Today we embarked on a lengthier project, measuring percent live coral cover in marine protected area reefs vs. reefs outside of them. After breakfast and a boat safety talk, we climbed into a whaler and travelled to our protected area reef. The weather was perfect for snorkeling, barely any wind and cloudy due to approaching rain.
Jumping into the water and swimming to the sandy center of the reef (where our groups met up), I already saw so many colorful corals with different little wrasses darting amongst them. I reeled out my groups transect line, swimming though different sea fans (a soft coral) and over top of the coral heads (careful to avoid the stinging fire coral). Swimming over the corals was just an amazing and surreal experience, seeing all the different colors in the crystal clear was breathtaking. After finishing our quadrats, we got a chance to swim around the reef and explore.
The reef was full of herbivorous fish. There were Blue Tang Surgeonfish, what species Dory is from Finding Nemo with their characteristic blue bodies and yellow caudal spines, munching on some algae that was in the coral. There were also a lot parrotfish swimming in and under the coral heads. A very prevalent species was the colorful Stoplight Parrotfish. Parrotfish are special in that they have two “phases” of coloring and can be hermaphroditic (can change sexes). The initial phase of the stoplight parrotfish has a red orange underbelly and speckled body scale. There were also terminal phase Stoplight Parrotfish, which have a green head and body with yellow scales at the base of the tail and have orange/red scales on their tail. They also have a pink strip near their pectoral fin. In both phases, Stoplight Parrotfish are quite spectacular, and often feed in groups so they are easy to see. I also saw more Ocean Surgeonfish and Three-spotted damselfish. I also saw an adult Dusky Damselfish swimming through the coral, with its brown/black coloration and its rounded, continuous dorsal fin.
After around fifteen minutes of swimming, we loaded onto the boat and went to the unprotected reef and performed the same task. Per usual, we ended the day with lectures.
Today we left The Tropical Education center to embark on our journey to Glover’s Reef, a world heritage site and atoll, off the coast of Belize. The boat ride was three hours and the scenery around us was breathtaking. The water color changed from the marina brown, to a seafoam green, to a pure aqua. As the land disappeared behind us and when we crossed a barrier reef, the water below turned a deep dark blue. Soon the reefs of Glover’s came into view along with the island we would be staying on, Middle Caye at a WCS marine research station. We dropped off our bags in our dorms and were given a tour of the station. After a short tour and a little talk about the composting toilets they have, each called Clivus, we ate lunch. The food was amazing and after that we went on a snorkel to test out our gear.
It was honesty great to be in the water again and the water was as warm as heated pool water. We were going to try and swim to a patch reef near island, but due to some equipment difficulties in the group we had to swim back to the dock. Even at/near the dock there were groups of yellowtail snapper, and some upside-down jellyfish. Thinking that the current would be less and the wind more or less null we traversed the “Mangroves of Death” to get to the leeward side of the island. The “Mangroves of Death” we soon found out are infested with mosquitoes and biting flies. Everyone ran through the mangroves, careful not to trip but fast enough to evade the mosquitoes, but it was to no avail. All of us ended up getting bit, myself getting upwards of 20 bites on my back. Once we reached the water, we shuffled through some sea grass and made looked at some very shallow coral beds. For this portion of the course I’m the expert on herbivorous fish, and I saw a couple species today. In essence, herbivorous fish are fish that eat algae or vegetation, however some of them can be omnivores. Today I saw what appeared to be a very small juvenile Dusky Damselfish. It has a white lower body and a bright orange body, complete with blue spots on its head. I also saw what appeared to be a small Ocean Surgeonfish, these fish eat the algae off coral and are bluish grey in color.
After that excursion, we made a mad dash through the death mangroves and eventually reached the station. We washed off our equipment with freshwater and after dinner, which consisted of tender chicken with rice and lemon pie, we ended the day with presentations on sponges, coral, and the different kinds of microbes in coral reefs.
“Preservation of wildlife populations depends on changing human behavior.” Alex Tewfik, an expert benthic biologist, had this quote on one of his final slides during a presentation he gave our class.
A change in human behavior can mean many different things. I made an active choice to disrupt my busy summer work routine to engage in an explorative field biology trip, something that strongly deviates from my status quo.
