Exams, Sharks, & Turtles

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Great Day to be a General

Bellies full of delicious island cuisine from Dr. Greer’s favorite restaurant, we fell asleep early and prepared for perhaps the biggest day of our trip.  The grueling hours of work, late nights at the desk, and monotonous statistical analysis – all of it culminated to this point: the field practical exam.   Each student was tasked to identify coral organisms and processes with Dr. Greer and to identify fish organisms and processes with (soon to be) Dr. Doss.  As expected, we crushed it… hopefully

The pupil & the master
The pupil & the master
Which came first, the sea or the egg?
Which came first, the sea or the egg?

With the test out of the way and spirits high, the crew departed to experience some of the best snorkeling sites yet.  First stop was the Hol Chan Marine Protected Area.  If this site were the only place we visited, we would have never known coral reefs were on a slippery slope of decline.  The fish were abundant, and the corals were exuberant.

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The Gregarious Grouper

Some of us took a leap of faith and swam through a cave full of fish.

Harry emerging from the cave
Harry emerging from the cave
Will in the Cave
Will in the Cave

We also had the opportunity to swim with these little guys!

Dr. Greer saying hello
Dr. Greer saying hello

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One of the ocean’s most majestic creatures, the sea turtle is both wise and playful.  We thoroughly enjoyed spending some time with them.

For snack time today, we broke our weeklong bean dip binge and upgraded to some fresh and local ceviche prepared on the boat. It was fantastic.

Fresh Ceviche
Fresh Ceviche

Upon arrival at our next and last stop, Shark Ray Alley, things escalated quickly.  Before we knew it, deckhand “Siete” was chumming the waters and summoning the local shark community.

Nurse Sharks Feasting
Nurse Sharks Feasting

Initial hesitation subsided as our bravest suited up and slid into the shark-infested waters.  Others were soon to follow.  Turns out the Nurse Sharks are docile, and they even even let some of us hitch a ride!

Grayson riding the bull
Grayson riding the bull

 

Harry gave it a try too
Harry gave it a try too

Overall, at the end of the day, in the grand scheme of things, when push comes to shove, and you just break it down to the basics…

Great vibes all around.  We will look back on this trip with the utmost gratitude for years to come.

…..

 

We have a whole list of people to thank for this tremendous experience.  Here, we’d just like to give some special shout outs to the people who made it all happen.

Our deckhands Siete and Abner

 

Special shoutout to our deckhands Siete & Abner
 Siete, Sequoya,  & Abner

Maggie, our humble and learned chef, who taught the boys how to cook.

Our beloved chef Maggie
Our beloved chef Maggie 

Dr. Greer &  Dr. Doss: the professors and mentors who lead us on the journey, helping and teaching us every step of the way.

The DoctorsThe Doctors

Dr. Ken & Maurine: the true power couple who took us under their wings.  Always wealth of knowledge, they gave us unconditional hospitality, and we hope to stay in touch in the future.  We cannot express our sincere thanks.

Captain Ken (Captain Maurine not pictured)
Captain Ken (Captain Maurine not pictured)

Also, we would like to give a shoutout to Al Curran, W&L class of ’62, for introducing this spectacular place to Dr. Greer.  Without his insight, we would not have been able to learn in this incredible environment.

Thanks to all those who have been following our blog.  We hope everyone enjoyed our posts and maybe learned something along the way!

Best of love,

Harry, Joe, and The Crew

I’m gonna die without a Ph.D!!!

The terrified orator who inspired today's title, in a more gleeful mood upon dry land.
The terrified orator who inspired today’s title, in a more gleeful mood upon dry land.

TREC is bursting with activity these days with the addition of a horde of Transylvanians. We shared a spaghetti and meatball feast last night in preparation for today’s adventure to Rocky Point.

