May 13, 2021 Julia Fedorova
Today was the fourth day of diving, and the first day that we were able to venture outside of CARMABI. The first two dives of the day were done in Boka Sami, a small fishing village not far from the research station. The surface swim was a little challenging, as we had to swim quite a distance to reach the drop off, however it was well worth it. I saw many different types of coral, shrimp, and a giant lobster that was hiding under a rock. Today my group was in charge of laying down all of the transects at various depths, as well as taking photos of the benthos. Although taking photos is a challenging task that requires stellar buoyancy, I find it satisfying to analyze the photos back on the surface.
The final dive took place at the Water Factory, which is the water desalination plant in Curacao. Curacao only gets 500mm of rain a year, which is the only source of freshwater on the island, causing a huge shortage of drinking water. So this plant uses reverse osmosis to desalinate seawater. The dive site was not off of a beach, so the entrance was precarious, but well worth it. The drop off to the reef started very close to shore and I was able to see hundred different types of coral as soon as I reached the start of the reef. This was definitely the most beautiful reef that we have been to so far. The corals were well established and abundant, covering the majority of the benthos. Additionally, the gorgonian population was so large that some sections of the reef looked like an underground forest. For this dive I ran the transects all around the reef, which was physically challenging, but I was able to see a large section of the reef. Overall, today was very interesting. We were able to finally visit some other sites and see the variations in the reef from one location to the next.
Photos by Julia Fedorova and Abigail Vivlamore
Urchins and Corals
May 11, 2021 by Lily Turner & Danielle Sphikas
Today was our third full day in Curacao. We are dive buddies and roommates and have really enjoyed our time in Curacao so far! Our day started very early in the morning with a 7 am dive. During this dive, our group laid down three transects and did four 5x20 belt transects looking for Long Spine Sea Urchins. Unfortunately, most of our time was spent laying down and picking up transects; in the places we did have time to survey, we found no urchins. However, this was a good lesson for groups going after us and a different method was used from there on out. Following our first dive, we had to quickly dry off and head to our Covid-19 testing appointment. During the drive to the testing site, it was amazing to see a little bit more of the island. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we have not been able to leave the research center, so we were both very excited to look around during the drive. Following the appointment, we went straight into a second dive. During this dive, we practiced doing photo transects. We both really enjoyed doing this surveying method and additionally think it is a great way to get accurate data because time is always of the essence while underwater. However, in order for this method to be effective, the pictures have to be good. We were not feeling very confident after our photo transect practice yesterday, but today we both were very proud of our technique and pictures! After this dive, we took a break for lunch.
After lunch, we quickly got ready for our third dive. During this dive we did an experimental juvenile coral survey using quadrats. Using a random number generator between zero and thirty, we were given eight different points in the transect to place the quadrat on. Within these quadrats, we looked at how many juvenile coral there were. For each recruit, we observed the area around it and took notes about macro algae, sponges, direction, angle, etc.. This was our favorite dive so far because we were able to get really up and close and personal with the reef. We both saw so many things that we would not have seen otherwise; including a huge long spine sea urchin (which made up for the lack of them earlier in the day) and some beautiful fish that got very close to us while we were surveying (a squirrel fish and a massive male spotlight parrot fish). After finishing our dives, we did a bit of studying then headed to the beach bar to get Pina Coladas during Happy Hour. At the research center, there are a few friendly stray animals that we played with throughout the day, our favorite being a black and white cat. We did a bit more studying and then took the Fish ID Quiz. We did a briefing on tomorrow’s dives (which included leaving Carmabi for the first time!) then we prepped for tomorrow’s dives. Overall, today was a great day! We learned a lot and had fun doing it; we both look forward to all the rest of our days here in Curacao!
Photos by Abigail Vivlamore, Danielle Sphikas and Lily Turner
New Tank, New Me!
May 11, 2021 by Mélanie Stamper
The second day in Curacao started like the first: waking up three minutes before my alarm, fearing I would be late for the first dive of the day; getting brutally assaulted by mosquitoes while trying to butter my bagel in the kitchen; and drinking coffee by the shore while Table Cat eagerly waits for me to feed her. However, this was much different than the first day because today we had our first coral ID quiz, and it was all any of the students could talk about. At first, I felt confident about my abilities to identify the corals by pictures and description since I had taken Chantale’s Coral Reef Ecology class during the spring semester. But going underwater and physically looking at these corals, I knew my brain could barely distinguish Siderastrea siderea from Siderastrea radians when it had been the easiest corals in class to distinguish. And this doubt was definitely getting to me, but I brushed it off and waited for my group’s turn to go in the water to take the quiz.
