Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Dangers of doing fieldwork

Boa constrictors dripped from mangrove branches

We encountered sharks, crocodiles, boa constrictors hanging from low branches, stinging jellyfish, and deep holes in the mangrove peat that swallowed up our legs and banged our shins. In a day, we could sample about 6-7 stations and returned at night to Carrie Bow, filthy, sunburned, covered with mangrove muck and the microbial soup that flourished in the interior ponds. After a shower, a couple of beers, and dinner, we were refreshed and headed up to the lab to prepare samples, write up our field notes, and analyze nutrients.
         Most memorable were the encounters with “dangerous” animals. Our first season of collecting samples at unknown grid stations took us to an area of the eastern Twin Caye. To get to this site required extensive bushwhacking over 1-meter high red mangrove prop roots (i.e., roots of red mangrove trees grow have a portion growing above ground) for several hundred meters. We ended up in a clearing with a shallow pond right around dusk. Wooller typically led the group with PVC poles in hand and GPS extended in his hand towards the pre-determined site.
Myrna Jacobson
         When we hit the clearing, there was a sudden thrashing in the water about 15 m away followed by this sound, “Urnk, Urrnnk, Arrrnnnk!” Mat yelled, “Crocs!” We all plowed our way back across the pond as fast as anyone could with our feet in deep muck and hurled ourselves back into the protection of  prop roots. We listened carefully and there it was again: the sound of a crocodile, probably protecting its young. Needless to say, we did not return to this station.
         USC postdoc Barbara Smallwood was particularly sensitive to the ubiquitous jellyfish that inhabited the open interior ponds. One particular voyage into the very center of Hidden Lake, a several hundred meter wide shallow (<2 meters) interior pond was especially disconcerting for Babs. No boats could reach Hidden Lake. We tied up our boat to mangrove roots at the entrance of a narrow, 2 meter wide channel, then leaped into the water and climbed into small kayaks or onto large inflatable inner tubes. Then we paddled about 200 m with low hanging mangrove vegetation above us towards the Lake. Once, a boa constrictor was seen draped over a branch. Twice, I went to Hidden Lake towed via a rope tied around the waist of a helpful colleague, Quinn Roberts (2002) and Dave Baker (2011) so that I could collect sponges and mangrove leaves along the way. Laughter rang out in the air. We were a noisy bunch.
         Cassiopia is the species of jellyfish that almost exclusively inhabits these waters. On sunny days they float with their tentacles sticking up to allow the symbiotic algae in their tissues to catch sunlight to fix carbon in photosynthesis. During rainy or cloudy weather, they turned bell side up and rested on the sediment surface. The afternoon we came with Babs into Hidden Lake was sunny and beautiful. Unfortunately the jellyfish were floating in force. It did not take long for Babs to notice that what was a mild sting for the rest of us caused a painful rash for her. She had to jump from mangrove root to mangrove stump to avoid the stings, screaming all along the way.

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