Monday, June 30, 2008

picnic, lightning

It was light at first. We were off for a pleasant ride into the central lagoon of Turneffe Atoll. A stroll behind Blackbird Caye looking for crocodiles. As we made our way through the channel in the reef, we stopped. The channel marker wasn't going to be sufficient for this trip. It needed to be brighter. Hanging from the bow, we we wrapped it with reflective tape just in case.
Now it was time for a picnic. Not a walk in the park, but a picnic. The lagoon was calm and we made good time. We reached our destination in front of a fishing shack on the back of the island. Sitting a couple of hundred yards off shore, Alton dropped the anchor. Time to eat. We would dine on chicken, pasta, salad and banana bread that was still warm (Alton, who doesn't eat meat, had lobster tail instead). We enjoyed the peaceful rocking of the boat and good company while we dined and waited for night to come. Mosquitoes sensed our presence from shore and as the wind died they arrived. They wouldn't stay long. Darkness came early. Then thunder. Next was rain. Maybe it was a different order, but stay with me. All hell was about to break loose. Lightning raged around us, getting closer with each moment. At times the lightning was yellow. I've never seen such lightning before. Perhaps, I've never been quite so close to it. All we could do was sit, take our picture and hope that the camera would survive. Eventually the storms would give us a break and we began to work. It was croc searching time.

Thomas (whose last name is Rainwater, by the way) took his position at the bow with his spotlight (you can see some of the lightning still going behind him here). We were looking for the eye shine of a crocodile along the shore. We found one. We approached. It spooked and went under. Traveling just off of shore we scanned for eyes. Nothing. Then a huge reddish eye in the distance. We approached. It was massive. Getting into the water with a crocodile of this size would be suicide. It was just too big to be true. Fortunately, it really was too big to be true. It was a reflector. We moved on. Bouts of rain pelted us as we found several more eyes reflecting our spotlight back at us. One was a spider. The others were crocs, but each spooked. We weren't going to have a crocodile rodeo today.

Throughout the trip flying fish were startled by our presence . Their bodies skipped across the water around us. The the sound of their tails flicking in the water was punctuated by their bodies slapping into the water. As we approached the shallows, the sea was like a clear sky. Lights twinkled everywhere. Glowing organisms sparkled around us.

It was time to return to the dock. That meant leaving the "peaceful" lagoon to get outside of the reef. The waves were huge and we were airborne at times, unsure of when we would again be standing or sitting on the bottom of the boat. We had thought ahead. Despite the huge waves, the reflective tape that we had wrapped around the channel marker had managed to stay on. Our light reflected off of it and we knew where to pass through the reef. Alton brought us home. We drank to our "success."
(By the way, the title of this post is stolen from someone that stole it. "Picnic, lighting" is the title of a Billy Collins book and he borrowed it from Lolita -- "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.")
A few of those photos aren't mine. Leslee Parr took the red eye , the picnic (no rain), and the photo of me with the light.


After watching the golden-fronted woodpeckers that are everywhere around here and then Alton (pictured in the backgroun), our boat driver, climb up coconut trees with ease, I thought that I'd give it a try. I was a ways up the tree before I realized that at some point I had to go down, safely. Going up was tough, but I was at a loss for how to get down. That part is going to take some practice. Next time, I'll try it barefoot. If I survive, I hope to have some pics!
(Photo credits: Top Photos-- Leslee Parr; lower photo -- Mario Mota)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

New Characters

I am way behind on posts. Sorry about that. Above are some of the characters that I met this week (the dorsal fins on the left are actually dolphins -- I'll try to post some more on them soon). We picked up a real-life crocodile guy, Thomas Rainwater, on Wednesday. He's from the south and mosquitoes don't seem to bother him (even when completely coated from head to toe). Thomas is here to survey the saltwater crocodiles that are on Turneffe Atoll.
The atoll is not a protected area and there are a number of plans to build condos (for hundreds of people!), resorts and even a golf course on the Atoll. There are a a lot of issues with doing that. For one, there is almost NO fresh water on this Atoll (only rainwater in the dry season). From what I remember, condos and golf courses use a lot of water. Besides the water issue, many mangroves would have to be cleared and many beaches would be taken over which would destroy habitat for the crocs (and other animals) and disrupt crocodile and turtle nesting sites. Mario Mota, the turtle guy that I'm working with, Leslee Parr,Thomas, and the PSU group that was here before are all working on issues associated with the potential development of this area. One goal is to document the important sites for turtle and croc nesting, so that those areas may be protected.
A bit of crocodile background
Many crocodile species around the globe are are endangered due to years of hunting and considerable clearing of their nesting sites and foraging habitat. There are four crocodile species in the western hemisphere and two species in Belize, American saltwater crocodiles and Morelet's crocodiles. You may think that crocodiles are mostly found in swampy areas, but these two species can be encountered in places that you wouldn't necessarily expect. The Morelet's are freshwater crocs. In Belize, they live in the streams and lakes on the mainland. They can often be found in clear, raging, mountain streams. Then there are the salties (they're around here). They live in the mangroves, but will come out and forage on the reefs. So you could see a crocodile while out snorkeling or SCUBA diving in the tropics, although probably only at night, or hiking along a mountain stream. The crocs in Belize dig nest cavities in the ground or build mound nests and the sex of their young is determined by the temperature at which the eggs incubate. One of Thomas' areas of research is environmental toxicology. Chemicals in the environment, such as DDT, can alter the sex-determination of the young by disrupting hormone actions. Many countries in the world use pesticides that we no longer use in the US because of their health or environmental effects. Because these chemicals are often very effective and less expensive than many of those used in the US developing countries continue to rely on them.

