Turks & Caicos Blog I

Now that it has been well over three months since this adventure, I think I am long overdue for the publication of my report.  I owe that much to Professor Cangialosi, at the very least.  As I reminisce on my time spent in the islands, I am left wanting… more.  And not only more, but the chance, several chances, to voyage and explore from tropical zone to tropical zone, the unique and absolutely breath-taking biodiversity that is singular to specific ecosystems and island geography circumstances.  For just a shot to help save and preserve the last bastions of relatively untouched natural beauty, there is not much that I would not give.  There is so much to learn.  To take in.  To see, ponder, inquire; hear and feel.  From the culture and the history, to the animals and raw nature that are the foundation of all that we know; this trip was a stark reminder of just how small and infinitesimal we all are to this great, beautiful rock which we inhabit.  Tumbling through time and space, the phenomenon life takes hold in vastly different ways.  Though. somehow always leading back to many different versions of a similar notion; who are we and what are we doing here…

THIS WAS NOT A VACATION… okay maybe it was a little bit of a vacation.  Our proctor made sure law down the law, prior to our departure, which stated (NOT PRIOR TO SCUBA DIVING!) we were only allowed one adult beverage a day.  We absolutely, without any deviation, abided by this rule.  Subserviently.  Moving on; I will go through a day by day recollection of the events of this trip as accurately and honestly as memory can serve.  Many of these logs I will be completed on the day of or combining several events in one sitting, hence any variance in future and past tense grammar.  I hope that you reader, enjoy any information and insight that I may be able to humbly offer. My biology research trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands, I am exuberant to announce, has been my first trip out of my homeland, the United States of America.

Day 1: 5/12/19 Bust.  Our flight out of Boston was initially scheduled for 0720, which ended up being delayed until 0915.  Our connection was in Charlotte, North Carolina departing at 1120.  Needless to say, we did not make our flight.  The only other option for reaching Providenciales that day was another connection leaving from Miami, however, all other flights to get us down to Florida were full.  Inevitably, we were forced to stay the night and feared that we had lost a day at the island.  Not all was bad though.  From the little bit that we did see, Charlotte was a lovely area.  Lush in vegetation and tree cover, which was a nice change of scenery from the still blooming trees and plants of New England.  In our search for a bite to eat we happened upon a well renowned restaurant call Cowfish in South Park which was a large mall located in Charlotte.  Despite the fact that we had to wait nearly two hours to be seated due to Mother’s Day festivities (sorry I missed another one mom!), we managed to have a good time.  The highlight of our trip to Cowfish wasn’t the food or scenery; the reason I bring it up was the immense c. 750L (200 gallon) salt water tank that the establishment boasted.  The cool part about this tank was not only that it contained tropical marine life, but also that it was inclusive of both Atlantic and Pacific organisms.  There were soft bodied corals in the tank, along with some distinguishable fish, Blue Tang, Yellow Tang, Cowfish, Stalked Anemones and some amazing Gorgonian Colonies.  So, all in all, our scientific minds found a curious treasure at the South Park mall.  You know what they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Day 2: 5/13/19 The crew and I were able to get rescheduled to a flight out of Charlotte, departing at 1140. Despite some mild turbulence, the flight was rather enjoyable, especially the final thirty-minutes or so.  Visibility from 20,000+ ft was actually very good; it was perplexing to look from the confines of an airplane window out to the open ocean.  Gazing upon beautiful waters, wondering what each and every dot was on the surface of the water.  Boat? Islet? Debris?  Approaching the airport in Providenciales was breathtaking.  Many square miles of shallows, complete with structures below the surface and aqua-marine waters.

My View from the Airplane 20 min Prior to Landing. Photo by Jason Charbonneau 2019. CC BY 4.0

  The weather was gorgeous, clear, sunny, hot, as we stepped off the plane directly onto the tarmac.  Following the necessities of passport stamping, customs checks and getting to the rental car establishment, we changed in the bathrooms and were instantly brought to the pool, for our closed-circuit scuba orientation and training.  Having already gone over most of the static-information in our online Padi e-training, it was review.  We first went over all our gear and how to assemble our kit.  Tank, first/second stage and BCD.  We were trained on all the proper safety and equipment checks.  Making sure our cylinders had a rubber cover, signaling it was full/unused, an intact O ring sealant and in inspection date stamped into the Aluminum that was within five years of the present date.  We then assembled our ‘Octopus’ which pertained to the first stage, second stage, alternate air source, high-pressure inflator, and PSI-air gauge.  There is a dust cap that was covering the valve of the first stage that was necessary for removal, that was secured by the YOLK system itself, which was then screwed and secured to the cylinder.  With all this being completed, the cylinder was clamped to the Buoyancy Control Device, weights were checked, straps and clips secured then we were ready to go!  The next four hours were inclusive of learning all the necessary skills, equipment measures, possible failures, exercises and drills.  It was a lot to absorb but easy to remember.  Either you take the time to learn and truly know these skills or it takes your life.  There was much to take in, it had been an excessively long day, starting at 0630 and not ending until well after 2300, with roll call being 0600 the next morning.  Great day, we were ready to apply our skills.

