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We landed in Zagreb, Croatia this past Thursday afternoon and immediately hopped on a bus for a 3.5 hour ride to Zadar. Even jet-lagged, I still couldn’t keep my eyes from darting left and right outside the window at the amazing Croatian countryside! The landscape seemed both so foreign and yet so familiar. The vast sea of rolling green trees spanned as far as I could see meeting the slopes and mountains appeared soon after we left Zagreb. This soon ended abruptly as we came through a final tunnel into a more arid region that would be more expected of the region surrounding the Adriatic Sea. The drastic change was absolutely amazing! The bus ride was only a little longer as we winded around some more local roads. But soon enough we found ourselves in Zadar (finally!).

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A bit of history

Zadar has a rich history dating as far back to the 9th century BC where it was first populated as a Liburnian settlement. In later times, Zadar showed major signs of Roman influences seen through the architecture surrounding and within the old town, such as the St. Donatus Church. Currently, Zadar  has been completely transformed and now has approximately 75,000 inhabitants. The first thing I noticed about Zadar was how amazingly incorporated it was with the sea. Everything in Zadar is within walking distance and the general rule of thumb I’ve noticed is that most everything is within a 15 minute walk.

The old town is surrounded by massive Roman walls. Within the walls you could find the university, narrow streets with shops and restaurants packed with people – I could only imagine how it must look during peak tourist-season. The university, founded in 1396, was right at the edge of the Adriatic (somewhat similar to UMass Boston and Boston Harbor).

Across from the UNIZD you can see the beginning of all the islands (there are over a thousands islands off the coasts of Croatia!), where ferries shuttle its inhabitants too and from the mainland – however these boats seem to run rather infrequently. We excitedly dropped our bags in the dorms, which was also adjacent to the sea, and headed into town for a quick walkthrough knowing that we’d have a busy (and exciting) next few days!

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Learning from UNIZD Students

On Friday we met with Professor Claudia Kruschel from the University of Zadar to plan our two week’s activities within the International Ecoliteracy Initiative. Our goal for the visit is to incorporate the research from the Biomimicry LivingLabs in Brodarica to our Coasts & Communities online course and plan to engage the UNIZD and local community for the long term.

Students of Dr. Kruschel, who have been participating in the Biomimicry LivingLabs at Brodarica Cove as part of their Coastal Conservation and Planning course, presented their research exclusively for our team from UMB on Friday night (our Croatian TGIF from 4:30pm to 8:30pm). We learned about their local environmental coastal issues and community values, and were impressed by their dedication and passion for learning and addressing coastal environment problems.

We also had a discussion comparing and contrasting both environments (Boston and Croatia) and how we can better move forward by learning from nature to help alleviate the negative side-effects of a built up coastline, as seen in both Zadar and Boston harbors. We were really impressed by the students’ effortless shifting from speaking Croatian and English in discussions with us and their professors. The night’s discussions came to an eventual end and as happy as we were with discussions, we were even more eager to get out in their LivingLabs and get some hands-on learning (which would come in the following morning)!

Research in Action at the Biomimicry LivingLab in Brodarica

Excited to get on site, Saturday morning we walked a couple of miles to Brodarica Cove where we were to meet with Dr. Kruschel and her class again. Yes you heard me right, class on Saturdays, and even Sundays! The university schedules here are extremely different to ours as to help cope with the students’ busy work schedules. The first thing we did was meet the class down by Brodarica Cove to collect boulder samples. Much of the Croatian coastline is made up of vast boulder fields. Within these fields, each boulder represents a different habitat with a different biodiversity. The idea behind their research is to compare and contrast the species that are found within one cove that has been influenced by human development (Brodarica) to another that hasn’t had as much influence (Borik). The species found can also act as environmental health indicators, i.e., different algal and invasive species.

After sampling in Brodarica, I took a ride with Dr. Kruschel to sample at the Borik site (map below). Meanwhile, Anamarija and Rrezarta were with the students interviewing them about their educational experience with the Coasts and Communities open course (they loved it!).

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Back in the lab, at the Institute of Fish Technology (Institute za Tehnologiju Ribe), we began the tedious task of identifying the species on the boulders (rocks sampled from two project sites). What they’ve found throughout the term is that the species diversity have been dramatically decreased in Brodarica cove, which is largely attributed to anthropogenic impacts. Even visually, the boulders from the two sites looked drastically different.

The purpose of the Biomimicry LivingLabs (established at the Brodarica Cove in 2014) is to better learn from nature, understand local changes in order to restore missing ecological functions. From their findings at the two project sites, the class was able to see directly how infrastructure development impacts natural diversity. But as we’ve seen in Boston and other urban harbors, this isn’t just an isolated problem specific to Zadar!

Sunday Daytrip to Preko

Sunday was spent at Anamarija’s home place of Preko on the island Ugljan. We chose to visit this area as the coastline has been dramatically changed, much like in Brodarica, to account for human development. For example, areas have been developed in response to tourism, seen through activities of ‘cementing’ the beautiful limestone coastline, as well as a need to install sewer lines. Walking through the island you can easily see that even the rocky coastline isn’t natural. There are sections with small sandy stretches, and areas made with construction material worn away by the water like sea glass, briks and others with smaller pebbles.

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These changes have ecological impacts on site-specific environmental health due to missing ecological services causing decline of boulder and rocky biological diversity, and decline of fish, shellfish and crab species. Here the trapped nutrients result in massive algal blooms (eutrophication). One species looked like huge jellyfish stretching over a meter! I wanted to be able to experience Croatia from a natural perspective, so Rrezarta and I decided to tighten up our laces and trail blaze through the town and some rugged paths. We found some amazing single-track paths and one led down to the water a few miles outside the town. At first glance you could tell that the area was more or less pristine. One natural indicator of this was the vast array of sea urchins in the water. It was like dodging a minefield and I’m not proud to admit that I did manage to sweep one with my foot… Ouch!

Preko was definitely an interesting experience because from an untrained eye it was absolutely gorgeous, but that isn’t necessarily always the case. Anamarija helped paint clear mental pictures of how marine and coastal specific area used to look naturally and how the community was able to best utilize the ecosystem services that they provided, and live sustainably on the island from land and sea.