Tag Archives: Sarah T

One Squishy, Two Pieces of Banana Bread, and Lots of Fish

DAY 6 — I think I’m starting to get used to waking up early and walking outside to feel the ocean breeze. This morning it was less of a breeze and more of a strong wind. It’s hard to belize that tomorrow is our last full day on the island.

This morning we had more delicious homemade bread and mixed fruit for breakfast. By 8:15 we were headed to the snorkel shack. Today we went to the northern back reef to collect a sampling of the diverse organisms in the reef (and seagrass) habitat. We walked through some adorable baby mangroves and trudged through some squishy seagrass beds to get to the patch reefs.

I saw a spotted eel (Gymnothorax moringa), the Caribbean giant anemone (Condylactis gigantea), Halimeda chips, and a couple brittle stars. I also saw a LOT of fish, including the juvenile Gray Angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus), the intermediate stage French Angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), the Bluehead (Thalassoma bifasciatum), the Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor), and the French Grunt (Haemulon favolineatum).


We swam our loot back to Middle Caye and sorted everything in the wet lab troughs. For good reason, we weren’t allowed to collect any sponges, so my taxonomic group was lacking. I did still have the dead sponge from yesterday, which I identified as a Yellow Tube Sponge (Aplysina fistularis).


Some cool organisms collected were the Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis), the Caribbean Giant Anemone (Condylactis gigantea), a fire worm (Heimodic carcunculata), and a Manta Shrimp (Pseudosquilla cilicate).

We managed to collect a tiny baby octopus (named Squishy) who became a fast favorite among the TFBs and highlight of the day. Squishy was hiding in a Diadema antillarum inked when the Cocoa damselfish lunged towards her (or him), which was extra cute. We think Squishy was an Octopus briareus.


After lunch Ellie, Deepu, and Anna gave their presentations on herbivorous fish, piscivorous fish, and invasive species, respectively. It was the perfect day for these lectures, as I had just seen a bunch of fish in the patch reef area.

After lectures we returned our collected friends to the ocean from whence they came and began analyzing our marine debris data from yesterday. We produced a poster (which got rave reviews) showing that plastic was both the most abundant type of marine debris by number of pieces and by weight.

Tomorrow, whether the weather be fair or whether the weather be not, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not. Meaning: we are going out to enjoy ourselves around various parts of the atoll, even if it stays windy.

Annelids and molluscs are cool, marine debris is not 

DAY 5 — Another full day of field biology! Starting with fried jack and fresh fruit for breakfast plus a leisurely coffee with Tian-Tian and Sarah. Our departure was postponed because of the windy conditions, so we listened to Damien talk about annelids and mollusks. 

Instead of heading out on the boat for an explanation of reef zonation, we suited up and walked through the “Mangroves of Death” to the back reef. We planned to assess the presence of Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus gigantea), trying to answer the question: do Christmas tree worms show a host preference for stony coral? We hypothesized that more Christmas tree worms would be found on brain corals and that more Christmas tree worms would be found on larger corals.

Collecting data was difficult on the shallow reefs; constantly being pushed around by the waves and crashing into rocks was an inconvenience. Adolfo found a Caribbean spiny lobster shell from a recently molted lobster, which was pretty cool. 

For a sponge update: I didn’t identify any new sponges among the patch reefs today. BUT Adolfo found a big, old dead coral specimen. See below. 


I’m pretty sure it’s a yellow tube sponge (Aplysina fistularis). 

I’m hoping that when we eventually get out to the reef crest and fore reef I’ll see some more new species of sponge. I’m still hoping for a barrel sponge (like the Giant Barrel Sponge, Xestospongia muta) or the Pink Vase Sponge (Niphates digitalis). 

After a delectable lunch, Isaac gave a lecture on marine debris. A fun fact: microplastics are thought to account for 90% of marine debris. Our next activity fit with the theme. We collected trash and marine debris from various locations around Middle Caye (11 people for 30 minutes, so 330 people-minutes). There was SO MUCH TRASH, especially plastics. Kind of a bummer.

We arrived back at the wet lab with our trash bags stuffed with plastic forks, bottles, toothbrushes, sandals, combs, Styrofoam pieces and much more. Waiting for us were several freshly collected and cut coconuts. Man, I love coconut. 

After a brief stint in the hammock, we sorted, counted, and weighed all of the debris. 2,460 pieces, or 18.46 kg, of plastic. 

Before dinner we played some beach volleyball. Look out for an EBIO 319 intramural team, coming SY 2018. 

