(Note: When I figure out how to add videos to WordPress, I will add some short clips as well)
We arrived at South Water Caye today after a slightly stressful journey from Blue Creek. It started raining as we left, and aside from a break conveniently wile we visited the Maya Lubaantun ruins, it poured heavier and heavier as the day progressed. Lubaantun was a neat spot to visit, and the curator had worked on digs and was very knowledgeable. He told us about the famed crystal skull that was purportedly discovered there but might be a hoax and in any case is still owned by the daughter of a British archeologist, and remains out of the country. He also mentioned that two of the goal posts from the ball game court are also in England. It seems so wrong that many of the original artifacts are no longer in Belize, no only because they belong to their native country and are a signal of the lasting effects of imperialism, but because it sounds like any of the archeologists who are currently working on these sites are Belizean or working out of Belize and don’t have access to these pieces of information (the curator has never even seen the artifacts in person, for example). He explained a lot of interesting artifacts and aspects of ancient Maya culture. The site itself was beautiful, much more open (and maintained/manicured) than the jungles we’ve been in for so long. We got nice some nice views of parrots, a squirrel, and a tree completely buzzing with bees. The walls themselves were pretty worn down (and the actual buildings were made of wood so have long since rotted), but it was interesting to try to picture what it might’ve once been like, and to appreciate the years and raw human labor that went into its layers of construction.
It took us a while to get to Dangriga through all the rain. We were worried too because we knew it would be a half hour, open boat ride to South Water Caye, which wasn’t appealing during a downpour. It eased up a little by the time we finally got in the boats but a lot of my stuff got pretty damp.
The island is the luxurious compared to what we’ve been used to. Even as we pulled up, there were cormorants, frigatebirds, and pelicans flying around. The sand is the intense white of idyllic Caribbean beaches. We were greeted by Richard who gave up a tour highlighting such amenities as kayaks, hammocks, sun bathing chairs, volleyball court, and a bar. Basically as soon as we arrived and (sort of) settled in, we went for our first snorkel.
Snorkeling is not my strong suit. I put my snorkel on wrong, my mask ended up not fitting correctly, I struggled to get my fins on, and Richard had to swim me out to the others while I got accustomed to breathing and swimming without thrashing. Not long after that, my mask leaked, I inhaled a ton of water, started sputtering and kind of panicking, and had to be taken over to a kayak. They gave me a life vest to tuck under my armpits, I attempted to never use my nose, and the rest of the time went swimmingly, to say the least. This was good because I did not want anything else distracting me from what was under the surface. It is magnificent here! I’ve never seen so many beautiful fish in one place so close. I think we saw nearly every fish we learned before the trip. The parrotfish were gorgeous and imposing, the angelfish were gigantic compared to what I had pictured and swam in such a lovely way, I found a goatfish rummaging in the sediments, and a funny looking trunkfish puttering along the coral. The sea fans “blew” in the currents and the brain corals were brightly colored lumps. I was so excited at all the life my mind couldn’t keep up trying to ID them all. And there were several I had no idea what they were called. On the way back in, Conner discovered a small yellow ray. It was my favorite find of the day, it was so beautiful and spotted, with iridescent yellow eyes. There is a whole new world to learn about here.
Yesterday was a great day; we packed so much in. We had a bunch of presentations and I got a lot of snorkeling in. I went with Richard after lunch to practice with a new snorkel, an even just in the turtle grass we saw a trumpetfish, lots of slippery dicks, small folded corals (Martiana areolata), and more. Then we went to Whale Shoal as a class. We started working on coral names, which was hard to pick up the latin, and saw some very special animals: a nurse shark tucked under a coral ledge, a brightly colored queen angelfish, and a stingray that flew effortlessly through the water. The number of fish on the reefs here is incredible.
Today we went to the other side of the island to the Fore Reef. Hannah, Ben, and I worked well as a team, pointing out stuff to each other. We got our first look at the funny swimming patterns of Black Durgons, saw some huge barracudas as they barreled past us, and watched a few spotted eagle rays fly by. It’s a very different landscape down there. We saw a school of Blue Tang, which was the biggest group of fish we’d seen yet. They were colorful, and it was amazing to see them swarm coral patches. I wonder if fish ever form the equivalent of multispecies flocks in birds.
We’ve been talking a lot about the differences between terrestrial versus aquatic ecosystems, and I’m still not sure how similar or different I think they are. I’m usually inclined to think that most guiding principles should be the same in both, but some of the critiques we’ve read make me wonder if there could be some fundamental differences. Just from snorkeling it seems like there is a huge amount of biomass in fish and much less in all other organisms, whereas invertebrates make up a lot of biomass in terrestrial ecosystems.
It is 3:30 in the morning and I feel very sick so I gave up trying to sleep and decided to journal. Stardust the cat is keeping me company and eating crackers with me after she just caught a mouse in the kitchen. Yesterday we went to a part of the reef called the aquarium. It was raining, and it was fun to feel the drops on my back and look at the surface from below. Last night (a few hours ago really) Hannah, Ally, and I took a walk along the beach and waded into the water. It seems like a lot of the invertebrates and arthropods come out at night. There were also some cool little fishes in the shallow water. There were slender metallic blue ones in small schools that rammed into my fingers, and chubby white ones closer to shore that seemed to be trying to beach themselves.
