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Class of a lifetime: Studying coral reef ecosystem in the Bahamas

Last month, our Ecology Field Study class traveled to the Bahamas to examine coral reef ecosystems. There were nine excited students on the learning excursion led by Dr. Tom Bridgeman, professor of environmental sciences, and Dr. John Turner, professor of physiology and pharmacology.

Coconut palms and tropical Abaco pines resembling Dr. Seuss’ truffula trees filled the gaps between the three houses rented for our research team. The cottage I stayed in is everything one might imagine a beach house should be. Conch shells line the sandy path toward the blue water. The beach sits not even 20 feet from the house and stretches for miles in both directions. The soft white sand is finer than any Floridian beach I have ever been to, and there are no other people in sight. The crystal blue water is mesmerizing.

Students in the Ecology Field Study class posed for a photo on the beach on Great Abaco Island. They are, from left, Matthew Bender, Sarah Carter, Wendy Stevens, Bianca Caniglia, Jordan Penkava, Jessica Duez, Katie Condon and Brittany Layden. Dr. Rick Francis, director of research advancement and information systems, also a member of the class, shot photos and video during the trip.

For our first snorkel, Dr. Turner took us to a private beach access point called Mermaid Reef. The water was warm (78 degrees maybe) and does not require the use of wet suits or weights. Mermaid Reef is a calm, clear location ripe with parrotfish (of various species), queen angelfish, and swarms of sergeant majors. We saw a few spiny lobsters hiding beneath the smaller reef shelves. If it weren’t for their long antennae protruding from the rock, we might not have even noticed they were there. Blue tangs (Dory fish), schools of yellowtail snappers, and a few shy squirrel fish swam to try to hide from us along the reef sides. After a few hours, everyone was hungry, and we left the site to stock up on groceries, make lunch, and recharge.

After lunch, we head out to a patch reef just beyond the beachfront cottages we’re staying in. Most of the students swam out in a small school. Some of us paddled out on a small zodiac boat a few hundred yards out into the blue. I am nervous. I don’t like to admit that I am afraid of anything, but I am eager to see my first reef shark, so I scan the horizon looking for any gray triangles breaking the surface. I’ve been fascinated and fearful of sharks for the better part of two decades. However, I know that I have greater odds of dying by a cow tipping over on me or possibly getting struck by lightning. Despite my fears, I plunge into the ocean with the others.

A hawksbill sea turtle hiding on the patch reef was spotted on the first day of the trip.

Enormous purple sea fans, rusty-orange sponges, and sea kelp cover the live rock. The top of the reef is only a foot or two below the surface, and I find myself being pushed and pulled gently by the waves. I am trying — and failing — not to go directly atop the reef. Meanwhile, my fins are killing the tops of my feet. I swim toward the others so I don’t feel exposed or alone. After about 10 minutes, the paranoia subsides. I calmly start to visually scan every nook and cranny I see. There are so many things moving in and out of the little coral reef niches that I have a hard time focusing on any single fan or fish.

Then I see it! A mottled oval with two eyes, but I am unsure. I intently stare at the reef until the outline of a shell and flippers emerge from its camouflage. I burst toward the surface and shout “Sea turtle!” It wasn’t actively swimming, just sitting there patiently waiting for us to leave, I imagine. It wasn’t unusually large or small, but it is hard to gauge size and distance underwater. That hawksbill sea turtle made the first day of our trip very special.

Students snorkeled at Mermaid Reef.

After a late dinner, the whole team gathered to record all the species of fish that we could confirm we saw throughout the day. I think there were close to 20 different fish recorded. We projected some of Dr. Rick Francis’ pictures onto a large white sheet for all to see.

On the second day, Dr. Turner and Dr. Bridgeman coordinated an exciting boat day. We had to organize our gear and leave early in the morning to meet our captain and guide. Tim is an islander whose family originally settled on Great Abaco Island back in the 1600s. He told me he was a professional fisherman who fishes for mahi mahi (dolphin fish), red snapper and spiny lobsters. However, that day he was taking us to some special reef sites: Snake Key, a national Abaco-protected marine reserve, as well as an open-ocean drop with gorgeous reef wall. We boarded around 9 a.m. and motored out a few miles away to the first location, a historical shipping channel.

The shipping channel, otherwise known as Snake Key, has a fast current. The plan was for Tim to drop us off far upstream and allow us to drift to a pickup site farther downstream. The channel wall had some nice corals and a few spiny lobsters, but the quick current made it challenging to photograph. Tim picked us up and then drove us back upstream to do it again. There were some large rays that were seen from the boat — a few outlines and shadows moving under the surface and away from the boat.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman examined a live conch with, from left, daughter Mirabel Bridgeman and students Jordan Penkava, Matthew Bender and Katie Condon.

