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Day 9: See the Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea?

Blog Post #9

Day 9: See the Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea?

Written May 23rdat 10:07 pm

DISCLAIMER: There was a storm last night that knocked out the wifi. But it has returned! So here is the post for May 23rd.

To answer the question in the title—it calls me! Today, we made our transition to Glover’s Atoll, specifically Middle Cay! With the familiarity of a boat, the wind, and my (metaphorical) sail staying behind me, I felt so incredible happy. (Also, gready for a week’s worth of Moana and The Little Mermaid references!)

I was less than happy when I found out that I forgot to put sunscreen on my right arm… (Literally remembered everywhere else including the tops of my feet!) I will now be toasty red more so on one side. But oh well, I’ll hopefully get a nice tan!

When we arrived at Middle Cay and had eaten lunch, we got in the water for our introductory snorkel. It was fun to rediscover snorkeling alongside those who had never done it before. I also now officially change my taxon away from amphibians and on to sponges.

I spotted lots of encrusting sponges, and my favorite tube sponge. The water was decently murky from the seagrass beds with sand and people’s flippers kicking it up. We also found a yellow stingray, baby nurse shark, barracuda, trumpet fish, parrotfish, and lots of brown algae.

baby nurse shark!

Then I enjoyed our free time by journaling and talking to the other workers on the island on the pier—we saw a lemon shark swim by, as well as a school of bonefish. The pelican dive bombing the sardine patches definitely caught me off guard because I was looking at my journal. It was a beautiful end to an incredible Reef Day 1.

Until Next Time, Belize

Scrolling through pictures of both corals reefs and the tropical rainforest, it’s clear that both are incredibly lush environments that host diverse sets of organisms. But through this course, I’ve realized that there are more subtle similarities between the two. In the Chiquibul, we studied how the tropical soils are somehow able to sustain a diverse ecosystem while being incredibly poor in nutrients. These soils are paralleled by the oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, waters of Glover’s Reef; both inexplicably provide a home for thousands of organisms while seemingly offering no sustenance. However, both of these habitats are characterized by rapid nutrient turnover. For every fish or insect we see, there are millions of others living organisms like microbes that exist outside of human view. The key to both of these habitats’ success seems to be this system of efficient nutrient cycling, which leaves the area nutrient-poor but the animals themselves nutrient-rich.


Perhaps even more importantly, these two ecosystems are tied together by their impending destruction. Both Glover’s Reef and the Chiquibul are faced with problems of illegal extraction and habitat loss for a number of organisms. The biology of deforestation and coral bleaching may act in different ways but the cause is the same: humans. Conservation issues plague ecologists in both areas, as they attempt to battle the overexploitation of natural resources. Poaching and overfishing are one in the same in that they sustain a desperate human population with no other livelihood, while depleting these environments of their incredible diversity.


With that said, I did notice that human intervention in the rainforest seemed much less obvious. Since Las Cuevas was so removed from civilization, the biggest indicators of human presence were camera traps and the occasional logging truck. On the reef, however, we saw a huge amount of marine debris, acting like a red flag for mass consumerism. It’s harder to see our effects on the rainforest in a short amount of time, but the 90 lbs. of Styrofoam and bottle caps serve as a pretty blatant reminder of what we’re doing to the natural world.


Overall, this course has completely surpassed all of my expectations (entirely thanks to Scott and Adrienne and all of their hard work). Ihoped to come out with a better understanding of fieldwork, but I didn’t expect to learn nearly as much as I did about conservation or how to deal with unreliable transportation. My favorite part was probably going through our camera trap photos. After 26 miles of hiking and anticipation, the payoff of that single ocelot picture was fantastic. It really made me appreciate how hard field researchers have to work. And even now that I’m back with air conditioning and wifi, I can’t say that I had a least favorite part of this course (not even the sand flies). With every van we missed and blister we added, I think we learned to be better TFBs, and that’s not an experience I could’ve gotten anywhere else.


In five years, I may have to consult my field notebooks to brush up on specifics, but I’ll definitely remember these three things:

1. Make bold choices, and live by the motto “Screw it, let’s do it!”

2. Field work takes patience and a whole lot of sweat, but it’s worthwhile in the end.

3. Never underestimate the power of a good pair of rubber boots.


I realize that I’m writing my final blog post in the very same seat I occupied two weeks ago to hurriedly write my pre-departure post. It’s incredible how much has changed since the last time I sat here; I’m a little bit tanner and covered in a whole lot more bug bites, but more importantly, I’ve returned with a whole new appreciation for the natural ecosystems I visited. Conservation is a multi-faceted and complex process with no easy solution, but with every bit we learn about the diverse habitats of the tropics, our understanding increases.


