Monday, January 21, 2013

Home from the Tropics

Looking toward the dock on Southwater Cay, Belize
I write this sitting back at home beside the wood-stove, reminiscing about the past three weeks and missing the warm weather more than I expected. But, it is good to be home, and I have so much to tell you about! I may overlap with the last post that I was able to write in Belize, so please bear with me. I hope it will be a good read either way.

Red Mangrove Trees and their Prop Roots, photo by Patty Kaisian 

First, let me take you underwater to the mangrove islands of Twin Cay. Here we can see the salt-tolerant roots of the red mangroves dipping into the narrow channels between the islands here at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. The trees build these islands, doing so by capturing the sand and sediment between their roots as it is pushed in by the waves. They prosper against significant odds in part because of a symbiotic relationship with stunningly colored sponges attached to their prop roots. Additionally, mangroves provide hiding spaces and food for juvenile fish until the fish grow big enough to swim out and spend their adult lives primarily on the coral reef. This link between mangroves and reefs was extremely interesting to learn about, and seems to be a pretty hot topic in the worlds of conservation and tropical ecology today. 

 It was sometimes difficult to see the fish in between the roots, because the fish are wisely skittish, and the visibility in the water column was easily diminished by sediment that became suspended in it if one of us accidently kicked some up with our flippers. We had to be extra careful of our flippers in this habitat for another reason than visibility, however. The shallow channels between the islands of Twin Cay are chock full with upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopeia), which are very aptly named, as they rest on the sea floor with all of their tentacles pointed upwards toward the sky, somewhat resembling plates of spaghetti and packed with vicious stinging cells. They can be easily disturbed, in which case they float up and sting the perceived intruder, but we all came out unscathed. I watched one of these jellies land square upon another while settling back onto the bottom. It slowly shuffled off to the side, and I’m not sure if it was (or could be) stung by the jelly it landed upon. Snorkeling brings on so many observations and questions! Luckily, I was with very knowledgeable guides, professors, and classmates, so most of my questions received answers, but this one remains a mystery to me.

Dale, Kevin, and Kimike, our guides and drivers
We felt very fortunate to have such excellent local guides on our snorkel trips. To my knowledge, none of them were formally trained in biology, but their expertise in the myriad species and relationships we saw was truly impressive. They joined us whenever we went out, whether it was in the patch reefs off our home-base of Southwater Cay, or if we went off site to places like the mangroves, or the most beautiful reef we visited: Whale Shoals. At Whale Shoals we saw the greatest diversity of corals and fishes that I had ever seen. Schools of blue tang wound through the giant orange Montastrea (star coral) and green deep-valleyed Diploria (brain coral) boulders, being occasionally chased by the damselfishes who lived in the crevices of the corals. Fingerlike gorgonians and sea fans would bend in the current like ferns in a low summer wind, while anemones, worms and snails would cast out their long tentacle-looking parts as if to stir the current in their favor and catch passing bits of food.

Grunts swimming over brain corals and a sea fan,
photo by Patty Kaishian
So, we spent both morning and afternoon investigating the reef, learning to ID its inhabitants, and desperately trying to communicate to each other underwater, which usually devolved into surfacing, spitting out our snorkels and sputtering to point out what we were seeing without getting pushed 20 meters away from that really cool fish by the waves. Speaking of spit, this is the best tool to keeping your mask from fogging up! Oh the glamour of field biology!

Aside from simple observation, we spent the later part of our week on Southwater Cay doing some scientific studies, this being part of a science course and all. We did belt transect surveys and quadrat surveys. Belt transects include laying out a rope with measured markings, and swimming along this rope and taking note of all the fish species that pass within two meters of the measured segments of the rope. We also used this transect to look at the different types of substrate, such as coral, rock, or sand. When using the quadrats (a 2m X 2m square in this instance), we picked a spot on the patch reef, and wrote down every species that was within that space for a given amount of time. We used this information mostly to look at species diversity and abundance. It proved to be pretty challenging, but it was fun and empowering to use methods and find results in the same manner that professional field biologists do.