Shortly after Thomas arrived, he went out behind our place to look for our crocs. We have an 8-10 footer back there. He managed to grab a smaller one and then he handed it off to me (below).

It's a beautiful animal. We took a few measurements (here's Thomas with his calipers), marked it and let her go.
While Thomas is here, we'll be looking for croc nests and surveying around the island for more crocodiles that we can grab and measure. We took the boat out last night to look for crocs along the edge of Blackbird Caye (that's where I live -- by the way, it's mentioned in Pirates of the Caribbean), but we didn't find any. We're going out again this evening to look for crocs further North. We should have more luck finding them tonight. If we find one, then we'll (i.e., Thomas) lasso it, it will start spinning until it's tired, then we'll pull it into the boat to make some measurements and mark it. Most of the folks have left the island for the night, so it will just be Thomas, our boat driver, Alton, Leslee Parr and myself. I'm pretty excited about handling a big croc. If all goes well, I'll post again soon. And if I'm lucky, I'll have some pics.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Visiting the Island

If you don't really know where the heck I am, then go into Google Earth and paste the following coordinates into the "Fly to" bar.
17 18 21.19N, 87 48 5.42W
You'll be able to see some of the buildings that I work in or live in. Fly around the area. There's a cute little island (I posted a picture of it earlier) just south of here. Enjoy the trip.

Sun & Star.......

Here's a 3D attempt using a slightly annoying animated gif. I'm not sure how I should display my 3D images for you. I could make an anaglyph for those with 3D glasses or a mirrored image for those that know how to look at images that way. For now, I'll mess with your brain with this animated gif that goes between the left and right images. It creates a 3D effect. Isn't your brain funny? This pictures is of a Sun anemone on Montastraea faveolata, a star coral.


Monday, June 23, 2008

5 Bucks on #7

I spent the morning with a group of Portland State University that have been studying mangroves on Turneffe Atoll (note: I picked a day when they were not going to be deep in the mangroves because there are millions of mosquitoes living in there --see "Donating Blood").
I acted as the photojournalist for the day.
Mangroves are unusual trees that thrive in estuaries and marine coastlines in the tropics and subtropics. To survive in these locations they have to deal with high saline. The plant has to secrete the excess salt that it takes in (picture on the right).These trees have really cool seeds that already look like little seedlings (below). The seed floats in the water with the brown tip down. The tip sticks into the sand/mud and wave and tide action slowly move it back and forth until it is in a position to begin to grow.

The mangrove forests are important for many reasons, but one that has been in the news recently is their role in protecting coastal areas from severe weather, such as a tsunami. Mangroves are often cleared for development. PSU researchers noticed that saplings established in areas where mangroves were cleared, but they grew very slowly. While saplings that established near intact mangroves were growing rapidly. The saplings may receive considerable help from the large mangrove trees (e.g., shelter from waves, nutrients from fallen leaves, sediment trapping, etc.). Thus, re-establishing cleared mangroves may be difficult. That's what these folks are trying to figure out. Click here to see the crew on our way to a study site. The sea is a bit rough outside of the reef.(Below a mangrove sapling next to a sapling scientist.)

(Two PSU students work with enclosures on mangrove saplings.)

They've made measurements, taken sediment cores, enclosed saplings, added fertilizers, and measure wave height and frequency.
They also timed how fast seeds floated through an area (below). "Five bucks on number seven!" Seedlings were dropped. The race was on. And today, they were making record time. This is just the beginning of the study. It will be going on for several more years. The hope is that they'll gain a greater understanding for the conditions necessary for mangroves to re-establish, so that the areas that have been cleared can be restored.

