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Earth Lab: Coral Reefs: Past, Present, and Future

Ambergris Caye, Belize, with Lisa Greer, Spring 2012

On behalf of the Geology 105 class:

May 2, 2012
Hey everyone!
We finally made it to Ambergris Caye and it only took three airports, one hotel, and a trip to the Georgia Aquarium to get us here. We started our day at 7:30am with a drive to the Atlanta airport and took a three hour plane ride to Belize City. From the Belize airport we boarded the smallest plane we have ever seen. Our group of 15 even had to split up so we could all fit. The 15 minute ride over to the island was beautiful! The water was so blue and we could see straight to the bottom. We even got a glimpse of the barrier reef beyond Ambergris Caye. Our group was picked up by three taxis that drove us through the small town of San Pedro. San Pedro clearly has different (less) traffic laws than the US. Everyone was driving around in golf carts and we are still unsure as to which side of the road we are supposed to drive on. When we got to TREC we met Ken. Ken is in charge around here and along with his wife Maureen, who is our captain, scuba instructor, and nurse. Between the two of them, we should be in good hands. The group was separated into small rooms with bunk beds. The rooms surround a nice pool and our first activity was to test the gear in the pool. After Ken decided that we passed his snorkel gear test, he showed us how to get to the beach and we took our snorkel gear with us. We walked about a quarter of a mile to a resort called Xanadu and went out to the dock. Ken left us on our own and we jumped off the end of the dock and swam around for a while. Even right by the shore, we saw reef fish, coral (which we all correctly identified) and a sting ray. The day ended with a class discussion in the hammock garden and a delicious dinner. We can't wait to be on the reef tomorrow! (MORE ENTRIES BELOW SLIDE SHOW)


May 3, 2012
DISCLAIMER: These emails are not intended to invoke feeling of anger or jealousy on those not required to attend Corals 105: Past, Present, and Future class in the vicinity of the TREC research facility in Belize.
Today we finally made it out on the boat to snorkel on the reef. We visited two different locations. The first was Pillar Coral Reef where we saw Dendrogyra cylindrus (aka pillar coral). We also saw numerous amounts of other types or corals at this spot and two of the dreaded lionfish. Lionfish are the only fish allowed to be speared at any time because they are destroying the coral ecosystem and their sting is excruciatingly painful. We then enjoyed a delicious lunch of tuna fish sandwiches and DELICIOUS bean dip. The next stop, Tres Cocos Reef, had a greater amount of diversity, but lacked pillar coral. There were numerous amount of Acropora palmata, (aka elk horn coral), we also saw sea turtles, barracudas, puffer fish, and sharks (the owner of TREC and our reef guide even pulled the sharks tail! OMG!) at this location. Even though its only the first day we're all rockin some weird tan lines, but no one resembles a tomato. Tonight we discussed scientific literature in the hammock garden (we obviously had to get some work done). Dinner here at TREC was as delicious as it was last night.

May 4, 2012
Hi Everyone!

This was an amazing second day on the reefs! After a delicious breakfast of fried dough and fruit we set off for Playa Blanco, a barrier reef about an hour up the coast from TREC. We paired up with cameras and waterproof paper (harder to work than you would think) to complete a snorkeling scavenger hunt- looking for a variety of corals, fish, and other marine species. It was a morning-long vicious competition and the winner gets first choice of scientific papers assigned for tomorrow night (we read different ones before discussion). We saw a nurse shark, rays, starfish, sea urchins, pufferfish, parrot fish, and yellow-fin snapper, among many others within the reef (for those of you curious, a few the scientific names in our scavenger hunt were as follows: Halimida, Diadema, Acropora palmata, Porites astroides, Montastrea faveolata...). We boarded the boat exhausted only to realize that we were stuck in the sand blanco and the only way to move the boat was for us to flop around in the water without our gear while the boat got free. Success! Mexico rocks here we come. We knew this reef would be different we got in and the water was 10 ft instead of 4 and immediately three very friendly sting rays cruised by to say hello. Guided around these deeper waters by Jeff and Ken (TREC director and first mate) we had quite the adventure. One group snuck up on some curious squid while the other group watched Jeff spear a small lion fish (these are an invasive and mean fish so people are encouraged to kill them). The final stop was at Mexico Cave, a submerged cave about 20ft below the surface. Some locals before us with extreme guts, curiosity, and helpful scuba gear have gone up to 95 ft into the cave. What we could do was float on the surface and see the thermocline, which is the sudden temperature transition from warm, surface water to cold, deep water. Lisa was really jazzed. We did practice our free diving so that one day, well in 8 days, we can go through a tunnel 15 ft below sea level. Keep your fingers crossed that we improve drastically by then (speaking for ourselves really). After all this action we thoroughly enjoyed the hour ride back on good ole Goliath with the sun to our backs. Back at TREC a cool swim in the pool was the best thing in the world and another great local meal from Gladys at TREC.

