Saturday, December 23, 2017

Anti-hibernation

"Humans were never meant to hibernate"
- message on a T-shirt

I waddled across the snow-covered dock, laden with gear. I was wearing my dry suit and had a SCUBA tank on my back. A regulator and two waterproof lights dangled over my shoulders. On my hips, I carried an extra 10 lb of lead, plus 2 lb on each ankle. I already had my mask and gloves on, but I was carrying my fins. Slowly, I shuffled my feet through the snow, keeping my balance on the wintery pier. The cold air felt good in my lungs. 

Carl had told me to get in the water as quickly as possible so my regulator didn't freeze up again - we had climbed out to fix it once already. As I approached the edge of the instrument well, I lifted one leg over the wooden barrier, then the other. I leaned on a storage bin to slide on my fins. I shuffled to the edge, put the regulator in my mouth, and...

SPLASH! The 41° F water surrounded me. I could feel the cold, salty sting on my neck and my lips, the only parts of my skin that were exposed. I bobbed to the surface, looked up, and waited for Carl to make his entry. Another splash later, we were headed down the descent line. I held onto the white rope as the water around me grew darker. I checked my dive computer on my left arm. 15 feet, then 30, then 50. The lights dangling off of my shoulder clip illuminated the seafloor. I could see rocks and a folding chair on the seafloor. We swam east first, then west. It's dark under the WHOI pier, so we made sure to follow the guide lines strung between the pilings. It's the only way to keep your orientation. Carl was in front of me, but he turned around every few minutes to make sure I was ok. He signaled by making a big "O" with his dive light, then waited until I did the same. The whole time, I kept playing with my dry suit, filling it at pressure to stay comfortable, warm, and neutrally buoyant. I made sure to keep my feet below me so they didn't fill with air. Dry suit diving is a skill, and I still need more practice. Eventually, I started to get chilly, and my air tank was at half its starting pressure, so I signaled to Carl that I wanted to turn around. Nodding, he turned himself underwater and headed back to the piling with the descent line. We found the folding chair on the seafloor and signaled to each other to go up. Raising my left arm, I dumped air out of my suit so I didn't overinflate as the pressure lessened. 

I absolutely love coming up the piling at the end of a dive because I get to see all the animals living on it. On the way down, I'm usually concentrating on other things, checking my computer, clearing my ears. But on the way up, I'm already relaxed; my dive reflex is working and my breathing is slow. I slowly let air out of my suit and watch the animals through my bubbles. There's not a lot of biodiversity on the pier in the winter, but I remember seeing Didemnum vexillum, an invasive tunicate that forms squishy pink mats. There were also a few colonies of Astrangia poculata, a coldwater coral native to New England. 

As we reached the surface, I remember feeling the salty waves splashing my mouth where my regulator had been. I tugged off my fins and climbed the ladder, then shuffled back to the dive locker. Carl settled into one of the giant wooden chairs in the corner, but I was too adrenaline-filled to sit. I met his eyes and nodded. It was an awesome dive. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

One giant desk

Friends, I am so behind. I've been out of touch for over two weeks, but with good reason, I assure you. I have been swamped with work - proposal writing, paper revising, intern mentoring, dive training, and general running around like my hair is on fire.

Since I last wrote, I attended the DeSSC meeting (pronounced "desk," short for Deep Submergence Science Committee). Twice a year, the major players in deep submergence in the United States get together and talk about the future of their work. The group includes engineers in charge of the major vehicles (Alvin, Jason, Sentry), managers for the programs that fund them (mostly NSF), and the scientists who consistently use them. At one of the meetings each year, there's also a New User Program, designed to introduce students, postdocs, and young faculty to the vehicles. New Users have a chance to speak with the program managers about funding opportunities, ask the vehicle engineers about how to best use them, and connect with scientists who could turn into advisors or collaborators.

I'm not entirely sure if I count as a "new" user, having been to sea with Alvin, Jason, and Sentry each once before, but I was accepted into the program. It was a very worthwhile weekend for me (yes, the meeting was on a Saturday and Sunday). I got to network with some of the major players in deep-sea research, tell them my ideas, and discuss directions for future work. I made contact with new collaborators and strategically chose my place at dinner right next to an NSF program manager.

There was one moment over the weekend that really stood out to me, mostly because it was such a shock. Early on Sunday morning, as everyone was getting settled into their seats, I spotted my friend, Cliff, across the room. We've been on two long-haul cruises together, and I really enjoy working with him, so I went up to say hi. At some point in the conversation, Cliff's advisor, who was sitting next to him, turned to me and introduced himself. I actually didn't need the introduction - the advisor was a prominent deep-sea biologist with a distinct appearance. I knew exactly who he was. I was familiar with his work, but what I didn't realize is that he was also familiar with mine. He even used the words "big fan." I was floored.

By the end of the day, I had both men's contact information and an invitation to visit their institution. It is certainly not every day that I'm approached by a well-respected researcher who wants to work with me, so I was on cloud nine. I'm very excited to see what will come of the partnership.

The DeSSC meeting was a good chance for me to be present in the deep-sea community, and I made the most of the opportunity!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stay Puft Marshmallow Woman

"Stay Puft Kirstin!" my fiancé beamed as he attached the hose to my suit. He turned on the compressed air tank at the other end and pushed the button on my sternum to inflate the suit. It filled with air, bubbling out around me until I looked like a marshmallow woman. 

"This feels so weird!" I exclaimed, feeling my new full-body garment swell with air. My fiancé released the inflator button and stood back to look at me. 

"I think it fits," he announced. "Now raise your left arm." 


Lifting my elbow, I heard air rush out of the dump valve on the suit's left side. I slowly deflated. 


Friends, as many of you know, I learned to SCUBA dive this year. It's a great way to access habitats between the intertidal and the deep sea, explore the biodiversity around me, and get outdoors. It's my new favorite thing. Well, diving in New England is complicated by declining water temperatures in winter. Below about 50° F, it's unsafe to be underwater in just a wetsuit, so we have to use drysuits to stay insulated and warm. They're durable, thick, full-body suits that keep you insulated from the cold water around you. You're completely covered and sealed off from the water except for your head and hands.

In my (deflated) dry suit after
a recent dive. Photo by Carl Kaiser.

