Tag Archives: Nurse shark

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 🙁

When life gives you sharks, you swim as fast as you can and take a selfie.

The nurse shark below me

When life gives you sharks, you swim as fast as you can and take a selfie.

It hit us today that some of the things we did today were among the last things we will do. We gave our last taxonimic briefings and made our last poster. Although it is surely sad, we did contribute to our island in a real way. We picked up trash that has been washed up on Middle Caye, on two sides of the island, one windard and the other leeward. Yesterday, we learned that humans have contributed immensely to the amount and type of debris in the ocean. Depending on the trash (whether it is very or not very transportable, bouyant, and degradible), it can have variable amount of presence on our environment. Plastic like size of a shoebox, for example, can be broken up to millions of smaller pieces, called microplastics. Their degrability is extremely low and can last for thousands of years.

We set out to see what kind of trash we will find on the island and found that the leeward side of the island received more individual pieces of trash and more kinds of trash, including cloth, metal, and paper. However, the windward side received less of the more transportable debris like hard plastic and styrofoam. The transportability differential likely contributes to the leeward side’s receiving more pieces and more kinds of trash because easily transported trash are more likely to end up in areas that do not receive as much wave energy and hence have a higher chance of being stuck there.

After trash collection, we went out to a portion of the reef inside the atoll called “the aquarium” due to its abundance and diversity of marine life. Huge mounds of coral and human size sharks are found here, and when we found nurse sharks, we all kicked our fins as hard as we could toward the shark. Don’t worry, if you are worried, because nurse sharks are not known to be actively aggressive to humans. Their main response to humans is to flee, if they notice close human presence. In other news, we tracked down schools of blue, silver fish as they travel through and sometimes knock themselves into coral. Our excited tracking of the fish caused the fish to swim fastly before us, as if we were herding them. When surprised of our presence, some reacted by fleeing so quickly that they scraped against coral rubble in the process, with their collision audible to us.

Another unexpected encounter was when I observed a large fat parrot fish eat a handful of the wrinkled brown algae. It was so disproportionally big to the fish that I laughed out loud underwater. Fortunately, this reef was covered in this type of brown algae, in addition to a lot of crustose coralline algae and blistered saucer-leaf algae. A lot of y-branched red algae also grew on other types of algae, which often grew on limestone deposited by corals. Life on life on life has been a big theme of this trip and it has really come to a culmination in today’s trip to reefs and channels in the atoll. The geography of the water also lent very well to my practicing diving to the benthos, and I am very happy to say I am not only comfortable in the water, but extremely fond of being in the water, and not to mention swimming with sharks. That is one thing I owe to this place, my new relationship to water, going from barely able to swim to doing all sorts of tricks 15-20 feet underwater all the while avoiding the burning fire coral.

Shout out to my swim instructor Mahdi!

Day 6 (5/21): Nu-Nu-Nu-NURSE SHARK

The wind was choppy today, but we thankfully still snorkeled right after breakfast. The main goal was to collect a diverse array of species from the back reef to have a little show-and-tell before lunch. And let me tell you- that back reef experience was crazy. Right from the start, Adrienne showed me a baby shark lying down in the seagrass bed. Based on its behavior, it looked like a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), but it had spots on its head which made it hard to solidify a classification.

Possible nurse shark in the middle of a seagrass bed

After reaching the reef, it was just piscivorous fish paradise. Yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), mahogany snapper (Lutjanus mahogani), keeltail needlefish (Platybelone argalus), and French grunts (Haemulon spp.) were all in that reef. I also saw a Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) but my camera ran out of juice before I could take a picture of it. Adolpho and Javier also pointed out a scorpionfish to me- it was so well camouflaged that I accidentally took a picture of a rock instead of the fish. After acquiring a decent collection of marine organisms, we went back to the wetlab and presented our specific taxon groups. In relation to fish, there were three crested gobies (Lophogobius cyprinoides) and one damselfish (Stegastes variabilis). Other interesting organisms brought back were the Mantis shrimp, a fire worm, and a baby octopus!

After lunch, Ellie presented on herbivorous fish, I presented on piscivorous fish, and Anna presented on invasive reef species. We then returned the marine organisms to their habitat and analyzed/presented the data from our marine debris collection. SFS, Dory, and Turiez loved it. Because we had such an amazing presentation, they let us do a short snorkel in choppy waters near the patch reef we visited the first day.

Tomorrow is the last full day on this island. It’s kind of weird how slow yet fast time went by- I’m sad to leave but excited for the rainforest coming up.

Day 2: First Time Snorkeler (05/17/2017)

I’m up at 5:00 am. My bags are packed. I eat a PB&J, and we are on the road. The drive from the Tropical Education Center to the pier in Belize City isn’t too long – around 45 minutes. Our team transitions to the boat, and we are off on the two-and-a-half hour boat ride to Glover’s Atoll, our home for the next seven days.

Glover’s Island

Soon after our arrival to Glover’s, we went snorkeling – my first time ever. The colors of the reef seemed like they were from a centuries-old oil painting. I was anticipating a full color pallet of hues, but the corals’ tones were warm-colored and muted.

Snorkeling in the water seemed out of body – like I was an avatar in a video game. Still not fully used to the controls of this unfamiliar type of movement, I felt awkward in the water, despite swimming competitively in high school. Every movement was calculated, taking into full consideration each dimension of my unfamiliar setting – Who is behind me? Will I bump into any coral nearby? Is my snorkel still vertical?

The reef was teeming with busy creatures. During my brief hour-long escapade, I encountered many types of fish, including baby barracuda (Genus Sphyraena), a baby nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), and a large southern stingray (Dasyatis americana). The only echinoderm I found was the bleached skeleton of a large red heart urchin (Meoma ventricosa) on the seafloor. The skeleton was about 6 inches in diameter and partially covered in algae. I also held a conch shell with a fleshy body inside. His eyes stuck out of his head like the eyes of Mr. Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants. My superstar sighting was a porcupinefish (Family Diodontidae) hiding under a rocky ridge. The fish was difficult to photograph, but with its massive size and bright colors, it was easy to remember.

After the swim, we explored a coral graveyard, studying the skeletons of centuries-old corals. It was interesting to witness how corals vary in formational shape, as well as polyp size and arrangement pattern. After dinner, we closed the day with two taxon briefings (including my own on echinoderms).

My first time in the water was surreal. I am eager for the next wave of adventures tomorrow will bring.