This morning we had dish duty, helping out the fantastic kitchen staff with setting out food and washing up. So many dirty dishes…
We split into groups today – mine went to Deep Creek to hunt for stingrays. The creeks were expanses of shallow, milky-blue water through which we spent all day wading. They weren’t an unpleasant temperature – the wind had dropped and the sun was shining, so it felt like we had truly arrived in the Caribbean!
Yesterday we learnt that stingrays create holes in the sand when they feed, and the amount we stumbled into made that easy to believe! As they churn up the sediment, they add oxygen to the lower layers so creatures can live in it, making rays an important part of the ecosystem. A shadow in the water ahead of us, and we spread out in formation. Two people manned the seine net, a long rectangular one stretching from the surface to the bottom of the creek, and another two had circular dip nets, like giant versions of the ones you’d take rockpooling. The rest of us spread out to surround the ray, which became visible as it flitted closer.
Shouting and shuffling around as we tried to herd it towards a net. It was like an intense sporting event, trying to outmaneuver the creature. Finally, the ray was encircled with the seine net and scooped up in a dip net.
Over a metre across, the creature lay quietly in the arms of one of the researchers who was leading us. It was a female Caribbean whiptail ray. We noted its measurements but sadly couldn’t tag it as the skin was too thick! It was also covered in mucous, which picked up sand and helped camouflage the creature. We let her go, and continued up the creek.
Quite some time passed with little of note in the water – just a few moon jellyfish floating by. Then, the shout went up again – ray! We moved uncertainly into position, not quite able to see what we were surrounding. Even when the net was fully closed, we weren’t sure whether there was anything there at all! Our second ray seemed to have pulled a disappearing act. We stood around, waiting for the sediment to settle and scanning the water nearby to check if anything had escaped the net. After a while, though, it turned out that we’d had it all along! This ray, another whiptail, was far smaller – we measured and tagged it, then let it go.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of piling into a van after a successful ray-catching expedition and eating pretzels, but ‘euphoric’ might cover it. We drove to a beach for lunch and had time to relax and sunbathe after the morning’s work.
Later, we waded up a second creek, fighting a strong current this time. Here, the water held surprises such as a Cowfish and a few turtles! We mistook the latter for rays, even catching a small turtle in our net, before it hurtled out again with flippers going like the wind. After struggling upstream for a while, we decided to call it a day. The current was so strong that all we had to do was lift our feet off the floor, and the water carried us all the way back to our beach! I can’t think of a better way to travel.
We arrived back in time to help set out dinner, then washed up afterwards – the cooking pots we scrubbed could easily have passed for bathtubs!
To round off the day, we had a talk on lionfish. It started with how they arrived from their native Pacific waters to the Caribbean – pet lionfish released into the wild when they outgrew their tanks were carried down from Florida when a hurricane disrupted the current separating the two areas. They have since taken over and expanded to many other countries, thanks to their extraordinary reproductive rate and ability to eat vast amounts of fish. This is partly because Caribbean fish simply do not recognise these ornate creatures as a predator, and make no effort to avoid them. Lionfish thus decimate populations both of small fish, on which they feed, and larger fish such as grouper since they leave them no prey to eat. Efforts to control lionfish have been only partially successful. Incentivising lionfish hunting, through sporting events and by promoting lionfish as a delicacy (they have a very fine, white meat apparently) has led to a reduction of them on reefs. However, this does not constitute a decline in their numbers – lionfish now live deeper in the water where hunters cannot reach them, creating a reserve from which eggs continue to be produced. If hunting stops, lionfish will likely reclaim the reefs, necessitating a continuing effort to eradicate them.
Tomorrow, we hope to join this effort. We will visit reefs around the island to check for lionfish presence – the group who went searching today saw no sign of them, which is encouraging. Any lionfish we do encounter will be shot on sight – brutal, but necessary to relieve smaller reef fish from this unnatural predator and to reduce competition for the larger native fish.
Thanks to Laura Twort for the featured ray photograph.