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Monday, January 24, 2011


I was unable to upload videos while in Belize due to the restrictive Internet connection. However, now that we are back, I am going to spend some time editing my videos and uploading them for your viewing pleasure. I will periodically edit this post to include more videos as I have them. When I have completed uploading all videos, I will change this paragraph to reflect that fact.

1. Highlights from the Pillar Coral reef site (Day #2):

Or click here to jump to YouTube to view this video.

2. Highlights from the Tres Cocos reef site (Day #2):

Or click here to jump to YouTube to view this video.

3. Highlights from our night dive at Tuffy reef (Day #4):

Or click here to jump to YouTube.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day 7: Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Day #7: January 20th, 2011
Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris Caye, Belize
Click here to see a web album with more photos from today

Greetings from our last full day in sunny Belize! We have completed our research, collected our results, written our lab reports, and completed most of our scholarly requirements, so today was all about snorkeling.

With Ken Mattes, Ph.D. (Director of the Tropical Research and Education Center) as our guide, we headed out this morning to the Hol Chan ("Little Channel" through the reef) Marine Reserve. This park contains one of the largest stretches of protected reef in the hemisphere. There are very strict rules for access. Everyone must pay an entry fee, you must stay with a guide, and you are not allowed to take or disturb anything. Hol Chan serves as a model of preservation for tropical reefs. After receiving an extensive briefing from Dr. Mattes, we were ready to head in:

We snorkeled three sites within the Reserve. The first is called Turtle Rock Island. A conch fisherman comes by there every day to gut his catch. As he dumps the remains overboard, a wide variety of fish, rays, and turtles come by to feed. This presents an excellent opportunity for snorkelers to view this wildlife up close and even to interact with it:

Next, we visited the Hol Chan channel itself. This included a deep area rimmed by a coral shelf. The deep area presented the opportunity to see some large fish, such as tarpon. It even included a cave that could be swum through by the braver among us:

Due to the protection offered by the Marine Park, we saw several species that we didn't see elsewhere, such as two species of grouper and the hawksbill turtle:

From there, we traveled to our final snorkel spot: Shark Ray Alley. Isn't that a great name? The captain dropped a chum container into the water, and we quickly had six nurse sharks following the boat. Even though we know they are harmless, this is still an intimidating site:

Once we got in the water, the sharks quickly dispersed, but they left behind several large sting rays, who fed on the chum and let us approach and even touch them. A popular pastime at Shark Ray Alley is "sting ray graffiti," rubbing letters on to the surface of the ray (they are covered in find silt from digging in the sand):

At the far end of the reef was a gathering place that was as rich in number and species of fish as we've seen all week:

It was definitely the best day of snorkeling yet. Many of us truly regretted that it was our last day of diving.

Once back in TREC, the students crammed for their final exam. This consisted of 40 questions of species identification. Students viewed photos/videos shot during the week and they had to identify the species shown. The class did spectacularly! The average score was a 93. As promised earlier in the semester, I treated the top scorers (100, 97.5, and 97.5) to a Belizean seafood dinner.

After dinner, we gathered in the classroom for one last time to go over our field data. General conclusion: the deep water reef has a much greater coral density than the shallow water, and brain coral is more abundant than purple sea fan in both habitats. The students received instructions on how to finish their lab reports, when to hand in their journals, and travel plans for tomorrow.

We depart TREC at 9AM. If all goes well, we'll travel by taxi to San Pedro airport, small airplane to Belize City, then fly to Atlanta, then to Boston, then van to Henniker. If the weather doesn't delay us, it will be about a 18 hour trip.

On behalf of the class, I thank everyone who made this trip such a valuable one for the students. And thank you to all the parents/friends who have read the blog and supported our efforts. I will send out updates in the coming weeks as I edit the videos and post them here.

For the last time, greetings from Belize!

Prof. Eric J.Simon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Day 6: Caye Caulker and Beach BBQ

Day #6: Wednesday January 19th, 2011
Tuffy reef, Caye Caulker, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
Click here to see a web album with lots of photos

Greetings from sunny Belize to the cold and snowy northeast! This was a somewhat down day for us, so not as much as usual to report.

