Tag Archives: Echinodermata

Day 15: Culture Shock

This morning, we started the day by riding the boat out to the nearby Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which is situated on a teensy neighboring island called Carrie Bow Island. We got a short tour by Clyde, one of the managers, and received a short talk from a professor working on coral research at the station.

She showed us her rows of tanks of baby corals that she’s been growing as part of an experiment. A hybrid between to species of coral has recently emerged and appears to have increased resistance to high water temperatures. She is studying this coral to elucidate the mechanisms behind this heat resistance. If she succeeds, it could mean worlds for the future of coral reefs.

It was incredibly inspiring to see how determined researchers head the fight for the survival of coral reefs.

Our last stop before returning the airport was the mangroves of Twin Caye. Snorkeling here was not at all like snorkeling at the reefs. Mangroves are a type of tree that can grow in salty or brackish water. They have characteristic prop roots that reach far down into the water so that the rest of the tree stands above the water.

The roots of these trees provide a vital habitat and nursery to many species of sponges, fish, algae, and some Echinoderms, as well as many others. Water here was murkier than at the coral reefs because the sea floor is covered in silt and decomposing mangrove leaves.

It seemed that every inch of available space on the roots was colonized by something or the other. Bright orange fire sponges encrusted much of the tree roots, and all forms of algae grew everywhere. Schools of baby fish undulated as if they were a single entity, flowing between vegetation.

We didn’t get to see any urchins here, but we did find two large unidentified sea stars on the sea floor. They were heavier, had more slender arms and spinier skin than the cushion stars I’d seen before. They were bright, fiery orange, and a lot larger than I expected starfish to be – easily twice the size of my hand! After examining them closely and snapping some pictures, I let them drift back down to the silt bottom where we’d found them.

Here’s on of the starfish we found!

We weren’t given a chance to shower before we re-entered human civilization (thanks a lot, Scott and Adrienne! I’ll bet the people sitting next to me on the plane really appreciated that LOL). After eating at a restaurant on the dock of Belize City, we headed to the airport to go home.

You guys!! There was AIR CONDITIONING at the airport!! WOW!! And there were OTHER HUMANS who were not TFBs or encrusted with a solid layer of Eau de Wilderness™! IncREdiBLE!! When the surprisingly short flight to Houston landed at Hobby Airport, I experienced the oddest sensation of emerging from a separate world back into the familiar concrete jungle of bustling human traffic.

And really, my time in Belize has been an absolute dream. Now that I’m sitting in a cushy bed in an air-conditioned building and without moisture clinging to my every pore, I feel like I’ve been living a different life for the past two weeks. The culture shock is so real.

I don’t think it’s hit me yet that it’s over. I half believe that tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and head out on a boat again to sea. Some time in the next few days, I’ll be posting a reflection about this trip. Honestly, right now, I don’t know where to begin – all I’m feeling is that I wish I were still in Belize – but stay tuned while I gather my brains for one last word dump!

Day 13: Contrasts

My emotions were a rollercoaster today. I woke up to a dreary, rainy sky. The weather suited our morning activity: a project about marine debris. You can imagine how that went. We decided to study the differences in composition and amounts of marine trash that we’d find on the windward and leeward sides of our island, Middle Caye.

I’ve seen few things as saddening as a shoreline of a place even as relatively pristine as Glovers Reef covered in human detritus. This area is in the center of a Marine Protected area, is designated as a world heritage site, and is regularly cleaned by the crew who lives here.

And yet the fossilized corals were still littered with old shoes, plastic bottles, rope, nets… we only collected trash for 15 minutes at the windward side of the island, the coral fossil graveyard, but already filled two huge garbage bags. We barely made a dent in the amount of trash.

We moved to the leeward side of the island, the mangrove forest. This section of the island fared no better. Here, we found smaller fragments of trash, but more individual pieces of trash. We also found a larger variety of types of trash on the leeward side than the windward side. This was probably because pieces of debris can escape the windward side, but then wind up getting trapped on the leeward side.

As we collected trash, the only thought in my mind was that everything I’ve ever lost – a plastic bottle here, a candy wrapper there – is probably in the ocean now. Large chunks of debris slam against already fragile coral ecosystems. Sharks and sea turtles accidentally ingest plastic, thinking that it’s food. In a particularly poignant example of the consequences of human irresponsibility, we spotted a huge nurse shark at a patch reef later this afternoon.

It had a plastic bottle tied around its fin with a fishing line. Here’s a photo.


Instead of using plastic or paper, use reusable utensils. Don’t use plastic straws – your drink tastes the same whether it reaches you via straw or not. Make sure that your trash actually ends up in the trash can. Reduce waste, recycle your stuff. It’s not that hard and only requires small adjustments to make a world of difference for our marine ecosystems. I, for one, know I can do better.

