Bird Island in Animas Bay (Photo By: Natalie Testa)
When I was in kindergarten, I was given an assignment on what I thought I would be doing when I was a hundred years old - my answer was that at 100 I would be swimming with the dolphins. Somewhere along my path to swimming with dolphins as a centenarian, I found myself as an 18 year old high school student spending my last Spring Break of High School on a field study in Mexico, learning about the ecology of the Sea of Cortez and camping on the beach with a hundred other high school seniors. For those that aren’t familiar with the beautiful deserts of Baja, there’s a lot more to the peninsula than the annual Baja 1000 race - there’s incredible ecosystems that have rich natural histories, and a beautiful, shining azul sea. To say that I fell in love with the Sea of Cortez would be an understatement: I will spend the rest of my life longing for those uninhabited red rocky shores enclosing beautifully clear blue bays.
A beautiful bay I sailed to near La Paz
The field study was part of the Marine Ecology class offered by my high school and taught by none other than Mr. Randy Hudson, one of the best teachers I’ve ever taken a class from. Hudson sets himself apart by using storytelling as a teaching tool- he transports his students around the world and through the oceans by interweaving his own experiences with scientific concepts. This method of teaching has not only helped me learn about the science of the ocean, it also has greatly inspired my own teaching methods. That said, Hudson puts his students through the ringer. The class kicks off with the nitty gritty of ecology - literally nitty gritty sand- as well as other abiotic factors like ocean currents around the world and plate tectonics. This class featured lots of tedious memorization of classification systems that had me and my friends up late studying for hours before the tests wondering when we would EVER learn about the living parts of the ecosystem. Although my childhood love of marine mammals is what drew me to the study of oceans, I have come to appreciate the value of the non-living factors that support and sustain the diversity of life. Hudson’s teaching style helped our class construct a more holistic picture of ecology by first teaching abiotic processes — rounding out our understanding of the subject one building block at a time.
After we established a strong foundation in our understanding of ecology, we moved on to the reason that I was in the class: the LIFE of the ocean! In learning about the living factors which make up the marine ecosystem I learned to love ALL of the life I could find on the coast of Southern California all the way down to Baja Mexico, from the giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera – which is the best algae on the planet) to the abalone and other sea snails that thrive in the intertidal to the green sea turtles that I would eventually get to work with in grad school.
While learning in a classroom is great, the cherry on top of Mr. Hudson’s Marine Ecology class was the Baja Field Study: that week-long trip to Las Animas Bay in the Sea of Cortez during Spring Break which brings together every aspect of the ecology class.
In Las Animas I had the opportunity to snorkel with sea lions, bathe in the sea, and watch the sun rise over the bay and set over a harsh desert. Between the beauty of our surroundings, the cooperative learning atmosphere, and the strong sense of accomplishment I felt at the end of each day’s study, I knew that field work was something I wanted to pursue and this helped re-affirm that marine science was my path. It was then that I decided that I would attend UC Santa Barbara for college for a degree in Ecology and Evolution. I attribute a lot that makes me the fisheries scientist I am today to standing on a beautiful beach facing the Sea of Cortez.
My love of the Sea of Cortez has taken me back time and again – I returned twice in college as a group leader for the very same field study I had attended as a student, and in my first year of grad school I went to La Paz to go sailing with a friend. I can’t explain my love of the Sea of Cortez, except that given any opportunity to go, I will take it. This incredible sparkling body of water has appealed to marine scientists for decades, and I happen to share my love of it with one of my favorite authors: John Steinbeck!
WAY BACK in March of 1940, aforementioned author John Steinbeck and a marine biologist friend of his, Ed Ricketts decided that they would go on a research trip to the Sea of Cortez. Mind you, they packed up with four buddies on a repurposed sardine seinerR called the Western Flyer (remember that, it’ll be important later) and sailed to the Sea of Cortez for an epic six-week journey where they traveled all over the Sea in pursuit of exploration. They explored 21 locations and collected THOUSANDS of specimens, of which 40 had never before been documented. In this time, Steinbeck and Ricketts recorded their thoughts on life, the universe, and of course, biology and put them into an incredible book titled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.
