Showing posts from 2021

The traverse

We entered the water at a site called Andrea 2. It's a beach in an upper-class neighborhood, marked with nothing more than a small rock that had been spray-painted yellow. You could easily miss the site - in fact, we did the first time we drove past.  Underwater selfie with my husband, Carl. We hauled our tanks from the gravel parking lot to the beach, past the Australian labradoodle and his Dutch owner lounging in the sun, over the slippery, algae-covered rocks, past the spines of hundreds of sea urchins, onto the sand, and into the waves. Clip, clip, bungee, bungee, right fin, left fin, mask. Dive. I settled into a rhythm pretty quickly. Sometimes, my mammalian dive reflex feels like it takes an eternity to kick in, but today it was right there when I needed it. Long breaths, slow heart beat, perfect neutral buoyancy, lazy kicks. I was in the zone.  We swam for three and a half hours. I had never been as far north as Andrea 2, so the first part of the dive was new territory for m

The Hilma Hooker

The fuzzy gray line One of my favorite dives in Bonaire is a shipwreck called the Hilma Hooker . The ship was used to smuggle marijuana in the 1980s, and it sank after being captured by drug enforcement authorities. It sits between two coral reefs in Bonaire and is really fun to explore.  As you swim up to the Hilma Hooker , a fuzzy gray line appears in the water. It kind of looks like a thermocline - the interface of two water masses with different temperatures. If you dare to swim closer, the hull of the ship comes into view, and you realize the fuzzy gray line is the top of the wreck. You see the ship from the bottom side first. The hull rises like a solid gray wall. It has a turf of leafy green algae, and corals and sponges are spread across it like polka dots.  Sponges on the Hilma Hooker If you swim around the wreck to the right, you'll first pass the stern. Wiry, forest green sea whips dangle from the wreckage, some of which are covered in bulbous purple sponges. Continue yo

Bon bini

Friends, as you can tell from my last post about something that happened before Christmas being posted on December 29, I am a bit behind on the blog. Well, at least I have a valid excuse: I'm on vacation.  Yes, it's true! I am currently on the quirky Caribbean island of Bonaire. In case you haven't heard of it, Bonaire is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It's a desert island with pristine coral reefs, a mix of languages including Dutch, English, Spanish, and a Portuguese-based Creole called Papiamentu. There are lots of flamingos (it's a national symbol), feral donkeys, and cactuses. I'm spending my days largely underwater, breathing compressed gases and pretending I'm one of the colorful fishes on the reef. It's my third time down here, and I absolutely love it.  Let's warm up with some of my favorite underwater photos I've taken in Bonaire this week! Fishes! I think they're blackbar soldierfishes, Myripristis jacobus . Octocorals! Plexaura

Training day

 "It's not what you know; it's what you can prove."  - the movie Training Day Calvin gave me this reference guide - useful!   Just before Christmas, I had a training day with two collaborators. We have a project coming up that combines biology and archaeology, so we needed to make sure everyone was on the same page. Obviously, I represented the biology side, but my colleagues, Calvin and Evan, have much more experience with underwater archaeology.  I started out the day thinking that I was going to primarily teaching. Calvin and Evan have not collected biological samples before, so I figured we'd spend most of the day going over how to take sediment cores, filter water, and avoid contamination. Not so. We spent the first part of the day outlining my plan, but as soon as I pulled out the samplers, Evan jumped in.  "I could rig these together, you know," he informed me, holding one of the water samplers, "stack them two-by-two, hang five off of each s

Wait for it

"I am the one thing in life I can control... I'm not falling behind or running late I'm not standing still I am lying in wait" - "Wait for it" from the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda There is a lot of waiting in science. I have to wait for proposals to be reviewed, collaborators to contribute, papers to be published, technology to be usable, samples to be processed, paperwork to be cleared, and the list goes on and on. It was actually a little strange for me to come back from Palau and launch right into lab analysis of the samples I had just collected. We need the data from those samples by next May, so I could not afford to wait.  The analysis that we're planning to do with those coral samples is called 2bRAD. It's a form of restriction site-associated DNA sequencing, which is a complete mouthful. In very simple terms, we're planning to chop up the DNA randomly, sequence the fragments, and find all the little places that the DNA seque

