Tag Archives: Mangroves

On the Ground and Away from Glover’s

5.23.2017

Leaving Glover’s today was so sad that I asked if I could permanently live in the snorkel shed. I felt like I was finally getting to know everyone on the island, finding a rhythm and place there. I was even recognized by one of the staff as “the girl who scored the beautiful goal.” I’m truly going to miss the island lifestyle, especially a small island like Glover’s, and the way that everyone gets knows each other and becomes connected.

Speaking of small islands, after leaving Glover’s we visited another research station operated by the Smithsonian on a tiny speck of sand called Carrie Bow Cay. We got a tour of the facilities and a rundown of the research projects taking place on site, as well as interesting insight into the nature of toilets in the field.

Shore of Carrie Bow Cay
Boats used by researchers at Carrie Bow Cay

After that stop, we headed on toward Twin Caye. The mangrove forest there was made up of entirely of red mangrove (R. mangle) from what I could tell.

Red mangrove forest on Twin Caye
Red mangrove roots

We walked through the peat which was goopy and gross, then snorkeled around the edge of the mangroves.  The snorkel was much more enjoyable. I saw schools of small snapper, a starfish, a juvenile sting ray, sponges, and even a seahorse.

Starfish found along edge of mangroves
Juvenile stingray in sand along mangroves
Seahorse spotted on mangrove roots

Once we finally made it to Belize City, we had lunch and drove down to the Tropical Education Center (TEC) for the night. We walked some paths on the grounds before dinner and saw some Acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex sp.). After about an hour, we went to dinner then to the Belize Zoo which was such a cool experience, especially because the nocturnal animals were active. My favorite was seeing the big cats: the puma, ocelot, and jaguar. Tony the Tiger’s frosted cereal has nothing on Junior the Jaguar’s somersaults. I even got to hold a boa constrictor!

Junior the Jaguar finishing a somersault
Me holding a boa constrictor

All that excitement still hasn’t convinced me to switch from team marine to team terrestrial, though. Fair to say that a frog falling from the ceiling and almost landing in my hair, as well as having to share shower time with a moth, a beetle, and a lizard keeps me skeptical. Let’s see if the caves tomorrow have me singing a different tune.

Chasing the Last Day at Glover’s Away

5.22.2017

I haven’t quite accepted that today is the last full day here at Glover’s. Although I know the rainforest will be a great experience, the Floridian/Cuban in me wishes I could stay here by the ocean forever. We took full advantage of the day, hitting three reefs over the course of about three hours. My favorite was “The Channel” by Long Caye. I saw at a spotted eagle ray from the boat, chased a Southern stingray across the sand, and glimpsed a spotted sun eel in the rocks. I saw a lot of soft coral on the reef, noticing that many of the fan corals (G. ventalina) were encrusted by fire coral.

“The Channel” in Glover’s Atol
Sea fan being encrusted and killed by fire coral

After that, we went to another part of Glover’s Atol called “The Aquarium” which is undergoing a phase shift and becoming overrun by algae. It was still beautiful, though. While there, I chased a nurse shark that had a remora on it and even saw a pair of Caribbean reef squid.

Nurse shark with remora under coral ledge
Pair of Caribbean reef squid swimming in “The Aquarium”

In the afternoon, I gave my lecture on mangroves and seagrass beds in preparation for tomorrow’s excursion. Then, I dissected Azlan the lionfish with Sarah T; in the spirit of full disclosure, having my hands full of fish guts wasn’t the most enjoyable.

Azlan the lionfish prepared for dissection

Afterwards, we as a class made our poster presentation quickly which gave us time to ride over to the resort at Long Caye. There, we ate delicious ceviche and (after bargaining with a fisherman for his shirt) came away with a class signed t-shirt that will (hopefully) hang in the cabana bar for memories. It has been such a fun afternoon full of laughing that ended with a beautiful sunset. I’ll be sad to leave here, but I’m really excited for all that’s still to come in the rainforest.

Sunset at Long Caye

Another Day, Another Sunrise

5.21.2017

I woke up today at 5:30 for the second day in a row. Although the sunrise this morning wasn’t as great as yesterday, it was still worth forgoing a bit of sleep. After standing at the top of the observation deck for about half an hour, I took the best nap on the hammock before breakfast.

