Experimental Tropical Marine Ecology

Zapatillas, baby alligators, and more hermit crab lovin
by -- October 5th, 2009

Our adventure through a fishy paradise nestled between mangrove islands.

Zapatillas: a sprawling bed of marine life, a palette of subdued yellows, purples, and browns. Along the bottom were fields of waving octocoral, rushing back and forth, back and forth, eerily glowing like golden candelabra. Between their cattail branches flitted tiny blue tang and juvenile damselfish. Moon jellyfish danced near the surface, some as small as contact lenses, fragile tentacles trailing lazily behind. Timid and majestic, rainbow parrotfish flew from the flashing of our flippers.

What made Zapatillas so special was its wide array of fish. Although we saw similar coral outcroppings on our first snorkeling excursion to San Cristobal, today was the first time that it felt like we were really at a Caribbean reef. Graham even managed to find a dead juvenile conch, which we later realized was home to a rather disgruntled hermit crab. The highlight for me was definitely the two-foot steely barracuda that slid into the depths as I ascended from photographing angelfish. What a sight!!

After our first swim, we boated over to the edge of an island where mangrove roots met a thick layer of turtlegrass. While Zack and Dr. Diaz collected plants for our feeding experiment, the rest of us perused the silty waters, stumbling upon thin red starfish and entire colonies of nesting upside-down jellyfish. It was the strangest thing; the purple-tipped jellies positioned themselves so that their throbbing caps were face-down against the sand. This left their tentacles to undulate strangely in the water above. Sleeping perhaps? On another note Kerri managed to injure her leg again, first fire coral and now a nasty bruise from the boat ladder. Not wanting to chance it, she made sure to stay far away from the stinging jellies near the mangroves.

On our way back from the dock, we saw two baby alligators nestled in murk of the pond beneath the walkway. Dr. Diaz grinned (he’s been telling us for the past two days that there are alligators in the water around here, much to our disbelief). This place is just teaming with life, if only you look close enough.

In lab now. Some of us are orienting hermit crabs, some are scraping and weighing sea
grass, and the rest are attempting to spawn urchins. This last task is turning out to be a rather finicky process, requiring urchins to be placed in the mouths of beakers and injected with potassium chloride. Then we wait- and clearly “a watched urchin never spawns.” And it doesn’t help that so far all the urchins have been male!!

We’ll probably head into town again tonight. We found a local grocery store yesterday about a mile down the road from the Institute and came back with Spanish bubblegum, cookies, and ice cream. The sky is darkening, clouds hang heavy over the tips of palm fronds. I bet we’re in for another storm.

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