Monday, December 31, 2018

Like silver

"For you, O God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison
And laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance."
- Psalm 66: 10-12 NIV

Friends, we are now nearing the end of another year. 2018 is drawing to a close, and I can feel a chapter closing in a very real way. You know, recognizing the end of a calendar year is actually unusual for me. A combination of my late summer birthday and growing up in the North American educational system with its September-to-June rhythm has meant that my years have always begun and ended in August. Each year, the summer-to-fall transition meant I advanced a year in age and a grade in school. For me, New Year's Day has always been in August.

Not this year. 2018 was a year all by itself. It was the year I was engaged. It was the year I finished my postdoctoral position. As December closes, I feel the end of the year coming in a more real way than ever. The end of this year is the end of an era.

2018 tested me. This year was an absolute roller coaster with the highest highs and lowest lows I have experienced yet. In 2018, I felt like forged metal. Over and over again, I was smelted, boiled with nitric acid, and pounded on an anvil. I have been refined and shaped like silver.

In 2018, I saw the end of my scientific funding rapidly approaching, and I scrambled to write grant proposals and job applications to keep myself going. I experienced the panic of an uncertain professional future, and I did everything I could to keep up. But I got one major project funded, and in the end, I landed my dream job. I came out of the struggle funded and employed.

In 2018, my personal life was transformed. I became vulnerable in my relationships in a way I never had before. I revealed my true self to those who claim to love me, and in return, I received both stinging withdrawal and gracious acceptance. I experienced the glorious freedom that comes with telling the truth. I learned whom I can trust.

This year, I saw God in unexpected places. I traveled through icy wilderness and tropical paradise, and I visited past versions of myselfI married my best friend. I went through fire and water and was brought out to a place of abundance.

As 2018 draws to a close, I return from my grand Pacific adventure to the place that has become my long-term home. But I do not return the same as I was. 2019 will usher in a new era for me with a strong sense of permanence. The man I love has become my husband. I finally have a tenure-track position. We bought a house. All these things allow me to be more secure than ever before in my adult life, and I feel more in control of my own life than I have ever been. No longer a wanderer, I can explore the world from a position of security and strength. I have a solid base, a secure place I can return to, a true home.

I have been refined like silver, and with the new year comes a new era. 2019, I welcome you.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Peleliu

A Japanese tank on Peleliu - the same model as on the
San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon. Photo by Carl Kaiser.
"Adventure then cocktails"
- message on another diver's T-shirt

I was huddled on the boat, wearing a swimsuit and an orange cotton dress. I wished I had a rain jacket. Salt spray flew over the side of the boat, soaking me and the other passengers, and raindrops fell on us from above. Behind us, a bright orange sunset lit up the horizon, while in front of us, the sky grew dim. The captain navigated through countless rocky passages in the twilight, and when we finally reached the dock, we stood and applauded him. It had been a long, adventurous day.

Inside the Thousand Man Cave. Photo by Carl Kaiser.
There's an island in southern Palau called Peleliu, which was host to one of the bloodiest battles in WWII. Americans invaded using amphibious vehicles and seized the Japanese airfield on the island in 1944. The battle took months and resulted in thousands of casualties, and evidence of the battle remains on the island still today. Local inhabitants have returned, but outside the main town, there are Japanese tanks, rusted-out American amphibious vehicles, and the abandoned concrete-and-rebar headquarters building.

Carl and I used our chance while in Palau to see Peleliu. We took the hour-long boat ride with other travelers, did two dives, and then embarked on a land tour of the historical artifacts on the island. It was fascinating to see. We visited the beach where the American invasion was launched and the airfield they eventually seized. The most fascinating part for me was seeing the so-called Thousand Man Cave, a network of tunnels built by the Japanese on the northern end of the island. The tunnels enabled Japanese soldiers to rapidly and secretly reach new parts of Peleliu to emerge and surprise Americans. However, many of the Japanese ended up trapped inside when American fighters drove flaming vehicles into the cave entrances.

Peleliu has a rich history that was revealing to experience. Even as the weather worsened on our ride home, I was glad for the opportunity to visit the island.

Ulong Channel

“Always be yourself. Unless you can be a mermaid. Then always be a mermaid.”
- Slogan of the online network Girls that Scuba, whose members refer to each other as mermaids

One of the great things about SCUBA diving for me as a marine biologist is the chance to experience the environments I study in person. It’s one thing to read a textbook about how sunlight attenuates in water, how the temperature drops below the thermocline, how currents are steered by the bathymetry of the seafloor. It’s a completely different proposition to strap on a SCUBA tank, become an underwater creature, and go visit the reef yourself. You’ll notice that everything begins to look blue-green as you descend. You’ll feel like your head has been dunked in ice water as you cross the thermocline. You’ll feel the current push you along, following the contours of the rock below.

Friends, today, I experienced the environment in person as Carl and I dove in Ulong Channel. Our dive started with a gentle swim along a coral reef. Like most of the reefs in Palau, it was a vertical wall, and we could feel the incoming tidal current pushing us upward onto the plateau. Eventually, our guide signaled for us to ascend to the plateau and anchor in with our reef hooks. A reef hook is exactly what it sounds like - a strong metallic hook with a thick, woven line and a clip at the other end. You find a solid piece of dead coral, secure the hook, stretch out the line, and clip the other end to your gear. You inflate your buoyancy compensator slightly and float above the reef at anchor. It’s like being a human balloon.

We hooked into the reef and waited for about 20 minutes. The whole time, gray reef sharks swam back and forth in front of us, and schools of silver fish flickered past. The current grew stronger, too. We waited until the current was strongest during the incoming tide. To be honest, I was beginning to wonder if my reef hook would hold me as the force of the water stretched my line to its limit and vibrated my gear. Just then, the guide signaled to release our hooks, and we drifted with the current through Ulong Channel.

It felt like I was flying. The current carried me along, and I passed over coral after coral in the channel. The flow was too strong to swim against and extremely difficult to swim across (I tried once), but I was able to steer with my fins. For another half hour, we drifted with the current through the channel. The seafloor was covered with stony corals, rigid living rocks that can withstand the sheer force of the water rushing through the channel 4 times each day. I thought about the larvae carried on the current to the rocky habitat, about the plankton delivered to the corals' hungry tentacles at night. I dropped down to a sandy patch and felt the velocity slow in the benthic boundary layer. I passed over a large coral mound and felt the higher speed near the summit. The guide lead us through a narrow passage, and I could feel the flow become more turbulent in the complex space. It was an absolutely amazing dive.

Ulong Channel is one of my favorite dive sites in Palau. It offered a unique chance to feel the current and experience the environmental factors affecting the coral reef in person. I was grateful for the chance to dive it!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Jellyfish Lake

After leaving Chuuk, Carl and I headed to Palau! I was here for work in September-October, and I was more than happy to be back. Palau is one of the more developed island nations in the Pacific, and it features beautiful, pristine natural habitats for diving. After two weeks of quirky living conditions in Chuuk, it's been nice to be in a more Westernized area. Carl and I are spending our week here diving on gorgeous, densely-populated coral reefs. We're seeing hundreds of species each dive, along with sharks and turtles and manta rays and fish. The natural environment here is truly unparalleled - and I'm not just talking it up. I absolutely love diving in Palau. 

