All posts by nk32

(Nakian) Looking back: Life as a will


Korea has a blessed geography where the mountains that consist 70% of the country are covered with deciduous forests of green, orange, and white that parade through the year. I am used to the changing hues of the forest as I watched them from my house in Seoul, lived within them in the barracks, and experienced them inside the forests whenever I hiked them. Indeed, the nature I am local to is undoubtedly beautiful. However constant human coexistence, modern extraction and exploitation have made the ecosystem devoid of much diversity. Naturally the immense biodiversity I witnessed in the rainforest and the coral reef past two weeks have overwhelmed me with the manifestation of untamed, uncontainable vigor of life in its true form I never have experienced.

After experiencing the rainforest and coral reef, I noticed three common characteristics which I believe are the sources of immense biodiversity that these two ecosystems host:
As the common prefix eco- (oikos, “house” in Greek) imply, ecology and economy share similar principles based on deliberate will for persistence and elevation. They exhibit similar analogous features that I wish to refer an economy as an ecosystem. Dependence to “capital” is one of the features. The size and vigor of an ecosystem are relative to the amount of available capital. Just as an economy grow in size and diversity with input of capital (be it foreign or domestic), biodiversity and biomass will increase as more energy and nutrient is present. Sunlight is the prime source of energy for all life. The immense biodiversity along the equator is not surprising with the blazing amount of sunlight that hit the tropical rainforest, as evident with my sunburnt skin. The high canopies of the rainforest and vast field of corals and algae pumps the ecosystem they support with energy they converted from the sunlight with amount unmatched by any other biome on Earth.
Another characteristic of a healthy and sizable economy is the rapid circulation of money. At least in theory with lots of money in the economy, people will consume more, loan more, and produce more. However, rainforest soil and the tropical ocean lack nutrient, paradoxically to the great biodiversity and abundance they hold. But think: these ecosystems are full of consumers that will extract nutrient from the environment and another. Once a tree dies or a leaf falls, or a fish dies, they will rapidly turn back into nutrient by decomposers and as much rapidly be consumed by the great number of other consumers. With great amount of source of nutrients and equally great amount of consumers, nutrients have no time to be accumulated into the soil or water.
With great availability of capital, its healthy circulation, economy diversifies, creating various niche meeting the various needs of people. Ecosystem show similar trend. As the trees create diverse canopy structures, and as reefs create complex formations, organisms that depend on them will radiate accordingly, specify, and speciate. The specific symbiosis like Azteca ant: cecropia tree, Pseudomyrmex ants: acacia trees, and Atta ants: fungus farm demonstrate such specificity.


While rainforest and coral reef ecosystems share principles to most richness and diversity, each received myself with different level of hospitality. In the forest I was part of it. I experienced the soil, the tree, air, ticks, the point of view like the other inhabitants. Without deliberate intention as that of blood sucking ticks or mosquitoes, fellow inhabitants of the forest never approached us. Subtle signs like the howler’s monkeys’ call and disturbed forest floor indicating the jaguar’s presence implied their existence. These forest animals really respected personal space. However, I was only a guest underwater. Animals recognized my presence and fled or showed aggression only when I approached them so closely.
The fragile nature of the coral reef ecosystem was striking. The visible competition between the coral reef and algae for space and sunlight highlighted the intricate nature of the corals and how special this ecosystem is. The rising sea temperature, defiling marine debris, flow of excessive amount of nutrient into the waters, all are collaboration of humanity to destroy this important ecosystem where we cannot pinpoint our judging fingers to.