The catch? Drysuits are completely sealed, 
so you're basically diving in a bag of air. The air between the suit and your body compresses at depth. Water pressure increases rapidly as you descend - adding about 1 atmosphere of pressure for every 10 m (33 ft). A drysuit that feels fine at the surface will squeeze your body at depth. 

To counteract the squeezing effect, we add air into the suit. Every drysuit has a hose attached from your air tank to an inflator valve on your chest. When you push the button on the valve, air rushes into the suit. You can empty the suit by lifting your left arm and letting air rush out of the exhaust valve there. 

Let me tell you, friends, feeling a drysuit inflate around you is a very strange feeling. Underwater, it always felt like a relief - by the time I hit the inflator button on my chest, my suit was pretty tight, so it felt just like a release of pressure over my whole body. On the surface, though, I don't even know what I could compare it to. 


I did my first two drysuit training dives yesterday, and I had a fun time getting oriented to the suit. Every time I inflated it at depth, I could feel air rushing into different parts of the suit, equalizing under pressure. One of things to watch out for when diving dry is that your feet can fill with air. If you accidentally get your feet too high underwater, all the air in your suit rushes to your booties. The extra buoyancy can pull your feet even further upward, and if you're not careful, you can rocket to the surface upside-down. I never had an accident, but on my second training dive, I did manage to get my feet above my head. I grabbed onto a guide line under the WHOI pier, where I was diving, to hold myself near the seafloor, and the two instructors who were with me helped me wrestle my feet back down. There is a technique to solve foot-inflation problems yourself by somersaulting underwater and raising your left arm to dump air out. I practiced the somersaults in midwater at the end of the dive, and after a couple times, I had it down. I was grateful for the patience of the two instructors as they helped me learn to manage my gas volumes.


I'm excited to keep practicing in my drysuit and especially to use it for research projects. Winter cannot stop me!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Blowing in the wind

"How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?...
The answer is blowing in the wind"
- "Blowing in the wind" by Bob Dylan

Ah, the age-old question of life. One that every scientist seeks to answer. The great mystery of research: how many proposals must a postdoc write before she gets funding?

Friends, science is all about grants. My current funding is due to run out in the spring, and so I'm currently in application mode. Well, I suppose I'm always in application mode, but now it's just with a little more urgency. Every scientist goes through this. In order to get a project (and their salary) funded, they have to write a proposal. You draft a plan for your project, write an introduction, list the important scientific questions, outline your methods, propose a budget, and then submit the whole thing to a funding agency. Some grants are funded, but the majority are not. So far this year, I've had two fellowship applications and two grants get turned down and two grants accepted. Frustratingly, the two accepted grants do not contain any salary support, so I have money to do the project I proposed but no money to get paid with. Ah, the irony.

I've compared postdocs to freelancers before, and I still believe that it's true. The postdoc period of a scientist's career is tumultuous, with employment being based on short, project-specific contracts. Some postdocs have to move to new cities or institutions for their contracts, uprooting their life every year or two. So in addition to my grant proposals, I'm applying for "real" jobs to end the chaotic postdoc period. Ideally, I want to be a staff scientist at a research institution or a professor at a university. (For the record, even if I get hired into one of these positions, I'll still have to write grant proposals; I'll just have the security of institutional funding to fall back on if I fail.) I'm casting applications out into the world like seeds into the wind - well, if every seed is a 10-page packet summarizing my life's work thus far. It's nerve-wracking and time-consuming and all-around stressful. We'll see what, if anything, comes of my efforts. I'll keep you posted.

No words

"The heart is hard to translate
It has a language of its own
It talks in tongues and quiet sighs
In prayers and proclamations 
In the grand days of great men and the smallest of gestures
In short shallow gasps...
All of my stumbling phrases never amounted to anything worth this feeling...
Words were never so useful
So I was screaming out a language that I never knew existed before"
- "All this and heaven too" by Florence and the Machine

Rolling my green suitcase beside me, I walked through the sliding glass doors. I spotted him immediately. He was standing behind the waist-high barrier in the international arrivals hall, waiting for me. He was wearing black dress pants and a blue button-down shirt, holding a bouquet of orange and red flowers. 

I quickened my pace as I crossed the linoleum floor. By the time I got to him, I was at risk of breaking into a jog. He opened his arms and wrapped them around me, the bouquet in his left hand colliding with my backpack. I could feel his scruffy beard against my cheek. I was home.

"I missed you," he said.

"Me too," I agreed, pulling back out of the hug to meet his deep blue eyes. "I'm really glad with where our relationship is right now."

"Actually, along those lines..." He took a step back from me and pulled a small black box out of his pocket. He dropped to one knee and looked up at me with sparkling blue eyes and a gleeful grin.

"Kirstin, will you marry me?"

I responded immediately with an enthusiastic yes, but I think there were plenty of exclamations and explicatives and a couple squeals in there too. Honestly, I don't remember. It was a bunch of nonsense. Some people in a nearby seating area cheered.

What I do remember clearly is being overcome. My right leg started shaking, with my heel tapping into the ground repeatedly at high speed. I could barely stand, and I could barely breathe. I felt like I was going to cry and run a marathon all at once. I was exhausted and overjoyed and...engaged.

The song written above has been on my mind ever since, cycling through my brain over and over. I just can't seem to get the lyrics out of my head, because Florence Welch captured exactly what my words cannot say. All of my stumbling phrases never amounted to anything worth this feeling. It has a language of its own. I am going to spend the rest of my life with my all-time favorite human, and there are no words to describe this.


One of Carl's relatives took this photo of us a few days later.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Benthic brotherhood: part 2

This story begins in Qingdao. I was sitting around a round table, having lunch at the Ocean University of China. The university dining services were apparently busy that day, because our group was combined with another group for lunch. A short woman in a blue shirt introduced herself to Ji and me.

"Aren't you the one who wrote that modeling paper about fish genetics?" Ji asked. "I feel like I've seen you give a seminar before."

The woman nodded and confirmed she had written the paper. She explained more about her research to Ji while we all found our places at the table, and I listened intently. Once she had finished, she turned to me. I introduced myself as a benthic ecologist postdoc from WHOI. She said she was from the National University of Taiwan.

"Taiwan?" I leaned in. "Perhaps you know my friend, Stefanie. I'm going to Taipei to see her tomorrow."