One of the very famous sites in Palau is Jellyfish Lake, a marine lake in the Rock Islands. It's populated by a subspecies of endemic jellyfish that have a very weak sting. Over centuries of isolation in the lake, the jellies have not needed to defend themselves or catch food, so their cnidocytes have become so weak that a human can't even feel the sting. To feed themselves, the jellyfish have photosynthetic symbionts, much like corals, so their nutrition comes from sunlight. Most jellies are predators, but the subspecies in Jellyfish Lake migrates around the lake throughout the day, following the sun. It's like the cnidarian equivalent of the reformed sharks in Finding Nemo - a tribe of former meat-eaters living in harmony in paradise. 

Our visit began with a boat ride to the island, called Mecherchar, where the lake sits. We parked at the dock and carried our gear on a steep stone staircase over a ridge, first up, then down. From the surface, it looked like any other lake - still water nestled among trees, with a handful of snorkelers splashing at the surface. We donned our masks and fins, eased ourselves into the water, and swam to the center. I put my face beneath the surface and was instantly in another world. The jellies, barely visible from above the surface of the water, were everywhere. Thousands of them, millions - we were told that the lake's population was about 2 million individuals, and usually, it's closer to 10 million. All of them drifted along slowly, contracting their bells absentmindedly as their tentacles trailed behind. They were a deep peach color, almost brown. 

Our guide told us that there are actually five marine lakes with endemic jellyfish in Palau. Four are closed to the public, and each one has a unique subspecies of jelly that is found nowhere else in the world. All of the subspecies are closely related to a species that is common in the Rock Island bays of Palau, so the prevailing theory is that birds carried dried polyps on their feathers from the bays to the lakes, and the isolated jelly populations diverged over time. 

I am immensely grateful that we got to experience Jellyfish Lake. It is a fragile, unique environment that was a privilege to see.

Observations

Friends, as you know, when I am traveling, I am constantly observing. Chuuk has been an insightful place for me to be, so I’d like to share some of my observations. I’ve learned a lot just by talking to the resort employees and other expatriates who have been living here.

We barbecued on an island between dives once, and this was
our view - stunning!
1) Everything about life in Chuuk centers around the ocean. Dive tourism is essentially the only industry here, and many of the Chuukese employees commute to work by boat. There are ferries between the islands in Truk Lagoon – essentially, small wooden boats with outboard motors. It took us a long time to figure out that the boat traffic adjacent to the resort was actually public transit, because the dock is unlabeled and the operators are not in uniform. If you live here, you just know which boat to get on.

2) Chuuk is a very conservative, religious place. Carl and I went to the grocery store in town, and in our 5-minute cab ride, we passed about 5 churches, 3 Christian schools, and two different pairs of Mormon missionaries visiting peoples’ homes. There are signs around the resort here warning guests to dress conservatively and respect local customs – women should never show their thighs. In fact, most of the Chuukese women we’ve seen both around the resort and in town wear dresses or flowing, baggy tops with long skirts - never anything form-fitting and never, ever pants. People also get married young and have large families here. Our dive guide said he has 6 children, aged 18 years to 3 months.

3) There is no such thing as homelessness in Chuuk. People live in large family groups, and even though employment is very low (dive resorts are the only employers), unemployed people are always cared for by other family members. A multigenerational family will be supported by a few individuals who each make just a few dollars an hour.

4) The standard diet for Chuukese people these days is Spam and rice. Carl and I met a Japanese man who was living in Chuuk for 2 years, and he said his host family eats Spam and rice for almost every meal. It got very monotonous, he said. The traditional foods – breadfruit, taro, and fish – are actually more expensive than Spam and rice, so the Chuukese people switched over to the cheaper imported foods. Agriculture, fishing, and public health are declining as a result.

5) There are lots of dogs and cats in Chuuk. They are all well-behaved and look well-fed, so we actually couldn’t tell if they were pets that allowed to roam or if they were actually feral. There’s a family of tabby cats around the resort that likes to perform for food. Carl and I would open the door to our room every morning to find one or more cats seated at attention, and as soon as we stepped out, they would lay on their backs, stretch out, purr, meow, and generally try to look adorable. Such manipulative beggars!

6) The utilities in Chuuk are less than 100% reliable. (Please note: I don’t intend to complain – it’s actually been a fun adventure to figure out how things work here!) I’m not sure if this happens across the whole island or just the resort, but electricity is from diesel generators. Four times a day, at 6:00 am/pm and at 12:00 am/pm, the generator is switched, so the power goes out for 1 – 2 minutes. Carl and I consider the power outages our “dinner bell,” calling us to the restaurant for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As one may expect, the internet is slow enough to make even e-mail challenging, and cell phone service is non-existent. The maximum temperature of water for showers also varies by time of day. Carl and I quickly realized that the best time for internet usage was the early morning and showers were warmest after 4 pm, so we adjusted our daily schedules accordingly!

7) Chuukese music is really interesting. It’s pretty monotonous and repetitive, at least based on the radio station that plays in the resort lobby. The typical song consists of a voice signing 3 – 4 different phrases in a half-octave range over and over and over, with light percussion and strummed string instruments as accompaniment. To be honest, it was hard for my Western ears to listen to for more than ~10 minutes at a time. The Chuukese people sing sometimes while working, which is equally repetitive but actually very beautiful.

It’s the poorest country I’ve ever been in so far, but I really came to like Micronesia. The natural surroundings are absolutely stunning, and the people are laid-back and extremely polite and helpful. Of course resort employees are paid to be nice to us, but when we went to the grocery store in town, we actually had a stranger volunteer to help us find the shopping baskets. I was surprised and grateful.

I went to end on a moment from our last day in Chuuk. I was on the dock, busy rinsing all our dive gear in fresh water, and the man who had been driving our boat most of the trip came up to me. He was on his way to the ferry to go home for the night, but he shook my hand and bid me farewell and safe travels. A teenage dive shop employee was slouching on the table behind me, and as the ferry’s motor roared to life, he started singing softly to himself. The sun was on its way to the horizon behind some clouds, so I had this beautiful, serene moment accompanied by the sun and the sea and a song.

If you are planning a vacation, I encourage to consider Chuuk. This place relies on tourism dollars, and it is absolutely worth the trip.

Outer reef

Whenever I travel, I am always observing. As we’ve been diving the wrecks this week, I’ve made mental notes of what lived on each one and tried to detect patterns. A couple things have stuck out to me.

First, the wrecks actually have lower biodiversity than I expected. My only other time diving in the tropical Pacific was in Palau, and to some extent, I was expecting to see the same level of species richness that I had observed there. Not so – if I had to guess, I would say the largest, most species-rich wreck in Truk Lagoon was home to 30 benthic invertebrates, whereas a natural reef the same size in Palau hosted > 100.

