Alternative Spring Break in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

March 2017

Photo of Alternative Spring Break students from UF’s Alpha Zeta service fraternity. Alternative Spring Break students from UF’s Alpha Zeta service fraternity.


While some college students enjoy spring break in Key West for the plethora of bars, restaurants, beaches, and watersports, one group of students had a different agenda while on their vacation: combat marine debris! For the fifth year in a row, students from the University of Florida’s Alpha Zeta service fraternity donated their time to volunteer with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), cleaning marine debris from protected shorelines.

The only active Alpha Zeta chapter in the state of Florida, the fraternity is dedicated to scholarship, leadership, integrity, and service – both on and off the University of Florida campus. The eight Alpha Zeta members who visited Key West were about as far from campus as they could get, while assisting FKNMS staff with both social and service projects.

Students began their alternative spring break experience at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center where they received an orientation to FKNMS, learned about the negative impacts of marine debris on ecosystems and wildlife, and underwent the first ever training of the Migrants and Refugees Escaping by Sea (M.A.R.E.S.) program. M.A.R.E.S. is an interagency effort to record abandoned or derelict migrant/refugee craft washed ashore in South Florida.

“This program will not only highlight the plight of refugees at sea, but can also foster community involvement through partnerships, avocational training, and group documentation efforts,” said Josh Marano, Biscayne National Park’s marine archeologist, and developer of the M.A.R.E.S. program.

Photo of UF students learning how to document vessels. UF students learning how to document vessels.


Photo of abandoned vessel. The abandoned vessel students discovered during their clean-up.


Photo of clean-up along the Johnson Tract in action. Clean-up along the Johnson Tract in action.

After undergoing an introduction to the history of refugees/migrants, especially focused on Cuban migrations, the students were able to apply the skills learned in the training through a field exercise of museum-displayed vessels at the Key West Botanical Garden.

Over the next three days, the students conducted marine debris cleanups on three areas throughout the lower Keys, collecting and properly disposing of over 2,500 lbs. of marine debris, as well as discovering, documenting, and adding one new vessel to the M.A.R.E.S. central repository.

"Discovering the migrant vessel was the highlight of the week for some of these students," said Nicole Uibel, program coordinator for alternative spring break. "Conducting shoreline cleanups is a great way to connect students with the natural environment, but discovering the abandoned vessel connected them with the human element.”

First on the cleanup itinerary was the Johnson Tract Wildlife Environmental Area (WEA) on Sugarloaf Key. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission designated the site as a state Wildlife Environmental Area to protected several endangered and native species. On day two, the students combed the beach and mangrove shoreline extending from Boca Chica Beach to the northwest corner of the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve. The reserve is a sanctuary zone designed to protect natural spawning and nursery habitats that are important for sustaining fish and other marine life. On their final day, students used kayaks to access a one-mile segment of the Riveria Canal in Key West, which borders an Audubon Preserve and Key West City Park, which remains one of the few green spaces in Key West untouched by development.

Among the items collected were plastic and glass bottles, light bulbs, aluminum cans, shoes, plastic bags, and small plastic items such as straws and bottle caps. The group also picked up larger items such as derelict fishing gear and buoys, furniture, and tires.

“It was incredible to work with this group again and see the passion they have for collecting marine debris,” said NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rosemary Abbitt. “Their enthusiasm was contagious!”

For more information on becoming a volunteer and participating in marine debris cleanups within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, contact or