Today we left The Tropical Education center to embark on our journey to Glover’s Reef, a world heritage site and atoll, off the coast of Belize. The boat ride was three hours and the scenery around us was breathtaking. The water color changed from the marina brown, to a seafoam green, to a pure aqua. As the land disappeared behind us and when we crossed a barrier reef, the water below turned a deep dark blue. Soon the reefs of Glover’s came into view along with the island we would be staying on, Middle Caye at a WCS marine research station. We dropped off our bags in our dorms and were given a tour of the station. After a short tour and a little talk about the composting toilets they have, each called Clivus, we ate lunch. The food was amazing and after that we went on a snorkel to test out our gear.
It was honesty great to be in the water again and the water was as warm as heated pool water. We were going to try and swim to a patch reef near island, but due to some equipment difficulties in the group we had to swim back to the dock. Even at/near the dock there were groups of yellowtail snapper, and some upside-down jellyfish. Thinking that the current would be less and the wind more or less null we traversed the “Mangroves of Death” to get to the leeward side of the island. The “Mangroves of Death” we soon found out are infested with mosquitoes and biting flies. Everyone ran through the mangroves, careful not to trip but fast enough to evade the mosquitoes, but it was to no avail. All of us ended up getting bit, myself getting upwards of 20 bites on my back. Once we reached the water, we shuffled through some sea grass and made looked at some very shallow coral beds. For this portion of the course I’m the expert on herbivorous fish, and I saw a couple species today. In essence, herbivorous fish are fish that eat algae or vegetation, however some of them can be omnivores. Today I saw what appeared to be a very small juvenile Dusky Damselfish. It has a white lower body and a bright orange body, complete with blue spots on its head. I also saw what appeared to be a small Ocean Surgeonfish, these fish eat the algae off coral and are bluish grey in color.
After that excursion, we made a mad dash through the death mangroves and eventually reached the station. We washed off our equipment with freshwater and after dinner, which consisted of tender chicken with rice and lemon pie, we ended the day with presentations on sponges, coral, and the different kinds of microbes in coral reefs.
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.
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
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.
Our first day out on the reef started with a scavenger hunt. We search for all sorts of reef creatures and their various interactions on the patch reef just beyond the island. Many species of herbivorous fish feed on algae here; I was able to spot another blue tang surgeonfish and several species of damselfish. Damselfish can be seen patrolling their gardens, which are small patches of algae that they feed on. I found cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis), dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus), and threespot damselfish (Stegastes planifrons). The patch reef also contained a number of initial phase striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis) and even a brightly colored stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride).
The real science started when we learned the art of using transects and quadrats to collect quantitative data on the reef. We began on land and then transitioned to an exploratory study of green algae (spoiler alert: we didn’t find any).
We finished the day with a visit to what can only be described as a coral graveyard. Coral skeletons litter the shore of Middle Caye, their polyps perfectly preserved due to mineralization. We studied the common reef species, using the dead corals to learn their morphologies and create a search image for the reef. Though I’ve visited reefs before, I’ve never been able to do much more than say that corals are colorful. Thanks to our grave digging adventure, I’m now able to appreciate the diversity of corals and might even be able to name some of them.
And then, with a beautiful sunset in the background, our first day at the reef was done.