We’ve been having really good discussions and presentations lately. I’m having a lot of fun getting into the theory and questions, although having less experience with the reef, I’m having a harder time deriving my questions directly from my personal observations, which is different for me.
Today we went to the mangroves this morning, which was completely different and very fascinating. The water was very murky, and as we moved along the mangroves, only small patches were fully in view at a time, and algae and sponge encrusted roots would loom quickly out of the water ahead. Hannah and I went as slowly as possible—there are so many hiding places and the fish are so small you have to be careful not to stir up the water (which is why we didn’t wear fins) and take your time so you can actually see them. I saw tons of juvenile porkfish, snappers, seargent majors, and itty bitty damselfish. I really enjoyed the pace, and the whole environment of the mangroves: the 3D structure is very interesting, with so many hiding places and new growth forms to look at. There are beautiful sponges with frilly red inside-out-umbrella-looking plumes that could be sucked in if approached. We saw several large star fish, and the bottom of the channel was covered in upside-down jellyfish (which seemed more potentially dangerous than normal after Caley got stung and had a bad reaction this morning). It’s easy to see why the mangroves are used as a nursery for reef fish—the water is so calm, there are so many hiding places, and the visibility is poor. Though that being said, the fish let me get way closer in the mangroves than the ones on the reef. I wonder if that’s a different defense strategy.
After lunch we went to Tobacco Cut. It was a very helpful site for learning coral species. The most fun interaction of the day was when Hannah and I spotted our first hogfish. It was bright white, and swimming around and around a large section of reef. As we approached, it swam down into a clump of brown sponges to hide. A minute later Hannah pointed down, “There’s another one!” In the same clump of sponges, there was a hogfish, but this one had a dark brown patterning on white. At first I was confused, wondering what happened to the first one, and then it clicked: Hogfish can change color. We asked around and confirmed it, and it felt really neat to have figured it out on our own.
On our way to snorkel, we stopped by Bird Caye, where 400-500 frigatebirds and a hundred boobies roost each night. Brian pointed out how the shape of the frigatebirds’ wings is well suited for long distance flights, but don’t have much lift, so they have to drop down first and use their forked tail. They aren’t as good at fishing as the boobies are because they can’t get wet, so they grab them and force them to regurgitate food at night. It was amazing to see so many birds all around. The air was completely full of them, and it smelled awful. The sun was mercilessly harsh, and the birds were panting to keep cool. They’re so packed in, we saw a few dead ones hanging in the trees right next to the others. But it was also intense to feel them swooping around all around us.
Today we went to Angel Reef in the morning. The lighting was beautiful, and we saw a new kind of stingray, rough backed ray. It was very large and swam closer to the bottom than the other big ones we’d seen. I also saw some harlequin bass, which were really crazy looking but much smaller than I expected.
We just got back from our night snorkel. We got to see a whole different set of creatures, but I was surprised how much less active the reef was compared to the day, and how much more we saw in the grass and sand closer to shore. We saw a bunch of needlefish right at the beginning. I touched one and it freaked out and swam away really quickly—directly into my leg. I was surprised how much force it generated and I was really glad I had my wetsuit to protect me. We saw squids, rays, octopuses and sleeping parrotfish (though none in the mucus cocoons they sometimes build), as well as some sort of large weird sea worm. Sadly, I don’t think my camera did so well at night, I would’ve liked to capture the surreal effect of light rays cutting through the disorienting dark, spotlighting corals in the murky water. I’m definitely not ready to go back home now.
I’m waiting to go take my fish and coral test and I still have an hour to go. I am not feeling very patient right now. I just want to take it and be done.
The test went pretty well. I missed one coral because I was feeling a little overconfident and didn’t look very long at it, but it was definitely the most fun test I’ve ever taken. I went to the beach early and swam around in the shallows with Conner as we waited. We saw a lot of juvenile slippery dicks and it was calming to get into the water beforehand. During the test, Marc and I saw a spotted trunkfish, a cool hogfish, and a gigantic group of blue tangs.
Later in the day, Hannah, Caley, Matt, and I went kayaking and saw flying fish, a ray, and some cormorants up close. Then, Hannah and I went for one final snorkel. We saw a bunch of bluestripped grunts all over the reef clustering together behind sea fans and corals. We weren’t sure, but we thought they might have been trying to get ready for sleep. We also saw a barracuda that was bigger than Hannah, and two small yellow rays.
It’s been a great last day, and we’re starting to pack up. I’m not a huge fan of packing, and everything is still wet, which makes an extra challenge. Of course, none of us really want to go back which makes it even harder. I’ve gotten so much out of this course, and especially here it’s been fun to really fall in love with snorkeling and get comfortable in the water.