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.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Ship to wreck

"Under starless skies we are lost
And into the breach we got tossed
And the water's coming in fast...
Oh, my love remind me
What was it that I did?
Did I drink too much?
Am I losing touch?
Did I build a ship to wreck?"
- "Ship to wreck" by Florence and the Machine

Swimming across the coral reef, I made my body horizontal. My eyes were directed downward as always, scanning the corals and the sponges and the fish. I was in my zone. Lifting my head ever so subtly, I checked my boyfriend's position in front of me.

And was faced with a giant metallic wall.

This is the best picture I could get of the animals on the
Hilma Hooker wreck. Like I said, large portions of the hull
are completely empty and uncolonized.
It was the wreck of the Hilma Hooker, a cargo ship that sank off the coast of Bonaire in 1984. It's now a popular dive site and the only wreck in (my) divable depth range on the island. The ship rests on its side on the seafloor, so when approaching it from shore, you see the bottom of the hull first. Compared to the macro-scale of rock features on the reef, the Hooker's mega size is intimidating. It rises from the sand at the foot of the reef, creating an unnatural barrier and an unnatural habitat. It is impressive.

We swam over the top of the wreck to the seaward side, and I couldn't help but notice the organisms living on it - or rather lack thereof. Most of the ship's hull was still uncolonized, and what organisms were there belonged to just a few species. I remember stovepipe sponges and brain corals being the most common. There were also a number of flat patches of red or orange - colonial ascidians and encrusting sponges. Ascidians are not common on the coral reefs (I presume because they are outcompeted), so I started to wonder if they had found a lower-competition refuge on the wreck. My mind started spinning, thinking about other shipwrecks I had seen or read about, how their communites were formed, whether they might be refuges for uncommon species.

We passed over the wreck to the seaward side. There's a large, cavernous opening where the cargo hold used to be, so the hull arches over the sand like a cave. You can actually see inside the ship pretty far by crouching on the sand next to it. My boyfriend regularly swims inside shipwrecks, so he was confident taking me into the wide-open cavern. Friends, that was quite the experience. I had more than enough gas in my tank and was in no danger of getting entangled, but still my body seized. I could feel my breaths quickening and my pulse rising as I swam just a few feet inside. Spinning around with my fins, I looked back toward the broad opening and realized I could still see the sun. I could swim out anytime. I was fine.

One of the most important skills in SCUBA diving is keeping yourself calm underwater. Even though it only lasted a few seconds, I was disappointed in myself for reacting how I did. But when I described the feeling to my boyfriend later, he just shook his head and said, "Babe, if you hadn't felt that way, you'd be broken."

Underwater selfie near the Hilma Hooker
To be honest, I'm not sure how often I'll venture inside wrecks, because for me, all the interesting stuff is on the outside. The only species I remember seeing inside the cavern were serpulid polychaetes, little worms in white calcium tubes.

Still, the Hilma Hooker was fascinating to see - massive, dominating, unnatural. I wondered if the wreck would be covered by more organisms with time or eventually come to resemble the neighboring reef. I guess I'll have to come back and check!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Into that good night

"Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
- "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas

I hung suspended above the reef, neutrally buoyant, perfectly poised. In front of me, a huge silver tarpon slithered past, oblivious to my presence. My dive light scanned the ground in front of me, and a small crab caught my eye. I hadn't seen it before - well, I remembered it was in my ID book, but I couldn't remember its name. It had a thin, teardrop-shaped body and unbelievably long, skinny legs. Stenorhynchus seticornis, the yellowline arrow crab.

The reef does not go gently into the night. At dusk, little fish hide away, but the ecosystem is no less alive. Nocturnal invertebrates come out to feed. Coral polyps emerge, so the reef looks like it's covered in fuzz. There are giant, predatorial fish lurking. It is fascinating.

Swimming further down the reef, I noticed long black spikes peeking out from behind a coral. I tilted my feet and glided around the living rock to see what it was. The long, needle-like spines made the creature look like a predator's worst nightmare - there was no biting this guy and surviving. Some of the black needles swept slowly back and forth or in circles. They all traced back to a dark purple clump nestled in a crevice between corals. The long-spined urchin, Diadema antillarum.