Shipwrecks very often have lower biodiversity than nearby natural hard-bottom habitats, and in fact, figuring out why this happens is one of the major questions in my scientific career right now. In most cases, I think it has to do with dispersal – the types of organisms that live on hard-bottom reefs simply can’t disperse out to an isolated, island-like shipwreck. This idea was part of my PhD thesis, and I spent most of last summer figuring out what species can and cannot disperse to shipwrecks in New England.

I very much wanted to see a natural coral reef in Truk Lagoon to compare its species richness to the shipwrecks. We approached the dive guide, and he agreed we could have a dive on a natural reef. We loaded our gear into the boat, motored out to the edge of the lagoon, and jumped into the sea.

It’s not very often that I get answer to my scientific questions right away. Detecting patterns in nature most often requires extensive observation, careful data collection, and deep analysis. Today was one of the rare times that a simple, instantaneous observation answered a scientific question.

As I descended through the water column, I surveyed the corals below me. Clumps of yellow covered the seafloor. Yellow, yellow, yellow, everywhere I looked. The entire reef was dominated by a single species: Porites lobata.

Some of you may remember Porites lobata. It’s the species that Hanny and I were collecting in Palau last September-October. It’s a very common stony coral in the tropical Pacific, and it is uniquely resistant to bleaching.

We drifted along the reef with the current, and I continued to observe the animals beneath me. Small colonies of other stony corals were present, but the size of the patches suggested they were very young, probably new recruits from the last 1 – 2 years. Between the living Porites were calcium carbonate skeletons – spiky shapes and dome shapes and upright branching shapes of corals long dead. Ideas started coalescing in my mind.

Diverse dead corals + dominance of the living corals by a species that’s resilient to bleaching + only young colonists of other species = there must have been a massive bleaching event on the reef 2 – 3 years ago, and Porites lobata was the only species to survive. I looked it up, and there was actually a massive El NiƱo in 2014 – 2016 that decimated corals across the Pacific. I realized I was looking at the evidence right beneath me.

The wheels in my head kept turning, and I realized that the low biodiversity I was seeing on the shipwrecks in Truk Lagoon was not the result of dispersal. It wasn’t that only a few species of coral larvae could travel all the way from the natural reef and reach the wrecks. It was that only a few species could survive bleaching events, like Porites lobata. The patterns I was observing in the shipwreck communities were driven more by resilience to environmental disturbance than by dispersal.

In one way, coming to this conclusion was satisfying because it explained the patterns I was seeing, but in another way, it was disappointing because it meant Truk Lagoon shipwrecks are not a good system in which to study dispersal, so there’s little chance I could ever return here for work. Either way, I greatly enjoyed our dive on the outer reef. It’s amazing what you can learn just by observing the world.

San Francisco Maru

“Plan the dive; dive the wreck; wreck the plan!”
- A fellow diver in Truk Lagoon, hopefully joking

A tank on the deck of San Francisco Maru. Photo by
Robert De Jongh.
Friends, today I completed my deepest dive yet! It was on the shipwreck San Francisco Maru, which rests at the bottom of Truk Lagoon. It was a fascinating wreck.

We started by swimming down the mooring line, a thick rope attached to the wreck amidships with a float at the surface. Immediately, I was struck by the presence of two tanks on the deck of the ship. Yes, tanks. They rested on an incline on the sloping upper deck of the ship, covered in a thick layer of sediment. They were smaller than I expected, but still menacing.

Through the metallic slats in the upper deck, I could see into the hold below. An old truck lay at the bottom, its grill and windshield clogged with brown silt. We swam down into the hold to have a look, then emerged a few minutes later and continued toward the bow of the ship. In the adjacent hold, there were numerous metallic spheres – beach mines. I paid special attention to my buoyancy and avoided tapping any of them, but Carl assured me the detonators were stored separately and were stable underwater. The mines were very cool to see.

Invertebrates on the bow gun on the San Francisco Maru.
Photo by Robert De Jongh.
Back on the deck of the ship, we made one last stop at the bow gun. Similar to most wrecks in Truk Lagoon, the bow gun was colonized by sessile invertebrates, but the community was a little different on the San Francisco Maru. The deep wreck had a thinner population of benthic invertebrates, with fewer corals and more sponges. In fact, the most common species I remember from the San Francisco Maru was a purple pipe-shaped sponge. It grew in clusters of 3 – 4, which dotted the upper surface of the wreck. Long, stringy green wire corals were also very common.

The depth of the wreck meant I got just 22 minutes on bottom before we needed to head back up the mooring line, but those few minutes were amazing. I was glad to see the wreck of the San Francisco Maru.

Fujikawa Maru

“Blog blog blog, blog blog your dive
Blog blog blog, blog blog your dive
Blog blog blog, blog blog your dive
Blog your dive!“
- Carl, to the tune of "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys, as I’m writing this post

Almost every shipwreck in Truk Lagoon contains the word “Maru.” It’s Japanese for “merchant vessel,” and it indicates a ship that was originally designed for something else but commandeered by the Imperial Japanese government for their world-conquering ambitions. The Fujikawa Maru is one such ship, having begun life as a passenger-cargo vessel and then been requisitioned by the Japanese Navy in 1940. She is one of the most-dived wrecks in Truk Lagoon.

We steamed out to the wreck in a little boat with dual outboard motors. At a point seemingly in the middle of nothing, our Chuukese guide stood up on the bow and signaled for the driver to cut the engine. Holding a rope in his right hand, he donned his SCUBA mask and jumped into the water. Each wreck in Truk Lagoon is marked with a mooring – a long line extending from the wreck itself to a float 15’ below the surface. How the guides find the moorings without any surface cues is beyond me. What’s perhaps even more impressive is how our guide attached the boat’s line to a loop on the mooring 15’ below in a single breath-hold dive – and got it the first time.

With our dive gear in place, we splashed into the sea and descended down the mooring line. The Fujikawa Maru is a massive ship, one of the largest in Truk Lagoon, so we had our pick of where to go first. We swam to the stern and descended to the sand, where a jagged, gaping hole marks the point of entry of the torpedo that sank Fujikawa Maru. It’s big enough for a person and all their dive gear to fit through, so one by one, we entered the ship through her decades-old wound.

Once inside, we found ourselves in a large, cavernous hold. Daylight streamed into the wreck from multiple angles, and we chose our next direction to swim. Making our way forward, we eventually made it to the one of the ship’s large holds, which still contained numerous crushed 55-gallon fuel drums. A thick layer of sediment covered the metallic barrels, and I was careful not to stir up the silt with a wayward kick.

A Japanese Zero. Photo by Christine Dubois.
We swam upward, between the metal slats that covered the hold, forward along the ship, and then descended into the next hold. This one held spare airplane parts – wings and propellers for Japanese Zeros. The long, flat wings were haphazardly strewn across the floor of the hold, their metal sheeting missing in spots to reveal the interlaced wire frame underneath. The hold was dark except for the lights that each of us carried, and occasional flashes indicated the other divers were taking photographs.

