Another good weather day, and another project to be done. Today we examined the difference in sea urchin community structure in and out of the marine protected zone. We decided to log the species, number of each species, and the size of individual urchins (via diameter of their round bodies called a test) at patch reefs in and outside the MPA. Our first stop was actually the MPA reef we went to on the first day. Each group was given a pair of tongs and picked a different direction to start in. We had 30 minutes to catch as many sea urchins, and as soon as Professor Solomon yelled “GO!” it was a mad dash to the coral. Scanning every nook and cranny took some time, but the urchin spines would eventually come into focus and you would have to squeeze your hand or tongs in the crevice to grab them. I grabbed several small Reef Urchins and a West Indian Sea Egg (an urchin with a large center and short white spines).
After logging the data, we released the urchins and it was onto the next site. The next site was out of the MPA, and had more Long Spined Urchins (have long black or white striped spines and are a little venomous). I also noticed a Bicolor Damselfish protecting its territory from me as I tried to un-lodge an urchin from the coral. It was quite colorful, with a yellow and black front half which fades to a white back half. This small fish, which can at max grow to a measly four inches in length, was trying to charge at me and chase me away from its patch of coral. It did not take too kindly to me trying to take a sea urchin from its home and kept flitting about, trying to get me to leave.
The day ended with a short night snorkel after dinner. Surprisingly, I felt no anxiety or trepidation when jumping into the dark water. The highlight of the night was a Spotted Eagle Ray gliding into view from the darkness. It was an eerie and ominous sight, as it seemed to just appear out of the dark. After swimming for a good while, we reached the patch reef and immediately saw multiple Spiny Lobsters out and about. There was a large trunkfish meandering across the sand, and what looked to be a Red Hare (snapper) sitting on the bottom.
Today’s general agenda: Project “surchin” for urchin —> presentations —> night snorkel
Ready.. Set… Go!
In thirty minutes, each group wanted to find the most urchins. Our research project today focuses on urchins and how urchin communities might look different in Marine protected areas (MPA) and non-marine protected areas. MPA are places where fishing is restricted or prohibited. The idea is that understanding the urchin community can allow us to better understand the herbivores that live in those reefs and the overall health of reefs. In total, there were primarily five urchins we were looking for: the reef urchin, slate pencil urchin, western sea egg, long-spiked urchin, and rock-boring urchin.
We would find these urchins in all types of crevices. After time was up, we would bring these urchins back to the boat and measure their lengths. Don’t worry- we later sprinkled them back onto the reef. Because we were so fixated on urchins, I was not able to find spot any sponges. Luckily, we had one last time to snorkel, which is the night snorkel!
The majority of the afternoon was pretty much free time. I chose to spend my time on the dock, observing the ocean from the best spot on Middle Caye. I also had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Solomon, Kelsey, and Dr. Shore about future plans and reflect on the trip itself. I walked away the dock feeling more excited about the future than ever.
As our final snorkel this trip, we brought our dive lights and jumped into pitch-black water. I looked up and saw a sky full of stars, and I looked down a saw a spotted eagle ray quietly swim pass us. What a view! I felt like the luckiest person that day. My camera skills significantly decline in the dark, but I was able to take a somewhat artistic photo of another branching vase sponge (C. vaginalis) at night. The blur is *most definitely* intentional.
We went out to the fore reef this morning. We got on the boat and went outside the reef crest, and the current was pretty strong. The waves were making it difficult to swim, but Scott and Javier said that the conditions were surprisingly tame. I now understand the importance of atolls and corals on wave movements. I was exhausted swimming and keeping up with everyone, but I got to see a yellow tail sting ray before it quickly swam away.
In the afternoon we went out to the reef to collect sea urchins! At first, I was scared of getting their spines in me because I’ve seen my friend get a spine stuck in his foot, and it looked painful. I found so many sea urchins but I only used the tongs to pick them up. I got to put them in my hand while counting the urchins and measuring their length. We then moved outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) to collect urchins and I got more comfortable picking the urchins up, so I got a few with my hands. They were so cute and didn’t stab my hand except my thumb got scraped up. I used the tongs to catch the Diodema Antillarium, which was absolutely ginormous compared to the others. I had no idea that their spines are venomous so I’m glad I used the tongs. While swimming in the afternoon, I managed to get hurt by a fire coral though. While navigating my way through the coral, I made a sharp turn and the small patch of skin on my ankle that wasn’t covered by my water booties or lycra dive skin hit the fire coral. I was glad that it was only a small patch of skin and how much better my ankle felt after Javier, the water safety officer, poured vinegar over my ankle.
At night we finally got to do our dermit (hermit crab derby) race. I cheated and caught a Caribbean blue crab instead of a hermit crab. I named mine Rihanna. Rihanna was very feisty and had a hard time not attacking me and staying on the race course. She ended up trying to climb the wall of the dining area in the second heat and eventually escaping, ultimately disqualifying her. She’s still a winner in my heart though.
“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.
I think that I am starting to get a much better grasp of how to maneuver on the reef. While I don’t think that I will every really be able to get over my sensitive ears. Depth does still hurt quite a bit. Anyway, I found today’s activities much easier than yesterday’s.
We had two projects to do today. First, we did a similar transect method as we did yesterday to estimate total coral cover on patch reefs inside and outside of the Marine Protected Area of Glover’s Reef. The second task was to collect as many urchin species as we could in 25 minutes for species ID, abundance, and diameter of test.
This has been one of my favorite days on the reef so far. The diversity that we saw was at the perfect depth for both quadrat measuring and for personal observation. I keep seeing so many examples of my taxonomic group, an encouraging sign. Today I saw a couple more examples of sea whips. I also noticed a lot of different sea plumes. I don’t know what exact species they are, but I believe that my taxonomic sheet has them.
Tomorrow we go to the fore reef, a more densely packed area. I hope to see even more soft coral and hard coral. These are encouraging to see because of their high contributions to reef framework growth. However, I’m sure that we will see lower levels of cover and diversity in the non-protected area. All will be revealed in the data tomorrow.