This morning we waved goodbye to our beloved Goliath and headed to the dock next door in front of Xanadu Resort, where we were picked up in a speedboat. We were escorted by Gavino and his five million horsepower to the north end of the island. As the reef arched back towards the coastline, we escaped the deadly shallows through a treacherous channel. The rest of the trip was like being on a motorized surfboard (fun for some, less so for others). Within sight of Mexico we turned back into the coastal lagoons of Belize and waded ashore.

Leaving our snorkels on the boat, we hiked along the Pleistocene coastline to examine the plethora of fossilized corals. Most of the rocky coast is actually composed of corals, now over 125,000 years old. Most of the species we found are still present on the reefs today. Grayson and Jack tag teamed a coconut from its tree, and Forrest and Will embraced their inner Neanderthals as they smashed it on the corals. Others resisted the urge to undo millions of years of evolution, going in search of pristine coral samples among their Pleistocene ancestors.

Sequoya with Acropora cervicornis at Rocky Point.
Sequoya with Acropora cervicornis at Rocky Point.

The coastline along rocky point was also home to countless snails, a few crabs, and pools of baby Sergeant Majors (a common striped reef fish). Several members of the team collected samples of fossilized corals, sand and shells before wading back out to the boat. Veins bulged on Forrest’s rippling lats as he hauled the anchor aboard, hand over hand.

The Strapping Lad

Enjoying bagged H20 with our chicken sandwiches (courtesy of Maggie back at TREC) we floated down the lagoon in lazy preparation for a midday snorkel. Meanwhile, Gavino went spearfishing and bagged a pair of red snapper.

The snorkeling conditions were excellent. Crystal clear, shallow Caribbean waters allowed us incredible views of everything from Acropora to Angelfish. We explored for a short while, savoring our last recreational snorkel before tomorrow’s field exam. Lisa found a special Diadema sample which she shared enthusiastically with Gavino’s hand. That Diadema will live with him forever, a momento of the goofy American crew and their professor.  With heavy hearts, we turned the prow back towards the crashing surf.

GAVINO’S REVENGE

An ominous drizzle foretold the precipitous ride to come. The waves began to build and our faces turned upwards to their rising white crests. Gavinio’s wry grin proved a stark contrast to our exclamations of fear. POUND! went the boat into the first drop, waves hammering against the fiberglass hull. Each successive wave reached ever higher, the boat relentlessly climbing towards the sky and careening down the wave’s back. Butts flew from seats and smiles began to wane as we flirted with a capsize. Our fingernails dug into the gunwale and seats as we futilely attempted to anchor ourselves to the rollicking boat. This was met with middling success. One Katy Bonaro crashed to the floor and scrambled back to her seat unharmed, while Forrest Behne was jettisoned from his purchase, skipping across the floor, a smile plastered across his face. Soaked and salted like the fearsome sailors of the Cornelia Marie, we emerged from amongst the Bering-like swells, some emotionally shaken, but hearts still afloat.

We welcomed the turquoise waters of the peaceful lagoon and headed back to basecamp where we currently await a riveting discussion and a dinner reservation at Dr. Greer’s favorite restaurant in San Pedro.

Fossilized fun at our Fingertips! (yeah, I alliterate a lot.)
Fossilized fun at our Fingertips! (yeah, I alliterate a lot.)

Ciao for now,

Chloe, Will and Jack

 

Research day!

Today was a big day! Everything we had been working on and planning for finally came together when each team conducted their field research. Also, a large group from Transylvania University arrived at TREC today, so we needed to clean up the common area and consolidate rooms before we left for the day.

The skies were perfectly clear and the water was amazingly blue when we boarded the Goliath around 9:15. We headed out to Coral Gardens, our research site, and anchored close to the buoy we had left the day before. The groups headed into the water with quadrants, meter sticks, measuring tapes, cameras, and other equipment for their research. Project subjects include urchins, damselfish, blue variety of Porites corals, hybrid species Acropora prolifera, and dead assemblages of Acropora cervicornis.

