Tag Archives: reef

Day 15: I cannot Belize it’s over!

My final walk, might I say jump, down the Middle Caye dock.

5/28/19: Our two-week journey has finally come to an end. Is it possible that it some ways it feels like it happened in a blink of an eye and it was a whole month? Regardless, I am going to miss Belize: the beautiful natural habitats, kind people, and of course, the delicious hot sauce.

It was a super long day for me. I started my morning at 4:45am and took a three-hour boat ride to Belize City. Then, boarded a flight that lasted two hours which put us in Houston around 5pm. Next, we drove through rush hour traffic back to Rice where I then got into my car and drove another 4 hours back to my home in Corpus Christi, Texas. So, it is safe to say I am pretty worn out.

However, on the car ride home, I could not help but reminisce on all the good times in Belize. The animals we saw, the crystal blue water, and our interesting tour guides. I think I want to go back to Belize one day as a tourist and even as a researcher. What will I be researching? Hopefully, I can figure that out soon.

Tonight, I plan to tend to shower (maybe even shower twice?) I will also tend to my bug bites with a concoction of Neosporin and anti-itch cream. Above all, I plan to sleep for at least 12 hours.

Wish me luck in Dreamland!


Day 14: Sea you soon Glover’s Reef

5/27/19: Today was our final day on the island. Above all, I think I am going to miss waking up to the beautiful views every day. With waking up early, I tend to be a little more grumpy, but I found it hard to be upset sitting at the breakfast table with such an incredible view. However, let it be noted, I am definitely not going to miss the bug bites.

Today, we looked at marine debris on Glover’s reef Middle Caye. As a UNESCO world heritage site, Glover’s reef Middle Caye is absolutely beautiful. The island is essentially paradise with a purpose, but it is not immune to damaging effects of pollution. Around the reef, I was shocked that we found over 3659 pieces of trash while collecting for merely 30 minutes. I am going to be honest with you it makes me so sad that even an island as remote as this still struggles to combat pollution. We even saw a hermit crab with a plastic cap as its shell.

Pile of marine debris found on Middle Caye

On a less sad note, we also dissected a lionfish today. Lionfish are an invasive species in the Caribbean, so by catching these fish, we learned something new and help preserve the natural ecosystem. We decided to name our fish Hungry because it had an empty stomach. We made lionfish ceviche after the dissection and it was delicious.

Kaela and I dissecting our lionfish, Hungry.

Today, there were no water activities, so I was not able to see my taxon. Honestly, I was kind of sad not to see my taxon today. I think I am going to miss seeing my little algae buddies around every corner. Tomorrow, we have a long day of travel ahead of us.

Wish me luck!


Day 13: Searchin’ for Urchins

5/26/19: Have you ever held a ball of sticks that moves in your bare hand? Well if you have, stick around because I think you can bond with me. But if you haven’t, do not fret because I am sure I am descriptive enough for both of us. Today, we were searching for sea urchins for our next research project. When I say searching, I mean searching! I was doing handstands trying to see underneath rocks and used spaghetti tongs to fetch them out of tight crevices. (No urchins were harmed in this event; all returned safely to the water)

Slate Pencil Urchin found under a rock while searching for the urchins during research project

We were looking at the sea urchins to use as a proxy to help understand herbivory and overall reef health. I had never felt a sea urchin before this, but let me tell you, I would do it again if I could. It is so interesting to watch them move their seemingly stiff legs to walk around in your hand. I also saw quite a few brittle stars as I was lifting up coral rubble in search of urchins.

We had our night dive today, and it was really cool. We were able to see a couple stingrays, lobster, and even a pufferfish. The current was pretty strong, so it was short lived. However, it was really eerie and cool to be in the water at night.

Throughout the day, I saw various patches of Halimeda opuntia (Watercress algae) and Halimeda incrassata (Three finger leaf algae) in cracks between hard corals or in the sandy patches. Looking for urchins, I even saw some Flat Twig red algae or Amphiora tribulus that grew in sporadic clumps in the shady areas of rock crevices. Tomorrow is our last full day at Glover’s reef Middle Caye, so let’s finish with a bang!

I even saw some Flat Twig red algae or Amphiora tribulus that grew in sporadic clumps in the shady areas of rock crevices.