Once we were in the water, we swam over several colonies of coral that I could easily identify: Montastraea cavernosa, Diploria labyrinthiformis, Colpophyllia natans, Meandrina meandrites, and a handful more. I felt much better about my abilities and continued swimming until Chantale stopped swimming and pointed at me to begin my quiz. I. WAS. READY. Or so I thought. Right off the bat she asked to identify the genus of coral that I had the most trouble with: Siderastrea. I panicked. Is it radians? Or would be it siderea? I thought about it too much and choose whichever one made sense to me at the time, and I chose wrong. No big deal, I thought to myself, I still know a bunch of other corals. And yet, the ones I was most confident about Chantale did not ask me to identify. Isn’t it funny how things work out?
Figure 1: The culprit of my despair. Left: Siderastrea siderea. Right: Siderastrea radians.
May 10, 2021 by Ally Kilnap
I woke up on my first morning in Curacao this morning not to the alarm I set yesterday evening, but to the call of the infamous CARMABI roosters, and I have to say that it felt very authentic. After all of the post-breakfast preparation and socialization we grouped together to go over the dive plans for our first day. Our main focus was to just gain an initial basis of maintaining buoyancy on the reef since this, for many of us including myself, is our first time diving in the ocean.
We broke up into our dive groups and began our beach-entry dive. The ocean felt the same temperature as my showers at home so I decided to forgo my wet suit and sought to see how that would affect my buoyancy. As we began our decent I immediately realized that I was much more negatively buoyant without a wetsuit. Tomorrow I will be sure to lessen my weight. Still, I was able to dive comfortably in the beautiful reefs of Carmabi. It was truly full of life. Fish swarmed each mound of coral that shown in magnificent colors. I was even able to identify some of the species I had memorized on the plane!
After the dive the whole group decided to head to the beach side bar, where I am now currently seated, sipping a pina colada and making some really awesome new friends. While I know it is only our first full day I know this is going to be the trip of a life time with amazing people and so much to learn.
Photos by Abigail Vivlamore
MAY 9, 2021 - Savannah Rhoades
Today was the travel day. In order to get to Curacao, we had to complete a PCR COVID test within 72 hours of our flight which we needed to fill out a Passenger Locator Card or PLC and we needed a digital immigration card as well as a printed copy of our negative PCR test. In the U.S., PCR tests take between 3-5 days and no one offers the same day or 48 hours for free. I used CVS for my initial test and took it just under 72 hours to give myself plenty of time for the results to come in (and the site said they would). So I go and complete my test and am awaiting my results and they never come. The day before the trip comes around and I still haven’t received the PCR and at this point, I don’t know what to do. Most other students had theirs done by USF, but because I do not live anywhere near Tampa (about 4 hours away actually) I could not.
As Saturday night hit, I kept refreshing my results and they just aren’t showing up. Throughout that day I called multiple times and couldn’t receive any help. All the while I was updating study abroad that there was a very real possibility I would not be in this fight. Around 2:30 AM I woke up from a nightmare about this whole situation and became determined to solve my problem. I went to work and found a rapid 30-minute test at 7:10am and booked it. It was VERY pricey but I was not missing that flight.
We stopped and did the test on the way to the airport, and once I received the PCR result I went and filled out the passenger locator card on my laptop using my hotspot. I finished just in time, booked my three-day antigen test, and emailed myself copies. I called to the hotel nearest to the airport and got permission to come in and print. I printed everything at the hotel and headed to the airport. I had about an hour and 45 minutes and I made it to the gate with about 30 to spare. It was definitely an adventure, but I’m glad I was able to make it to Curacao because I know this trip will be unforgettable!
First Underwater Quiz
By Aidalis Santana
Siderastrea siderea, Porites porites, Orbicella faveolata, Montastraea cavernosa, was the only thing running through my mind this morning, for our first in-water quiz. Let me just write that again, in-water quiz! And we thought quizzes on CANVAS were hard, nay-nay, here in Curaçao were able to experience a new form of learning on this trip.