A few minutes later, I noticed a long, sinewy, bristle-covered leg laying across a sponge. Following its curves, I found the disc-shaped center of the animal, then four more attached, equally-bristled legs. The angular brittle star, Ophiothrix angulata.

My boyfriend trained his light on a cavern underneath a coral head. He stayed there, suspended in the dark water, pointing out a creature to me. As I made my slow approach, I saw a flat, oblong crustacean. Like a lobster that had been squashed under a pile of books. He was larger than I expected and clawed at the rocky overhang above him. Scyllarides aequinoctialis, the Spanish slipper lobster. 

Fleshy green tentacles emerged from a coral head. I recognized them immediately as belonging to an anemone. The animal was hidden in a crevice, but by the diameter of the tentacle ring, it could only be one species: Condylactis gigantea, the giant anemone.

Gradually, we reached our turn-around point and proceeded up the reef to swim back at a shallower depth. As we climbed, I heard a strange sound. It reminded me of crackling cereal or frying bacon. Sound travels quickly underwater, so I dismissed it at first. Then it hit me: I had heard this sound before, in a seminar about snapping shrimp. The shallower I got, the louder the sound became. I never got to see them, but it had to be Alpheus armatus, the red snapping shrimp.

The rocks and corals became more sparse the higher we climbed. At the edge of the reef, nestled between two large rocks, I saw a long, soft tube. It was mottled brown and white, with a smooth surface spotted with triangular bumps. The tiger tail sea cucumber, Holothuria thomasi.

We swam back to the dock over the sloping sand plain, and even here were there animals raving at the close of day. Every few feet, I passed over a small round hole in the sand with two tentacles emerging. The tube worms were feeding in the darkness, Mesochaetopterus sp.

Arriving back at the dock, I marveled to myself how active the reef is at night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Salt flats, slave huts, and things that come in eights

Salt flats, salt mounds, Salt Pier
Leaning back in the front seat of the pickup truck, I could feel the breeze coming through the window teasing my salt-encrusted hair. The sun heated my legs and my shoulders. To my right, the beach stretched out to the sea, white sand and blue lagoon. To my left, my boyfriend pressed the clutch and shifted gears. We had a truckbed full of dive gear and were on our way out of town.

A few minutes past the airport, I noticed a change in the landscape to my left. The ground looked pink. Large, rectangular pools filled with rose-tinted saltwater stretched for miles inland, and at the seaward edges, the wind tossed clumps of salt up onto the rim like snowballs. The southwestern quartile of Bonaire is one giant salt farm, and we were driving straight past it. In front of us, colossal salt mounds lined the horizon, and a metallic bridge lead across the road to a large pier. The Salt Pier.

The White Slave dive site, named for the old huts that still
stand on the beach.
My boyfriend kept driving, and I noticed a blue obelisk to my right. A bit further on, a white one was visible. The obelisks used to guide ships to the salt port, where they could be loaded with the product by slaves. Near the white obelisk, small huts lined the shore, where the slaves used to live Monday - Friday. We pulled off the road near the cluster of white slave huts, and I noticed one of Bonaire's classic painted-rock signs. With black letters on a yellow background, this one marked our dive site: White Slave.

Climbing out of the truck, we each circled back to the truckbed and started putting on our gear. Just a few minutes later, we were waddling into the surf.

A sea rod (I think it's Pseudoplexaura sp.) at White Slave
Sites on the southern end of Bonaire tend to have more octocorals than reefs in the north. As we swam out from shore, I could immediately notice a difference. Instead of being dominated by reef-forming stony corals, the seafloor was covered in flexible sea fans, sea whips, and sea rods. All octocorals have eight-way symmetry in their polyps, but they're more easily recognized by their flexible growth forms. The octocorals swayed in the current, washing back and forth with the waves.

My boyfriend and I swam along the reef, first doing a deep transect, then coming shallower for our return. We monitored our gas consumption and made sure to stay neutrally buoyant, hovering just above the corals without touching them. We kicked and glided and watched the octocorals sway in the waves. It was heavenly.

