In this instalment of our seagrass series for World Wildlife Day 2022, we interview Mr. Terryn Constantine, a Post-Graduate student pursuing studies in seagrasses at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Learn more about how he moved from the hills to the ocean and what advice he has for others who are interested in this field!
Nikita Ali (NA): Hello! Please, tell me a little about yourself Terryn?
Terryn Constatine (TC): my name is Terryn Constantine. I was born and raised far in the ‘country’ i.e., Paramin, and my upbringing was very in tune with nature and agriculture. I myself used agriculture and animal husbandry as a means to earn extra cash as a teen to help support my extra-curricular endeavours and hobbies. I prize intelligence and competence both in myself and others and I’m often described as resourceful. I have passions for most activities relating to nature or the ocean, and I’m frequently involved in hikes and water sports, and even sometimes part of the odd search and rescue party as I am at home in the bush.
NA: As a child, did you want to study marine sciences?
TC: Nope, as a child I was and still am very interested in electronics. My career goal for a while was to become a robotic engineer, however after A levels when came time to choose which direction to take I decided to go the way of marine sciences because it is a major hobby of mine, I at the time was breeding and selling fishes and aquatic plants to pet stores, and was very curious about the unknowns of the ocean and salt water environments. Another major factor into my decision making was that locally there were not many avenues for careers in robotics, I would have had to leave the country and study abroad, and my parents are not well funded so it was an impossibility, there is a programme locally but again, it was the opportunity for careers in the field. Also, I am the only one in my immediate family who is drawn to the ocean and beaches and general large bodies of water, my family mostly avoid large bodies of water or just don’t venture very far.
NA: What are your current studies focused on?
TC: My study area is marine ecology, specific to seagrasses, they are in my opinion one of the most overlooked of ecosystems, the role they play in keeping the popular coral reefs looking great is tremendous and yet, because they are usually just seen as ‘seaweed’ (WHICH THEY ARE NOT), they tend to be thrown into that broader category of just oceanic weeds. Seagrasses are pretty much the makeup artists for nearshore ecosystems like coral reefs, what persons see and are attracted to are the popular and beautiful ‘actors/actresses’ that are coral reefs, but without their makeup artists, those actors won’t look quite as alluring.
- For more on how seagrass meadows and coral reefs work together check out – Plants Protecting Against Pathogens: Seagrass Meadows Clean the Waters Near Coral Reefs – Yale Scientific Magazine
NA: How would you describe the availability of educational opportunities for someone interested in this field? Both locally and regionally?
TC: In my experience information with regard to study in this field was pretty easy to come-by, and during my time studying as a bachelor’s student, there were a few regional students, and even now I still find regional students in the programme. So far as I can tell, a simple google search will give you the marine sciences programme as a result.
NA: What advice would you give younger students interested in this field?
TC: Advice I would give is do as much as you can while you can, volunteer for everything you can related to marine and/or aquatic science, because all that counts toward experience and you learn unexpected things then also, and as you grow older and gain more responsibilities, you will long for time to be in the field. Also, I would say don’t have marine science alone as your core money maker, it takes a little while sometimes for the money to start to come, diversify. Basically, get as much exposure as you can, and don’t rely solely on the filed to make money. You can make a lot of money and find opportunities to travel with the degree but you can also not.
NA: What do you hope to be the impact of your studies?
TC: My hope is that the information gets out, because so many people seem to just not know about many things right at our shoreline, its just beneath the waves. In a way, the water is like an interdimensional barrier, most persons don’t recognize that as you break the surface, there is quite literally another mostly unexplored world on the other side.
NA: What are some of the enjoyable or fun aspects of this work?
TC: Lol, it depends on what you enjoy, I would say almost everything, you get to look and feel like a proper scientist (although you actually will be a proper scientist), I personally found myself in awe very often at the amount of new and interesting information you come across, you learn that there is pretty much a fish for everything on land, ratfish, catfish, batfish, dogfish, hogfish, frogfish and so on and so on. I also learn that inspiration for creatures from the alien movie and most alien invasion movies come from marine organisms, the double jaw from alien is an eel’s jaw or polychaete worms’ jaws, that jaw inside a jaw is very real, just smaller. I have also held and tagged live sharks, tagged turtles, played with many starfish and sea cucumbers etc etc, literally ran into a turtle underwater, there is so much, so long as you have an interest, I believe most aspects of the work and/or study will be enjoyable.
Find out more:
- For more information on the unique structures called pharyngeal jaws, check out – ‘Alien’ Jaws Help Moray Eels Feed | UC Davis
- Also , we know that the readers now need to know what a frogfish looks like – here you go – The Frogfish: Weird-Looking and Wonderful – Ocean Conservancy
NA: What were some unexpected challenges that you faced during your research and studies?
TC: Apart from the obvious strain of COVID-19, one major unexpected challenge for me was that I needed a bit of money in order to get safety certificates etc to actually work out in the offshore environment. There also is the math which in not the best at, seasickness which sucks, as a researching student, finding the authorities who are responsible for granting permissions to conduct research in protected areas.