Sun report: One lucky lady has a strip of red on her low back from where her rash guard ended. While another guy and gal have a really attractive farmers tan that I'm sure will come back in style soon. Several wrists, fingers, neck and feet are pretty scorched. Overall rating is everyone is doing a good job reapplying sunscreen while working on the bronzed Grecian god. FYI part of Goliath has been the designated "beached whale" section mostly occupied by the few men on the trip.

Candice's fun fact of the day: when you circle a group of squids they get nervous and ink... "Hey you guys made me ink"- Nemo (Candice over voice) .

May the currents be ever in your favor.

May 5, 2012
Today, we started out after another delicious breakfast and then headed to the mangrove islands. This handful of small islands, which is composed primarily of red mangroves, was very different from the coral reefs that we have been frequenting. But I think it's safe to say that everyone still had a great time! We saw a lot of baby fish and small barracudas (thank goodness). The coolest find of the day was also at this site- a batfish. Imagine a frog-like fish that can walk on its fins and that's what a batfish looks like. Pretty unusual but everyone enjoyed touching this strange creature. Natalie even got a parasite that our first mate quickly made her aware of. We then drove about twenty minutes (enough time for some bean dip that everyone has become very fond of) to get to Coral Gardens, the site for our future research projects. Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), which has suffered mass die outs in the Caribbean, is making a comeback here, potentially making Coral Gardens the third A. cervicornis refuge in the Caribbean. It was a great snorkel and we even had the opportunity to see the hybrid species of Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis, Acropora prolifera. We then jumped back into the pool when we got back after getting a little sunburned and tired, but always look forward to our night in Belize. We're also looking forward to our big day tomorrow and the week to come. As for now, everyone in the class loves Belize and we can't imagine leaving anytime soon!

May 6, 2012
Hello friends and family!

We had yet another fabulous day in Belize! Today's main location was Hol Chan, a popular tourist attraction and an official Marine Protected Area. Two other stops included were Turtle Rock and Shark Ray Alley. At Hol Chan (Mayan for "little channel"), we snorkeled in the deepest water so far on this trip. This deeper water made for great and memorable sightings of numerous types of stingrays, massive groupers, and the ever-elusive Green Sea Turtle! At Turtle Rock, the obvious attraction was an enormous Loggerhead Sea Turtle and other features included a mound of thousands of conch shells and some well-preserved staghorn coral, which is quite valuable in this region. Last but certainly not least, Shark Ray Alley was the highlight of the day as its popular attractions were nurse sharks and stingrays, as the name implies. The group was lucky enough to feed some truly massive stingrays and Lisa even drew the letters "WLU" on one of the stingrays that was coated in sand! The ultimate event of the day was most certainly when many members of the group got to hold and in some ways, "cuddle with" a nurse shark! The surprisingly docile creatures allowed us to hold and pet them without showing any real signs of struggle. These creatures do not act similar to other sharks and one could refer to them as teddy bears of the sea. To make the eventful day come full circle, this evening, we conducted a seine right on the beach near where we are staying. This is basically using a net to catch and examine the contents (creatures) of the shallow water environment. We were lucky enough to find grunts, needlefish, crabs, shrimp, and even three fully grown puffer fish. It was yet another very successful day on the reef and although it may seem like a vacation, we also are learning quite a bit each day. The focus of the stops today was to take a look at and observe the characteristics of what is in a Marine Protected Environment. While at Hol Chan, we took note of the inverse relationship in the populations of urchins and parrotfish. We also examined whether MPAs actually allow for more coral growth and recovery. Our observations showed that with the high abundance of fish in the region due to a ban on fishing, the urchin population was lacking relative to most unprotected parts of the reef. Today was another enriching and wonderful day in Belize and please stay tuned for tomorrow's update as most of us venture off to the mainland of Belize to visit the Mayan Ruins! Adios!!