Emerging out of the hold, we swam to the very front of the Fujikawa Maru. On her bow was a mounted gun, with a barrel about as long as I am tall, pointing over her starboard side. The guide signaled to identify the bow gun, and while the other divers kept their distance to appreciate its size, I observed the gun on a completely different scale. The long barrel was covered in corals and sponges – dark brown stony corals and soft beige corallimorphs, bright red sponges and long, stringy green wire corals. Small blue fish surrounded the sunken weapon. It was gorgeous.

A yellow-spotted anemone shrimp (Ancylomenes
luteomaculatus)
 in an anemone. Photo by Christine Dubois.
The top deck of the Fujikawa Maru revealed its role as an artificial reef. If I had to guess, I’d say there were probably 30 species of invertebrates and at least 10 types of fish. As we entered our decompression phase at the end of the dive, we swam upward along the ship’s kingpost, which was absolutely teeming with life. Clumps of yellow stony coral dotted the vertical structure, and a giant yellow anemone sat atop one of the posts. Squishy soft corals with clear bodies and purple polyps hung from the crossbar, and the whole structure was surrounded by the same small blue fish. I paid close attention to my depth gauge, not wanting to become too absorbed in the biology and lose control of my buoyancy. Slowly and at the proper time, my head breached the surface of the glassy-calm sea. It was an amazing dive.

My source for the historical information and artifact identification in this post is: MacDonald R. 2014. Dive Truk Lagoon: the Japanese WWII Pacific shipwrecks. Whittles Publishing: Caithness, Scotland. 265 pp.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Fly off into the sunset

“We’re going to pack our dive gear, fly off into the Pacific, and see where we end up.”
- Carl, telling his boss why he was going to be gone in December

Foreigners come to Chuuk for exactly one reason: diving. Truk Lagoon, the major feature of Chuuk state, is a giant, ancient volcanic caldera. Think Crater Lake, but in the middle of the ocean, with seawater filling the crater and almost covering the volcano. Centuries of erosion have worn away the rim to leave patches of sand, so the outline of Truk Lagoon is a series of low-lying uninhabited islands. The interior contains several steep-sided islands – the remnants of past eruptions – which are covered in greenery and for the most part inhabited. We’re staying on the largest island in the lagoon, called Weno.

Truk Lagoon was used as a Japanese base during WWII. Entire fleets sat at anchor in the lagoon – aircraft carriers, supply ships, and tankers, along with the numerous merchant ships and passenger liners refitted by the Japanese for the war effort. The base was a well-kept secret until February 1944, when the U.S. flew a reconnaissance mission over the lagoon and discovered the daunting number of Japanese vessels stationed there. Unfortunately, the American aircraft were detected, giving the Japanese time to remove some of their ships from the lagoon. But on February 17 and 18, 1944, American bombers filled the sky and sank every remaining Japanese ship. It was called Operation Hailstone.

There are over 50 wrecks in Truk Lagoon, most of them Japanese ships, but there are also a few Japanese and American aircraft that were shot down during Operation Hailstone. Lucky for us, most of the wreckage landed on the seafloor at depths accessible by SCUBA, and the protected waters of the lagoon have kept them largely intact for decades. Truk is the shipwreck diver’s paradise.

Carl and I both adore shipwreck diving, so Truk was the natural place for us to escape to together. He gets into the history and loves searching the wrecks for artifacts, while I am fascinated by the biological colonization. It’s going to be a great trip.

Source: MacDonald R. 2014. Dive Truk Lagoon: the Japanese WWII Pacific shipwrecks. Whittles Publishing: Caithness, Scotland. 265 pp.

The island hopper

I spend a lot of time in airplanes. Usually when I am traveling, I avoid blogging about the more mundane aspects of my travels – flights, airports, cab rides. However, today, I must tell you about my flight from Hawaii to Micronesia.

Carl and I left on our honeymoon the day after our wedding. We departed Honolulu early in the morning, bound for another small island in the tropical Pacific. The route we were on is nicknamed the Island Hopper because it completes short jumps between Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Guam – six stops in all, and ours was the fifth in line. It’s the trans-Pacific equivalent of a city bus.

Our first stop was Majuro, in the Marshall Islands. Carl and I actually met a Marshallese woman in the airport and talked with her about her travels to the U.S. The Marshall Islands are a U.S. protectorate, and in the 1940s and 50s, the American military used Bikini, an atoll in the northwestern Marshalls, as a testing ground for nuclear weapons including the hydrogen bomb. The woman was from Bikini, and she explained that the islands used for testing were contaminated with radiation and unsafe to inhabit, so she and the other residents were living in exile on other islands, some of which were remote and difficult to reach with supply ships. She and the mayor of Bikini had traveled to Washington to ask the government to make good on their promise of island restoration and monetary restitution. “Because now,” she told us, “we are also suffering from climate change.” Rising sea levels have further decreased the habitable land area, making life for the exiled Marshallese that much harder. It was fascinating to speak with her.

Our next stop on the Island Hopper was Kwajalein, also in the Marshall Islands. As soon as we landed, the pilot announced it was forbidden to take photos from the plane. Kwajalein is a U.S. military base, and the only non-Marshallese to disembark at this stop were a soldier and his wife traveling on official orders. A Marshallese high school student boarded the plane and took the seat next to me. He was visibly nervous and wore a hat with a “Straight Outta Compton” parody: “Straight Outta Kwajalein.” I asked where he was traveling, and he said he was headed to China to represent the Marshall Islands in a swimming competition. An older woman seated across the aisle, maybe his mom or his coach, tried to calm him. I wished him luck.

The runway in Kosrae. Photo by Carl Kaiser.
After departing the Marshall Islands, we headed to Kosrae, in the Federated States of Micronesia. When I was younger, I never expected myself to spend much time in the tropical Pacific, nor was I aware of how many islands are out here. This is now my third trip to a Pacific island (sixth if you count New Zealand), and I’m just beginning to get a handle on how many there are, how they’re organized, and what life is like on these tiny plots of land in a hemisphere of ocean. Kosrae is one of four states in the FSM, the other three being Yap, Pohnpei, and Chuuk. Carl and I watched in awe out the airplane window as we landed on the island, because the exposed land area was only about one airplane wide. The teal-blue color of the ocean and the bright yellow-white of the sand provided a gorgeous aerial view, but the landing was like placing the plane on a balance beam. Thank goodness for skilled pilots.

From Kosrae, we stopped in Pohnpei, then Chuuk. Each flight was about an hour long, and each landing was a precision operation on a narrow airstrip surrounded by sand. When we stepped off the plane in Chuuk, we were grateful to have finally arrived. We exited the plane down a roll-away staircase into the hot tropical sun and entered the airport, which was just one large room with customs officers stationed behind folding tables. Our bags appeared one by one through a rectangular cut-out in the wall. To quote The Wizard of Oz, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.  