Back in the lab

There are exactly two seasons in Massachusetts: no-sock season and neck-warmer season. My wardrobe is dichotomous in this state. Either I'm hanging out on my boat in a breezy top and sandals, or I'm layered up in wool socks and sweaters. There is very little in-between.  After returning from Palau, I had the abrupt adjustment from no-sock mode to neck-warmer mode. I switched from coral biologist to autumnal researcher, tropical diver to bundled cyclist. The transition was swift and complete.  The nice thing about research in Palau is that the samples come straight back with me to Massachusetts - no waiting for boxes to show up. I've already started digging into the samples. The most important step is to determine the sex and the genetic lineage for all the Porites lobata samples I collected. We'll spawn this species when the team goes back in the spring, so we need to know the identity of the eligible parents that I tagged.  The analysis is proceeding in two ways: fir

Seen in Palau: part 4

The entrance to one our study sites, Risong. Photo by Kharis Schrage. A shark in Peleliu. Photo by David Weingarten. A sea urchin in a coral crevice. Photo by Kharis Schrage. What it looks like when you come up under the boat after a dive. Photo by Kharis Schrage. On our last day, we took a hike to a waterfall. Between sweat and mist, we were soaking wet by the end. It was glorious. Photo by Kharis Schrage. Kharis towards the end of a dive. I want to end on this image, because it just perfectly exemplifies the way I feel about Palau. This place is glorious. It is healthy ecosystems, beautiful people, and a unique culture. I love that every time I come to Palau, I get to witness life from a completely different perspective, and I learn more about this part of the world. Thank you, Palau, for hosting us. I will see you again soon. 

Peleliu: part 3

More photos by Kharis Schrage from our fun dives in Peleliu.  A cowrie. This guy is all tucked away, but these snails sometimes have their tissue extended over their shells. We saw others on dives with their tissue out. A tabletop coral, Acropora hyacinthus . A clownfish and its anemone. A moray eel! A sea fan (Alcyonacea)


A very happy importer-exporter with her  coral samples. Photo by Kharis Schrage.  "He's an importer-exporter." - the TV show Seinfeld   Friends, my field work in Palau is ending exactly the way it began: with paperwork. Corals are highly regulated, much more so than any other invertebrate. Every single coral species falls under the Convention on the International Trade of Exotic Species. That means you can only ship them internationally with a permit, and samples have to be inspected before leaving the country of origin. There is exactly one CITES inspector in Palau, and every researcher knows her by first name. I filled out my form carefully, laid out my samples in the lab for her to inspect, and waited for her to show up. It took a couple of stamps, a signature, and a fee, but I got my permit. We are cleared for export! When I get back to the US, I have to declare my samples to customs and hand over some paperwork to Fish and Wildlife. The hand-off takes place at our fi


Alright, I have to tell you all about one more adventure that Kharis and I had in Palau. This adventure is culinary, and brace yourselves: it gets weird. I have a very strict personal policy regarding food when traveling. My rule is that I will eat absolutely any food from another culture, on one condition: I have to know what it is before I take a bite. I don’t play that game of “just taste it, then I’ll tell you.” If something is culturally acceptable and commonly eaten in another country, I’ll try it; I just have to know what it is. This policy has led me on some incredible lingual journeys. I have had smoked minke whale in the Arctic, the head of a sheep in western Norway, all sorts of seafood dishes in Brazil, and I just straight-up ate my way through Qingdao, China. So far, I have never been offered a dish that I didn’t like. In my experience, if a dish is prepared properly, it’s usually delicious. Our first course at Carp: tuna sashimi. I’ve known for a couple years that Pa

Peleliu: part 2

Photos from fun dives we did in Peleliu, in southern Palau.  I was really fascinated by these green soft corals. I had seen them on my last time diving in Peleliu , but I've never seen them anywhere else in the world. They must have photosynthetic symbionts.  A giant cushion star, Culcita novaguineae . SO many corals! This sea turtle emerged from a gap in the reef right below me. Clownfish living in an anemone. Photo by David Weingarten. We saw a manta ray on our way back from Peleliu! Photo by Kharis Schrage.


