UWI student blogs on her 1st coral reef research project

UWI Project student describes her first experience of coral reef surveying in Discovery Bay, Jamaica

Below is a snapshot from one of Dr Suzanne Palmer’s final year undergraduate project students – Chanel describes her first experience of data collection whilst scuba diving for her final year undergraduate project – all in the name of science!

Hi, I am Chanel Raynor a final year student in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica majoring in Marine Biology.

I have the privilege of doing a research project on a coral reef on the north coast of Jamaica and was based at Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory to carry out my data collection.  Methodology requires me to lay transects at different depths and record coral reef life forms present, this will be compared to data collected in 1986 which was published by Wilkinson and team in 2013. I undertook the first set of data collection in March 2014 and here is an account of my experience.

[Day 1]  The following was written MOMENTS after getting off the boat and running back to my room….

Hit the water at 10:30 am….got 1 15m transect  done.  The sea was as Kimani put it “MURDER DEATH KILL worst than Tern Cay”
I wasn’t feeling 100% from earlier in the morning but I pushed through and focused on the task ahead.

I was fine in the water until half way through the transect, then all hell broke lose; I suddenly had the urge to ‘Go’ if you catch my drift. My breathing rhythm was all over the place as a result which messed with my buoyancy control. I could have pressed on but by the end of transect 1 was under 1000psi and was not breathing with ease. Dive buddies signaled a assent then we made our way to the surface.

We dropped off approximately 100m away from the boat, in all the excitement we forgot to use our navigation skills to meet the boat at depth. The swim to the boat was a test of our fitness and resolve. I honestly wanted to give up, and the feeling intensified when I got a muscles contraction in one of my legs. So we pressed on the voice of Dory from ‘Finding Nemo’ singing “just keep swimming just keep swimming” resonated in my mind while we battled storm- like waves and strong currents determined to sweep us westwards along the reef. The boat is now only a couple feet from me and I feel like I just swam for my life!

All aboard we head for land; I sat on the floor of the boat, unsure if I’m even able to stand. As if we hadn’t  had enough the large swells send the the boat leaping into the air crashing painfully back into the water, the ride back seemed much much longer than before.

Made a dash for the flats but not before thinking
‘Land ho!’

Tomorrow should be much better based on the weather forecast, I have one day of experience (HELL) under my belt and plan to have an early start.


[Day 2]
Woke up at 5AM. The plan was to hit the water at 7 but I guess someone couldn’t wake up. Waited till around 8:45. But in the mean time I made sure I had all my equipment in order and went over pointers to improve efficiency of collecting data.

The sea looked ‘moody’ not as bad as yesterday but we stared at it, watched the storm clouds move from directly over the shipping channel to DIRECTLY over my research site – or close enough.

We went out and it was beautiful, more relaxed and I was able to complete all transects and take in the scenery of the Dancing Lady Reef, as the locals call it. We even got a lesson in driving the boat, fun times!

Special thanks to Dr. Suzanne Palmer, my supervisor for charging through all the administrative red tape, organizing everything down to last detail and giving me this opportunity. Thanks to my dive buddies Achsah Mitchell and Kimani Kitson Walters without you and I’d be half way down the coast of Jamaica by now, and to Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory staff  for facilitating my research including accommodations and assisting in the field.



Class field trip to Lime Cay – Coral ID!

Blog posts and photos of field trip to Lime Cay with Caribbean Coral Reef class 2014

Suzanne Palmer – Over the past few weeks I have been taking out my final year undergraduate class to Lime Cay where they have been putting all their theory and lab skills into practice in identifying corals to species level and using coral monitoring techniques to collect quantitative data. For some, being out to sea snorkeling all day and learning to duck dive has been a very new and challenging experience. In trying to capture and share some of the students experiences I have collected a few blog posts and podcasts from the various trips. Check out all ~50 photos at bottom of page (click to enlarge). Podcasts coming soon!