The woman did know Stefanie, and over the next hour, we discovered we had a lot more than that in common. Hui-Yu Wang, an associate professor at NTU, studied at the University of Michigan and did her postdoc in Massachusetts. I told her I had grown up in Michigan, in a town about two hours north of Ann Arbor, where U of M is located. She nodded. "So you grew up in Midland?" she asked.

I stared at her, stunned. Midland, Michigan is not famous. It is tiny. And here was a Taiwanese professor who had correctly guessed where I had grown up. Friends, the world is small.

Hui-Yu and I exchanged e-mail addresses. She promised to contact her department and schedule a time for me to give a seminar, but there ended up not being enough time. Instead, I took a meeting with two benthic ecologists at NTU.

The meeting went extremely well, and it turns out I had already co-authored a paper with one of the professors - a large review paper on the effects of climate change in the deep sea. We chatted about our research and discussed important future questions. We talked about the diverse benthic habitats around Taiwan, about species range shifts, about how to best sample fouling fauna. We all had a common thread of working in isolated, island-like habitats and enjoyed discussing the universal patterns. After an hour, we agreed to keep in touch and keep an eye out for future funding opportunities.

I was grateful for the opportunity to make more connections in Asia and look forward to what the future brings! It's been a great trip!

World religion day

"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer." - Psalm 19:14

Walking slowly with the crowd, I exited the lobby and stepped out into the rain. It was Sunday morning, and I was leaving church. I felt refreshed, renewed, and calm. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from Taiwanese worship, but I always enjoy experiencing different churches when I'm abroad. This one called itself Lutheran, but it really had the makings of an American non-denominational mega-church. The service was held in a large room on the second floor of a skyscraper in downtown Taipei. There was a balcony for expanded seating and LED screens at the front to shown song lyrics and visual aids. The service format was also simplified, containing only music, announcements, prayers, and a sermon. Instead of a traditional organ, the songs were accompanied by drums, keyboard, and guitar. 

Most of the song lyrics were translated into English right on the screen, but when it came time for the sermon, there was no text for me to follow. (It's not ideal, but I've gone to church services in languages I don't speak before.) Just as the sermon was beginning, one of the ushers approached me and held out a small radio with an earpiece attached. I held the speaker up to my ear and heard a woman's voice speaking in English, translating what the pastor was saying with about a 2-second delay. It worked wonderfully, and I was grateful. 

Church for me is a place of solace, a place for emotional and spiritual rest. It is one of the few constant things in my highly transitive life. It is my center. I always love experiencing different Christian churches when I am abroad and being part of the global community of believers. 

The front gate of one of the temples
Later that afternoon, Stefanie and I had a tour of other major world religions when we visited three temples around Taipei: one Confucianist, one Taoist, and one Buddhist. I was looking forward to seeing the different styles of temples, but to be honest, each of them looked the same to me. I'm going to have to read up on eastern religions more when I get home, because I'm curious now if the coexistence of these religions in one island nation has caused them to be mixed together. I know for example in Brazil, there are hybridizations of religions as diverse as Catholicism and Voodoo, so maybe some hybridization of beliefs occurred in Asia too.

Close-up of one of the carved dragons -
they were very detailed!
Each temple was surrounded by an outer wall and a grand front gate. The gate was always of traditional Chinese construction, with wooden beams forming the roof and ornate carved dragons on top. After entering the gate, we found ourselves in a courtyard that surrounded an inner building. On the outer wall of the courtyard and in the inner building were a series of chambers, each with an altar and a statue inside. The statues were very often recessed, surrounded by golden frames and set behind plates of glass. The altars in front of them were covered in bouquets of flowers and plates of food (offerings, I assume). Visitors walked around the courtyard, stood in front of or entered the chambers they wished, bowed and prayed to the statues within. Prayers in each temple looked the same and involved long wooden sticks covered in something flammable. The sticks reminded me of sparklers we light on July 4th in the U.S., just three times longer and with wooden instead of metallic handles. The sticks were held in front of a person's face with both hands. After murmuring their prayers, the person would bow three times from the waist. They would then either move on to another chamber to offer another prayer or set the stick alight. Small open flames burned throughout the temples, and there were large cauldrons filled with what I think was sand. The prayer sticks would be lit from one of the flames and then stuck burning-end-up in the sand. The end effect was dozens of sticks sending smoke up into the air from the cauldrons.

As I said, the basic format of all three temples was the same. The only difference I could notice was the nature of the statues. The Confuscianist temple was not nearly as ornate as the others, and the few statues were all just simple shapes. The Taoist temple was the most complex, with statues representing either Chinese men with long bears or brightly-colored fictional creatures with exaggerated facial features. In the Buddhist temple, every statue was Buddha. 


Masked figures in the parade
Perhaps the most interesting part of our temple tour occurred at the Taoist temple. Stefanie and I stepped out of the metro station and headed down the street toward the house of prayer, but instead of silence and soltitude, we found a loud parade! I have to assume that the parade was connected to the temple, because the parade route was only a short stretch of street directly in front of the temple entrance, and each of the acts stopped at the temple, faced its front gate, and bowed or performed there before moving on. There were loud musical groups and a group of dancers with a fabric dragon. There were large costumed figures with wooden masks for faces. Actually, we had a bit more direct contact than we would have preferred with the parade. As we were exiting the Taoist temple, the parade was still going on, and a group of men carrying long silver trumpets turned and faced the front gate. All of a sudden, we were faced with a dozen ear-splitting trumpet blasts.

It was definitely a day of cultural experiences. I was glad to visit my own church and then observe the rituals of other religions in Taipei!


Monday, November 20, 2017

Misty city

Friends, I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it is the people I meet who make my mobile life worthwhile. After leaving Qingdao, I flew to Taipei, Taiwan, where I got to spend time with my dear friend, Stefanie. I'm not sure if you remember, but Stefanie and I met when I lived in Germany in 2011 - 2012. She's also a scientist with a travel habit, so we usually manage to be on the same continent about once a year. I've told you about visits with her before, in Boston, Hawaii, and the Netherlands. To be honest, I find it incredible that we manage to see each other as often as we do, since we're both moving targets. Stefanie is supportive and trustworthy, and I value her friendship greatly.