In the words of a true Belizean, “You’ve got to see it to Belize it.”DSCN4432

Return to Civilization

Smithsonian research station at Carrie Bow Caye.

Our final day in Belize dawned bright and early, as always. With sandwiches and snorkels in hand, we said our final goodbyes to the palm trees and composting toilets of Glover’s Reef and made our way out of the atoll. Our first stop before Belize City was Carrie Bow Caye, a Smithsonian research facility housed on a speck of an island in the Caribbean. We were able to meet a crab researcher that’s been studying the incredible diversity of Belizean reefs for over 30 years at Carrie Bow.

We then stopped at Twin Caye, an aptly named mangrove island that’s split in two by a channel. We first walked and then snorkeled through the muggy mangroves, carefully picking our way through their stilted roots. Mangroves may just look like odd trees from above the surface, but underwater they’re an important habitat for sponges and act as fish nurseries. I wasn’t able to identify any herbivorous fish species, but the mangrove roots were swarming with tiny juvenile fish for this reason. I even saw an adorable baby barracuda! (I think this trip has given me a new definition for cute).

And with that, we were off to the marina in Belize City. After an incredibly long lunch at the infamous Calypso restaurant, we made our way to the airport. Before I knew it, we were waving goodbye to this beautiful country, several bottles of hot sauce heavier than when we arrived.

So Long, Glover’s

Doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus).

Our time in Belize has nearly run its course, and while I’m excited at the prospect of a hot shower, I can’t believe how quickly two weeks have passed. For our final day at Glover’s Reef,
we set out to find as much diversity as possible in the back reef close to the shore of Middle Caye. In my final snorkel here, I found a
huge number of herbivorous fish. Ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) and doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus) swam right past me in pairs and groups, and I found an abundance of cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis) in between the corals. I also saw several French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), a large black and yellow fish that feeds on algae, as well as some invertebrates.

Cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis).

We also collected a number of species from the shallow seagrass beds by the shoreline and sorted them by taxonomic group. Using just nets, we were able to catch two yellowtail damselfish (Chrysiptera parasema) and another fish that I believe was a species of goby. We ended the morning by presenting a colorful array of macroalgae, echinoderms, jellyfish, and mollusks.

 The afternoon’s activity was our long-awaited lionfish dissection. We were only able to capture four specimens of the invasive species, but each one was dismembered and analyzed by its stomach contents. Hopefully, the more we can learn about the lionfish, the better we can manage its invasion of the Caribbean.

For the perfect ending to our last day on the reef, we visited Southwest Caye, another island inside of the atoll. From the comfort of the dock, I watched the sun set on my Belizean adventure (at least for the time being).

The Professor Who Cried Mosquito

Ocean view of “mangroves of death.”

It sure is one thing to learn about conservation, but seeing it in action is a whole other story. And this morning’s experiment was really all about doing conservation. After learning about marine debris, we spent the morning on a task that was part data collection and part beach cleanup. In just an hour, we picked up an incredible 90 pounds of trash. But the real kicker is that the same beach is cleaned every week, so everything we collected today had accumulated in just one week. Talk about mass consumerism.


In the afternoon, we tackled the much-awaited “mangroves of death.” Prepared by horror stories of mosquito clouds in years past, we were ready to sprint through the mangroves, snorkel and all. But our mangrove run turned into a leisurely stroll, as we encountered a total of zero bugs. A classic case of the professor that cried mosquito. 


After our safe passage, we said a tearful goodbye to our quadrats with one last coral experiment. We conducted our study on the back reef just beyond the island’s shoreline, where I saw much fewer herbivorous fish than on the patch reefs inside the atoll. The corals in this area seemed much more spread out and covered less area, which might explain the smaller number of fish.


To wrap up, we did our first night snorkel today. The reef is a whole other world at night; instead of seeing brightly colored parrotfish and small damselfish darting among the corals, I found a whole slew of other creatures. Some notable sightings included several huge spiny lobsters, a Nassau grouper, a yellow stingray, and several Caribbean reef squid. However, I did also find what looked like a blue tang surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus); it had the characteristic spine on its caudal fin, but also had thick, vertical white stripes over its blue coloring.


To summarize, this is what I learned today: the ocean is filled with our trash; don’t use Styrofoam; and the reef is pretty damn cool in the dark.

Team Surf

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.

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

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.