Friends, I am glad to be in Chuuk and excited to experience a new Pacific island on my honeymoon! This part of the world is enthralling!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Sunset

“Sunsets are proof that no matter what happens, every day can end beautifully”
- Kristen Butler

Andrew officiating. Photo by Astri J.S. Kvassnes
Our ceremony was at sunset. We left our shoes in the sand and waded out until we were ankle-deep in salt water. The ocean is what unifies Carl and me, and the beach is where I go to talk to God. It was the perfect place to take our next step together and join our lives.

My dear friend, Andrew, officiated. I knew he would honor our wishes for the ceremony, and it was absolutely perfect. Andrew shared his impressions of us as a couple and wisdom gained from his own 15-year marriage. We spoke our vows of commitment to one another. We exchanged our rings. I was full to bursting with love, joy, and hope.

Our first sunset together. Photo by Stefanie Kaboth-Bahr
Andrew pronounced us husband and wife, and then I got the first surprise of my marriage. Carl put one arm around my waist, lay the other behind my knees, and picked me up in a fireman carry. He walked a few more paces out into the water, and then promptly dumped me in! I landed on my back and got soaked up to my shoulders. We had wanted to follow Hawaiian marriage traditions to connect to the place we were in, and while I was excited to wear the traditional lei, it is also apparently Hawaiian tradition to jump in the ocean after your wedding. I was dripping and laughing and ecstatic. It was perfect.

We watched the sunset, gave soaking-wet hugs to friends and family, and headed home. Friends, I am married. And I have never been happier.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The island

I used to have this fantasy of discovering an uncharted island and colonizing it with all the people I knew and loved. Mostly, I saw this fantasy as the only viable solution to unify my otherwise geographically-segregated tribe. I was tired of always being far away from someone I cared about, feeling guilty for not seeing them more often. I was exhausted by the emotional strain of having bits of my heart stretched across the globe. Like an overextended rubber band, I thought I would snap.

There was one afternoon in 2015, as I was sitting in the library at the University Center in Svalbard, that I came to a realization of sorts. I had just said goodbye to a number of friends, my fellow Arctic researchers, and I realized that if all my people were gathered on a single island, I would never get to meet anyone else. I would never get to see new parts of the world. I would be stuck on my island with my tribe, which may be wonderful at first, but we would eventually suffer for our isolation. We would be stuck. Instead, I wanted to grow. I decided that rather than gather my people and hold them in one place, it was better to embrace the times, however fleeting, when I did see them. We would gather and depart, each returning to our lives, but we would exist together for brief and wonderful moments. I realized the island I had dreamed of was called Earth.

Friends, this week, I had a beautiful moment together with friends and family. About 20 of my closest tribe members gathered to spend time with Carl and me as we joined our lives together. This week, our island was Oahu.

We had known for a while that we wanted a destination wedding. We felt no need to take on the elaborate rituals and exorbitant expenses that accompany American weddings these days, because what we really wanted was time with our people. We invited them to join us in Honolulu, and friends, it was wonderful. We visited Pearl Harbor, hiked Diamond Head, visited the famous North Shore, and went snorkeling. I neglected to take even a single photo during the four and a half days we spent together because I was too busy absorbing the experience. Friends, my heart is full.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Blip

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”
- “Closing time” by Semisonic 

Every ending feels different, and many of them feel different than I expect them to. Most of them come upon me suddenly, even though they’ve been on my calendar for months. I am frequently caught off-guard and have precious little time to process the accompanying emotions. For as long as I can remember, I have loved beginnings – the first day of school, a sunrise, a plane taking off – but I’ve come to appreciate endings more and more over the past few years. I love the feeling of completeness, of having accomplished something. I relish the chance to look back and review where I’ve been. Endings are a chance to zoom out, release my focus on the details, and to feel. Music helps me. When I know an end is coming, I love to just sit in a quiet place, put the perfect song on repeat, look up at the sky, and imagine I can feel the Earth spinning.

The past few years have contained a number of endings for me – departing Norway, the ends of cruises, finishing my PhD, saying goodbye to interns. Each one has felt different, and many of them have felt different than I expected them to.

Friends, this week, I experienced another ending of sorts, as my postdoctoral position at WHOI came to a close. My contract is expired, and until I begin my new position as an Assistant Scientist in January, I am technically unemployed. The transition caught everyone, including my advisor, by surprise, even though we had known it was coming for months. To be honest, the ending was not dramatic. By many measures, it was a blip. My office is still set up and will remain so until I move into my new lab (my very own lab!) in January. I still have papers in progress and a proposal to finish with my advisor. My first few months as scientific staff will have plenty of carry-over from my postdoctoral days, and I know myself well enough to expect that even my month of unemployment will contain some scientific work.

Still, it is an ending, and a good one at that. My advisor invited the whole lab to lunch, which left me feeling embraced and appreciated and warm. I’m grateful that I still get to work with her in my new position. 

Friends, I am no longer a postdoc. On to the next adventure.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Captured butterflies

I love larval traps. I love pouring out a dish full of preservative, scanning the clear liquid and seeing nothing with my naked eyes, wondering if there is a single organism in the sample. I love placing that same dish under the microscope, adjusting the focus, and being transported into a whole new world. I love the surprises that await me under magnification. I love finding preserved larvae, sorting them into categories by shape and size, then pulling out books to identify them. I love the process of discovery.

Today, I spent some time at the microscope going through larval trap samples from the Arctic. I built the traps myself at WHOI in 2017 and worked with German and Norwegian collaborators to deploy them on moorings in the Arctic. The first set of traps was collected in August of this year, after a year underwater.

Limacina retroversa, photographed at 50x magnification
I had no idea what I was going to find in my larval traps, so I excitedly cracked open my first sample. My eyes focused almost immediately on small, smooth snails - hundreds of them. I picked them out of the preservative, took photos, and set about identifying them. With the help of a colleague from Norway, I settled on the identification Limacina retroversa.

Limacina snails are actually not larvae; in other words, they're not baby snails that will eventually settle on the seafloor for their adult life. But they're interesting nonetheless. They're pteropods, or snails that spend their entire life in the water column, also called "sea butterflies." You might remember that I worked with a different species of pteropod, Limacina antarctica, when I was at McMurdo Station last January.

What's interesting about L. retroversa in my samples is that it's actually an Atlantic species. Usually, it's found in waters offshore of Europe, but in recent years, it's been penetrating farther and farther into the high Arctic thanks to warming temperatures and the northward-flowing West Spitsbergen Current. One of my German colleagues wrote a really good paper about how abundances of L. retroversa have been increasing in the Fram Strait over time, but I have something he didn't have - my samples were all deployed at the same time, but they're separated by space. With my samples, I can figure out just how far the Atlantic pteropods are penetrating into the high Arctic.

I was excited to find Limacina retroversa in my samples and look forward to a fun analysis!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Deep-sea challengers

Friends, I am pleased to announce the publication of another one of my scientific papers today! The paper's release is well-timed because the first author is Andrew Sweetman, my friend and former advisor who recently came to visit.