What’s so incredible about this book is that it’s made up of two parts: the written story and the scientific appendix. The story transports readers to an exploratory adventure in Baja California with Steinbeck’s characteristic sense of place and includes scientific information provided by an ecologist. For those unfamiliar with the organisms of the region, the appendix contains pictures and descriptions of many of the species collected over the course of the journey! It’s essentially a user-friendly guide to the intertidal wildlife of Baja. My favorite quote from this book is the opening line: “And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try and report what he finds there.” Excuse me John, I don’t need you calling out my entire life’s purpose like this!
So, in following along with trying to explore the oceans and document what I discover there, in early 2020, I applied for and was hired by Deep Green Wilderness to be the Lead Educator on their sailboat Orion in the Salish Sea. Deep Green Wilderness is an educational organization in the Pacific Northwest which teaches middle and high school students about sailing and ecology. However, the Covid-19 pandemic promptly turned my plan to start my career on its head. Suddenly I was living at my parents’ home in California and working remotely with a team all the way up in Washington State.
So, how does one get to know their new coworkers in a virtual capacity? Light internet stalking of course! While checking out the first mate’s instagram, I saw that she had posted a picture of the head (boat-speak for bathroom) on the Western Flyer with the beautiful hashtag “Steinbeck Sat There”. Having just been hired by Deep Green Wilderness, I hadn’t the opportunity to reach out to Kate yet and saw this as the PERFECT time to introduce myself and my love of John Steinbeck. Luckily for me, Kate and I share a passion for science communication and she was NOT weirded out by me sliding into her DMs to ask about her experiences sailing and in grad school.
While getting to know Kate, I also got to learn the history of the Western Flyer and how she went from being a research vessel in the Sea of Cortez to sitting in dry dock in Western Washington.
Here’s what happened: the Steinbeck and Ricketts journey draws to a close (as all journeys must), and the Western Flyer gets lost to time – it gets sold to a fisherman in Seattle, it becomes a scientific trawl survey boat for the Pacific Halibut Commission, it goes back to being a fishing boat, and in 2012 SHE SINKS! The boat was refloated and then SHE SANK AGAIN in 2013!!! When she was raised from the bottom she was put in dry dock in Port Townsend, Washington where she remained until 2015 when John Greg, a marine geologist, bought the Western Flyer to restore herin the name of his life-long interest in John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts! AND GET THIS! HE started a non-profit called the Western Flyer Foundation whose mission is “to stir curiosity by connecting art and science in the spirit of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts and legacy of the Western Flyer.”
A WILD story right?!?! Basically, I found out that the legacy of a favorite author and super cool marine biologist is being preserved in a unique way and I learned all about it during the Covid-19 shutdown. Thank you, John Steinbeck, for helping me make friends 80 years after setting sail in the wonderful Sea of Cortez.
The Sea of Cortez from the Skies
Flamingo on the Bow of the Ron Brown During Our Last Sunset
After finishing our CTD survey line, there were very few operations left on the PNE 2021 cruise: we had another moored buoy to deploy at 15° North and a few Argo floats left. Suddenly, gone were the 12-hour shifts, the dancing and listening to music while collecting water samples- all replaced by another 2-week transit.
While we transit, I find myself desperately trying to hold on to time, but it seems to slip through my fingers. The days are flying by and I know I’m going to be stepping back on land in Key West in the blink of an eye. That’s not to say that I don’t miss land – there’s a pretty lengthy list of things I’m really excited to do once back on solid ground, but there is something profoundly grounding about being offshore.
I’ve struggled to write about what being offshore means to me – and with the Equator Crossing Ceremony, I think I’ve finally started to understand what I find so intoxicating about spending time in remote parts of the ocean: I feel connected to Earth. When standing on a deck that is rolling with the motion of 10-foot swells passing from one side of an ocean to another, it feels impossible not to feel connected to nature and the forces that drive geological processes that span millennia. I also find myself centered when standing under a sky full of stars, navigating whichever urban/suburban/pelagic world I currently occupy through my proximity to Orion’s Belt– another reminder that life is both wonderful and insignificant in the context of the Universe. When hanging in the balance between an ocean so powerful and a night sky so vast, it’s easy to let the unimportant stresses of life fall away. This is why I chase offshore adventures.
However, in light of how huge and boundless the oceans and space may seem, the more I reflect on them, the more I understand how we are impacting our immediate ecosystem. We litter our upper atmosphere with debris from space exploration and dirty our oceans with plastic pollution, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, derelict fishing gear…the list goes on. And while it’s easy succumb to feeling dejected about what’s going on our beautiful life-supporting planet, I have had to remind myself that the reason I’m on this cruise is to help diagnose some of the problems associated with climate change. By participating in this oceanography-research cruise I am helping to collect data that are part of a multi-year time series, allowing scientists to see more or less in real time what is happening in our oceans as the atmosphere changes.