Overview of Taipei from the gondola at the zoo
We started with a city tour Taipei, and I have to unfortunately admit that it's not my favorite city. The air pollution hangs in the humid air like a mist, making any long-range view of the city shrouded in dirty brown clouds. The people are also quite rude. In Qingdao, the people would stand unapologetically wherever they wanted to and make me go around them (I suspect Asians are not taught to move out of other people's ways like Europeans are), but in Taipei, I have actually been shoved. Once by a 5-year-old. People here have stood so close to me I couldn't move, then reached right across me to take a photo. I've been abruptly dismissed by customer service agents when they find out I can't speak Chinese, and I've been hit in the face with people's umbrellas as they pass me on the street. It's insanity!

On a happier note, we visited two museums in Taipei, full of ancient Chinese artworks (porcelain, jade, etc.) and artifacts from Taiwan's indigenous peoples. I remember learning several years ago when I was in New Zealand that Taiwanese natives were Polynesian, belonging to the same ethnic group as the native residents of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and New Zealand. It's actually fascinating if you map out the colonization patterns and cultural differences among islands in the Pacific. Of course islands closer to land (like Taiwan) were colonized first, while those further away (like Hawaii) were settled later. You can see the evolution of Polynesian culture by comparing the island groups, for example in the dancing. Taiwanese indigenous dances involve large groups, separated and dressed differently by age, all holding hands and spinning in large circles. In contrast, the dances in other Polynesian cultures are more solitary, with dancers standing alone. The Taiwanese don't have a version of the Haka, at least as far as I could tell, so the traditional war dance likely developed later in other parts of Polynesia. However, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan had some of the same cultural elements found across the Pacific - flower headbands, tattooing, and basekt weaving, to name a few.

A natural sulfur hot spring in Taipei.
In an area of the city reserved for indigenous peoples, there are natural hot springs. Taiwan is a geologically active island, with ongoing subduction of tectonic plates. Unfortunately, many of the springs have now been taken over by hotels and resorts, but we were able to visit one that's still open to the public. It created a hot, humid mist (even more so than the surrounding subtropical air) that smelled strongly of sulfur. I was reminded of similar sulfur pools I had seen years ago in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. I couldn't help but think about all the strange and diverse archaeal microbes probably living in the hot water.

I'm glad to see another part of Asia and spend time with a great friend!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Grand tour

Before we left on our trip, Ji referred to Qingdao as "the Woods Hole of China." Woods Hole, Massachusetts has a number of private and federal research institutions, so it's a destination for ocean sciences. The village population is also disproportionately dominated by researchers. Qingdao is very much the same. Of course, the comparison meant I was picturing a small town and was surprised to find a city of 9 million people when I arrived in Qingdao, but the analogy stands. Qingdao has five large research institutions and plenty of researchers to go around.

We took advantage of our time in Qingdao by touching base with each of the research institutions in the city. And let me tell you, we got quite the grand tour.

We spent one afternoon at the First Institute of Oceanography, where I got to tour the institute's deep-sea geological collection. Rocks and mineral deposits from all over the deep sea, particularly hydrothermal vents, were housed in cases and displayed on shelves in a precisely temperature-controlled room.

The FIO ship at the dock
We were also shown one of FIO's ships that was about to leave on a cruise the very next day. The ship had a red banner with gold text hanging from an upper deck on the starboard side. When I asked what it meant, the others said it's a Chinese tradition to hang red banners, and the text translated to "Wish us luck!"

On the dock next to the ship was a buoy about to be deployed in the Indian Ocean. We met with a technician and a scientist in charge of FIO's oceanographic buoys, and I had a good conversation with them. As many of you know, I'm interested in studying island-like habitats. Well, buoys anchored to the seafloor in the middle of nowhere are essentially man-made island-like habitats, so I was eager to learn if anything grew on them. The technician said barnacles were common at the surface, but there wasn't much growing deeper. My cognitive wheels started turning, and I asked if it would be possible to deploy fouling panels at various depths on the buoy line to get more quantitative data on the growth. We traded e-mails, and I'll follow up with the FIO scientists later - it would be certainly interesting to get samples from the Indian Ocean!

We were also shown around Qingdao's brand-new National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology. Ji recalled that the lab was just one building during his last visit a few years ago, but now, the national lab occupies an entire campus north of Qingdao. There are laboratories and offices and living facilities for visitors. When I marveled at how quickly the campus had been erected, the others all shrugged and said "Chinese speed." I still didn't get it, so I pressed for an explanation. One of the Chinese scientists shrugged again and said that when the Chinese government wants something done, it gets done. Fast.

Our time in Qingdao is winding down, but it has been a very productive trip. We've had meetings and tours from morning until evening every day. I have a notebook full of ideas and a list of people to follow up with. I'm glad for the time I've had in China and look forward to seeing relationships between WHOI and the institutions in Qingdao develop!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parallel universe

Leaning forward in my black leather chair, I grabbed my mug and took a sip of my green tea. The tea leaves were floating loose in the water, unencumbered by a mesh strainer. The hot water felt good on my throat. It was early morning, and I was in yet another conference room, this time back at OUC. Another WHOI scientist who was unable to travel with us video-conferenced into the meeting, and I listened to his voice rining out from Ji's laptop. One by one, his slides changed on the projector screen. I hugged my tea mug with my hands and leaned back onto the chair. I was relaxed.

The meeting was for another WHOI-OUC project, and a large part of the discussion actually focused on similarities between Chinese and American oceanography. Think about this: both China and the U.S. have long eastern coasts that span sub-tropical and temperate latitudes. The east coast of China and the east coast of the U.S. both have a broad continental shelf and a strong current system - the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, the Kuroshio Current in the Pacific. Both currents bring warm tropical water north and control the regional climate. Both countries have lucrative fisheries, especially for cod, along their eastern coasts.

As the meeting went on, I scribbled notes to myself. The similarities between American and Chinese oceanography allow for some really interesting comparisons. It's like there's a parallel universe on the other side of the globe where we can test our scientific theories. Actually the most interesting part might be the few key differences between the western Atlantic and the western Pacific. Chinese waters are trawled much more extensively than U.S. waters, leaving fish populations low and the benthos highly disturbed. The Gulf Stream is well-renowned for meandering and pinching off warm-core eddies that deliver tropical water to the coast, while the Kuroshio does not. In science, you want all factors to be controlled except the one you're testing, so the similarities between American and Chinese seas provide an opportunity to test for ecosystem-level effects of the few differences that exist.

