Day 6 was great! We went snorkeling on the back reef in the morning. We were collecting samples of organisms to bring back to the wet lab. Because I couldn’t take corals from the reef, I had a good time just swimming around and looking at the reef life.
When we brought our organisms back to the lab, we found a tiny octopus that hitched a ride in a shell! He was so cute, and we named him Squishy. We also found a fire worm and a mantis shrimp!
While everyone else was sorting through the organisms trying to identify their taxon group, Adrienne and I went back into the mangroves to collect more. We flipped over logs and emptied out big conch shells. We caught a few fish, some mollusks, and so many crabs.
After lunch, we did taxon and topic presentations and tried our best to quickly analyze and present our data from the trash pickup yesterday. We found that plastic waste is most abundant by number of pieces and weight.
We finished quickly, so we were able to squeeze in a quick snorkel before dinner. The wind was blowing pretty hard today, so there was a strong current. It was tough, but we were still all happy to be in the water!
To finish off the night, Ellie and I battled off some giant blue land crabs because we forgot our flashlights, and we are getting an early night. We’ll be up bright and early for snorkeling tomorrow morning!
Today was a very different day, but it was still exciting! We spent the morning on the back reef. We went through the mangroves of not-so-death and waded out to the patch reefs near the edge of the atoll. I saw a really cool fire coral that looked like a hybrid of the two species and a Caribbean Reef Squid!
We spent the afternoon out of the water. Scott and Adrienne had us collect data related to marine debris on the island, so we were out in the mangroves picking up trash. We brought it back to the wet lab and had to sort and count all of it. I helped count plastics and we had 2460 pieces!
To help relieve our hot, mosquito-bitten souls, Scott and Adrienne had some fresh coconuts waiting for us after our work. We spent the evening eating coconut and playing sand volleyball. It was wonderful and relaxing even though I got smacked in the face and knocked down by a particularly powerful serve.
Once the sun went down, we went down to the dock, sunk two dive lights, and watched the wildlife come out to play in the light. We saw lots of little fish, a stingray, a shark, and a crocodile! It was a really magical experience.
What a fabulous way to turn 19! We took an early morning dive on an unprotected patch reef and collected the same type of data as yesterday. Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for… *insert drumroll* … We found that the urchins are significantly bigger and more numerous in the protected reef area!
I hope everyone appreciated that information because we spent about 3 hours trying to crunch those numbers. I think we’re all a little sleepy and dehydrated! Eventually we put a nice poster together to show all of our data to Scott and Adrienne, and we presented it to them on the dock.
The coral on the patch reef was incredibly beautiful today! I didn’t identify any new species, but I did see a fire coral that had grown over a sea fan. It was so elegant, so check out the picture below. There were also comb jellies floating around the reef. They don’t sting, but they startled me a few times when I swam into them!
The best part of the day was definitely dinner. We were sitting around the table, discussing which character from Finding Nemo best represents Therese, when Scott and Adrienne brought a cake with candles to the table and sang happy birthday. They made a pineapple cake just for me! It was a very delicious and un-Belize-ably sweet surprise.
As I sit here on my couch watching a segment called “Extreme Ironing” on Ellen, the pre-departure anxiety is starting to set in. Do I have enough sunscreen? What if I have no coral-identifying skills? What if Scott and Adrienne ask us to iron a shirt while kayaking?
While some of these anxieties are slightly more realistic than others, I know that once we’re on our way, my worries will be gone. I have come to terms with the personal fact that sunburn is unavoidable, and I have spent a significant amount of time creating taxon sheets and Powerpoint presentations to help me with identification. I feel pretty prepared for this trip after doing the required readings and extra research.
As an aspiring marine biologist, I am obviously jumping for joy at this opportunity to experience field work at a real coral reef. However, the required readings have gotten me incredibly excited to experience the diversity of the rainforest as well! I honestly can’t pick one thing that I am most looking forward to. My biggest goal for this trip is to get a feel for field research and make sure I would be happy doing it for the rest of my life.
After all this preparation, I cannot wait to get to Belize! I’ve been to the tropics before on family vacations, but I’m thrilled to visit again with the perspective of a researcher, rather than a tourist. I’m excited to see all the things I’ve spent so much time reading about up close and in the flesh, and I’m ready to completely immerse myself in the ecosystems we are there to study. The only thing left to do is pack!
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.
Today we woke up extra early and hopped on our boat. We went straight to Carrie Bow Caye and met the volunteer managers of the Smithsonian’s research facility there. Surprise surprise, they are from Bois, Idaho! Perhaps this is a sign that I should return to here next summer. The island is so tiny, only about an acre and a half, and it grows smaller and smaller every year as sea levels rise. A lot of researchers go there to do there work, and I can see why. There is easy access to seagrass beds, mangroves, the fore reef, and back reef.
After that we went to Twin Caye and explored the mangroves. I cut my leg a little on accident but oh well. Mangroves, 1 and Anna, 0. We went snorkeling after that and I saw a shortnose batfish! It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. I also saw a little barracuda, so many sponges, and many starfish. No stony corals. This is because we were in mangrove territory.
We loaded back up on the boats and headed to Belize City. I fell asleep in the sun and consequently have a light burn all over my arms and back. We ate at Calypso again and then headed to the airport. The flight was fast and before I knew it, we were all saying goodbye. I felt pretty sad but that’s only because it was such an awesome trip with awesome people!