Friday, January 29, 2010

Saudi Arabia: From a boat to abaya

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Saudi Arabia Expedition

Getting back to reality is always a difficult transition for me, since I'd rather be working on/in the ocean than be anywhere else. Even though field work is difficult, intense, and exhausting, the field is where science comes alive. Salty breezes, blue oceans, and more science than I can possibly handle is definitely my preferred M.O.

photos by Randi Rotjan

However, if you have to be on dry land, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are a fascinating place to be. I posted earlier about KAUST - the new Saudi university that opened in September - and it's terrific to spend a few more days exploring this fascinating new world where East meets West. The transition from boat to abaya was a bit abrupt, though we were used to it because the women on-board had to don our abayas whenever we interacted with the Coast Guard. Abayas (aka burqas, chadors, or hijab) are required by Saudi Arabian law whenever women are in public, enforced by the muttawwa (religious police). They are surprisingly comfortable, though a bit impractical on a boat (too breezy!).

Upon returning to KAUST, the abayas again came off, and the work began. Sorting samples, preserving samples, entering data, sorting permits, cleaning dive gear, beginning data analysis... the hectic flurry of post-boat, pre-flight madness. Amazingly, we got everything all set with enough time to explore the KAUST Grand Mosque, accompanied by some helpful students.

photos by Randi Rotjan
To get a taste of life off-campus, we donned our abayas again and headed out for a fish dinner in Thuwal (the city surrounding KAUST). It's very strange to eat the organisms we are studying, but we found a way to use the fish for both food and science. At the dinner table (all dressed up and clean), we dissected the fish to collect additional tissue samples. Waste not, want not! Seems that you can take the scientist away from the sea, but you can't take the sea away from the scientist.

photos by Randi Rotjan
On our way to the airport, we stopped at the Souq to purchase some souveniers and get a taste of the real Jeddah. After purchasing pashminas and spices, it was close to midnight and time for me to run (literally, abaya and all) to catch my 1:00 am flight.

photos by Randi Rotjan
So. Back in Boston now, it's hard for me to face the cold (though I'm sure it will feel balmy to Brian, who's been in Antarctica all this time!). This trip will stay with me for a long time. Travel is usually solely about the science for me, but this trip had a magical combination of great science, fascinating culture, wonderful collaborators, and unfamiliar landscape (both above and below water).

As the sun set over the Red Sea on my last day, I looked out at the KAUST Beacon and wondered whether the KAUST experiment will work. To quote Robert Lacey (the author of the most recent book on Saudi):

"Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is eighty-six, and is an old man in a hurry. For more than thirty years his most cherished ambition has been the creation of an internationally prestigious college that will bear his name, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-only, Arabian equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The world's leading scientists and scholars will gather and mingle freely on its campus, dreams the king - men and women, East and West, all united in their pursuit of learning."

I hope so. Insha'Allah!


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Question #4: Are you afraid of the shark?

Sunnye Dreyfus, South Africa Expedition

"A mindless eating machine, it will attack and devour anything." JAWS trailer, 1975

"Sharks are big, confident and intelligent creatures that explore everything in their environment." Allison Kock, shark biologist, Save Our Seas Foundation

photo credit

On January 12th, a white shark made the headlines of the major Cape Town papers. A swimmer* from Zimbabwe was bitten in Fish Hoek, a popular resort area located in False Bay just south of Cape Town. The man was killed by this shark, which was not seen by the spotters due to murky water conditions. The area does not have shark nets, but does employ the eyes of shark spotters who are posted on the tops of coastal mountains. Using binoculars, their mission is to spot sharks swimming near beaches and radio to lifeguards on the beach. The lifeguards then raise a white flag with a black shark on it and sound a siren to warn swimmers. There were shark sightings and a warning issued the day before the encounter.

False Bay, South Africa
This event was unique (and obviously tragic) for both human and shark, which have had a particularly tumultuous relationship since 1975. It's amazing how a simple movie can boil a fine-tuned apex predator down to "a mindless eating machine." What do you get when you combine Benchley's story, Spielberg and Butler's vision, and John Williams' infamous cellos? Decades of swimmers shaking in their board shorts and in special cases (like myself) fearing shark attacks at the deep end of swimming pools. I convinced myself that Jaws could find his/her way through the pool drain. I'm not even kidding.
(note to self: this is a photoshopped image. Do not use as an excuse to skip exercise.)