Later in the evening, Scott and Adrienne set up lights in the water at the end of the dock. It was kind of eerie being out on the dock in the darkness, looking out over the huge ocean. The water was choppy because of the strong wind, but we were able to observe a bunch of fish and a sting ray. Also, we saw the bright, reflecting eyes of a crocodile lounging behind a log. 

Until tomorrow!

Non-MPA Experiments and a lot of data

DAY 4 — We started another busy day with some urchin measurement and identification. The urchins collected yesterday at the MPA area were happily bubbling in the bucket overnight. We identified at least one urchin from all four expected species: Echinometra lucunther, Echinometra virdis, Eucidaris tribuloides, and Diadema anitullarum. Sarah, Tian-Tian, and I measured the tests (circular body parts) with calipers. Urchins are pretty cool. 

After the urchin extravaganza, we quickly shifted gears and headed out on the boat. We returned the urchins to the MPA and motored over to an area of patch reef outside of the protected area. 

We all plopped off the edge of the boat and repeated the transect experiment from yesterday. We quantified benthos cover into the following categories: live stony coral, recently dead coral, bushy macroalgae, sand, soft coral, sponges, and other (which became a mostly sea grass category). Alessi and I were extra efficient and got plenty of time to snorkel around and explore the new areas of reef.

Today was a good sponge day. I saw more Chicken Liver Sponge (Chondrilla caribensis), Branching Vase Sponge (Callyspongia vaginalis) and Scattered Pore Rope Sponge (Aplysina fulva). Some new discoveries today were the Lavender Rope Sponge (Niphates erecta), the Orange Icing Sponge (Mycale laevis), and the Green Finger Sponge (Iotrochota, birotulata). 


We also saw a Gray Angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus) which was So Big and a nurse shark, but he or she was hiding under reef framework. 

We executed another 25 minute timed urchin collection at the non-MPA site. I couldn’t find a single urchin 🙁 We measured the urchins that were successfully collected on the boat and identified them before tossing them back into the ocean to continue their lives. 


The afternoon was filled with data analysis. As a group, we totaled group data for the MPA and non-MPA reef health assessment experiment,, including the quadratic data and urchin data. Our efforts culminated in a poster, tracing the experiment from question and hypothesis to results and discussion. 

My favorite part of today might have been the early morning urchin measurements. After I got used to the feeling of little spines wiggling around in my palms, I really liked looking closely at the Aristotle’s lantern. I also enjoyed the delicious pineapple cake at dinner. Happy Birthday, Jordan! 

Before dinner, we had some ever-coveted free time. Some soccer was played, some showers were enjoyed. Our plans for a night snorkel were thwarted by weather conditions, but hopefully we can make it work another night! I imagine the reef at night is a whole different experience.

Quadrats, Transects, and Urchins (Oh My!) 

DAY 3 — This morning I woke up to the sound of the ocean. Very pleasant. We started our second day at Middle Caye with some quadrat practice, investigating the crab density on the island. We worked out standards for the whole group to use with the transect tape (100ft) and intervals of quadrats (every 20ft) in order to ensure that our data, collected in six separate groups, would be comparable.

After our land practice, we left the turf and went to the surf for transect practice in the sea grass beds. We were looking at benthic organism diversity, and recorded any sightings of molluscs, crustaceans, algae, echinoderms, cnidarians, annalids, and arthropods in our quadrats. Alessi and I nailed it, and were able to efficiently collect data from the quadrats and spot some cool creatures along the way. We saw some really cool anemone, a conch, and a barracuda.

Quadrat on seagrass bed

After lunch, we embarked on the Koolie Gial, with Captain Buck. In the patch reef, we were looking to assess reef health and cover. Alessi and I were both thrilled to see so many representatives of our taxonomic groups, soft corals and sponges, respectively.

Speaking of sponges, I saw some good ones! First and foremost, the Chicken Liver Sponge (Chondrilla caribensis)! A very exciting spot for me.

Chondrilla caribensis up close 
Chicken Liver Sponge (Chondrilla caribensis)

I also saw rope sponge, probably the Scattered Pore Rope Sponge (Aplysina fulva). Another familiar face, the Branching Vase Sponge (Callyspongia vaginalis) was also on the patch reef today.

Aplysina fulva

Our final reef-related activity of the day was an urchin collection. For 25 minutes, we all swam around the shallow reefs and tried to grab the urchins hiding in little rock crevices. We brought a bucket of urchins back to the island and will measure them tomorrow morning before returning them to their home.

Middle Caye and me

DAY 2 — After an early morning PB&J, we left TEC at 6am and drove back through Belize City to the docks. By 8am we were loaded on to our boat, the Manta Ray, and were peeling away from shore, accompanied by our reef guides, Javier and Adolfo. Goodbye land! 