Below are some of the blog posts from students after their first field trip to Lime Cay: the first two are from students who went out on the first trip when we had perfect snorkeling weather, the last post is from a student who went out on the 2nd trip when the weather was not quite so perfect!

Scientist in the making – Ashley Codner

“The first Coral Reef field exercise to Lime Cay was fun and informative. The trip put into perspective what we learned in the classroom. The lecture became clearer and the information gathered from both experiences is now firmly cemented in my brain. My classmates and I are now coral experts! Pointing out corals we see on field excursions for other courses like we’ve been doing it for years. Swimming around the cay was a work-out! We all made it back in one piece. The trip was a success. A big Thank You to the staff at PRML for their supervision in the field. I’m looking forward to our next trip to Lime Cay. I have a few days to build up my endurance! ”

Opening my eyes to world of corals – Bianca Brown

“I had my very first snorkelling experience at Lime Cay almost exactly 8 years ago. Having experienced seeing fish in Turks and Caicos on a trip the year before, I had begged my parents to buy me a snorkel set and was eager to see the kind of fishes I could spot here in Jamaica. Going to Lime Cay last week for our Caribbean Coral Reefs practical brought back memories as vivid as the massive sunburn I received on my shoulders that day

I remember looking down into the water and seeing small brightly coloured fish and other fish I had never seen before. This included a particularly bright blue and yellow one that I kept referring to as “Dory” from Finding Nemo. I also remember following what I now know was a Lizardfish out into deeper waters where I glimpsed something more frightening – a Sunfish.  The only corals I could identify back then were fan and brain corals.

However, having learned more about coral reefs these past few weeks have made me regret not paying attention to the other various corals there the first time around. Now I can only try to imagine what they looked like 8 years ago since so much has changed since then. The highlights of this trip included seeing  and attempting to identify the various types of stony corals found around Lime Cay, seeing a shark for the first time in real life, no sunburn, and no fire coral or Diadema incidents. Thank you Dr. Palmer for opening my eyes to view coral reefs in a way I never did before.”

Rough weather = rather different experience! Chavelle K. Kassie

“Clear, blue skies and choppy waves marked the start of a long day at Lime Cay for BIOL3409 Lab stream 2. The skies were fairly clear, but the air was windy, which was an indicator of the rough waters that would greet us along the reefs. When we got to our destination, after what felt like decades, we were instructed as to how we should disembark. It was fun climbing over the sides of the boat in flippers and snorkeling masks. Not everyone was having a blast because soon enough someone started to freak out in the water and the life buoy had to be thrown out for support. The water was not very chilly, but the waves were crazy rough. They were able to lift us up and carry us from one to another far point. Each group seemed to stick together relatively well, but the water conditions made it rather difficult to attain as much information as was expected of us. We eventually made our way back to the boats.

We were then taken to the other side of the cay where the back reef was located. The water here was much calmer, shallower and clearer. The coral identification went well and soon enough it was time for lunch, after which we trekked back to the windward side of the island to the reef flat for more identification of corals.

The final task of the day was to practice duck diving. The demonstrators did a pretty good job explaining what was to be done as well as demonstrating the technique of duck diving. After a rather short session of attempting to get to the bottom of the water column, we then packed up and climbed aboard the boats. We made our way back to Port Royal laboratory fairly satisfied and not as exhausted as was anticipated.”

Manatee Bay field trip – project students experience!

Check out Ashley’s thoughts & photos of her experience on field work at Manatee Bay!


Yesterday we revisited Manatee Bay in Hellshire as part of Ashley Codner‘s undergraduate research project (Department of Life Sciences, University of the West Indies). Ashley is investigating the modern ostracod assemblage and water chemistry across the lagoon. The work forms part of an ongoing broader environmental and palaeoenvironmental project at Manatee Bay (http://www.caribbeanenvironments.com/research/sedimentary-records.php). Thank-you to Chanel Raynor, also an undergraduate in the department, for her assistance in the field. Many thanks to the guys at Port Royal Marine Lab for arranging logistics and facilitating the trip.