Searchin’ for Urchins

Today we continued with our quadrat theme to look at stony corals inside Glover’s Reef Atoll. For our first boating expedition, we ventured to a marine protected area (MPA) to study the health of coral reefs. Our day was entirely dedicated to data collection, but I still found a huge amount of herbivorous fish hiding among the corals. The dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus) is definitely the most common, but all three species of damselfish mentioned in my last blog are very easy to find on the patch reefs. I also found several ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus). Like all surgeonfish, this species has a scalpel-like spine on their tail used for slashing predators that’s fairly easy to see in the water.

Initial phase stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride).

I also managed to find a red and brown stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) in what is known as its initial phase. Parrotfish are unique in that they can change their sex; initial phase parrotfish are either females or primary males. However, the large, conspicuously colored parrotfish are actually supermales, or females that later became males. Guess even fish can be transgender.

West Indian sea egg (urchin).

We also spent a good portion of the day collecting sea urchins to assess reef health. You can find urchins in all the nooks and crannies of a reef, but it turns out getting them out is the hard part. We managed to collect a fair number (sustaining only minor injuries) before measuring them and sorting them by species.

Each day on the reef, we learn about a different taxonomic group, adding them to our arsenal. It’s incredible how each presentation adds yet another dimension to my next visit to the reef. Two days ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what Acropora cervicornis was, but now I’m able to spot it (both alive and dead) out on the reef.

And finally, we ended it all by laying on the dock under the stars. The ocean and sky merge together here, forming an infinite black canvas littered with pinpricks of light. Forgive me for the romance, but I might’ve even seen a shooting star. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Day 9: The Reef!

View of Glovers Reef from observation tower on Middle Caye
Patch reef in Glovers Reef

Today we traveled from the zoo to Glovers Reef. Glovers Reef is one of three atolls in Belize. It consists of four islands – Southwest Caye, Middle Caye, Long Caye, and Northeast Caye. We got to the island around 3:45pm and were able to snorkel for an hour before we had dinner. To our surprise, the water was like bathwater, especially right by the pier. It almost wasn’t refreshing, but being in the water was amazing.

Most of the sea floor that we saw was covered in sea grass. There weren’t any trees in the sea, but someone found a Penicillus capitatus, which is a species of green algae that looks like a paint brush. A little farther out, the sea grass gave way to a few patch reefs. The reefs had more sediment than I was expecting, but the diversity on the reefs was still greater than almost all reefs I have visited. The first species that I noticed were Gregonian sea fans, that were purple and rose gracefully from the mounds of coral.

Halimeda sp.

The sedimentation on the patch reefs made them a good habitat for green algae. The highest concentrations of green algae that I found were along the edge of the patch reef. There were multiple species of Halimeda, but I wasn’t able to identify the exact species. There was a lot of Caulerpa cupressoides, which was smaller than I was expecting but still very recognizable. I also saw a species that could be Anadyomene stellata, but I need to look at the morphology of the algae more closely.

Tomorrow I’m looking forward to having more time in the water and learning about more reef species.

Quadrats and the Coral Graveyard

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).

Mandy inspecting a carefully placed quadrat.

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.

Sunset from Middle Caye.

And then, with a beautiful sunset in the background, our first day at the reef was done.

(Nakian) May 25: Sailing x sandflies x Reef


Today left Belize City after a great lunch and sailed for Glover’s Reef. The Caribbean was a mosaic of blues created by the different geological and biological factors. The emerald sea near the shore had patches of dark blue. Distant greens above the horizon were mangrove forests as we approached. As we changed direction and entered the open sea, the juxtaposition of dark blue and emerald was dominated by the deep indigo of rough waves. After sailing for almost 3 hours we finally reached the emerald of the Glover’s Reef.
Never having been to an atoll, the Glover’s Reef gave me a great impression. An emerald paradise of coral reef was guarded like a fortress against the deep blue. When we finally dived into the water, hundreds of small fish greeted us above the sea grass. Then we finally reached the coral reef, it was as if I am looking at a bonsai rainforest. Maybe I haven’t look closely enough because of the confusion of being underwater, I could not find brown algae. I thought these algae would be obviously large enough or dominate the area or something. But apparently, other kinds organisms like corals and other algae and even plants seemed to be in constant competition. Hopefully I can find it tomorrow when I am more used to the environment.
But the sandflies tho. I though ticks were bad. But these things are sneaky with straight punch into my skin leaving a spots that won’t go way. At least killing ticks have some pleasure in it when the blood in it pops. Sandflies, smaller, sneakier, but more painful. My next 6 days will be a war against these bugs