Before snorkeling we stopped at a local dive shop to grab any essential gear we didn’t already have. I needed water worthy footwear, which I quickly realized was truly an essential tool for fieldwork; this was many novice realizations that became immediately apparent. Since I’ve never studied, or performed field ecology, I made a lot of appreciations like this. I would say this is the first, of many, valuable lessons I learned on this trip. Dr. Vagelli frequently spoke to his students in the classroom on being critical, or truly fathoming methods in fieldwork protocols from academic papers. I can understand why he speaks so much on this.
At 11:00 AM we arrived at our first field site, Bahia Honda. To be honest, my first reaction was that this trip seemed like a glorified vacation (even further with the honesty, I retracted that thought when I quickly became tired from swimming and actually requested the first lunch break; I knew then we definitely had to put in hard work for this class). The sand was pure white, flecked with seaweed and free of human debris; something you see in movies, but cannot appreciate until you behold it for yourself. Bahia Honda is a protected state park meaning any violation of littering and fishing laws are strictly prohibited. This allows for the natural growth of the ecosystem with less, but still pronounced human interruption. We got into the water at 11:15. I have snorkeled in Florida before, but I was truly amazed at the richness in biological diversity. The light refracting through the water, sea grass beds, corals, and other various species of marine life made its presence known with resounding beauty and command of attention. As you can see in pictures uploaded into the blog, one of the immediate apparent creatures that captivated me were enormous starfish. The enormity of animals in the water was another one of the realization I spoke of earlier.
There is something in the wild that cannot be replicated in a tank, or a lab. I’ve researched in molecular biology on the development of an aquatic echinoderm. The Pacific purple urchins, which used to see in the lab were dwarfed by their Atlantic black and red relatives of Bahia Honda. This surely is attributed to a species difference, however, I wonder if the larger species we encounter in the Keys world attain similar sizes if maintained in captive conditions. This could be attributed to a species difference, however, I am convinced that the constraints of a tank is more responsible. This lead to my third realization: some egoist biologists of varying fields argue the importance of their field in comparison to another and they are all wrong and right, simultaneously. Again, coming from a molecular and computational background, the significance of fieldwork never seemed as important, or interesting, as the work in the lab. Ecologists often say you can’t see the whole picture of biology if you work only on molecular biology. Molecular biologists argue that you cannot understand the big picture if you work only on ecology. The eclectic nature of all biological fields was now officially evident to me. Watching this ecosystem unfold before me, I yielded to the concept of the big picture.
While swimming amongst the breath taking (my snorkel was working fine) scenery and creatures, I saw many things, including hogfish, lobsters, snapper, goby, sergeant majors, scorpion fish and to my surprise, a 2.5 meter nurse shark. I’ve had a fear of sharks all of my life, but this trip made me confont and overcome that fear. I still have a healthy dose of precaution, however, as they are wild animals and successful predators in their ecosystem. After a brief lunch break we set-up a 2 x 20-meter transect to sample the ecosystem. If you are unfamiliar with this protocol as I was, you “simply” lay a line down with arbitrarily picked, fixed, interval markings (we picked 1 meter, making each quadrant 2 x 1 meters) and survey each quadrant for marine life and environment. The results can be viewed in the images.
We finished up around 6:30 PM, making our logged snorkel time approximately seven hours. I highly recommend the reader consult the video and pictures on the blog, to get a better understanding of this ecosystem.
After waking up around 8:00 AM, we gathered all of our gear required to explore Looe Key. The dive shop was relatively close to our campground, which was good because I couldn’t wait to experience the reef. The day prior Mike and John had assured me that the allure of the reef would top Bahia Honda, which surprised me because I had seen such diversity of wildlife, including a nurse shark! We loaded onto a boat with quite a few strangers and a seemingly disgruntled captain, but none of that could interfere with the electricity of excitement that was very apparent in all of us. After another short trip, but this time on a boat under such sunlight and aesthetics that they rivaled movies with so much editing, too much saturation and contrast, making the images around me seem surreal. The rays of lights beaming in from the robin blue sky were so intense that I had to put my glasses on; although I continuously took them on and off because it would be a shame to miss this natural magnificence.
I am glad the sun shined so brightly because the captain made a comment about the colors of the reef. I didn’t know what he meant until we arrived and I plunged in. At first, I entered the water with tepidity. I grew up in the summers off of Florida’s intercostals wakeboarding and skiing, so I have witnessed people catch massive sharks and sometimes saw fleeting shadows after dropping in the water off my board, or ski. Nothing could prepare me for this though. As soon as my vision cleared from the bubbles that I had created with my splash, I didn’t have the ability to be timid, or worried. Dr. Vagelli had told me that there are some things in the field you can never describe, or extract from reading a textbook. He was right and this was one of them. The vividly blue ocean was juxtaposed with massive schools of blue parrotfish and sergeant majors. The fingers of the coral extended to what seemed like infinity. Brilliant purple sea fans waved in the oceans current. All of this overloaded my sensory information and I immediately thought to myself that I needed to swim to cover and absorb much of this as I could. Pradhan and I have never dived, so we were required to snorkel, which actually turned out to be in our best interests because we got a very big picture of the reef, which was extremely shallow. Some areas of the bright orange coral were only about 5 feet deep, 3 of which would be reef leaving a mere 2 feet between us and all of the wild life. It also enabled us to see a spotted eagle ray that appeared to be the size of a compact car, but bigger than a smart car. Pradhan and I followed this ray for five of the best minutes of my life. This animal had majesty about the way it ‘flew’ through the ocean. I wanted to follow the gargantuan skate forever it felt like, but our attention was diverted. Luckily this happened because shortly afterward Pradhan spotted what seemed to be a black tip reef shark. We couldn’t tell because it was some distance away and much to my relief, it retreated into the dark blue backdrop of the reef. After reviewing the tape Pradhan had capture, we confirmed that we were in the presence of a large black tip.
This was definitely my most anticipated day of the trip. When I first signed on for the class, I didn’t know we’d be doing anything with sharks. The reader can imagine then, my reaction when I found out we may potentially be up close with these animals tagging them. After arriving to the boat and meeting the members of the RJ Dunlap research group, we set out a few miles off the shores of Miami. We aided the team in baiting hooks and deploying them overboard.
After a brief swim, we returned to the hooks we buoyed and began hand-lining them into the boat. We were all nervous about what we’d pull up because we were told their was a possibility that we’d catch little to no sharks that day. To our satisfaction the first shark we hooked was an approximately 4 meter great hammerhead Sphyrna mokarran. This luck kept up all day as we aided the crew in taking blood samples and measurements, tagging, biopsying the fins, testing nictitating reflexes and the releasing the animals back into the water. The shark is an incredible animal and the magnitude of the power was even evident on a boat deck. I can’t imagine what they can do in the water. We saw many different shark species including the lemon Negaprion brevirostris, nurse Ginglymostoma cirratum, and even a tiger Galeocerdo cuvier.
Overall this class was an amazing experience. Dr. Vagelli is a one of a kind teacher with a passion for and true knowledge of his field. The planning and effort put into this trip was apparent from the minute I arrived in Florida. It became most apparent when Dr. Vagelli even set up a mobile lab for us to observe specimens we collected from the field. I detailed this less because I am constantly in the lab, however, it was an intriguing and integral part of the trip. The group from the trip is actually still following up on some samples of polychaetes we found in the mangroves of the keys, which shows that the impact of this trip is still affecting me and my practice of Biology; and it will continue to do so for a very long time.