The day started at 7 am when we went down the third floor stairs to the kitchen and got the coffee started and grab a bagel. By 8 am, we are down by the beach setting up gear for our first dive of the day (yay, so exciting!). That first dive of the day was the first in-water quiz of the trip, I got to say it was a little nerve racking walking into the water. But our TA was very encouraging and saying that we had this. Now, after a few minutes of surface swimming, we were ready to descend towards the reef. Crystal clear water gave way to show a whole ecosystem full of movement and color, just breath-taking. Our TA took each one of the students on the group of two buddy-teams and pointed at different species of corals and types of benthos, I got to say that all the studying paid off.
For the second dive we did the photo transects, a technique learned with the Dive Safety Officer at USF that we had practiced in the pool and grotto. After the second dive we ate lunch, which we individually made with all the food in the kitchen (sandwich and chips, yum!). When lunch ended, we started setting up for our last dive, this dive was something completely different. Dr. Bégin gave an overview of what type of data to collect underwater, in this case it was a 30m belt transect with the objective to quantify coral recruits (baby corals, less than 5 cm) and the environment they were most commonly found as well as the placement, angle, and just an overall outlook of the environment around the recruit.
After all the dives it was time to clean the gear and let it dry, for it to be later stored in the CARMABI locker room over-night. Now, it’s time to get clean, relax and study until dinner at 6 pm. The day will end today with an invertebrate ID quiz at 7pm and studying for our fish ID quiz tomorrow. Bye, see you in the water!
By Angelica Suris and Lauren Wallace
On May 20, 2019
Like many areas in the Caribbean, lionfish have invaded the coral reefs of Curaçao with no natural predators. In our dives in Curaçao, we would see this exotic, red looking fish hidden in the nooks and crannies of coral, under docks and buoys. We saw these a couple times and might have gotten a bit too close for my comfort just because we were extremely surprised to see them in the wild and see them in action. I specifically remember getting side tracked on our way back from a dive in Carmabi and seeing one hiding between the pillars of one of the docks. They are extremely distinct predators that are known for their venomous spines that are red, black and white. But, what makes lionfish unique is its impact to coral reefs and the diversity that surrounds it. Like many invasive species, they are extremely destructive to the environment because they have no natural predators. Because of this, lionfish overpopulate and reduce populations of native species by either eating them, taking their food source or their shelter. Second, their venomous spines protect largely protect them from local predators: if humans touch of their spines it can cause irritation, rash and burning sensations on the impacted area. This was always a constant precaution I would take while diving in Curaçao. I was always on the watch for lionfish so I could do my best not to touch it and risk injury. For marine biologists and environmental conservationists alike, reducing lionfish population in Caribbean reefs is a priority. Although it can be eaten raw, lionfish can be made to be just as tasty as any other fish you have ever eaten. If more people knew about how great this fish tastes, they would be helping the extreme population size of these fish in our reefs. Lionfish are interesting and dangerous predators people should be more aware of. With a lower population of these predators, our reefs will be in much better shape!
While it is unlikely that the population of lionfish will be completely eradicated, some residents of Curaçao have attempted to reduce their numbers by using them to turn a profit. Just like other fish, lionfish make a great meal when cleaned and prepared properly. But one resident has found a more creative way to use the lionfish she hunts: Lisette Keus has found out how she can use the fins and tail of lionfish to create jewelry. She catches lionfish by spear fishing and removes all the barbs to use in her jewelry. The remaining meat is not wasted and is sold to restaurants. Once removed, the barbs are still venomous until completely dried so she leaves them in the shade until they are dry enough to work with. Once they are ready, she cuts the fins and seals them with resin. She makes all kinds of jewelry including bracelets, earrings, and rings. The metal she uses in this jewelry is stainless steel. This has many benefits she explains, it is non-irritating, will not corrode in salt water, and is inexpensive. She wants to keep the cost of her products down. While I met her at the dive shop near Carmabi, I also visited her at her workshop in downtown Willemstad a few days later. While it is primarily a place for her to create jewelry, her workshop doubles as a store and museum. Along the wall were pictures and descriptions of how lionfish came to the Caribbean and how they have affected the populations native to the area. Her primary mission is to spread awareness of lionfish and their role on the reef. It seems like she has been successful as dive and souvenir shops all around Curacao sell her products. Being able to make a profit while helping restore the natural ecology of an area may be the key to helping ecosystems such as Curaçao’s reefs. It is innovators and entrepreneurs like Lisette that make a significant impact on reefs. Here is her website: http://lionfishcaribbean.com/