Through this course I successfully realize what I like and what I can do regarding field biology which will consist significant part of my career. As I spent more time among the rainforest I learned how much I liked the place. My initial expectation was that I will like the diving and the open ocean horizon of the atoll. But the dry and pure breeze and thick canopy that shaded me from the blazing sun convinced me that rainforest is not bad at all. I should wait until I experience the rainy season and the bloom of mosquitoes but I did like the forest’s dry season. Meanwhile, I truly learned the terror of sandflies at the atoll. These small devils made unpleasant hickey marks all over my body followed by extreme itchness. I just couldn’t bear it. Also without shade, I was in direct exposure to the sunlight. Contrary to the expectations I realized myself as a “Turf” person. I love the mountains and the forest as I am more familiar to them.
The academic part of the course was far beyond my expectations. I really liked how each projects challenged us to ask the right question, make a right hypothesis, right methods, and right conclusion from the unexpected results. I learned how much I must learn and be trained to make relevant decisions regarding a research. As for the unexpected results, I will never forget when our camera trap caught a wild ocelot. The beautiful pattern of the small leopard embodied the beauty of unexpectedness gift of the nature.
The immense biodiversity that I encountered in the rainforest and coral reefs embodies the radiant will of life that seeks to rise. And this will is the will of genetic materials to proliferate. The characteristics of each species I saw came to be either as an effort to sustain itself under pressure or to expand and exploit under favorable conditions. Witnessing this principle, I accepted that the purpose of life to rise naturally reside in our species still. However, struggle to rise does not necessarily involve unjustly exploiting on others. Yes, we have to prey on others like all life does but there is an extent to which the extraction will become unnatural exploitation. Humanity has long exceeded that threshold. After this course I once again recalibrated, reinforced my will to contribute to the effort to correct humanity’s current path down to unnatural decadence back to that of natural and healthy will to sustainable power.


(Nakian) May 31: Mangrove x Return


The morning was a busy one, summarizing the two weeks trip with undoing all the luggage and reorganizing them according to the last day’s plan. All the cloths I have wore bore the memories of the parts of forests and reefs I have seen with. I couldn’t believe a chapter of my life is coming to an end. We set out into the ocean early in the morning. We stopped at Carrie Bow Caye where the Smithsonian Institute Research Station was situated. There on a 1.5 acre island stood cozy station where we heard about a retiring ecologist’s story. After that we continued on to our last ecosystem: Mangrove. The mangrove is a peculiar place where plants have engineered islands on sea water. It would have probably a small patch of island where mangroves started to grow. However as their high roots caught silts and their literfall accumulated, they expanded the island and host a immense biomass. School of juvenile fish swam among the eerie roots covered with sponges. I tried to look for brown algae but the mucky water made it hard. I couldn’t find one.
On the way to Belize City, we passed by a small island dominated by some trees and flock of frigate birds. Someone explained that it was their nesting ground that shrunk year after year because of rising sea level and hurricanes. The island was a fortress with small threats. More so the fate of the island made me sad.

(Nakian) May 30: Dissection x Lionfish x Pina Colada

Brown algae found today
Brown algae found today

Tonight is the last night in Belize. We went to the patch reef nearby our dorm and collected specimens in the morning. We found bunch of little crabs, a level 45 hermit crab (the biggest I have seen), bunch of algae, and played with conchs that tried to swath our hand away with their extended body. It was amazing to see so many different animals in such a shallow water. After that we returned to our coral colony project and concluded that colony coverage decreased.
In the afternoon we dissected lionfish, recording their weight, body length, gape size, body fat volume, and stomach content. Since we didn’t know the previous data we couldn’t make any conclusions but it was fun cutting up an invasive species. I am only waiting to taste the ceviche I heard they were making with the fish we dissected.
I collected the same 5 kinds of brown algae that I have seen while I was staying here: Sargassum, Dictyota, Turbinaria, Padina, and Lobophora. I couldn’t find any other and I concluded that these are the most common species in the region.
Before dinner we sailed to Southwest Caye, a resort island. We sat in a bar and drank pina colada by the dock under the sunset. After a amazing dinner, and watching the slideshow of our photo we have taken during this trip concluded our course very nicely.

