Day 12: Fore reef, back reef

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Fore reef diversity with Orbicella annularis

To start off this morning we ventured outside of the atoll’s lagoon to the fore reef. The fore reef is the outer edge of the reef and has the highest diversity of any reef zone. However, the fore reef also has the highest wave energy and is much deeper than the lagoon or back reef. The boat ride to the drop zones was pretty choppy, which was a bit of a challenge for some people, but most people were able to enjoy the reef once they got off the boat, and we didn’t have any vomiting.

I found it harder to see details on the fore reef because it was deeper and I couldn’t dive far enough down, but I was still able to see interesting aspects of the fore reef. There were bigger fish than in the lagoon, and I believe that the diversity of fish species may have been greater as well. The coral on the fore reef was also amazing because it had more space to grow, so the colonies were much larger. We even saw some Acropora palmata colonies, which is a species of coral that used to be a dominant reef builder but recently saw enough colony death to make it endangered. I also enjoyed seeing Acropora cervicornis because it has distinct white tips with an apical polyp that is much larger than the rest of the coral’s polyps. I learned about A. cervicornis in a class that I took last semester, so it was cool to be able to see it in person.

While we were on the fore reef we also saw a huge ray swimming across a sandy area and a nurse shark that followed our group for a while as we snorkeled alongside the reef crest.

The huge ray we saw
A huge ray swimming along the ocean floor (Photo creds: Anna)

In the afternoon we were able to go out on the back reef by Middle Caye. The water was around three feet deep, making it difficult to navigate, but we were able to get closer to the sea floor than we had been able to before. This was especially beneficial for viewing green algae, as they flourish in areas with high sun and sand. I saw a number of species of Udotea, Caulerpa, and Penicillus all in close proximity. These three species were all found on the sea floor in sandy areas or on dead corals that had accumulated a large amount of sediments. Some species of Halimeda were also found in sandy areas on the sea floor, but some were growing in crevices found on corals. The Halimeda on the floor were taller and had smaller segments, whereas the species on corals were more clumped and had larger segments

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Caulerpa and Penicillus on back reef

The back reef had the first lionfish that we were able to spear. While on Middle Caye, we aren’t permitted to eat any fish that we catch other than lionfish, because they are invasive. Tomorrow we will be taking measurements of the four lionfish that we caught and then we’ve been promised lionfish ceviche, which sounds delicious!

Reef Exploration

Day 12 was all about atoll structure. We did two snorkeling swims today on different parts of the atoll. In the morning, we visited what is known as the fore reef, which is the part of the reef outside of the atoll’s ring of reef crest. The afternoon’s snorkel was on the back reef, the section of the reef near the reef crest on the inside of the atoll.

The fore reef snorkel was incredible, up until the point where I started feeling sea sick and had to lie on the floor of the boat (along with all the other nauseous people) for the rest of the trip. Before that, though, I got to explore the deeper reefs of this area. Three southern stingrays were seen on the sandy bottom between sections of reef. The coolest sighting of the day was of a huge spotted eagle ray near the deepest part of the reef. At one point the creature flipped around, ate something, and then swam off into the depths.

Southern stingray
Southern stingray

Spotted eagle ray
Spotted eagle ray

Sea sickness can't stop us
Sea sickness can’t stop us

After finishing some data analysis for our reef health study from yesterday (relatively inconclusive), we took to the waters again, this time to explore the shallower, calmer back reef. The area was a mix of sea grass, sand, and coral areas, and the species were very diverse. I saw many bluestriped and French grunts swimming between the corals, along with a five-foot long barracuda! I also saw a sharptail eel swimming around in the rubble, another southern stingray, and a smaller barracuda chasing after some unknown species of fish.
Great barracuda
Great barracuda

Today was also special in that we got a very interesting presentation from Javier Garcia about the history of Belize’s people. It’s incredible how diverse both the human and wildlife populations are here!