It was a productive meeting, and I look forward to seeing how the comparative project develops in the future!

Benthic brotherhood

I was full from a delicious and adventurous lunch, and once again, I found myself following Ji into a conference room. This meeting used the same general format - researchers briefly presenting their work, followed by an open discussion - except this time, everyone spoke my language. Not Mandarin (I can still only say "hello" and "thank you") - they spoke Benthos. There's a benthic research group at the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Qingdao, and I felt right at home with them. We spent a whole afternoon discussing our work. 

I deeply enjoyed speaking with the IOCAS group because we have so many research interests in common. They specialize in macrobenthos - animals that live in the seafloor and are big enough to see with the naked eye - just like me. They work on ecology (ooh) and taxonomy (aah) of animals in the Chinese marginal seas. They have this amazing collection of samples from all over the Yellow Sea shelf and even the continental slope (yes!), and they're using it to figure out how environmental factors (my tribe!) control the benthic communities (oh, sing to me the song of my people!). 

I was fascinated by one woman's work on deep-glass sponges and succession on coral reefs. I advised a crustacean biologist to consider the larval biology of his species when studying how their populations are connected. I was deeply impressed by the harpacticoid copepod taxonomist. (For those of you who don't know, harpacticoid copepods are small shrimp-like creatures that live on the seafloor. They're difficult to find and almost impossible to tell apart - and this woman identifies them for a living.) It was a wonderful, invigorating afternoon.

As the conversation wound down, the leader of the group and I exchanged e-mail addresses and agreed to keep in touch. There are funding opportunities coming up in the next few months, so we'll have to choose a scientific question and design a plan to answer it. The possibilities are almost endless, and I can't wait to put together a proposal with the IOCAS group. 

We had a bit of time before dinner, so two of the men gave me a tour of the IOCAS taxonomic collection. There were three rooms organized by region: samples from Chinese seas, polar seas, and the deep sea. Each room had large, attractive specimens out for public display and then shelf after shelf of dead things in jars. I spent my undergraduate years describing species of freshwater crabs from the collections in European and American museums, and the smell of alcohol-preserved animals still makes me feel like I'm 18 (yes, I'm a nerd). Some jars had red ribbons tied around the neck, and when I asked one of the men what the ribbons meant, he said they designated holotypes - the specimen was a new species that someone at IOCAS had described.

I came away from our afternoon at IOCAS enthralled and optimistic. I'm glad to have found such a like-minded group of Chinese benthic ecologists.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Qingdao in pictures

Downtown waterfront

This hilltop Buddhist temple is in Qingdao's "Old Town."

This beach is directly across the street from the Institute
of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Small motorcycles are common, and riders use custom-cut
blankets to shield themselves from road spray.

The coastal mountain range, seen from the First Institute
of Oceanography campus

Translation fail. I think they're trying to say
"Don't overfill your plate and then end up wasting food."

Seen from the First Institute of Oceanography pier

Try everything: part 2

Friends, I hope you'll excuse me, but I just have to spend another post talking about Chinese food. I don't know what in the world we buy from Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but it is certainly not Chinese food.

Steamed mantis shrimp
For dinner Monday, we went to a restaurant in downtown Qingdao. The interior decoration was much more modern than at lunch, but the entryway to the restaurant was the same: aquaria and display tables, full of sea creatures about to become food. It was a smaller crowd (just four of us), but there were the same toasts, the same excessive number of dishes, and the same musical chatter in Mandarin.

Two dishes stuck out to me at dinner. The first was steamed mantis shrimp - yes, mantis shrimp. Not the famous rainbow species, but a member of the Stomatopoda nonetheless. They have super long, meaty abdomens and taste just like crab. You have to peel the shell off like you would for a normal shrimp, but the meat doesn't come out quite as easily (normal shrimp tails don't have any shell on the bottom, but mantis shrimp do), so you have to bite it out. It's a little messy, but not to worry - table etiquette in China is not nearly as strict as in the U.S.

Eggplant paste with ground peanuts and dried krill
Another dish that stuck out to me was an eggplant paste. Eggplant is surprisingly common in China. Our host for dinner showed me how to scoop up the paste with my chopsticks and put it onto a soft, flexible flatbread. You then wrap the flatbread around the paste to make a pouch - almost like a square burrito. After so many diverse meats, I was actually excited for a simple vegetable paste, but I should have known better. The paste was topped with ground peanuts and what looked from afar like flakes of parmesan cheese - except that it wasn't parmesan cheese; it was dried krill. The tiny crustaceans caught me off-guard, but they really just added a crunch to the eggplant.

Of course there were plenty of other dishes to go around. Tofu and octopus soup in a purple broth (yes, purple). Lotus root. Breaded fried taro. Pickled celery sticks. Hard-boiled eggs soaked in brine for a week. And jellyfish. Yes, jellyfish. I expected jellyfish to be floppy, watery, and non-substantive, but the thin, clear strips were actually crunchy. Well, maybe crunchy is the wrong word. They were dense. It felt crunchy to chew just because the jellyfish bits were so compact. They had been thoroughly dried, leaving behind only the organic part of the jellyfish's body. It was definitely not the texture I expected.

Steaming seafood
If I haven't already worn out your patience, I want to tell you about one more dinner, because we went to a restaurant that used a different cooking style. We sat at a round table in a private dining room, but this table had a metallic pit in the middle. A waiter poured hot mushroom broth into the pit and then heated it from underneath. The broth was covered with a metallic grate, and an array of seafood was placed on top. I remember there were clams, mussels, scallops, mantis shrimp, oysters, and large clams on the half shell with giant scoops of garlic. The whole collection was then covered with a wooden lid so the seafood could steam. When it was done cooking, we helped ourselves to the shellfish and dipped the meat in a mix of garlic and vinegar.

I'm an adventurous eater, and China has offered plenty of opportunities to stretch my limits. I'm grateful for the new experiences!

Try everything

"I won't give up, no I won't give in
Until I reach the end
And then I'll start again
No I won't leave
I wanna try everything
I wanna try even though I could fail" 
- "Try everything" by Shakira

Whenever I travel, I adhere to my personal Foreign Food Policy. The policy is simple: I will eat absolutely anything, but I have to know what it is before I put it into my mouth. Well, friends, China is the perfect place to stretch the limits of an adventurous eater. It is going to take an entire blog post just to tell you what I ate today. 