Manatee Bay is within the Hellshire Hills, Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA), a globally recognised hotspot for endemic biodiversity. Check out more details on Manatee Bay: http://www.caribbeanenvironments.com/blog/2013/04/field-trip-to-manatee-bay/.

After a couple of stormy days the weather settled down so we had both a successful and beautiful day out at Manatee Bay. Check out the post below on Ashley’s thoughts of her experience! Click on photos of the trip to enlarge.

Suzanne & Mike

Ashley’s experience

After attending a Geography lecture by Dr Burn in second year about Manatee Bay I developed a desire to visit. However, timetable clashes forced me to leave the department, so I figured I would probably never get the opportunity. Luckily for me I got the chance!  Dr Burn and Dr Palmer, who work in Manatee Bay, agreed to supervise my research project.

A lingering trough resulted in a bumpy ride that left me thinking “what the heck did I get myself into”. As the boat approached Manatee Bay all that was forgotten; it was all worth it. The bay was gorgeous. When you first see the lagoon is like a scene from a National Geographic documentary, breathe taking.

This field exercise gave me the opportunity to see a part of Jamaica that most do not get the chance to see first-hand and allowed me to apply textbooks and lectures to real life scenarios.  Our team work strategy and efficiency got us through the day fairly quickly. After a while I forgot that we were working because it became so much fun. Who says field work has to be growling, we were having a ball!

It was nice to get a break from busy Kingston and be one with nature at one of the island’s secluded gems. More importantly, I was able to link theory to practical, developing my skills for future study and work. Thank you Dr. Burn and Dr Palmer for this opportunity!

Click on photos to enlarge







Happy New Year!

Happy New Year and a quick update on some of our recent activities!

Happy New Year!

Since August it has been crazy and although we have managed to post regular photos of field trips and topical posts on Facebook/Twitter have not managed to get any blog posts completed. Here are some of the things we have been up to!

New angle of research: Suzanne continues to work on her palaeoenvironmental research but has also become more involved with developing various coral reef projects in Jamaica including coral reef monitoring efforts. She is currently the Chairman of the University dive club and hopes to get more students trained as regular divers and involved in reef monitoring activities – here is to more diving in 2014!

Trip to UK: Mike headed back to the UK in October for a NERC-sponsored meeting at UCL, London with the research team. He also presented at the UCL Departmental Seminar series where his current work on drought records and hurricane activity in the Caribbean was extremely well received – nice work Mike!

Teaching: Since August 2013 Suzanne has been lecturing in the Department of Life Sciences, UWI Mona, Jamaica developing various courses (coral reef ecology, research and writing skills) and offering an interdisciplinary approach to the biologists!

Fieldwork in Jamaica: We continue to do the monthly trips to Wallywash Great Pond for lake water sampling and rainfall collection, and regular dive trips to Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory and Portland. We are looking forward to going out to the Manatee Bay, Hellshire next week with our new project student – blog & photos coming soon!

Watch this space for more research updates and output in 2014!

Mike and Suzanne

              What are you looking at?

Volunteer’s experience at lake coring in Jamaica

Coring trip to Wallywash Great Pond with 2 volunteers! Check out photos

We (Mike and Suzanne) recently revisited Wallywash Great Pond, St Elizabeth to carry out further sediment coring and monthly water sample collection. The fieldwork is part of a broader regional collaborative project to improve our understanding of changing natural rainfall and drought patterns in Jamaica over the last 1000 years.

This fieldtrip we were fortunate enough to get two volunteers to assist with coring: David Walters an undergraduate student in the Department of Geography and Geology, UWI and Yannique Ewers a recent graduate from the Department of Life Sciences, UWI. They formed the coring team for the weekend and proved excellent field assistants! We had an extremely successful weekend with early starts to avoid getting blown to the other end of the lake by late morning winds.

Scroll down for photos from the trip – click to enlarge.