We as a species must do better. If we don’t, it’s unlikely that many marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, will last another 50 years. I don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren about the fabled coral reefs because they’ll never get to see them for themselves.

My mood in the afternoon was a stark contrast to my mood in the morning. We went out snorkeling with the boat for one last time and hit three different areas near our island.

Hopping into this water never gets old. We visited an area known as The Aquarium, which is known for having many beautiful fish. It sure lived up to its name; I felt like I was swimming in one of the exhibits at my local aquarium.

I spent some time peeking in crevices for urchins, and found many clusters of small long-spined sea urchins hidden between the rocks. They really do look like the hedgehogs of the sea! I also found some tiny juveniles on the undersides of reef rock that I turned over – one baby slate pencil urchin and one long-spined urchin. I find it fun that while adult long-spined urchins are purely dark purple to black, the juveniles are banded white and black.

Juvenile long-spined sea urchin.

We also swam at a deeper patch reef.

Beautiful elkhorn coral specimen (scientific name Acropora palmata) that I found at the deeper patch reef.

The best part of today, and maybe part of the whole trip so far, was swimming at the reef crest. Usually, this area is too turbulent and murky for swimming, but we got lucky. The water was so still and clear. I floated over the shallows, marveling over the blueness and the richness of life. I kind of feel like this place should be dubbed the aquarium because everywhere I looked, fish swam near enough to touch. They weren’t timid either! Groupers hid in rock holes and blue tangs darted between anemones.

This picture is here just because I think it’s so cool – this is a mollusk commonly known as flamingo’s tongue! I found it at the reef crest.

This place was teeming with long-spined sea urchins, too. They were everywhere in between coral cracks. These guys are grazers, so I bet they were having a great time munching away at the algae encrusting exposed coral rock.

Also, I can’t believe that tomorrow is our last full day! NooOOOooooO I don’t wanna go back to Houston 🙁

Day 12: Sea Cucumbers Make Great Water Guns

This morning, we started the day off right with plates of fat banana and pineapple pancakes. I’m beginning to think that my life is actually a dream, at least for the time being.

We spent the morning analyzing data we collected in the previous two days about live hard corals and sea urchins. We used coral cover and sea urchin diversity and size as measures of overall reef health, and we wanted to see whether the Marine Protected Areas implemented by the Belizean government are actually improving reef health. After analyzing our data, we decided that we couldn’t solidly conclude anything about the effectiveness of MPAs. We’d have to conduct further studies before we can make a real statement about MPAs.

After lunch came the exciting part. We waded out to the shallow reefs behind the island to look for critters in the sea grass and coral rubble! When we first waded out to sea, the ground was nothing but a sludge of mud and rotting seaweed. It was, like, reaaaal nasty. The water was so hot, too! Like a bathtub, except crusted with algae and stinking of fish.

Once we’d waded out a little, the water became much cooler and clearer. It became deep enough to swim and search for critters in the sea grass. My first find of the day was a donkey dung sea cucmber (yes, that’s its real name!) that was about 35 cm long. It literally looks like a gigantic, brown donkey turd, except it has tube feet and a red belly. I dumped that guy into our sea collection bucket that we later took back to the island to examine.It was a fun afternoon filled with much turning over of rocks and investigating the benthos for crustaceans, brittle stars, and fish.

Today was another great day for Echinoderms. I found that many brittle stars, especially spiny ophiocomas, love to hide under algae-encrusted pieces of coral rock. Once I lifted up the rubble, I’d often see one or two spiny brown and white-banded arms disappearing around the bend.

Spiny ophiocoma brittle star.

I snatched 5 to put in our collection bucket before they disappeared. Two were quite large, maybe 10 cm from arm tip to tip, but one was teensy! It was 2 cm from tip to tip. Ceyda also found a smaller donkey dung sea cucumber lounging in the sea grass, and Elena found a slate pencil urchin to add to my collection.

Fun fact: sea cucumbers make great water guns! When submerged, they fill themselves up with water. You can pick them up and gently squeeze to make them shoot the water out at anyone who crosses your path! Scott used one of the donkey dung cucumbers to squirt me with water, so naturally, I had to get him back. Again, clearly, this was all in the name of science.

Here I am holding the larger of the donkey dung sea cucumbers that we found. 

Other cool spots and catches of the day included a large nurse shark, a gigantic spiny lobster (and 3 smaller ones), a cocoa damsel fish, and a baby Caribbean reef octopus!! We spotted the nurse shark swimming in the shallows near the reef crest, and I scooped up the bright yellow damsel fish in the old conch shell that it lived in. Bonus: that same conch shell also turned out to be home to the octopus, which was a super cool find!