Fire corals in the shallows at White Slave
As we navigated back to shore, we could feel the effects of the surf. Slowly climbing shallower, we were carried by the undersurface waves, first surging landward, then holding position as the water rushed back out. The rocks in the shallows were covered in fire corals - not proper corals, but notorious for the stinging rash they leave. We watched our buoyancy carefully and kept our hands tucked in to avoid brushing one of the dark yellow burning creatures. We made it out with no accidents and waddled back to the truck. With my dive gear safely stowed, I settled once more into the front seat. Good dive, I thought. Good dive.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The reef

A stovepipe sponge
For our first few dives in Bonaire, my boyfriend and I started easy, diving on the reef just adjacent to our beachfront hotel. It was my first time diving on a coral reef, and I have just one thing to say: holy biodiversity, Batman.

We started the dive by jumping off the resort's pier and swimming seaward over the sand. There's a line leading divers out to the reef, which makes the journey very straight-forward. The sand had a smooth, gentle slope, but I could notice we were getting gradually deeper. At about 30 ft (9 m), the seafloor dropped off with a steep ledge, and that's where the reef began. Most coral reefs around Bonaire are located on similar sub-sea walls, about 30 - 130 ft (40 m) deep.

The first organism I remember noticing was a large purple sponge. Several long, thin tubes stretched up from a common base, and each tube was maybe 2 ft long. According to my identification guide, it's called the stovepipe sponge, Aplysina archeri. It was very common on the reef.
Hard corals on my first reef

The next thing I noticed were all the hard corals. There were four really common species, a brain coral (Colpophyllia natans, I believe), the blushing star coral (Stephanocoenia intersepta), lobed star coral (Orbicella annularis), and smooth flower cup coral (Eusmilia fastigiata). I've tried to point some of them out in the photo here at left. You'll notice the different growth forms - ridges versus clusters versus bumps. Reef-forming corals are actually colonies of clones, and every species has a slightly different pattern for how those clones are arranged. In the brain coral, they live in long sinewy lines, creating ridges in their colony's collective skeleton like a brain. Flower corals have large, single polyps that live in individual cups but are joined together at the base. For the star coral, you can actually see the coral individuals in this photo. Each one of the brown bumps is a polyp, and together they form a calcaerous mound.

A couple things surprised me about the reef. First was the sheer number of species in a small area. I knew there would probably be more species than other marine habitats I'm used to looking at, but I guess I didn't expect them all to be so obvious or in one place. I'm used to having to look under rocks or dig hard to find organisms in the intertidal; on the reef, I could see 30-50 species just by swimming for a few minutes. It was incredible!

A coral restoration project
The second thing that surprised me was actually how much empty space there was. Corals covered the vast majority of the seafloor, but there was still a measurable fraction left uncolonized. The substrata were obviously all old coral skeletons, so I started to wonder if the emptiness was normal or if coral recruitment has been declining in recent years. I suspect the latter, because right next to the reef were several tall stands with growing coral juveniles - a restoration project by the Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire. I asked around and was told that the coral juveniles will be outplanted on the natural reefs once they are large enough, in the hopes that they will become established and reproduce on their own in later years.

I had a great first day exploring the resort's "house reef" and getting acquainted with the local system. Coral reefs are such beautiful, diverse habitats, and I look forward to exploring more!

Land of cactus and coral

Anytime I land in a new place, I spend my first day looking around and noticing unique aspects of the country I'm in. Below are some of the things I've noticed about Bonaire.

A cactus fence 
1) The vegetation is all very dry, even though the air is humid. There are cacti everywhere and salamanders running around on the sidewalks. 

2) There are a lot of donkeys on the island. There are "donkey crossing" signs everywhere, and we actually saw a few beside the road our first night. Our hotel has a grate with widely-spaced metal rods in the driveway at the entrance, much like you would see at a ranch out west. But instead of keeping cows in, the grate is meant to keep the donkeys out.

3) Cactus plants grow really tall here, in some cases taller than trees. Many of the fences on the island are actually just cactus stalks woven together with mesh or wire.

4) Papiamentu is the most common language spoken on Bonaire, and it's a Creole language based on Portuguese. It's really interesting to see signs and hear conversations in Papiamentu. I first thought it was heavily-accented Spanish, but it didn't sound quite right. What's crazy is that every once in a while, a Dutch word will get thrown in (Bonaire is a Netherlands protectorate).

