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Day 12: Mysterious [Two Feet] Below

Blog Post #12

Day 12: Mysterious [Two Feet] Below

Written 6:17 am on May 27th

We started May 26thwith pancakes!! I was very excited because I seemed to have willed it as I had asked Scott if we’d have them. They are feeding us so well.

In the morning, we worked on our poster for reef health. We found that our data weren’t super accurate as we had a small sample size. The live hard coral coverage was around 22.12% inside the MPA vs. 15.1% outside the MPA. Sea urchin health seemed to be comparable in both reefs. Given this, we concluded the MPA is more helpful for coral, but further studies would be needed to determine distinct differences between the two patch reefs.

In the afternoon, we headed to the backreef off of our island. Basically, it’s about 2-4 feet of wading water with your face in the water. We had no idea what we were going to find! In the seagrass bed, I found some fire sponges as well as some thin rope sponge polyps. Then we reached the true backreef of rocks and coral polyps—a true nursery considering the large number of baby fish and coral! I didn’t see any sponges oddly enough once we got closer to the backreef. This is likely due to the high wave action, the sponge polyps get pushed away and farther back into the lagoon.

Thin rope sponges in seagrass bed

We picked up shells, conchs, and other interesting creatures/plants along the way to observe back in the wet lab. Since the sponges were all rooted into the ground, I adopted the mollusks taxon. We found lots of Queen Conchs and snails, but the ultimate find was a baby octopus!!

Herbert the octopus!

I believe that Herbert is a Caribbean Reef Octopus, and he was found in one of the old conch shells. We think there was a second one, but that one didn’t come out. Herbie inked on my when I tried to pick him up and move him. That was an experience I have never had before.

Eventually, we let all our creatures return to the sea, including Herbert, who gave us an inking farewell. We had a really great time exploring the mysterious two feet below us! It was an important reminder of that there are so many creatures great and small that live in all parts of our world, and we should do our best to protect them.

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!