Team Belize after SCUBA certification and ready to begin work on the local reefs.

The Belize project was an overwhelming success thanks to our 9-student team of rising sophomores and our dedicated peer mentor, a rising senior. We spent the first week at Washington and Lee learning about coral reefs, exploring analytical equipment and techniques, and in the pool learning how to SCUBA dive. We spent the next two weeks in the field where each student passed the check-out dives (with the reef sharks) with grace and enthusiasm. In Belize and back at Washington and Lee for another two weeks, we developed three areas of focus for research. Catie Caterham (Franklin and Marshall), Nick An (Oxford College of Emory), Sydney Walters (Colgate), and AJ Mabaka (Washington and Lee) assessed whether declining coral cover over the last few years has resulted in the kind of phase shift to algal dominance that has been so widely recorded across the Caribbean. This group assessed the percent live coral and algae, as well as urchin and farmer fish densities in comparison with previous years. Petra Zuñiga (Amherst), Will Riley (Vassar), and Riley Waters (Macalester) characterized the impacts of massive Sargassum blooms washing across the Caribbean and accumulating on shorelines. This group measured dissolved oxygen and pH levels and mapped the extent of the ‘brown tides’ associated with decaying Sargassum, with an eye towards thinking about what kind of mitigation efforts should be considered. Matti Horne (Pomona), Jolie Villegas (Wesleyan), and Sydney Walters (Colgate) assessed whether the ‘new’ hybrid coral species Acropora prolifera that is increasingly recognized on Caribbean reefs is a ‘true’ replacement for its declining parent species. This group paired urchin, fish, and non-acroporid coral abundance with 3D photogrammetry techniques to quantify surface area to volume and morphology of ‘spaces’ to compare the kind of habitats these different species might provide for the reef. Our outstanding peer mentor, Ginny Johnson (Washington and Lee) collaborated on all three projects. By the end our 5 weeks together (and some very late nights) we had 3 abstracts submitted to the Fall AGU meeting. We look forward to seeing all of our outstanding students present their work in San Francisco in December!