Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Cleaners

Life here in Tela Marine has settled into a routine with only some minor changes day by day. We wake up early in the morning, divers get ready for the first dive of the day and I set up the urchins into their little transport boxes to be brought back to the reef to live happily ever after! Sometimes I go with on the boat, just to steal an extra hour of sleep *insert sly smile*... The waves always make me doze off while waiting for the diving crew to surface again, although, one time the weather did pick up during one of these blissful boat naps and I woke up nearly falling off the bench to the bottom of the boat.. However, as much as these naps are both enjoyable and sometimes needed, I do feel a little left out (and truth be told, a good bit jealous) every time the divers go under, having seen only a fraction of the mysteries of the marine world through snorkelling.... So maybe now would be a good time to explain why I am not diving. One word: horses. Approximately 8 years ago I was unloading one of my two horses off the lorry at a horse show, while my other mare was being held beside the truck by someone else. As I was leading her down the ramp, she took a side step behind me and attempted to jump over me. I fell to the ground, and found myself on my knees between the two mares. Unfortunately I wasn’t on the head end of either of them.... While each of them tried to kick the other (at least this is what I keep telling myself, I like to think it was nothing personal!), one of the kicks landed on my forehead, and the other on my side, resulting in a “yea we can see your skull”- kind of gash in my hairline and broken ribs. I remember someone grabbed my head pulling me on my back to the ground, and my trainer, while holding up 2 fingers, was asking me “how many fingers can you see??” (and I answered “two...but you have 3 eyes...”). In the hospital they found I had also punctured my lung which meant they had to put in a chest tube to remove the blood that was leaking into my lungs. THIS is the reason I cannot dive (which I found out this February). The chest tube would have resulted in some scar tissue (how extensive I do not know, but this is quite irrelevant) which is not as flexible as normal lung tissue. During the ascent from a dive the air in the lungs would expand, causing the lung tissues to stretch. If the tissue is not flexible, it can cause the lung to literally pop. While controlled conditions would allow me to dive, the oceans are anything but controlled. A wave lifting me 2 meters in the water column could have serious consequences if I did not expel the compressed air during the lift. And the chances of noticing that when in between the surface and the bottom are pretty small... especially for a rookie. So I came to terms with not diving. J

The cleaner shrimp giving this white grunt a
dental examination. Can you see it? 
At the moment, the first boats are scheduled at 6 am, due to a “cleaning station” project which needs 
to be at the reef early to catch the best action. At this point it would be a good idea to google the car wash scene from the movie Shark Tale. Or think about the shrimp in Finding Nemo (because everyone has seen that one right?). It’s exactly like that. Basically what this project is about is going down to the reef, setting up some cameras to record anemones, mostly corkscrew anemones, which are often homes to the Pederson Cleaner Shrimp. These little critters are extremely cool looking in their transparent bodies with bright blue lines, and they, like the name suggests, are specialized in cleaning! So why are the anemones called cleaning stations, then? Because that is what they are! Fish come along, literally park themselves on top of the anemone and up comes the shrimp to clean the fish. Sometimes big grouper fish even open their mouths and the shrimp will go in and give them a good dental examination! They truly are multitalented daredevils... The cleaning stations are an integral part of coral reefs, as they provide the fish a way for getting rid of parasites, and thus help keep the reefs healthier. There are three researchers with slightly different viewing points for the data gathered from the cameras. One is looking at how diving intensity might affect visitation frequency by comparing a high intensity dive site on Utila (also here in Honduras) and a low intensity dive site here in Tela, the Banco Capiro reef. Another is trying to see if “cheating” – that is, “cleaning” off healthy tissue instead of parasites - occurs more often when there is simultaneous cleaning by the shrimp and a small fish known as the goby. The third is attempting to figure out how turbidity of the water affects visitation frequency on the anemones, based on the ideas that if the water is very turbid, perhaps the fish don’t find the stations that easy, but on the other hand more turbid water might mean more parasites in the water and hence more frequent need for cleaning... I find myself not only immersed in my own study, but also peeking over the shoulders of everyone else to see what they are doing!

Our urchin project is well underway, we are powering through six trials each evening after dinner, because we have to conduct them in the dark to be able to create a similar shadow every day. Keeping things constant in this camp! Each day Max and Andrew (so just to remind, Max is our supervisor and Andrew is the other dissertation student working on urchins) go and collect us some new bits of natural reef rubble, avoiding taking any coral of course, because we figured out that keeping the rubble for more than a day would make the lab stink as if the Skunk Hunger Games took place there... In an attempt to keep our artificial reef material as free of life as possible, I have also washed our breeze blocks, by hand, scrubbing a huge bucket full of broken up blocks and two intact ones with a hard brush and fresh water. Adding to this the daily sweep of the floors in the lab while dripping water after carrying the water canisters and its starting to look a lot like live-action Cinderella here! Just without the evil ;)
Hauling water.
I also managed to destroy my phone (at least until further notice). You know how I mentioned we need to carry a lot of water each day to the lab from the shore? Well, I really wanted to carry some today as I didn’t get to do any of that yesterday as I went to the mangroves – I’ll tell you more once I’ve been to Miami (not THAT Miami...) – so once I saw other people beginning to carry canisters I joined with such enthusiasm that I forgot my phone was in my shorts pocket. I was filling up my second canister, which means I filled up one canister, walked up to the lab, back to the beach and was half way through the second canister, when I finally realised I never emptied my pockets.... True to the cause, though, I finished filling the canister, shuffled it back to the lab area and ran to the restaurant. “Please, do you have a bucket of rice?? Rice, please, yes” – a perfectly sensible sentence coming out of someone who is frantically trying to pull a phone apart. I got a bag of rice, stuffed everything in it, then realised I should probably rinse the seawater off... out again, piece by piece, under the tap, and back to the bag. And there it is still... I tried to plug it in to charge after a few hours and all I got was one sad, blinking blue light. Back to the bag it went and now I am just hoping for a miracle. This all means I am currently without a camera of my own, unless I want to be that tourist that takes photos on their iPad... Like the one below. 
The walk to the Beach Club is long and treacherous. Jokin'! 

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