Poseidon's Secret Garden
By Brie Cokos
B. Cokos, Field Biologist
Middle Caye, Glover's Reef Marine Reserve
Retrieve 10cm3 of Montastraea annularis from the eastern wall of Glover's Reef for DNA sampling and zooxanthellae density counts. Probably best to dive the "crack"-why go to the corner store when you can go to the supermarket?
Deadlines to be made Brie-
Wildlife Conservation Society, NY, NY
Today's mission begins twelve miles outside the port city of Dangriga when the 26-ft skiff bursts through a gash in the usually continuous Atlantic Barrier Reef into the deep blue Caribbean. The previous half hour of speedy travel in reef protected waters suddenly comes to an abrupt halt as the captain cuts the engines to half power to battle the uncontrolled swells outside the outer reef. At this junction, the minnows turn to sharks, the pelicans turn around, and the manatees really do morph into mermaids, but I push forward because I need to dive the "crack" today.
For the next forty minutes, the skiff will be tossed around as it races above the blue underworld en route to our final destination, Glover's Reef. Named after eighteenth century British pirate Capt. John Glover, this atoll formation 45km southwest of Dangriga has enjoyed as diverse a history as the country which claims its waters her own. Here, a ripple in the earth's crust seventy million years ago created the perfect environmental conditions for reef growth. Over the years, the underwater mountain that began this atoll eroded away, but the corals continued to grow atop one another to create wall drop offs that reach depths of 3000 feet. The Mayans first discovered the place via canoe (!!) and used it as a trading post for several hundred years. Pottery shards can still be found among the coral rubble on the islands. Later on, Capt. Glover stopped by and put the place on the map. Today, the atoll resembles a massive oval shaped bowl with its rim just peaking over the surface of the water and has no piracy, trading (except for the occasional bottle of rum), or tectonic action. The UN declared the Belize Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in 1993 and Glovers Reef Atoll has been singled out as a showcase multi-use marine reserve with fishing activities restricted in 25% of the area. Along the rim on the southeastern reef tract, five coral-derived islands have grown over years of wave action against the reef. On these tiny, isolated islands, the residents and visitors of Glover's find themselves immersed in a paradise so removed from traffic, stress, and shoes that leaving becomes a painful punishment.
Don't be fooled into thinking marine biology is a glamorous trade; to collect my samples I must expose my body to the unpredictable ocean and merciless sun. As we ride through the open seas, swells underneath our vessel shoot us across the peaks and valleys of oncoming waves. On a wave's crest, I look east and west and see only a flat horizon. Out here, the overrworld is a desert masking the bustling aquatic empire below us. After about twenty minutes of travel, a faint iridescent glow emerges from the horizon in the distance.
As this mystical tectonic anomaly draws nearer, the source of the glow becomes apparent. For as far as my eyes can see, in a blue that Crayola could never duplicate, stretches across the inner lagoon of the atoll. When the boat breaks through the western reef wall to enter this oasis, I understand and fully accept the beating our boat, bottoms, and spine endured to gain passage to this place. Poseidon would never grant access to such a world quite so easily.
The captain maneuvers around 800+ patches of reef that spread across the shallow waters in the lagoon on our way to the cayes on the far side of the atoll. Four of these islands offer accommodations and adventure packages to a wide range of tastes, budgets and physical capabilities and usually with boats better suited to the open water passage. Visitors partake in snorkeling, kayaking, diving, fishing (fly fishing, trolling, and drop line varieties), evening drumming and dancing, general island and sea exploration, and a satisfying portion of good old fashion laziness. Diving is definitely the focus here and although most diving establishments around the world profess that their diving has been rated one of the top places, Glover's actually has. Due to its distant location from the Atlantic Barrier Reef and mainland, the waters stay crystal clear and healthy populations of fish, lobster, and conch still inhabit the waters. Furthermore, the entire atoll never has more than 100 people residing or visiting, so the wear and tear from heavy traffic does not exist here. Sea turtles, forty-pound grouper, and diving dolphins are not uncommon sites.
The island in the middle, Middle Caye, is my home. Although Middle Caye only covers sixteen acres, it offers the most diverse island environment of the atoll: thick mangrove stands, a freshwater pond, sandy beaches, coconut trees, almond trees, thick grasslands, and a private lagoon overflowing with bonefish schools. The island is a private research facility owned and operated by The Wildlife Conservation Society of New York (WCS) since 1995. My trade is marine biology, so this is my office. Seriously though, I lead a rough life.
I find myself descending into a giant aquarium by midday. By sixty feet, I am drifting by the outer reef wall and the drop off, but I still need to sink another twenty feet to reach the infamous "crack." To the dive masters of the area, the crack is one of the best dives Glover's has to offer. Coral specimens on either side of the crack created this cavern over thousands of years of upward growth. The formation resembles a giant enclosed water slide with a steep gradient extending downward approximately fifteen feet. Fish recognize the safety the walls of the crack afford, so massive schools often flood the place-although their predators can just as often be found lurking inside awaiting shelter-seeking prey. Today, an enormous school of silver sides have packed the enclosure limiting visibility to twelve inches. In a flash, a lurking barracuda creeps forward to grab dinner. This unexpected movement stirs the pack and the fish sea is parted for an instant. I spot my coral specimen and go to work. I finish my collection just as the school once again envelops my body. Don't worry boss, the crack has already surrendered the desired product.
So dusk creeps up on Glover's Reef, and a pink-orange stew floods the horizon. Through the fronds of a coconut tree, I make out the first of a billion stars I will encounter later that night. Headquarters far away in the Bronx will have their samples and I will await their next treacherous assignment here at the branch office. At this moment, I can't help but smile to myself in recognition of the fact that I have been able to work in a paradise most people will only visit in their fantasies. As the cook prepares the catch of the day, the outside world seems as distant as Mars.
In my professional opinion, for the restoration of the mind, body and soul, a hearty dose of the Glover's Reef revitalization tonic should be administered ASAP. Just don't get addicted; someday you may have to return to the other side of the world.