South Water Caye — The last days will be somewhat condensed, since we did essentially the same thing every day. Our schedule was less full than it was in the rainforest, which I was very thankful for. If you’ve ever been on a beach trip where you swim for long periods of time you know that after getting out you are completely exhausted. Something about the saltwater and sun and in our case, the extreme concentration on the sea life below us and trying to avoid getting washed out to sea with the current.
One of the most disturbing, and obvious, things that we saw as we swam over the sand patches that wove through the coral patches was the mass numbers of dead coral that we saw. At first glance it appeared alive, fish darting around it and into it, giving it an appearance of vibrant life. But on closer examination, the colors the coral had, brown and green, were due to the algae that had populated the surface of the coral corpses. Sea Fans that should normally be a rich royal purple reminiscent of a bishop’s robe were instead brown, and many had broken and laid lifeless over the sea floor. If we saw one that was still alive, it was lighter purple with only a very bright base, where the fan was anchored on the surface below it. Fire coral had begun to creep up the sides of the dead sea fans, and in many areas it followed the structure of the sea fans.
The ocean does not have many plants in it. There are 2 ecosystems in the vicinity of the island though, that are built on plants. The first is the sea grass beds. Before you get to the patch reef as you swim away from the island, you encounter long stretches of sea grass. There are hermit crabs in big conch shells that withdraw into their shells the second they see you approach. Yellow Stingrays make their way through the area, at no danger to humans who are paying attention. There are 3 types of sea grass that thrive in this area: Manatee, Turtle, and Eel. Manatee and Turtle are difficult to differentiate, as both of them have long flat blades. Eel Grass tends to be more obvious, with its small rounded blades. This is an integral habitat for the area, providing shelter for the fish that travel away from the reef, and providing important areas for fish fry to grow where there is less competition with bigger fish and a complicated lattice of grass to provide safety.
The other ecosystem is one of the least studied, but most important, in the world. The mangroves that are spread throughout tropical waters, not only are they vital for the wildlife of the area, but they also provide essential ecosystem services for us. For many fish, this is a nursery area where babies can grow and survive before they get out to the reef. Some of these fish never leave, preferring to stay in the rich habitat that they grew up in. Birds often nest in mangroves, creating rookeries like the one at Man-O-War Caye. We went past it on the way to snorkel one day, looking out at the Magnificent Frigate Birds and the Brown Boobies as we passed by. The young of both were fluffy and white and many sat in the same tree. The irony of this was not lost on Jordan Casey, our Sewanee Alum who had travelled all the way from Australia to help us learn about these ecosystems. Frigate birds are what is known as a kleptoparasite, meaning that they steal the fish of other seabirds rather than catch their own. The Brown Booby just happens to be their favorite target. The water around the island was thick with green algae, as the massive quantities of bird droppings provided the limiting nutrients for algal growth. The smell was awful. Once we reached Twin Cays, our boat dropped us off in the channel. We had to be careful to not stir up the bottom, as it takes a very long to settle. We swam over to the edge and began looking at the walls of mangroves that created an impenetrable wall above and below us. Perhaps the most initially striking thing was that the mangrove stilts were covered, a solid mass of algae, sponges, and other things that looked like they had just stepped out of a Dr. Seuss book. Algae abounded, and there were polychaete worms everywhere we looked. But perhaps the most stunning of this ecosystem is the Upside-Down Jellyfish, Cassiopeia. These are the jellyfish that contain a symbiont that allows them to photosynthesize.
In a trip of pushing us out of our comfort zones, perhaps the furthest we went was when we went on a Night Snorkel. The thing about being in an undeveloped country, a 45 minute boat ride from the mainland, where power is hard to come by, is that it is DARK when there are no lights on. The only thing that rivals that darkness is the inside of a cavern when they turn off the light. It was overcast the entire time we were at the coast, so there were no stars or light from the moon to cast at least the tiniest bit of a glow. We all sat in the dark with our gear on, and the fear was palpable. For diurnal creatures, the ocean at night is an intimidating thing. I made my buddy, Lydia, promise to hold my hand. Eels are often out at night. Not to mention sharks… but no, don’t think about that. It’s much too shallow for them here anyway. It’s not that I have (much of) a problem with these animals, it’s that I want to be able to SEE them. Sitting on the edge of the boat was the most nerve-wracking. As I plunged into the water below, I let go of my dive light, creating a pendulum of light on the sea floor below. Once in the water, for me, all the fear was gone. It was exactly what the reef looked like during the day, there just wasn’t any light. Once everyone was situated in the water, we turned off our lights. Treading water, we looked into the water below. At first it was just black, but slowly, as our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, darts of color began flying around us. It was phosphorescence. All too soon, we had to turn our lights back on. I could have stayed there in the dark for hours watching the invisible become visible. We snorkeled slowly throughout the reef. For the most part all we saw were squirrelfish, the common reef fish with their huge black saucer eyes that allow them to see at night. We did also see a huge green Moray Eel. I think it’s because of The Little Mermaid- Eels really freak me out. All over the sea floor were huge invertebrates. The Tiger Sea Cucumbers that we saw were enormous, easily over a foot long.
The reef crest, the shallowest part of the reef, was a great way to spend some time before dinner. We hiked out to the opposite end of the island from where we usually snorkeled. Just past the sea wall was a wealth of creatures that really pleased the tactile learner. With gloves on, we poked, prodded, and held: sea urchins, brittle stars, baby crabs, sea cucumbers, and anything else that was hiding among the rocks. However, the star of the show were the octopi. Spread out among the rocks, the two little creatures looked like some sort of child’s play goo that had been thrown onto the wall where SMACK, it stayed. “Quick, Saunders, pick it up!” someone said. Dr. Evans chuckled and said that he really didn’t think it was possible to pick them up, too slippery and cunning. When Saunders leaned down to try, the small creature inked and scrambled away, spurring quotes from Nemo. Never one to quit (he had become famous among the rainforest staff for reaching down a hole up to his elbow for a boa constrictor), Saunders was resolved to pick up the octopus. After a moment of scooping legs off of a rock and corralling the creature into a less splayed-out position, Saunders opened up his hand, showing off the blob of goo that he held. He caught the octopus! Immediately everyone swarmed in to see the amazing little creature. Dr. Evans pulled out his camera and began snapping pictures. I swear, half of everyone’s pictures from this trip is Saunders holding something. He does have an eye for seeing things that others miss, and he’s not scared to get bitten/stung/scratched like most of us are. It is experiences like this that seem to best connect people to the areas around them, creating a desire to conserve.