Although we humans are a few hundred million years or so behind white sharks in terms of evolution, I was completely surprised by the lack of sensationalism in the media. The South African press, by and large, portrayed the event as it was, playing nothing up or down, but rather using the tragedy as a platform for education. Information linked to the event included:
  • White sharks are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
  • White sharks are apex predators.
  • White sharks are usually offshore to Seal Island in the winter and are closer to shore in the summer months.
  • False Bay has recently been experiencing a spike in white shark sightings.
  • False Bay is a hub for large schools of fish.
  • 70% of shark/human encounters are not predatory.
  • the longest journey of a fish ever recorded was of a great white making a round trip from South Africa to Australia.
  • The last shark bite fatality in False Bay was in 2004.
  • There is still so much we don't know about white sharks.
Conservation Considerations:
Unless we relentlessly continue to scratch the surface, our fear of what lies beneath remains.
Wildlife List:
  1. Steppe Eagle
  2. Black eagle
  3. Sacred ibis
  4. Spectacled dormouse (it was licking cheese off the bread knife at our campsite)
  5. Baboons, baboons, baboons
  6. Dog piles of African penguins

African Sacred Ibis

- Sunnye

*My condolences to the family of Lloyd Skinner.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Antarctica Underwater

Brian Skerry, Antarctica Expedition

Over the last week or so I have made several dives in locations throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. Water temperatures have ranged from 28.5-degrees Fahrenheit to 33-degrees. Visibility in most locations I've dived has not been great, generally averaging between five and ten feet. I did make a couple of dives however, that were wonderful, the first being a wall dive at a location called Cape Well-met on the north side of Vega Island and also very close to a place called Devil's Island (always comforting when making a dive where the water is deep, you're on a sheer wall and you are praying your drysuit zipper doesn't fail!).

Gentoo penguin with chick. Photo credit: Brian Skerry

Cape Well-met was named by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904 and it was here that the relief party under Dr. J. Gunnar Anderson and the winter party under Dr. Otto Nordenskjold rendezvoused after 20 months of forced separation (reference Below Freezing by Lisa Eareckson Trotter). I was diving with Lisa and Lindblad undersea specialist David Cochtran and our plan was to slip off the Zodiac near a cliff face and descend to the bottom in about 15 feet of water. The bottom here was covered with hand-sized volcanic rocks and no marine life could be seen, as icebergs scour this shallow region removing all life. We swam about 100-meters offshore and came to a dramatic drop off -- a wall that was sheer and disappeared into the inky blackness below. I hit the inflator button on my drysuit pumping in more air and swam head first over the wall.

Wall at Cape Well-met, photo credit: Brian Skerry

I descended to 30 feet, then 40, then 50, but saw only bare wall. At 70 feet however, the wall came alive! Leveling off at about 80 feet I looked left, then right and saw color and life in all directions. It was an explosion of invertebrate marine life in a rainbow of colors from yellow and pink to reds and orange. There were brittle stars clustered amongst tunicates and sponges and every few feet giant anemones reached into the frigid sea feeding in the nutrient-rich waters. I adjusted the settings on my camera and began shooting. At one point it became especially dark and I looked up to see the shadowy shape of a giant iceberg drifting overhead, blocking out the sunlight for a few moments.

I fired a few frames aiming up towards the surface to capture some of the ambient light above and lighting the foreground with my strobes. At a depth of 106 feet, I framed a lovely scene of one of these anemones in the middle of all the surrounding life. I cruised along the wall, moving with the current until it was time to ascend. I was using a 10-liter tank and was limited as to bottom time. I slowly drifted upward stopping every so often to look at these strange animals living in this hidden corner of a frozen continent and wondering if another camera's flash had ever illuminated them before.

At about 30 minutes into the dive I crested the top of the wall and was back amongst the rocky scour zone in a depth of 20 feet. I was slowly kicking into the current now, just trying to hold position, studying the anchor ice that was frozen to the bottom when I looked up to see a massive iceberg coming straight for me. I looked to my left and saw Lisa about 15 feet away and yelled through my regulator to get her attention. She heard me and we both scrambled to get out of the way. With only about 700 psi of air left in my tank, I hoped the berg wasn't too large and that I had enough air to safely make it out of harm's way. I did and the iceberg sailed by, just clearing the bottom by about a foot.

Another memorable dive was made at Deception Island along another bluff face though here the bottom was not a sheer wall, but more like a staircase that gradually stepped downward. Though not as prolific as the wall at Cape Well-met, it was still very impressive with a bounty of life clinging to undersea rocks. Also here I came across whalebones scattered on the bottom, remnants of the whaling days in the early part of the 20th century.

