Today we started and completed a whole new experiment. To look at sea urchin community structure (and the indications it may have for herbivory and reef health), we went out and collected sea urchins in a bucket and recorded the species and diameter of each urchin.
During the search, I noticed several new hydroids! I saw what I believe to be a lot of Box Fire Coral (Millipore squarrosa), which is the third and last species of fire coral that I found to be common in the Caribbean.
I also spotted some Kirchenpaueria halecioides, a small hydroid that gets up to about one inch tall (see photo below) in addition to a possible Feather Bush Hydroid (Dentitheca dendritica).
Much later in the day, we got back in the water for a night snorkel. It was fun, but my dive light went out, and we were all way too close to each other – I think we were all paranoid about losing the group. When I got back, I found a tiny little fish inside my swimsuit. It must have somehow made its way into my skintight dive skin and swimsuit, but nothing can surprise me at this point.
Today, we spent the morning collecting data in two coral reef locations. Liz and I used a similar underwater language today to communicate. We were recording points with live coral or sediment, so cupping our hand into a “c” meant live coral and crossing our index and middle fingers meant sediment.
Exploring the reef after our data collection was incredible. I spotted many fire coral, mostly branching fire coral (Millepora alcicornis) but also some blade fire coral (Millipore complanate).
Later, we returned to the sea to scour an area of seagrass for critters that we could bring in to examine more closely – no hydrozoans or jellyfish were found, but we did gather some other amazing finds, including an octopus, two fire worms, a West Indian sea egg urchin, a sun anemone, and many more. My favorite are the conchs because they’re shells are beautiful, and they have strange little eyes on long eyestalks.
Today was a doozy. We had a three hour boat ride to Glover’s Reef this morning. It was a small motor boat speeding across three hours worth of ocean, so it was more like a three hour rollercoaster.
Once we made it to Glover’s, we immediately had a tour of the island, then lunch, and then our first snorkel. We couldn’t stay out for long because the current was strong, but Liz and I made it out to the patch reef, which was beautiful. I’m so excited to go out there again.
Closer to shore, we spotted many upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopeia xamachana) – a scyphozoan from my taxon ID card!!! These jellyfish are particularly interesting because they often rest on the ocean floor upside down with their tentacles in the air such that they look like harmless plants.
We went out again later to a different area of the reef. This area was much more shallow, which made it harder to navigate. This wasn’t ideal because there were many fire coral. I noticed both branching fire coral (Millipore alcicornis) and blade fire coral (Millipore complanate). These hydrozoans are actually not coral at all and can cause a nasty sting with their nematocysts.
This morning we completed (you guessed it) more transects! Again, we went out to two patch reefs, one in an MPA, one not. The first patch reef (within an MPA, nicknamed ‘the Aquarium’) contained lots of fire coral hidden in the coral we were attempting to survey. Weaving the transect tape and manipulating the quadrad was especially hard with the stinging fire coral around, especially since the water was so shallow—there was a limited amount of space above the reef through which we could float. At one point, I was floating directly on top of fire coral—a precarious situation. At (what was intended to be) the second site, there were moon jellies floating around, so we decided not to complete our transects there and opted to move to a different non-MPA site for our final transects. The final area that we decided on to be our non-MPA site was full of lionfish (yum! that’s my taxon!) and squid! After completing my transects, I watched Herby spear a lionfish that was hiding deep within the coral. I am excited to eat these lionfish at a later time.
In the afternoon, the class took the boat out to the fore reef, where we saw the reef drop off, sponges, and bigger animals in general, however, many of us (myself included) fell ill and could not properly appreciate the majesty of the reef in our conditions.
We ended the night with lectures on Anthozoa (non-reef building zoanthids, corallimorphs, and anemones), marine mollusks, and threats to coral reefs (of which there are a lot).
Today was a day dedicated to the use of a systematic sampling method, utlilizing measuring tapes and a large physical grid. We answered questions like: What proportion of the patch reef contains some portion of live hard coral and what proportion of the seaweed benthos contains some portion of worm sand mounds?
To remind us of the importance of our work, and mostly to educate us on the overarching context of coral reefs, Ceyda Sidd ’19 explained that the percent cover of corals in Belizean waters is 13 – 15% and declining. Tomorrow we will be analyzing the data we collected today on percent cover of live hard corals to estimate the degree of decline in coral cover. One of the things that we have learned about working with corals is that it is in our best interest to not touch them. We saw fire corals, that upon contact can sting, and all corals are sensitive to human touch, such that it can destroy or stop the growth corals. The difficulty is real, though, as many of the patch corals exist in waters less than 3 ft deep, and some areas are too shallow to even swim across without touching some corals. Even conservation workers sometimes will cause harm to the things they wish to conserve; the act of quantifying and observing is sometimes inevitably an act of slight destruction. In snorkeling lingo, we all aim to be horizontal (floating) and not vertical (standing).
In the evening, we laid in hammocks with the company of incroaching lightning storms, which provided us with fantastic views and some rain. If we did end up stranded, which we are 80-95% likely to (someone jokingly said),I think none of us would be too distraught. The days here sucks out your energy, but in the best way possible: in the sun, under the water, above the benthos, and next to marine creatures.
Day 3, and I have learned that bugs hate me and that fire coral is mean. I think I jinxed myself by saying I did not have any bug bites because now I am covered. Plus I bumped some fire coral so my rear is itchy and hurts, making fire coral my least favorite coral. Pseudodiploria labrinthiformis is easily my favorite though and I have been finding and identifying it!
Back in the world of crabs, I have stopped getting overly excited over land hermit crabs now. I counted 213 of those little guys just today. There is one part of the trail that is just land hermit crabs (184 in one place). They seem to be very spotty on the island as to where they are most found. We tried to quantify their per square meter space on the island using quadrants and a transact, but it resulted in very little crabs and brac holes being recorded when in actuality they are everywhere.
I also saw a mangrove crab today on the pillar of the dock. It was camouflaged above a bunch of algae. A few minutes prior I noticed two unidentified crabs. They were two hermit crabs on a turtle sea grass leaf very close together and moving up the leaf. From their shells I first thought they were mollusks but then I noticed their blue pincers sticking out. I am not sure what type of hermit crab has blue pincers, but they were interesting to watch.
AND OF COURSE, I saw some more blue land crabs at night. They are really much more accustomed to humans than I had imagined they would be. They don’t even run away when walk by or even when I run at them.
Well the benedryl I just took for the fire coral is kicking in and I’m about to sleep for days… well really only like 7 hours but thats alright.