May 7, 2012
Hi All,

I hope the update went through OK yesterday. We had internet problems.

On behalf of the Geology 105 students:

The salty air was pitch black as we plunged into the icy abyss before us. But we'll get to that later. Today was a change of scenery from the past few days which we spent developing our final independent research projects that we will be performing in the next few days. Groups will be studying topics from white band disease in Acropora cervicornis to the relationship between reef grazers and sediment production (most notably parrotfish and Diadema).

Let's go back to this morning, when we hopped into the little speedboat with Allen, a San Pedro native who was there to guide us to the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha. On the way we learned even more about the mangroves in which we snorkeled 2 days ago as we sped through them on our exhilarating motor boat. Mangroves play an integral role in the structural framework of reefs in the area by trapping sediment and providing nutrients and shelter to reef-dwelling organisms. In addition to the mysterious mangroves we where mystified by the magical Karst topography of the surrounding area. The Mayan ruins were both culturally and geologically stimulating. Allen was a walking encyclopedia of scientific and historical knowledge. We saw five temples and learned about their ridiculous rituals (attached is a picture of our own Mayan sacrifice). Fast forward to sunset and we're back to plunging into the mysterious waters that were so clear when we explored them yesterday. This provided us with an opportunity to observe and learn about the differences between reef communities during the day and at night. Many organisms drastically alter their appearance and behavior at night either to avoid predators or provide an advantage in feeding. Diadema (urchins, in laymen's terms) leave their hiding spots within corals at night to graze the reefs that shelter them. They are particularly interesting to several groups who are planning to conduct their own research on them in a few days. People were lucky enough to see nocturnal creatures such as octopi, sea cucumbers, squid, and bioluminescent dinoflagellates, which added a new dynamic to the coral sediment that we have been examining for the past few days.

Sun report: NO BURNS! This is mostly because we were swimming at night. Good strategy Lisa.

James's fun fact: If you shine a light at a squid's eyes they go into a trance and you can hold it in you hand, which he did.

May 8, 2012
Hi Everyone,

Today we had a special day, instead of snorkeling around the modern coral reef we took a hike to see a lithified reef from the last interglacial during the Pleistocene (125 000 years old). After a long boat ride to the far north end of the island we waded through the lagoon and trekked several miles through coral rubble. We saw both recently dead modern corals and very old, but surprisingly well preserved, Pleistocene pieces. We saw a lot of the currently endangered Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) in Pleistocene rocks, some of which were calcified in their original living position. We were surprised to see how similar the Pleistocene reef would have been to those that we see today.

Everyone was so excited to see such a unique piece of Belizian geology. We collected multiple samples of dead coral and shells and Pleistocene Queen Conch (Strombus gigas). We are not sure if the Pleistocene conch and the dead coral are exempted from the no-take rule, but I guess will find out at customs (if our bags are anywhere within the weight limit!).

On the boat ride back, we stopped by our old familiar place Mexico Rocks for a quick swim after the extremely hot hike on the beach. We saw a few rays as well as some underwater art- a heart made of conch shells.

