Upon arrival, I received a quick tour of the Gerace Research Center, where I would be interning under the mentorship of Dr. Thomas Rothfus, who is also the director of GRC. Dr. Thomas is a taphonomist. Taphonomy is the study of decaying organisms over time and there are ample opportunities to study this in the Bahamas.
I immediately was thrown into a project upon my arrival at GRC. I was to record data about a lake on the island. The data was the location that core samples were being taken. The researchers had PVC tubes and then they would push the tubes down into the floor of the lake, which was only about two of three feet deep. They then would bring the tube up and cap them off. That is when I recorded the GPS data of the exact spot where the core was taken.
I later found that the research I was aiding was to determine whether global warming and the rise of hurricane intensity had any relation. After sitting in a canoe for two hours, writing down numbers given to me, the group of four and myself left the hyper-saline lake and ventured back to GRC. These hyper saline or very salty lakes are found all over San Salvador.
On our way back, we stopped for a dip in the ocean. My heart raced wildly as my toes felt the first wave crash down on them. The ocean was something that a girl from Paradox, Colo., such as myself, seldom does see. Next we tinkered in the tide pools on shore, they are full of intricate life forms. I was overtly excited when a gentleman from the group came up to me and handed me the exoskeleton of a crab. The exoskeleton being the outer shell of a crustacean and also its supporting structure since they don’t have bones.
On the second day here, I started my morning by walking on the beach. I was thrilled to find a conch shell buried slightly beneath the sand. I dug it out and claimed it mine. Conch shells are a major symbol of the Bahamas and they are also a big part of the diet of Bahamians. This is one of the reasons that there are fewer and fewer of them in the Bahamas. The shell I found was from a long dead individual.
Another adventure with the hypersaline lake group and this time we retired to Grotto Beach for lunch and then continued on to Cockburn Town (pronounced: Co-burn). Cockburn Town is the largest settlement on the island of San Salvador and has the only store separate from the street peddlers.
That afternoon ended with a 30 minute snorkel at Rocky Point. My throat was the new home for my heart when I left the shore. I was in a completely new environment. One of which I was quit unsure. "Are there sharks in these waters?" "What will hurt me if I touch it?" "How deep is this water?" These were only a few of the many questions and thoughts zipping through my mind. I carefully examined the other snorkelers and their techniques. Soon my breathing calmed and I relaxed a little. I watched in awe as schools of fish soared in and out of the reef. My favorite was one a species of fish with neon blue down its spine and on the edges of its fins. When we reached GRC, I looked up the fish I'd seen and discovered it was a Blue Tang. I concluded my day with dinner in the cafeteria and journaling.
Another day in San Salvador, I helped hang an aerosol logger which is used to log particles in the air. This measurement is used to determine dust particles and their relationship to the hurricanes in San Salvador which is also a part of the research that we did with the core samples in the hypersaline lakes. This research will be continued into the following years in order to compare one year against the other.
I also took GPS readings along a beach that was in between the coast and the hypersaline lake. The idea here is that the researchers are recording data to determine if there is a yearly difference in the amount of sand laid down due to hurricanes.
For lunch this day, my group and I went to the Dixon Hill Light House. The Dixon Hill Lighthouse is one of the remaining two, manpowered kerosene lit lighthouses. I climbed to the very top of the lighthouse. I could definitely see the entire island from there. After lunch at the lighthouse, the group and I returned to the station.
The last day of the week, I joined a new group. They are two girls, Amanda and Renee, from New York. The eldest of the two, Amanda, is working on her thesis on Lionfish and the younger tags along as an understudy. I spent nearly the entire day in the ocean helping them with their research. I started the morning snorkeling over the reef at Rice Bay. Then I went into shore and snorkeled to look for shells.
After lunch, we returned to Rice Bay and measured rugosity of the reef, which is an odd scientific measurement. It is the measurement of the roughness of a reef. This is recorded in order to determine how the surface area of a reef affects the number of species of fish.
In the afternoon I saw 15 different species of sea dwelling organisms including a Nassau Grouper, Bluehead, and a Fairy Basslet, three types of coral, two types of ocean plants and many seafans, which are in the Gorgonian family. On the way back to shore, I also saw a large Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana). I was thrilled to watch him cruising over sand patches near the reef. I am told they dig for mollusks and crustaceans in the sand. They will lie at rest covered by sand with just their eyes protruding.
My day ended by retrieving lionfish from a boat that came in and dissecting them to examine the food in their stomach. One lionfish had a shrimp in its stomach while another had a goby fish. The researchers were examining the contents of the guts to learn more about the diet of the lionfish. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity!
Another snorkeling adventure and this time I saw a shark! I would guess that it was about six to seven feet. I was a little scared knowing a shark was in the water, but not scared enough to get back in the boat. As soon as I mentioned that I had seen a shark, three or four girls climbed back into the boat. I looked it up and concluded that it was a Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). They are rare to see in the Bahamas, but I was fortunate to see one and respectful of it as well as the researchers told me that it is one of the most aggressive in the water. Unlike other marine sharks, bull sharks tolerate fresh water. They can travel far up rivers.
This afternoon, I drove with my pals Renee and Amanda, to Grotto Beach, which is located south of the research station. The roads are a bit bumpy in San Salvador, due to hurricanes and harsh rains. We also had along Janet because Amanda and Renee have been teaching Janet how to swim. Janet is a representative from San Salvador’s Living Jewels Foundation http://www.savesansalvador.com/. The Living Jewels Foundation is a conservation and awareness foundation here on San Salvador. The foundation is presently working on two major projects. The first one is getting a national park established on the island of San Salvador. The second project is raising awareness of the endangered species of the island and its surrounding waters. Two of the major endangered species on the island are the San Salvador iguana and the San Salvador woodpecker. I may have seen the woodpecker in the forests by the research station, but I was definitely fortunate enough to have seen and come close to the San Salvador Rock Iguana (Cylura rileyi rileyi) (see the photo). Scientists know from the fossil record that the main islands of San Salvador formerly teamed with iguanas. As the largest terrestrial vertebrates in the Bahamas, iguanas contribute to the uniqueness and health of the incredible Bahamian ecosystems. As vegetarians, they distribute the seeds of plants in their feces, and the fecal material actually increases the viability of seed and seedlings. These iguanas eat the native cactus. Unfortunately, there is a now and introduced moth that is eating the cactus which is a main source of food for the iguana.
We saw this threatened species of iguana on a more remote key (or small isle) called Green Key. Green Key is located in Graham’s Harbor where the Gerace Research Station is located. Iguanas are found elsewhere in the Bahamas, but the iguanas on San Salvador are unique. They have no other home in the world and unfortunately their decline has been staggering. At present, there are fewer than 600 San Salvador Rock Iguanas remaining. They are confined to the most remote and hard-to-get places left on the islands. These places are four tiny offshore cays and two small islets within the hypersaline (really salty) lakes that area within San Salvador.
The threats that cause the iguanas decline, besides the introduced moth, are feral animals including dogs, cats and rats (they eat the eggs). For this reason, the iguanas may never be able to recover on the main islands. Rising sea levels threaten to flood the lower elevations keys. Disease to the iguana could also be catastrophic because of the small populations. Even with all the laws that protect the iguana, people still remove some of the iguanas and two smugglers are presently in jail in the U.S. for doing so!
My time at GRC has been wonderful so far and I can't wait for the many more adventures to come! Once again a big thanks to everyone for your contributions. Your generosity has been more than appreciated!
From the San Salvador Island,
Marena Maupin is a juniour at Nucla High School. She is interested in marine biology and decided upon this internship to pique her curiosity and learn more about our planet’s great ocean realm.
She sends a huge thank you to:
Ellen Brown for donating a quilt top for my quilt raffle; Lynda Ayers for sewing the quilt top and bottom together and aiding in tying the quilt; Jean Hayes for helping tie the quilt and donating two loafs of homemade bread to my bakesale; Rob Helkey for buying $100 in raffle tickets for the quilt.(He won the quilt raffle); Lori and Bob Hampton for donating brownies for my bakesale. HUGE THANKS for buying me a brand new digital camera for my trip; Ruth Phippiney for donating about $40 worth of her wonderful toffee to my bakesale; Pinhead Institute of Telluride for alloting me $1,500.00 scholarship based on merit; and everyone who bought raffle tickets in March.