(Nakian) May 29: Trash x Beach

The beach of the Middle Caye where waves hit seemed clean from the glance. Gray and white field of coral grave made calming splash as the wave slowly crashed. However, the seemingly pristine beach was bearing bits and pieces of human trash when we saw it with the agenda of cleaning the beach. Plastic bottles, nets, ropes, toothbrush, and deformed my little pony lingered around the crevasses and under the porous coral skeletons. But most alarming pieces were the brittle plastics that crumbled as we picked them carelessly. Our civilized world would not tolerate these plastic powders enter our body. However these crumbles will flow back into the ocean with the tide and latch onto any animals that might consume them unknowingly and eventually end up in our own as we eat them. Standing on that beach I pictured a futuristic one where there are more trash than water and the sky was thick with gas as we have dug up everything with value from the ground and thrown up in the air and waters after a day’s use.

In the afternoon we went through the mangrove to dive in another patch reef. The water was hot like a bathtub. There were some healthy corals but many of the patches were covered in brown algae. Thinking of how algae compete with corals, seeing so many of my taxa wasn’t so joyful. I was able to find a species of brown algae I haven’t seen before. Otherwise I saw massive number of Turbinaria and Dictyota covering the structures underwater.


(Nakian) May 28: Eagle x Lion X Deep Sea

Seeing a giant animal passing by fills a heart with amazement and respect to the sublimity of the nature. Today we entered the deeper sea outside of the reef where the high waves hit. The deep blue, depth, the high wave made sharp contrast with the shallow emerald water we have been diving into. Gazing down to the massive reef structures far down, I was filled with both fear and respect. Then there appeared an eagle ray. Its length must be as long as myself and it gracefully flapped its wings above the floor.

The strong waves outside the reef were enough to exhaust those inside and make those on the boat suffer seasickness. The sun shot down on our exposed skin. Overall the diving in the deep sea we experienced the strength of the nature.

Later in the afternoon, we went out to the shallow waters. I always overlooked the uniform seagrass floor of the shallow water but soon great biodiversity carpeted under the water that only came up to my waist. Vicious looking barracuda with size of my arm lurched silently, similar sized lobsters peeped their long antennae under the reef, and great diversity of fish swam around well structured reef. Of course brown algae was everywhere. Among the prairie of seagrass patches of forkweed and scroll algae. There were Turbinaria too, mostly growing on reef structure, as expected.

Among the reef were lionfish. They are vicious invasive predators that will devastate the native ecosystem. We were out there to catch them and contribute to the ecosystem by making them into lionfish ceviche. Their stripe pattern wwas pretty I must say, but the venomous spikes were intimidating. We caught four of them and hopefully will become a great ceviche for tomorrow.

(Nakian) May 27: Sea x Urchin x Sargasso


Today I finally found the Sargassum brown algae. There weren’t whole lot and were free floating on the surface so it could have just been from somewhere else but I was excited to see it. It looked just as I imagined. The dive today was awesome as well. We finally got off the nearby patchy reef but to other area with large reef area. I could see even more kinds of fish, mollusks, and urchins, which we had to catch for our project. I used to only know urchins as orange flesh you eat with Korean hot sauce or a spiky chestnut in the ocean floor. But such beauty they are and how weird they feel when they try to crawl around on my palm. Thinking that their spines are all like legs and means of defense, these urchins are pretty cool animals.

The coral reef is an amazing ecosystem. Diving through the canopy of different hues of brown and yellow, it is as if I am swimming through Cambrian ocean. Yet I am more amazed by the terrestrial ecosystem these atolls can sustain. These island are not at all big but are full of life and are green as much as the rainforest. It is as if an intricate system inside glass ball of emerald blue. I have read that people like Mayans in the Glover’s and Polynesians in the Pacific have colonized the atolls and lived. Population was a huge factor to the sustainability of these islands that some have fell under population that exceeded the limit. I take these historical stories as the allegory of our planet. What will happen when the glass orb break?

