Bananas on red Maui dirt

Although we don’t have tons of free time, we have to find some time to relax! Using some water color paper (which we sometimes use to press algae), and some cheap water colors I painted some bananas inspired by a bunch of bananas we received from a friend.

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Eaten alive… and other words

I’ve been in Maui for 3.5 weeks now, and I feel as though I’m being eaten alive. Not in a morbid zombie horror movie way, but in a “mosquitoes find me absolutely delectable” way. Each day I wake up with anywhere between 2 and 20 new bug bites. For the first week or so I strongly resisted purchasing/ using bug spray – it’s essentially poison and can’t be good for me or anything else for that matter! After a particularly bad day when I discovered 16 bites, I finally caved and bought a can of Off!, which I found (fittingly) right next to the Raid bug poison – perfect. I’ve been using it intermittently, trying to reserve it only for times when I know I will be standing outside for prolonged periods of time. This helped a little, and for a while I only woke up with 1 or 2 new bites each day – except today. Yesterday I sprayed myself more than usual, too. I coated myself with the stuff when I woke up, again between dives, after my last dive while we were changing the water on our algae experiment, and one last time right before bed – I practically bathed in the stuff! Today I woke up with at least 8 new bites, most of them on my arms and legs (which I sprayed thoroughly), and an additional one on my forehead and one behind my ear – of course, the only places I didn’t spray with bug spray! So, while my coworkers are suffering from a bite or two, here and there, I am quite literally being eaten alive. Resisting the urge to itch is downright maddening and very important, as infection is a very real risk to open wounds exposed to the bacteria in sea water. Also, let’s not forget, the little buggers are vessels for West Nile and Malaria. Luckily I’ve been briefed on signs and symptoms, just in case.

In other news, we’re still in the water for most of everyday, either diving or snorkeling and surveying fish all the while. We’ve recently started counting baby fishes, and they are sooo cute! At this point I think I’ve memorized the scientific names of most of the herbivorous and most common reef fishes of Hawaii.

I have many posts to come that I simply haven’t had the time to write yet. Last weekend we went for a night dive at Kapalua Bay to watch the rice coral (Montipora capitata) spawn. I didn’t take any pictures, but there are some great videos and pictures that I would love to steal from my coworkers here, so I’m waiting to write that post. A few nights ago we went up to Big Beach to watch some baby Hawksbill turtles hatch. We weren’t able to get very close, so most of my pictures aren’t very good, and (again) I’ll have to get some quality ones from Emily. The last exciting update I have is that we went on a “fun” dive yesterday at Mala after our morning “work” dive. That one I do have pictures from, and it’s only a matter of uploading and editing those and writing that post – no easy feat with such limited time! I’ll just say for now that it was an incredible dive and very different from any of our other sites! I loved it!

Another lovely sunset panorama. Thanks for stopping by.

Limu

A huge part of the research that goes on in the Smith lab involves algae and seaweed – known as limu here in Hawai’i. The study of algae and seaweed is called phycology, and the scientists who study it are phycologists. Phycology is an essential field of study in the world of coral reef ecology, as we must understand the role and behavior of the algae that inhabits coral reef ecosystems as much as we understand that of the invertebrates (including corals) and the fishes.

Emily and I are currently carrying out an experiment with a few different types of limu – a leafy, green species that looks like lettuce (Ulva) and a spiky, branched species (Acanthophora spicifera). For this experiment we collected as much limu as we could fit into a cooler from a site with very high nutrient input. We then transported the limu to a friend’s house where we will be carrying out our experiments. Everyday we transport about 80 gallons of seawater from a site with very low nutrient input to our experimental site. Half of our experimental tanks are fertilized and the other half are not. Once we have enriched the limu, we will place them out in the ocean to see if the herbivores show a preference for limu with high or low nutrients.

Our limu enrichment set up

Not a bad view

The purpose of this experiment is to discover if fish prefer limu that is high in nutrients. If they do, then this relationship could help to mitigate the increase in algal cover due to nutrient input from terrestrial runoff and pollution.

I haven’t had much time to blog lately, since I’ve been too busy lugging 5-gallon jugs of water around. I move about 40 gallons of sea water a day from the ocean to the car, and from the car into the tanks. It’s hard work, but it’s fulfilling to see progress and to be able to walk away at the end of the day knowing I’ve accomplished something. It’s also a great workout!

I have so many things to post about, but they may have to wait a little while. Stay tuned for stories about coral spawning, night dives, and more research adventures!

Second Skin

I spend between 2 and 6 hours of each day in the water. By now my wetsuit has become my second skin. So, you might be asking yourself “What the heck does she do during all that time underwater?!” The answer is SCIENCE!

There are a few key things we do in the water, depending on our schedule. Most of our time is spent making behavioral observations on various species of fishes – namely herbivores of the surgeonfish/tang and parrot fish families. We pick out a fish, start our timer, follow it around for 3-5 minutes, and count how many bites of algae (or whatever else…) it takes during that time. We also identify the functional group (turf, macroalgae, cyanobacteria, etc.) and genus of the alga, to the best of our ability – easy, right? Not as easy as it sounds! I never thought counting could be so difficult.

First problem: Fish eat really fast! Some of the species we study take as many as 100 bites per minute! Look away for even just one second and you’ve missed a significant number of bites.

Second problem: Fish are indecisive and have short attention spans. Ok, I’m anthropomorphizing a bit, but seriously – one second they’re grazing over the sand, the next they’re on a turf-covered rock, and then they’re back on the sand again… and then they hide under a big head of Porites coral. This means memorizing multiple numbers of bites for different types of substrate and keeping them straight without losing your place or confusing them with each other. As before, look away for a second and the fish might not be there when you get back. 

Third problem: Some fish like to travel in schools – and they all look the same. Once again, look away, and you’re trying to find one fish in an army of clones.

a school of brown tangs (Acanthurus nigrofuscus)

Fourth problem: Fish get scared… and hide. I can’t say I blame them. Think about what a scuba diver looks like from a fish’s perspective – I’d hide too if a massive floating mysterious creature with lots of hoses and equipment was coming at me making loud Darth Vader noises and emitting a cloud of bubbles! It takes a certain finess to stalk a fish and figure out what it’s eating from a distance.

Fifth problem: Counting for 2 hours straight is monotonous and repetitive. It’s very easy to fall into a “rhythm” and start counting seconds instead of actual bites. It’s also very easy to get halfway through an observation and go… “Wait… was I on 45 or 55?” or “…10, 11, 12, 1, 2, 3, 4 – Wait… crap! Those are hours on a clock…” That second example might be a personal problem… I’ll look into it.

I’m sure you get my point. Counting has never been more complicated.

Observations stop around 4, when the fish start spawning

When we’re not making behavioral observations, we’re conducting fish surveys (counting the number of each type of species over a given area) or collecting data from Emily’s cage experiments.

Sometimes at the end of our dives we just need a break. That’s when we find time to hang out with the locals.

Meet Rocket Girl, a local hawksbill turtle at Kahekili

A pin cushion sea star we found in one of the cages

Major props and photo cred to my mentor/dive buddy, Emily! She was the photographer for most of the photos in this post.

Emily and myself at sunset, after a long day of diving