Category Archives: 2019

Day 13: The Urchins

This morning we met in the classroom to devise yet another method for measuring reef health. We decided on counting sea urchins, because they play a key role in eating algae. In the absence of such herbivores, algae can begin to take over coral colonies, so we decided a healthy reef would have more urchins. Again, we assessed a reef inside and a reef outside of the MPA.

We found more urchins inside the MPA during the same amount of collection time with the same amount of people (same total effort). Fishing is restricted in the MPA and carnivorous fish are often a target of commercial fishing, so the decreased presence of carnivorous fish and thus greater quantity of herbivorous fish might exist outside of the MPA. Herbivorous fish compete with urchins for food, so a larger number of herbivorous fish could decrease the number of urchins outside of the MPA. In addition, the site we studied inside the MPA had greater coral cover, which provides places for urchins to hide and could increase their numbers by improved protection from predators. We identified 5 different species of urchins.

Pencil Sea Urchin

A few people are still feeling a bit seasick from the trip to the forereef, where the wave action was greater. By lunch, I was feeling a bit off as well, despite not diving down at the forereef. I surmised after it only took a few hours to recover that I had been too cold in the water while searching for sea urchins. By the end of the day I think most people felt better, but we are all exhausted. Despite that, we did lectures in the afternoon today so that after dinner we could snorkel at night.

The point of snorkeling at night is that we can see bioluminescence. Corals are interesting at night as well because they extend their polyps (many species retract them during the day). I had trouble taking acceptable photos in the dark, and I kept alternating between being right on top of my buddy (Keegan) and trying to locate him because I got too far away. He was wearing all black, and it was dark—I guess I was easier to spot at a distance with my white snorkel and mask. I ended up wishing everyone was wearing more distinctive gear, because though we were supposed to stick together with our buddies, it was hard to tell who was who. It was also hard to find the reef in the dark and we initially swam past it.

We did manage to see the coral polyps, and some large Spiny Lobsters! The rest of the experience was marred by accidentally kicking and being kicked by my fellow TFBers, and trying to stick my head up out of the water to see where everyone was. In total we didn’t see that much.

Day 12: Swimming in the depths

This morning we went out first thing to catch the calm weather for snorkeling and get off the island which was very buggy (because there was no wind). We went again to a patch inside and outside of the Marine Protected Area, and in each place counted live coral using a quadrat method, 10 samples over a distance of 100 m for 5 groups. We ran into more trouble this time: the first sample was thick with fire coral—we even had to put our quadrat on fire coral once. Some of the reef was also deeper and we had to dive down to count the coral.

Fire Coral

Then, we got in the water only to realize it was full of jellies, and we had to rush back onto the boat while one of the safety officers pushed the jellies away by pushing them by the heads. I didn’t see them, but we also saw comb jellies at that location. Amanda picked one up. It looked just like a handful of gelatin.

We went to another location outside the MPA without jellies to actually take data. I took pictures of corals when I wasn’t taking data, and I saw Golfball Coral (Flavia fragum) and another coral I still need to identify. There was still a lot of Mustard Coral (Porites astreoides) and I also saw some purple branching Porites, possibly divaricata again. Most of the Porites we have seen so far, excluding Mustard Hill Coral, have probably been P. divaricata due to branching near the tips, although a few times I have seen colonies that form thicker branches that might have been P. porites or P. fulcata. P. porites is generally greater than 1 cm wide, P. fulcata is is in between, and P. divaricata is less than 1 cm. I also saw some Grooved Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria labyrinthiformis), which has a groove on the ridge between valleys (the valley contains a row of mouths where polyps stick out (like most corals, these polyps extend primarily at night).

Amanda also saw one Montastrea cavernosa, which is the Great Star Coral. The surface is described in the ID book as “blister-like corallites”. They (the coralllites) are particularly large, size ¼ to ½ in. The colonies of corallites can get quite large, but the one Amanda saw was smaller. I saw only a picture. I also think I saw a lettuce coral (Agaricia). There are multiple species, but my picture is not good enough to tell the difference.

