Experimental Tropical Marine Ecology

Into the Field!!
by -- October 12th, 2008

and through the bugs, to chase terrestrial crabs we go…

This morning dawned magnificent (not cloudy) and after breakfast we went to the lab to await instruction.  After some uncertainty about whether boats would be ready for our use (Humberto: “She says they’ll be ready, but I don’t believe her”), we piled down to the dock with our masks and snorkels, selected fins, and split up into two boats for a morning snorkel (Zack the organizational wizard: “Today we have two boats because two drivers came and they both think they’re getting paid.  Tomorrow we’ll have one boat.”).


Those in the glass bottom boat got a show the whole day.  The driver  for my boat, Eric, said little, but confidently tore through reef-filled water perhaps 5 feet deep at that speed at which you have to close your eyes because the air is rushing into them at tear-jerking velocity.  We anchored (mostly not on the coral) a few hundred yards off Isla Cristobel, donned our gear, and dove into sparkling water (and compared to Beaufort water, crystal clear).  For half an hour we swam playfully over many types of corals and sponges, all covered by an incalculable number of brittle stars.  You cannot imagine this many brittle stars.  It was a coral-brittle star reef.  Not many fish, but someone saw a ray, there were some sea jellies, sea urchins, and lots of little things in the water that you cant see but that sting you ever 7 seconds.  All in all, awesome to be snorkeling on a Caribbean coral reef and no room for complaints.


Next we piled back into the boats and zoomed at that speed that makes you cold even though it’s 87 degrees out (esp when you’re wet) to Bocas del Trago, also known as the Beach of the Starfish.  There’s basically no beach, just a foot wide strip of sand before palms and then disturbed forest, but the shallows are completely sandy and filled with large starfish.  These starfish proved useful for all manner of activities: education, projectiles, hats, bras, etc.  We also determined that arrow crabs are pretty cool and that Dr. Forward really likes to play with crabs and make them do things.  He continually dropped the arrow crab in the water, first right side up, then upside down, commanding it to swim.  when it slowly sank, he scolded it, “Aw! You’re a dud!” (which is exactly what he said last night when the Gecarcinus wouldn’t release its eggs. The scene itself was quite gorgeous; just gently lapping waves, white sand, clear water, and bright sunshine.


Back to the lab for a delicious lunch prepared by the chef who Joanna describes as, “the tall, elegant, multi-lingual, multi-talented, maybe-Haitian” since we can’t remember if he ever told us his name.  Can’t get enough of those plantains.  But seriously.  Those are some really good plantains.  He also told us that he doesn’t use artificial ingredients and wants us to eat well while we’re here and not get sick.  “So don’t go eating that trashy, oily, food in town, ok?” he admonished.


We had to take a brief siesta after lunch.  Then off to the lab by 1:30 to assemble locomotion wheels.  By which I mean, the professors and TA told us to be there at 1:30.  At 1:40 we just started assembling the wheels on our own.  At 1:50, when we were basically done, Zack showed up and said, “Good work.”  We put together a few more things and the professors showed up maybe another 45 min later.  This seems to be the general pattern we students are slow to get used to.  Everything here is really 15 minutes after it’s supposed to be.

Took off in the boats under a darkening sky to another island on a more open coastline to Red Bullfrog Beach, or as Humberto calls it “a private resort for hermit crabs.”  This was another beautiful generally deserted beach, that upon landing on, we promptly left to tromp about in the jungle behind it brave assaults by blood-sucking flies while flipping over logs and chasing after assorted land crabs.  Under one log where we expected to find numerous Gecarcinus, we indeed found our quarry, but were shocked by the giant frog that did not leap, but galloped through the leaves in terror, sending up debris in its wake and causing us all to fall backwards in surprise.  We spent an especially long time at the magic stump (hermit crab hotel) where we spent half an hour poking sticks in various holes and extracting the little things.  Having collected a teeming, swarming mass of crabs for our experiments, we returned home on choppy seas to a welcome shower.  Turns out there’s hot water, but only if you’re not taking a shower at the same time as someone else.  I did not get hot water.

The chef of a million descriptors was good to us once again (seriously, I could eat millions of those plantains), but when Andy asked him for his homemade hot sauce recipe, he turned playfully querulous.  “Can’t you taste what’s in it?”  The hot sauce should have been mentioned previously as also being completely awesome and should be used on most things.   Humberto’s advice: “The hot sauce is very good, but you must treat it with respect.”

Started the wheel experiments after dinner.  15 or so hermit crabs are placed in darkness in hamster wheel things and then we measure the revolutions when they move around.  This gives us an idea of their circadian rhythms and time of maximum activity during a 24 hour period.

People pranced about in town for awhile, but can’t speak for what everyone’s mischief of choice was.  Apparently, those who went out last night say it was a good time.  Cheap drinks and all that.

Until tomorrow….

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