A dense cluster of Diadema antillarum urchins near the dock
We got to go on one night snorkel, which was scary, exhilarating, and altogether too brief, but we saw an octopus, some small transparent fish that glowed if you splashed near them, and most excitingly: a puffer fish! Our guide, Kimike, dove below and deftly grabbed the fish in his gloved hand. The fish was surprisingly slow to blow up to its inflated size, but it was possibly the funniest wildlife sight I have ever laid eyes on. It went from the size of a fist to a volleyball, was nearly a perfect sphere, and totally goofy. I thought my classmate Cole was going to drown from laughing so hard. (Not to worry, we promptly left it alone and it began to deflate as we swam away.)
When we weren’t in the water,  processing data from our field work, or sleeping, we were probably eating the continually delicious food at meals or cracking open fallen coconuts for snacks. We played a good amount of rummy or billiards, wandered the island, and enjoyed the sun and passing rainstorms. IZE was in the middle of the island, and there were two resorts on either end, with an abandoned monastery between IZE and the resort to the north. 

The Monastery
I liked walking around in the monastery; it had a very strange atmosphere, however, and reminded me of the city in Charn, the ruined planet in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. There was an uneasy peace in the monastery. The pathways were lined exquisitely with evenly-spaced conch shells, and no fallen leaves interrupted the steps of we infrequent walkers. A corroded shrine to the Virgin Mary watched over a dry fountain, and the grackles and warblers that sang elsewhere on the island were not heard here.


I realize that I promised to go into the many names, both common and scientific for so many of the fantastic creatures I saw, but I must disappoint. There are too many to mention, and such limited space here to give them any proper description. I encourage you to go see them for yourselves, and to support organizations and researchers who aim to better understand and preserve them. For now, here is a partial list! (The ordering is arbitrary.)

Coral Genera:

  • Diploria (a major group of brain corals)
  • Porites (we tended to see the lumpy green version)
  • Acropera (elkhorn and staghorn are the species common names
  • Siderastrea (star corals)
  • Montastrea (characterized by its “outie” polyps)
  • Favia (somewhat looks like a golf ball)
  • Eusmilia (looks like flowers)
  • Agaricea (lettuce coral)
  • Millepora (fire coral---stings!)

Fish Common Names:

  • Butterfly Fish (I saw Four-eyed, Banded, and Spot Fin)
  • Damselfish (my favorite of this group were the sergeant majors, genus Abedefduf, the only Arabic genus name as far as I know; blue tang also in this group)
  •  Angelfish (Queen, Rock Beauty, and French)
  • Grouper
  • Grunts (Blue-striped and French—I liked these a lot too)
  •  Chromis (beautifully bright blue!)
  • Parrotfish (immature moment: these fish eat coral-which is unusual-then grind up the coral’s calcium carbonate bodies by digestion. This makes the parrotfish poop out loooong streams of sand, which is apparently funny enough to watch that I laugh so hard I gulp in a huge amount of saltwater through my snorkel—bahaha)
  • Wrasses (Blue-headed and Yellow-tail)
  •   Hogfish
  •  Puffer fish
  • Triggerfish (odd looking yet elegant)
  • Squirrelfish (giant eyes!)
  • Trumpet fish (often hang out near gorgonians in a totally vertical position)
  •   Rays (we often saw small yellow rays, but occasionally, we’d see a large Spotted Eagle Ray—too cool)

Other neat critters of the reef (invertebrates besides corals):

  •  Flamingo Tongue (this nudibranch wears leopard print!)
  • Diadema sea urchins (it was exciting to see this keystone herbivore returning in possibly significant numbers)
  • Christmas Tree Worms
  • Sea Biscuits (like inflated sand dollars)
  •  Fire Worms
  • Brittle Sea Stars
  • Sponges (urchins often live in these too!)
  • Cleaner Shrimp
  • Spiny Lobster

Land lubbers:

  • Frigatebirds (also called Man o’ War Birds: seriously worth a look-up on the interwebz, they have a two meter wing span but only weigh 2-3 pounds, excellent flyers but poor landers-they often impale themselves on branches)
  •  Brown Boobies (shared Bird Island with hundreds of Frigatebirds—it was a smelly place)
  • Great-tailed Grackles
  •  Geckos
  • Anoles (similar to geckos, but don’t have “suction-cup” toes)
  •  Hermit Crabs (popular for races-betting not advised)

I will return very soon to tell you all about Costa Rica. If I am lucky enough to see you in person, consider asking me about the story of kayaking around the island on our last afternoon in Belize. It is a fun story, and much better to tell aloud by a fire with food and drink close by, and with plenty of room for exaggerated gesticulations.

Tschuss for now!

A coconut sculpture near the south end of the island

P.S. All pictures which are not credited to their photographer in the caption belong to me. 

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could see you to hear about this kayaking frivolity! Looking forward to hearing about Costa Rica : )


Please leave a comment or email me at Thanks for visiting and adding your thoughts!