After that, we trolled along the waters of the key. There were small mangrove islands and many rocky, seemingly uninhabited mini-tree isles all around us. The water was crystal clear and shallow. I saw cushion sea stars (starfish) from the boat and sea turtle shadows darting away from our path. We stopped the boat atop a blue hole, where the shallows disappeared and a deep dark hole (which I chose to avoid) was located. Rick launched his remote-controlled camera drone to get aerial footage of our snorkeling. I think most of us were betting on spotting sea turtles, but instead I mostly saw only sea cucumbers.

Once all the students were back on board, we headed out into the blue toward the protected marine preserve. As we navigated toward the site, I became awestruck with how the ocean changed color. Growing up and around Lake Erie for most my life, I have never seen so many shades of blue in a single body of water. It turns from teal to clear, then aquamarine to a deep blue and then back to teal again; it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Dr. Rick Francis took an aerial shot by quadcopter of the patch reef.

As we approached the Pelican Cay marina park, I noticed a couple other boats had snorkelers in the water. Dr. Turner told us where to head once we were in the water. He prefaced our swim with descriptions of large elkhorn and staghorn corals, and Tim reassured us that if we were in any distress to wave to him and he would bring the boat to pick us up. Here the water was nearly true blue, and I definitely could not see the bottom.

When I finally got my mask to seal tight and put my face down, I saw a great expanse of coral and life that I could only describe as an endless reef filled with color and fish everywhere! The fish were so numerous and the mass of reef so long that I became somewhat disoriented underwater as my eyes tried to adjust focus. I don’t remember how long we were in the water here, but I could have stayed much longer.

I was most excited to see my first French angelfish! It was so pretty, its grayish body covered in bright yellow scales. I have yet to see another one, but I don’t think I will ever forget how gracefully it moved below me. I tried to free-dive down for a better look, but I was far too buoyant to get any closer than about 4 feet. Additionally, I saw a chubby porcupine fish (puffer) hovering at the reef’s edge nearer to the bottom. He wasn’t inflated; to me, he seemed kind of adorable, doe-eyed with a big ol’ mouth. But it was the elkhorn coral that took my breath away. I never thought I would get to see a coral reef the way it looks in my dreams. Its color and vastness were overwhelming, spiritually uplifting, and magical. I have to go back there — before it disappears forever.

Various sea fans were seen on the coral reefs.

By the time the last snorkel site of the day, I was exhausted. The open-ocean drop-off was a destination I knew we were going to get to snorkel, but I didn’t realize we were going to see so many locations in a single day. I counted eight snorkel drops in six hours. My back, ankles and arms were sore, and I really did not want to wear my wetsuit any longer, so I removed it thinking I was done. Little did I know that we were about to snorkel the largest wall of coral imaginable.

The first one in the water was Brittany Layden; within minutes, she came to the surface and said, “I just saw a barracuda!” It didn’t take long for everyone else to grab their gear and jump into the dark water. I asked Dr. Turner if we would see another site like this on the trip, he said, “No,” and I realized I had to go in.

Students also saw this spotted trunkfish with a remora hitching a ride.

Putting a wet wetsuit on after it has already been removed is an exhausting task in itself. The tops of my feet were raw from my fins. I decided to take the chance and go in unprotected and with only my mask and snorkel. It was an opportunity that I wasn’t sure I would ever get again, so I went in.

By the time I got in, the barracuda had disappeared into the blue. I swam over to the others and saw an even larger reef wall than in Pelican Cay. It was easily 50 feet tall, and I could see all the way to the bottom. I quickly scanned the water surrounding me for jellyfish because I didn’t want to get stung. I looked down and saw a spotted trunkfish and tried to get the attention of Dr. Bridgeman or Rick who were filming underwater.

Swimming alongside the great wall of coral, we spooked a sea turtle, which quickly darted up and over the reef out of sight. Myself and a few others followed, but without fins I was slower and clumsier in the water. As I continued to try and keep up, I spotted a Nassau grouper 30 feet below me.

Whenever I spotted a new species, I tried to get the other’s attention so they could see it, too. However, trying to talk with a snorkel in your mouth is impossible, and half the time I’d surface and everyone else still had their heads down. I carried on nonetheless. After about 20 minutes, I was done — out of breath, out of the water, and heading back to the dock. This day was going to be impossible to top. A couple other students managed to see the outline of a shark, but they were too far away to make a positive ID. I had hoped to see a shark and yet felt completely satisfied having not seen one. It was a remarkable experience learning in the ocean.

Stevens graduated in May with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science.