Wish me luck!



Day 12: Finding Nemo…more like… Finding Bella!

5/25/19: The highlight of my day today was visiting the fore reef of Glover’s Reef atoll. It was literally like a scene from Finding Nemo. There was this expansive reef and a huge drop off just like where Nemo first sees the “butt” or boat. As I was exploring that edge, I, too, like Nemo was tempted to swim off the edge to see what was on the other side. But, I decided to side with my better judgment and swim toward the middle of the reef because I remembered how it turned out for Nemo. Now, I see why it was so tempting for Nemo to swim off; he was just trying to explore like me!

A picture looking down at the depth of the fore reef! Check out that blue water!

On the fore reef, we saw a bunch of cool things. We saw a few southern stingrays, a nurse shark, flounder, and personal my favorite was the Caribbean Reef Squid. I am starting to think I am I have a thing for Cephalopods? Future Ph.D in Cephalopods? Jury is still out.

The only downfall to this experience was the seasickness that came along with it. Since the fore reef experiences more wave action than the patch reefs, we were bobbing up and down on the boat and while surfacing the water. I did not like feeling very much at all, but the squid definitely made up for it.

On the fore reef, algae were scarce. Corals dominated those areas, but in the few patch reefs we visited before that, I saw a couple algae I had not seen before. I saw Green Bubble Weed Algae, Dictyospaeria cavernos, in between some sea fans, and I saw Y-Twig Algae, or Amphiroa rigdia between two mounding corals in shallower part of the patch reef. I, of course, also saw more Pink Segmented Algae (J. adherens) and Three Finger Leaf Algae (H. incrassata). Tomorrow, we are going to go for a night dive, so I am hoping I will see some nocturnal creatures like lobster.

The highlight of my day: I saw Green Bubble Weed Algae, Dictyospaeria cavernos, in between some sea fans!

Wish me luck!



Day 11: Momma, we caught a crab… wait just kidding… an octopus!?

5/24/19: Today was a jammed packed day. Early this morning, we got on a boat and did our first survey of a reef in a marine protected area and non-protected area. All I can say is, the reefs are so interesting to look at. I feel like I am living in an interactive “I-Spy ”book as I just float around the reef. From fish to Christmas tree worms, I am really enjoying looking at all the interesting creatures living on the reef.

Speaking of interesting creatures, today’s second activity was by far my favorite part of the day. We waded out into a seagrass bed and we were tasked with finding organisms that live in the beds to create a touch tank—-we were asked not to pick up anything that stings/poisonous and almost everyone followed that. Let’s just say, some of us have some battle scars.

I saw sea anemones, sea urchins, fireworms, brittle stars, queen conchs, sea cucumbers, and a variety of hermit crabs. It was just crazy to me that such a small area could have such a diversity of organisms. The highlight sight of the day was an Atlantic Pygmy Octopus (Octopus jubini) hiding in an old conch shell. We thought it was a crab in there, but boy we were we surprised to see an octopus coming out.

The highlight sight of the day was an Atlantic Pygmy Octopus (Octopus jubini) hiding in an old conch shell

There is no shortage of green and red algae at Glover’s Reef. Today I saw more Pink Segmented Algae (J. adherens), Watercress algae (H. optunia) and Three Finger Leaf Algae (H. incrassata). I was more excited to see some new ones like Mermaid Fan algae from the genus Udotea and Burgundy Crustose Algae from the genus Dessonelia. I even saw a Sea Pearl algae, Ventricaria ventricosa. We plan to go to the fore reef soon, so I am really excited about that.

Watercress algae (H. optunia) growing on hard substrate
I am showing the class an example of Three-Finger Leaf Algae during our touch tank activity.

Wish me luck!



Day 10: Decorator Crabs Unite!

5/23/19: Today was our first full day at Glover’s reef. I must say waking up every morning to our view on our front deck is something I can’t get over. It just seems unreal! The crystal blue water and the palm trees swaying in the wind are worth the 12848923988 bug bites that come with staying on a remote island.

Today, we were tasked with our first research project.  We were looking at how the seagrass beds and algae interact on the reef flat.  We named our group the decorator crabs because her taxon group is crustaceans and mine is algae; decorator crabs decorate themselves with algae (similar to the “shiny” crab in Moana), so we thought it was a perfect fit.

