Marine Conservation: A Deep Dive into the Waters of Mexico

During a family trip to the Arctic when she was nine years old, Isabel Cheng ’23 met a marine biologist.

“That was my introduction to the world of marine science,” Isabel says, “and I’ve been intrigued by the ocean ever since.”

Two years later, Isabel earned an Open Water Diving license. She continues to dive recreationally, and has gone on to earn additional diving certifications. But she was looking for something more.

“I wanted to put my skills towards something impactful,” says Isabel.

With assistance from a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship, Isabel spent two weeks in La Paz, Mexico, doing just that. Located in the Baja California region of northwest Mexico, La Paz is currently facing a number of critical environmental challenges, from pollution and overfishing to algae blooms and environmental changes brought on by global warming and human encroachment. Isabel worked with marine scientists from Projects Abroad on a series of initiatives built around protecting and preserving essential coastal resources.

“Our primary job was conducting marine surveys—counting the number of certain species as an indicator of ocean health in the area,” Isabel explains. “The objective was to monitor the health of the ocean in different areas along the coast and measure the impact of various human activities. The locations we surveyed included a dock next to a phosphorus mine and an area close to a local fishing spot.”

To gather survey data, Isabel and her team were required to scuba and free dive in water that was 16°C/60°F—very cold, Isabel notes, even with the thickest 8mm wetsuits.

“I had the opportunity to step up as an Advanced Open Water/Rescue Diver, whether that meant checking everyone’s gear, making sure everyone was healthy and hydrated, maintaining good buoyancy underwater, or simply logging dives towards getting my Divemaster certification, the next one I’m working towards. Free diving, however, was more challenging. We had a training day where we went to a shipwreck and learned different techniques for holding our breath and diving. It got easier over time, and I eventually learned how to stay underwater for long enough to count the animals for the surveys.”

The data collected by Isabel and her team will be shared with a local scientific organization that works with the Mexican government. They will evaluate the data and combine it with other research to provide governmental agencies with a more complete picture of animal life and ocean health in the region. The government will use the scientific data to establish environmental policies that ensure coastal protection and healthy marine ecosystems, and the viability of the communities in Baja California that are dependent on them.

In addition to hands-on field work, Isabel and her peers engaged in classroom learning about the negative impacts of improper waste and resource management, as well as the innovative methods people were using to clean up marine debris. They also studied identification guides each afternoon to help them more easily and effectively identify animal life during the daily marine surveys. Independently, Isabel studied the role each species plays in the overall ecosystem.

“It was interesting to learn about how each member of a community served their own purpose, and how all of them were important for maintaining a healthy ecological balance. Even the smallest, most inconspicuous creatures like urchins, nudibranchs, and starfish were crucial.”

The impact of her time in Mexico has translated into meaningful changes for Isabel.

“It was important for me to gain an understanding of how science affects our daily lives,” Isabel says. “During the classroom lesson, we also talked about the individual impact that each person can make by living more sustainably and being intentional about their choices. Since the trip, I’ve started taking shorter showers, taking public transportation, eating less meat, and being more conscious about the trash I generate. I’m going to continue finding ways to make the world habitable for ourselves and for future generations.”

Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft master from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.