Today was the culminating point of our academics here in Belize.  The projects, which are based on observations made throughout our trip, including a multitude of scientific papers, coral identification, and lectures in the preceding two weeks.  Our skills in snorkeling were put to the test as teams had to measure the width of coral, upside down, while avoiding the threats of the pesky fire coral.  One group quantified the density of sea urchins hiding in the crevices of patch reefs, while another group surveyed rare forms of electric blue Porites porites.  Upon return to Lexington, each group will process the information collected here, turning it into both posters that will be displayed during the Spring Term fair and individual research papers.

After concluding our data collection around 2:30, we met another boat and dropped Sequoya, Katie B, and Harry off with a dive instructor for their afternoon SCUBA session. When we got back to TREC, it was completely invaded by Transylvanians. We were so lucky to have had this place to ourselves for a week! The days are dwindling here in our personal paradise, but we are looking forward to what we will discover from today’s work.

A rare colony of electric blue Porites porties
A rare colony of electric blue Porites porties.
A meter stick quadrant, which students fashioned to measure sea urchin density per square meter
A meter stick quadrant, which students fashioned to measure sea urchin density per square meter.
Students taking data using a HOBO thermometer.
Students taking data using a HOBO thermometer.

 

Cayes and Manatees

After a day’s rest from snorkeling the reefs, we boarded the Goliath for a long day on the seas. Destinations for the day: the manatee channel, Caye Caulker, Coral Gardens (a garden of coral). We raced boats of other inquisitive swimmers to the sea cow resting grounds and arrived earliest. Once in the water, we crept up towards the resting animals. As a crowd gathered, the manatees began to take notice and fled to more open waters. It’s mating season here off the Belizean coast; <3 was in the waters today.

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Affording the manatees their private space, we swam to a sunken barge arrived at theoceans floor after a tropical storm. The wreck, resplendent fire corals and gorgonia (soft corals) was home toschools of grunt, butterfly fish and the residence of a  8 foot long nurse shark that wallowed in its rusting bowels.

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Lunch for the day brought us to the nearby island of Caye Caulker. The sun beat down upon the still waters obscuring the horizon in all directions aside from our destination. The railings were crowded as we peered through the crystalline waters to the sandy bottom littered with sea stars, the occasional turtle, and skipping needlefish. We dined on chicken sandwiches at the Happy Lobster and lazily walked along the rustic shops and road-by stands back to the dock. This small island community, with the motto “Go slow”, provided rest to more foreigners than inhabitants.

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Our brief stay ended with the class comparing trinkets back on the boat as we readied for research preparations at coral gardens. We spent the boat ride to the dive site discussing potential research methods with Dr. Greer and soon-to-be Dr. Doss. The afternoon sun began to fade, but we were nevertheless eager to cool off in the waters of Coral Gardens. With our dive slates fitted with waterproof paper, we submerged with the purpose of evaluating percent coral cover. A keystone of Rapid Reef Assessments, this protocol served as a practice assignment within our research groups. Scrambling back on board just as the sun began set, the Goliath cranked its motors back to port.

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The day concludes with fresh coconut opened by yours truly and we prepare for the day ahead.

-Forrest, Will, and Grayson

An Entire Day… Ruined.

Well not really – the day was actually really great! We woke up two hours earlier than usual to cinnamon bread and banana french toast in order to get ready for a boat load (literally) of traveling. At 7 sharp, we met our first set of tour guides at the dock and set off for a surprisingly speedy and bumpy ride to Bomba, a village on the mainland.

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Once we docked, we loaded onto our next mode of transportation, a not-so-ordinary, multi-colored school bus. We drove for an hour on bumpy dirt roads, passing through the occasional neighborhood and an amazingly large papaya farm. Once we finally hit pavement we found ourselves at our next stop and loaded onto yet another boat, this time traveling up the New River. Excitement quickly filled our small boat when our tour guide pointed out a multitude of “super regional” creatures (Graham, 2014). Although we saw iguanas, native birds, a crocodile, wild horses and cattle, none of us would argue against the fact that the spider monkey took the cake (or rather the banana).

