Everyone loves a good field trip. Granted, for most, field trips are a fond but distant memory from elementary school. Even at Richmond, where many projects and learning opportunities take place outside the classroom, it’s not every day that students find themselves spending the night in a sleeping bag, side by side with their professor and classmates, on the floor of a museum—all in the name of research.

As part of a research project, geography professor Mary Finley-Brook’s ecotourism class traveled to Tangier Island for a weekend this past March. The course, which was funded by a Quest Development Grant, focused on sustainable ecotourism, connecting climate change to Virginia. In order to get a true perspective on what ecotourism means for both the environment and for a particular community, the grant included funding for the class to visit a local field site to evaluate a real program. After putting together proposals for four different sites, the students chose to visit Tangier Island.

The island, which lies in the Chesapeake Bay near the eastern shore of Virginia, is only accessible by small aircraft or passenger boat. Islanders embrace a simple way of life—the 1.7 square-mile island is home to about 500 residents with one school, two small grocery stores and almost no cars. The main economy of Tangier, crabbing, has declined drastically in recent years due to the commonwealth’s restriction on crabbing permits—part of an effort to prevent the extinction of the blue crab population.

Most of the watermen of Tangier have switched over to working on tug boats and are receiving federal aid—but the island’s way of life is in danger. Today, high school graduates, who once would have followed in the footsteps of their watermen fathers, are now leaving the island to find work. With the diminishment of Tangier’s main industry, the island’s population is diminishing as well. In the face of this economic crisis, the islanders have made a concerted effort to devote themselves to sustainable ecotourism, an industry that may allow their way of life to continue, at least in part.

Here is where Finley-Brook’s class comes in. After spending about two and a half months researching ecotourism, they traveled by ferry to Tangier Island to see ecotourism’s effects on a community. The class split into two groups: one focused on the social issues related to ecotourism and the other on the ecological issues. To understand a variety of perspectives once they arrived on the island, students interviewed everyone from local watermen to the island’s mayor.

“The people were so friendly and we really learned a lot from just talking with them,” said Finley-Brook. “I was so impressed with how seriously the students took these interviews—they asked great questions and were really interested in what they could find out.”

After a night spent sleeping on the floor of Tangier Island’s local museum, the class spent Sunday kayaking in the bay, cleaning up non-biodegradable debris from the beaches, and participating in a community garden project with the island’s museum staff.

Within the two research groups, each student chose a particular topic to focus on; the trip to Tangier provided a chance to conduct important first-hand research.

“I really enjoyed the trip because it allowed me to really see the impact that certain regulations have on fisherman,” said Ashley McQuillin, ’09, who was part of the environmental group and focused her research on how crabbing restrictions and the license freeze affected other fishing industries and whether any of those other fishing industries could replace crabbing on Tangier. “It’s easy to impose policies for conservation but environmentalists don’t always see the negative effects that these regulations have on watermen, who depend on the crabbing industry for their livelihood.”

Carolyn Doherty, ’11, who was part of the group studying social issues, focused on how the crabbing restrictions have affected the population of Tangier. Students specifically, says Doherty, are leaving the island and it was important for her to interview residents and get their point of view on the topic.

“I went on the trip not knowing what it would bring or what I would learn but I really appreciated the time I spent on Tangier, both for my research and the experience as a whole,” said Ramon Bullard, ’09, who studied Tangier’s relationship with the state and federal government along with nonprofits such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“I was interested in exploring the relationship between the watermen and government officials,” he said. “What I was surprised to find out on the trip was the significant tension between the local government, residents, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I think it’s central to repair the relations with this nonprofit, and state government, in order to really get ecotourism going in full force on the island.”

Finley-Brook was as affected by the trip as her students, calling it one of the most interesting experiences she’s had in North America as a researcher.

Watch video highlights from the trip:

See photos of the trip: