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SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer

December 18, 2019

Caribbean Reefs and Ocean Optimism

Heather Page, Chief Scientist


Above: C-289 is all smiles after completing their first snorkel survey of the expedition; Below: Elkhorn coral spotted in Isaac Bay, St. Croix.

17°24.8’N x 062°36.1’W (3 nm East of St. Kitts)

6.60 knots

Sail Plan
Tops’l and Stays’ls

Weather Conditions
27.2 C, 3/8 cloud cover, ESE Winds at BF 4

Sea Conditions
ESE, 2 ft

Ship’s Heading

Souls on board

As we leave Falmouth Harbor, Antigua behind, it is hard to believe we are sailing the last leg of our journey. It feels like yesterday we were splashing around the waters of St. Croix before embarking on the SSV Corwith Cramer. Now that we have completed our science mission of documenting the condition of coral reefs in the eastern Caribbean, I can’t help but reflect on our journey. While in St. Croix, we had the opportunity to conduct coral reef surveys on two very different reefs. Isaac Bay was full of the remnants of reefs past: massive Elkhorn coral skeletons provided structure to the reef and are now overgrown by seaweeds, corals, and other encrusting organisms; it was easy to imagine what the reef used to look like back when the Elkhorn corals were alive. Cane Bay, in contrast, had a flat carbonate platform with scattered coral colonies. In Grenada, we were fortunate enough to snorkel within a Marine Protected Area and were delighted to see the diversity of corals, sponges, and fishes. Finally, the coral reefs in Montserrat are growing on top of huge volcanic boulders. Here, we were surprised to see abundant fire coral and long-spined urchins.

Sadly, most reefs had experienced recent coral bleaching due to an extremely warm October. In St. Croix, we also observed diseased and glowing corals. (Glowing, aka fluorescent, corals can indicate stress and be a precursor to bleaching. Check out the documentary Chasing Coral to learn more about this phenomenon.)  This was actually my first time seeing fluorescent corals during the daytime in the wild during my 5+ years studying coral reefs. Although it can be easy to be consumed by “ecological grief” due to these visible signs of struggling reefs, I cannot help but feel a dash of ocean optimism for the future. We did not observe any Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which has been rapidly spreading in some areas of the Caribbean. In St. Croix, we learned about coral restoration and research efforts led by The Nature Conservancy. Murals spreading messages about sustainability and coral conservation dotted the island of Grenada. In Montserrat, we spotted a few healthy Elkhorn corals as well as a Pillar coral, both of which are on the Endangered Species List. SEA now has this incredible program that is documenting the health of coral reefs as well as global change in ocean conditions in the Caribbean, which is the first step towards identifying appropriate conservation measures. Finally, I have no doubt that our students will continue to be advocates for the oceans and coral reefs.

Time for some numbers!  I am sure there have been excellent descriptions of the science we have been conducting on coral reefs, but how much data have we produced? We conducted snorkel-based surveys on five coral reefs along our cruise track. On each reef, students collected 20-30 seawater samples for laboratory analysis of environmental conditions. They took 280 photographs of the seafloor. Each photograph was overlaid with random points and the organism or substrate underneath each point was classified. Over the past month, a staggering 5,600 points were classified! And it doesn’t end there! They also identified and counted over 1,780 fishes and 1,345 invertebrates. What an incredible accomplishment! It has been a joy as Chief Scientist to watch the students become more comfortable working in the water, even in tough conditions, and grow in confidence as scientists. Now that we have collected all of this data, the students are working hard to wrap up their independent and collaborative research projects. I can’t wait to see what they discover!

For this last leg of sailing, the professional crew will take the backseat while the students show us what they have learned. They will be completing a mission called “Operation Styrocast.” Essentially, they have to safely sail along a trackline set by Captain Greg to a deep-water location for a styrocast (= “Styrofoam Hydrocast”). A styrocast means we will be attaching a bag full of decorated Styrofaom cups to our carousel and sending them down to approximately 2000 meters below the sea surface; this will allow us to see firsthand the effects of ocean depth and pressure on Styrofoam which is a compressible material. (Stay tuned to see what happens to our cups!) After the styrocast, we will head to the US Virgin Islands for the final few days of the program. Although we will bid farewell and head to our respective homes (mostly located in much colder states), we will hold on the warmth of the Caribbean sunshine and friendships forged during this program. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the class of C289! 

Huge thank you to visiting graduate students from University of Virgin Islands for assisting with our reef surveys in St. Croix. We also appreciate all the guest speakers and island tour guides for sharing their experiences and love of their island with us.

- Heather Page, Chief Scientist

Categories: Corwith Cramer,Caribbean Reef Expedition, • Topics: c289  life at sea  study abroad  coral reefs  science • (0) Comments
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