Sunrise over Middle Caye

For today’s diversity activity, we headed out to the back reef to collect samples of our taxonomic groups. While I couldn’t bring back any coral, I was still able to participate in the fun. I caught a Coco damsel fish in a conch shell and brought back a purple-tipped Caribbean giant anemone. I also dug up a piece of turtle grass (T. testudinum) and some black mangrove (A. germinans) roots to demonstrate to the class, which is a good introduction for my topic lecture tomorrow.

Turtle grass roots, part 1
Turtle grass leaf
Turtle grass roots, part 2

The absolute best find, however, was a baby Caribbean reef octopus that I lovingly named Squishy. It was so cool to watch Squishy swim through the bin changing color; it was also funny seeing him ink.

Squishy, the baby Caribbean reef octopus

The day ended with a poster presentation of the marine debris activity from yesterday and a short snorkel before dinner. The current was ripping, but we were able to bring back four more lionfish. Yay for conservation and ceviche!

Finding a Shell on an Island… Sounds Easy, Right?

5.20.2017

After a calm day yesterday, I decided to wake up for the sunrise in the morning which was beautiful. The sun was unobstructed by clouds and bathed the small island in orange light. After that, I just napped on a hammock until breakfast time.

Sunrise over Middle Caye

Captain Buck said the wind was too strong to go out on the boat today, so we had lectures and then took a path through the mangroves to the back reef for a study on Christmas tree worms. The current was strong, making it extremely difficult to collect data while simultaneously trying to keep myself from bashing into the reef. On the bright side, I got to see all three species of mangroves in Belize: red mangrove (R. mangle), black mangrove (A. germinans), and white mangrove (L. racemosa). Javi, one of the marine officers, even showed me the salt gland adaptation present on the leaves of the white mangrove.

Salt glands (two black dots on stem) of a leaf from a white mangrove

In the afternoon, the class split up to do trash collection around Middle Caye. I was surprised at the sheer amount of litter we found on such an isolated place like Glover’s. The saddest thing was seeing Trash Crab, a hermit crab, using a piece of plastic as a shell. I tried to find him a real shell on the island (which you would think would be like looking for a drop of water in the ocean), but couldn’t find one.

Trash Crab in his plastic “shell”

The day ended with fresh coconut water and volleyball, then free time to swing on a hammock and sit at the edge of the dock conversing. Just like yesterday, today has been another day of relaxation and I feel energized and ready for hopefully another sunrise tomorrow morning.

I Don’t Mind the Atol At All

5.17.2017

Today has been another long day in Belize, but I have no complaints. Kenneth, the manager at Glover’s Reef, called this “paradise” and I couldn’t agree more. Middle Caye definitely could make for a good stock photo.

Home of Glover’s Reef manager, Kenneth

I’m also happy to report that it has been another great day for my taxa! On the boat ride to Glover’s, we passed a bunch of islands of red mangroves (R. mangle) with their characteristic stilt roots extending out above the water. I also spotted some smaller ones on the edge of Middle Caye which are growing strong.

Red mangrove propagules off the shore of Glover’s Reef

The shallow waters leading to and surrounding the dock at Glover’s are seagrass beds consisting of the thin blades of manatee grass and the wide blades of turtle grass. While I did see a huge green turtle in the open ocean on the way to Glover’s, I didn’t see one in the turtle seagrass. No need to be sad, though, because I saw some other really cool organisms like barracudas, schools of snapper, some conch, a Southern stingray, and a juvenile nurse shark.

Turtle seagrass (T. testudinum) bed

The patch reef we swam out to was a complete sensory overload with abundant coral cover and fish darting to and fro. My main focus was trying to find all of the items on the scavenger hunt list, but in the process I was able to identify the unmistakable corky sea finger (B. asbestinum) and the common sea fan (G. ventalina). I also saw examples of sea rods (Plexaura spp.) and sea plumes (Pseudopterogorgia spp.).