Just Keep Swimming
By Zachary Freeman and Alexis Marino
On May 20, 2019
Prior to this trip I had a good amount of diving experience, nearly 14 hours of time underwater. None of those 14 hours truly prepared me for the awesome adventure I experienced in Curaçao. My confidence was high coming into the first true scientific dive, writing cylinder in place and meter stick at the ready I began my first belt transect. Not even seconds after, I was fighting buoyancy, the current, and the many things attached to me. It would be an understatement to say I was humbled. I saw myself grow in these few days, not only in diving strength, but in knowledge of coral and fish, and my interests as a marine biology major. Indecision is a curse and blessing, a blessing because the things I like doing, I really love doing (like scuba diving). A curse because I struggled for a long time to really decide whether or not marine biology was right for me, whether I was truly interested in the topics I researched or years of telling myself I liked the ocean had finally caught up with me and I was stuck in a major I wouldn’t enjoy. As I held my meter stick and swam along the transect these thoughts raced, am I meant to do this, is this right for me, but the more I swam the easier it got. The more I studied the more I appreciated the reef. The more transects I swam the better my buoyancy became and I felt comfortable and confident that I could identify the fish in the Reef Visual Census and belt transects. The schools of grunts and damselfishes that surrounded me no longer confused me. If there is anything I’ve learned from this trip, it's not the names of the fish and coral, although I will definitely point out every fish I know to anyone in the immediate vicinity, but it’s the personal growth I acquired by putting myself out of my comfort zone and the confidence I’ve acquired diving that will follow me home.
This trip was somewhat of a challenge, as I and several others are fairly new divers, so while we were learning the various data surveys we were also learning how to comfortably dive. Some people only had their certifications for a couple weeks before the trip, and now they were task loading underwater. These surveys were pretty easy, once they were practiced a few times, and they all involved a 30-50m transect tape being laid out (I like to call it “The Almighty Tape”). For the Reef Visual Census we had to float above such glorious tape at certain intervals and count every fish that entered our “cylinder” (imaginary cylinder of water 10m in diameters and 5m in height). We also had to estimate the sizes of the fish, which was particularly tricky for me because I am not used to working in centimeters (or inches, as a matter of fact). Besides this, I enjoyed this survey type, because there were several times where I was surrounded by giant schools of Brown Chromis, Blue Tang, or Yellow Goatfish. It was also exciting to realize that I could identify the majority of the species I saw because of the fish identification practices we completed. The other fish survey is called a Belt Transect, and the main gist of it is that we swim along the length of the tape and tally every fish of certain families that swam in a 5m wide and 5m high area, along 20m of transect. This counted the rarer fish, however, and I often did not see these species, so it isn’t quite as exciting as the RVC. Of course, these are all personal opinions, and everyone enjoyed some survey types over others.
Wei and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
By Wei and Teddy
On May 16, 2019
Our study abroad trip to Curacao has given us the opportunity to explore the vast biodiversity of coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea. There were three species of fish that we observed with particular interest: the Peacock Flounder (Bothus lunatus), the Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans), and the Western Atlantic Trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculatus). The three species we observed each had their own behaviors that emulated patterns discussed in the textbook.
The observed Peacock Flounder was interesting for camouflaging itself within the sand. Its blue rings stuck out, making it easy to spot. However, the rings were most likely used to blend in with rocks and abstract light reflections in the water. According to the textbook, Peacock Flounders are ambush predators that tend to defend their territory from other males. If threatened, they will attempt to hide underneath the sand or remain stationary, hoping for the threat to go away. With our encounter with the fish, the textbook’s description was similar to what was seen. The fish was not alarmed by our presence most likely because it did not want to give away its location.
The lionfish also ambush their prey but the behavior is nocturnal. They move slowly through the water column by gently waving their fins, conserving energy in the process. It was interesting finding the fish hiding at the bottom of coral rocks, enacting behaviors as described in the textbook. A recently introduced invasive species from the Pacific Ocean, it is difficult to remove the lionfish from Atlantic coral ecosystems due to the lack of natural predators. Its defensive, venomous spines and slow mobility made the lionfish secure enough to be in our presence.