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From monkeys to Mayans, our excursion continued after another hour. Once we finally got to our destination in Lamanai, we were greeted with a traditional Belizian cuisine consisting of rice and beans, chicken, and watermelon. Bellies full, our guide led us to the museum and then on our hike around the Mayan ruins. Before we even saw the spectacular structures, we came across the most poisonous and feared snake in Belize, the Fer de Lance (no big deal).

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A couple minutes later, once we regained composure, we turned the corner and faced the massive ruins. Besides being surprised at its sheer height, we learned that not even half of it was uncovered. We were actually standing on 4+ more layers of the ruins! Advice for climbing the ruins: Going up is physical, coming down is all psychological. And we were off!

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Views from the top were incredible – at one time we were even higher than the surrounding jungle canopy, and we were able to see for miles. We saw a total of three large temples before we made our way back to the gift shops. Needless to say, a few of us splurged on hand-made Belizian gifts and walked away with a variety of souvenirs. We walked back to the dock and cracked open a few bottles of Fanta in preparation for our trip back down the New River. A couple of us even modeled our new purchases.

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Once again we were back to the stop where the bus was waiting for us. Fresh coconut was passed around the bus, along with Dill Pickle Pringles, as we traversed the bumpy dirt road on the way back to Bomba. As we walked through the village on our way to our final boat ride, we were once again distracted by the local trinkets. Beautiful bowls and artistic carvings made from redwood and ironwood allowed for one more fun pit-stop.

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During the final stretch of travel, we discussed our upcoming research projects. We had a great day exploring the mainland and the Mayan ruins, but tomorrow we buckle back down to business and continue our coral reef adventure!

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Love,

Sequoya, Maddy, and Katy (:

 

Great Day to Be a General

Rain pattering led to sun shining, and we couldn’t ask for a better day on the water.  With our bellies full of scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and some glorious fried bread pockets, we set out on our trusty catamaran Goliath.  The water was placid and the spirits were high.  It was going to be a great day to be a General.

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After a nice, relaxing boat ride, we arrived at our destination.  No corals here, but it was a breath of fresh air viewing marine life along the mangroves.  Unlike the crystal clear waters on the reef, these slightly murky waters contained some very cool juvenile marine life.

Angel Fish peering out from under the mangroves
Angel Fish peering out from under the mangroves

Light rain turned into a full on thunderstorm, and we had to skid-addle out of the water.  Luckily we had some spectacular bean dip to fend off the ferocious hunger!

The content bean dip crew hiding from the rain
The content bean dip crew hiding from the rain

Then, our fearless leader Dr. Ken guided our trusty stead back to home base at TREC.

Cap'n Ken plowing ahead
Cap’n Ken plowing ahead

We had some downtime to catch up on some readings, work on our group research project plans, and perform some minor surgery!

Sir Squilliam writhing in pain
Sir Squilliam writhing in pain

(Splinter extrication was successful – we expect the patient to recover fully)

We headed back to the dock, where we enjoyed some scrumptious pizza (with optional hot sauce, of course).

Mmm tastes good
Mmm tastes good

At dusk, we set out into the horizon, fearless of the adventure ahead: a snorkel excursion filled with all the mysterious creatures of the night!  Dr. Ken told us about the wonders ahead as we watched Spotted Eagles Rays swoop in and out of the waters in front of us.  Most were itching with childlike excitement, others in fear.  We were issued dive lights, and we dove into another world.

Pufferfish, lobsters, parrotfish, hogfish, squid, octopi, rays, and sea cucumbers… You name it, and we touched it.