The highlight of today getting a glimpse at a patch reef nearby and being able to see all of the amazing diversity for the first time. It was a larger patch reef, so it was teeming with life. A spotted eagle ray swam right next to me and I literally felt like I should have been Aquawoman in that moment: I was one with the fishes.

A quick picture of the Spotted Eagle Ray that swam near us on the patch reef near the dock on Middle Caye

With the abundance of life on the reef, I was overwhelmed just looking at it, so I did see many types of algae. I saw various patches of Halimeda opuntia and Halimeda incrassata today in cracks between hard corals or in the sandy patches. I also saw those algae and some Pink Segmented Algae or Jania adherens dried up in the coral graveyard (place of washed up carbonate skeletons). I also saw various types of coralline crustose algae (CCAs) on the hard substrates of the reef. On a final note, I am hoping at least one time on this trip to see a sea star.

I am holding Halimeda opuntia, Halimeda incrassata, and Jania adherens dried up on rocks in the coral graveyard.
An example of some CCA I found growing on a rock.

Wish me luck!


Day 9: We made it to Glover’s Reef!

5/22/19: Today, we made it to Glover’s Reef! It was a three-hour boat ride to get here, and I must say I was not really a fan. It was overall just a long ride in the sun with a slew of bumps along the way that made me a little seasick. I have found out “Boats are not for Bella.” But, the site of Glover’s made it all worth it. The beautiful clear blue water is something I have never experienced before. It almost seemed unreal and too picturesque. Of course, I could do without the sand flies and mosquitos waiting to feast on my blood, but alas, even paradise is not perfect.

My view from a hammock underneath the main office at Glover’s Reef Research Station

We started the day at Glover’s by taking a tour of the island and testing out our water gear. At first, we struggled to get acquainted with our new environment, but we figured it out. The water was pretty choppy today due to high winds which made things a bit harder. However, we were able to start looking at our first reefs and I think now it is confirmed that the ocean has a special place in my heart. Growing up on the Texas coast, the beach atmosphere usually feels like second nature to me, but this took it to a whole new level. It was actually startling to see what I had seen on television for years (thank you David Attenborough) in real life.

My attempt to take a picture (The current was pretty strong wading) of the watercress algae in sandy areas between corals.

Today, I was able to see a few different species of algae. On the leeward side of the island, I saw Halimeda opuntia or Watercress algae in between the corals, and I saw Three Finger Leaf Algae or Halimeda incrassitoria that was inhabiting the shallow sandy area near the leeward coast. I am hoping as we spend more time in the water tomorrow that I am able to see more species of algae—my hope is for some green grape algae (Caulerpa racemosa).

Wish me luck!


Last but not least

This morning I pulled tick number 19 off my ear and boarded a plane to DC. It feels strange being back on the grid, sending texts and walking past Subway and McDonald’s.

This trip was an experience unlike any that I have had before. I’m so happy to have met all of the TFBs. The reef and rainforest ecosystems were both incredible, in ways that I expected and in ways that I totally didn’t expect.

Accomplished TFBs

Middle Caye was, at first glance, a tropical paradise, with tall palm trees and surrounded by Gatorade-blue water. From a boat, the reef is mostly invisible. Only the reef crest, where waves break incessantly, and dark patches in the bright blue of the lagoon betrayed the reef’s position under the surface of the ocean.

Upon arrival, the Chiquibul Rainforest looked like a whole lot of trees. The ground is covered in leaf litter and the twisted roots of trees growing up and out in competition for sunlight.

In both the reef ecosystem and the rainforest ecosystem, complexity is present but not immediately apparent.

In the coral reef ecosystem, topographical complexity allows organisms to hide in crevices and under consolidated reef framework. Sponges, soft corals, and algae provide habitat, in addition to stony corals. Only after many days snorkeling around did I start to see the full range of diversity present in the ecosystem. I didn’t see any urchins until we were told to look, and then I found them tucked under rocks and under corals. I began to notice anemones wiggling in the seagrasses and I became more alert to the quick movement of reef fishes.

