Wabash Blogs Immersion 2009: Belize - Invertebrate Biology


March 15, 2009

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Tang Ye ‘12- Last day in Belize: There aren’t many activities except for one, going back home. It is indeed a long trip. We got up when it was barely six, and moved our baggage to the dock. Shortly after finishing a short breakfast, we were on the boat to Dangriga. Although riding this “roller coaster” was still funny, after playing with waves and water for the past few days, we were not quite as excited as when we first came. A week ago, it was with such an excitement and freshness that we came to the South Water Caye, our serene and other worldly island, and began our dream like experience there. Right now, we had to reverse the trip. I am sure there is much more for everyone to think about.


The rest of the day was almost all about travel. There was a short digression, however. After arriving at Dangriga, we went to the Dangriga central market. It was pretty small and mainly sold food. There were also some manufacturing goods, but we didn’t find many interesting things to purchase and soon went back to our bus. We then continued our trip to Belize City. Although Dangriga and Belize City are both located near the sea, we had to take a round-about trip to the inland. The traffic system in Belize is designed to protect the near shore wetlands. One good thing for us was that we could have a glimpse of the inlands – the cities, the countryside, the farms, the plantations, and the mountains.


After two hours of bus riding, we got to the Belize City and began our twelve hour long process flying and waiting. When we finally got back to Wabash College, it was already 1 in the morning. As we said good bye to each other, I knew the trip was officially over. Our Belize trip is but a week long, but I am sure the experience we had and the insights I have gained is everlasting.


In photo, fresh produce sold at the outdoor market in Dangriga.

Rays, Barracuda and Fire Coral...Oh My!

Shane Harmon '10-Thursday, Day 5 at South Water Caye, Belize.  After lunch we headed out to the south side of the island to an area of patch reef that we could easily reach by swimming.  We already visited this area the first day, so I was excited to see if I could identify anything new now that my snorkeling skills have improved.  Almost immediately we saw two large barracudas 3-4 feet long.  They weren’t as big as the 4-4.5 foot one I saw yesterday, but these two swam slow enough that I was able to swim along for a while and watch how they moved.  If you aren’t sure what it is or are not expecting to see a barracuda it can be startling because of their size and the fact that they like to gape their mouths open showing a full set of sharp teeth.  Without knowing any better it may seem like they will attack at any moment. A little later I heard someone yell out they had spotted something and I was close so I quickly swam over.  It was a massive ray beyond the edge of the patch reef in deeper water.  It must have been 4 foot wide and 8 foot long with the pointed tail trailing behind.  I was able to follow it for 3-4 minutes at a fast swim as it circled out beyond the reef and then made a pass right back through the middle before escaping into the open water.  The ease with which it swam was amazing.  It seemed to simply float through the water with no effort at all while I did everything I could to keep it in sight.

After the snorkel, four of us swam over to the nearest island, Carrie Bow Caye.  We had finally gotten a hesitant go ahead by Dr. Wetzel after he slept on the idea and spoke with the IZE staff.  The distance was about a half mile but we weren’t sure how strong the currents would be in the middle of the channel so a few guys kayaked just in case anyone got in trouble.  The swim out wasn’t too bad except for the point when I suddenly reached a wall of coral.  I was just cruising along and when I looked up I saw the tops of coral all around exposed by the waves.  We hadn’t realized that the barrier reef extended so far in and by taking the shortest line to Carrie Bow Caye we ran right into it.  There was no way through so we had to swim around it.  Coming back was much more of a challenge as we had to fight the current and waves the whole way.  The swells kept flooding my snorkel and the current forced regular adjustments to our line.  We all got swept a little far out by the current forcing a tough swim straight into it, but we made it back unassisted to celebrate out success.  I’m looking forward to our snorkel at the fore-reef and project presentations tomorrow to put a great end to our stay on the island.

