Liz Stebbins, one of two ORI spring interns, spent Spring Break in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I’ve invited Liz to be guest blogger and here’s her report:
Each day we went to one of three types of sites: mangroves, sandy beaches, or coral reefs (usually finger corals or staghorn corals). My favorite were the mangroves – it was so alien at first to see trees rooted in nothing but salt water, to snorkel through branches covered in bright sponges, anemones and tunicates surrounded by thousands of schooling fish. We saw feather duster worms that pull back into their tubes when you get near them, and upside down jellyfish, and even an octopus on the ground near the mangroves. My favorite was a ray we saw, small and spotted and curious about us. The ray disappeared into the mangroves and came out to inspect us. The ray returned to mangrove only to pop out a little later.
We also saw a needlefish with long jaws, floating just underneath the water’s surface. The needlefish splashed about to catch smaller fish. They were hard to see because we were looking down. When I looked up, needlefish were everywhere. One was a close as a yard. They seem to swim in pairs focused on feeding.
The sandy areas often had sea grass where we found sea urchins, sea stars, and sea cucumbers. I discovered the practice of pausing and found if you looked long enough at one place, animals would start to reveal themselves from the sand and the grass. I was amused by the sea urchins because the urchin had a leaf held by tubular feet on top of it. They pull debris and stuff onto themselves to hide. They stick out from the seagrass floor like little patches of debris.
One sandy site was close to a popular beach, and it was sad to see a lot of trash (cans, bottles, small wrappers) floating or sunk at the bottom. It was a reminder that the incredible biodiversity coexists with humans and is not free from the anthropogenic effects.
We visited many different types of coral reefs – ones with brain corals, fire corals, Elkhorn corals, and more. Our professor pointed out that a few of the coral reefs were much less diverse and less healthy than they had been in previous years. Most coral reefs were filled with all kinds of life – snapping shrimp that filled the water with little crackles, parrotfish with teeth that gnawed on the coral, spaghetti worms and all kinds of other creatures. The great diversity changed every few meters as I dove deeper. Each time we went to a new site I was able to recognize more and more marine life.
Field work in the Caribbean can be exhilarating. Every morning our class would be up by 7:30 for breakfast and not make it back to the dorms until 10:00, often working in lab up until then. I’ve never been someone who loves spending a lot of time inside labs, but the work we were doing was so interesting because we were looking at animals we had collected that day – we had seen in their natural habitats, which is very different from looking at tropical sponges in Cambridge in winter. Each day we would go out on the boats and snorkel at one or two sites, collect invertebrates we hadn’t seen yet – sea cucumbers, brittle stars, jellies, anemones, shrimp – and bring them back to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute station for further inspection and identification. One week was not enough!