One Reef Two Reef, Back Reef Fore Reef

Today was an exhausting day of snorkeling. We boated out to the reef crest, where the wave action from the ocean meets the high island of the atoll. Here we experienced the windward fore reef. This area of the reef is characterized by high wave energy, resulting in larger, more robust boulder corals. The depth of this area was a significantly greater challenge to traverse than the reefs in the lagoon yesterday. At first I could hardly stay under water long enough to even get close to the corals and other creatures below. But as the day went on my lungs stretched and I surprised even myself by free diving more than twenty five feet to snap a video of a large spotted eagle ray on the ocean floor. I’m no fish, but I certainly improved today!

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As far as sponges go, I’ve been seeing most of the same stuff I mentioned earlier this week on every reef. Today was an exception, I saw Xetospongia muta the Giant Barrel Sponge. This guy lives in deeper water, so today was the first opportunity to see it. I’ve also been seeing quite a bit of the boring sponges of the genus Cliona.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the fore reef in the morning, the majority of the group had gotten a bit sea sick, so we stuck to the shallower back reef in the afternoon. Here we saw the most concentrated variety of life so far in the atoll. Anemones, giant spiny lobsters, and so many fish you would swear we were diving in an aquarium. Here Dr. Solomon showed off his manly prowess by spearing three lionfish. While you might be thinking this to be some mark of hubris, it was actually quite selfless to do this, as lionfish are an invasive species whose extraction spells good news for any native fish in the area. I’m sure they’re delicious, so more people should be removing these nuisances from the Caribbean and turning them into ceviche.

Team Surf

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Spotted eagleray.

I’ve come out of day 12 of this trip with a whole new appreciation for land. We leveled up on our boating expedition today by traveling outside the reef crest and the calm waters of the Glover’s Reef. The morning’s topic was reef zonation, so we ventured into the open ocean to check out the coral ecosystems beyond the atoll. In these deeper reefs, I saw a lot of larger herbivorous fish, especially terminal phase parrotfish. I was able to identify conspicuous males of the striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis) and some female/primary male stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride). But the real excitements of the morning were our carnivore sightings; we watched a giant spotted eagle ray fly across the benthos and a nurse shark glide through mountains of coral.

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Nurse shark.

However, the choppy waves weren’t as appealing from the boat as they were on the reef. Thankfully every TFB came out of this experience unharmed, but I think a few of us might be jumping ship from team surf for the moment (sorry, Adrienne).

The afternoon’s snorkel was spent on back reef just in sight of the island, ending our boating adventures for the day. Though we couldn’t have been in more than 3 feet of water, the mix of seagrass and corals produced a scene reminiscent of Finding Nemo (sorry again, Adrienne). I swam right

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Dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus).

past a whole school of ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) and found tons of small dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus) tending to their algae gardens. Since these reefs were much smaller, I didn’t see any large parrotfish here, but I did find a number of tiny juvenile striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis)—these seem to be common on shallower reefs. But the primary objective on the back reef was spearing lionfish, an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific. We managed to collect quite a few specimens for studying (and cooking) later in the week.

All in all, today gave me a new appreciation for both the ocean’s beauty and the wonderful stability of turf.

Sharks and corals and rays, oh my

Today checked two more things off my Belize wishlist—sharks and rays. We had seen some smaller stingrays around but today, snorkeling on the fore-reef, we saw a huge spotted eagle ray gliding underneath us. Then, during our drift snorkel a nurse shark came and swam under us three separate times. It was a dream come true. We also had the opportunity to see the stag horn and elk horn corals that have been mostly destroyed over the last decade. There have been so many times during this trip that I was blown away by the things we have gotten to see or do. Truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The first two snorkel excursions were a little too deep for me to find many annelids but on our short trip out to the back-reef I found three split crown feather dusters. There were also spaghetti worms buried into cracks and crevices all over the place. There has been fire coral fairly evenly dispersed over every reef we’ve been to, both the branching and bladed formations. Looking forward to more christmas tree worms!

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Sophia Streeter

5/28

Rock the Boat

My stomach is strong, as are my legs, and I am now very confident in my ability to weather choppy waters on a small boat.

We explored the different areas of the reef today starting at the fore reef and the reef crest and ending the day at the back reef. The fore reef and the reef crest were so choppy. Part of the reason that the rest of the atoll isn’t as choppy is because the fore reef bares the brunt of the wave action coming from the ocean. Everything was moving back and forth constantly and it was really hard to even stay in one place while floating above the reef.