In the afternoon we took the boat over the reef crest (boundary of the ring-shaped atoll) to the forereef outside of the atoll. This is an area of greater wave action where corals form thicker, larger, and more robust forms such as massive or encrusting that don’t stick up into the water where branches could be broken off. This is also one reason the forereef has less algae than the patch reefs we have visited before, which were all inside the atoll in the lagoon, which is sheltered by the reef. We first swam along the wall, where we could not see the bottom over the ledge, then went to a patch reef closer to the crest.

We saw larger fish here too, including a reef shark and some larger Parrotfish. There were some very large Symmetrical Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria ———-). This species is actually very similar to Colpophyllia, but apparently Colpophyllia has deeper grooves, which is a common identifying characteristic in meandroid corals. However, it would be a much easier characteristic to use with more experience. From what I can tell in the ID book, Colpolhyllia also has wider valleys, so that may be used as an additional identifying feature. The most notable species of coral we saw on the reef was Dendrogyna, which is apparently rare (used to be more common). This is the pillar-shaped coral, and has a more bulky skeleton than other species. I think I also saw the Lobed Star Coral, which is Orbicella annularis. Its form is a group of lumps tightly packed and protruding from a hard substrate.

Day 11: We found an octopus!

Today we started out by measuring coral density inside and outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA). The island we are currently staying on, called Middle Caye, is on Glover’s Reef inside of an MPA. This area is patrolled by the Belize coast guard, especially at night. Commercial fishing is not allowed in the area, and part of the point is to prevent overfishing and coral damage in the protected area. We tentatively found that the MPA patch we surveyed had about 28% live coral over total area and the area outside of the MPA had about 18% live coral.  That would seem to suggest that the MPA is protecting the corals and allowing them to grow. However, we identified some improvements we could make to our methods and will repeat the assessment tomorrow.

When not measuring, I saw a few distinctive corals, including Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral).

In the afternoon we walked out to the seagrass and mangroves and collected some small animals, plants, and other living things to look at in the wet lab. We kept them in buckets of water to preserve the creatures. We found a wide range of creatures in nearly everyone’s taxon ID groups, and Kaela even picked up a fireworm. It stung her and released stinging hairs, but she brought it back to the collection bucket anyway. Other creatures we saw included an Atlantic Pygmy Octopus, which could change color and tried to hide under the conch shells, live Queen Conchs, which have a beautiful sunset pattern inside their shells which unfortunately attract collectors (often overharvested and picked up by tourists), a West Indian Sea Egg, which is a kind of urchin that is dark with white spines and covers itself with sea grass, several other urchin species, three-finger leaf algae, other Halimeda algae, Pearl algae, and a ton of hermit crabs.

In terms of coral, we picked up a Porites species and a Siderastrea species. Porites is a branching coral with corallites that are generally flush with the surface of the coral (they don’t stick out like Acropora, which include Elkhorn and Staghorn corals). This one branches near the tip and is probably P. divaricata due to that characteristic and thin branch size. The species is also called Thin Finger Coral. The Siderastrea are called starlet corals, and the one we picked up I think was S. stellata.

Siderastrea stellata, finger for scale

Peanut Butter and Jellies!- Day 12

We spent most of our day today in the ocean, which was both super tiring and super fun. This morning the conditions were nice, so right after breakfast, we hopped onto a boat as soon as we could and took off for a reef inside the Marine Protected Area. We conducted similar surveys to the ones we did yesterday, but this reef was COVERED in fire coral. It felt like everywhere I turned there was another patch of fire coral and I was worried I was going to run face first into one (luckily it didn’t happen). We then headed to another reef but this one was infested by moon jellyfish which sting, so we had to scramble to get back onto the boat and it felt like being in the Matrix while we were trying to dodge the jellies.

Branching Fire Coral
Moon Jellyfish (hard to see)


Luckily we were able to find a suitable reef and we conducted our survey there as well. This reef was outside of the MPA, and I noticed there was a lot of algae but also way less fire coral which was much appreciated. We then took a break on the island and then headed out to the forereef, which was much deeper and had much larger coral than the other reefs we had visited. Also, we got to swim along the reef wall which was right next to the drop off (we didn’t get to touch the butt).