Everyone’s favorite was the octopus, which Jessica christened Herbert. He was small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and changed colors very frequently. I think we stressed him out though, because he inked in the tray we held him in 🙁

Herbert the Caribbean reef octopus.

I was shocked by the sheer diversity and amount of animals we could find here just by wading out behind the island. It’s truly incredible – I didn’t even begin to detail all of the organisms we found today. If I did, I’d be writing for 20 pages.

I can’t believe that we only have two more full days in this idyllic place. I don’t want to think about leaving, but for now, I’m going to enjoy learning about this ecosystem to the fullest!

Day 11: Sea Hedgehogs

I’m pretty sure that anyone reading my posts is kind of tired of me starting all of them with something like “OMG TODAY WAS SO AWESOME,” but seriously, today was so awesome, and I don’t even like the word awesome. It’s such a boring, generic word, but I can’t think of anything else that accurately sums up my feelings.

This morning, we headed out to the fore reefs (area outside of the lagoon) beside one of the cayes nearby, as well as a fore reef beside the island that we’re staying on. The fore reef was much deeper than the places we previously visited, maybe ~30 ft deep. The current was much stronger here than in areas we’d visited before, but I actually really enjoyed bobbing up and down on the waves (shout out to my dad for teaching me to swim)!

The benthos was covered with coral rubble, live hard and soft corals, and all forms of fish. If I listened carefully, I could hear colorful parrotfish crunching at the coral below. I spotted a southern stingray rippling along the floor and a Nassau Grouper, which is a highly protected endangered species of fish.   AhhhhHHH watching a healthy coral reef teeming with life makes the heart happy 🙂

Coral reefs make a great photo op!

After stuffing ourselves with homemade pizza for lunch, we headed out for my favorite part of the day: sea urchin collection! As the resident Echinodermata expert on this trip, I was kind of obliged to geek out about them. But really, sea urchins are so fascinating that I didn’t even have to pretend.

We headed out to the same shallow patch reef that we visited two days ago. This patch reef is inside what’s known as a Marine Protected Area, which is an area in which harvesting is prohibited but recreational activity is allowed. We got 25 minutes to search for and catch as many sea urchins as we could with the goal of comparing the urchins we found in the MPA to the ones we found later when we visited the non-MPA.

Those little guys were so hard to catch. They’re super spiny and like to hide in inaccessible reef crevices as well as under rocks. There’s a technique to catch them easily, but it requires extreme precision and lack of fear of stabbing oneself with a spine, neither of which I possess. You just have to reach in, grab a spine, and jerk sharply – but if you don’t dislodge the urchin on the first try, it’ll become almost impossible to grab. Its tube feet will reach out and suction to the rock when it senses danger.

I learned how to catch the urchins pretty quickly! I caught so many reef urchins and slate pencil urchins by turning over pieces of coral debris and picking them off the benthos below. They were adorable, especially the baby ones that were smaller than a centimeter in diameter!!

A bonus of turning over coral debris was that we found so many brittle stars, which are another type of Echinoderm. I know for sure that I saw at least 2 spiny ophiocomas and many Suenson’s brittle stars, but there were many others that I could not identify. They wriggled away and dropped their arms too quickly.

A tiny green brittle star that I couldn’t identify. 

I think the catch of the day was a West Indian Sea Egg that Claire found at the MPA patch reef. It was 9 cm in diameter and had a dark purple body covered with short white spines.

Here I am holding the West Indian sea egg that Claire found! Isn’t it cute?  What an egg. 

When we got back to the island and after we finished dinner and lectures, we raced crabs that we caught on the island! We dubbed it “Crab Derby,” or “Dermit Crab Race.” Each of us caught either a Caribbean Blue Crab or a hermit crab, lined them up, and let them race towards a finish line.

Once the starting time was called, there was a sudden cacophony of screams of encouragement as each of us egged on our crabs. I’m proud to announce that my hermit crab, Georgiano, won second place! He made me so proud :’)

I’ll be awake again bright and early for another packed day tomorrow, so good night!

Day 10: Snorkeling is Probably My Favorite Thing Ever

I like a lot of things. Actually, I’m a little too obsessed with many things – I’ve always been the type of person who enjoys many hobbies and who uses said hobbies to procrastinate doing my actual work. But I think my actual favorite thing in the whole wide world is snorkeling.