Day 3: 5/14/19 I arose well prior to 0600, prepped breakfast, got our necessities in order and departed for the docks for our first open water dives at 0715.  I am happy to report that the relative health of the reefs of the Turks and Caicos seems fair and stable for the time being.  This however, is a highly difficult and variable statement to make, as, especially to the non-expert eye, there is a myriad of lurking factors in the background influencing the health of these ecosystems (pH change, temperature, currents, natural disasters, invasive species).  Reefs around the planet are in threat, some more than others, typically based upon human development.  [IUCN, Coral Reefs]

I base this statement off the meticulous observation that I made during my first and second dives of this day.  The first dive site we were brought to, on the western side of Providenciales was known as Eel Garden.  This name became apparent as we went about the duration of our actual dive, following training checks and exercises.  Brown Garden Eels covered the ocean floor by the dozens.  I was taken aback by their miniscule size, being only slightly bigger than a coffee stirring rod.  There was an abundance of biodiversity to note on our initial descent.  Most abundant by far was the Ocyurus chrsurus, ecologically deemed the Yellowtail Snapper.  They may be easily identified by the sharp fork in their tail, spanning about a 120o angle, their lack of a distinguishing dorsal fin and the yellow striation that follows the organisms lateral line.  These fish were of course drowned out by my favorite, Melicthys Niger, the Black Durgon, which was also abundant at this site (see the defining traits of the Black Durgon in my previous post).  Some of the more noticeable megafauna we saw was a single Nurse Shark, several Reef Sharks, Pearson Spotted Shrimp, Cleaner Shrimp, Creole Wrasse, various species of jacks, all culminated at our second dive site by the fleeting presence of a lone Loggerhead Turtle.  More subtle however was the substrate to which all of these animals relied upon.  The many species of Poriferans and Cnidarians were at times confusing due to the diffusion of light at larger depths.  Ambient light provided by the sun may only penetrate so deep; red, being of the highest wavelength on the electromagnetic scale, is one of the first colors to be lost at depth.  However, there were still quite a few identifiable species.  Feather Black Corals, ornate Cup Corals, Smooth Flower Corals, Row Pore Rope Sponge, Branching Tube Sponge, Sea Whips, Gorgonians, etc.  Among the other invertebrates we witnessed were Feather Dusters, Christmas-Tree Worms and Flamingo Tongues.

A View of the Bethic Level, Covered in Poriferans and Cnidarians ft. an Ostentatious Arthropod. Photo by Devon Audibert 2019 CC BY 4.0 Public Domain

At our second dive site in the same vicinity, was a location called the Amphitheatre.  This site featured the first cliff face and drop-off that I would witness under-water.  It was a step-style shelf, making one seem as if they were on a stage when looking over the shelf.  The most apparent thing I noticed when peering into the deep blue, then to the shelf below at about 120-140 ft was the incredible abundance of Lamarck’s sheet corals.  They covered nearly the entirety of the lower shelf. The biodiversity of both of these sites was incredible, from the foundational organisms of the Cnidarians, Poriferans to the invertebrates of Annelids, Mollusks and Chordates.  All the way up to the tiny fish and large apex predators.  A particular experience that I found quite astonishing was the reactivity of various Annelids.  Feather Dusters and Christmas-Tree Worms were abundant on the coral structures.  When threatened they retract to a near-unnoticeable little bulb.  If one has ever seen James Cameron’s Avatar, the scene in which the protagonist is exploring his first experience in an alien body on a foreign world, he touches the large, colorful, native plants.  They retract in a fraction of a second to a micro-version of their blooming selves.  This was certainly based off of the Annelids of the sea, as they express almost the exact behavior when stimulated to do so.  The speed with which this occurred was astonishing to me.

Anamobaea orstedii (Split-Crown Feather Duster Worm). Photo by James st. John, June 23 2010. CC BY 2.0

Portions of both dives were dedicated to drilling the various skills and emergency procedures that we had learned.  They were a necessity for the expertise and safety measures, expected to be executed by every competent diver.  From charging masks (filling with water), to alternate air-source sharing and controlling neutral buoyancy.  I am proud to say all of us were able to accomplish these tasks with relative ease.  Hand signals and general competency proved themselves to be incredibly important and we would learn very quickly just how common various issues, whether experience or not, a diver could face.

