Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Day 7, Saturday May 23, 2015

On our last full day in Belize, we had a full day ahead of us, including the much dreaded field practical.  After another hearty breakfast, we boarded the La Gaviota captained by Louis who was assisted by first mate Mike.  Our first anchorage was at Tuffy, the same sight of the night snorkel.  Here, in small groups of four, we were required to identify fish, seaweeds, corals, and invertbrates by writing their scientific and common names on an underwater slate as each was pointed out to us by Dr. Smith or Maureen.  The consensus was that all those hours of study were well worth it. Nonetheless we were glad to have the last graded activity behind us.  Clearly the best was saved for the last:  We visited the magnificent marine preserve known as Hol Chan, Turtle Rock, and Shark Ray Alley.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Day 6, Friday May 22, 2015

          After a breakfast of eggs, black beans, tortillas, and fruit, we made our way to the dock to meet Chicho, our trusty guide from Monday and Tuesday. Once aboard the Olgie (Suya II) we sped off to the manatee channel, passing the slow moving Goliath that held the other group from Illinois. After arriving at our destination, we had a brief chat with Maureen to discuss our snorkeling route. Once everyone was in the water, we weaved our way through the maze of coral to the channel, only to be greeted by a sleeping manatee. The manatee, larger than any of us expected, was complacent and did not seem to mind the attention until he needed to surface for air. Once he disappeared, we tirelessly swam against the strong current in the channel after him, but to no avail. On the way back to the boat, we split into two groups, one with Dr. Smith and one with Maureen, to practice our coral identification skills. After boarding the boat, we made our way to Caye Caulker for lunch, but not before stopping to feed a local school of tarpon (Megalops atlanticus). For lunch, we dined on chicken burgers and French fries at the Happy Lobster. With an hour to explore after lunch, several groups set out in search of ice cream to cool down from the heat of the island. For our last snorkel of the day, we returned to Coral Gardens to explore the area in more of a relaxed setting and continue sharpening our identification skills for the upcoming practical. We identified organisms that we had not seen in the area before such as queen angelfish, rock beauty, and a green turtle. After everyone was tired from the long day, we returned back to the compound and said our goodbyes to Chicho. Study time began shortly after a refreshing dip in the pool and a wonderful supper of chicken fajitas prepared by Maggie. (written by Austin Wood and Trey Spillers).

Exploring the "streets" of Caye Caulker

Day 5, Wednesday May 21, 2015

          Similar to previous days on the island, our morning began bright and early as we clamored out of bed and assembled for breakfast just before 8am. This morning, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of french toast, cinnamon bread, and fresh fruit. We had to break our fast slightly earlier this morning in order to make it to the dock by 8:30 am for our trip the mainland Mayan ruins of Altun Ha. Upon reaching the dock, we met our guide for the day, Allen. He was captaining the Suya II, a single-engine outboard that proved to be the fastest boat we have ridden on thus far. Even though we were moving at a rapid pace, it still took us about forty-five minutes to reach the mouth of the river. While on the river, Allan was able to point out several different aspects of the local flora and fauna. These included the red mangrove, snake cactus, various species of king fishers, and some small bats that were about the size of one’s hand.
After traveling up the river for about thirty minutes, we arrived at the village of Bomba where only about 35 people live! Surprisingly enough, there was a Blue Bird bus (which, upon further inspection, we discovered, was built in Fort Valley, GA) waiting to take us to Altun Ha. On the 45 minute ride to the Mayan Ruins, Allan skillfully explained the local history and culture of the people living in the area. One of the things we learned was that school is mandatory for children in Belize from the ages of 5 to 14; however, roughly 80% of the students go on to further their education through at least the junior college level. Additionally, the citrus industry was previously centered on the coast of Belize, but the poor soil of the region was quickly exhausted of its nutrients and the industry was forced to move further inland. Interestingly enough, we also learned that San Pedro purchases its power from Mexico. This electricity runs in lines all the way from Mexico, to the coast of Belize, and underground all the way to the island.
After a long and bumpy bus ride, we finally arrived at the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha. Going through the front gate, we were met by locals selling various dried fruits and sweets. From there we went to the newly-opened welcome center that provided a wealth of information on the history of the ancient city. The center also housed a variety of original artifacts found on the site, including arrowheads, tools, and various items signifying wealth.
 After learning much at the information center, we began our guided tour of the site with Allan. Starting outside the city walls, Allan pointed out the native vegetation, and then described the complex social structure of the Mayans. Among the many things we learned about the Mayans, was that the common people were only allowed inside the gates of the city for religious ceremonies and public work projects ordered by the kings and other members of the royalty and higher class.  At the end of the highly educational tour, we were allowed to climb up the main temple and take a few pictures, which was an amazing experience.
On the return bus ride, we stopped by the relatively luxurious Maruba Resort and Spa for lunch. Most of the group started with an appetizer of nachos, and then moved on to the main course of smoked chicken with black bean and rice. After eating and some socialization with our classmates, we began our long journey back to San Pedro, briefly stopping at Bomba to shop local wood carvings created by those living in the village. We ended the day with a short study session, in preparation for our practical on Saturday, and then went to bed. What a day to remember! (written by JC Bergh and Matt Ely)

We're on a dock!
A view of the North River from bow of the Suya II
The magnificent Mayan city of Altun Ha
The requisite selfie with Altun Ha.
Atop the sacrificial pyramid.
Lunch at  Maruba, the nearby restaurant and resort.
The chicken special.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 4, Wednesday May 20, 2015

         Dr. Ken Mattes and Siete led our group on an adventure to the Mangroves onboard the Goliath, the official vessel of TREC.  Even when the wind and sea are calm, the waters are slightly murky, made all the more eerie by the tangle of roots encrusted with life.  We swam through massive schools of red-eared sardines and silversides, passed around the bizarre orange-lipped batfish, and counted dozens of fish species.  Not only are the mangroves significant for their ability to trap sediments and provide nutrients to the adjoining ecosystems, they function as a nursery for juvenile fish. From the mangroves, we traveled to Coral Gardens which had the most impressive coral display thus far. Between two magnificent stands of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), we spotted robust  hybrid colonies of the two, Acropora prolifera.  And we had a Finding Nemo moment when we swam with a hawksbill turtle.  After a brief respite back at Casa Neptune, we again boarded the Goliath for the much anticipated night snorkel at Tuffy, a site named after the sailing vessel that had been foundered by an huge arc of elkhorn coral nearly 30 years ago.  We hypnotized squid with our dive lights, spotted dozens of spiny lobsters, captured and inflated pufferfish, and some of us were brave enough to allow an octopus crawl across our backs. However, the highlight of the night had to be the display of bioluminescence by the ostracods. One by one, seemingly hundreds of string of pearls showed off their blue lights in a mating display. Overall, we had a busy day filled with adventures that we will not soon forget (written by Bryana Ferris and Arti Patel)

The mangroves from a surface water perspective.
A beautiful file fish.
Though eerie, there is an abundance of life among the mangrove roots.
Sargent majors amidst the mangrove epiphytic community.
A pod, a deck, a shield, a risk, a veritable exhaltation of Caribbean spiny lobsters!

Sea fans, sea rods, elkhorn, fire, boulder-star,and mustard hill corals at Coral Gardens
How many hard and soft coral species can you identify?
  Another beautiful Coral Garden seascape.
Sunset from the bow of the Goliath before the night snorkel.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Day 3, Tuesday May 20, 2015

The food at Casa Neptune (aka TREC) is wonderful.  Today we feasted on banana pancakes, fresh pineapple, watermelon, and homemade cinnamon bread for breakfast, chicken salad sandwiches, all-you-can-eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the best-ever black bean dip for lunch, and spaghetti with meatballs, salad, hot rolls, and brownies for dinner.  Hours of snorkeling do wonders for the appetite.  Today our captain and guide were once again Chicho and Maureen, but our boat, the Valeria (aka Suya I) was a larger version of yesterday’s. We were delighted with the larger vessel because there was far less sea spray.  Our enthusiasm was short lived, however:  En route to our first destination, Mexico Rocks, we were treated to a brief rain shower.  At the speed we were traveling, the rain felt like a hail of bullets. Mexico Rocks, named after the adjacent shore, is a mid-lagoon, patch-reef system home to a wide diversity of marine wildlife. Montastrea annularis (boulder star coral) dominates the limestone-based geology.  We encountered a countless diversity of marine organisms, the highlights of which were southern stingrays, Caribbean reef squid, a green moral eel, gray and queen angelfish, colorful tube sponges, and over a dozen species of damselfish.  After the group snorkel, we were invited to explore the site on our own, being mindful to adhere to the buddy system. 

Our second location was at the mouth of a limestone cave system that stretches many miles deep into the mainland.  Some of us swam down 15 or more feet and gazed into the dark interior.  There were Caribbean giant anemones, a couple invasive lionfish, spiny lobsters, and many dozens of fish positioned upside-down with their bellies against the roof of the cave.  Of course we were obedient and did not swim into the cave: Dr. Smith would have killed us. The final snorkel site of the day was Playa Blanca, a shallow back reef where we broke into groups of 2-4 and tested each other’s ability to identify organisms. We discovered (one of tactility) the infamous fire coral in addition to a sneaky juvenile spotted moral eel. We concluded our day at the compound with a study hour and that awesome feast of spaghetti and meatballs! (Written by Garrett Faucette and Cassie Hensel). 

We're on a boat!

The following photos don't do justice to the magnificent underwater scenery and wildlife at Mexico Rocks...

Can you see the six-foot green moray eel?

An adorable southern stingray.
Trey Spillers tests Dr. Smith's claim that the cnidocytes of the Caribbean giant anemone are stingless.

Austin Wood near the mouth of Mexico Cave.