We didn't just get to jump right into research when we arrived. It took me nearly 6 weeks to get to the point where I could actually conduct research dives. It wasn't enough to know the names of these corals. I had to learn them inside and out. I had to know the minuscule differences in the shape, texture, size and colors that set the corals apart to the species level, and I needed to be nearly perfect. The data we collected was actually being used to develop a baseline for the overall health of the reef, so there was no room for error. Most of our dives in the first few weeks were coral spotting dives. During these a staff member would point out the corals and we would need to write the full scientific name on a slate. They would point out anywhere from 20-30 corals and we needed to get all but one correct in order to pass the spot. And we needed to pass 3 coral spots to move on to the next level of training. At the same time, we also had to pass a written test which involved looking at images on the computer and guessing the corals. This test was even more difficult because the images were not always easy to see down to the corallite level. For the test you could not get more then 2 wrong.
Once you passed the coral test and the 3 coral spots, you were assigned to either CC or PI. Coral Communities learned more about the diseases which effect corals, while PI went on the learn more plants and species that make up the substrate of a coral reef. I was assigned to PI, or Point Intercept, which is one research technique in which you lay 30 or so meters of line and then record whatever you see on that line at every 25cm point. In order to do this properly the PI needs to not only be able to identify corals, but also algae, sponges, tunicates, anemones, marine grasses, or gorgonians (sea fans/rods), etc. For some reason I did much better at learning these, and in half the time it took me to pass all of my coral spots and exams I had passed my PI spots and exams and was ready to move onto the 3rd level of training, practice monitoring. When a coral team monitors a site, there is a PI specialist and and CC specialist who work together. The PI chooses the bearing and makes sure the bearing stays the same while the CC lays 30 meters of line. The PI also has to make sure that the 30 meters of line never deviates more than 1 meter in depth from end to end. If it does, then the line must be reeled in and another bearing chosen. Once the line is laid both monitors go to the beginning of the line to begin the data collection. The PI goes first recording whatever is under the line at each 25cm interval, and the CC follows up recording any coral diseases along the line. At least 5 of these monitors are preformed at each site in order to close the site, and the 5 monitors must be completed within 10 days of the first monitor. If you are very quick, and depending on the conditions of the site, a team could complete 2 lines during a single dive. Which brings me back to the practice monitoring. We would go out with a seasoned staff member who would show us how to lay the line and tips on how to move quickly along the line while monitoring. Then they would score us on actually completing a full line by following after us and recording what they saw at each interval and then comparing it to our list. If the discrepancy wasn't too high (because there was always some discrepancy due to the line moving and whatnot), we would pass the test. We needed to pass three of these practice monitors in order to be signed off to do real monitoring.
I actually passed these practice monitors pretty quickly, and moved onto monitoring before anyone else in my group. So, I was able to go out with staff members to begin actually monitoring the reef. I even got quick enough, that my partner and I were able to complete 2 lines on a single dive. The sites we monitored were not the ones we normally did our practice dives at, in fact, in order to keep the data clean we were not allowed at the sites unless we were monitoring, which happens every 2-5 years if I'm not mistaken. One of the sites I went to was horrible and brown and boring, but another was absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous giant branching Acropora Palmatas, or Elkhorn Corals, a species that nearly became extinct in the Caribbean due to disease, but are coming back slowly.
I also got to lead coral watches. For these I would work with a partner and we would choose 20 corals along a line and record their lightest and darkest colors using a color chart and flashlight. Corals, when healthy, are generally a single deep color, with maybe white edges where it is growing. The further apart the colors we recorded, the more unhealthy the coral.
It was very cool to know that I was contributing to the data that would help scientists determine the heath of the 2nd largest barrier reef system in the world. They could then use the information we provided to lobby for environmental protection and change in policy. I really learned so much during my time at Pez Maya, and I'll probably never dive again without noticing and naming all of the different corals I pass. I hope that one day I can use this knowledge in some way.