Madelyn In TCI: Black Spot Parasites

December 9, 2019

Time to talk about my research project here! There were many options of directed research, and I requested the one with my favorite professor here, even though it didn’t have a SCUBA component, only snorkel. Our project is analyzing how the presence and severity of a certain parasite that causes black spots on the body of its host might affect the Ocean Surgeonfish.

Field Work

The Ocean Surgeonfish eats a lot of algae on the coral reefs, which keeps the ecosystem healthy and allows the coral to grow further. But this parasite is one of those creepy ones that changes the behavior of its host. It basically hijacks the brain of the fish and makes it act very different. Our research is observing the Surgeonfish behavior and trying to determine a trend in the behavior changes of infected fish. We hypothesize that this parasite is causing the fish to behave more erratically and suppressing its anti-predator instincts, which would increase the likelihood of the fish getting eaten by an osprey, which is the next host of the parasite’s life cycle.

So, what does our actual field work look like? We go out every afternoon snorkeling for two hours and split up into buddy pairs. One of us videos the fish, while the other one records what the fish is doing exactly every 30 seconds when our timer goes off, and also records the number of bites every 30 seconds. We follow each fish for 10 minutes and record the number of black spots it has.

Recording Data

I really enjoy this type of field work because it forces me to focus on things that I typically wouldn’t notice. We are now well-acquainted with the typical behavior of the fish and notice when they do strange things. Then it’s easy to notice when the highly infected fish act strangely. We joke that they appear to be drunk, swimming erratically and running into rocks. We snorkel for about two hours each day collecting data, and usually by the end of it we’re all freezing cold and our hands are too numb to keep writing.

One day, after collecting behavioral data on many fish, we began to swim back to the boat. I dived down to swim along the sea grass upside down, looking up at the water surface. The change of perspective from doing this is always interesting- gazing at the waves distorting the sun rays that manage to filter through, I feel more as if I belong in this underwater reality. As I swam in this strange manner, I tilted my head back just a bit farther  to see where I was going, and realized that an eagle ray and I were swimming right towards each other!

A cute squid


Madelyn In TCI: Final Exams

December 4, 2019

This week was a bit of a marathon with our final exams. Our classes on this program end early, and the last few weeks are entirely focused on our directed research projects, which is exciting! But it also means that there is a lot of information squished into a small amount of time for our classes, and that can be a bit stressful and intense. On Tuesday we had our Environmental Policy test, which was open note… so easy, right? WRONG! It was 17 open-ended questions and four essay questions, and we had four hours. Needless to say, it was not my best writing. It was rather frustrating because I knew the information, but I didn’t have enough time to write properly and demonstrate my knowledge. In the afternoon we had our final for Marine Resource Management, which was a presentation we had been working on for several weeks. My group’s task was to develop a proposal for mass market tourism on the island of South Caicos, redesigning the protected areas of the island and explaining how we will feasibly develop the island to sustain 4,000 tourists per week. The irony of the entire project was that absolutely none of us would ever want to do that. South Caicos, in its rural, undeveloped state, has stolen a piece of all of our hearts. We’ve made friends with the locals and would never want to ruin their private paradise by introducing an influx of so many visitors on the island. Regardless, we made a presentation on it, and tried to create hypothetical policies to mitigate the effects. I think that we did well, but we haven’t gotten grades back yet!

After a few days of directed research work, we also had our Marine Ecology final. The final was scheduled from 9am-5pm, which seemed pretty daunting, but none of us thought it would actually take that long. The first half of the exam was closed-book and I had studied well. I was able to regurgitate all the information about the effects of hurricanes on coral reefs, the root structure of sea grass, and the different effects of parasites on fish behavior. I finished that part within an hour and began the open-note section. Our task was to design a 20-minute presentation on Mangrove Soil, a topic never covered in our course. Since the internet was down all week, our professor provided us with a folder of scientific papers on a variety of subjects to do with mangroves and relevant pictures. While reading through the papers, I learned a lot! I learned that some crabs love to eat mangrove leaves and will actually store leaves in their dens until they become rotten. Apparently, the tannin in fresh leaves are too bitter, and the crabs like the taste after they’ve decayed. I learned that mangroves can save lives by blocking the majority of the destruction from tsunamis, essentially sacrificing themselves. What I found particularly frustrating though, was that I didn’t have enough time to put everything that I learned into the presentation, and it certainly didn’t look nice. At 4:59 I added a theme to my slides and threw in two pictures, then submitted it.

Jumping off the dock at Regatta.

