Growing up in the metro Atlanta area, exploring Georgia’s marine life meant going to the Georgia Aquarium. In the back of my mind, I knew Georgia had a coast and barrier islands – how could you not know of Tybee Island or Jekyll Island? But somehow, I never knew that those were only two of Georgia’s fourteen barrier islands on its 100 miles of coastline.

Headshot of Chanté Lively

2021-22 Marine Education Fellow Chanté Lively

After I graduated from Nova Southeastern University in Florida with my undergraduate degree in marine biology, I realized I had studied marine science in South Florida, Virginia and even Vancouver, Canada, but I knew very little about my own home. I applied to the Marine Education Fellowship with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to learn more about the natural wonders of my home state and gain experience teaching informal marine science education. In the five months that I have been a 2021-2022 Marine Education Fellow at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, I’ve quickly realized that Georgia’s coast has a lot going on.

My first few months of the fellowship were spent gaining knowledge about Georgia’s coastal ecosystems on one of its back-barrier islands – Skidaway Island. On Skidaway, I live, sleep and work right next to some of its natural wonders: salt marshes, estuaries and oyster reefs. If you didn’t know, the salt marsh ecosystem is a highly productive coastal wetland flooded and drained by saltwater brought in by the tides. Thanks to our 1968 Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, Georgia’s coast accounts for roughly 1/3 of the salt marsh found on the Atlantic Coast. This is important since salt marshes are so vital to coastal life. They act as storm buffers, a nursery for organisms, a life-long home for other types of wildlife and they are one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth.

Lively holds an Atlantic stingray on a trawl aboard the RV Sea Dawg.

Lively holds an Atlantic stingray on a trawl aboard the RV Sea Dawg. Photo by Diane Klement

Learning about the diversity of Georgia’s marine life has been one of the biggest surprises. We may not have the colorful reef fishes I saw when I studied in Florida, but what Georgia does have is just as interesting! Georgia’s beaches are a nesting habitat for five of the seven sea turtle species. Horseshoe crabs, bottlenose dolphins, West Indian manatees, mantis shrimp, sheepshead, triggerfish, knobbed whelks and hermit crabs are all just a few of the species that call Georgia’s coastal waters their permanent or ephemeral home.

While learning about Georgia’s coastal ecosystems has been an amazing experience, the best part of my fellowship has been going out and exploring our coast for the very first time. From teaching outreach programs, contributing to community science work like NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, participating in boating trips and leading youth programs and summer camps, no two days are ever the same. Every day is a new adventure where I get to utilize my new knowledge and connect with many of the wonderful individuals and organizations who work on the coast to educate the masses and preserve its natural beauty. However, the greatest highlight of each adventure has been getting to see the wonder of discovery on a person’s face when I show them the magnificent value of Georgia’s coast.

Lively participates in the South Atlantic Regional Sea Grant Meeting.

Lively participates in the South Atlantic Regional Sea Grant Meeting.

I didn’t realize Georgia’s coastal diversity prior to this fellowship. Thanks to these five months as a marine education fellow, every experience and interaction has made me feel more and more connected to the state I call home. Just look at what I have already started to learn, experience and share. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the fellowship brings.