This change has been engrossing. Through today’s endeavors – exploring a nearby seagrass bed and a patch reef accessible by boat – I immersed myself in the rich aquatic diversity only tropical marine ecosystems can offer.
I encountered a variety of species, including a beaded sea cucumber (Euapta lappa), about six inches in length, concealed by seagrass and a large West Indian sea egg (Tripneustes ventricosus) resting on a seagrass bed. Neither were in motion nor interacting with other animals. At the further patch reef, I came across a small chocolate brittle star (Ophioderma cinereum), a large-polyp coral (Eugmilia fastigata), and a donkey dung sea cucumber (Holothuria Mexicana), just under a foot long. The brittle star was found under rubble, and the donkey dung was found in deeper water on the seafloor. Today’s most noteworthy site was a school of surgeonfish (Genus Acanthus) swimming in a school of about one hundred fish.
My class also collected urchins from the reef. Urchins often hide under ridges or rocky overhangs, making them difficult to spot. After scouring for an urchin, I noticed an odd juxtaposition of hues – tiny white rings encircling fiery orange spines projecting from a dark fleshy body. This was the first of three (Echinometra viridis) I collected from the reef. Tomorrow, my class will be recording each urchin’s dimensions and returning them to the sea.
I realize my participation on this trip will not accelerate the “preservation of wildlife populations.” However, for my own personal commitment to preservation causes and my proactivity to advocate for them, this trip has been transformative.
Our time in Belize has nearly run its course, and while I’m excited at the prospect of a hot shower, I can’t believe how quickly two weeks have passed. For our final day at Glover’s Reef,
we set out to find as much diversity as possible in the back reef close to the shore of Middle Caye. In my final snorkel here, I found a
huge number of herbivorous fish. Ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) and doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus) swam right past me in pairs and groups, and I found an abundance of cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis) in between the corals. I also saw several French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), a large black and yellow fish that feeds on algae, as well as some invertebrates.
We also collected a number of species from the shallow seagrass beds by the shoreline and sorted them by taxonomic group. Using just nets, we were able to catch two yellowtail damselfish (Chrysiptera parasema) and another fish that I believe was a species of goby. We ended the morning by presenting a colorful array of macroalgae, echinoderms, jellyfish, and mollusks.
The afternoon’s activity was our long-awaited lionfish dissection. We were only able to capture four specimens of the invasive species, but each one was dismembered and analyzed by its stomach contents. Hopefully, the more we can learn about the lionfish, the better we can manage its invasion of the Caribbean.
For the perfect ending to our last day on the reef, we visited Southwest Caye, another island inside of the atoll. From the comfort of the dock, I watched the sun set on my Belizean adventure (at least for the time being).
I’ve come out of day 12 of this trip with a whole new appreciation for land. We leveled up on our boating expedition today by traveling outside the reef crest and the calm waters of the Glover’s Reef. The morning’s topic was reef zonation, so we ventured into the open ocean to check out the coral ecosystems beyond the atoll. In these deeper reefs, I saw a lot of larger herbivorous fish, especially terminal phase parrotfish. I was able to identify conspicuous males of the striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis) and some female/primary male stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride). But the real excitements of the morning were our carnivore sightings; we watched a giant spotted eagle ray fly across the benthos and a nurse shark glide through mountains of coral.
However, the choppy waves weren’t as appealing from the boat as they were on the reef. Thankfully every TFB came out of this experience unharmed, but I think a few of us might be jumping ship from team surf for the moment (sorry, Adrienne).
The afternoon’s snorkel was spent on back reef just in sight of the island, ending our boating adventures for the day. Though we couldn’t have been in more than 3 feet of water, the mix of seagrass and corals produced a scene reminiscent of Finding Nemo (sorry again, Adrienne). I swam right
past a whole school of ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) and found tons of small dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus) tending to their algae gardens. Since these reefs were much smaller, I didn’t see any large parrotfish here, but I did find a number of tiny juvenile striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis)—these seem to be common on shallower reefs. But the primary objective on the back reef was spearing lionfish, an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific. We managed to collect quite a few specimens for studying (and cooking) later in the week.
All in all, today gave me a new appreciation for both the ocean’s beauty and the wonderful stability of turf.