Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Saudi Arabia: The Life Aquatic

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Saudi Arabia Expedition

Let me tell you something about our boat. It's got an observation hatch, a top notch research library complete with first edition volumes of all of our published works, a sauna (we keep a Swedish massage therapist on staff), and a video room so that we can create documentaries in the field. There are also two albino dolphins that swim with the boat; they're supposed to be very intelligent, but I haven't seen any evidence yet. We also have a helicopter and a deep-sea submersible on-hand and ready to go at all times ... Oh wait, no. That's only in the movies. :-)

Expedition team member Mae (Photo: R. Rotjan)

Unlike the legendary Jacques Cousteau or the fictional legend Steve Zissou, our accommodations here are a bit more modest (and realistic). The R/V Dream Island (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) is a great diving boat--with a large diving deck equipped with a compressor, hangers, shelves, and 2 dive ladders off the back, it is perfectly suited to our needs. Beyond that, we make do with a freezer top and a dive bench for our research lab space, which works surprisingly well.

Dive deck (R) and fish dissection by M. Berumen and R. Rotjan on the R/V Dream Island dive bench (L) (photos: G. Nanninga).

Our dining room is also our office, our game room, and our library. The top deck is our observation tower, our favorite picnic spot, additional research space, and a place to bake in the sun to try to warm up after a winter dive in the Red Sea (75 deg F may sound warm, but remember, that's more than 20 degrees below body temp--brrrrrr!). All in all, we have everything we need, but it's not quite the romantic life that some may think it to be. Nonetheless, we have had dolphins in our wake every day--and unlike the dolphins with Team Zissou, ours are intelligent enough to keep a safe distance from us, despite our best attempts to play with them.

Top deck empty (L) and active with research (R); Kelton McMahon (WHOI) and Randi cataloging invertebrates (photos: Gerrit Nanninger)

There isn't too much time on a research cruise for fun and games; every day is a precious opportunity to collect more data. There are multiple research projects concurrently underway (investigations of clownfish population genetics, zooxanthellae diversity, corallivory, food web dynamics, etc.), which leaves scant time for anything but the science. The boat moves from spot to spot in between dives--it's a good thing that the Red Sea is calm (sometimes even glassy!) so that we can still work while in transit.

Yet, despite our ambitious research goals, we've managed to get a few good laughs in so far. Marine science is full of fun-loving people, and moments of pure silliness are important (though rare). and we've somehow managed to find time to watch a few episodes from the Jacques Cousteau box set, and The Life Aquatic. We also have a giant on-board octopus, which Noah (a KAUST masters student) has affectionately named Intern II.

Intern II (center) with the rest of the crew

Group shot (photo: G. Nanninger)

The best things about life at sea are (for me): the science, the wind, the camaraderie and the view. I love, love, LOVE looking out on the horizon and seeing nothing but blue. And then even more than that, I love diving and spending an hour (or 5) underwater each day with my favorite critters on the planet--asking questions about them and looking for answers. More about the critters next post--I promise. But now, back to the blue to go check on those albino dolphins. :-)

Red sea coral reef with the R/V Dream Island above. (photo: R. Rotjan)


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