Our last faculty led project involved identifying acacia ants and taking acacia tree clippings, which was hot and sweaty work but pretty self-explanatory. When the visiting faculty member described our Bocas del Toro project, I had trouble wrapping my mind around it because we were supposed to collect data under water.
We had spent the previous day snorkeling in a couple different spots. First, we went to Starfish Bay to get oriented. We saw a couple huge orange sea stars but nothing compared to how many lived there when it was named. Apparently, there used to be thousands but they died when tourists unknowingly lifted them out of the water. Later that day we went to Pete’s Reef for the first time- a reef in a protected area ringed by mangroves and only a couple minutes by boat from the station. When I jumped out of the boat I saw a sting ray for the first time, a gray, flat animal at the bottom of the lagoon, about 20 feet down. The fins rippled as the ray began swimming away from us. I followed for as long as possible but soon the animal got tired of being chased by humans, put on a burst of speed and disappeared. Swimming towards the shallower areas I entered a completely new world. Tan, branching coral dominated the scene, with shoals of gray and yellow-striped fish nibbling among the branches. Tall tubes of black sponges with delicate-looking, purple brittle stars wrapped around them reached up from the sea floor. A large brain coral, with its maze-like texture, provided a home for a brown fish with electric-blue lines around its face and eyes. Brown and white anemone waved their tentacles in the current, withdrawing into a tube when they felt me pass over them. There was so much to see I barely knew where to look. The time passed incredibly quickly and then we were back in the boat and headed for lunch.
The next day we were out at the same reef, laying down 30m tape measures to mark our transects. We swam out with 1m x 1m squares of tubing dragging behind us and a metal chain and clipboard in hand (apparently waterproof paper is a thing). I learned over the next two hours that taking data underwater is way harder than it is on land. Every two meters we counted all the sea urchins in a square meter. To do so I floated on a life jacket, peering in and around the coral and trying to avoid running into my partner who was measuring rugosity, which is a proxy for reef complexity. Despite trying to stay out of each other’s way, I regularly bumped into her clipboard or clipped her with my flipper. While I was swimming around I tried to keep a safe distance from sea urchins with foot-long spines and the anemone, which got progressively harder as the water we were working in got shallower and shallower. Every time we moved the square, my partner and I switched jobs. Measuring rugosity involved draping the metal chain over the coral, which meant diving to the bottom in the deeper water, quite the feat with a life jacket strapped around your waist. Placing the chain and the square, I realized how delicate coral is and so we tried to do everything as delicately as possible. Finally, I learned that swimming backwards is almost impossible.
We went back to the same reef (a different section) the next day and it took us only half the time to collect the same amount of data. Like everything else, practice is everything. And despite the discomforts, I actually really enjoyed the challenge and the beauty of working underwater. I’ve learned about the incredible diversity of sponges and that every other fish is scared of the little, inconspicuous damselfish. There is so much happening under the water that one never thinks about on land. And yet, what we do on land so greatly impacts the health of the ecosystems under water. I hope sincerely that the reefs will still be there for my children and grandchildren to explore.
Washington University in St Louis