We had a couple extra days in Palau after our sampling was finished, so we used the time to go on some fun SCUBA dives! Diving in Koror is temporarily forbidden, so we had to go down to Peleliu, on the southern end of Palau. Every dive was some combination of drifting with the current along a wall and anchoring in with reef hooks to marvel at the corals and big pelagic organisms. I'll post some of my favorite photos and anecdotes from our Peleliu dives below.  Kharis with a sea turtle. Photo by David Weingarten. There was one dive that remoras kept following us around and even brushing up against our wetsuits and fins. Photo by David Weingarten. I have not edited this photo at all. Even at 20 m deep with no artificial lighting, that is what that coral looks like - spray paint orange.  This is what most of the reef looks like, except that it's not really that blue in life. I didn't have strobes for this shot, and the human eye is apparently better at detecting low levels of


I planned this trip down to the hour.  If you look in my scientific notebook as far back as September, you can find the charts. To-do lists for each day in the country, estimates of how long it would take us to collect each set of samples, routes for minimizing travel between sites. I had us on a tight schedule.  If there's one thing I've learned over the last 10 years of doing field work, it's that nothing goes as planned. Ever. Surprisingly, despite everything , this trip stuck relatively closely to the schedule I had set (with some minor exceptions ). I had booked the boat for an extra day just in case, so I was delighted when we got to use it for bonus samples.  I had all the Porites lobata I needed to set us up for next spring. I had outplanted tiles , collected plankton, and looked at rubble. We had even sampled four additional species at most of our sites. We used the first couple dives on our bonus day to fill in the gap and collect the fourth species at two sites

The death of a high chief

I heard the siren Thursday night, but I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was just a distant ambulance. It wasn’t until the next morning that someone explained to me that the High Chief (Ibedul) of Koror had died. Back in the day, the death of such an important figure would have been announced by conch shell, but now a modern siren did the job. Palau's government is a hybrid between their traditional way of life and imposed Western ideals. They have a 3-branch government with executive and legislative branches, just like the U.S., but in place of the Supreme Court, they have the House of Traditional Leaders. According to the Palauans I've spoken to, the House of Traditional Leaders are considered to be the "real" leaders of Palau. The legislature is expected to consult their advice on everything, and the House can issue its own decrees with very little in the way of checks and balances. There are two high chiefs in Palau - one for Koror, the largest state, and o

Seen in Palau: part 3

 More photos by my grad student, Kharis Schrage. Enjoy!  A feather duster worm (Sabellidae) A crown-of-thorns seastar ( Acanthaster planci ) eating a coral  A leather coral ( Sarcophyton sp.) A coral ( Lobophyllia sp.) The Kirstin ( Nerdus kirstinus )

The O.G.

“Ok, Kirstin, I’ve got it,” Kharis declared. “The O.G., Islands, and Chaos. Those are our names.” I nodded at my graduate student. I had asked her to come up with code names that would be easy to remember for three corals we wanted to sample. Underwater, we were likely to confuse or forget the scientific names, so the codes made it easier to communicate. The O.G. ( Favites pentagona ). The distance between the black tapes on my scale bar is 20 cm. Photo by Kharis Schrage. “O.G. for Orange Green?” I asked. She nodded in confirmation. “How about Fat Fingers? Do you want to sample that one?” Kharis shrugged. “Sure, why not. We have enough jars.” In my head, I visualized each of the coral species one by one and assigned their new identifiers. Four species was a pretty ambitious goal, but if Kharis was up for it, so was I. It took us about 4 days to collect all the samples, but we did end up getting enough replicates of each species. We worked out an extremely efficient system underwat

In the plankton

As many of you know, I absolutely adore analyzing plankton samples. The tiny organisms that live in the water column are in my mind some of the most gorgeous on earth. I collect plankton samples regularly as part of my research, because I’m constantly trying to capture the larvae of benthic invertebrates – the swimming caterpillar to the seafloor butterfly. This trip, I did not find any coral larvae like I was hoping to, but my samples contained plenty of other fascinating larvae. Check out some of my favorites below.  A megalopa, a larval crab. An ophiopluteus. This guy grows up to be a brittle star. A nectochaete, a larval worm. This guy looks like some sort of trochophore. Not sure what he's going to grow up to be -  lots of taxa have trochophore larvae. The white balance is totally off in this picture, but I increased the contrast so you could see the clear parts. This is a larval snail, and he's swimming around my dish with his wing-like velum. You can even see the eyespot