Patch reef with the common sea fan in the forefront

After a couple of hours of snorkeling, we got out of the water only to look at more corals (because you can never see too many, am I right?). At first glance, the “coral graveyard” appears to be just a pile of rubble, but upon closer observation you can see that it is actually a collection of the calcium carbonate skeletons of stony corals. I learned how to identify some of the main reef-building coral species, and even found a token dried sea fan as well as some unidentified ants!

Dried common sea fan I found in the coral graveyard

Later in the evening, a spectacular sunset fell over the water while I ate too much guava jam and cake for dessert. The day concluded with some entertaining lectures from Jordan on hard corals and Mikey on echinoderms, as well as an arts and crafts quadrat making session.

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store but for now I’ll just revel in the little victory of having warm water to shower in tonight. 🙂

Final Snorkel and Travel to Houston

Waking and knowing this was our last day of Tropical Field Biology instilled in me a bittersweet mood that would last all day. Interactions with professors and classmates were charged with notions of remembering. Attitudes like this can cloud an experience, so I tried my best to keep the mentality of “screw it let’s do it” that made this class so special.

We made a few last minute stops on our boat ride to Belize City. The first was to see the Smithsonian research post at Carrie Bow Caye. Here we were greeted by a mild mannered couple from Idaho who were acting as the caretakers of the station—a position they have returned to for four weeks each year. Pretty sweet gig. It was enlightening to tour around the small facility and envision what it would be like to conduct formal research in such isolation. It seemed like the perfect place to have total peace of mind and clarity of thought—an ideal atmosphere for the task of those who enter it.

The next stop was our last snorkel. This time in a densely wooded mangrove. As our boat approached the dock we became aware of the fertile smell emanating from this forest isle. Self perpetuating and incredibly productive, the mangroves of Belize act as a nursery to juvenile marine predators and prey alike.

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This location was also especially interesting as a study site for my marine taxonomic group (sponges) because of the unique symbiosis poriferans have with the mangrove trees. They grow on the roots of the red mangrove tree and  nutrients fixed from the surrounding waters that aid the growth of the tree.

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The substrate of the mangrove roots provides a home for these sponges where they are safe to filter feed out of harms way. One of the sponges I saw here was the toxic Tedania ignis or Fire Sponge, as it is commonly known.

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When you touch this sponge it touches you back, with a painful sting and a lingering rash.

This concluded the formal class experience, so to speak. We dined again at Calypso, a restaurant by the docks known for its slow service and delicious lime juice. Then we bussed the rest of the way to Belize City airport where we finally disembarked for Houston. Arrival in Houston and goodbyes followed. Now, writing this blog in the relative security and sterility of Rice University, the entire experience seems like a fading memory. Where is wealth of life that just hours ago surrounded and fascinated me?

Let’s just say I’m glad we all took so many photos. I don’t want to forget what just happened.

So long, Belize (for now)

Today was officially our last day in Belize. I didn’t want to leave that beautiful country, with its pristine natural places and amazing people. I plan to return one day soon!

Even though it was our last day, we still had work to do! We left Glover’s at 7am with a packed breakfast, and headed out to Carrie Bow Caye. This island is only an acre in size, but houses the Smithsonian research station. The volunteer station managers gave us a nice tour, and we got to meet some of the researchers doing work there. The station seemed like a really nice place to do field work.

After Carrie Bow Caye, we travelled to Twin Caye, an island separated by a narrow channel. Here, we got to explore the infamous mangroves. Luckily, there were almost no mosquitos or sand flies. The mangroves are an incredible environment both above and below the water. The mangrove tree species have evolved special adaptations, such as aerial roots, to deal with the high salinity of their environment. Underwater, the trees often have mutualistic sponges attached to their roots. We saw many species of juvenile fish swimming throughout the tangled root systems, as mangroves often serve as fish nurseries.

I saw a small school of juvenile needlefish in the mangroves, and other students reported seeing a barracuda as well. Since so many fish species start their lives in mangroves, it is paramount that these ecosystems are preserved.

After getting back to Belize City around noon, we had another lunch at Calypso restaurant, and then said goodbye to all the Glover’s staff that had been so helpful to us throughout the trip. Then it was off to the airport, and back to Houston (thankfully, no transportation troubles this time).
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Return to Civilization

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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.