The fore reef was amazing, and we got the chance to see many rays, a nurse shark, and amazingly we saw both species of acropora (cervicornis and palmata) in the wild! Acropora were mostly wiped out in the Caribbean due to white band disease, so it was a unique experience being able to see them. We also got to see an eagle ray swim by underneath us, which made me super happy. They’re HUGE!

Eagle ray
Eagle ray
Acropora palmata
Acropora palmata

My camera died before we got to be on the back reef at the end of the day. They definitely aren’t as waterproof as they say they are. I opened it up and there was water in the battery!

At the back reef I saw so many queen conch (probably hundreds). I also got to see a milk conch, which is the only other conch I’ve gotten to see on this trip. While digging through the rubble on the back reef I saw a few species of cone snail living in some unoccupied shells of former molluscs.

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Day 12: Broken Camera

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My class issued camera is officially out of commission. I checked the battery last night and it leaked acid. I’m pretty upset, I’m finally getting better at diving down and there’s so much to see. But I have nothing to capture the images except my memory. At least I have that I guess.

Today was probably the best and worst day of the marine section of the trip all rolled into one. We went out to the fore reef in the first part of the morning. It was really cool, probably the deepest waters I’ve ever been in. We saw a ginormous Spotted Eagle Ray, it was swimming around on the ocean floor. I finally got the hang of diving, which was good because out here there’s not much to see near the surface. After we went outside the reef crest and did some drift snorkeling where we let the current carry us. We saw a pretty sizable Nurse Shark that was over 6 ft. The motion of the unbroken waves started to make me feel a little queazy in the water, and only got worse when I got back onto the boat. I was pretty out of it for a while.

In the early afternoon, we did some data analysis and a presentation session. This gave me some time to recover from the sea sickness. Later in the afternoon, we went to the back reef right off the island. There was so much diversity in what was out there. Scott, Adrienne, and the water safety instructors were out catching Lionfish, I helped spot two of them.

I’m starting to like the water more and more. Boats not so much. I’m pretty bummed out by the camera thing, but oh well.

-Randy

Day 12: I’m on a boat(yeah)

Today was another boat day! This morning we went out to the fore reef. It was definitely rougher than the water we’ve been in the last two days. Moreover, it was so much deeper than the water we have been in. Some notable things from the first snorkel were three rays and a HUGE spotted eagle ray. We also did a drift snorkel(where you keep moving) and I loved it. We saw Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis (elkhorn and staghorn) corals which are no longer seen much. We also saw a good sized nurse shark.

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In the afternoon we went back in the water, but this time right off of the island. And I saw so many anemone. There were Condylactis gigantea(condy) and Stichodactyla helianthus(sun anemone) all over the part of the back reef we were on. I also think I saw Zoanthus pulchellus growing on the side of a boulder. The little zoanthids were all tucked into their columns and would barely come out before going back in. My last taxon sighting were two more anemones- one I recognized and one I did not. The one I recognized was Barthalomea annulata or the corkscrew anemone. It was hiding under something and I barely spotted it. The one I didn’t recognize looked like a little yellow marshmallow with stubby purple tentacles on top.

Aside from my groups, I spotted two lionfish(they caught 4 today). I also locked eyes with a barracuda and I think we both startled each other, because we both swam away very quickly.

 

 

Comparative study

We leveled up today on our length and difficulty of our snorkeling projects. We visited patch reefs inside and outside the protected area and did transects for comparison. We also collected sea urchins in a 25 minute period, then measured and ID’ed them. Compared to the no-take zone, the unprotected zone had drastically fewer urchins, which starts to give you an idea of the breadth of human impact on some of these reefs.

To be honest, I got a little distracted during the urchin collected period because there were so many worms around! I saw about 20 christmas tree worms, two social feather dusters and one split-crown feather duster. They’re really beautiful little things. There was one coral in particular covered by about 10 christmas tree worms in a variety of colors—from blue-grey to yellow to orangeish-brown. If you wave your hand in front of them they tuck themselves inside their tube to hide, then slowly reemerge after a moment. There will be pictures to come.

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Sophia Streeter

5/27

Rice University