Between all of the reefs we visited, we saw a nurse shark, some squid, butterflyfish, parrotfish, pillar coral (super rare), Elkhorn coral, some southern stingray, and I even spotted dark spot disease on a coral! Overall, today was a full and exciting day!

I didn’t get to see any echinoderms though, but it’s alright since I was spoiled yesterday. Hopefully, we’ll get to see some tomorrow. Also, we might be doing a night snorkel depending on what the group decides tomorrow, but I think that would be awesome! Echinoderms at night??? Who knows?!

Day 14: Dissecting lionfish

Today was the itchiest day of my life. I have never been so covered in bug bites, so I am ready to leave this island. Today we collected trash in different areas of the island and analyzed its composition which was mostly plastic and Styrofoam.

In the afternoon, we dissected a lionfish and it was used to make ceviche. I normally don’t like seafood, but I thought it was pretty good because it didn’t taste like fish.

The small fish was found inside the stomach of Liz and Cassia’s lionfish.

I didn’t see any sea anemones, zoanthids, or corallimorphs because we didn’t spend any time in the water today.

EchinoderMania!- Day 11

The weather was nice this morning, so we tried to do as much as we could. While I could still taste the tortillas from breakfast, we were on a boat to a patch reef in the Marine Protected Area (MPA). There we conducted a survey looking at the reef’s coral coverage which we will later use to compare MPA’s and non-MPA’s (where fishing can occur). At this reef, I was able to see what looked like some kind of heart urchin test, as well as what may have been a Reef Urchin or possibly a Rock-Boring Urchin since I found it in a hole in a rock (I couldn’t really see its color). We then boated over to a non-MPA reef where we conducted a similar survey, and there I was able to see some massive Diadema Antillarum, a Slate Pencil Urchin, and even a Brittle Star. I also saw a flamingo tongue which was really cool.

A Slate Pencil Urchin



A Brittle Star

After lunch, we were able to do a collection activity where we waded into the shallows on the windward side of the island and tried to collect as many “safe to touch” things as possible within about an hour. We collected way more interesting specimens than I thought we would, including some awesome echinoderms! We were able to find a Slate pencil Urchin, a Reef Urchin,  a Red Heart Urchin, a couple Brittle Stars, a Diadema Antillarumtest, a large West Indian Sea Egg (which I was able to find and when I picked it up it was covering itself with seagrass using its tube feet), and even two Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers which Kaela found (plus it’s her birthday WOOO)!!! We were also able to find a bunch of different algae- including pink segmented algae- as well as a lot of conches, a mantis shrimp, and even an octopus!

Me and the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber


We were able to see a lot of echinoderms today and it was a stark contrast to the previous two days where we didn’t see any, and I’m definitely not complaining. I’m super excited to get back out there and see what else we can find.

I’m hoping that we’ll be able to see a Chocolate Chip Sea Cucumber or some starfish like the Cushion Star at some point! Maybe we will tomorrow!


Day 13: Collecting Sea Urchins

Today, we returned to the two patch reefs we went to for our previous research project, one inside the marine protected area and one outside. In both patches, we collected sea urchins for thirty minutes and then measured their size to compare the sea urchin community structure between the reefs. We ended up collecting Long-spined, Reef, West Indian Sea Egg, and Red Heart sea urchins.

Bucket of sea urchins

In the evening we went on a night snorkel. We got lost and swam around the sea grass a while because we couldn’t find the patch reef. By the time we found it I was pretty tired. I did see a Spotted Eagle Ray swim right by me which was amazing.

I saw more Giant Sea Anemones (Condylactis Gigantea) today which I am finding to be the most common anemone in these patch reefs. Some of the time they have had green tips and other times light pink tips. There is a lot of color variation in many anemones, corallimorphs, and zoanthids. Bella saw a Mat Zoanthid (Palythoa caribaeorum) on some coral which has green tones and forms polygons when packed tightly in colonies.

Day 12: Fire Coral Everywhere

Today was full of snorkeling. In the morning, we went to two different patch reefs in a marine protected area and marine unprotected area again to finish collecting data. The first patch reef had so much fire coral that it was almost impossible to avoid. I brushed my leg against it at least once, but it hasn’t been so bad.

