Scientific COMmunicator: Survival of the Fittest | Research Training, Part I

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. 

After enduring 9+ hours of travel across most modes of transportation — car, plane, bus, and boat — the long hours had just begun. But, as we crowded into the classroom for the first time, any thought of tiredness vanished.

It was the collective excitement for marine education, ocean monitoring, research, and of course island life that kept our engines running. Although it was dark and we couldn’t see it yet, we were on an island within the Meso-American reef, the second largest barrier reef. Across this incredible 1,000 kilometer expanse, booming with diverse fish, coral, and invertebrates, we monitored species within Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve. 

This picture, angled to the front of the classroom, was shot before we cluttered the room with laptops, protective pelican cases, Reef ID books, colored pencils, sponge samples, and yellow waterproof field notebooks. (Picture by: Michaela Rogers)

Finally, at our twelve-day home, Randi Rotjan and John Finnerty, the professors overseeing our research, spelled out how we would most effectively utilize our time on the island. Keeping our daily schedule and housing situation in mind, it was time to face the most arduous task of the day: setting up the bug nets and tents. 

Calabash Caye research facilities are managed by the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute. On the left are some of the dormitory rooms and on the right is the classroom, which rests in front of the cafeteria.

Because we slept in bunk beds, our protective bug gear differed depending on top or lower bunk. Small reliefs like these were beyond helpful as we spent our days sweating, in wetsuits, or attempting to outrun sand flies — our real enemies. Since they were so small, they managed to bite us, undetected, as we emerged from the ocean.  As we struggled to rip our wetsuits off and clean them with fresh water, our most vulnerable state, they got us. We never realized until we woke up itching with imitation chicken pox. (Trust me when I tell you those sand flies made their mark on us.) 

Sand fly harassment aside, I somehow managed to room with my buddies from marine classes — Alex, Maddie, and Grace. It took us all a solid 20 minutes to connect the wires, nets, and duct tape. After this, we proactively doused ourselves in High Deet insect repellent, which we later found to be so strong — too strong — that it triggered existing asthma issues in a few students. While Deet was definitely not the best thing for our long-term health, it felt better than the alternative. 

After our first hot and sticky night, there was no time to spare on our first full day. Ahead of us, we needed to complete a final swim test in the open ocean and begin training on scientific snorkeling. In fact, prior to Belize, we had to get certified in First Aid and CPR and perform multiple physical tests in full gear at FitRec.

This photo by John Finnerty depicts our final fitness test in Calabash Lagoon, located immediately off the field station’s shore.

As a person who has remained physically active with sports, I never anticipated the challenges of strong ocean currents, dense populations of venomous rockfish, or constant depth changes. Many students found themselves taking breaks from boating and snorkeling due to intense nausea and other personal reasons. Even I had to take a breather after diving to 10 feet repeatedly to collect fish behavior data and feeling dizzy — something completely new to me. 

Students returning to dock after completing our open ocean fitness test. 

That said, the purpose of the first few days was exploration and learning research methods. Since most group projects focused on both the mangroves and patch reef, we were all required to learn how to collect and record data across habitats. These are skills that we could demonstrate in our post-college careers with future research employers. 

Of the two research scientists guiding our projects, Dr. Randi Rotjan, who leads the Rotjan Lab at BU, started us off with intensive “Ecosystem Tours.”

Queen conch in shell. Conch is widespread in the Caribbean Sea and we saw piles of these massive, intricate shells. Conch is a staple Belizean meat source. 

With the field station still clear in view, we moved a little further off the shoreline, where the water was a little deeper and the coral diversity increased. Randi explained that there may be significant signs of coral stress and bleaching after a recent massive heating event. Corals can survive these events, but recovery is different if warm oceanic temperatures persist. 

Caribbean communities face looming socio-economic vulnerabilities through the loss of coral reef ecosystems, since they generate shoreline resistance, tourism, and food sources. However, our research correlated with existing studies that prove some corals exhibit “super strength” in dealing with environmental factors, and others actually have the ability to thrive in intense heat. 

This is Porites spp, indicating clear signs of coral bleaching in the coral’s fingers. A few wrasses interact with coral.

But truthfully, it was heartbreaking to see Caribbean reef-building corals, such as Orbicella, showing significant signs of bleaching after record heat events and warmer water temperatures. 

As we observed the patchy bleaching, we couldn’t avoid the obvious human-induced impact. Saddened by this, we all knew what it meant. The coral’s symbiotic relationship was breaking down and without algae, the coral lost its food source and magnificent coloring. 

But it seemed even more painful for Randi, who has passionately studied these corals for decades, as she discussed the notable damage over time.

Picture courtesy of Olivia Golini.

Emotional discussion aside, it was only the second day and we had much more to learn before we could resume our experiments. 

Check in soon for part II! 

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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