Day 4: 5/15/19 The dive sites that we visited on this day were called the G-spot (partly named facetiously, partly literally due to the shape of the shelf) and Half-Mile.  These sites, located in adjacency to French Key, were highly effected by the destructive force of hurricane Irma in 2017.  Both of these dive sites featured a shelf, not unlike the Amphitheatre.  The main difference being, there was no step wise gradual decent.  The drop off singular in its decent to the depths, reported to be over 7,000 ft.  It was a humbling and terrifying thought as I reflected upon this notion staring into the deep blue.

            The effect of the hurricane in addition to other reef threats was self-evident.  For every beautiful growth of coral and sponges, surrounded by the aquatic life that relied upon them for existence, there was at least twice the square area of dead or destroyed coral remains.  Their bleached and empty skeletons, reminiscent of better times, were a stark reminder of just how threatened our natural world is.  Even amidst the beauty and life that I was surrounded by in this new world, there was a great sadness that lingered in the water.

            The biodiversity that these sites boasted were not much different from the previous two.  Giant Barrel, Brown Bowl, and Orange Elephant Ear Sponges were abundant, in addition to Octocorals, Sea Fans and Sea Whips.  The fish, Annelid and Mollusk life that revolved around them became more and more visible as less time was spent trying to focus on dive skills, perception and neutral buoyancy.  I was comfortable enough at this point, that I knew how much I would rise and sink with each breath.  I found that this variation, while horizontal in the water was about one-foot in either direction.  With this I was able to safely get closer to the reefs, get a clearer visual, and even look under the crevasses that may have been at the floor of the ocean, without stirring up too much sediment. 

            Mirror-Wing Flying Fish could be seen skipping across the water on our way to and from the dive sights.  Unusual and quite startling during ones first visual.  A pod of Common Dolphins was also observed in the shallows on our way to the dive sites that day.  Six of them, seemingly feeding on Sea Stars and other organisms that lived in the shallow waters.  It was an amazing sight to behold, given that they are the closest to intelligence and behavior to humans, as we would see in those waters.

Pod of Common Dolphins, View from the Bow of the Boat. Photo by Jason Charbonneau. CC BY 4.0

            Both G-spot and Half-Mile were abundant in Horse-Eye Jacks, Yellow-Tail Snapper, Black Durgons, Blue Chromis, Bicolor Damsel Fish, Small Goby Cleaners, Blue Tangs, Nassau Grouper, Princess Parrot Fish, Stoplight Parrot Fish, Queen Triggerfish, Foureye Butterflyfish, Atlantic Spadefish and much, much more.  An interaction that I observed on these dives that I began to see time and again, was the aggressiveness of what I believe to be (assuming I identified it properly) Stegastes adustus or the Dusky Damselfish.  Though these fish max out in size at about 5-6 in. [Reef Guide] their uncompromising zealousness was shocking.  The first time I witnessed this interaction, was a Dusky Damselfish, maybe three inches in length, nipped at and chases away a fish that was double its size.  I saw this time and again as I went through my dives during those couple of days. 

Left to Right: Devon Audibert, Timothy Brodeaur, Jason Charbonneau and Karen Cangialosi. Photo by Devon Audibert 2019 CC BY 4.0

            The importance of our training was put to the test near immediately during our third dive at G-spot.  My peer Devon and I were in close adjacency to one another, while my other friend Tim was slightly ahead of us, close to our dive-master Bill.  He had briefed us that we would be exercising an emergency swimming ascent using our buddies alternate air source, simulating an out of air situation.  I noticed that Tim ahead of us, grabbed bill, signaling frantically.  Bill grabbed him and transferred his alternate second stage air source to Tim and they began an emergency swimming ascent to the surface from 45 feet.  Devon and I thought that this was a simulation, and went about the hand signals and exercises ourselves.  It was not until after the dive that we realized how close they were to disaster.  Tim had not unscrewed his tank valve all the way, so upon his decent he found it difficult to breath and was genuinely lacking in air.

“The respirator slowly ran out of air, I felt like I was going to die for a solid three to four seconds.  My lungs began to contract, as I was trying to inhale something that wasn’t there.  I tried to signal our dive instructor for help fanatically.  It was downright horrifying.” -Tim Brodeur            

We were able to quickly salvage the situation and enjoy the rest of the dive, with an air of caution about us.  Following the completion of our dives and our return to the hotel, we decided that it was a perfect time to snorkel and check out the reef that bordered the beech line, close to where we were staying.  Buoys marked the perimeter of the protected area of the reef, which, happily, was quite dense and abundant even though it was no more than 10 meters off shore.  The area the Buoys encompassed was a square about 80 m2.  However patches of reef extended around the north and east of the reserve, all the way to the boat buoys.  There was so much to see in this area.  Mostly it was inhabited by mustard hill corals and corky-sea fingers.  There were gobys, Parrot Fish, Snappers, Wrasse and even the elusive Trumpet Fish, whose name proceeds its morphology.

To be continued…

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