We snorkeled for 3 or 4 hours today, and although I was soooo physically worn out, I could have gone for more. (Also, do you understand how amazing that is for me? I did rigorous physical activity for MULTIPLE HOURS and I WASN’T EVEN MAD AT IT?!?! I swear, if I lived on an island I’d have the beach bod of all beach bods.

The day started off with an excellent breakfast of cheese, fresh avocado, johnnycakes (biscuits but better), and fresh fruit. I think we’re all getting a little spoiled on the food here because it has been consistently delicious. AhhhHH

After filling up our fuel tanks, we met to practice a data collection technique that is commonly used by field ecologists to obtain random samples along a straight line section of an area. We used devices called quadrats, which are basically square grids that we made of plastic tubing a string, to sample small chunks of the ocean floor. Before getting into the water, we practiced laying out the transect tape (a huge tape measure that tells us the line along which we will measure) on land.

When we’d become sufficient at conducting transects on land, we moved to the water to practice. And when we became used to snorkeling while carrying 1058593 pieces of equipment, Scott deemed us ready to go conduct some real life transects on some patch reefs at a nearby island.

Today’s project aimed to compare the live hard coral coverage between Marine Protected Areas and non- Marine Protected Areas. We first stopped at a reef inside the MPA. We hopped off the boat into water that was the absolute perfect temperature for swimming. It was maybe 30 ft deep, but rapidly transitioned to being 2 or 3 ft deep once we hit the actual reef.

A beautiful coral formation I found at the patch reef!

After conducting our transects there, we had a little bit of free time to look around. I spent the time looking under rocks and in crevices for sea urchins. I actually found so many! There were all tucked away in dark areas so I didn’t dare to stick my finger in to try to pull them out. They were sooo cute, like little sea hedgehogs clinging to the rock faces. I LOVE MY TAXONOMIC GROUP WOW.

Scott picked up a baby one for me to see at the second reef we stopped at today. I think it’s Echinometra lucunter, a rock boring urchin. It crawled across my hand and waved its little tube feet at me. I think I cried a little because it was so frickin adorable.

If you look closely at my hands, you can see a tiny sea urchin! 🙂

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell already, I thoroughly enjoyed myself today. I just loved watching the bustling ecosystem beneath me, with soft corals waving in the current and tiny colorful fish darting between them. This is insane. I can’t wait to get back out tomorrow.




Day 9: Is This Real Life

I write this post as I sit on the porch of a wooden building at Glovers Reef Research Station.  I am literally sitting on a speck of land made from coral skeletons, watching the lightning flashing over the sea in the distance. The entire sky lights up in streaks of blue and orange each time it flashes. I’ve been in Belize for over a week now but I still can’t believe it’s real.

Today was a long day of traveling. We left the TEC by 7:30 am for Belize City. From there, we took a small motorboat to Middle Caye, which is one of the islands that form Glover’s Reef Atoll. The ride was 2 hours of refreshing sea breeze, friendly blue waters and blistering sun. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to get a new shade of foundation when I get back.

The color of the ocean fluctuated as we passed different areas. It started out as the gray sludge color of the loading dock, rapidly transitioned to bright cerulean, and then a little later to a deep blue. When we passed into the lagoon of Glovers Reef Atoll. the water was suddenly perfectly clear turquoise. I can’t even explain the color – you’d have to be here to understand how otherworldly it is. The bottom was clearly visible from the boat, and we spotted stingrays and shoals of large fish drifting idly by.

I took this photo as we were pulling up to the island. It’s not color corrected at all!! I find it incredible that places like this still exist in this world, even after all that humans have done to our planet. 

After lunch and a brief tour of the island, we suited up for our first aquatic excursion.  Slipping into the inviting water felt so natural (but tasted very salty. Yuck). We spent some time getting used to our snorkeling gear in the shallow water by the dock before swimming out to see our first coral reefs.

We saw a lot of patch reefs today, meaning small islands of reef life in a field of sea grass. They were like microcosms of a larger coral environment. Brightly colored fish darted between the corals, and one shy lobster nestled between some rocks. We even found a baby nurse shark resting in the sea grass nearby! I was on the hunt for my ocean taxonomic group, Echinoderms, but was unsuccessful. I am told, however, that I’ll definitely be able to see them – we’re going to do a project about sea urchins later this week!

It’s been a long, exhausting day, made even slightly longer and more exhausting by the fact that I had to give two presentations tonight. But now I’m free! I’m officially done with presentations! Now I get to enjoy the crystalline waters of Glovers Reef without the presentations hanging over me.

I know it hasn’t been my most eloquent of blog posts – but forgive me, I’m running on 3 hours of sleep (ahhHh!!) I’m off to hit the hay, and I’l be back with updates tomorrow!