The rainforest and the coral reef ecosystems are so different yet so similar. For example both ecosystems are actually relatively low nutrient environments, yet both foster mind boggling biodiversity. All the primary producers are geared to maximize the limited amount of nutrients they have access to. The cecropia trees in the forest grow thin and tall to get through the canopy. The corals in deeper waters grow flat and wide to get as much of what little sun reaches through the abyss.
One of the differences I noticed is that in the forest the primary produces are very abundant and in your face, it takes a little more effort and attention to detail to notice all the things it supports. Whereas in the water the primary produces are less apparent. It takes some careful spotting to sea the macro-algae growing on the sea floor, and you can’t even see the micro-algae that contributes so much to bringing nutrients into the system. But it’s very easy to spot the extremely wide variety of animals supported by these microscopic plankton. This is actually quite different to what I was expecting. I thought I would have see more animal life in the forest, but I felt like I saw more animals in the water. Mainly because sea creatures seem a lot less shy and let you get a lot closer before they skitter away.
My favourite part of the course on land was the the bird watching. It’s a little surreal to wake up before the birds and sun. I feel like birds are the fish of the air. They can go anywhere they want. They seem so free, I’m jealous. The best part of the reef portion was the snorkel at the fore reef. I finally got better at diving, it’s so fun to go down and look at the coral and try to chase the fish around. That spotted eagle ray was insane as well. My least favourite part of the course it that everything else I do in life will seem bland and pale in comparison to these past two weeks. Thanks Scott and Adrienne for ruining the rest of life for me (totally kidding). I honestly loved everything about this. Even the tick and sea flies, it wouldn’t be real without them.
I think the biggest take away for me is that these ecosystems are fragile and needs us protect them from ourselves. And it not just help from biologist or conservationists. Everyone can and should play a part. You don’t have to biologist to be more careful with your trash. You can be a geologist and still help run research stations. You can be an engineer and improve the infrastructure and equipment to aid biologist. I hope I can remember this lesson for the rest of my life and keep playing my part.
Last day of the trip. I don’t want to leave, there’s a lump in my throat. We got packed breakfast because we were leaving Middle Caye at 7. I ate mine immediately. The first thing we did was take the boat to another island called Carrie Bow Caye. On it was another research station. The island itself was smaller than ours but their facilities are more geared towards research. It was run by the Smithsonian Institute. The stations managers Clyde and Liz took us on a quick tour. I learned that you can volunteer to be a station manager for 4 weeks at a time. Maybe I can come back here as a volunteer. Who knows. But I sure hope so.
After the tour we went to another set of islands called Twin Cayes. The two mangrove islands was separated by a channel. We snorkeled up and down it to look at what was hiding in the mangroves. I saw a couple sea stars and some ginormous feather duster worms, but that was about it. I didn’t get to see a Mangrove crab in its natural habitat. Other people said they saw a barracuda. Getting out of the water for the last time sucked. We got back into the boat and we were off. Back to Belize City, then back to Houston.
“This land is unbelizeable, you gotta see it to belize it.” I hope I’ll see it again.
This morning we got to go back out to the back reef again. Except this time we came armed with ziplock bags and buckets to collect samples of our taxonomic groups. It was a pretty exciting time for me when we took our catches back to the wet lab to examine and ID because there were a lot of crustaceans. There were about 5 Mantis Shrimps, some were green and some were brown. One was almost 3 inches long. There were also a bunch of different crabs. There were loads of Reef Hermit Crabs, a couple of Stone Crabs and maybe a Mangrove Crab. We found two Blue Crabs, they didn’t like each very much. We couldn’t put them together in the same trough.
In the afternoon we got to dissect the 4 Lionfish that Scott caught. For a fish that is supposed to be able to eat a lot it didn’t have a lot of guts. Its organs were a lot smaller than I expected. We only found a tiny little fish under 2cm in its stomach. Everyone else’s fish stomaches only had mush in it. After we gutted the fish, the guys from the fisheries department took the meat to make ceviche for us. Still waiting to eat it.
Late in the afternoon, we took a boat to Southwest Caye. As the sun was setting and I was sipping pina colada, it dawned on me that today was the last full day we have. Time is, as always, paradoxically slow and fast. The past two weeks seemed to have disappeared. I’m not ready to go back to the real world. I’m not ready to leave this paradise. This experience is more than I could have asked for and more than I ever expected. So yes my vacation is going good, and yes you’ll be getting postcards from Randy.
Started out the day with some good old community service. We went to a rocky beach on the other side of the island outside the reef crest to pick up trash and debris that’s washed ashore. It was actually quite depressing how much of it there was. I could pick any spot and sit down and spend over 30 minutes picking up trash only in arms’ reach. All of us were out there for an hour and picked up over 30 kgs of trash, yet I don’t know if we made a significant impact.
In the afternoon, we measured some coral. To get to them we had to run through the “mangroves of death” on half of the island. Adrienne and Scott calls it that because in past years it’s been completely infested with mosquitoes. Even though this year wasn’t bad at all I still got bit quite a bit. Saw a reef hermit crab today. They are different from the land hermit crabs thats all over the island, bigger too.
At night we went out for a night snorkel. Saw a lot of lobsters. There were a bunch of spiny lobsters out, more than I’ve ever seen before. Some of them were in pairs. I couldn’t tell if they were mating or fighting. They can shoot themselves so far with one flick of their tail, it’s super impressive. We also saw the elusive slipper lobster. It looked really weird, almost like a really large bug. Everyone turn off their dive lights for a bit. The darkness revealed all the bioluminescent animals hiding in the sea grass. It almost looked like a greenish static on a black screen. Really awesome.
My class issued camera is officially out of commission. I checked the battery last night and it leaked acid. I’m pretty upset, I’m finally getting better at diving down and there’s so much to see. But I have nothing to capture the images except my memory. At least I have that I guess.