I find myself balking at the fact that I’ve been at sea for 6 weeks – it feels like just a couple days ago that I hopped on the Ron Brown in Miami Beach – and yet, I also feel like I know my shipmates like an extended family. We’ve shared laughs, work, meals, and some very tippy swells, but as our time draws to a close, I’m reminded of disembarking from the Maersk Launcher in Hawaii: feeling slightly adrift in the world – untethered and yet excited about what comes next. For my last research cruise the “what comes next” was the All Hands On Deck NOAA Ocean Exploration Forum, and of course the analysis of my master’s research. What awaits me on shore in South Florida is my first full-time job as a marine biologist! And a world still navigating the throes of a pandemic and vaccine distribution.
Saying Goodbye to the Ron Brown in Key West
I received a request to write about the stars at sea, and funnily enough, even before receiving this request, I had spent the last few days thinking on how exactly I wanted to address my adoration for the night sky.
I lack a camera that can capture pictures of stars, so please enjoy one of the sunsets I saw in the Atlantic.
As I move through life, I’m always forgetting to look at the ground in front of my feet. I trip over air, run into every possible surface of a boat when sailing, and generally am a bit clumsy. If I’m at the beach, I’m looking out to sea, hoping for a marine mammal spotting, maybe a spectacular wave, or lately, wondering what lies beyond that horizon and how I can chase that line. At night I feel drawn towards the night sky. I will be the first to admit that I’m not all that great at finding constellations, and yet something about gazing up at the blanket of stars is both comforting and mind-bogglingly big (to quote a favorite author).
I find a bizarre contentment in my own insignificance on this planet and my love of the stars really leans into that feeling. Something about the realization of just how small we are on this planet really comes into sharp focus when I’m offshore. Your world shrinks to the size of your ship – in the case of the Ron Brown, it feels like I’ve known everyone on board my whole life – and three-hundred-odd feet feels limiting when there isn’t all that much time spent alone. Shockingly, I don’t find it claustrophobic or suffocating, but there is always the realization of just how large the oceans are when your entire home floats and gets knocked around by the forces of the seas.
Night after night from the day we left Miami, the volunteers of my oceanography lab group set out on deck in search of beautiful constellations, excited to have left a huge urban area behind us. Instead, we were greeted with thick clouds, patchy clouds, and a few chilly breezes that sent us scurrying back inside the ship in search of sweatshirts and sleep.
The first night a celestial body caught my attention was while we were conducting one of our CTDs off the Cape Verde islands. I beat the survey technician I was working with to the deck and was greeted by warm tropical air and darkness along the starboard side of the ship. A cheeky crescent moon grinned down at me from above the sea and I remember holding onto the ship and grinning right back.
Most of my late nights on the Ron Brown have been spent by behaving slightly silly, as I am wont to do in situations with little sleep/less sleep than I would like – particularly when it’s a self-imposed lack of sleep. During the course of our CTD survey, I have danced with the stars on deck, sang to them and the sea, and glared menacingly at clouds that had the audacity to block my view of the heavens.
On Valentine’s Day, we had our final major operation for this cruise. We replaced a moored buoy and conducted our last CTD cast. To ensure that the installation of a moored buoy is successful, we always do a flyby: checking to see how it’s sitting in the water, making sure that all of the sensors are working – what you would expect from an inspection of a scientific sensor.
The operations took us into the evening and as we were making our approach toward the buoy, I stood on deck in the dark and sought out Orion’s Belt – the only constellation I can consistently locate in the night sky. I feel as though I anchor myself in this world in relation to Orion – there’s something so comforting about the consistency of looking up and finding the stars exactly where they should be. Luckily for me, my anchor can be seen from anywhere in the world, since the constellation Orion resides near the Equator.
I was unable to locate the Southern Cross during our brief foray into summer and the Southern Hemisphere, but a sky full of stars unmarred by the artificial light of the cities I’ve grown up in has made this trip absolutely unforgettable.