Here is what David thought of his experience:

Most people dread getting out of bed for work, especially on weekends; but not Dr. Mike Burn and Dr. Suzanne Palmer. They live for the experience of trekking through ankle deep mud and setting up equipment at 7 am on a Saturday – all in the name of science.

The purpose of this particular expedition was to retrieve water and sediment samples from Wallywash Great Pond in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Understandably, taking water and “dirt” from a lake doesn’t seem very intriguing but with a bit of perspective and context you will soon fathom the enthusiasm of a young undergraduate being given the opportunity to be a part of science in action. These scientists are innovators in recreating past Caribbean environments. This is the same line of work that is responsible for programs on the Discovery Channel showing what a particular place looked like 1000 years ago. The material brought up from the lake will be very useful in putting together the picture. “Great! We’ll know what a pond looked like 1000 years ago” cue sarcasm from skeptical reader. This work however, is actually quite practical. Putting together this puzzle will help us to understand better the natural and human factors affecting rainfall in the Caribbean. This information then enables us to make accurate predictions about Caribbean rainfall in the future.

The textbooks began to make a lot more sense through the aid of this practical experience. As I assembled equipment out on the lake I thought many times “Oh, so that’s how it works!” This line of work is great if you are the adventurous type. It had a “National Geographic expedition” type feeling. So the wading through mud, pro rowing across a lake and working through the blistering sun is all to unravel the enigma that is past Caribbean environments. That makes it worthwhile and immensely exciting.

I must extend thanks to Dr. Mike Burn and Dr. Suzanne Palmer for giving me the opportunity to learn practically, to observe and make my miniscule contribution to science.

Diving trip to the north coast, Jamaica

Check out photos from latest diving trip

Dr Suzanne Palmer has just started as a lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences, University of the West Indies. As part of developing new research projects and building teaching materials we visited Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory on the north coast of Jamaica earlier this month to do some exploratory survey dives with DBML guys ‘Snow’ (O’Neill Holder) and ‘Skeggy’ (Dwayne Edwards).

Here are some photos of the trip (courtesy of Steve Palmer).

Water collection from Wallywash Great Pond

Recent trip to Wallywash Great Pond to collect ‘Month 2’ water samples – lake water, ground water & monthly rainfall


We went out 1st June to collect ‘Month 2’ water samples in St. Elizabeth, south coast of Jamaica as part of an ongoing collaborative NERC-funded Caribbean-wide research project involving partners from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and the Universities of London, Nottingham and Cambridge in the UK.

Water samples are being collected every month from Wallywash Great Pond (lake water and ground water sources). We also have a water collector set up to collect monthly rainwater samples. All the samples will be analysed to get a better understanding of the sources of rainfall in this area.

Together with analyses on sediment cores recovered from Wallywash Great Pond the project aims to establish a better understanding of changing natural rainfall and drought patterns in Jamaica over the last 1000 years.

This month the winds were up so rowing was quite a challenge! Despite rains picking up in Kingston during May the water collector was quite low in St. Elizabeth – wonder what June will bring?

Get rowing Mike!
High tech field equipment!
High tech field equipment!
Resting inbetween rowing!
Suzanne resting in between rowing!


Trip to South West Rock and Pedro Cay

Trip to South West Rock – southernmost point of Jamaica’s maritime jurisdiction and on to Pedro Cays


As representative for the Marine Geology Unit, University of the West Indies, Dr Suzanne Palmer recently joined members of the National Council of Ocean and Coastal Zone Management (NCOCZM) on a trip to South West Rock the southernmost point of Jamaica’s maritime jurisdiction, to collect a rock sample. The trip was organized by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Coastguard,

Part of the National Council of Ocean and Coastal Zone Management’s (NCOCZM) work is to publicize the importance of Jamaica’s archipelagic status to the general public.  The Jamaican archipelago encompasses mainland Jamaica, the cays and rocks within Jamaican waters which essentially extends Jamaica’s exclusive economic zone and access to living and non-living resources.