(Nakian) May 26: Brown x Algae x Butchering

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Today was a good day for brown algae. I finally found some of the brown algae I expected and were mostly in the reef. There were many of Padina, Dictyota and Turbinaria among the coral. Michael happened to find a Lobophora as well. One of the reef was full of them that I think there was a big competition between algae and coral. I am hoping to see more of the algae and I expect more to be found in the peripheral reef we will be visiting tomorrow. It was interesting there weren’t so many sargasso since I heard it was pretty dominant. Maybe they are more common in open ocean. I thin they are cool so I hope to see them. Also I think I saw an Oyster Thief but am not sure because it wasn’t hollow but was conglomerates of filamentous algae looking things.
Today the sandfly craziness was better because I am used to the itchness. Saw a fisherman butchering a meter long barracuda. I hope not to encounter one while diving.

(Nakian) May 25: Sailing x sandflies x Reef


Today left Belize City after a great lunch and sailed for Glover’s Reef. The Caribbean was a mosaic of blues created by the different geological and biological factors. The emerald sea near the shore had patches of dark blue. Distant greens above the horizon were mangrove forests as we approached. As we changed direction and entered the open sea, the juxtaposition of dark blue and emerald was dominated by the deep indigo of rough waves. After sailing for almost 3 hours we finally reached the emerald of the Glover’s Reef.
Never having been to an atoll, the Glover’s Reef gave me a great impression. An emerald paradise of coral reef was guarded like a fortress against the deep blue. When we finally dived into the water, hundreds of small fish greeted us above the sea grass. Then we finally reached the coral reef, it was as if I am looking at a bonsai rainforest. Maybe I haven’t look closely enough because of the confusion of being underwater, I could not find brown algae. I thought these algae would be obviously large enough or dominate the area or something. But apparently, other kinds organisms like corals and other algae and even plants seemed to be in constant competition. Hopefully I can find it tomorrow when I am more used to the environment.
But the sandflies tho. I though ticks were bad. But these things are sneaky with straight punch into my skin leaving a spots that won’t go way. At least killing ticks have some pleasure in it when the blood in it pops. Sandflies, smaller, sneakier, but more painful. My next 6 days will be a war against these bugs

(Nakian) May 24: Departure x Connection x Zoo

Today we left Las Cuevas Research Station to return to San Ignacio and depart to Glover’s Reef tomorrow. The departure was not so smooth as the van came 5 hours later due to miscommunication. The van was hot but spacious so not so much to complain about. As we passed the Tapir Camp and the familiar road we came through I remembered the excitement and concerns on the way to LCRS.
When we arrived at San Ignacio, I connected to the internet with my phone for the first time. It was a race of information and connection that I had forgotten for a whole week. After spending much time replying to worried messages, I found myself submerging into that waves of information and not living in the world I am sitting on. I was returning to myself before the trip I hoped to change.
Finally, we arrived at the Belize Zoo to have a night tour with nocturnal animals. With the humorous guides we saw the big cats of the rainforest that we had hoped to see ourselves in the rainforest. They were beautiful creatures and their story of how they ended up in the zoo saddened me for the ignorance and greed of men.
Also I saw leaf-cutter ants in the zoo. It seems that they are everywhere in Belize.

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(Nakian) May 23: Tapir x Ocelot x Bye LCRS

Today is the last activity day at Las Cuevas Research Station. We finally retrieved the camera traps we set on the first day. I was not expecting much because I have heard how cautious wildlife are especially near human presence. But what are the odds, the cameras caught a curassow, a tapir, an ocelot, and a weasel looking animal that was hard to identify. The last camera trap was a blast with a big cat species we all hoped to see. The ocelot’s beautiful pattern was indeed mesmerizing.
The past several days at the LCRS I must say was extraordinary. The morning choir of the distant and closely birds, nocturne of the night insects, occasional cries of the howler monkeys, bustling processions of Leaf-cutter and army ants’ parade, and shimmer of the neighboring planet beside the tropical moon. Having the first-hand experience of the field biology on the crisp bed of fallen tree litters, rejoicing with the unexpected encounter with amazing species, I have never been so one with the nature before.
I still am not sure what my passion in the ecological field will be in detail. But I learned in LCRS that studying to approach ecological conservation of this biodiversity haven in the light of social, political, cultural, and economic perspective that I aspire to take could be a valid path, even one that could be healthy for me. I do not regret my decision to spend my time here.

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