Thanks are due to Josh for the reminder to go outside and look at the stars. I spent much of 2020 feeling untethered and lost in this crazy pandemic world, but I had only to spend some time looking up to find my anchor again. Sitting alone on the back deck and staring at the sky has brought about some of the clearest thinking I’ve had all trip. I may not have more to say about the stars themselves, but thank you for helping me find the words to illustrate their significance in my life.
The sun has set, the Equator has been crossed, and I find myself sitting in the computer lab for what may end up being my shift’s last CTD cast on the PNE PIRATA 2021 cruise. Although my last post may have made it seem like all we are out here doing is having fun and sitting in pools on the back deck, I did volunteer to help conduct science at sea. And let me tell you – science was CONDUCTED!
CTD Sunsets (Photo by Tara Clemente)
A research vessel like the Ron Brown is designed to more or less be able to conduct scientific work on a 24 hour a day schedule, so our small team of volunteers working under the ship’s Chief Scientist figured out a watch system. However, unlike the multiple short watches we take when sailing offshore, our watches on this ship are 12 hours – you’re either on the clock or not – and during that time you’re responsible for all of the CTD casts that fall during that shift. My roomie and I were luckily on the same shift – noon to midnight, which seemed easy enough at the beginning of our schedule, but as we hit a region with increased sampling it ended up being really tough!
CTD casts are conducted in pretty much the same way every time: open all of the Niskin bottles, turn on all of the sensors, and send the whole rig up and over the side of the ship and down to 1500 meters depth (or nearly a mile deep). As the rosette is pulled back toward the surface, it is stopped at depths that have interesting salinities or oxygen contents. From the comfort of the dry room we can tell the CTD to close an individual bottle on the rosette, thereby taking one water sample at that exact depth. We do this at multiple depths until all of the bottles in the rosette are filled with samples. After taking our samples, the whole apparatus is brought back onto the ship for processing. For each depth sample we fill one fancy glass flask full of water for oxygen titrations and another for measuring the salt content.
The Autosal lives in the Salt Dungeon here on the Ron Brown
Our team split up the processing of samples and I got to learn how to use an AutoSal. It’s a fancy machine that looks like the technology hasn’t changed since the 1980s, but can tell you what the salinity of your sample is using the conductivity of the water in the chambers. SCIENCE!! The AutoSal on the Ron Brown is located in the room called the Salt Dungeon – an apt and silly name for a room that stays at 24°C ALWAYS, which feels very warm on the otherwise very cool ship. The dungeon part makes sense because when processing samples you can be in there up to 4 hours at a time.
On this cruise, our team’s two different watches have conducted 60 CTD samples along 23° West in the middle of the Atlantic. It has been such a wildly different experience from the last research cruise I was on: for one, as we were taking some of our first CTD samples, we were passing by the Cape Verde islands. Standing outside in the dark on the deck watching the lights go by on the horizon was a very foreign feeling – we’d been at sea about 2 weeks, seeing nothing but water and the occasional other ship going by along the horizon. Seeing shore and knowing we still had 4 weeks to go on our ship was a little jarring, especially because it has been relatively easy to forget that the world is still negotiating pandemic-related life, while life onboard is as close to “normal” as anything I can remember in the last year.
Because we have had to travel between CTD locations and because we don’t sleep for 12 hours a day, we definitely still have had time to have some fun while on the CTD survey line. As we approached the Equator, someone placed an inflatable pool on the back deck. Although I’ve been on cruise ships before, there is nothing that ever prepared me for the feeling of being in a pool on a ship moving through even more water. A shipmate put the feeling best – it’s kind of like being in a perpetual wave pool.
The Ron Brown's Pelagic Pool
We also crossed the Equator on this trip – my FIRST TIME crossing the Equator by sea! At the Equator we got to do an extra deep CTD where we sent the rosette to (very close to) the bottom at 3900 meters! The pressure at that depth is immense … and as such we took it upon ourselves to evaluate the pressure using the tried-and-true method of sending Styrofoam to the bottom of the ocean and pulling up a much, much, much smaller piece of Styrofoam than what we sent down (see below). In addition to the Styrofoam, we sent a 2-pack of cinnamon poptarts to the bottom of the ocean to see what would become of them, and then ate the slightly soggy – I mean lightly salted – poptarts once they made their way back to us. Did I stop and taste the water that came from the bottom of the ocean? ABSOLUTELY!!! It tasted … like accidentally taking a mouthful of salt water at the beach. BUT ALL IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE!!!!