Two interviews were presented on TVJ’s Smile Jamaica highlighting the work of the Council, the importance of South West Rock and Jamaica’s archipelagic status:


Visit to South West Rock

Together with the Honourable Arnaldo Brown, Chair of the Council (Minister of State, Minstry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade) and other members of the Council we traveled with the JDF Coastguard to South West Rock. Having boarded the JDF Coastguard vessel ‘Surrey’ from the JDF Port Royal base, we set off overnight into the Caribbean Sea to South West Rock – a total distance of 115 miles. Upon arrival just before sunrise, we then transferred to a Rigid-hulled inflatable boat in order to get closer to the rock.

Click images for full version

JDF Coastguard 'Surrey'

The Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) had a team which was charged  to install a new light on the existing mast. Unfortunately, landing on the rock was impossible for installing the light because of the choppy seas. The conditions also meant that attempts to recover samples of the rock were also not possible. The mast remains, however, a flag that had been installed previously, has long been lost to the open sea.

South West Rock

Nevertheless, we do have a sample of the rock provided by the Port Authority of Jamaica that was recovered during the trip on which the original mast was installed. This sample is now being prepared for the Marine Geology Unit (http://www.mona.uwi.edu/geoggeol/mgu/) so that its mineralogy and provenance can be determined.

From South West Rock we went to Pedro Cays. Pedro Bank is one of the largest offshore banks in the Caribbean Basin and comprises a range of marine habitats including sand, coral reefs, deep reefs, sea grass beds, and three coral cays (the Pedro Cays). Pedro Bank plays an important commercial, biological and historical role since the area forms one of Jamaica’s main fishing grounds and is a primary harvesting area for the export of Queen Conch from the Caribbean region. It is not only considered a regionally important nesting habitat for sea birds but it also provides nesting grounds for endangered turtle species. The Pedro Cays have gained extensive media coverage over recent years due to intensive fishing, high human densities and their potential impact on the ecosystem. The drafting of the Cays Management Policy is currently underway (http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/list/32592).

Pedro Cays

We were escorted around Pedro Cays by a member of the JDF who is currently stationed there. We visited the JDF Coastguard quarters, the modern Nature Conservancy base (http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/caribbean/jamaica/placesweprotect/the-pedro-bank.xml), and the fishing grounds and living areas of the fishers.

Following our stop-off at Pedro Cays, we headed back to Port Royal which was a rather calmer experience than our outward journey!

I would like to thank the JDF Coastguard Commander and crew for their excellent service throughout the trip and enabling myself and other members of the National Council of Ocean and Coastal Zone Management (NCOCZM) to visit South West Rock in recognition of Jamaica’s archipelagic status.

Field trip to Manatee Bay – check out video!

Field trip to collect water and surface sediment samples from the lagoon during tropical dry season


We recently revisited Manatee Bay, Hellshire Hills, Jamaica as part of an extension on our ongoing work http://www.caribbeanenvironments.com/research/sedimentary-records.php. Manatee Bay is one of Jamaica’s most isolated beaches and as you can see from the photos is a stunning place – however the sand flies are persistent and you have to watch out for the stingrays as the shallow bays are a major spawning ground for the Southern Stingray!

Check out this video of us approaching Manatee Bay to see why it is only accessible by boat! http://youtu.be/SMu1bEJj7WA

Manatee Bay - carbonate beach

Manatee Bay – globally recognized biodiversity hotspot

The uniqueness and importance of Manatee Bay was illustrated by Professor Byron Wilson from Life Sciences, University of the West Indies (Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology & Head, Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group) where he has described the area as ‘containing the least disturbed and most valuable coastal habitat remaining on the island’. He stated that ‘together with a suite of endemic birds, invertebrates, and plants, and the most intact dry forest on the island, Hellshire is a treasure trove of Jamaica’s natural heritage, and is clearly the most important remaining natural coastal habitat left on the island.’ See link for full report http://www.jamentrust.org/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=123

Byron Wilson and his committed team continue their excellent work out in the Manatee Bay area including work on the Jamaican Iguanas, crocodiles and control of invasive species. http://m.jamaicaobserver.com/mobile/environment/Iguanas-making-a-comeback–but-still-under-threat_12365020. The whole team have been invaluable in assisting us with our work at Manatee Bay.