Today was probably the best and worst day of the marine section of the trip all rolled into one. We went out to the fore reef in the first part of the morning. It was really cool, probably the deepest waters I’ve ever been in. We saw a ginormous Spotted Eagle Ray, it was swimming around on the ocean floor. I finally got the hang of diving, which was good because out here there’s not much to see near the surface. After we went outside the reef crest and did some drift snorkeling where we let the current carry us. We saw a pretty sizable Nurse Shark that was over 6 ft. The motion of the unbroken waves started to make me feel a little queazy in the water, and only got worse when I got back onto the boat. I was pretty out of it for a while.
In the early afternoon, we did some data analysis and a presentation session. This gave me some time to recover from the sea sickness. Later in the afternoon, we went to the back reef right off the island. There was so much diversity in what was out there. Scott, Adrienne, and the water safety instructors were out catching Lionfish, I helped spot two of them.
I’m starting to like the water more and more. Boats not so much. I’m pretty bummed out by the camera thing, but oh well.
Today we surveyed reefs for live coral coverage and urchin presence. We went to two separate places in the morning and afternoon. I enjoyed today much more than yesterday. We actually got to see corals and a lot of fish, instead of trying to dig through a thick layer of sea grass. I pretty sure I got better at controlling my body in the water today as well.
While we were collecting urchins in the afternoon, I got stabbed by an urchin spine. A pretty substantial piece pierced flesh, broke, and lodged itself in my left middle finger. It stung a lot in the salty water. I hope it gets better before tomorrow, supposedly we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.
The ocean may have won this battle but the war is not over yet!
Did another practice snorkel in the morning. We went out to a couple of the patch reefs and did a scavenger hunt. It was a bit of a struggle. Not only am I not the most graceful person in the water, I didn’t recognize most of the things we were looking for. I had a good time nonetheless, and I think I’m getting better bit by bit.
In the afternoon we did a mock quadrat exercise. We investigated the density and abundance of two different types of algae. But mostly it was just to practice snorkeling and diving a little. Our group unfortunately didn’t find any algae. I’m pretty sure it was because there actually wasn’t any algae along the area we sampled but the tall sea grass didn’t help. I did however see a pufferfish, kind of made going out in the water worth while.
Later on we went to a coral fossil graveyard to look at different types of coral fossils to help us learn their shapes and sizes so that when we do get into the water we can spot and ID them easier. I’m officially convinced Adrienne is crazy… about corals! She seemed like a kid at the playground, with all her corals. I always feel inspired listening to someone talking about something they are truly passionate about. And Adrienne is for sure passionate about corals.
Spent most of the day on a boat traveling to Glover’s Atoll. We are staying on an island called Middle Caye on the atoll. The place is like paradise. White sand, crystal clear waters, corals right off the shore, crabs and lizards crawling around. It almost doesn’t seem real.
We got to snorkel a little before dinner. Which fun but at the same time a little bit of a struggle. Water kept getting into the snorkel and the mask kept fogging up. I guess it’s something I just need to get used to. We swam out to a reef platform to look at corals and fish. Scott found a lobster and tried to show me but I couldn’t for the life of me see where it was hiding.
There are crabs all over the island. During the day, you can see colonies of Red Hermit Crabs crawling all over the place. After dark, the Giant Land Crabs come out to play. They’re humongous, it’s unbelievable. The larger ones are about the size of a basketball. They don’t seem to be doing anything in particular though.
I kind of wish I had a day just to enjoy the island. Then I’d really be on vacation. But science is fun too. I just hope the ocean doesn’t kill me tomorrow.
We left Las Cuevas today. I wasn’t ready to this place. I spent the morning talking to Lauren the grad student and Bill the professor from the University of Florida, asking them about the equipment that they use and brainstorming ideas to improve the technology. I’ve decided that I’m going to ask my academic advisor if I can work with them as for a senior design project. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see this place again. Our transportation was really, really late. So that gave us an extra couple of hours at the station.
We spent most of the day on the road in the bus. Today was probably one of the least exciting days. Because the bus driver was so late we didn’t get to visit the ATM caves. I’m slightly disappointed, everyone seems to think it’s an awesome visit.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the Belize Zoo lodge and had dinner. After dark we got a special night tour of the zoo. We saw all of their nocturnal animals including: a Black Jaguar, a Spotted Jaguar, an Ocelot, a Margay, some owls and crocs, and a Tapir. The zoo tour was a lot more exciting than I was expecting. I can’t remember the last time I went the a zoo to see animals.
The people from the other school caught two birds in the morning. One was a Slaty Antwren and the other was possibly a Red Throated Ant-Tanager. Both were very pretty birds.
After breakfast we went out and collected our camera traps. We did the whole 13 mile hike again, and like Scott and Adrienne promised, the second time around was much easier. After lectures, we opened up our camera traps and looked at the images they captured. In the beginning, everyone was super hopeful. There was a small bird that appeared on two close locations. And a Great Curassow on another. Other than that we just caught a lot of pictures of the other group that is here. People. Some more people. We were becoming less and less optimistic. But alas, on one of the last few traps we managed to get a picture of Tapir, which is extremely rare and endangered. Scott seemed really happy. On the last trap, which was mine, there were pictures of an Agouti and an Ocelot. That was really awesome. Scott confessed that he didn’t think the spot I picked was going to yield any good pictures. So i was pretty happy to prove him wrong.
Almost forgot. On the way to collect the traps we actually caught a glimpse of a Great Curassow on the Monkey Tail Trail. it was a lot bigger than I was expecting. All in all, pretty awesome day. Saw some cool birds, got an elusive cat picture. And of course, we got a picture of an endangered animal. How great is that?!