In the rainforest ecosystem, the diversity of plant life also provides a wide range of habitat for animal life. I did not notice the overwhelming abundance of arthropods in the rainforest until our small sampling effort yielded a whole lot of little critters. Insects and arachnids (including my enemy, the tick) were “hidden” in the grasses, on palm fronds, on tree trunks and vines and on the forest floor. Trees in the rainforest also provide habitat for other plant life (shout out epiphytes). The rainforest is far from being composed of only trees, just like the reef is far from being composed only of stony corals.

A huge similarity between the reef and the rainforest is the nutrient recycling imperative. Both coral reefs and tropical rainforests are incredibly diverse ecosystems despite being nutrient poor.

Coral reefs survive best in nutrient-poor waters. The microbial loop, during which detritus and dissolved organic matter (DOM) are incorporated into microorganisms on the reef, is necessary for rapid turnover. Tiny microorganisms are eaten, and the nutrients they consumed move up through the trophic levels on the reef. In tropical rainforests, soils are old and depleted of their nutrients. Rapid decomposition and turnover on the forest floor is a quintessential element of the rainforest. In the case of some nutrients (calcium and phosphorous) 99% appears to be recycled by forest plants.

My favorite activity from the trip was the Actun Tunichil Muknal archaeological reserve. Wading through chilly water and scrambling over slick rock formations in the dark was super cool on its own, but seeing the pottery left by the Maya and remains of human sacrifice left untouched for thousands of years was awe-inspiring. Also, the hike back through the forest in the pouring rain was rejuvenating.

My least favorite activity was collecting data on Christmas tree worms on the back reef off Middle Caye. Collecting data was difficult on the shallow reefs; constantly being pushed around by the waves and crashing into rocks was an inconvenience. Honestly, it was still a good time and Adolfo found the huge dead sponge there, so it was worth crashing around and spluttering in the waves for a while.

This course was incredibly educational; I felt like I was constantly absorbing new information. It met my expectations and exceeded them. Being a tropical field biologist requires hard-work and flexibility for when things inevitably don’t go as planned. But the experience also showed me that tropical field biology requires and encourages creativity. Being at Glover’s and Las Cuevas, in relatively untouched ecosystems, made me appreciate the awesomeness of nature.


The rainforest and the reef are similar and dissimilar in several ways. Both ecosystems hold incredible biodiversity, experience similar negative anthropogenic impacts, and exist in oligotrophic surroundings. The reason biodiversity is high for each has to do with the location of rainforests and reefs. Both are found low latitudes, where weather and temperature are more constant than at higher latitudes and the impact of the sun is at its fullest. The structural complexity of each provides a wide array of niches to be filled by different organisms. Both habitats are under severe threat from human activities, even if those activities are different. Though, the goal is the same, to extract resources. The soils of tropical rainforests are nutrient and nitrogen poor and the same goes for reefs. The turnover rate in both ecosystems is so large that these nutrients are almost instantly ingested by the organisms living on the forest floor or in the benthos, where it is recycled in a microbial loop.

There are differences also in the environment, types of life, and in the effects of humans. As terrestrial organisms, we are built for living on land and can be quite awkward and clumsy in the sea. The ocean is an entirely different medium, made up of salty water. To fully explore the reefs, a human must strap on fake fins and be able to hold their breath for long periods of time, or utilize scuba. Land is a remarkably easier place to do field work for most people. The types of life found in each area are also different. Insects do not inhabit the oceans but are found on every single continent. While marine fish make up a great portion of the species in the sea, as do marine mammals, most if not all are absent from the rainforest’s rivers. Reefs are probably the more fragile ecosystem, since a large part of the functionality of a reef is dependent upon the health of its main reef builders, stony corals. The forests of the Chiquibul face a number of anthropogenic threats, such as selective and indiscriminate logging, harvesting of Xate, hunting, poaching, and mining. While these forests do face some threat from global warming, its main threat is extraction. But for reefs, human extraction, pollution, as well as global warming are likely all equally threatening. Stony corals live in symbiosis with tiny dinoflagellate algae, and this symbiosis is fragile and easily susceptible to stressors in the environment. If the stony corals are unhealthy, this can cause huge changes to this ecosystem, such as a loss of architectural complexity, harms to reef fish populations and dynamics, and erosion along coastlines. The ocean also serves as a dumpster for humanity’s trash and it seems that even a place like Glover’s can be affected, whereas trash cannot just drift into the Chiquibul.