My styrofoam disk, with my hand for scale!
We were in the middle of our CTD survey crossing the Equator the first time, however, upon crossing the Equator the second time we conducted a proper Equator Crossing Ceremony, and I now hold the title Shellback! Looking forward to crossing the Equator by sea in the future as well!
Quite possibly one of my favorite things about spending time working offshore, is what you can find to do on the ship when you aren’t working. Of course, we are out here to conduct science, but like any job there’s the time that you spend working…and there’s a fair bit of time that you’re not working! Our CTD survey line is closer to the coast of Africa than pretty much anywhere else in the Atlantic, so I’ve had ample time (around 2 weeks!) to explore the Ron Brown and spend time with different parts of the crew!
As I learned from my last research cruise, I love running on treadmills while at sea. That said, it is still very difficult to run on a treadmill when the very ship that the treadmill is connected to is moving around. Thus, the belt on the machine isn’t always where you left it. Frequently for me this translates into almost going flying off the treadmill in a graceful step of one foot landing partially off the treadmill and the other foot SCRAMBLING to keep me from falling face first into the controls of the machine. I imagine watching this process is much like watching a dove in flight (or then again, probably not). With the ever-present threat of falling off the running machine, you might not think that it would be all that desirable to go for a run. However, I have found that the treadmill is quite possibly the hottest commodity in the gym – every time I go down to the gym space it is exciting to see the treadmill not occupied.
Another common way to pass time on offshore trips is reading – I’ve read thousands of pages of fantasy novels all over this ship! But seeing as the ship is a large space, my bunkmate and I have also spent lots of time exploring the ship and getting to know our shipmates. During one of our early briefings on the ship, we were told that we were welcome up on the bridge so long as there were not major operations occurring. We took this information as an invitation to spend every possible minute between breakfast and lunch on our transit across the Atlantic standing on the bridge with the captain and officer on watch. I learned how to measure distances on nautical charts (maps of the ocean floor are called charts!), I discovered that there is a Gibbs Sea Mount in the Caribbean, AND we got to see hundreds of flying fish frantically skimming across the surface of the sea away from the bow of the ship. In addition to beautiful views of the Atlantic, we were graced with an absolutely wonderful rainbow during the transit which was a treat!
This rainbow made my WEEK
This cruise has been a lucky one for me as far as wildlife spotting – I’ve seen a lot of firsts this trip! While we were observing the moored buoy operation, we spotted a tuna chasing a flying fish. Both hopped out of the water near the ship and it was an exhilarating predator-prey interaction to have the pleasure of seeing! Although spotting dolphins is pretty commonplace when spending time at sea, we saw hundreds of dolphins surrounding our ship near Cape Verde, jumping alongside our wake and following us for a few magical minutes. However, today I had a HUGE first for me in the form of a really unexpected marine mammal sighting. We heard an announcement about marine mammals off the port side and rushed outside to be greeted by a pod of short-finned pilot whales frolicking near the ship!!! After my trip to the Pacific where we saw shockingly few animals, I had low expectations about the wildlife spotting on this trip and have been THRILLED to have that expectation overturned.
There are dolphins in this pic ... I was really excited to see them and forgot about my camera
There is also currently a ship-wide ping pong tournament happening – we have all kinds of participants from almost every department of the ship, and the stakes are high. Pride is on the line after all! The games occur in all kinds of weather and, as with running on a treadmill in almost any sea state, the ship can pitch or roll any which way. Personally, I think the roll of the ship really adds to the excitement of spectating a ping pong game, in addition to leveling the playing field a bit. The ping pong table is set up in the main lab, so ping pong is a common way for me and my bunkmate to spend time just before meals or waiting to get on site for an operation.
Our time spent recreating on the Ron Brown is drawing to a close as we approach our survey line of CTDs, which begins 300 miles off the coast of Africa. Our survey line will be really cool, as our research group splits into a day and night shift, collecting CTD samples around the clock! I’ve been having a wonderful time bouncing around the ship helping with other group’s projects (like re-painting the mooring buoys), but I’m really looking forward to helping conduct the research I volunteered to participate in back in November!
Doing SCIENCE and painting buoys (Photo by Grace Owen)
Though it is a little late in January to be writing a “New Year’s” post, I had a relatively tumultuous new year, including a cross-country move in my car, a week-long self-quarantine in a hotel room in Miami, dumping a Venti Starbucks tea on my laptop, AND boarding NOAA Research Vessel the Ronald H. Brown. Today I’m writing this blog post from very nearly the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! We are currently 11 days into an oceanography research cruise that left from Miami, FL on January 15. I am a volunteer on a project that is collecting data on salinity, temperature and ocean depth for research being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Our project is using some really cool technology in order to evaluate oceanographic conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. For one of our pieces of technology, we are using an Argo Float, which is a scientific device that we drop off the aft of the ship while underway. After being deployed, these floats sink to 1000 meters deep where it will sit for 10 days collecting data on salinity and temperature. Because of the depth of these remote sensors, we can’t receive data transmissions from them while they sit at 1000 meters, so before being thrown in the water, the float will be programmed to “bounce” to the surface. During one of these “bounces” the Argo float will drop down to about 2000 meters collecting more temperature and salinity data and then will rise up to the surface collecting more measurements on its way up. Once on the surface, the float will send all of the salinity and depth measurements to scientists on land via satellite communication.
Here is us preparing an Argo Float deployment - the box and tape are biodegradable and the sensor is inside the box!
In addition to dropping Argo floats on our transit, we are conducting what are called CTDs, which stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth readings, using an elaborate device pictured below. The whole rosette (or frame) contains a bunch of Niskin bottles, an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP), and a “brain” which controls the device. The whole system is connected to the ship with a cable which allows the science team (that’s me!) sit in the computer lab and read out the measurements of salnitity, temperature, and depth of the whole system as it descends to 1500 meters deep. The Niskin bottles on the rosette allow us to take water samples from 12 different depths as we raise the CTD back onto the ship. The ADCP helps us “look” up and down in the water column using sound to measure current flow around the device.
The CTD rosette is HUGE and has the gray Niskin bottles on the outside, with the yellow and black ADCPs on the inside of the frame.
For the measurement process, we get to evaluate multiple aspects of the water column – which is the oceanographic term for a profile of seawater from the surface to the bottom (or other specified depth). For our CTD measuremets we are looking at the salt content (which changes over depth), as well as oxygen content (which changes over depth!), and water temperature (which, you guessed it, ALSO changes over depth!). All of these measurements are super helpful for our chief scientist and his lab back on shore to understand what is happening with all of these variables in the open ocean. CTD measurements along this cruise route have been taken for many years and can show changes in salinity, oxygen, and temperature at the same location over time. Additionally, understanding what physical and chemical changes occur in the oceans can give researchers a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of the open ocean!
So in essence, I booked it across the country from my home in Southern California, for a research cruise on the opposite coast, much like I did originally for my Master’s Research on the Maersk Launcher. BUT THIS TIME I’m on the East Coast to stay for a while – I got a job in South Florida (but you’ll hear more about that once I’m back on shore!)
What’s really cool about this research cruise is that there are 4 different research groups on board the ship! One group is studying the spatial distribution of Sargassum, a brown algae species, in the tropical Atlantic. Another group studying aerosols including ozone and dust particles over the Atlantic. The last group (aside from our oceanography group) is conducting maintenance on some moored buoys which are part an international effort to expand measurements of open ocean conditions throughout the tropical Atlantic.
All of these research groups are working in conjunction on a shared ship so we’ve been getting to know each other and learn about other group’s research from around the country (ours is the only group from Miami,) as well as the various backgrounds of the people working on the ship! It takes more than a team of scientists to keep a ship afloat and moving across the Atlantic, and our ship is crewed by multiple departments – on the bridge we have officers from the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, a branch of the uniformed service, while engineers keep the ship, and importantly the air conditioning, functioning. We have a deck department who are essential in both science and ship operations, as well as survey crew who assist all research groups in their various projects, and a galley crew to keep all of us fed, AND a doctor from the United States Public Health Service – something I didn’t know existed until just over a week ago.
Wow. Listing it out like that makes it make a little more sense that there are 44 people on this ship living and working together at sea.
Given that we are still facing the threat of Covid-19, this trip on the high seas looks a little different than my last research cruise did. Last cruise, I just arrived at the port and hopped on the ship, whereas this cruise, we were all required to do a 7-day self-quarantine, during which everyone was tested for Covid midway through our quarantine. We also had a second Covid test conducted on the ship 7 days after leaving port. Thankfully, we have all tested negative for Covid, and as a precaution are still obligated to wear masks in public spaces – it’s funny trying to remember names and faces when all you really see of the people on the ship is their eyes and hair, but we’re making do, and still conducting science! All of which is very exciting, since I’ve been lusting for time on the water since disembarking from my sailing trip late last summer.
It feels like a long time ago that I was sitting on the Launcher trying to describe life at sea, but I’m back bouncing from one side to another in my cabin, having woken up at 4:45am to conduct a CTD and spent much of the day helping out with the replacement of a moored buoy that was sitting in over 5,000 meters of water. That means we had more than 5,000 meters of line to pull up onto a spool by hand onboard the ship. It’s nearly dinner and I’m running on caffeine and general science hype – tired from spooling line, but ready to help replace the next few moored buoys.
We replaced this buoy and are going to clean it and put some sensors on it and send it back out later in the cruise!
I struggled with immense writer’s block the last few days, but I think I’ve finally found my footing (sea legs?) for writing about time and research at sea, so I’m looking forward to sharing more about what life on the open ocean looks like from a research vessel! If you have any questions you want answered please feel free to comment below, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
We had the first Climate Change Book Club discussion and it went a lot better than I thought it would! Everyone was excited to share about their experience reading the first half of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and we had some really meaningful discussions about what steps we can take to reduce our climate change footprint as twenty-somethings living in the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unexpectedly, that conversation turned to banking. Specifically, where banks invest our money when we’re not using it. And, SURPRISE— a lot of those investments end up going to Big Oil & Gas and other insidious industries. Shout out to Naomi Klein for once again educating me and ruining my day in the same breath.
As someone who takes regular steps to live more sustainably, banking is something that had never crossed my mind when making adjustments toward living a greener lifestyle. Banking has seemed pretty harmless in my day to day life – sure the banks were bad back in like the Great Depression, but we’re living in 2020. I can deposit my paychecks online! The future is now! That was until I started learning about where my bank is investing my money.
I started banking with Chase back in my first year at UCSB.There wasn’t an easy way to access my hometown credit union (this was in the time before functional mobile deposits) and there was a Chase right in the heart of IV. Later when I moved to Miami, it wasn’t a problem to keep using Chase because their banks are everywhere. Andddd that’s about the extent of all of the thought that has gone into my banking.
But after our book club discussion, I realized it was high time that I did some research about what my money is actually going toward.
So, this morning I decided to look into just how “bad” my bank was – Chase can’t actually be the worst, right? W R O N G! According to this report Chase invested almost 64 BILLION DOLLARS in fossil fuels in 2018 alone. What kind of environmentalist do I think I am, if I’m out here FUNDING exploration for fossil fuels in precious and fragile ecosystems?
What do you mean that Chase is “bad”, Bree?
JPMorgan Chase is a big investment bank. Investment banks provide a number of services to their customers including credit cards, savings accounts, mortgages, loans, and investments. But what I didn’t understand about banks until recently is that banks need to make money in addition to just holding onto it in checking and/or savings accounts. Until exploring this topic further, I had just assumed that banks made their money from the interest rates on loans and mortgages - things like that. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So the money that I paid to keep my account open has become capital for Chase to invest as it sees fit. And Chase it turns out invests BILLIONS in the fossil fuel industry.
According to Statista, worldwide, global oil production was generating 95.192 million barrels of oil a day. And banks like Chase invest in “continuing production” — meaning that as we run out of “easy” to access oil reserves, money is still pouring in to explore for oil that is more difficult and environmentally costly to access.
So what’s a girl who wants to save the planet to do? Going full Christopher McCandless and burning all of my money isn’t exactly an option.
To divest means to deprive of power, rights, or possessions, and in this case, I decided I wanted to use my power as a consumer to take away what little capital I was holding with Chase and place it with an organization that is more in line with my beliefs. Lucky for all of us, there’s actually a few financial institutions that aren’t totally spineless that we can choose from. While poking around and looking at other banks in my region – focusing especially on ones that have similar sustainability goals with respect to our planet— I found OneUnited Bank and Bank of the West, both of which I am seriously considering investing my money into. Unfortunately with Covid cases on the rise in my county, I have to wait until I can open an account in person. In the meantime, I have decided to withdraw most of my money out of my Chase account and place it in my old Credit Union account.