We spent the evening finalizing our plans for our research projects that we'll be carrying out tomorrow at Coral Gardens. We can't wait to get started and bring some great data back to Lexington!

May 9, 2012
As you know, the students have written all the email posts. Below, each research team summarized their work today in addition to the usual log. I'd like to add a note from the professor (me). Each and every student did a fantastic job in challenging conditions today (and in the days leading to data collection)! They have far surpassed my expectations and I can't wait to see their projects evolve over the next week.

On behalf of the Geology 105 students:

Today the class returned to Coral Gardens to carry out the research projects they developed earlier this week. The day started as usual with an 8:00 breakfast before boarding the Goliath at 9:00 with our research equipment. We all got a nice workout swimming through some of the roughest water of the trip on our way to the research area, which included a large thicket of the endangered coral species Acropora cervicornis. We made it to Coral Gardens around 10:00, and students split up into five different groups to test hypotheses on subjects ranging from coral diversity to fish populations. Research was concluded around 2:00 in the afternoon and students had the rest of the day to relax and study for the upcoming practical and oral exams on Thursday.

Group 1: Chelsi Hewitt and Elizabeth Elium tested their hypothesis that boulder and mound corals will compete for space and sunlight more successfully than branching corals at the edge of the cervicornis thicket. They surveyed the thicket and completed a count and identification of corals along the perimeter of the cervicornis, and will use their collected data to investigate coral competition dynamics.

Group 2: Lizzie Weston, Liz George, and Liz Olson tested their hypothesis that there is a greater proportion of damselfish on Acropora cervicornis than Acropora palmata (both branching corals that are endangered) and Montastrea annularis (a boulder coral) due to coral morphology. Damselfish are critical to the carbonate budget on reefs since they graze algae and provide space for corals to grow. They observed 13 different coral patches for five minutes each, counting and recording each fish species present. They are hoping to determine how the structural framework of the coral may be correlated with fish diversity.

Group 3: Arthur Stier, Lizzy Mann, and Michael Unholz tested their hypothesis that even though the Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) is thriving in the Coral Gardens reef system, the reef may actually be in a destructive phase due to the carbonate bioerosion by Diademas (sea urchins.) The group examined coral cover and the number of Diadema in 10 quadrants and will compare their data with published scientific literature.

Group 4: Candice Stefanic and James Biemiller tested their hypothesis that, since white band disease is a bacterial infection, it will spread outwards from a source of initial infection. They examined six patches of cervicornis and documented the instances in each that white band disease was apparent using photographs. The two plan to use this data to determine the pattern of spread of the white band disease.

Group 5: Natalie Stier, Lindsey Dee, and Maya Reimi tested their hypothesis that sediment changes significantly and in a predictable and/or recognizable way as the distance from an A. cervicornis patch increases. They took sediment samples from the four corners of the A. cervicornis patch from right below the patch and at measured distances from the patch. They collected general observations about the surrounding area from the sampling locations. They plan to take the samples and analyze them back in Lexington.

Wish us luck on our exams!

May 10, 2012

Friends and family,

Sadly, today was our last day in Belize. We started the day with a wonderful breakfast and a practical exam at Coral Gardens! The exam tested our knowledge of the reefs and surrounding environment. Taking a test while snorkeling was a bit tough but new and exciting. It was cool to see just how much we've learned since we've been here.

After the test we headed to Caye Caulker for lunch at one of the local restaurants. Caye Caulker is a more remote island, reminiscent of San Pedro in decades past. During the journey back we all participated in individual oral exams on the back of the boat, another new and exciting test-taking experience. While each student was tested, the rest of us enjoyed our final day on the prow of the Goliath. It was a bittersweet end to an awesome educational two weeks in Belize.
Savoring our last evening together, the trip culminated in a feast-like dinner at an outstanding oceanfront seafood restaurant. We will continue working on our independent projects over the next week back at school. The final day of spring term we will all present our projects in the Great Hall of the science center. Everyone in Lexington should come!