An example of Papiamentu in the grocery store
5) As far as tropical islands go, Bonaire seems to be actually pretty well-off. The population is mostly of West African descent, and they live in quiet neighborhoods of adobe homes surrounded by cactus fences. 

6) The #1 reason people come to Bonaire is for SCUBA diving. The coral reefs are well-preserved, thanks to strict regulations (gloves are outlawed to prevent people from touching the reefs) and a large national park on the north end of the island. Bonaire was mercifully spared by the hurricanes that destroyed much of the Caribbean this year.

7) The island has a combination of cultural influences. Many of the place names are in Spanish, and the radio has primarily Spanish-language salsa music. However, the food is imported from the U.S. or Europe. Prime example: the grocery store sells both large wheels of cheese like in the Netherlands and Cheeze Whiz. 

Bonaire is a very unique place, and I'm glad for the chance to explore this Caribbean island! 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Guess where

Friends, after just a month of lab work and writing in the U.S., I am going abroad again! I'm very excited for this trip, but I'm not going to tell you where I'm going; I'm going to make you guess.

Clue #1: For this week-long trip, I am bringing the same number of suitcases as I had when moving to Europe (both times). All my clothes, toiletries, and "normal" items fit in my carry-on; everything else is equipment.

Clue #2: I have never been to this location before, but my boyfriend has been twice. (Pertinent to clue #1, the last time he was here, he and two friends had 19 bags between them, only two of which contained clothes.)

Clue #3: I studied extensively to prepare for this trip.

With my boyfriend on the plane
Clue #4: The country I'm going to has Dutch as its official language, but English and a unique Portuguese-based Creole are more commonly spoken.

Clue #5: This place is  a desert but has lots of water.

Clue #6: It is famous for its sea salt and tall cacti.

Clue #7: The national bird of this country is the flamingo.

Clue #8: It is known as the "shore diving capitol of the world."

Have I thoroughly confused you? Friends, I am headed to Bonaire! It's a small desert island in the Caribbean, off the coast of Venezuela. In case you're wondering, my boyfriend's travel companions on his last trip were underwater videographers, hence the ridiculous amount of equipment. He and I won't be making any videos this trip, but I do hope to post some pictures of the coral reefs for you. We'll be diving all week on the reefs that surround the island.

My first view of Bonaire out the plane window
While this trip is a vacation and I usually don't tell you about my vacations (well, for starters, I don't take many), I've decided to share this trip with you. Diving the reefs will improve my skills for science, and besides, I can't resist the chance to showcase coral reef invertebrates!

My boyfriend actually bought me two identification books for reef corals and other invertebrates, which I've been poring over for the past few weeks. Coral reefs have astounding biodiversity, and I look forward to identifying as many of the organisms I see as possible! Stay tuned for stories and photos from the Caribbean!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Damaged words

"But with all my education
I can seem to commend it
And the words are all escaping me
And coming back all damaged
And I would put them back in poetry if I only knew how
I can't seem to understand it"
- "All this and heaven too" by Florence and the Machine
Friends, writing is hard. Ask any scientist why they got into research, and I guarantee none of them will tell you it's because they love to write. We get into this business for the field work, for the adventure, for the curiosity, but a large portion of our time is spent on the back end of that process, merely writing up our results. Scientific literature can be bland and is often difficult to assemble, but we do it anyway. It's the best way to communicate our results to one another. Trust me, though, nobody gets into this job for the writing. It's just an inevitable necessity.

I've spent a lot of time writing this week. I've been working on proposals and applications for future work but also finishing up two manuscripts on oysters. I've told you about the oyster projects before. I started analyzing the data in January, spent March and April whittling down the results to a digestible story, started the whole thing over in July, and have been revising ever since. It's been a long process, and every time I think I'm finished, my co-authors come back with more suggestions for improvement.

Don't get me wrong - my co-authors are wonderful, intelligent people who have important things to say, and we're getting really close! There's just a point in every scientific study when I'm sick of the data and ready to be done. Every time words escape me, they come back all damaged. I would much put them back in poetry if I only knew how, but I'll settle for a well-constructed, sleek scientific paper. It's a long, process, friends, but I'm close. So close.