By 5:10 I was running out of the center with a bunch of my fellow students. We ranted our way to the nearest beach, all of us venting the same frustrations from our finals. When we arrived at the beach, we ran/fell into the water and collectively screamed under water, then swam over and climbed onto the dock. Jumping off the dock was exactly what I needed in that moment, and it just seemed to entirely release all of the stress and frustration from the entire week. Regardless of how our finals had gone, at least they were over now and we knew we had done as best as possible. Now we just have directed research to look forward to!

Sunset on the boats.


A Deep Dive

November 21, 2019

This morning I had a deep dive with just one other girl and a waterfront staff. It was lovely to dive with only two people, especially because we were all friends. Communication underwater is sometimes very difficult, since words can’t be used and it can be hard to get somebody’s attention without the ability to yell out their name. For small groups though, it gets much easier to understand everybody and know where all dive members are throughout the dive. Quite shortly after descent, I grabbed my dive buddy and excitedly put the side of my hand against my forehead to sign “Shark!” Sometimes I get a little too excited with this signal and end up wacking my head repeatedly with my hand. A black tip reef shark was swimming along the drop-off in front of us.

We watched as it swam away, and then looked at each other and danced underwater. Seeing sharks never seems to get old. Then we descended along the wall of the drop-off. Seeing the corals at these depths was absolutely amazing. At shallower depths, corals tend to form in mounds or boulders, but at deeper depths, they grow in flat plates to maximize the light they receive from the surface. As we were swimming along the wall, the distinct line of difference was so fascinating! The wall turned into a slight overhang and corals of various fluorescent colors covered the surface in strange patterns. Bright purple sponges hung down like alien stalactites, and a lionfish was tucked inside one of the corners of the rocks, its black and white striped fins drifting slowly with the current. Looking down, I saw two humongous orange and black crabs, at least two feet across! I wanted to swim down to look at them closer, but remembered to check my depth. The perfectly clear water of the Caribbean makes it difficult to remember just how deep we actually are, and I was shocked to realize I was already at 100 feet, the maximum depth for recreational diving.

Diving

As we swam along further, we noticed a nurse shark swimming along the wall towards us. I always enjoy seeing nurse sharks – they seem so sweet and harmless. Sharks really get a bad reputation in general. Here, we are a bunch of environmental nerds and seeing a shark usually makes our day!

Being relaxed for the dive made it a lot easier, and my air consumption was very low: I still had a third of a tank left when we ascended! Having such a good dive always puts me in a great mood for the rest of the day, and I feel very fortunate to be able to get in the water every day here.


Madelyn In TCI: Another Perspective

November 11, 2019

This morning I woke up at 6 am for a bit of peace before classes. The sun was just beginning to rise: plum clouds towered against a peach backdrop, a silver crescent moon still shining high in the sky. Our first class was presenting our results from surveys that we did the week before on Providenciales (or Provo, as the locals call it). We went along the beach and shops hoping to find tourists willing to fill out our one-page survey. The experience taught me sympathy for anybody who approaches me asking to fill out a survey in the future, because it wasn’t always fun. Fortunately, a lot of the people we asked were very friendly and didn’t mind taking a few minutes to fill it out. My group was investigating tourists’ willingness to learn about environmentally friendly choices while traveling.

We found that most tourists were very interested in learning more about making simple yet impactful decisions they can make for the environment, and that most hotels and resorts aren’t providing this information to their guests. Tourism can be very harmful to the local ecosystems, mainly due to lack of knowledge. For example, most tourists don’t know that standard sunscreen has chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. Worse, the brand “Reef-Safe” sunscreen still contains oxybenzone, which is the primary damaging ingredient. If you’re looking for a sunscreen that is actually safe for the environment, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the best active ingredients. Presenting our results to our classmates was interesting, and we recommended that hotels and resorts begin providing their guests with more eco-friendly information to mitigate the impact that tourism typically has on the environment.

The beach in Provo.

After lunch, we had class at 2 pm. Our professor and all of us were fairly exhausted from the previous days so we watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a film that takes aspects of our culture that we take for granted and turned it into a bit of a parody, showing the absurdity of everything. I would highly recommend the movie; it’s a good laugh but also subtly introduces deep philosophical arguments.

After, we had a bit of a break, so I took a walk to the Boiling Hole. The Boiling Hole is in the center of the Salinas, where they used to collect salt. It is a hole where water rises during the high tide and goes down during low tide. The islanders built a cement wall with a door around it, and they used it to control the amount of saltwater in the Salinas to optimize salt collection. Now it is a historical site on the island and a peaceful place to sit and think. The walk typically features flamingos and many other migratory birds that birdwatchers find interesting, but I don’t know many of their names.  

After dinner we went out to the basketball tournament. Once a year, South Caicos hosts a basketball tournament against teams from the other islands, and the community is very proud of their team. Rightly so, South crushed the team from Provo, the mainland, 86-0 the first night! Even though I’m only a visitor here, I felt a sense of pride and satisfaction to watch South win. These are same kids I help weekly with math homework, who’s high school is still being rebuilt after the hurricane two years ago, who face more challenges in their young life already than I can even imagine. Yet despite that, they won so completely against teams from much more privileged places in the TCI.

