery Center.
Each day of the course we had four hours of lecture. The lectures covered a variety of topics about marine animals including anatomy and physiology, physical exams, diagnostics, common diseases and conservation measures. Some of my favorite lectures included: “Seahorse Health and Disease,” “Whale Shark and Manta Ray Transport and Medicine,” and “Coral Restoration and Coral Health.” Following the lecture portion of each day, we then had hands-on laboratory sessions where we were able to put into practice the information that was presented in the lecture portion.
Our first lab was an observational kayak trip through the island’s mangrove habitat where we learned that mangroves are a vital part of the island’s ecosystem as they serve as unique link between the ocean and land. Our second lab took us to the Cayman Sea Turtle Farm where we were able to practice our physical exam and blood collection skills on green sea turtles. At our third lab, we were able to further explore the anatomy of sea turtles, dolphins and sharks through necropsies. At this lab session we also discussed anesthesia and blood analysis of sea turtles. The fourth lab focused on aquatic bird medicine. During this lab we practiced the skills of intubation, endotracheal tube placement, IV and IO catheter placement and bandaging on bird cadavers. We were also able to note the anatomy and some common diseases of aquatic birds as we performed necropsies.Â During the fifth lab we practiced skills in fish medicine, as we were able to anesthetize fish with the chemical MS-222 that is mixed into the water and then monitor anesthesia, practice blood collection, and diagnostic skin scrapes and gill clips on live fish. We were also gain an appreciation of fish anatomy and tissue sampling through the necropsy portion of this lab. The sixth and seventh labs concentrated on assessing coral reef health. Students were allowed to snorkel or dive at two different sites to assess the health of Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) or Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). The eighth lab was a field trip to the Blue Iguana Island Reserve to see the conservation program that is currently being carried out with these critically endangered reptiles that only live in the Cayman Islands. Our final two labs were held at the Dolphin Discovery Center were we were able to practice physical exams on the dolphins and observe blood, fecal, gastric and blow hole sample collection.
During my last week on the island, I spent time shadowing Dr. Eva Alvarez at the Dolphin Discovery Center (DDC) as an extern. The DDC is a private company that offers guests the chance to swim with pacific bottlenose dolphins. During my time with Dr. Alvarez, I was able to help perform the daily physical exams of the collection’s 7 dolphins and 4 southern rays, perform analysis of all diagnostic samples that were collected, learn training techniques and learn how to analyze water quality for salinity and coliform levels.
During my days off and down time, I was able to become further acquainted with the marine life of Grand Cayman. On one particular day, our group traveled by boat to “Stingray City” which is the only place in the world where you can interact with dozens of friendly Southern Stingrays out in the wild. Most evenings found me snorkeling off the shore of the pristinely white 8-mile Beach or using my free time to go diving where I saw an amazing array of wildlife including spotted eagle rays, a dazzling school of silverside fish inside a cave network, barracudas and lionfish.
Overall, I absolutely loved my time in Grand Cayman. I was able to learn an astounding amount about marine medicine and gained many skills with species where it is often difficult to gain hands-on experience. Furthermore this trip was an incredible networking experience, as I got to meet many experts within the field of aquatic medicine and build friendships with my similarly minded course mates from around the world. Thank you to the UCD International Program for helping to make this fantastic trip possible!