Whale bones, photo credit: Brian Skerry

Diving in cold water takes a lot more work than tropical diving; layers of undergarments, drysuits with thick gloves attaching limiting dexterity and lots more weight needed to descend. And the cold is harsh on equipment, not to mention your body, with lips swelling up like you've had an over dose of botox injections and fingers and toes getting numb and hurting from the cold. But there is a stunning beauty in these waters that is unique. I especially love the remoteness of Antarctica and exploring places that few have ever seen and having penguins diving around the boat as you're suiting up is rather special. Cruising back to the ship aboard the Zodiac, with that frigid wind in my face after a dive always gives me a peaceful, albeit cold, feeling.

With the gentle rocking of the ship steaming to our next location, I will sleep well tonight.

- Brian

Monday, January 25, 2010

Teaching about whales in Soufriere, Dominica

Kara Robinson, Dominica Expedition

So much has happened since my last post. I have officially seen the largest tooth whale on the planet, the sperm whale! What an amazing and strange creature, so different than the baleen whales I am used to in New England. We saw a couple of singles and a group of three that swam right under the boat, we could see the white patch around their mouth.

A juvenile sperm whale heading towards us, with its one blowhole on the left of its head open.
Photo credit: Kara Mahoney Robinson

Later, I got in the water when no whales were around; we were just 3 miles off shore and probably in close to 5,000 feet of water with nothing at all around us. The Caribbean Sea is soo blue and clear and incredible!!

Also, since last time I wrote we have really gotten into the work that we are here to do! On Monday, we trained 4 teachers from Soufriere Primary School and 5 folks that work with youth throughout Dominica. This day of intense training was followed by our big kick off day at the school in Soufriere, a fishing village 30 minutes south of here, with the teachers and the students, it was FANTASTIC! We were mostly working with the 4th and 5th grades, but when the inflatable whale went up, the whole school came out to see it. They were so excited to learn more and ask TONS of questions.

Teaching students at Soufriere Primary School
Photo credit: Jake Levenson

I have learned a lot from them as well. Most of the students had seen sea turtles nesting on the island--leatherback, green and hawksbill sea turtles nest here on the island. All the students have had "ballau", which is the local word for a type of fish called ballyhoo. Most of the students have never seen a whale, and more shockingly most of the teachers and students have never been in the ocean before, so have never seen the beautiful coral reef and fish that live just feet from the shore. I look forward to spending some more time at this school and visiting another school on the East side of the island, La Plaine, which is a community next to the largest leatherback sea turtle nesting beach on Dominica.

More to come ...

- Kara

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Saudi Arabia: Science at Sea

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Saudi Arabia Expedition

For the past 10 days, I (+ 8 colleagues) have been onboard the R/V Dream Island, diving and working everyday around the clock in order to answer questions about fish-coral interactions (and other things) in the Red Sea. To give you a glimpse of the on-boat experience, I'm thrilled to have some video footage to include (shot and narrated by Nancy Berumen). This first short clip shows Michael and I in prep for a dive (hydrating and getting gear together), with a reef in the background (our boat is anchored to the reef). Check out the changes in surface coloration - you can see the reef from the surface:

By day, we were working mostly underwater doing transects, collecting samples, capturing images, recording behavioral observations, etc. By night, we had to work up our samples, enter our data, download our images, and prepare for the next day's dives (3-5 dives per day!). However, space was limited, and we turned our dive benches into lab benches. Using headlamps for light, luggage for seating, and dive gear surrounding us as ambiance, we worked around the clock to make sure that all the work was done properly (again, video by Nancy and Mike Berumen):

So, what's it like underwater? What are we doing, exactly? As I've previously mentioned, there are many different scientific objectives on this boat, and I've already given you all of the details on the Finding Nemo project. As always, I was working on fish-coral interactions, trying to figure out which fish eat corals, why fish eat corals, and what that means for the corals. I'll spare you the gory details, but this basically involves (among other things) having a pretty good handle on coral taxonomy. The Red Sea hosts some unusual corals, so I spent a lot of time studying! Here's a glimpse of some of my favorite Red Sea coral critters:

One of these, (middle row, R) Cynarina lacrymalis, is my new favorite coral. It's only a single polyp and very rare, but it's extremely distinctive and very beautiful. I also love Mycedium umbra (middle row, L), Galaxea (top row, middle) and Astreopora (bottom row, middle with the gratuitous Chromodoris quadricolor nudibranch for fun). I won't bore you with all of the taxonomic details, but it's clear that the Red Sea hosts a high diversity of corals, and it's a challenge to be able to identify them all quickly underwater!