Chloe followed this lil guy around for a solid ten minutes
Chloe followed this lil guy around for a solid ten minutes

 

Larry the lobster
Larry the lobster

 

The Bodacious Basket Star
The Bodacious Basket Star
The Stealthy Southern Stingray
The Stealthy Southern Stingray
I call him Hermy
I call him Hermy

Our adventure came to a close after a truly majestic light show thanks to an array of bioluminescence, clouds of plankton that blink and glow under the waves.  We’ll never forget the spectacle.

Love,

Holly Paige, Katie P, & Harry

All out of hot sauce, nothing left to lose

We awoke to a light drizzle and overcast skies, but that didn’t stop some from taking a quick morning dip (Jack). Three cups of coffee for our third day on the job went down smoothly along with our banana-nanza breakfast: banana bread pudding, banana pancakes, and the usual assortment of fresh tropical fruits. Following a stomach content analysis, it was determined that the group was high in potassium and ready to tackle the day.  Our trusty captain/doctor/resident Belizian Ken drained his Lionfish-induced blister and had us on our way.

It was 45 minutes to our first location: Coral Gardens. This little-known oasis of Acropora is home to the only corals listed on the endangered species list. Acropora cervicornis, palmata, and their love-child prolifera spread as far as the eye could see. We even got to visit the transects where Dr. Greer conducts research and takes ‘core-al’ samples!

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With such an expansive “garden of coral” also came various species of fish and other reef creatures. Much to our delight, we were able to dive down and observe a both noble and majestic sea turtle in his natural habitat hidden under a coral overhang. Along with this discovery, we found an enormous green Moray Eel, a needlefish, a nurse shark, and several Spotted Eagle Rays. This site was easily the most biologically diverse area we have visited thus far and is where we will be conducting our student research for our final projects (this class isn’t all fun?!). After an aerobic swim back to the boat, bean dip round 2 commenced and was savagely enjoyed by all. RIP beans.

oh my
oh my
this just got rEEL
this just got rEEL

Our second and final location of the day was on the way back to TREC, so we were able to cross over Shark Ray Alley and drive by Hol Chan Marine Reserve, two sites which  we will visit later this week. We arrived at ‘Tuffy’s’, named for an old shrimp prowler that crashed into the reef many years ago, and geared up once again. We dove in and explored an Acropora reef wall that acted as a barrier for a deeper water channel. This site was difficult to navigate due to a strong current and overall fatigue, but we look forward to revisiting this location tomorrow for our night snorkel…WE HAVE *~GLOWSTICKS~*

Currently waiting on Cajun-style curry chicken for dinner…BREAKING NEWS: Maggie the cook just walked in with an armful of hot sauce, all is right in the world. Tonight we plan to take Crazy Canuck’s Trivia Tournament by storm for the everyday low price of $5 Belizian space tokens, or 10 US gumballs.  Who will be crowned champion? Stay tuned.

Shoutout Brandon Bucy.

 

 

Sunburnt Swimmers Spearfishing

Yupp, that’s alliteration. Today’s adventures began with several students jumping in the pool (due to a lack of water pressure at TREC), and breakfast at 8; biscuits, papaya, and scrambled eggs accompanied the usual pile of watermelon on the buffet.

After breakfast and a quick briefing of today’s schedule, our entourage filed down to the dock, under a cloudy sky for today’s dive.  Thankfully, the sea was significantly calmer compared to yesterday.  Our first stop was  an hour boat ride north along the island: The Mexican Rocks (the Mexican border is approximately 15 miles further north, so we didn’t need our passports).  After applying sunscreen, spitting in our masks, and last-minute hydration, we split into two groups to explore the reef.  Mexican Rock, unlike yesterday’s sites, was a lot deeper in water.  It could just be me, but it seems as if this patch reef system held far more diverse and abundant fish activity.  For the first time we saw moray eels and squids.  We even saw about three sting rays and two nurse sharks.  No students were harmed in this exploration of Mexican Rock. However, several of us had a Sea Egg gleefully attach itself to our hands.