Breakfast was actually pretty tame. Rice soup, steamed dumplings filled with bean paste, fried bread dipped in soy milk. All very bland flavors and familiar textures. Easy enough. 

Then there was lunch. We carpooled from the university to a building that I never would have guessed was a high-class restaurant. We were ushered into a private dining room with an 8-person round table. Centered on top of the table, a glass circle rotated freely. Two of the walls were white stucco; one had floor-to-ceiling windows covered with thin off-white curtains, and the fourth was semi-transparent and covered with a carved wooden screen. Woven red ropes with gold charms and tassels hung from some of the panels. The surroundings were exactly what I would expect for a traditional Chinese room. 

Which fish?
As I set down my bag, one of the professors told me to follow the host and order food. I hestitated at first because nobody else was accompanying the host, and I didn't know what I wanted to eat anyway. I followed him back out to the restaurant entrance, though, where there was a display of seafood. All sorts of animals - lobsters, shrimps, clams, whole fish - were arranged in tanks or on the table. A restaurant employee followed the host around with an electronic keypad and pushed buttons every time the host pointed to something (recording the order, I presume). The host turned to me and asked me what I wanted to eat. I like fish, I told him. Then he lead me up to the display table and asked "Which fish?" I had no idea I would have to select the actual individual I wanted to consume, but I pointed to a safe-looking species. The host muttered something to the restaurant employee, who pushed more buttons on the keypad. 

Back in the dining room, the host made a show of assigning seats. I was placed between an OUC professor and his graduate student, who claimed to have learned English by watching Friends. As we waited for the food to show up, we sipped hot water (just hot water, not tea) from ceramic mugs without handles. One by one, waiters started bringing dishes to our table, placing them on the rotating glass tray. We served ourselves from the common plates with chopsticks, and the host even placed some food on the plates of the two people beside him. The master student did the same to me. Nobody jumped to eat or take large portions of the first few dishes, which surprised me, but it made much more sense as the meal went on. Dishes kept coming, and the dishes kept getting better. The fish I had chosen eventually showed up on a platter, cooked whole with its head still on, surrounded by a sweet brown sauce. 

There's no way I can possibly remember all of the dishes, but I'll try to describe a few. There were fermented hard-boiled eggs called "thousand-year eggs" (they're really only fermented for a few months), which tasted exactly how I would expect the green eggs in Green Eggs and Ham to taste. There was a stir fry with green bell peppers and strips of pig intestine. There were whole boiled shrimp. There was a vegetable dish topped with dried krill (yes, whole-body dried krill; apparently they're called "sea rice" in China). There were bite-sizes pieces of fried pork in a sticky brown sauce. The meat was actually pretty fatty (and some pieces were all fat), but it wasn't gross - the Chinese know how to fry animal fat to make it crunchy. There was egg drop soup with small clams in it. There was another soup with spicier broth and deep-fried pastries for dipping. There were dumplings filled with whitefish and parsely. Boiled peanuts. Chinese yams. And corn on the cob. (Not kidding; it's weirdly common here.)

As we ate, the conversation rattled along in Mandarin. Every once in a while (probably 7 or 8 times during the 2-hour lunch), the host would raise his glass and propose a toast. I never understood what it was for, of course, but I followed suit by clinking glasses with the other guests and then holding my glass awkwardly in front of my mouth, waiting for the host to stop talking so we could drink. Usually, the host would just propose the toast, make everyone raise their glasses, and then keep on talking without ever taking a drink himself. 

An hour and a half into lunch, new dishes were still being brought to the table. Only about half of what had been ordered ever got eaten, but just as I was beginning to lament the waste of food, a group of waiters showed up and started putting the leftovers into containers for the host to take home. At two hours on the dot, the host and the other scientists announced we had better get back to the university, and the lunch came to an abrupt close. 

Meals are very important in China, especially for building partnerships, so I was glad for the lunch we attended. There's a very distinct culture surrounding meals. It was great to experience!

WHOI-OUC

I followed Ji through the dark wooden double doors and into the conference room. There was a long oak table in the middle, surrounded by ergonomic black leather chairs. There was a projector on the table and a large screen at the far end of the room. There was an outer ring of chairs surrounding the table, pressed tightly against the walls. Every chair at the table and around the walls was filled with a student or a professor. As we walked in, fifty eyes turned to take in the foreign guests. I was the only caucasian and the only non-Chinese speaker in the room. 

One by one, the professors got up to explain their research, using the projector to show visual aids. Ji and I each made short presentations, and then a freeform discussion began to flow. WHOI has a cooperative research initiative with the Ocean University of China, so we were discussing ways to work together in the future. 

It was actually really interesting to me to observe the dynamic among Chinese scientists. Academia in China is much more hierarchical than in the U.S., and everyone is referred to by their title, either Doctor or Professor. The students only spoke at the beginning of the meeting to introduce themselves, and even experienced researchers seemed hesitant to share their thoughts. I think the language barrier was a big factor, but even when the conversation switched to Mandarin, it didn't flow as naturally as it might have in the U.S. or Europe. I think researchers in China are taught to be very humble and respectful, but it seems this culture may also cause some scientists to not trust their own ideas.

A few hours in, the conversation started to pick up, and we actually ended the meeting in a very good place. We all agreed to review the minutes and continue discussing ideas over the coming days and weeks. WHOI and OUC scientists have many complementary research interests, so I'm excited to see how the collaboration will develop.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Foreigner

"I was inside looking outside
The millions of faces
But I'm still alone"
- "Long, long way from home" by Foreigner

Right now, I am sitting cross-legged on a king-size bed in a hotel room with a view. I am barefoot and grateful for the space around me after more than 20 hours of sitting in a plane. I am overlooking glass skyscrapers and brick high-rise apartment buildings. I can hear honking horns on the street below and a softly whirring fan behind me. I am in Qingdao, China.

It’s been an interesting day. Got to admit, I was a little nervous before I left Boston, because I was headed to a completely new part of the world and didn’t know what to expect. This is my first time in China and my first time in Asia. I’m here with another WHOI scientist to try and build up collaborations with researchers in Qingdao. We have a packed schedule for the next few days, but I’m excited to see what comes out of our meetings.

