The first surveys that we did at camp were conch surveys (actually pronounced like conk – my whole life is a lie) and we started them whilst the group of dive trainees were still going on their Open Water qualification. We practiced what we were going to do on land first, because of course communication is somewhat limited when under water. The plan was to lay two transects, each 30m long, about five to ten metres apart from each other. Then a team of two divers would take the left side and a team of two would take the right side. We needed two and a half metres either side of the tape, gather in any conchs we found to the middle and then our science leader, Celso, would come along and measure the length of the shell and the thickness of the ‘lip’ of the shell. That information would be written down on a dive slate and then the tape would be wound up by a final pair of divers who also had to disperse the conchs from the transect line so they weren’t all so closely packed together. They don’t like that apparently.
Feeling, somewhat vaguely, like we knew what we were doing we set off for our dive site to measure some conchs.We pushed on out of the reef, through the rough waters of the channel and into the open water. When we reached Garden Wall, our surveying site, we hauled our kit up off the bottom of the boat and clipped ourselves in. Weight belts, BCDs, masks, fins, slates, an SMB, measuring board, tap measures and callipers all had to be remembered.We then did our pre-dive safety check which, as it always does, finished with,
“Mask on your face, air in your jacket and wait for the captain,” The boat captain would then wait for a break in the swell,
“Divers to the side,” Nico, our captain for that day, said after a moment. There was a loud clunking and thunking of tanks as we tried to manoeuvre the heavy gear so we could sit on the edge of the boat. Even after all this time I still get a little nervous flutter inside of me before rolling backwards into the water. Do I have everything? What could I have forgotten? Do I have enough air to float to the surface when I go in?
“Three, two, one – go.” Nico calls and we all lean backwards, one hand holding our masks and our regulators to our faces, the other hand holding on to our weight belts.
We all land in a cacophony of bubbles and fins.
Despite my worry I bobbed straight to the surface, as I always do, and signalled to the captain that I was alright. Then our boat marshal, Jemima, handed down all of our measuring equipment. We swam around to the front of the boat and, after a quick check that everyone was OK, we emptied the air from our jackets and began to sink.
We fell slowly through the still, blue water, descending slowly and carefully, making sure to equalise on the way down. When we all reached the sandy bottom, about 16m down, Celso (our Science Officer) started to unwind one of the tapes. He used a compass to keep it in a straight line and my buddy Ben and I waited at the other end with another buddy pair, Val and Dave. When we felt three strong tugs that was our signal to start. I looked at Ben, Val and Dave and motioned for us to start. I stayed on the inside, next to the tape, and Ben was on the outside. The conchs can be difficult to spot as the juveniles often bury themselves in the sand, leaving only a small piece of pointed shell poking out of the sand. Also the shells are so covered in sediment and turf algae that they often blend in with the other rocks that line the rubble-y sea bed.
A few minutes into the search I found my first conch. They really are very bizarre looking creatures. From the outside all you can see is two eyes that poke out on either sides of the shell. They’re almost like something out of Monsters Inc the way they poke out on little stalks, black pupils lined with pale yellow. Then when you pick them up it gets even stranger. You turn them over to check that the conch is alive and healthy and you can watch as its big, brown pointed foot curls into the shell. The ugly mud-colour of the flesh is such a stark contrast to the beautiful pinky smoothness of the lip of the shell, it’s difficult to imagine that they both come from the same organism. You can then watch as the foot and the eyes all get folded into the safety of the shell until all that is left to see is a smooth brown surface nestled inside the shiny peach-coloured shell.
Once you found a conch you placed it on the transect tape, in line with where you found it, so that Celso could come and measure them. It quickly became apparent that you needed to leave the conchs on the tape facing upwards, otherwise they had a tendency to try and make a very slow, but persistent, getaway.
We had multiple sites to survey for the conchs. In total I think it was about eight of them and some were definitely more densely populated than others. In one site we found thirty nine conchs across our two transect tapes and in another we found absolutely none. In the less fruitful sites I worried as I felt my attention wander, fearful that I might miss a conch and skew the data. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re in an environment without the ability to talk. This may sound counter-intuitive but when you’re diving the only sounds you can hear are those of your inhalations and exhalations and occasionally that of the people around you as well. Thoughts wander. Now I don’t think that I did miss any conchs, because if I felt I might have been careless I would slowly waft myself back a metre or so and then go again.
It’s a peculiar feeling because having been at school all this time, none of the data that I’ve collected in my life has ever actually mattered. Oh your yeast didn’t respire in the way you were expecting? Just make up some points to plot on a graph. You screwed up the seal of the gas syringe when collecting CO2? You know what the numbers should have been. I’ve gotten used to a certain ‘oh whatever’ attitude to data collection that I now have to unlearn. It slightly scared me that if I fucked up then that would mean the data would be incorrect and it would be my fault. And the data actually matters here. We’re finding out numbers that will affect the conservation and preservation of the species that live in these waters. Now I know that one conch isn’t going to change how the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve gets managed, but it does matter. Or at least it really matters to me.