In photo, beach area on South Water Caye; the island on which we stayed




Fun in the Sun

Nick Rockefeller ’10 - Our first snorkeling trip of the day took us to the mangrove area West of South Water Caye.  We arrived with a light drizzle of rain sprinkling upon us, leaving us slightly chilled in our sunburned state.  We pulled into a boat channel on the interior of the island and jumped in to snorkel.  The water was not deep (3-8 ft.), yet we could barely see the bottom without diving down to observe closely.  The copious amount of sediment that had settled on the bottom was also floating somewhat in the still waters.  We hundreds upon hundreds of upside down jellyfish on the bottom of the channel, and among the mangrove braches, we saw several types of worms and even what our local boatman called a “batfish.”  The batfish to this point eludes our scientific classification and cannot seem to be found in any of our taxonomic books. 


On our way back, we stopped at a spot to snorkel directly over a sinkhole in the sea bed.  The turtle grass habitat dropped from approximately ten feet in depth in a sheer cliff face to about thirty feet.  On the floor of the sinkhole were cushion stars, sea biscuits, and several types of sponges.


In the afternoon, we went to the north side of the island to walk in the rocky intertidal zone, just inland of the barrier reef crest.  This provided us with the opportunity to observe a large variety of invertebrate species.  We saw many types of urchins, anemones, snails, and worms, as well as one Caribbean spiny lobster.  One of the more numerous types of worms was the spaghetti worm, which sends out tentacles from its main body in order to capture small pieces of organic matter for food.  The food particles are brought back to the tube in which the body rests.  The tube is made of uniform size pieces of shell debris that the soft worm uses the shield its body from the environment.  


After our intertidal stroll, we played a few games of beach volleyball in front of our bungalow.  It was nice to be out of the sun, as we came back from the intertidal zone after peak sun hours and near the time of sunset.  Next we gear up for our night snorkel in the patch reef!


In photo, view from porch surrounding living area.


Andrew Hasty – ’09 Yesterday (Tuesday) morning we ventured through a patch reef south of the island near Southwater Cut (“Cut” being a break in the barrier reef).  Today we journeyed once again out to the same patch reef…wait, perhaps “tonight” would have been a better time indicator judging how we snorkeled under the light of a full moon.  Before partaking in the night snorkel two immediate thoughts came to my mind: one, we would have to forgo dinner another hour and a half which was hard to swallow (pun intended), and secondly, I was underwater flashlight-less.  Like a painter without a brush I was lacking a very essential tool for success, as in seeing the interesting biology and not ending up on a chunk of fire coral or worse.  The problem was solved as I stuck to Austin Kline’s side like a remora to a shark as his flashlight, no that’s not enough justice, his spotlight lit up the ocean floor.  After wandering around aimlessly for a bit, we suddenly found ourselves in a stampede of hundreds of fish.  The school moved in unison in each direction and eventually encircled us…we were right in the middle.  It reminded me of the scene from Gladiator when Maximus and the others are being circled by the chariots in the Coliseum, minus the arrows and spears of course.  The cover of night brought out some interesting inverts including a Spanish lobster, a Caribbean reef squid, and an octopus which didn’t like being pestered judging by the fact it tried stealing one student’s flashlight (which would’ve been nice then I wouldn’t have been the only one) and topped it off with a nice spray of ink.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the night snorkel was when everyone with a flashlight turned them off and we were accompanied by darkness, the moon, and what appeared to be tiny fireflies.  The fireflies were actually bio-luminescent crustaceans known as ostracods, which lit up once agitated. The night snorkel was truly a worthwhile experience that I will remember for years and if I ever get the opportunity to do it again, I’ll be sure to have a late afternoon snack and bring a flashlight!


In photo, senior Andrew Hasty holds a vibrant sea star.