Sunset over the Sea.


Madelyn In TCI: Exploring the Islands

October 30, 2019

This past week we had our mid-semester field trip, which ended on Providenciales (Provo). It was incredible to see the other islands and experience such different cultures within the same country. First, we took a ferry from South Caicos to North Caicos, and the difference between the islands was drastic. North’s soil is much more fertile than the other islands, and it was quite evident when looking at the vegetation. There were so many large trees replacing the basic shrubs that survive the droughts on South. At times it felt almost like a jungle on North, and the mosquitoes were just as bad! We went to Wade’s Plantation, which is a historical site of the oldest plantation in Turks and Caicos. The tour of it was somewhat brief because of the mosquitoes, but we learned more about it later that evening. Apparently, the original historians who looked at the site got EVERYTHING wrong, but made signs around the site labeling each building (incorrectly) that now can’t be taken down as it could damage the structural integrity of the buildings. We also learned that the majority of residents of the TCI have ancestors who used to be enslaved on Wade’s Plantation, or other similar plantations.

After we left Wade’s Plantation, we drove to Mudjin Harbor, on Middle Caicos. The second we saw the water, everybody’s jaw dropped. It was beyond stunning. We went swimming for a while and felt that we were in the most beautiful beach in the world.

Overlook at Mudjin Harbor

After Mudjin Harbor, we headed over to the Conch Bar Caves in Middle Caicos. There are many different species of bats inside, which our guide pointed out to us. They were all very cute and sleeping, so I was guilty shining my light on them. I know I’d be pretty upset if somebody came up to my bed in the middle of the night and shined a bright light on me. We also learned that the cave system had been occasionally used by the Lucayans, the now-extinct natives. We learned later that the Lucayans used the caves more as a punishment for ostracized members, believing that it was connected to the underworld. One room was named the Christmas Room, because it was believed that the Lucayans came in there to celebrate Christmas and sing hymns, due to the wonderful acoustics. Despite the fact that Lucayans would’ve never heard of Christianity. The first historians who tried to define the TCI did not do a very good job, but their misnomers appear to be a bit of a joke now.

We had a little break in the late afternoon to rest at the community center where we would spend the night, then went for dinner and a bonfire at a local’s house. He goes by Naqqi and seems to know everything about all of the islands. Naqqi studied at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, which happens to be where my parents went to college! Sometimes the world feels very small. He told us more about Wade’s Plantation, the Conch Bar Caves, and history of the island in general. It’s amazing how well-informed many of the locals are in their history and culture; talking to them is always a treat and offers a lot more information than any class can cover. I would’ve enjoyed staying to talk to him more about everything, but many of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I had at least 40 bites despite long pants and several reapplications of bug spray, and I was one of the more fortunate in our group. That night we all had a make-shift slumber party on floor mats in the community center. We were all quite dirty and gross, but without a shower available, we consoled ourselves with the understanding that we were all in the same boat. It was a busy, adventurous day. I really enjoyed exploring different parts of the country and understanding more about what happens outside of South Caicos.


Madelyn In TCI: Hunting Lionfish

October 23, 2019

Today was a rather busy day for me but it’s difficult to complain when I enjoy everything that I’m doing! In the morning I went with my professor to help clean up Sargassum from one of the beaches on South Caicos. We drove in Big Red to a spot near the other side of the island; it was a beautiful drive! All of the rain in the past weeks has transformed the entire island, bringing up lush grasses and turning the leaves a vibrant green. Compared to the brown, straggly shrubbery that dominated the island when we first arrived, the island seemed to me nearly a rain forest (with just as many mosquitoes). Unfortunately, the dirt road to our destination was flooded for a significant portion, so we had to turn around and hope to try again the following week.

Flooded Road

When we got back to the research center, I went to elementary school for community outreach. Today I was in the kindergarten classroom and showed them about Australian animals; I found the best way to occupy the young children’s attention is by showing them pictures of animals and acting them out. I might actually be getting the hang of how to interact with kids! 

Hanging with Kids

After lunch, I had a lionfish hunting dive. Lionfish are a terribly successful invasive species. They’re very beautiful looking and were traded as exotic aquarium fish. They first appeared in the ocean off the coast of Florida in 1985, and since then have spread all throughout the Caribbean Sea and up the east coast of the U.S. Their venomous spines protect them from any potential natural predators, and they eat an absurd amount of all fish species, decimating local populations. Lionfish have a very fascinating method of hunting: they fan out their fins and spines to corral their prey into a corner, then unhinge their jaw and quickly suction their prey into their mouths.