I want to share just a couple stories and observations that I’ve made so far with you. First, bathrooms. The women’s restroom in the airport had stalls just like you would expect in an American public restroom, but there were only 2 stalls with European-style toilets. The rest had pits. Picture a toilet bowl that’s embedded in the floor, with grips on either side for your feet. It caught me off-guard to say the least, but afterward, I started remembering similar reports from my dad when he was in China years ago on business. It was a very different experience.

Second (and I highly suspected this coming in), not everyone in China speaks English well – or at all. When I landed, I was picked up by two Chinese graduate students who guided me to my hotel. I was greatly appreciative of their help, because by the time I made it up to my room, I realized that the simple operations I was attempting (getting a taxi, driving to the hotel, checking in, finding my room) would have taken at least twice as long without the grad students to assist in translation. I’m referring to cultural, not just linguistic translation, because the grad students knew how to properly hail a cab and get a receptionist’s attention – things I would have been uncomfortable doing aggressively. They guided me around successfully, and I was deeply grateful for their help.

Speaking of translation, I want to tell you a story. The other WHOI scientist on this trip took a different route to China and landed later than me, so I was on my own for dinner tonight. I took his recommendation of looking for restaurants in the mall behind our hotel, and I was actually quite proud of myself when I found the food court. I hate sitting in restaurants alone, so I thought the food court would be a better solution, and plus, most of the booths had plastic displays of their dishes lined up along the edge of the counter. How perfect! I could just point to the dish that I wanted and order without speaking. I scanned around the room; I selected the dish I wanted and the booth I wanted to buy it from; I approached, pointed, and was even understood. Kirstin: 1. Mandarin Chinese: 0.

The cashier rang up my meal, and I pulled out my credit card to pay. She shook her head. Ok, I thought, maybe it’s cash-only. I pulled out my Chinese cash. She shook her head again, then held up a pink debit card. Actually, it was missing the row of numbers typical on debit and credit cards, so it looked more like a hotel key card than anything. I was confused. The cashier searched in the back of her brain, came up with the words “bank card,” and pointed across the food court behind me. By this time, I had figured out that only pink bank cards could be used to pay in the food court, but I couldn’t tell where the cashier was pointing that I could go get one. (Kirstin: 1. Mandarin Chinese: 1.) Thankfully, just then, one of her co-workers emerged from the back and volunteered to show me to the mall’s information desk, where the magic pink cards were sold. The co-worker walked me over, told the info desk clerk how much I needed on my card, waited with me until I had it, and then walked me back. I was deeply impressed by the helpfulness of the women in the food court, and I enjoyed a bowl of noodles, vegetables, ground meat, and spicy broth as a result.

Qingdao waterfront
I have to admit China feels very different than I thought it would. Well, let’s be honest, I’m not quite sure what I expected, except maybe Chinatown. Qingdao is actually a very western city. It has skyscrapers and public sculptures and sewer smells and traffic just like I’d expect to find in any major city in the U.S. or Europe. The tall glass towers remind me of Chicago. The wide streets remind me of California. The waterfront with its algae-covered stone steps makes me think of Venice. My surroundings feel familiar, but in all honesty, I have never felt like more of a foreigner. China presents unique challenges, but I look forward to exploring more. Stay tuned for more adventures in Qingdao! 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Telepresence


"You should wear your helmet!" S exclaimed.
"And make sure your lunch box is in view!" returned L.
I set the timer on my camera, pressed, the button, and stepped back. Click! The shutter closed.

It was lunchtime in the lab, and S had a VW bus lunchbox. L had brought her Halloween costume, a golden helmet meant to mimic early-era SCUBA gear, to work. The three of us were crowded around her laptop, watching the live feed from an ROV dive thousands of miles away. Because we're cool like that.

The ROV live feed is from a research expedition that two other lab members are currently on. They're exploring hydrothermal vent habitats in the Gulf of California, and the cruise uses telepresence to engage other scientists and the broader community.

It was fascinating to watch the video. The ROV was circling a pinnacle covered in tube worms - a big, bushy clump of white tubes. At the bottom of the pinnacle, zoanthids, little colonial anemones, covered the rocks. The science party on the ship was collecting water samples and measuring the temperature of the vent fluids to try and determine why the species were distributed as they were.

The scientists on board wear headsets during ROV dives, so their voices were audible along with the video feed. We enjoyed listening to them describe what the ROV was doing and answering questions sent in by the public. Every once in a while, a familiar voice would emerge.

It was the perfect lunch break! Telepresence really is a powerful tool for making science accessible, and I recommend you check it out for yourself: https://nautiluslive.org/

Friday, October 27, 2017

The little stone

"How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn't care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity."
- Emily Dickinson

I always write when I'm about to leave work. I'll get to the end of my day, get to a natural stopping point, feel my mind wind down, and then get the urge to write. I need to review what I've done. I need to let my thoughts settle before I can go home for the night.

It's been a busy week. I came back from Bonaire to a long list of important tasks, so I've been working through them one by one. It was overwhelming at first, but honestly, I've been massively productive. I applied for a visa for my next trip. I finished and submitted two scientific papers. I went to important meetings with other scientists. I got a new intern and started teaching her how to identify larvae. I started writing yet another paper.

Years ago, I used to always seek an end point - a time when my to-do list was empty and I could feel a sense of accomplishment. And years ago, I realized that point would never come. Now, I don't want it to. I love the cycle. I love the paper-writing, the data-analyzing, the study-designing, the trip-planning - all of it. I am happy.

The poem above has always been a favorite, but I used to wonder why Dickinson chose the image of a stone. Of all the seemingly simple, content natural objects - she could have written about a flower or a butterfly or a tree. I think of stones as dirty. They live in the dust, and they get kicked around. Especially underwater, little stones are tossed mercilessly by the waves. Pebbles and cobbles never have anything living on them; life on a little stone is just too rough.

But I think she was on to something. Stones don't complain; they don't rebel, and they don't break. They are tossed around but tough. They are content in chaos.

I love my life, and I love my science. Tonight, as I watch the yellow glow fade behind the other buildings on Water Street, I am both tossed around and tough. I am content in chaos. I am happy like a stone.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Never let me go

"Looking up from underneath
Fractured moonlight on the sea
Reflections still look the same to me
As before I went under...
And it's breaking over me
A thousand miles down to the seabed
Found a place to rest my head
Never let me go"
- "Never let me go" by Florence and the Machine

Looking up from underneath
Right now, I am in the middle seat on a 737 on my way back to the United States. I am leaning on my boyfriend, watching the bright scarlet sunset through the oval window in the wall. I can’t focus on anything, and I can’t fall asleep. I just keep looking back through my pictures, reviewing species names, wishing I was underwater. 

