Belize Research Trip - Biology
New England College welcomes back an adventurous group of eighteen members of our community who return from a ten-day research trip to Belize.
The trip was the culmination of this fall’s course Tropical Marine Biology. The Belize trip was led by Dr. Eric Simon and Dr. Deborah Dunlop. The following is a brief synopsis of the trip. To see the complete blog and many photographs and videos associated with the trip, log onto http://NECBelize.blogspot.com.
Day 1 the group arrived on the island of Amergris Caye off the coast of Belize on January 14, trading the snowy New Hampshire landscape for the tropical colors of the Caribbean.
Day 2 included a service project cleaning the beaches near their first overnight stop. The group set off for a snorkeling expedition to explore the coral foundations at Pillar Coral and then on to Tres Cocos, a site known for its coral and marine life. And finally, the group traveled to Tuffy, the site of their week-long research project.
Day 3 began with another beach clean up project after which students returned to Tuffy to begin their research work near Mexico Rocks. Dividing into four teams, the groups began to measure the number, size, and health of two coral species in two different reefs. Part of the challenge of the research was for students to design the methodology and techniques associated with their investigation.
Day 4 the group was up and out early to Tuffy to continue their research. Students spent the day collecting data in both shallow and deep water locations and calculating the surface area of purple sea fan coral and brain coral. Next, the group traveled to a mangrove area consisting of islands formed of dense trees and tangled root systems that extend into the water. After a few hours off, it was back to Tuffy for an exhilarating night snorkel. Their day still not over, students headed for the classroom after dinner to look at photos and videos taken during the day and to begin reviewing the data they have been compiling.
Day 5 found students following their usual scenario of cleaning the local beach before a boat ride to Tuffy. Now fully into their routine of collecting and sharing data, students resumed their collection of data in shallow and deep reef coral locations. Students then traveled to a new dive location, Coral Gardens, to study the habitat of a deeper site. Here they encountered a nurse shark, a spotted eagle ray with a five-foot span, and a horsehoe ray with a seven-foot span. After their return from researching and snorkeling in the reef, they took a trip into San Pedro to enjoy the local culture of the town. In their after-dinner activity, students learned to conduct a beach seine. By casting a large net and dragging it along the bottom against the current, they were able to collect a tremendous amount of sea life to examine. Their efforts yielded a variety of lobster, shrimp, crab, and needlefish, peacock flounder, and pale-headed bleeny.
Day 6 entailed a switch from students’ typical research scenarios. Groups traded locations and students who had collected data in the shallow reef location began collecting data in the deep reef location. Likewise, students who had previously worked in the deep location were now collecting information in the shallow location. They continued to count purple sea fan and brain coral in designated areas and to record the surface and condition of what they found. While a few students enjoyed some well-deserved time off, another group traveled to Caye Caulker to explore the shipwreck of a barge that sank in 1997. A barbecue on the beach was enjoyed by all that evening, followed by an outing to sample the island’s frozen custard.
Day 7 and the time has passed all too quickly for NEC students and professors Simon and Dunlop. Having completed their research, analyzed their results, and prepared their reports, students spent the day snorkeling, this time at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Hol Chan or “Little Channel through the reef” features one of the largest expanses of protected reef in the hemisphere. Students explored three areas of the reserve, one featuring an underwater cave. Because of the protected nature of the site, students were able to see varieties of marine life that are not found elsewhere. At the third location, students had the opportunity to swim with the rays in Shark Ray Alley and even traced the letters “NEC” in the dust that coated one ray’s back. Honorary alum? What better way to end a week in the tropics than with an exam. Right…exam! Students applied their week of research by correctly identifying many of the species they had encountered over the week. In the last evening classroom session, students shared some of the conclusions of their work:
• The deep water reef contained a greater density of coral than the
shallow water reef.
• Brain coral is more prevalent than purple sea fan coral in both shallow
and deep water locations.
Day 8 finds the NEC group in an eighteen-hour journey back to snowy New Hampshire. Safe travels!