From Great Lakes to Caribbean Sea by Morgan Cahill

Half Moon Caye, Belize

I want to know who gave Belize the right to be as beautiful as it is. I’m from a city in the Northeast, where the closest “beach” is a freshwater lake with some sand around it. My experience with boats was mostly kayaking on my camp’s lake or the Delaware River. I also had never left the time zone. Upon arriving in Belize, I was absolutely captivated. During our trip, we traveled to Ambergris Caye, San Ignacio, the Southern Lagoon, Half Moon Caye, Lighthouse Reef, the Great Blue Hole, and Belize City. I spent more time on a boat than I ever have in my life, I held a boa, fed a tapir, rode a mule to the top of a Maya Mountain, and cried over the beauty of the stars and a bioluminescent lagoon. I couldn’t be more in love with the entire experience.

On horseback, after a trek through the jungle, overlooking the Maya Mountains

At these incredible places, we collected a plethora of data. We completed protocols at urbanized sites (Ambergris Caye), marine protected areas (Hol Chan Marine Reserve), and pristine areas (Southern Lagoon, Half Moon Caye). The protocols we completed were:

  • Light/Dark Protocol- Three clear bottles (light able to enter) and three blacked out bottles (light unable to enter) were filled with water, and primary production was measured.
  • Water Quality Protocol- A YSI was used to gather data on temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity, pH, and more.
  • Invertebrate Transect Protocol- Hard substrates (pilings and mangrove roots) were inspected for both abundance and zonation of invertebrate species
  • Fish and Habitat Transect Protocol- Transect lines were set to determine presence and abundance of fish species, and then habitat was examined in meter-squared sections and then percent coverage of things like seagrass or corals.
  • Manatee Distribution Protocol- Habitat data was taken and manatee sightings and behavior were recorded
Snorkeling in seagrass beds

With these data, we were able to pick our own topic of study and create and complete an experimental design to test hypotheses we made about the topic. The topic I chose has been something I’ve been keenly interested in recently: ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is the change in pH of the ocean, which can affect the formation of calcium carbonate. Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) is used by organisms such as corals, oysters, and crustaceans to form shells and skeletons

Sara Marriott laying a benthic survey quadrat.

When the increased temperature and acidification, carbonate is less likely to bond with calcium and the bonds already formed between calcium and carbonate are weakened. This can cause damage or death to organisms using this compound. I wondered if warmer runoff caused the effects of ocean acidification to be more intense near urbanized areas. I used water quality data (temperature and pH) and health of corals in habitat transects (percent living vs. percent dead or diseased) to determine the effects of ocean acidification. Kruskal-Wallace statistical tests were used to determine whether there was a statistical difference in any of the variables. Water quality variables had no statistical difference between any of the sites, but there was statistically more healthy coral in what we considered our “urbanized” area. During the trip, we read scientific and local articles about the environment and environmental policy in Belize, and one that we read spoke about the coral replanting efforts being made in areas that bolster tourists. It is also possible that this coral planted was chosen because it can withstand increasing temperatures and a decreasing pH.

When choosing environmental science as my college major, one of my positives was the ability to travel, because there’s an environment everywhere. I had never left the east coast of the United States, and this trip to Belize was the first time I left the time zone and the first time I visited a tropical ecosystem. This trip made me realize that I was right, and that I have much more traveling and science to do once receiving my degree from Mason, as well as many more trips to Belize to see my new favorite animal, the tapir, and my favorite hermit crabs.

Morgan Cahill with one of the many hermit crabs on Sunset Beach

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