Friday, January 20, 2012

Sharks! Stingray! Lion Fish!! Palm Trees!

Blogging about a recent trip to the caribbean is not intended to make anyone jealous, but simply to share interesting ecological information-but, yes, my tan looks great, thanks :)

My family and I stayed for one week in Guanica, Puerto Rico beside the largest remaining tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world, which was declared an International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO because of its biological diversity. The forest feels both tropical and desert. Walking on it's trails, one is surrounded by low growing twisted shrubs, barrel cacti, cactus trees, but also palm trees and the turquoise ocean (also a few nice gay beaches if anyone's interested).

The dry forest has 700 plant species of which 48 are endangered and 16 exist nowhere else. Its forest hosts the greatest number of bird species on the island, including the Puerto Rican Emerald Hummingbird which pollinates the flowering barrel cacti in the winter months.

In the same region are lush mangroves and coral reefs. Home to manatees, nesting sites for Hawksbill turtles, and crested toads. While we didn't see manatees, we did see many beautiful fish and coral. (Beautiful underwater image of elkhorn coral by my brother Joshua Horwitz) See one of my favorite quirky fish, the Spotted Trunkfish.

Nearby, is a rare Bioluminescent Bay, which we did not visit but heard lots about. In this bay are 720,000 single-celled organisms that glow when they are agitated. This illumination is a defense mechanism by the tiny plankton that will dim and disappear if you hold completely still. These bays are scarcely found internationally because of the delicate ecological balance they require. Unfortunately, visiting this bay and experiencing a bit of it's magic probably damages it more since people wear mosquito repellent and carry other pollutants into the water.

Coral reefs, which take centuries to form, are also damaged by people's visitations. Coral is often broken by careless snorklers, motor boats, and pollution. But the larger threats to reefs are global warming and ocean acidification. According to Environmental Health Perspectives a heat wave starting in 2005 left roughly 60% of the coral cover in the Virgin Islands and 53% in Puerto Rico’s La Parguera Natural Reserve dead. This is an unprecedented tragedy.

Coral reefs consist of a variety of colors shapes and textures. Sometimes they echo the landscape on the ground, looking like a tall cacti , but many of the shapes you never find on land, like coral fans.

For a horticulturist, seeing the varieties of coral and the rich world it creates is like exploring a beautiful botanical garden. The problem is you don't want to get too close; you risk damaging the coral with your flippers and can get burned and scratched by it.

The amazing fish that would swim in and out of the coral were like watching people inhabit a busy building. Sometimes the coral was so busy and full of fish it was like Times Square.

One fish, though very beautiful, is quite dangerous, the Lion Fish. The Lion Fish is originally from the Pacific Ocean and has no known predators in all of the Atlantic. Their introduction is a result of hurricanes and tank releases during the early 1990’s. Due to their population explosion and aggressive behavior, Lion fish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem. In Puerto Rico, the government offers $1 for every dead Lion Fish someone turns in. Also, some restaurants have started serving Lion Fish which is said to be tasty. I think dealing with invasive species through culinary strategies is a great idea!

Photo by Josh Horwitz!

After a week in Puerto Rico, Eric and I traveled to St. Johns for a week. This will have to be a whole other blog, but I do want to share some images of the exciting larger wildlife we saw underwater, such as nurse sharks, reef sharks, spotted eagle sting rays, and green sea turtles. Scary but fun!


  1. Gorgeous photos. All information is so interesting. Thanks Marni! We're about to head to PR ourselves.