Jan Plan: First Day on the Reef

This is the first in a series of blogs by Colby College students currently completing a Jan Plan course with two of our scientists in Bermuda:   

After months of preparation and a morning studying the basics of coral, we finally made out for the Bermuda coral reefs. We donned our gear, added extra weights, and started the trek out to Whalebone Cove. It is a small inlet about a 30-minute walk west of the Bermuda Institute for Oceanographic Sciences (BIOS), and it is where our group of amateur researchers would have the first opportunity to see live corals, coral diseases, reef fish, and more.

About 10 minutes into our walk, the person at head of our group came upon what looked like a small stuffed animal, not dissimilar to a puffin, lying in the dirt. When it started to move she stopped short and called our faculty zoologist, Seabird McKeon, to the front. He lunged toward it and came up clutching the perturbed bird, which he informed us was a Dovekie (Alle alle). Usually taking up roost around the Arctic Circle, this poor fellow had blown quite off course. Sea nestled him in his pocket, and the group toted our rare find away from voracious predators and down to shore. Cats, rats, and dogs would have easily gobbled the ungainly bird, as its bulky webbed feet and little wings do not make for a quick getaway on land.

Once we reached the cove, we set our black and white friend loose on the crashing swells. Struggling and shimmying about, we all clambered into our wetsuits and picked our way to the shore. Ben Neal and Nichole Price, our instructors, gave us final directions on using weight belts, and we set out in pods of four. The teachers meandered along with us pointing out especially fascinating flora and fauna. Together we snorkelled past speckled sea hares grazing on swatches of red algae, lightly waving purple sea fans, bright yellow brain corals, bedazzled sea goddesses (nudibranchs), a pod of juvenile reef squid, and dozens of spottail pinfish, angelfish, and parrotfish that all dove into crevices at the hint of our looming shadows. A giant rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia) coasted not five feet from our faces while clearly wondering who the new, gawky fish were on his reef.

We kicked our way through a deep channel at the cusp of the cove and popped out into deeper water, which churned with volatile waves. Tall columns reared up through the turbid water, hosting much of the same corals and including some clear examples of massive brain corals with black band disease. We circled back to shore around 3:30 p.m. and were given one last gift: the site of a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) gazing out at us through a small hole in the reef, his tentacle tightly clutching a purple and white snail. We gathered around for photos and then left him for the promise of hot showers and clean clothes just down the road. All in all, it was a grand first day on Bermuda’s coral reefs.

 – By Sophie Gould, Colby College student

Jan Plan: First Day on the Reef