The Marine Education Fellowship is full of adventures. No matter what niche marine interests you have, you can get a taste for almost all of them through this position. Without a doubt, this was the case for me. Coming from the Midwest to coastal Georgia was a major environmental shift; everything I witnessed was followed by a whirlwind of emotions. Being a Marine Education Fellow offered me experiences that could be found in a few areas of the U.S.: an armadillo walking past my feet, an alligator approaching our boat or spotting geckos climbing the sides of buildings. These encounters made me want to continuously get out in the field to experience coastal Georgia. So far, my favorite field experience has been shark fishing.

Todd Recicar, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s vessel captain and marine operations supervisor, took the other fellows and me aboard a skiff to embark on a catch and release shark fishing trip that allowed us to learn about different types of sharks in Georgia’s estuaries while gaining hand-on experiences and absorbing best practices for recreational fishing that could be shared during educational programming at the UGA Aquarium.

Estuaries serve as a great habitat for sharks, and during the trip I was able to (barely) reel in two Atlantic sharpnose sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae). Before casting the rods, Recicar went over a few protocols, like explaining which hook and bait to use depending on what you are trying to catch, how to reel in a catch that’s fighting your line, and how to safely unhook animals to minimize impact. About 15 minutes after casting my line, I noticed constant jerking and jumped into action. After reeling in for what seemed like forever, my first Atlantic sharpnose shark was brought on board! It was exciting to catch the first shark of the day, and my first shark in Georgia. While removing it from the hook, I managed to distinguish that it was a male based on the presence of claspers. I also felt the dermal denticles, or the V-shaped scales that cover the skin of sharks, before releasing it safely back into the water.

While serving as a marine educator as part of my fellowship, I have had endless opportunities to interact with

Natalia Jaworski holds a butterfly ray on a boat

Jaworski holds a butterfly ray during an estuary trawl.

audiences of different backgrounds that pass through our facilities daily. From students, tourists, and even recreational fishermen, the one question I continuously get asked is “have you caught a shark in the estuary?” While I’ve always had an innate interest in sharks and knew of their existence in estuaries, it wasn’t until the trip that I caught one and now I can talk about my experiences. When individuals ask me questions about shark fishing, I answer with excitement and pride because I caught not one, but two Atlantic sharpnose sharks! The knowledge I have gained throughout this field experience will allow me to continue educating and answering questions visitors have about fishing in estuaries, all while promoting safe and legal fishing practices.

There are plenty of other fieldwork opportunities that I have eagerly participated in simply because I wouldn’t get the same experience in the Midwest as I do in coastal Georgia. I frequently go out into the salt marsh to collect mussels to bring back as a food source to our animals in the aquarium and serve as an extra hand during estuary trawls for the public to gain speed and confidence in identifying and sorting a variety of marine organisms. Experiential learning is embedded in the Marine Education Fellowship, and through these experiences I have gained new skills and knowledge that I look forward to applying in my professional career.

The hands-on field experiences I was provided with during my time with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant allowed me to narrow down future career choices I had in mind. After my fellowship ends in early August, I will be pursuing a master’s degree in environmental sciences at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch where I’ll put the knowledge I gained out in the field to use while working on my thesis, hopefully studying elasmobranchs.