The boat ride was, as promised, magical. We saw some flying fish, a giant green sea turtle, and last but not least, brown algae! The water was super blue: turquoise in the lagoons, and deeper blue in the open ocean. We ate more PB&J. 

We arrived at Middle Caye and it’s beyond expectations. Words don’t do it justice and pictures might not be upload-able on the limited wifi so just imagine the most beautiful, natural, tropical island you can. After a quick tour and lunch, we suited up and got in the water. What a nice relief from the sticky, sweaty heat. 

Arriving at Middle Caye
The Manta Ray

I saw sponges! I saw the Branching Vase Sponge (Callyspongia vaginalis) which is commonly found in communities of many “vases”. With less certainty, I identified the Scattered Pore Rope Sponge (Apylsina fulva). My goal tomorrow is to find these sponges again, with a less foggy mask. 

Callysponiga vaginalis on the right

I also saw a butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) grazing on the reef and lots of purple gorgonian (sea fans). Overall, it was a good first day in the water. I’m excited to get back in the water tomorrow and practice my snorkel skills. 


The coral graveyard, between the reef and before dinner, was a highlight today. We were able to identify lots of coral species by their calcium carbonate structures. These coral skeleton fragments are old, old, old and well preserved. I was able to correctly recognize some species learned in EBIO 372 including but not limited to Pseudodiploria strigosa, Orbicella annularis, Colpophyllia natans, and trusty old Montastrea cavernosa. 

Montastrea cavernosa (left) and Pseudodiploria labyrinthiformis (right)
Colpophyllia natans (left) and Pseudodiploria strigosa (right)

I’m feeling pretty sandy and salty, but not too tired (after being awake for almost 17 hours). Can’t wait for another day!

Just like that, we made it to beautiful Belize

DAY 1 — We met this morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10:30am. By noon, we were waiting in the security line at Hobby. By 1:45, after a quick bite, we boarded our plane and took off!

Looking out the plane window during our descent, I began to get a sense of Belize. I could see the bright blue coast, large expanses of lush green, expanses of brown, and, nearer to the airport, brightly colored homes.

Leaving the airport in our van, we got a little taste of Belize City, with its colorful buildings and big, bold Belikin advertisements. We stopped at Low’s general/grocery store for snack-age (I got some plantain chips and wheat biscuits).

The drive to TEC (Tropical Education Center) was beautiful, the sun was low in the sky. When we arrived around 6pm, we were greeted by a procession of leaf cutter ants (see below) and a delicious meal (beans and rice, plantains, banana bread, etc).

Hard to see here, but there were leaf cutter ants crossing, I promise!

No bee sightings today. I’ll keep my eyes peeled. No sponge sightings either (surprise, surprise). Hopefully, I’ll see some sponges tomorrow, our first day on the reef.

We did see a cool, calm, and collected green iguana teetering on a skinny little branch at the top of a tree, eating leaves. We also had a little frog friend in the cabin.

I’m really looking forward to the boat ride to Glover’s tomorrow. Sunscreen will be applied amply (don’t worry, dad).

The gals of dorm 7 (minus yours truly):

Left to right: Tian-Tian, Anna, Sarah, Jordan, Ellie, Alessi

Belize, here we come

The day after tomorrow we fly to Belize! I’m pretty pumped.

I expect to learn about a huge variety of rainforest and reef organisms, both from lectures and in person. Reading the book beforehand was unquestionably valuable, but I think that I will learn so much more by being in the ecosystems of Belize.

I hope to improve my snorkeling skills, and I hope to correctly identify some sponges and bees! I’ve been researching both taxa for some weeks now, and I am crossing my fingers for some orchid bees (Euglossini tribe) and a chicken liver sponge (Chondrilla caribensis). I also hope to get to know everyone on the trip and learn how to work together as a team.

I am most nervous, and also excited, about snorkeling on the reef. I am especially excited to see, in person, some of the species we talked about in Coral Reef Ecosystems. All semester I have been looking forward to seeing the coral reef, in all of its glory, in real life. I hope I’ll be able to identify some of the coral species that we learned this past semester. I am especially nervous about the reef slope, which is heaven for coral but maybe will require deeper diving than I have practiced/done before. Hopefully, I can keep up with the experienced snorkelers!

I don’t have much experience in the tropics, especially not related to tropical ecology. I am approaching this experience with an open mind, ready to soak up as much knowledge as I can. Like, say, a sponge. This is a really cool opportunity, and I am glad that I am able to take this course during my time at Rice.