Biology the Way It Should Be Taught

Dan Eddelman ’10 - Today started off with breakfast at 7:30am.  That sounds kind of early by standards back home, but the sun goes down at night here around 6:30, and comes up around 5:30 or so.  After breakfast we took a little time to get changed, and then had a short lecture about coral reefs to prepare us for the day’s snorkels.  If you can even call it lecture; taking notes in nothing but swim trunks from the professor lecturing barefoot in a small classroom overlooking the ocean is hardly a lecture in the way I’m used to it.  Anyway, turns out the barrier reef here is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia – so I guess this is just the Good Barrier Reef (please excuse my terrible sense of humor).  After the lecture we swam off the point on the South end of the island, over the turtle grass from yesterday, out to a section of patch reef.  In the afternoon we took a boat – the “Jushi” – out to a different section of patch reef past Carrie Bow Caye.  Both environments were very similar, and were a haven for a wide range of species.  Patch reef is essentially large hunks of reef scattered about on the ocean floor at a depth of about 5-15 feet.  The increased depth allowed for a lot more maneuverability and diving capabilities than the turtle grass, and there were a great deal more organisms, including a number of different fish, corals, sponges, annelids, echinoderms, and crustaceans, and more.  Probably the most memorable finds of the day were a Caribbean Spiny Lobster, and a number of Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers, which, as the name implies, look essentially like big donkey turds.  The two snorkel trips were split by lunch and some serious beach volleyball under the scorching tropical sun.  Despite all the invertebrate biology I learned, I also learned that Dr. Wetzel plays beach volleyball for keeps; he blocked a feeble attempt at a spike right back in my face with no remorse.  After our afternoon snorkel we watched Hasty play around with a Sea Hare for awhile, getting his hand thoroughly covered in deep purple ink.  With the sunset came the consistently delicious dinner, as well as the arrival of some students from a high school academy in or around Boston.  We spent the rest of the evening playing Euchre and sipping on Belikin, “the beer of Belize.”  Overall, a very good day.


In photo, a spotted sea hare found near the dock.


Keegan Gelvoria – ’10. Today, on another day at the office, we swam to a patch reef on the southern side of the island. We walked off the beach and swam through patches of turtle grass, glazing over the habitat we already observed yesterday. When we arrived to the patch reef, we were able to see a larger diversity of corals than the other patches of reef. Amongst all the coral, there was a variety of marine organisms. Since the waves that were cresting from the reef were so close, it was able to move us off our course quite easily. So, we swam around the western end of the island to an area of turtle grass to see another type of habitat. At this part, we saw upside-down jellyfish, animals which are exactly as their name describes. We also saw quite a bit of donkey dung sea cucumbers, which are not the prettiest animals of the sea. After another delicious meal at the research center, we took a boat out past the Smithsonian research island, Carrie Bow Caye. We reached our destination, which was another patch reef. This patch reef was a bit different than the patch reef from the morning because it was more pelagic. Organisms in this area were a bit larger. I accidentally brushed up on some fire coral that still seemed to penetrate through my rash guard; there was a sharp stinging sensation on the area for a while. We saw so many different types of invertebrates during these two snorkeling sessions; sun anemones, cushion sea star, brain corals, and branching vase sponge are just a small percentage of what we saw. This center is a great place because there are currently three different academic programs visiting: Wabash College, University of Connecticut, and a high school from Boston. All of these programs are studying and focusing on different areas of the reef, but we all benefit from this research center and the marine protected habitat. Watching the area surrounding all of us in this sun-kissed island takes some time to really appreciate the fact that we are here for biology. This is the way biology should be taught where we are able to observe the animals we are studying alive and in their natural habitats.


In photo, reef habitat with much coral diversity.

March 12, 2009

Day 1: The Road to Paradise...

