After gobbling down a breakfast of sliced papaya, scrambled eggs, refried beans, and soft flour tacos, we gathered our gear and loaded it into the red zodiac that the station manager had assigned to us. My colleagues and I were headed to a pair of islands off the coast of Belize called Twin Cays, occupied by a unique group of tropical plants and animals adapted to a wet and saline habitat.
Our ride from Carrie Bow Cay, home of the Smithsonian Institution’s field station, took about twenty minutes because of the choppy water. As we crossed the three-kilometer stretch from Carrie Bow to Twin Cays, I struggled to keep my seat on the bouncing pontoon and was soon soaked by salt spray. As we neared Twin Cays, the deep blue of the lagoon gave way to the turquoise and pale green colors of the shallow sand flats in the lee of the archipelago. Finally, the zodiac slowed, and we pulled into the calm channel separating the two islands.
On either side of the channel was an intimidating tangle of tree trunks, branches, leaves, and aerial roots. The trees leaned out over the water and appeared poised to topple into the sea. However, they were perfectly still in the humid morning air and anchored solidly in place by arching prop roots. I sensed that I had entered an alien world, a waterlogged Terra Incognita that looked, smelled, and sounded like nothing I had ever experienced. As we slowly motored along, I peered more closely at the trees that fringed the shoreline. They had gnarled trunks and twisted branches that supported a canopy of dark green leaves. These trees were red mangroves or Rhizophora mangle, their scientific name, and were the dominant vegetation here.
These oceanic mangrove islands were intertidal, which means that the trees were inundated twice a day by the sea. Their intimate relationship with the sea, however, was most apparent along the water’s edge. Long, drop roots plunged from the canopy to dangle in the crystal-clear water. Encrusted on the submerged portions of the mangrove roots were yellow and orange sponges, white and pink anemones, sharp-edged oysters, and feathery-green algae. The mangroves, it turned out, provided the only solid substrate for these sessile creatures.
There were also mobile animals that I glimpsed as I leaned over the pontoon to peer into the pellucid water. Tiny fish flashed among the partially submerged roots as each one briefly flipped its body sideways to catch the sun glinting through the water. A school of mangrove snappers swam past the boat and disappeared under the overhanging creekbank, which created a shadowy haven from predators. Ribbons of turtlegrass, uprooted from the nearby reef flat, were draped on mangrove prop roots like green and brown tinsel. As the zodiac floated closer to shore, I spotted a mangrove tree crab, which stealthily crept up a tree trunk. In the distance, I could hear the hectoring cry of an osprey, as well as the periodic cheep-cheep of a mangrove warbler deeper in the forest. A soft breeze carried the faint odor of rotten eggs, which was caused by the microbially mediated production of hydrogen sulfide in the waterlogged soil.
This was my first close-up view of Belize’s mangroves. The year was 1985. The movie “Back to the Future” had just premiered, PLO terrorists had hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, five people had died after ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol, and Microsoft had just released Windows 1.0. I had recently gotten a Macintosh personal computer with 128k of memory (seemed like a lot back then) and was learning how to use Cricket Graph, my first software program. Until that point, I had been creating graphs by hand with ink-filled drawing pens, T-squares, and Letraset dry-transfer sheets. This was a time when the world seemed to be on the verge of dramatic changes—many that would impact me and my career as a scientist.