Our sampling trip was once again a quick one - a mad dash down to Puerto Rico's southern coast - returning with samples of coral tissue and mucus and surrounding seawater for microbial community analysis.
This trip we had a special treat: an Caribbean oceanside view of Wednesday night's lunar eclipse.
As always, the trip was too short, leaving much more to learn and explore.
As always, it was nice to wake up and walk out on the balcony and enjoy the stillness of the morning.
Our collaborator, who has an intimate working knowledge of the reefs on Puerto Rico's southern coast, told us that he has observed a 53% loss in the coral cover of this region over the past 4 years. That's a tough statistic - however, on a more optimistic note, this season he has observed a lessening of the intensity and severity of several diseases, raising questions about the adaptation of these corals to disease (with increased ability to ward off disease) and the natural cycle of the pathogens responsible.
(A segment of Acropora cervicornis tissue).
There were still iguanas. Lots and lots of ignuanas. But it seems that someone is now doing a genetic study on Isla Mayaguez's iguana population - and the results may lead to the removal/extermination of the animals. It seems that the iguana population is the result of a pair of iguanas left behind when Isla Mayaquez was a zoo - and that the animals are not native to the area. Additionally, people have been dumping off their 'pet' iguanas on the island, and they have been hybridizing with the original population.
(And in a somewhat sporadic laboratory tradition, we took the lab's rat along for any potentially interesting photo opportunities...hence, 'The Laboratory Rat and Iguana Series' - destined to become a classic.)
The flora was - as usual - spectacular, but I was remiss and really captured very few images. The next time I make one of these mad dashes, I need to remember to take a pocket book on the flora of Puerto Rico along with me, because, quite honestly, I know next-to-nothing about what I am seeing. I can recognize a mango - and a few other trees, but that is about it. And so much was in bloom! There were so many mysterious blooms - and I need to learn more about them. Next time.
This flower was from a tree on the island - it had a wonderful fragrance and seemed to be quite common.
We were able to get all of the sampling done on Wednesday, so Thursday - after we finished packing up the samples and meeting with our collaborator - the eclair-making postdoc and I took off for the, yep, you got it - the ever-so-intriguing extraterrestrial highway to the west of La Parguera.
The countryside was just beautiful.
There were trees that I couldn't identify - and a type of flowering fig lining the roads - and hillsides covered in cacti - and the wind was strong and a beautiful light brown-gold grass was 'waving' as grasses often do. All of this within eyesight of that blue, blue water.
Several years ago, it seems, the Mayor of Lajas, PR named Route 303 the 'Ruta Extraterrestre' since the area seems to be a hotbed of UFO activity. Evidently the eclair-making postdoc saw a special the last time he was down in PR sampling about this road - so I gladly agreed that it only made perfect sense to go in search of the road and it's infamous green sign. Tonight, as I was trying to find something online about Route 303, I came across this article (pasted in below, dated today) from UFODigest - you've just gotta love it - a UFO landing strip to welcome extraterrestrials!! Here's what they wrote:
LAJAS, Puerto Rico Mayor Marcos Irizarry's is supporting the building of a UFO landing strip to welcome extraterrestrials that are frequently seen over the area. A green sign in southwestern Puerto Rico proudly displays a silhouette of a flying saucer and two words: "Extraterrestrial Route," for Route 303.
Lajas support for the idea has provoked outrage among islanders who complained it would be a waste of money. Mayor Irizarry quickly clarified that his municipal government would not invest in the project but would help Reynaldo Rios get the proper building permits to attract tourists to his small town. The majority of the people in the town have seen UFOs and other strange phenomenon. "It's a very mysterious place," said Irizarry, who says he once saw red lights zigzagging above the hills. Francisco Negron, the farmer who put up the sign and allows UFO watchers to gather at his ranch, volunteered his property for the landing strip. They estimate the project could cost up to $100,000. They claim they heard a boom and saw the hill go up in flames when a UFO crashed on the hill in 1997.. The mayor hopes that UFO enthusiasts will flock to Lajas. Hundreds of visitors have already come to check out the Extraterrestrial Route since the new sign went up, Irizarry said.
Lajas is unique because of its numerous UFO sightings and Laguna Cartagena National Wildlife Refuge and lagoon that is known for bird watching.
Besides UFOs, 127 different types of birds have been observed as well as balls of light coming and going into the water. At 10:30 PM, on May 30, 1987, a large red buzzing ball of light was seen descending into the lagoon. At 2:AM on May 31st, people in the area were awakened by a blinding white light and saw a huge disc shaped object with brilliant lights circle slowly over the water, as if looking for something. The following afternoon at 1:55 a huge underground explosion followed by a tremor shook the area. Cracks opened in the ground and cobalt blue smoke issued from them.
As if an earthquake followed by blue smoke wasn't jarring enough, residents whose houses bordered the lagoon were forcibly evacuated by members of the U.S. military in grey HUMVEE's and tan four-wheel drive vehicles sporting radar-like rotating antennae on their tops. As they were being herded away from their homes, residents saw men in what appeared to be decontamination suits sweeping the ground with long-handled devices reminiscent of metal detectors and taking samples of water, plants, mud and grass. The next day a helicopter lowered an instrument package into the lagoon. For the next several days witnesses saw a strange flying dumbbell come in from over the sea and hover over the lagoon. It was a metallic cylinder with large balls of greenish-white light on the ends and a beacon-like red and blue light on its underside. During the next several days reports of UFO activity in the area increased dramatically, but also a large four engine commercial jet made a low pass over the lagoon.
Lajas is also unique in having its main highway designated as an Extraterrestrial Route. To add to the mystery the U.S. military has set up an aerostat tethered blimp with a radar system on the edge of town. A similar blimp is at Cudjoe Key near Key West, Florida. The military says the radar is to detect low-flying drug smuggling planes.
The aerostat is a large fabric envelope filled with helium. It can rise up to 15,000 feet while tethered by a single cable, which has a maximum breaking strength of 26,000 pounds. For security and safety reasons, the air space around Air Force aerostats is restricted for a radius of at least two statute miles and an altitude up to 15,000 feet. The smallest aerostat is about twice the size of the Goodyear Blimp. The 275,000 cubic foot, aerodynamically shaped balloon measures 175 feet long by 58 feet across the hull, with a tip-to-tip tail span of 81 feet. The aerostat system lifts a 1,200 pound payload to operating altitude for low-level radar coverage. Many people believe the true purpose of the radars are to detect UFOs rather than drug runners. It is likely both drug runners and UFOs are detected.
So we flew out of San Juan this morning - knowing a bit more about the coral world that we are studying, not much more about the flora of this tropical island - and we traveled down a road where UFOs - actually USOs (unidentified submersible objects) seem to be a frequent visitor.
It felt good to get out of my world, if only for a few days.