It's been an incredible week. My dive skills improved by leaps and bounds - my air consumption, buoyancy control, and ability to hold position in the water all grew and stretched and improved. I learned how to carry extra tanks and switch gas sources mid-water to extend the lengths of my dives. I practiced the art of controlling buoyancy with my breath, exhaling to sink and inhaling to rise. Most importantly, I discovered that I had been wearing too much weight. Divers wear lead weights in their pockets or on a belt to make sure they are neutrally buoyant, and once I removed the 4 lb I had been carrying, everything became infinitely easier. These are the kinds of things you can only learn with practice. 

This mural appears on the side of the Trans World Radio
station in Kralendijk. My thoughts exactly.
I am so grateful that I got to experience tropical coral reefs and all their captivating biodiversity. I actually went back through my ID books and counted all the species I remember seeing. I made it to 50, but this is a gross underestimate for sure. I'm sure I swam past many more without noticing them, and I didn't even count fish. You know, diving for me this week was much like tidepooling when I lived in Oregon - a fun hobby, a way to get outside, away from datasets and laptops, a way to keep myself centered and in love with the world

I don't have any scientific projects on coral reefs right now, but it's not out of the question. After all, coral reefs are isolated, island-like, hard-bottom habitats - my specialty. We'll see what the future brings. 

In the meantime, the sun has disappeared below the horizon, and my plane is flying into the night. I feel the effects of this week in my sore ears, my tired leg muscles, and my clear, content spirit. I let out a deep breath and rest my head once more on my boyfriend's shoulder. I am full. 

Surface interval

At the end of every diving trip, you have to take some time off. It’s unsafe to fly within 18 – 24 hours of your last dive because your body is still releasing the nitrogen gas that’s been dissolved into your bloodstream at higher than atmospheric pressure. Exposure to altitude too soon could cause decompression sickness. So what are two divers to do during a surface interval on their last day in a desert paradise? Go explore on land, of course.

We set out from Kralendijk and drove south along the western coast of Bonaire. It was a beautiful tour, and magically, everything that I had still wanted to show you in photographs was there and in the perfect light. I’ll show you below.

Typical Bonaire vegetation

We saw a flamingo! It was hanging out in a pool 
of rainwater near the beach.
Flamingoes are the national bird of Bonaire.
This lighthouse marks the southern tip of the island.

Coral rubble beach and whitecaps in southern Bonaire

Feral donkeys are pretty common on the island. 

This donkey made a perfect model! Photo
edited by Jerry Kaiser.

I told you the cacti were taller than trees, 
so here's photographic proof. Crazy!
 
Tall cactus on Bonaire

Gorgeous beach view

Age of Aquarius

"When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will seer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius"
- "Aquarius" from the musical Hair

"I don't think this is going to happen," my boyfriend judged disappointedly as he pulled off the road. We had just reached our planned dive site, Red Slave, at the very southern tip of Bonaire. Parked on the gravel, we could see over a pile of coral rubble to the sea. The wind was whipping past our truck windows, and there were white caps on the waves. Three surfers paddled toward the oncoming swells, and we watched them ride the cresting waves back to shore.

Rule of thumb: never attempt to go diving where there are people surfing.

There was no way we could make it through the surf safely, so we turned and headed back north. Just north of the Salt Pier, we chose another site called Aquarius. The entry looked easy, and the waves were much smaller. This unplanned detour actually ended up being our best dive yet.

After making our way down the beach, we swam along the reef to the north. It was incredible. For some reason, the Aquarius site had very high coral cover and very high diversity. Maybe my eyes are getting more attuned to noticing corals now, but there were several species at Aquarius I had not seen before. Lettuce coral, Agaricia agaricites, covered many surfaces, with its convoluted brown ridges that are always capped in white. Black sea rod, Plexaura homomalla, stood in clusters along the reef, its black branches spotted with gold. The encrusting gorgonian, Erythropodium caribaeorum, covered rock surfaces like fine white hair. An Atlantic mushroom coral, Scolymia lacera, sat nestled beneath a rocky overhang, a bright disc striped in blue and green.

At one point, I tilted my head to the left. The reef below me stretched down the rocky slope, and at the bottom lay a flat, sandy plain. But in the hazy distance across the sand, I could see another black, rugged slope rising into the water column. Could it be another reef? The further north I swam, the closer the black slope came. Eventually I realized it was another coral reef - the Aquarius site had a double reef!

Of course we couldn't resist exploring the second reef, so we checked our pressure gauges and swam further seaward across the sand. I'm willing to guess not many divers make it to the double reef, because the corals were in pristine condition. Stony corals covered the slope, leaving almost no empty sand or rock in between. Long, fuzzy wire corals stretched up into the water column. A long-spined urchin poked out from behind a ledge. A brittle star curled up just inside the opening of a stovepipe sponge.

To be honest, it was the best dive we had all week, but I stupidly couldn't take any pictures because the underwater camera I had been using flooded on a previous dive. It's really a shame I can't show you this gorgeous site. As we reached our turnaround point, I tilted my fins to spin around, but something striped and spiky caught my eye under a rock. A lionfish. Its zebra stripes made it look like a prisoner on the reef, and its poisonous spikes were splayed out in preemptive defense. Everything about the fish declared: Do not touch!

Lionfish are not native to the Caribbean. They were introduced via the aquarium trade, more specifically by people releasing their pet lionfish into the wild when disassembling saltwater fish tanks. They now constitute a threat to biodiversity because they are voracious competitors and have no natural predators in the Caribbean. There's a burgeoning industry surrounding lionfish in order to motivate people to hunt them. This week, I saw "lionfish hunter" SCUBA courses being advertised and everything from lionfish earrings to lionfish steaks for sale.

We left the double reef behind and made our way back across the sand to the first reef. On the way back south, I barely had to swim because the current carried me along. As we reached the marker we had left in the sand, my boyfriend signaled with his hands: swim around more? No, I shook my head, then gestured toward shore. Let's end on this high note. It's been an awesome week.