Tuesday, December 12, 2017 | 9:06am | Placencia, Belize
It doesn't matter how many times you do it - putting on a wetsuit is always awkward. I grin at Colleen and Justin doing the wetsuit jiggle as we zoom across the peninsula. With the wind whipping my hair behind me and the sun blazing down on us, I stare at the mountains in the distance, and experience the same thought process I have every time I'm on a boat: This is my job. This is amazing. This is my job!!
The Belize coastline extends roughly 240 miles and includes hundreds of small islands and cayes, but our journey today is short. Twenty minutes after leaving the dock, we arrive at False Caye.
What's the difference between a caye and an island?
The National Geographic Society defines a caye (pronounced key) as a small, low-lying coral island. Like all coral islands, keys are the remnants of ancient coral reefs, and many keys are still ringed by healthy reef ecosystems. Over time, the top of a coral reef gets exposed to the surface. Waves and wind slowly transport sediment, sand, shells, and even living organisms to the highest point of a reef where currents are less likely to erode the material deposited there.
The water here is shallow - no more than 15 feet at the deepest part. We leave our scuba gear in the boat and jump in with snorkels and plastic bins. I am immediately blown away by the abundance of life - the color and variety of shapes and sizes of organisms here is unlike anything I've seen underwater.
Removing the Siderastrea feels a bit like trying to extricate a piece of concrete from the foundation of a building. Add in the general awkwardness that comes with doing anything underwater (our buoyant wetsuits don't help) and the task takes longer than expected. Over an hour later, we all return to the boat, with six small colonies of massive starlet coral placed carefully in our bins.
"This is incredible," I say to Justin, as we pull off our masks and head back to the mainland. "I've never seen anything like this."
"Just wait. You haven't seen anything yet."
Time is of the essence - the less time the corals spend out of the water, the better. In less than 10 minutes, the corals go from the boat, to a pickup truck, to the makeshift workshop we've set up under Lisa's house.
Justin and Colleen are in the zone. Ignoring lunch, Justin immediately cranks on the tile saw while Colleen sets up the delicate bouyant weight system.
Cutting up corals is smelly, slippery, and somewhat precarious work. Using his bare hands, Justin puts each coral to the saw blade, carefully sectioning them into sizes small enough to fit on the plastic disks.
We all stare at the saw, thinking the same thing: If we get through this without Justin chopping off a finger, it's going to be a miracle.
The process is one of the most efficient I've ever witnessed in a field work scenario. As soon as Justin finishes cutting, Mariko and Dale dry and glue the fragments to the discs, and pass them to Colleen. She weighs them, calling out a series of numbers. "Fragment #4. Weight one is 12.79..." I record all the data including salinity, temperature, and two weight measurements for each individual fragment. Then the fragments go back into the water. We do this dozens of times - 72 to be exact.
Two hours later, we're back on the reef. This time we don our scuba gear, and head straight down to the metal table installed on the bottom by our new friends at Fragments of Hope. As we sit on the ocean floor, carefully zip tying each individual plastic disc, I have two thoughts:
1.) This is my job! I'm doing underwater field work! This is amazing!
2.) These scissors are awful. My hands are freezing. Damn these zip ties!
Over the next five days, we will repeat this process three times - altogether we transplant over 300 fragments of coral from 24 colonies. When we return to the first fragments we transplanted three days earlier - the resiliency of these organisms can't be clearer - I can already see where the coral is starting to regrow.
I show Justin the above photo and ask him about the stark line of contrast on this coral - why is part of it so alive, while the rest appears dead? Is it dying or coming back to life?
"It's dying," he says bluntly.
He isn't sure. It is rare, even for a marine scientist, to look at a dying coral, and know exactly what started its decline. Disease, physical trauma (like an anchor slamming into it) warmer, or more acidic water, or any combination of these, and other factors.
As we ride back to the dock at the end of the fifth day, I tell Justin about a catchy motto that my best friend and I often say to each other.
"You're killing it so hard - you're bringing it back to life."
Justin grins and nods in agreement. "Yeah, that's exactly what we're doing."