Shenanigans on Airplanes

Sadly, today was our last day. We set out from Middle Caye at 7am and stopped at two other Cayes on our way back to Belize City.

The first Caye we stopped at was Carrie Bow, which is a Smithsonian Institute research site. It’s a super small island near South Water Caye, and it’s beautiful. They gave us a tour and we got to talk to a crab researcher who has been working there almost since they opened in 1972.

The second Caye we stopped at was Twin Caye, which is a mangrove island split down the middle by a channel. We walked in the mangroves and I got to see the pores that the red mangroves use for getting oxygen. We also got to see the yellow leaves that the mangrove diverts salt to in order to save the rest of its leaves.

After walking in the mangroves we snorkeled through the channel. I sadly did not see any sea hares, but I did see some clams on the mangrove roots. I also saw the sponges that mangrove roots have a symbiosis with, a whole ton of baby fish (mangroves are fish nurseries), some magnificent feather duster worms, and a huge barracuda. The barracuda was hiding in the roots of a mangrove and I almost didn’t see it until I was basically right in its face. It flashed its teeth at me as I backed up.

After the Cayes we had our last meal in Belize at Calypso. They took a predictably long time, but it was still very tasty having fresh fish while looking out at the ocean it came from. Our plane ride was short and bittersweet, and although we had to sit on the tarmac for awhile, it seems like our curse of terrible transportation has been defeated.

I’m sad to be going, but I’m sure I’ll be back.

Day 15: Mangroves and leaving Belize

This morning we packed up our things and very sadly left Glovers Reef. Watching the paradisiacal island grow smaller in the distance, the only thing that lifted my spirits me was the realization that soon all of my bug bites will grow smaller as well. On our way back to Belize City, we first stopped on Carrie Bow Cay, an island of about 1.5 acres that is home to a Smithsonian research station. Our tour of the facilities had everyone wishing that they could do research or be a volunteer station manager there in the future. It was also sobering, though, because the current station managers mentioned that the island has lost considerable land due to rising sea level. The island also lost its population of mangroves, which increases the rate of erosion. On top of normal rates, hurricanes are particularly destructive because of the high wind and wave action that they entail. On the current trajectory, Carrie Bow Cay may disappear before we are able to go back. Seeing the island put climate change into perspective for me. Rising sea levels are something we hear about, but it’s difficult to imagine an entire island ceasing to exist until you have seen it in action.

Our next stop was Twin Caye to visit mangroves and view the diversity that they hold. Mangroves are an important habitat for young fish because of the protection that they provide. As mentioned above, they also prevent erosion and even create land. In one area we were able to walk between mangrove trees in the soil that they had created. It smelled pretty bad and there were a fair number of sinkholes, but it was cool to see how productive the trees are.

Making our way through mangroves
Making our way through mangroves

Afterward, we put on our dive skins, masks, and fins one last time to snorkel next to the roots of the mangrove. The sandy bottom was home to hundreds of upside down jellyfish which sit on the sea floor with their bell to the ground and their tentacles raised to the surface. When the water around them is disrupted they start to float around, so we had to be careful not to disturb the water around them. We also saw a number of sea stars that were at least a foot in diameter. I don’t think I had ever seen live sea stars that were that big. Additionally, the sea floor was home to Caulerpa sertularioides, a species that has very feather-like branches and prefers to live in sandy areas and near mangroves. I hadn’t seen the species yet, so I’m glad we got a chance to visit the mangroves.

It was also amazing to witness how much life the mangroves supported. All of the roots were covered in species of algae and sponges that provided even more habitat for fish and other animals that flitted between the roots and lived in the sheaths of biotic material around the roots.

Diversity among the roots of the mangrove (Photo creds: Scott)
Diversity among the roots of the mangrove (Photo creds: Scott)

When we were done with the mangroves we packed up all of our dirty and wet clothes and made our way back to Belize City. Getting through the tiny airport was relatively easy. It’s weird being back in the U.S. with so many people and so much activity everywhere. It will be strange not eating rice, beans, and chicken for almost every lunch and dinner.