Lionfish

For our dive, I laid out a 100 meter transect while the rest of the group followed slightly behind me and looked around the rocks and in crevices for lionfish. Although it took a little while, one of our group members finally spotted a small lionfish and pointed it out to our professor, who had a spear. The lionfish’s invulnerability was rather evident in its behavior; it hovered in front of a rock, seemingly unperturbed by the approach of a human. The spear went right through the lionfish and crunched on the rocks behind it, a very abrupt sound underwater. As the lionfish was put into the bin carried by our waterfront assistant, we recorded the time, depth, habitat, and other useful information about the capture.

When we got back to the research center, we dissected the lionfish. First, we had to cut off all the spines to avoid getting pricked; they’re still dangerous after death. Our professor dug through the fat and found the stomach, which had 2 fish inside of it; one of them was missing its head. Both fish were surprisingly large in comparison to the size of the lionfish. Once we had collected all of the necessary information, we added it to a large spreadsheet with all of the information about lionfish captures in the area. Since the lionfish have no natural predators and are very destructive to the ecosystem, there has been a lot of research and effort to control their numbers and spread. That’s one of the projects that School for Field Studies in South Caicos is working on. The staff go out every Sunday for these lionfish hunts, which appear to be fairly successful when done this often. It was very interesting to help out with the project, although I honestly felt a little bit morally unsound with taking part in killing another creature. It’s an odd dilemma: on one hand, the lionfish are extremely harmful to the environment and the other organisms that live there. On the other hand, a lionfish is still a living creature that is just very well-adapted and was born in the wrong place. I suppose this is a common dilemma when dealing with invasive species, and I’ll just have to figure out how to excuse it. So much for science always being black and white!


Madelyn In TCI: Classroom Outreach

October 10, 2019

This Wednesday it rained, hard. I woke up at 6:30 when the rain began, and it sounded like the entire sky was falling down on us. The wind blew the water sideways and I moved my things away from the windows to keep them dry. We don’t have classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays; they’re dedicated to waterfront and community outreach. After breakfast, we learned that all of the dives for the day were cancelled, on account of the constant thunder. Instead, I signed up for as many outreach events as possible. It was still pouring when we got in the truck, ‘Big Red’, and drove to the Christian elementary school. There were five of us, plus our staff member. We ran from the truck into a small building that looked more like a house, and the woman who ran the school opened up the door for us as we ducked inside, already dripping from the rain. Inside, we found the teacher and only one, small, lonesome student. Apparently, nobody else showed up on account of the rain so the teacher cancelled class, but this one girl ‘snuck in’. The teacher didn’t have a number to call for the girl and didn’t know who she was staying with now. The idea that this 5-year-old girl was being shuffled around in homes on the island struck me as very odd and concerning, but I didn’t feel it my place to pry. 

Big Red and Little Red

After the failed attempt for the Christian elementary school, I went to the public elementary school. My goal there was to educate the 1st grade students about a different country. However, there was only one, very dedicated girl in the 1st grade classroom. Since I don’t do well with large groups of children, I was rather relieved. She was very sweet and respectful, and she was extremely interested in the presentation of Australia and Madagascar animals that we showed her during our presentations. I was honestly most impressed when she reviewed the information that my fellow scholar showed her about Madagascarian animals and described to me how a particular lemur uses its long finger to tap on the tree and listen for the buzz of insects. It was the first very obvious proof of my making a difference in the education of a young child, and I took it to heart. For the first time, I was somewhat disappointed when the hour was up and it was time to go.

The kindergarten class that I was to go to next was also cancelled, due to nobody showing up, so we went back to the research center. There, I learned that soccer practice for the afternoon was also cancelled, which was another outreach event I was scheduled to help with. As a result, the majority of my day was very relaxed, and I had time to get caught up on my work. Fortunately for me, my livelihood doesn’t depend on these activities.

I thought it was extremely strange that school should be cancelled just for a bit of rain; what should the island do if there were to be snow?! When I expressed my confusion to the staff at School for Field Studies, they told me that the rain tends to flood most of the streets in town. The arid land isn’t used to torrential downpours and doesn’t have the capacity to absorb the water, so it just flows in rivers along the streets. Since most of the students walk to school, this creates a serious problem for their attendance. It was fascinating to learn more about the circumstances that impact areas to disproportional degrees. It also made me consider that climate change increases the intensity of weather around the world. Already, South Caicos was in a deep drought from March to September, before these massive storms began during hurricane season. On a small scale, how might the escalation of these weather patterns affect simply the education of children on South Caicos? And how might it affect the general livelihoods of the residents of this island, living in such closeness and vulnerability to the patterns of the natural world?


%d bloggers like this: