Home again, for now…

Hi all!

You’ll be glad to know I was not eaten by a crocodile, tiger shark, or a sea snake (though one definitely tried) on the Great Barrier Reef! I’m home, and finally (maybe) over my jet lag. It definitely took a full weekend of recovery, sleeping at odd hours, an all-nighter, and a sand castle competition victory to get back to “normal”, but here I am!

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It’s nice to be back to phone service, food choices that include bright green vegetables, reliable internet, and non-moving living quarters. I have so many photos and stories to share from my trip!

Today involves a lot of planning and catching up on things I’ve missed in the past month. I have about 50 emails to respond to, some scheduling conflicts to take care of on campus, and more than a few people to catch up with. There’s also house cleaning, laundry, and work at the yoga studio to catch up on. So, here’s to getting back to real life. Until my next adventure…

The last sunset from the Golden Shadow, on the Great Barrier Reef

The last sunset from the Golden Shadow, on the Great Barrier Reef

Countdown to GBR

I’m just under two weeks out from my departure to the Great Barrier Reef with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation. I was supposed to leave in July, but the trip was postponed due to unforeseen ship maintenance and repairs.

On this Great Barrier Reef (GBR) research mission, I will be living aboard the research vessel Golden Shadow as a member of the benthic survey team. As such, I will be swimming along a 10-meter transect (basically a large measuring tape) and I will identify the substrate (bottom-type) and the coral, algae, or invertebrate that is growing on it at 10 centimeter intervals. This requires a lot of preparation on my part, as my familiarity with coral reef organisms is primarily limited to the Main Hawaiian Islands. As you may know, the GBR is one of the most diverse habitats in the world! I have spent the last few months learning to identify more than 400 coral species, and I still have a lot of work to do!

Learning about corals of the GBR with some help from Charlie Veron

Learning about corals of the GBR with some help from Charlie Veron

While I’m on the cruise, my means of communication will be limited. There will likely be no phone service (which is fine, since I’m not interested in incurring international charges!), and internet will be limited and unreliable at best. There is no video streaming allowed, as it requires too much bandwidth (sorry, no Skype!), and I will be very limited in the number of photos and videos that I can upload. If you’re wondering how I’m doing, my advice is don’t worry – “No news is good news!” Besides, they assure us that the Golden Shadow is very safe! Click here for a tour!

In the meantime, while I anxiously await my departure date, I’m continuing my studies in coral taxonomy and getting plenty of practice diving locally!

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The tedious bits

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Computer work is tedious. Data entry, spreadsheets, image analysis, and identifying half-digested filamentous algae – this is my life. Oh, how I long for 18-hour days of manual labor! It’s easy to forget the beauty of the summer field season when I’m sitting in a windowless office.

Here are some photos from the last field season that never quite made it. It only took me how long? Four months?

Enjoy these glimpses of summer to warm up your January.

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Diving Mala

Last Saturday (or maybe it was the one before that? Time moves so quickly!), the Maui SLIMEO gang (Emily, Niko, Levi, and myself) went on a recreational dive (along with our local friend, Rich) at the Mala boat ramp. I know, you’re probably thinking “Why on earth would they want to do more diving when they finally have a break?” Well, sometimes the only thing needed for a moment to feel like a break from work is a change of scenery.

Mala is a unique reef because most of the structures supporting corals and providing habitat for a diverse array of marine life are man-made. The concrete pier at  Mala Wharf was built in the early 1900’s and was used to transport produce and supplies. It was also a fishing pier for a time, but was destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki. The fallen platforms and pylons create a fun underwater landscape for exploration and photography.

On this dive we saw some great wildlife – everything from white tip reef sharks to tiny nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs). I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

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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.

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