We measure the corals along a transect (see the measuring tape above), and from these coral counts and measurements we get a sense of the benthic cover and coral health (among other things) at a site. But of course, to measure them, we first need to know who they are.

Gerrit and Mae topside, identifying corals

In addition to coral identification, we often need to measure something more closely - see this coral above? It has some scars on it (likely made by a fish that was eating the coral), and some dead patches. Using a ruler, we can estimate the amount of living tissue. And, though we're pretty good with our coral identifications, sometimes we have to use photographs to help us - immediately after a dive, we compare our notes and photographs with taxonomic guides to confirm what we've seen.

We also need to keep our samples organized. Underwater, things are collected and carefully recorded onto underwater paper. Then immediately on boat (often still in a wetsuit!), samples are placed into tubes, labeled, categorized, and properly stored. Without constant vigilance, samples would get lost, disorganized, mislabeled... and all of that work underwater would be lost. Data are also immediately transcribed onto a computer and data sheets stored for reference.

Finally, naturalists at heart, we try to identify things outside of our research areas that are new to us. For example, I saw a lot of new (to me) bivalves on this trip. The first time I saw Pedum spondyloideum (the coral scallop - below left), I immediately checked our references to determine its identity. Needless to say, we had a staring contest - but I blinked first. See all of the eyes? They are red, and line the mantle. These scallops are extremely interesting - they are embedded within corals and are thought to feed on plankton. Similarly, I had never seen Spondylus mafrisrubri before (the Red Sea thorny oyster, which is actually another scallop, below right), so it was great fun to add these creatures (and more!) to my repertoire.

Being a naturalist is an important part of being a field biologist. Knowing how to identify species, where they are commonly found, and who they are related to is essential to really knowing an ecosystem. After all, without taxonomic knowledge, it's hard to get perspective on ecology. Many of you are probably naturalists as well - many hobbies are born of naturalist tendencies (birding, gardening, fishing, etc). Still, coral reef ecosystems are among the most complex and diverse on earth - so it's not always simple (but don't get discouraged).

So, for me, science at sea is a mix of taxonomic identification, ecological categorization, collecting samples and behavioral observations. Above all, organization is the key to a successful trip. My time at sea is basically at an end for now (more on that next post), so I'll take my 10 days worth of data, samples, and impressions and will begin the terrestrial task of trying to understand all that I've seen. It will take several months to unravel all of these observations, but in the end, we will (hopefully) have answered some of our questions, discovered new ones along the way, and have a better understanding of coral reefs in the Red Sea. As for science at sea, it's been fantastic. But now, land ho! It's time to head to shore.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Saudi Arabia: Parting the Waters of the Red Sea

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Saudi Arabia Expedition

For most of us, the Red Sea probably conjures a biblical image, if any image at all comes to mind. After all, how many of us have had the privilege of spending any time on or in this relatively tiny stretch of ocean?

Well, time to part the waters and reveal the mysteries that lie beneath. Diving the Red Sea as a scientist is a religious experience of sorts. It's pretty magical down here.

photo: R. Rotjan

To start with, it's beautiful. Relatively calm seas (despite our one day with 40+kt winds and rain... in the middle of a desert) mean clear waters with wonderful light penetration to the depths. These waters are teeming with Anthia spp. fishes, little damsels, clownfish, groupers, turtles, manta rays, dolphins... and of course, corals!!

photos: R. Rotjan

For me, the corals are always the star of the show. One of the most incredible coral experiences I've had here is my introduction to Xenia and Heteroxenia spp. soft corals that actually move (see the underwater movie posted below). Corals are animals that behave like plants and produce a hard calcareous skeleton. As a colleague of mine like to say, they are sea monsters: animal, vegetable and mineral all rolled into one. Corals are (usually) colonial, and have many polyps on a colony. Each polyp is a mouth (think of each polyp as an anemone--same idea, and corals and anemones are closely related). Many corals extend their polyps at night to feed, and keep them retracted during the day. But, these intriguing soft corals feed all day, pulsating to gather plankton and particulate matter from the water column wherever available. In other words, Xenia and Heteroxenia spp. showcase the animal side of corals--they visibly behave!

Question #3: What's it like having two oceans?

Sunnye Dreyfus, South Africa Expedition

Last week I visited the Two Oceans Aquarium. It is centrally located on the waterfront, with a sweet little cafe and gift shop, sand tiger (ragged-tooth) sharks, African penguins, and fantastic staff, just like us!