We began with our last research dive at Tuffy reef. The students switched locations this time, so that those who had been studying the deep reef were studying the shallow, and vice versa. Below you can see the students as they preform their research activities in the shallow area, using a polypropylene rope (which floats) to measure off a standard 12x12 meter area. Within that area, data collectors count each purple sea fan and brain coral, calculate the surface area of each, and record the health of each:

Tomorrow we'll be compiling our final data, so stay tuned for our conclusions!

After every dive, Captain Norm prepares a special secret-recipe warm bean dip for all the divers. It is enjoyed every time by all the grateful divers:

After our morning research, the students were treated to the rest of the day off. Many students used this opportunity to rest, some to catch up on work, and some of us (myself, Prof. Dunlop, and six adventurous students) took a 1:45 boat ride to Caye Caulker, a minor island off of Belize. On the way, we stopped to dive over the shipwreck of a barge that sank in shallow water in 1997. This dive gave the students a good opportunity to observe coral succession on a new substrate:

From there, we docked at Caye Caulker, a very small and mellow island, with one main street, everyone in bare feet, conch kabobs grilling in roadside stands, and an extremely laid back vibe. Here you can see the restaurant where we ate lunch (right on the water) and some sights from the island (such as they are!):

After a leisurely and relaxing boat ride back, we gathered at TREC and walked a half hour up the beach for a BBQ. Everyone enjoyed chicken, fish, and pork wrapped in tortillas. From there, we went out for frozen custard, and then back to TREC:

All in all, it was a relaxing and fun day, with some work to balance out the off time. Tomorrow is our last day of diving - and it should be our best! I greatly look forward to that report.

All our best from lovely Belize,

Eric J. Simon

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 5: Coral Gardens and Night Seine

Day #5: Tuesday January 18th, 2011
Tuffy reef, Coral Gardens, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
Click here to see a web album with many photos from today

Greetings from sunny San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Another warm but somewhat breezy day out here on the waters around Belize. And another work- and fun-filled day of activities.

We followed out usual routine: breakfast, walk to the beach, clean the beach, load on to the boat, ride to Tuffy reef (our research area), collect data, gather back on the boat, share data, and then head off to our next destination. Here is today's fun fact from our coral reef research: one team counted 4 brain corals in 290 square meters of shallow reef, while the other team counted 14 brain coral in 158 square meters of deep reef. Preliminary results are indicated a much greater density of coral in the 12' deep reef than in the 4' deep reef. But we still have two days of data left to collect.

After our work was done, we gathered back on the boat and headed for today's adventure dive site, piloted as always by Captain Norman and his son Jeff (who is an expert underwater tour guide):

After a 30 minute ride, we arrived at Coral Gardens. This site was deeper than the others we've been to (about 10-15' deep) which allows it to support a different variety of fauna than we've seen before. In addition to the usual invertebrates (such as the sponge shown below) and fish (such as the grey angelfish and parrotfish shown below), this site allowed us to view some megafauna, such as a nurse shark (about 6' long), a spotted eagle ray (about 5' across the wings) and a very large horseshoe ray (about 7' across the wings):

(That's Matt touching a really large horseshoe ray. They feel quite leathery.)

Coral gardens species list: nurse shark, green sea turtle, gray angelfish, blue-headed wrasse, bally ho, yellow-headed wrasse, christmas tree worm, barracuda, rock beauty, branching vase sponge, elkhorn coral, staghorn coral, sergeant major, flamingo tongue, blue tang, surgeon fish, red-finned parrotfish, princess parrotfish, queen parrotfish, spotted eagle ray, horseshoe ray, long-spined urchin, jellyfish, spiny lobster, yellow tail damsel fish.

I think we've all learned to enjoy the post-snorkel ride back, where we can dry off, talk about the day, compile our species list,warm up, and relax:

After returning to TREC, we hired some taxis to take us into downtown San Pedro. There, as Prof. Dunlop put it, we "stimulated the local Belizian economy." The students mostly shopped for gifts to bring home and to enjoy some local flavor:

We had dinner as usual at 6:30PM (spaghetti with meat balls, our first non-chicken dinner!). Then we gathered in the classroom to go over the species we saw that day, share lab data, and learn about how to perform a beach seine. We then headed down to the local beach to try it out. Student volunteers waded into the water with a large net. They dragged along the bottom against the current, collecting everything in its path. We then pulled it up onto the beach, grabbed whatever we found, and tossed it into a bucket of seawater. We then took stock of what we saw. It was a fun, interesting, and educational experience, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and embrace the experience.