Regular readers of this blog may recall a research expedition that Andrew invited me on in 2015. We sailed out of San Diego on R/V Thomas Thompson and headed to the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a region of the tropical eastern Pacific. The seafloor in the CCZ is covered with manganese nodules, which look like rocks but hold high concentrations of manganese and other minerals that several companies and nations are interested in mining. Our job during the cruise was to conduct baseline research in two mining claim areas in the CCZ to understand what would be lost if the seafloor were disturbed by mining activities.

The short answer? A lot.

Besides the animals that live on and in the nodules themselves, the sediments in the eastern CCZ have high species richness. Most of the animals are concentrated in a thin layer of the sediment surface, where there is exchange of oxygen with the water, but which would also be most disturbed by mining. Animals that live in the deep sea have been exposed to constant conditions for centuries - stable temperatures, slow currents, low deposition of organic material - and they would very likely take centuries to recover from broad-scale mining disturbance, if ever.

On the cruise, Andrew and I were specifically investigating the respiration of organisms that live in the sediments. We used a deep-sea lander to measure how much oxygen the sediment infauna consume, how they respond to sudden pulses of food, and which group used most of the carbon. We deployed the lander to the seafloor 4,000 m below, isolated three small areas of the sediment with chambers, injected artificial food sources into some, measured the oxygen consumption, and then called the lander back 48 hours later.

The cruise was not without its struggles. We had failed deployments. We made repairs to the lander on the fly. We had an entire evening of panicked phone calls to Germany. But in the end, we had a number of successful deployments and got enough data to show some really, really cool things about the world.

First, the bacteria are responsible for the vast majority of carbon cycling in the CCZ. Maybe this sounds unsurprising (I mean, come on, bacteria run the world), but it contrasts with the other other similar study every conducted, in the northeastern Atlantic. The difference? The amount of food reaching the deep seafloor in the northeastern Atlantic is much higher than in the equatorial Pacific. It appears that when there's very little food, the bacteria take over.

The second major finding of the paper - and by far the most exciting - is that the bacteria weren't just using carbon from the algae we gave them. They were using inorganic carbon. From the beginning of time until now, everyone has believed that organisms in deep-sea sediments are entirely dependent on food falling from the surface - dead algae and things like that. Chemosynthesis, the production of organic food from inorganic materials, supposedly only happens at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. But our results show that's not the case. Inorganic carbon is being used to make food by bacteria in the sediment in the eastern CCZ, and not just a little bit. If you scale our findings up to the area of the whole deep sea, you get a number that is 10% of the whole carbon budget. Holy carbon, Batman.

Andrew's willingness to interpret his data honestly, even if it challenges the scientific status quo, is one of the many reasons I admire him. He will go down in history as the man who made deep-sea biologists rethink all of their carbon budgets. I'm grateful that I got to be a part of this study, and I hope many of you will give the paper a read. It appears in the journal Limnology and Oceanography:

https://aslopubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/lno.11069

Update: Our paper has been covered by The National, Newsweek, and the Daily Mail.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Instant recall

Friends, as you may remember, I had a project this summer examining dispersal and recruitment of larvae at shipwrecks in Massachusetts. I deployed fouling panels and larval traps at two shipwrecks and a natural hard-bottom site (which turned out to be buried in sand), and I collected them months later. Back in the lab, I've been analyzing those samples to figure out what species colonize shipwrecks and how their larvae disperse around Cape Cod Bay.

I spent yesterday and part of today at the microscope, sorting and identifying the species that were collected by my larval traps. One in particular caught my eye. Sometimes when I look at a sample, I have to sort through the individuals slowly, examine them closely, and spend hours trying to identify them. Sometimes, I have a vague idea what I'm looking at but can't remember the name. But every once in a while, I open a sample and recognize a species right away - because I've seen it before.

A specimen of Hiatella sp. from my larval trap
That happened to me today when I opened my sample. It was from the Josephine Marie wreck, near Provincetown, MA. I poured the liquid preservative and the larvae it contained from the trap into a dish, slid the dish under the microscope, flipped on the light, and peered through the eyepieces. I spotted a small white bivalve, and immediately its name came into my mind. I heard it more than thought it: Hiatella arctica.

I had seen Hiatella before, because it was one of the most common species on the fouling panels I deployed in Svalbard in 2014 - 2015. I had come to recognize it very well, and I was pleased to notice how easily my brain recalled it.

As I picked Hiatella individuals out of my sample, I remembered that another species, the bryozoan Lichenopora sp., had been on my fouling panels from the Josephine Marie and also on my panels from Svalbard. I paused.

Is it really possible that the same species are offshore of Massachusetts and in the high Arctic? I thought. That would be a big range - and a huge range in temperature!

I may not be able to answer that question today, but I have the tools to figure it out. I'm planning to use molecular methods (DNA sequencing) to identify each of my recruits to species, and then I'll be able to see if the recruits I'm catching in Massachusetts are the same species I was seeing in Svalbard. At this point, I'm confident in identifying each of them to genus (Hiatella and Lichenopora), but I don't know for sure if they're the same species (for example, Hiatella arctica versus Hiatella somethingelse). The DNA sequencing will show me.

Identifying larvae and recruits is fun for me, because I never know what I'm going to find. I'm glad for the specimens that I have and looking forward to learning their secrets!

The last B-24

Friends, I come to the blog today not to tell you about my research but to share a film about someone else's work. Last summer, while I was busy counting invertebrates in fouling communities on docks around Woods Hole, Carl was in Croatia. He spent a month there as part of an archaeological team diving in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The mission was to locate and recover the remains of crew members from a B-24 bomber that crashed during WWII - a mission that they eventually fulfilled.

A documentary about the expedition and its findings has now been produced by NOVA, the scientific series on PBS. If you are interested in history, archaeology, or diving, I highly recommend you check it out: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/last-b-24/

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The visitor

I came down the stairs to find him at the kitchen table. He looked every bit the professor, with a gray sweater over his collared shirt and glasses on his face. He leaned forward in the chair as he examined a scientific paper on his computer screen. He was deep in thought, immersed in the manuscript.

I had seen him like this countless times before, except that it had always been at his kitchen table, not mine. I smiled to myself at the memory of afternoons spent at his house in Stavanger, as we pored over my data, shaped it like clay, and turned it into a meaningful paper. I remembered how hard I had to work to keep up with him, and I reflected proudly on how far I've come since then.

My dear friend, Andrew, came to visit me this weekend. He was my advisor when I lived in Norway, and more than anyone else, he's the one who taught me how to think like a scientist. He played a huge role in my intellectual and personal development during my PhD, and he served on my committee. Since my defense, my relationship with Andrew has shifted, and I refer to him now not as my advisor but as my mentor. Sometimes I add the words "surrogate big brother."

Andrew used to work with the group I'm currently in, the Mullineaux lab, at WHOI, so he was able to reconnect with old colleagues during his visit. We went on walks around town and to the beach. We attended an orchestra concert. We talked about science for hours on end and agreed we needed to write a grant proposal to work together again.