Overall I observed all of these similarities and differences between these two ecosystems. The forests may stand taller than much of the reef landscape, but it is wise not to be fooled. The outer reef contains multitudes of boulders and nooks and crannies, creating this complex and diverse habitat. We were fortunate enough to see several colonies of Acropora palmata, a beautiful, large branching coral that was nearly wiped out by White Band Disease. Once, this species formed a zone that mimicked the forest, but now, these corals are dispersed across the outer reef. Noise is another factor to consider. The forest was never still and never silent. From crickets to cicadas, from howler monkeys to the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, there was never a time when anything stopped. In the sea however, noises were harder to hear, and were occasionally absent. Down in the depths of the outer reef, an eerie but calming silence envelops you and nearly makes you forget that you have to go back to the surface in order to draw another breath.

I am quite biased towards the reef and must say that was my favorite week. I love the ocean, and the challenges that it presents to a land creature like myself. I enjoyed every aspect of the entire trip however, and found that hiking 13.25 miles in rain boots isn’t so bad as long as you have a chipper attitude and an amazing group of people surrounding you. Michael and Sam, in their enthusiasm for insects, and Adrienne’s funny antics towards them, made me more fully appreciate their existence. While I will never pick up a cockroach, I still have a newly found respect for them. I also think that monkey hoppers are actually pretty cute. My baseline for ant size has definitely been shifted to a larger perspective. I’m excited to go home and see tiny ants and be thankful they aren’t the large soldier ants we so lovingly harassed. The reef though, is where I think I am the happiest. The large colorful and beautiful birds of the Chiquibul morph into colorful reef fishes. The large trees turn to acroporas and boulder mounds. Predatory jaguars and other cats turn into the sharks and barracudas that silently cut through the water. In the end though, I love both places, and would never turn down an opportunity to explore both even more.

A few things surprised me. Hiking 13.25 miles in one day in rain boots wasn’t so bad after all. I learned that trying to count intersect points of a quadrat in five feet of water is extremely difficult, even in the slightest of waves. I can never un-see Michael putting that bee larvae in his mouth. I also learned I am definitely not a morning person. I would tell myself literally every night that I would get up early to go bird watching or to write my blogs, but I always got up at the last second, threw on some clothes, and headed to breakfast. Cold showers are necessary and will make you wonder why you ever took a hot shower. Bees are really cool and are diverse and variable in form, and I’ll never forget that little metallic green orchid bee. I may never see one again. I shall never forget our friend Clivus. Most of all, what will definitely stick with me over the years is the awesome group of people I got to explore Belize with. This group was amazing and every person played a part in making the dynamic fantastic and crazy. Throughout my time in Belize, I met some amazing people, from Lauren and Boris at Las Cuevas, to Javier and Herbie at Glover’s Reef. I wouldn’t change anything about this course (even though the transportation was definitely not on par, our group made the best of it!) because each activity is meant to challenge our perceptions of nature and how to turn observations and experiments into usable data. I will look back on this trip with fond memories.

Postcards from Randy. See me. Pupae. Where is she (Batman voiceover). Mrrph.

Orbicella annularisDSCN3473

Wrapping up

Our last day at Glovers has been bittersweet. We wrapped things up by collecting specimens from the backreef and bringing them into the wet lab for sorting and identification. While I did see several split crown feather dusters they are not the kind of thing you can remove from the reef without killing the organism because of how they attach to the substrate. However, we collected several fish, blue crabs, tiny brown crabs, all kinds of green, brown, and red algae, mantis shrimp, jellies, clam shells, and a huge hermit crab.

Yesterday we collected data on specific coral colonies for a long term study. We measured live coral coverage, and today we looked at the data for the same corals taken last year to compare the results. We found that coverage seemed to have decreased at the sites, but it was hard to tell because of discrepancies in data collection. Lastly, we dissected lionfish that were caught throughout the week to look at size, sex and stomach contents to get an idea of what the population of this invasive species looks like in Glovers atoll.

I wish I had more time on the reef and in this course. Middle caye and the surrounding reefs are beautiful and I feel like I could stay here for a long time. I may be salty, all my laundry is filthy, and I definitely have a whole new threshold for dirty, but I’m still happy as a clam.




Sophia Streeter