Beach seine species list: spiny lobster, grass shrimp, needlefish, peacock flounder, schoolmaster snapper, silver star, grunts, file fish, pale-headed bleeny, green reef crab, blue crab.

After the beach seine, students had an opportunity to work on their journals and their lab reports. I don't know about them, but I'm as tired as I've been on this trip, so that's it for me...

Eric J. Simon

Mangrove video

Click here to see a video from our dive in the mangrove on YouTube.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Day 4: Mangrove and night dive

Day #4: Monday January 17th, 2011
Mangrove swamp and Tuffy reef, Belize
Click here to jump to a web album contain many photos from today

Greetings from sunny Belize! Today was the hottest day yet with very intense sun. Everyone applied sunscreen multiple times (often SPF 70) to keep from burning. It was also our first day of lab research and our most interesting day of snorkeling!

Our routine is now pretty well set: Up at 7:30AM, breakfast at 8, leave at 8:30, clean up the beach, on the boat at 9, head to Tuffy reef. Today was our first day actually collecting data for our research lab. Students divided into teams, with 2 teams in the shallow water (defined as 4-6' deep) and 2 teams in the deep water (12' deep). Each team marked off a research area (of 144 square meters and 80 square meters, respectively), and then calculated the number and total surface area of all the purple sea fan coral and brain coral in their area. I'm sure you are all just dying to hear the results, but alas, they are quite preliminary. I'll give you a tease: Team Slippery Dick found 400 square centimeters of brain coral per square meter of reef floor. Got that? There will be a quiz later...

After our lab time, we motored for about an hour to a mangrove area. These unique ecosystems consist of islands of dense tree growth with roots extending into the sea:

We snorkeled through and around the roots and branches in shallow water. The abundance and variety of marine life was almost overwhelming. Pictures below are (in order) an overall view, tunicates, a bat fish (is that not one of the weirdest looking fish you've ever seen?!?), cassiopea jellyfish, barracuda:

I really enjoyed the mangrove. Some of the students really took to it and didn't want to leave, while others were a bit creeped out by it. The hour long ride back to our home base provided further opportunity for reflection and relaxation:

Mangrove species list: cassiopea jelly, barracuda, batfish, lionfish, gray angelfish, isopods, sergeant major,  southern sting ray, sand dollar, silver sides, tunicates, blue-striped grunts, gray snapper, bally ho, trumpetfish, grouper.

As usual, we had a few hours off in the afternoon. Several of us went to Rico's, a nearby resort, to enjoy some time on their deck with a lovely view of the Caribbean:

After our relaxation time, we gathered at the dock at 5:30 and headed out to Tuffy reef for our one and only night snorkel. Ken briefed us on how to use the equipment and all the special organisms we would see:

We then dove into the water, each of us equipped with a night light. The night dive was scary and fun and exhilarating. The reef at night is alive with many creatures that you don't see during the day. Among the creatures we saw include the lobster, moray eel, and octopous shown below:

Even though several people expressed apprehension (ranging from mild to severe) about diving at night, everyone went in, and everyone saw something interesting and worthwhile. I was proud that every single person was willing to give it a try! Great job all around.

Night dive species list: octopus, squid, green moray eel, spiny lobster, hog fish, spotted trunkfish, hermit crab, squirrel fish, parrot fish, brittle star, shrimp, basket starfish, whelk, sea cucumber, blue-striped grunt, bioluminescent dinoflagellates.

After our night dive, we gathered back at TREC for a late dinner and then our nightly classroom meeting. We viewed photos and videos from the day, compiled our species lists, discussed plans for tomorrow, and then started working with our data from the field work. This was a bit of a shock to some students as it involved some - gasp! - math, but I think we'll muddle through!

This was a very interesting but long day. Thank you for all your comments and encouragement/support of our trip. Every student is working hard, taking it seriously, and - I can say with full confidence - taking full advantage of the opportunity offered to them. I'm proud of all our students!

I hope to upload some video tonight to YouTube to share with you all tomorrow. Stay tuned with that. In the mean time, notice that there is a link at the top of every daily summary to a web album with many more photos. Look for your loved ones there!

Eric J. Simon