It was so good for me to spend time with Andrew. He constantly reminds me to slow down, take time off, and be a human. In fact, this weekend with him felt like the first true mental break I've had in months. Just being around him makes me relax, and I could listen to him talk about science for days on end. Andrew is in my mind an innovative scientist who is unafraid to challenge old, entrenched ideas. Beyond that, he is an honest, loyal, and caring person who builds me up. I am so grateful for his friendship and glad that we got to spend a fulfilling weekend together.

"You have my permission to use all three of those photos on your blog." - Andrew K. Sweetman

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Test run

Today was a productive day! I spent most of it upstairs in a laboratory for molecular biology, learning DNA extraction methods from Hanny. Since our return from Palau, she defended her thesis and received her PhD (congratulations, Dr. Rivera!). Now that the dust has settled, it's time we start processing all of the coral samples we collected.

Our first step was to test out two different methods for DNA extraction. Hanny's advisor graciously offered us some DNA extraction kits that were surplus in her lab, but the kits were a bit old and may have lost their effectiveness. We ran an experiment: using old samples from Hanny's PhD work, we extracted DNA using two different types of kits and then used a technique called electrophoresis to see if the extractions had worked (more on that later). It's highly convenient that several companies make standardized kits for DNA extraction, but I had to laugh at the instruction manuals. One of the extraction kits was meant for soils, while the other was meant to be used with animal tissue and had specific instructions for extracting DNA from rodent tails! Most of biology research is done using model organisms like fruit flies or mice, so the DNA kit market is driven by their demands. Obviously, the invertebrate animals I work with are not standardized models and probably never will be. There is no DNA extraction kit designed for corals, so the closest we can get...is rodent tails.

Most of our day was spent standing at the lab bench transferring reagants between vials with a micropipette. We then spun the vials in a centrifuge, a machine that uses centrifugal force to separate substances with different densities. Pipette, centrifuge, siphon off the liquid, repeat. Molecular biology is hard because it involves numerous monotonous steps, and you don't know if you've succeeded until the very end.

The results of our DNA extraction experiment
Once we had completed the DNA extraction protocol, it came time to evaluate our success using electrophoresis. This technique uses an electrical current to separate strands of DNA by size. A sample of DNA is loaded into a gel with a certain pore size, and as the strands migrate through the gel, small pieces migrate faster and large ones migrate slower. For our purposes, we were hoping to see a single, dark band of DNA, indicating a large piece - the whole genome - and a successful extraction.

You can see the results to the right here. The two rows of whitish rectangles are the wells where we loaded our samples, and the black stripes are the DNA. The tiger stripes on the very left are a DNA ladder, a series of fragments of known size that can be used as a standard. We used the ladder as a positive control - we knew there was DNA in the ladder, so if it didn't show up, something was wrong with the electrophoresis.

As you move across the picture, each column represents a different sample. On the top row, you see four dark bands. The bands are very close to their respective wells, indicating they didn't travel very far - that means they hold large pieces of DNA. That's what we were looking for! The four samples on the top were extracted using the animal tissue kit, so that kit still works! On the bottom row, you see only very, very faint bands close to the wells. Faint DNA means an ineffective extraction. The kit we used for these bottom samples was really designed for soils, so it's not surprising that it didn't work.

Moving forward, we will use the animal tissue extraction kit (rodent tails!), and we're very grateful to Hanny's advisor for offering her surplus. I'm excited to get started with the analysis!

Friday, November 2, 2018

In print

Dear friends, I am proud to announce that another one of my scientific papers was published today. This manuscript concerns oyster larvae swimming behavior, focusing specifically on why and when larvae swim in helices. The lead author is a former Mullineaux lab intern, Meghan. During the summer of 2017, she conducted two experiments on how oysters behave when exposed to different concentrations of food or a chemical settlement cue, and this paper presents her results from those experiments.

This is the first time that a student I have helped advise produced a paper of her own, so I am very proud of Meghan! It's a huge accomplishment for an undergraduate to publish a paper and even more so as lead author. She did a great job!

You can find the paper here, in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022098118302879?dgcid=coauthor

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Clear blue

I lay on my stomach, put my face in the water, and paddled forward with my feet. One bright pink fin was attached to each of them. With the zipper of my wetsuit open, I could feel a refreshing stream of water along my back, but my arms and legs were protected by the tight, clingy neoprene. On the ocean surface were plentiful clumps of Sargassum, a tuft-like brown alga that floats. I spread my fingers wide and felt the rough, weedy web scrape against my palms. I noticed how much more abundant the Sargassum seemed from below - hundreds of clumps floating on the glassy mirror of the ocean surface.

With my body prone and my eyes directed downward, I could see all the way to the seafloor. Dark brown and black formations dotted the rock, which coalesced into a reef about a hundred yards in front of me. I knew the corals were more colorful than they seemed from up here, having just swum past them at the end of my dive, but I still marveled that I could see them from the surface. The water was the clearest I have ever experienced. Thick, columnar rays of sunlight converged on a point beneath me, penetrating all the way to the seafloor at 50 feet deep.

I bent my knees and lifted my head. The water column was an intense blue - not bright or dark, but concentrated. Blue blue. At the edge of the reef, it grew dimmer as the seafloor dropped away and metamorphosed into the Grand Cayman Wall. About halfway to the ledge was a single yellow rope extending through the water column, book-ended by an anchor bolt in the rock and a spherical white buoy on the surface. Two divers held onto the rope with one hand each. They were positively covered in gear, with complicated, tube-infested rebreathers on their backs and a total of six additional tanks clipped onto the metallic frames. They watched their dive computers with undivided focus, like watchmakers observing their handiwork. I wanted to get their attention but restrained myself, unwilling to interrupt the last moments of what I was sure had been very intense training.

And so I floated on, having earned my own technical diving certification just an hour earlier. My week of hard work had paid off in the form of a decompression diving qualification. The class stretched me, but with my newly-honed skills, my scientific studies will be less restricted - I can dive deeper, stay longer, and explore further.

I had earned my moment of serenity, paddling through the Sargassum, watching the love of my life hang in the water column just 20 feet below me. Life is good.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Anything-can-happen Thursday

I love the American comedy The Big Bang Theory. It's about physicists at Caltech, and as you may expect, it's a very nerdy show. One of the main characters, Sheldon, is on the Autism spectrum and is notoriously rigid. In one episode, his friends try to shake up his routine by declaring "Anything-can-happen Thursday" and replacing Sheldon's typical Thursday pizza dinner with Thai food. It does not go over well.

Friends, I'm hope you're not eating pizza, because today is Anything-can-happen Thursday.

Heart-shaped bivalve larvae, magnified 50x
I'm working on processing the samples I recovered from the Josephine Marie wreck as part of my shipwreck project this summer. You know - the one where I went diving on shipwrecks in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to see whether they could serve as stepping stones for invasive species. At each wreck, I deployed fouling panels and larval traps and collected samples of the adults that were living there. I recovered the fouling panels and larval traps from two of my sites in August this year, but the weather was never calm enough for me to make it to the third site.