Using a quadrant to collect data

In the afternoon, we got to go to the fore reef. It was very deep and amazing to look down and see such large coral colonies. Because the water is deeper, there is the opportunity to see bigger animals which for us included a nurse shark, a Southern Sting Ray, and a Caribbean reef squid.

In the patch reef, I saw some more Giant Sea Anemones (Condylactic Gigantea). Most of them were behind a crevice between two corals or rocks. They had yellowish green tentacles and some had pink tips. The tentacles of all non-reef building Anthozoans contain nematocysts which contain capsules with a coiled-up barb inside them. When stimulated, the capsule is open and the barb releases to hit and inject the prey. I am hoping to find some Zoanthids or Corallimorphs tomorrow which I am a little less familiar with, so might be harder to spot.

Giant Caribbean Sea Anemone

Day 10: Getting our sea legs

This morning we met after breakfast at 7:45 to use a quadrat measurement method in a coral graveyard (a rocky shore composed mostly of coral fragments). We measured coral density at the crossections of the strings in our quadrats, then computed a density of around 30% (A rough measure of exclusively recognizable corals, as most fragments were originally corals). We then brought some dead corals back to the wet lab (area beneath a building on stilts) to identify. We were able to identify Siderastrea (possibly radians), Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata), Symmetrical brain coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa), Golfball coral (Favia fragum), Pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus), Lettuce coral (Agaricia sp.), and possibly Mustard hill coral (Porites atreoides), and Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).

A note about identification of the corals above: Orbicella spp. have grooves between polyps, while Siderastrea spp. has a smooth surface.

We went after lunch to try quadrat measurement in the water. It’s difficult because you are trying to maneuver this square made of a square of pipes with a women net of string while the current moves you, the quadrat, and the seagrass we were trying to count to quantify the difference in seagrass coverage between a seagrass patch and one of mixed seagrass and algae. When we try a similar procedure on the coral, it may be easier because at least the coral won’t wave back and forth.

Seagrass, quadrat and transect method

After that practice, we swam out to the patch reef and saw corals! Some others saw a nurse shark, but I was unfortunately too busy struggling with my foggy mask. I did see the Spiny Lobster, though. You can recognize them because their antennae are long and poke out from under rocks.

Also sand flies. They are essentially little biting gnats. They invaded our dorm. And we (mostly Cassia and Anna) spent a good hour trying to kill them all by slapping them with a notebook while they were still around the ceiling light, knowing they would disperse and spend more time biting us when we turned the light off. Lesson learned: close the door quickly. The sand flies are everywhere.

Sunrise and Shine!- Day 10

This morning, I woke up to light shooting straight into my eyes from the window next to where I was sleeping. At first, I was a little upset but that was until I realized it was the sunrise. The sun was starting to peek out from behind the horizon and it was a deep red color. It looked fantastic over the water. Then I saw that it was 5:30 a.m., and I quickly went back to sleep.

Our goal for today was to become comfortable collecting data in an ocean setting. So, a little bit after breakfast we had some practice on land. We visited a coral graveyard (don’t worry, there weren’t any ghosts) where we tried to find out the percentage of “live”(it was dead) coral covering the ground. We utilized some of the same strategies/techniques which we’ll be using in the water. While in the graveyard, I tried to find dried out starfish or urchin tests but I didn’t have any luck.

After lunch, we were able to put this practice to use when we actually got out into the water and conducted a survey. We surveyed an area of mostly seagrass as well as one which was a good mix of grass and algae. We looked at the percent coverage of grass and algae in the two areas, and it was a great way to get used to collecting data in the water. It was pretty awkward at first, but I’m sure it’ll become easier with time.

Measuring seagrass coverage


I didn’t see any echinoderms today, except I thought I saw a Tiger Tail Sea Cucumber when we swam over to a small reef after our survey exercise, but unfortunately I didn’t. Depending on the weather, we might be heading out to some patch reefs tomorrow, so I have a good feeling I’ll finally get to see some echinoderms. Fingers crossed!