Isn't it cute?!
Isn’t it cute?!

After a tour of the reef requiring lots of swimming around, the groups split up into pairs and began looking for things on the scavenger list.  All the time put into reef identification the week prior back in Lexington payed off bountifully.  We were all very thankful for putting in many hours before learning the different types of reefs.  Back on the boat, a lunch of bean dip, tuna sandwiches, and PB and J’s took place on the way to our next stop, Mexican Cave.

Mexican cave, is just that, a cave; just south of our first snorkel spot and ~10 meters below the ocean’s surface, this was a great excuse for us to practice our free diving skills (or lack there of). We were sufficiently impressed with Siete and Abner’s skills and Professor Greer’s underwater headstand. This was not the end of today’s excitement, since we still had one more stop, Catalan.

Catalan was a small patch reef ecosystem where Grayson had the pleasure of slaughtering a lionfish. We discussed the lionfish epidemic last night in TREC’s hammock garden. They are an invasive species which eat like gluttons, and they are not picky eaters either. Many small fish on the reef are potential meals for these voracious predators. So, in an environment where collecting or hunting live species of anything is usually prohibited, it’s open season on lionfish. One small problem is that the lionfish has venemous spikes protruding from its striped torso. Our guides Ken and Siete can attest to the painfulness of being pricked by the lion. After a long effort to chase the lionfish out of its reclusive home underneath a coral, our gladiator-in-residence Grayson swiftly speared it through the scalp.

Lionfish on spear

Lionfish overhead

Tough Day at the Office: Day 2_4/30/14

After a sweltering night between the sheets–or rather above–we awoke to hot coffee and daybreak. A breakfast of approximately 45 slices of french toast, a loaf of banana bread made from the bananas hanging out back, and 3.7 pineapples later, the troop left to learn about the local flora.

Craned necks scrutinized poisonwood leaflets and almond tree nuts, while curious fingers picked sea grapes and nino fruits. To the unaccustomed traveling eye there appeared to be a trash problem on this fair island of Ambergris Caye, however one man’s trash is another man’s foundation. One citizen decided that a constantly inundated lawn was best avoided through the stockpiling of a thick layer of cardboard and turtle grass neatly covered with a liberal application of sand. Strolling past this newfangled attempt at recycling, the group happened upon a gumbo limbo tree, which, interestingly enough, is the antidote to the pustule inducing poisonwood. The tiny stingless honey bees that provide the island with sweetener buzzed around our inquiring faces. We picked amongst the mounds of turtle grass blown up on the shore by the unrelenting wind, waves, and tides before heading back to TREC to ready ourselves for our first day on the water.

Goliath, our vessel for our ten day sojourn in Belize, laid in wait on the dock’s edge and we hopped abroad. After a fifteen minute sunbath on deck, we donned wetsuits, flips, and snorkels and finally dove beneath the aquamarine Belizean waters. Without much an agenda, we were relatively free to explore Tres Cocos, our chosen dive spot for the afternoon. Accountibilibuddies in tow, brain corals, trumpet fish, and the odd barracuda flashed in front of our goggles. An enormous hermit crab that had found refuge in a horse conch tried to snatch our flailing fingers as we posed for pictures.

Egg salad sandwiches and a glorious bean dip (not pictured because of the alacrity with which it was consumed) revitalized us after fighting unseasonably strong currents all afternoon. A move to the southern end of the reef yielded more fascinating corals and critters: starfish, stingray, damselfish, parrot fish abound. Pruned fingers grasped for Goliath’s steps and we pulled our sleek neoprene selves from the balmy waters. Tanned and exhausted we turned towards TREC, calling it a afternoon well spent at the office.

-Will, Forrest, and Grayson

Enormous hermit crab.
Enormous hermit crab.
Learning
Learning
Coral that's cool
Coral that’s cool
Fire Coral
Fire Coral