Because of the location of Cape Town (the southern tip of Africa), the 2OA's collection hails from both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. According to Head of Education, Russell Stevens, there is little need to look any further than their own "backyard" for their exhibits. They have just a handful of species that don't call the Indian or Atlantic Oceans home. Some of the highlights of my visit included:

  • Plankton exhibit: the lifeblood of the ocean should have spotlight, right?
  • Soles and puffer fish exhibits: it was great fun trying to find them hiding in the sand.
  • Shy sharks: endemic to the south and west coast of South Africa; mostly cold water species. I believe there are 5 species ... abundant and beautiful. They are called shy sharks because they use their tail to cover their eyes and snout when they feel threatened. Shark yoga, if you will. Puff adder shy sharks, leopard shy sharks, pajama shy sharks. Great names, huh? They come complete with fantastic specimens, big screen monitor, and an enthusiastic interpreter.

  • Kelp Forest: they play soothing music and some people swear that the fish and kelp choreograph accordingly. I found myself wanting to curl up at the holdfasts and take a nap.

  • Upper, middle and lower river region exhibit: I loved how the exhibit started high and ended low. Clanwilliam yellowfish, sawfin, sandfish—the level of endemism (species found in a specific area) decreases as you get to the lower regions because they are more susceptible to invasive species of bass, trout, and catfish as well as runoff from agriculture.

  • Fynbos exhibit: Plants native to the Western cape of South Africa! Pronounced "fane-bohs" meaning "fine bush" in Afrikaans, there are about NINE THOUSAND species and 6,200 of them are endemic to the Cape. They account for the highest density of plant species in the world (over 1,300 species per 10,000 square km)! Fynbos are packed like the Green Line on game day in just 6 percent of the country, but they account for over half of all plant species in South Africa and 20 percent of all species found on the entire continent! Yeah! How cool is that? I love (sniff, sniff), love (cough, cough) love (ah-choooo!!!) fynbos. I have never experienced so many plants, colors, flowers, fruits, seeds, and sinus congestion!
  • Wild cape fur seals (30 of them!): lounging on the docks just outside the cafe.

  • Learning labs: they have two and I voiced my loving envy. The first classroom (formerly a computer lab) had enough lab tables and chairs for 60 students and enough permanent tabletop tidepools to allow 1 per every 2 students! The second classroom had a border of marine animal tanks to choose from depending on the program.
  • Rethink the Shark: this was a corridor next to the predator exhibit in which they had large photos of sharks, information and statistics, and the Rethink the Shark video looping on a large screen.
  • Last, but not least is the hagfish exhibit. I love hagfish and it is about time these beauties have their own spotlight.
Conservation considerations
Something that really stood out to me after visiting the 2OA was their inclusion of Homo sapiens into their exhibits. There were three creative and simple ways I observed this being done.

Lining the base of the predator tank are species ID placards and I just happened to notice that one of them was for the human. It read: "Human, Homo sapien, A fierce predator found in both warm and cold waters. Preys on sharks, finning them alive and leaving them to drown in open seas. Offspring, if uneducated, may imitate behavior of adult species."

There was a sign posted from the INSIDE of the predator tank that read: "Warning: Predators beyond this point."

As I was leaving the main exhibits, there were giant images of a shark and a lion and in between was a giant mirror with text reading: "Planet Earth's most dangerous predator." It made me think and shook up my perspective a bit. And I'm sure that is what we who work at zoos and aquariums want to encourage our guests to do, right? Because perspective-shaking thought leads to learning, learning leads to knowledge, knowledge gives way to awareness and awareness has great potential to evolve into action. All of this can happen from a simple mirror installation. I love education.

Wildlife List:
Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis)
Red-winged starling (Onychoganthus morio)
Rock pigeon (Columba guinea)
Sugar bird (long tails, very cool flight pattern)
Heron (hanging out with the thousands of penguins at Betty's Bay)
Hyrax, "dassie" (their closest relative is the elephant)
Blue crane with chicks! (national bird of South Africa)
Grey-winged francolin
White stork
Grey mongoose
African millipede
Bomslang (venomous back-fanged arboreal snake that likes bird eggs)
Baboon spider (thankfully, it did not know how to open car doors)
Weaver birds
Goats, duck, geese, rabbits, Bantams and Rhode Island reds (chickens)
African grey parrot named Rastus, and a Jack Russell named Bob