Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Tropical Escape: Puerto Rico - Southern Coast

     On our third full day, we drove to the city of Ponce where we walked the vacant blocks of buildings that appear cute and picturesque but surely show the toll the economy has taken on them. We did visit the Parque de Bombas, a small fire fighters museum that sits between two plazas. We stayed in an AirBNB in a little neighborhood  in Ponce that was perfect and near the boardwalk where we found kiosks to enjoy dinner and people watching.
     We also stayed in Ponce so we could do some snorkeling with Paradise Scuba in Parguera. What a great decision it was to go with these guys. They knew the reef, the life that thrived in the reef, and are all certified divers- so you feel very safe. I recommend them for first timers and the experienced! While the weather took a turn for the worse, canceling our trip to the Bioluminescent Bay, we were still super satisfied with our snorkel in the reef. We may have called this day our favorite of them all, because honestly, nothing beats snorkeling, swimming, and mermaiding out in the middle of February, while New York was experiencing its coldest temperatures of the winter!

Pigeon on the left, totally sunning itself -- oh yeah, I adore pigeons!
I didn't realize this guy had one leg, what tough nugget! He hopped around, seemingly doing alright, and I really liked his plumage.
So, since I dropped my good camera into a stream, I am using a small, water proof point and shoot-- but still, HOW CUTE IS THIS GROUND DOVE?! 
Just for comparison sake-- this pint sized dove is just so darn cute! 
After roaming around a very warm Ponce, we checked into our place, donned our bathing suits and got on a boat to snorkel the offshore reefs!
A cnidarian, the upside down jellyfish. These dudes pulsate, upside down on the floor of the reef, I have only seen them in aquariums, it was so cool to see one in the wild. Our guide showed this guy to us before letting it scoot back down to the bottom. What a gorgeous, cool creature!
Jellyfish have no eyes, they have one opening to eat through, they are as prehistoric a creature you can get. They have no face, they have no central nervous system, and they have been here for millions of years! Amazing!
A very squishy sea cucumber. This animal is an echinoderm-- like urchins and sea stars. They might not be the most attractive of creatures, but this guy was super squishy and I don't think anyone else other than myself and husband were willing to gently handle and touch this guy. The squeemish factor among the other snorkelers was pretty fun.
Soft and hard corals, the sea fans were so pretty, swaying in the little current that there was. Oh yeah-- these are animals, cnidarians, like the upside down jellyfish. Doesn't it blow your mind that what most people think are pretty rocks or plants are actually creatures, animals!
A brain coral and a longspine squirrelfish. The squirrelfish can vocalize, making grunts and short "staccato" sounds. These fish are eaten by people and also popular in aquarium collections.
I am able to ID the yellow and blue fish- both are Blue Tangs! Juveniles are yellow, as they age they turn blue with a yellow tail, until they mature as a fully blue fish.
Another urchin, they told us this is a red urchin, but I need to do some digging and get proper ID on this guy. There are over 900 species of urchin, maybe I can narrow it down...
Brittle stars are also echinoderms, these spiny brittle stars are really mobile, they crawled over our hands with their spindly arms. It looks so alien and foreign from what we know up on land. They have far more spindly arms than the more familiar sea stars. These were fascinating little creatures and so cool to feel them crawl about!
This urchin had short spines and in comparison to my hand, rather fat. It reminded me so much of a hedgehog in appearance- which is probably what helped in putting these animals in the class "Echinoidea." Echino is latin for spiny or hedgehog-- so those folks who categorized and named these guys were onto something!
One thing there are lots of in the ocean... WORMS! There are so many different kinds of worms, far more than the earthworms we are familiar with. I had to do some review from my invertebrate zoology knowledge from my undergrad days, so I am glad I can still utilize and enjoy what I studied in college!
This worm is called a Christmas Tree Worm, well because, honestly-- it's a little tree! These guys usually grow on coral-- here it sits on a brain coral. They belong to a class of worms called Polychaete worms, also called bristle worms. These colorful little bristles are for feeding and respiration. They bore into the corals where they then secret a tube which become their permanent home, as once they are established become sedentary. And if you get too close or brush up against one, they retreat super quick into the safety of their little tube home.
This trumpet fish just hovered over this coral ledge. They open are vertical to blend in with their surroundings. They have an upturned mouth and just like another fish with an upturned mouth, the sea horse-- it is no surprise they are closely related!
How adorable is this little lettuce sea slug? Sea slugs are gastropods, like snails and gastropods are mollusks- like clams, and octopus. The lettuce sea slug mainly eats algae, but can retain chloroplasts (Bio review: those are the things that make plants and algae green and help them turn sunlight, CO2 and water into sugar and oxygen). So by retaining chloroplasts in those frilly appendages, they can actually make their own food as the chloroplasts continue to function. So if food is scarce they still have a source of nutrition. I mean, seriously, if that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what to say. I want that capability! And I am more than happy to have the consequence of having to be green!
Our guide helped me get this photo of 7 or 8 spiny lobsters hiding in a coral cavern. It took me some time to realize that lobster is so popular here... not Maine lobster, but these guys. They are clawless and have prominent spiny appendages in their stead.
Also a polychaete like the Christmas tree worms, these are feather duster worms- you can see some of their tubes they retreat into.
A juvenile yellowtail damselfish- this guy was smaller than my hand, darting out of the coral that clearly he claimed as his. If you got too close to fish's spot, they were willing to let you know by chasing you, no matter what their size!
I think this is a sandfish sea cucumber. This sea cuke was rigid and really looked unappetizing. Honestly it looks like poo. Let's just say he was the least popular one when it came to the rest of the group. My favorite part of my invertebrate zoology textbook was a poem about a sea cucumber...
"A lovely young starfish quite famous
Had a crush on a sesa cuke named Amos.
She thought he was hot
'til she uttered in shock,
"My God! This guy breathes through his anus!"
- Chip Biernbaum College of Charleston

...Yes sea cucumbers respire through their anus via a structure called the respiratory tree.

A juvenile stoplight parrotfish. Now these guys are complicated... this color is called the initial phase. This fish is either male or female AND can change sex if population densities of males to females are low. There is another color phase called the terminal phase, those are always male. Some fish are born male and stay male, while others are born/male female with the ability to change sex. It is amazing and confusing and the Florida Museum of Natural History has more detailed information on all this!
A sea star that I need to find an ID for.

I think this is a red cushion sea star, it was huge! 
Like it is the size of my head big!
A cool reflective photo of the reef. Warm water corals must live in clear, warm water where they have access to the sun. They are also very sensitive to temperature. The slightest fluctuations could mean death for corals as their symbiotic algae can only work so well within a specific temperature range. This algae gives coral its coloration and additional nutrition, coral provides a safe place to live. If temps rise and the algae cannot function and produce nutrients properly, the coral gives it the boot for low productivity- the corals then turn white, a phenomenon called bleaching. This is a serious issue with the average temperature of our world rising along with sea levels. Bleaching usually ends in death for the coral, an animal that may have lived hundreds of years and then died due to our impact on the environment.
I found this little stone crab on my own, I thought he was super cute. Apparently he is delicious too, but I let him go back into the sand I found him in. Instead of eating crabs, we were rewarded on board with empanadas y cervezas. But honestly, what was Ariel thinking, under the sea is surely where things are vivid, awesome, and unique!