Hellshire Hills in the background Manatee Bay lagoon edge

Our Research

Our ongoing project is working on sediment cores that we recovered from the lagoon behind Manatee Bay and Coquar Bay http://www.caribbeanenvironments.com/research/sedimentary-records.php. The most recent component of the project is focusing on the ostracods. We are using ostracods to reconstruct changes in the environment over the last 1000 years.

As part of this work we are taking regular modern water samples and surface sediment samples from the lagoon. This field trip was during the latter stages of the tropical dry season. Note the drying out of the pond – watch out for future photos during the wet season!

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Mike Burn at Manatee Bay   Suzanne - sampling

Trip to Discovery Bay Marine Lab

Trip to Discovery Bay Marine Lab to meet with geoscientists from Penn State University and we went diving on the coral reefs


Last week Dr Suzanne Palmer and Dr Mike Burn headed to Discovery Bay Marine Lab, north coast of Jamaica to meet up with a group of geoscientists from Penn State University and to do some diving on the reefs.

The lab was founded in 1965 by Professor Thomas Goreau. The reefs in Jamaica were made famous by his pioneering work on coral reef zonation and geomorphology[1]. The research lab was opened after his death in 1970 (http://www.uwimona.edu.jm/cms/dbml.htm). As the main lab in Jamaica supporting marine research it is ideally located right at the water’s edge with the reef is in snorkeling distance from the lab!

The labs are home to the recently launched Hyperbaric Chamber in Jamaica – the only in Jamaica – which is looking right up-to-date and an important place to know about for us divers (http://www.uwimona.edu.jm/cms/dbml/facilities.html#chamber).

Penn State University visitors – developing collaborations

We were there to meet with Professor Lee Kump the Head of the Department of Geosciences, Penn State University (http://www.geosc.psu.edu/geosc-home). Professor Kump was over on his first field course to Jamaica with a group of undergraduates and postgraduates undertaking a Marine Biogeochemistry course.

The group had a very successful week at the marine lab and thoroughly enjoyed their first trip to Jamaica. The group snorkelled on the reefs to develop skills in reef identification, and took sediment cores and water samples to investigate water chemistry and how it varies in relation to geology and runoff. As usual the marine labs impressed with their enthusiastic staff, great facilities and perfect location in addition to excellent hospitality to fuel the fieldwork!

We are developing collaborations with the Department of Geosciences, Penn State University to see how joint field trips can be developed with the Department of Geography and Geology, University of the West Indies (http://myspot.mona.uwi.edu/dogg/). In addition there were stimulating discussions about our research interests and current projects and the ways we would like to collaborate on new research activities in Jamaica.

Checking out the coral reefs

Visiting Discovery Bay Marine Lab would not be complete without checking out the reefs and despite the seas blowing up since our arrival we were able to get out for two great dives in Discovery Bay. Our dive guide also did some lionfish culling which contributed to the menu at lunchtime! (http://www.uwimona.edu.jm/cms/research.html#lionfish). On surfacing from the first dive out on the fore reef the weather had blown up and so we took the boat into the more sheltered West Back reef. Here we did a great dive down to 25m depth and got to see parts of the fascinating Coral Reef Recovery Project (http://www.uwimona.edu.jm/cms/research.html#restore) and the various artificial reef modules that have been deployed. It was nice to see that in many places where Acropora sp. branches have taken hold – it will be interesting to go back and find out how this develops. Also on the dive we came across some of the various groundwater seeps which we would like to investigate further – the water coming out was freezing!


Great weekend – watch out for further updates about the collaborations and field trips!