Receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship last year was an honor that gave me the experience of a lifetime and a dream that I otherwise would not have been able to achieve.
Along with other researchers, I chose a Commonwealth country where I could focus on the theme of Bringing Resilience to Coastal Communities (BRiCC). I chose Belize, Central America, for various reasons. As well as being a coastal country, it is home to the second largest coral reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) and being located at the equator, I knew its biodiversity would be staggering. As a third-year biology student with a minor in Fishing and aquaculturemy main goal was to work with animals in the marine environment and learn as much as possible!
My arrival and my first impressions
My summer internship took place at the Tobacco Caye Marine Station, located on the small island of Tobacco Caye. Tobacco Caye Marine Station is a non-profit organization committed to protecting the environment and educating people about marine life in Belize. My first big surprise was seeing the amount of coral fragments on the beach! They are practically everywhere, with different and intricate patterns on their carbon “skeleton”.
My internship was absolutely amazing, full of challenges (as are life changing experiences) and brand new information that broadened my perspective in so many ways. For example, the island of Tobacco Caye is currently about four acres – I was able to circumnavigate the island in about 10 minutes – but it was once six acres. The majestic mangrove roots that lined the island have been man-made to create beautiful ocean views from the windows. However, they failed to recognize that the mangrove has very important ecological roles, including providing the island with protection from violent waves during storms, which help prevent erosion. A big challenge for me was the equatorial heat and what seemed to be the hungriest mosquitoes I have ever encountered.
My first research project: lionfish
I have worked on three research projects: dissecting lionfish, monitoring corals for signs of bleaching, and repurposing waste. I was excited to have more experience with dissections! The lionfish (Pterois sp.) are a poisonous invasive species in the Caribbean (meaning they are not native there) and have brought a great imbalance to the reef ecosystem. They were introduced by humans through the pet trade (because they are magnificent fish). However, being the highly efficient predators that they are, they eat all of their aquarium “roommates” and can grow to over a foot in length. The combination of these two characteristics made those who owned them as pets quite unhappy and as a result, they were thrown into the ocean. Other factors that make them invasive include the fact that lionfish have no natural predators in the Caribbean, can live for up to 30 years, and females can lay 50,000 eggs per week. Yes, you read that right. The marine station promotes the killing of lionfish to the locals and pays them by the pound, giving them extra income, as earning a living can be quite a pain when you live on such a small island. The fish are then dissected and data is collected. We noted things like height, weight, gender, and stomach contents. The station found over 40 different species of animals in their stomachs, proving the threat they pose to the reef ecosystem. After removing the 18 poisonous spines, the lionfish is safe to eat – and delicious!
My second research project: Coral Watch
The second research project (Coral Watch) asked our interns to compare a color-coded chart to the corals themselves and note their shades of color, which could indicate bleaching, as well as the type of coral. It was amazing to see with my own eyes the difference between the bleaching stages of different sites and how biodiversity is directly linked to coral health. Personally, I was not the greatest swimmer and the progress I made was so rewarding! From learning slow breathing when snorkeling for the first time to being able to dive and collect coral data! Corals are animals (from the phylum Cnidaria – a cousin of jellyfish) and have a colorful “friend” living within them (a symbiotic relationship with a microscopic organism, where they help and benefit each other). Corals are very sensitive to environmental changes, living in a “golden loop” zone, as my manager liked to say. If changes in temperature, light availability and pH occur, the coral ejects its colorful “friend”, loses its beautiful colors and becomes weaker and more vulnerable in the process. This means that when a coral is bleached, it is not dead (and there may still be a chance of recovery). Coral bleaching is caused by various reasons, most of them related to climate change.
However, there is a way for humans to do their part. All sunscreens we used had to be REEF SAFE certified and this designation is something the public can look for on sunscreen products available at regular retail stores.
My third research project: waste collection and recovery
My latest research project focused on collecting marine debris, sorting, cleaning, but most importantly: repurposing. We often received trash bags from well-meaning tourists picking up trash around the island. It is important to note that this was only the FIRST step of the process. Debris data collected by us and the students is uploaded to the National Geographic Marine Debris Tracker app and all soft plastic is repurposed into ‘ecobricks’.
A mix of old and new skills
My personal and unique contribution to the marine station involved the combination of a new passion and an old one: I was able to use my knowledge of graphic design and produce postcards for an upcoming project. My most recent passion is related to plankton. I worked on a plankton identification map for the station, with photos taken by me while analyzing samples collected around Tobacco Caye.
This international internship experience certainly reinforced my choice to become a marine biologist in the future. If you are interested in an international experience as a student, the next QES application deadline is November 28, 2022!