While they were busy collecting data, I wandered around "Coconut Island." It's a tiny island, and like every other beach around, it was covered in garbage (can you find the light bulb?). Nobody dumped garbage onto the island. It washed ashore. In fact many "pristine" beaches that you've visited have also been covered in trash. Early in the morning at resorts around the world people wake up really early to rake the beaches and pick up the trash, so that we see nice, clean, post-card-looking beaches. And in many places, such as Florida, they dredge up sand to constantly replace the beaches because they erode away. They're man-made beaches. The trash above may be from a cruise ship. You see, it's legal for cruise ships, and other vessels, to dump trash, human waste, medical waste, photo processing chemicals, etc. into the ocean if they're 250 miles off shore. There is no regulation, no law to prevent them. Where does it all go? Into the ocean is bad enough! But, it also washes up on beaches everywhere. The cruise ships that pass by Belize can show people the beautiful beaches and then dump their trash into the sea when they get out of range. Don't go on a cruise.
Oh, I watched a dolphin mother and her calf this afternoon too. The calf was very cute. Tomorrow I may go look for manatee. We'll see.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Barry and the turtle

This is a story about this little turtle. The students named her Hope. The researchers didn't have much for her.Shortly after I arrived here, my roommate, Mario Mota, who is a turtle researcher from Florida (formerly a dolphin and manatee researcher), was snorkeling off of what is called "front dock." This is the dock that we generally use for the boats. There is a "back dock" which is closer to the lagoon, near where the saltwater crocodiles live (I haven't seen one yet). There is a large fish that hangs out under front dock. His name is Barry. Can you guess what kind of fish he is? Try. I'll post a picture when I get around to taking one of him for those of you that can't guess. Mario saw some blood in the water and Barry grinning (that's a hint) nearby. Swimming round was a young (2 years old or less), female green turtle bleeding from a severed front flipper. Mario grabbed her before Barry came back for more. We didn't keep her long. The students had the chance to see her before she was released later on that evening. She may make it. They had an adult female named Calypso, who also had a missing flipper, nest here several times. She would apparently try to dig her nest , but struggled. Although they have mixed feelings about it, Calypso got help digging her nest. Hope has a long ways to go before she'll be ready to try something like Calypso did. (Here's a link to some info about green sea turtles, in case you want to know more )

Friday, June 20, 2008

Working on the Atoll

Things are really, really busy here right now. Shortly after I arrived, the person that was training me, Kathy, got really sick. She only had a couple of days to fill me in on how they were conducting reef fish surveys along with how to take care of all of the reports, accounting, and random duties (e.g., making sure that we have enough food, getting broken furniture fixed, determining fuel expenses, etc.) before she had to be taken to the hospital in the mainland. Kathy ended up taking a boat to the mainland and is in the hospital. She was going septic. It's very fortunate that she got out when she did! She's been on IV antibiotics for days. It sounds like she's coming around now. We hope to get her on a flight to Miami tomorrow. I'm trying to figure it all out. I actually go to Belize City in the morning to pick up more people.

I'm trying to include pictures when I can. Here's one looking off of my front porch (I'm moving soon to a different room that won't be quite so scenic). Here's the group heading out to do a practice survey.

The picture above is an island near a place called Calabash. There is a group on the island in the picture studying the mangrove seedlings nearby. We plan to do out transect lines (fish surveys) near this spot.

The underwater pics that I've been taking so far are mostly for training purposes, so they aren't terribly pretty. However, I did dive down real quick to snap this picture of an anemone yesterday. I sure like anemones.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Donating Blood

I don't have a lot of time yet to make many posts. I hope to have more time soon. I'm in Belize at Blackbird Caye on Turneffe Atoll and the mosquitoes, apparently, are much worse than any of the locals can remember. Fortunately, I'm spending my days taking Elder Hostel volunteers out to the reef to learn how to identify reef fish rather than spending the day in the mosquito infested mangroves. A group from Portland State University at the station is spending most of the day in the mangroves getting eaten alive, however. I'm not sure that these PSU students are ever going to want to do field work again.
Small world stuff......While sitting in a rocking chair in the Sea-Tac airport, I decided to do something out of character. I decided to talk to the stranger next to me. It was late. I was bored. I was sitting in a wooden rocking chair....for hours. It seemed like a good thing to try to do. So, I commented on how it felt like I was sitting on my front porch. The nice woman, Andy, responded politely. Sat quiet for a long while and then started talking. It turns out that she works with community colleges. We had a nice visit about issues that many CC students face. I'm glad that I didn't follow my standard procedure and avoid random-stranger conversation. Perhaps more random. I've run into a number of people from Washington state here. It's odd. One woman in my Elder Hostel group that I'm training to ID reef fish to conduct fish surveys actually worked at YVCC and lived in Selah. Two students are from Spokane. Plus, a professor from San Jose State actually grew up in Ephrata, WA.
Other encounters. We ran into pods of dolphins this morning and afternoon on our way to our sites. I spent a long time with one foot of air and a few inches of water between my eye and that of a coastal Bottlenose Dolphin. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera on the first encounter and my batteries were dead on the second. I think that some of my Elder Hostel folks got pictures, however. Here's a picture of Mary, Tammy, Kathy, and Alice (Kathy isn't an Elder Hostel volunteer, but the others are). They are hard-core-fish-IDing snorkelers. I have to run.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Oh, yeah....the title

Hopefully the biologist out there will get the Cnido-site "joke." If you don't get it, then read about coral for a little while. You probably should read about coral anyway or look up nematocyst.