Well, I'm currently processing the larval samples from the Josephine Marie wreck, and I had a very Anything-can-happen-Thursday moment.

As I looked through the larval sample, I kept seeing heart-shaped shells. They were bivalves like clams or mussels, because they had two symmetrical shells attached at an umbo - a very standard morphology. I assumed they must have been a species that lived buried in the sediment because I didn't remember seeing bivalves on the shipwreck. I sorted them without thinking much of it.

Juvenile "limpets" from my trap, magnified 50x
But then I noticed something else in the larval sample: a juvenile limpet. It's not uncommon for small juveniles to get washed off of their substratum and into a trap, but what actually caught my eye was the larval shell embedded in the juveniles. When shelled animals like snails, limpets, and clams settle, they grow their new shell as an extension of the old one, so the shell they had as a larva remains. The more I looked at the limpet, the more the larval shell looked heart-shaped, just like the larvae I had seen.

But bivalves don't just transform into limpets. They're two separate things. Bivalves are things like clams, and limpets are more like snails. One does not simply become the other.

I took a closer look at the juvenile "limpet." I turned it over. I zoomed in using the microscope. I adjusted the light. And I started to notice something I hadn't seen before - a thin shell on the underside of the "limpet." It had a small hole in it. This wasn't a limpet at all, I realized, but rather a bivalve with a two very different shells.

A larger juvenile jingle from my fouling panels. The larval
shell is the small yellow spot on the apex.
I pulled out a reference book from my advisor's collection. Marine invertebrates of southern New England and New York. I flipped through the pages until I reached the bivalves. I scanned for one that had two different shells, one hearty and translucent, the other clear and with a small hole. And there it was. Anomia sp., commonly known as a jingle. They're bivalves that live attached to a surface with their translucent upper shell exposed to the water and their thin lower shell facing the substratum. The small hole in the lower shell allows threads to pass through that anchor them to the substratum.

And then it dawned on me. The jingles in my larval trap were not the only jingles I had captured. Larger juveniles had colonized my fouling panels, but I had incorrectly identified them as the limpet Crepidula sp. Now I know that they are jingles.

Altogether, I had 469 heart-shaped jingle larvae in my sample, and another 21 small juveniles. They were the single most common species. Even though I don't remember seeing them on the wreck, I wasn't focused on looking for small bivalves at the time, so I may have missed them. It's an interesting species to be aware of for future studies - maybe they could be a good model species for some of my scientific questions!

Mars

"I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact."
- Elon Musk

I love fall in New England. The air is crisp, the leaves are crunchy, and the sunshine feels comforting instead of hot.

I’m back at home now, and I used the chance to finish up my field project from this summer. Weather prevented me from making out to my third field site, the wreck of a fishing vessel called the Patriot, to recover my samplers earlier in August and September, so I scheduled a day on the dive boat Dawn Treader to try again. Unfortunately, the weather prevented me from reaching the Patriot all over again, but I was able to use the day to explore a new site closer to shore.

We went to the wreck of the Mars in Cape Cod Bay. I had never been to this site before, and I wanted to see the wreck for myself. At first, it would seem that there’s plenty of information available about wrecks in Massachusetts, but a closer look reveals that this pre-existing information is biologically sparse. It’s easy for me to find out what year a ship was built, how many hands were on board, why it sank, and how intact it is, but other divers and shipwreck enthusiasts utterly ignore the animals living on the wreck. To find out what’s there, I have to visit the wreck myself. I packed my gear, picked up my dive buddy for the day, and went to the site of the wreck.

To be honest, the Mars was a really tough dive for me. The cold water shocked my system, which had acclimated to tropical temperatures while in Palau. It was dark and turbid, so visibility was restricted to the 5 feet in front of me. I was also disoriented by nitrogen narcosis, which is a cognitive fogginess that results from breathing the gas at high partial pressure. My brain was functioning more slowly than normal, and even though I knew I was off, I had no way to fix the problem at depth.

Metridium senile on the Patriot wreck. Photo by Jim Guertin.

We swam around a little and eventually found the wreck. The bow was still intact, standing vertically above the seafloor, and as I ascended up the metallic wall, my head began to clear – just a small change in depth made a huge difference for my narcosis. All over the bow were hundreds of plumose anemones, known scientifically as Metridium senile. There’s a picture of one here, which was taken by another diver on a different wreck. The species is really gorgeous, and it has been on every shipwreck in New England that I have visited so far. I think the anemone may be pre-adapted to thrive on shipwrecks because it can disperse long distances and form populations from just a few individuals.

Even though it was a tough dive on the Mars, this project has taught me several important lessons. I’ve gained valuable experience with deep offshore diving in cold water – a difficult set of conditions that requires regular practice to master. I’ve learned the ins and outs of WHOI regulations for diving and boat charters. I have made key observations of species distributions on shipwrecks and started formulating hypotheses to pursue in future projects. Overall, it’s been a valuable learning experience, but I am glad to finally call my field season finished. Autumn is rolling in.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Right now, I am sitting on a patch of grass in front of PICRC. The air is completely still, and it’s dark except for a few lights in the parking garage and the security guard’s station. I can hear some sort of insect clicking in the night. It is calm.

I can’t help but think about one of my favorite books as a child, From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s about a brother and sister who run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. By day, they stow away with school groups on tours and learn everything they can. Then in the evening, they hide in the bathrooms while the security guard does his rounds, and once everyone has left for the night, they have their run of the museum. They bathe in the fountain, research in the library, and sleep in an antique bed. Elementary-school Kirstin thought this kind of life – living freely in an institution of knowledge – sounded glorious.

Got to admit, that’s the way PICRC has felt every evening this trip. When the full-time staff go home for the night, it’s been just Hanny and me. We have our run of the lab, the tank room, and the dorms. We can gawk at the corals and play our music and work at whatever pace we please. It’s felt freeing and childlike and glorious. Tonight, I relish that feeling again, as we are the only ones left at the station. With a sense of calm and completeness, we await our ride to the airport.

One of my favorite moments this trip was when we finished our sampling at our last site. We had been underwater for hours on end in our wetsuits, dragging heavy tools and long mesh bags. Once the last sample had been processed, we both had this incredible moment of relief and a strong urge to go for a swim. We stripped off our wetsuits and jumped in with only our swimsuits – no neoprene, no SCUBA tanks, no hammers, no sample bags. Just smooth, salty water on our skin.

I kicked my feet and spun around in the water. I was surrounded on all sides by steep rocky cliffs covered in greenery. Tiny triangular waves peaked and then receded on the sea surface, which was deep crystal blue in the late afternoon sun. The air was completely still except for the distant calls of unfamiliar birds. It was blissful.

I am very proud of how well this trip has gone. Hanny and I undertook a lot for just two people, and we had no major hang-ups. We have worked very hard for the past two weeks, and we have worked very well together. In fact, we both agree that we would love to work together again.

My friends, I leave you now with memories of Palau’s rock islands and the beautiful corals they hold. We are headed home. It's been a very successful trip!