NA: Space exploration has become a big deal in recent years. As 80% of the ocean remains unexplored, how do feel about this?
TC: Some persons look up for more and some look down, whichever direction its still exploration, also, that just leaves more for me to find.
NA: I know you’re a marine ecologist, but if you had to choose? Where would you like to explore? Mars or the Mariana Trench? All expenses paid; safe journey guaranteed.
TC: Mars, I can find another way to the Marianna trench, I can’t find another way to mars.
- Find out more about the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest place, located in the Pacific Ocean. The depth is estimated at 2500 km and the width at 70 km! Due to the depth, the pressure of the water is so intense, it is thought that calcium could not exist in solid form- bones would literally dissolve, but ongoing research continues to search for life in the depths.
- Check out this link for more information presented in a poster format- Marianas Trench Classroom Posters | NOAA Fisheries
NA: Do you have a favourite seagrass meadow somewhere in the world?
TC: Well, I need to travel and find a favourite, but my favourite locally was the turtle grass meadow at Williams Bay, which disappeared in 2015, really fast, leaving only a sandy bottom. So right now, I need to explore some more to find a new favourite.
NA: I have read about seagrass “rice” being a possible food source? Can you eat seagrass or the seeds/flowers they produce? Make a yummy salad? If yes, have you eaten it? What does it taste like?
TC: I actually haven’t heard of that yet, however, seagrasses have been used for home insulation, roofing material, stuffing for pillows and mattresses, weaving material and even for packing seafood. I can see if as being a plausible option for food though, because is basically a leafy green, herbivores of the sea eat it regularly. Also, I have seen seeds and it is very much like a grain, if there is a way to easily cultivate it, I can see it being a real probability. That’s part of the reason for my research, in the hopes that I can easily grow seagrasses, in my mind for the marine aquarium trade as an aquatic plant but once that can be done, then that means it can be grown for anything else also, and well, seagrass is a grass, and it acts like one, wheat is also a grass, and corn, in fact, all the major cereals are grasses. You have put ideas in my head, much appreciated.
- Seagrass rice? Learn more at – The rice of the sea: how a tiny grain could change the way humanity eats | Plants | The Guardian
NA: Is there any local initiative or incentive that encourage incorporating marine resources sustainably in people’s lives? Eg. Fish leather made from fish skins discarded by the seafood industry.
TC: Not to my knowledge, would love to see one though.
- Fish leather – The Art of Turning Fish into Leather | Hakai Magazine
NA: What are your hopes for the future of seagrass conservation?
TC: My hope is not just for seagrass conservation, I hope for sustainability, and in order to do that we need to better understand this ecosystem, how resilient it is, what is its ‘kryptonite’ and how well it is able to bounce back. Temperate seagrasses have been found to absorb toxins from oil, and yet, ‘dirty’/silty water can decimate entire communities.
NA: Do you want to “shout-out” anyone in the field locally who has helped you?
TC: Definitely my current Phd primary supervisor Dr. Kelly Kingon, she has done a lot by just pretty much being herself, also Dr. Rahanna Juman from the IMA whose work has provided a lot of vital information with regard to local seagrass communities and locations that allowed me to build on.
NA: Those are both excellent and inspiring choices! Are there any “celebrities or heroes” in the international seagrass world that you would like to meet or work with?
TC: Dr. Brigitta Van Tussenbroek. She is the person who has a lot of research done on turtle grass flowering within the Caribbean, and she is also the one who spoke about seagrasses having pollinators in the first place. I would just like to have conversations with her so that I can absorb as much of her knowledge and experiences as I can
NA: What is the best thing about seagrasses that you want readers to know about?
TC: There are so many things, I think what may be most attractive to readers is that they are the home of seahorses.
- We actually do find seahorses very attractive! Did you know that seahorses are not very good swimmers and actually get tired easily? They often use their tiny tail to hook onto vegetation such as seagrass to avoid being washed away with the ocean currents!
NA: Seagrass is such a niche area of study, are there any other niches that interest you, but you haven’t been able to fully explore yet?
TC: Yes, Mariculture in Trinidad, or both food fish and ornamentals.
- Mariculture is the agricultural production and harvest of fish and other marine life, including plants, within their natural environments.
NA: Final Question. Favourite marine animal and why is it the manta ray?
TC: It is the manta ray because that’s the programme mascot, butttttttt, I do love the cuttlefish, they are super smart, and like alien spaceships, and hunt by hypnotising their prey.
NA: Thank you Terryn for your insights! We look forward to hearing more about your research and learning more ways in which we can value and experience our local seagrass beds!
Terryn Constantine is a PhD student of the University of Trinidad and Tobago within the Marine sciences Programme. His research focusses mainly on seagrass communities around Trinidad and Tobago and their reproductive cycles, it also includes the environmental factors that influence the growth and development of these communities and their survival.