Scientific COMmunicator: Crikey! We’re Swimming with a Baby Croc

Welcome or welcome back to the blog series about my experience “in the field” as a marine science minor. Within Boston University’s Marine Program, undergraduate majors and minors (as well as graduate students) are required to fulfill a research-based semester with the opportunity to complete coursework in Belize. This is how I enjoyed the program’s curriculum and related it to my Communications major. If you’re new here, you might want to check out my first post of the series.

When the Diadema first maneuvered into the mangroves on day 3, we all made jokes about swimming with crocodiles. It was all lighthearted, as we didn’t actually believe we would meet face-to-face with a croc. At this point, my only knowledge of mangrove ecosystems were the Florida Everglades, a place my native Floridian parents never visited. Like me, they were beach folk. 

Since I grew up diving in the Florida Keys coral reefs, I did not expect other underwater ecosystems to be just as wonderful and complex. Perhaps for this reason, I had developed a negative misconception that they would be dark, murky, and uninteresting. But once we submerged ourselves into a fascinating new world, we were absolutely hooked. 

Pleasantly surprised by the creeks and channels, our senses were heightened to find new, unique organisms — tube worms, seahorses, juvenile barracudas, upside-down jellies, and a manatee with its young. Even sponges, which in majority, were toxic and could sting with any touch, were extraordinary. 

Fortunately, my research project depended on routine trips to different mangrove creeks and channels, so we were there every day, alternating between AM and PM time slots. By day 8, we figured out the most efficient way to set up our experiment, which granted more time for a recreational snorkel — or a glorified “Free Snork”. 

To do this, we had the help of our Professor’s phD student, Karina, who got the locals to famously name a creek after her, for her dedication to research. Karina helped us locate tagged and untagged Porites divaricata corals isolated on roots. Our research focused on the relationship between this coral and its interaction with all motile organisms. Later into our data analysis, we concentrated on fish species and respective behavior when interacting with the coral. We got used to identifying damselfish, wrasses, and even a single black seahorse. 

The coral species we were studying on a Mangrove root in Calabash Channel. Picture by John Finnerty. 

Once we located three subject corals for the day, we had to set up our experiment. Most groups had to collect their data while in the water by taking pictures, measuring corals, recording important factors on dive slates, taking samples, and calculating GPS coordinates. We took a less strenuous approach, but still collected samples and GPS coordinates.

Alex lugging the camera rig on a floatie because of the strong current. We built the apparatus to keep the camera focused on our study subject — Porites divaricata.

To do this, we built six PVC pipe apparatuses with the purpose of holding our GoPro cameras into place for two hours, recording all that went through the square frame. In pairs of two, three rigs recorded a branch containing a coral, while the other three were placed adjacent to one of the test corals, as a “control”. The control variable helped us better understand the coral’s structural role.

Since there is no coral in the frame, this is a control apparatus. The camera is located in the small square furthest from the branch, held in place by a GoPro screw. 

Even so, conditions were constantly changing, so it was difficult to ensure things went right every time. Some days, the flow of the current made it much more time-consuming to deploy our cameras. Other days, we could not locate a new test coral, or we lost a test tube sample. On one day in particular, our experiment was cut short because of a baby crocodile.

It just so happened to occur on a day when our professor had not come along with us to oversee our progress. In fact, he was the one determined to get a perfect front-angle shot of a crocodile — which we were all very supportive of.

We were doing our routine afternoon experiment setup when John’s other phD student, Joanna, swam desperately away from the roots. 

Densely packed, intricate mangrove roots. 

My group members and I knew something was up, but we weren’t scared. At this point, we were pretty acquainted with the surrounding ecosystem. When Joanna swam for her life — only a short distance of 20 or so feet — she screamed “CROCODILE!!”

We were excited, more than anything else, and wanted to observe “Big Chungus” — what we named all potential crocodile friends — for ourselves. When Joanna reached us, we all clustered together with an apparatus in hand to block us, if necessary. 

I only ever saw its shadow, but my groupmate Russell apparently saw the baby croc dashing off to its next meal. Because of this, we wrapped things up early for the day. 

The island was nearby, so we went back. One boat picked up John to go find the croc again, while my friend Alex and I had ourselves a Free Snork, courtesy of boat captain Junior and Kevin. 

Rebecca Campbell, Study Abroad Correspondent 

Becca is a senior in the College of Communications studying Advertising with a Marine Science minor. Currently, she works for Matter Communications as a Digital Copywriter. Scuba diving, snorkeling, and relaxing on the beach are her favorite hobbies when not discussing climate-based issues, the US Women’s soccer team, or the latest book read.

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