Austin Kline ’09 - Our day started sharply at 4 AM in front of the Chapel, with just a few bus rides, 3 flights, and a boat trip separating us from our final island destination.  For me, as I imagine it was for everyone on the trip, the travel from Belize City to our final resting place of South Water Cay will be just as memorable as some of our experiences on the island.  Customs went smoothly and we were soon sent out to board our plane that would take us to the small town of Dangriga.  Dr. Wetzel had warned us that the plane and landing strip in Dangriga would be “slightly” smaller than we were probably accustomed.  After several photographs of the plane and some nervous laughter we were all seated on the small 14 seat Cesna.  The short flight over the coast of Belize contained beautiful scenery that was also accompanied by some exciting turbulence that I imagine is quite common for an aircraft that size.  Even with the unfamiliar atmosphere the flight went without a hitch and the pilot smoothly landed the plane onto a gravel/cement runway with impressive grace.  Next we took a short van ride to the coast where a fiberglass boat with two large outboard motors awaited to take us the last 15 mile to our island.  Up until now it was possible to catch glimpses of the natural beauty that existed below our planes, but it wasn’t till the last 5-10 minutes of our ride in the boat that it was evident how incredible our surroundings would be for the next several days.  It may sound cliché, but you could envision postcards being created from nearly every vista as the boat came into dock.  Absolutely flawless blue water was contrasted by pristine white sand, swaying green palms, and the surf crashing against the reef in the distance.  The island seems to be a perfect place to closely observe what these marine systems have to offer, teaming reef habitat within swimmable proximity and accommodations meant to provide all that is needed while not detracting from the natural beauty of the island.  All of us are looking forward to an excellent week spent snorkeling along the reef and if the trip to the island is any indication, it should be an incredible immersion experience.


In picture, view from plane during approach in Dangriga with runway in center.


Shane Dixon ’09 - Sunday, Day 1 in Belize.  We began our stay on the island with a 20 minute talk about being gentlemen while in our IZE accomodations.  It is amazing to see that this code that Wabash strives to instill in all its men is respected down here in Belize.  We were told that we can take whatever we want from the store and we are to just write it down on a pad that is placed within the store.  We then proceded with getting our feet wet, literally, with a quick two hour snorkel.  One cannot describe in words the crystal blue water, the unbelievably clear and pristine sunlight reflecting off the waves breaking on Belize’s barrier reef, and the multitude of flora and fauna that we encountered our first time in the water.  After fighting against the strong Southwest wind and current, we then began to make our way back towards the piece of sandy white beach from which we began our expedition when we saw a white figure dart in the water above an aquatic forest of turtle grass.  What at first glance seemed to be extremely pale ‘Bash bro turned out to be a stingray with a remarkable 8 foot long tail. This graceful animal moved into and out of the current with the ease that showed just how well its morphology fits the needs that are placed upon it by its habitat.  We are truly blessed to be down here studying first hand the biology that we have been looking over in lab for the last half semester.  With such a good start to the trip, one can only hope that we continue to see new and exciting species.

March 06, 2009

Expectations High for a Week of Hands-On Learning, Belizian Style...

Eric Wetzel -- This week 14 students will travel to Belize and the paradise of South Water Caye (SWC) to study the biology of invertebrate animals. This small island, about 14 miles off the coast, is in contact with the barrier reef of Belize. As one might suspect, it’s a beautiful tropical location. This will be the third group of Wabash students to visit SWC over the last 5 years.


 The primary goal of this trip is to sample and observe as much of the biodiversity of the marine invertebrates as we can. We visit a range of different habitats which exist in this area: forereef, backreef, and patch reef areas, reef flats, mangroves, and seagrass beds. Students encounter and become familiar with well over one hundred species of invertebrate in addition to many species of vertebrates (mainly reef fishes, often including a curious barracuda), plants, and marine algae. Instead of simply “check-listing” species, students will also get to conduct a small research project on which they’ll report (to the group) near the end of the week. These are always enjoyable as well as entertaining, and intended to force the students to look more carefully at one or two species in particular.


Students keep detailed journals of the trip and will, of course, blog about their adventures. Through journaling students are not only encouraged to record species observed and notes from background lectures, but also to reflect on the total experience, from the time we are waiting to depart from Indianapolis to about one week after they’ve returned to Wabash after the trip.


To paraphrase comments which virtually all students have made in the past, I expect this trip the change the way they look at invertebrate animals, the way they view the class and their lab experience at Wabash, and the way they view their lives, particularly in socioeconomic terms. Given that we’ll spend much of our time snorkeling over various habitats, the students and I are ready for a real “immersion” experience.


 In top photo: A close-up look at some of the invertebrate diversity on the reef. At lower right, students prepare to snorkel the oceanside of the Belize barrier reef.