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