Thursday, June 19, 2014

Belize: Working the transects

Aquarium coral biologist Randi Rotjan, PhD, is in Belize studying changes in the reefs off Carrie Bow Cay along with diver Sarah Taylor and aquarist Pete Gawne, both also from the Aquarium. Over the next couple weeks, they'll be posting stories from the tropics, including lots of pictures from this familiar spot. Learn about previous expeditions in 201320122011 and 2010.

Today's post comes from Sarah.

Since I had to learn how the data for this particular research was being gathered, I thought I’d share the methods with our readers. First thing in the morning, we load up our dive gear in one of the Smithsonian’s boats:

And when I say first thing I mean after breakfast. It takes a lot of energy to lug all this stuff around – both above and under water – so we needed the energy. Basically we follow a pattern of eat, dive, eat, dive, repeat - which isn’t too difficult because the cook on the island, Martha, is amazing.

Here’s one of the picnic tables for meals

So after getting everything we need on one of the boats, we motor out to our dive site to find a particular transect. At the start of this project, 24 transects were laid in two different areas: 12 in a newly protected area (behind Carrie Bow Cay) and 12 in an area without protection (called South Reef). The GPS coordinates for each transect had been previously recorded. Even still, a few times the transects were a little difficult to find and it felt like we were searching for a needle in a haystack.

But we found them all! And after locating the one we were looking, we’d get right to work. One diver (the “fish person”) would run a measuring tape from the transect’s start to the transect’s end which was 30 meters away. Then the “coral person” would start identifying and measuring corals. The “fish person” would do the same for fish.

As a “coral person” I had to force myself to ignore all the fish. A few times I caught myself thinking, “Oh look at all that huge school of creole wrasses” or “that’s a whitespotted toadfish!*” and then “No time for these guys! Focus!” And go back to work.

A floating buoy marks the start of the transect line

And by work I mean: Measure one meter off the transect so you’re looking at a square meter, correctly identify each and every coral species in that space, count each coral, measure each one’s size, and record the data. Then move one meter down and repeat. Do this 29 more times per transect. Then do the whole thing again for the next transect, etcetera, etcetera…

One of the coral measuring sticks: a piece of PVC marked off in different size increments

And by work, again, I mean: I’m underwater counting corals. This is super fun. And totally awesome. Am I really getting paid to do this?

— Sarah

*Note: As I said, I had to ignore the fish while diving but I really did see a whitespotted toadfish! It was exciting because they are endemic to Belize and are rarely seen. Fortunately, the toadfish was hiding underneath an overhang that was encrusted with corals so I couldn’t really miss is. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. But that's where the internet comes in!

Whitespotted toadfish | Photo: Ryan Photographic via

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