The Western Atlantic Trumpetfish are slow, docile creatures that also boast similar feeding methods to the previously stated fish. They spend their days facing their slender bodies towards the sand bottom, waiting for the moment to strike when an unlucky fish swims below their vacuum-like mouths. However, they also need to change locations to gather the most food possible. The Trumpetfish we observed showed behavior that deviated away from our knowledge about the fish’s feeding methods. Swimming along the water column, the trumpetfish we encountered was possibly searching for a new area of corals to continue gathering food. As we approached the fish, it grew more anxious, eventually fleeing as we reached an arms-length distance.
Being able to study and observe these fish in their natural environments makes the understanding of marine organisms immersive and interesting. The trip so far has made our learning experience of the coral reef environment more personal than a lecture could ever teach.
By Mina Piot and Richard Marin-Millan
On May 18, 2019
The start of this amazing opportunity to go diving and see jaw-dropping scenery was only a slice of the whole pie. During the dives we practice scientific research through a series of different methods. Even though these different data collecting techniques seem like all you have to do is swim, write, and float, that is actually just the bare minimum. When I mean we are learning, we are LEARNING. Some examples of what we do are Reef Visual Cense data collecting (RVC) and this is where we float 15 feet above the reef, at the center of a 10-meter diameter cylinder of water column (centered on a particular meter mark on the transect), and record the amount of reef fish we see, including their size. My dive buddy is Richard Marin and just like me he is far from perfect. During this RVC collecting I can see my dive buddy 10 meters away doing the same thing. But soon after, he slowly starts moving closer to me as he swims in circles looking at fish. Once he realizes that the next thing he sees is not a fish but in fact my face, he looks down and notices the meter mark that he is not supposed to be on.
Another data collecting we’ve done is photo transects. This includes a 0.5m by 0.5m square (called a quadrat) make of PVC pipe, a ruler, and a camera. During this research we take pictures of the PVC pipe at every 2-meters, and not just any picture, but one that includes the transect tape on the outside and an even, close picture of all four edges inside the square. Richard likes to wear these gloves that somehow find their way into many shots. Not to mention when I’ve somehow placed the square pipe and lined the transect tape at a perfect spot while trying to not destroy anything in my path and I know this won’t hold long, hoping Richard takes the shot quick. I look up and see him in position, ready to take the picture but he keeps floating past and starts slowly tilting forward as he attempts to take the shot. Most of the other data collecting includes a slate to write down information, transect tapes, and PVC pipes which Richard likes to forget.
Most of the material seems easy to handle but control is what it comes down to. But in some cases that isn’t always possible especially in fairly strong current waters. This has happened to Richard as we sampled coral for research and all he needed to do was place a dull-edged knife on the edge of a coral (Montastraea cavernosa) and hit the knife with a rock to chip off a piece. As he went to do this he got ready to hit the knife wedged in a corner but as the current went one way so did Richard.
During my dive experience with my dive buddy Mina Piot, I noticed some of the issues that she encountered with the research data collecting. For one, she always tried to carry the quadrat we’d use over her head, which resulted in the quadrat coming apart half of the time. When we started taking pictures of the photo transects, Mina at first thought that our pictures were supposed to be taken every 2 feet instead of 2 meters. After her moment of confusion, I flipped the transect tape and signaled at the 2 meter mark to let her know that was the right measurement. While taking coral samples, Mina had a knack of completely missing the corals we were sampling. Half the time I had to pull on her or tap her leg to let her know that she completely missed a coral that was directly below her.
Another form of data collecting was the point intercept transects, in which we mark what we see every 10 cm along the transect (long measuring tape). You’d think writing things down on the slate would be quick and easy, but this was not the case. When doing these, you constantly have to look down the transect line while also looking up to make sure you’re not about crash into something. However when we first did this, at one point Mina kept on swimming while I was still marking things down. I had to pull her all the way to where I last was because she had missed a whole 2 meters worth of data. Transect tapes are also a hassle and not Mina’s best friend. While rolling up the transect tape, sometimes a knot would form and Mina would keep rolling before noticing the egg-shaped roll of transect that would abruptly stop her. She would also have the transect tape attached to her while swimming back and leaving behind her a trail of transect tape. At the end of the day all these clumsy moments, struggling with underwater tasks, equipment, and self-control, we still pulled through every time. The laughs along the way are worth it and the improvement is rewarding.
The authors of this blog are students enrolled in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, field courses run in the Caribbean by the University of South Florida. In 2019 and 2021, the course went to the Carmabi research station in Curaçao and dived around the island over a 10-day period, for training and to carry out research projects. In 2018, the group went to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, and took part in various projects in partnership with the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.