If you are reading this and are interested in divesting from fossil fuels and banking with a different organization than the one you are currently using, this list from Yes! Magazine has banks by region of the U.S. that do not invest in fossil fuels. Additionally, this map tool from Green America helps you find a better bank as defined by the Global Alliance for Banking on Values – so a bank with sustainable economic, social, and environmental development goals. Who would have thought!
Are you going to make or have you already made the switch to a greener bank? Tell me all about it in the comments section!
My Climate Change book club has started a new book, and as such, it is time to philosophize about the meaning of climate change in the face of the hopefully long and prosperous life I plan on leading, which I’m not going to lie, is uncomfortable.
We have started the book: Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World. An apropos pick for a group of science nerds trying to cope with climate change, Covid, and long term social isolation. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M HERE TO TALK ABOUT.
In the introduction to the book, the editor John Freeman ponders climate inequality and he observes “... here is the thrust and heave and beauty of life on a planet that seems hostile to our presence.” What struck me in this sentiment and sent me scrambling towards my computer is the view that our planet is hostile towards us, HUMANS!!!
I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of some fellow sailors while I was on my trip sailing up the East Coast, and as conversation these days always seems to drift, we found ourselves talking about the Covid virus, and my companions strayed towards the idea that nature couldn’t be so insidious towards people, that there was no natural explanation for this seemingly hostile virus. Aside from my knee-jerk reaction to respect the opinions of the VAST MAJORITY of scientists who work on the topic at hand in the case of Covid the immunologists, doctors, and say I don’t know the virologists. But what really bothered me was this notion that the Earth is simply here to be our sunshine-filled perfect habitat.
The natural world is filled with SO MANY EXAMPLES of the hostile dog-eat-dog world that we have walked away from to build our own definition of civilization - one that I am more than happy to be a part of. But we can’t expect that the whole world is going to resemble our perfect condition petri dish that we’ve created for ourselves. Natural selection is at play all around us - pushing evolution forward in an endless march that we are lucky enough to witness in real time! But alongside the march of evolution comes the subsidence of different organismal regimes - from the early Cambrian when microscopic life flourished in the oceans to the legendary reign of the dinosaurs in the Triassic to the slowly changing progression of dominant reef-building organisms from sponges to corals in our shallow oceans over millions of years.
I could go on for thousands of words pondering the progression of life, but what really strikes me is the terminology Freeman uses to describe our planet.
“...Here is the thrust and heave and beauty of life...”
I remember where I first heard the word “ephemeral.” I was sitting in a lecture hall halfway around the world in Brisbane, Australia listening to my professor talking about ephemeral pools that appeared and vanished in the course of weeks in the Australian Bush habitat. I sat dumbfounded in my class wondering if it was a uniquely Australian word like “billabong,” and was embarrassed to learn from a classmate that, no Bree “ephemeral” means lasting for a short time. It clicked into place the concept of a pond that exists for only a short period in a desert, and it’s a word that jars me back to reality whenever I contemplate climate change.
Even before we consider the possibility of human-affected climate, the Earth is remarkably violent in its movement. Earthquakes can move tons upon tons of rock, shifting feet at a time in some cases. Volcanoes erupting from continental crust destroys pieces of mountains. Entire sides of mountains just exploding out. Tsunamis can move a wall of water miles inland due to the underwater shift of land mass. Hurricanes don’t count as hurricanes (by our human metrics) until they reach 74mph of sustained wind. THAT’S THE LOWEST CATEGORY OF HURRICANE!!! Have you every stood outside on a windy day and moved inside because the wind was irritating? I have. I get pretty unhappy when the wind blows faster than about 25 mph JUST A THIRD OF WHAT THE SMALLEST OF HURRICANES PRODUCE!!! Hurricanes have the capacity to blow down trees and level islands.
At its core, nature is thrusting and heaving.
And it is beautiful.
Because life is resilient. Life takes nature’s tricks and evolves new and incredible ways to survive. Earthquakes are responsible for the shift of the continents - plate tectonics have given us some of the absolute breath-taking diversity we see through isolation of populations and allopatric evolution. Why we see amazing marsupials that flourished and monotremes that to a lesser extent survived in Australia, but left the rest of the continents with placental mammals like us! Following volcanic eruptions, lichens are the first life to infiltrate the charred remains, and so they begin the colonization of newly available real estate. And all of this flies in the face of the hostility the Earth shows towards its inhabitants.
Now the scientist in me says Bree, the Earth can’t think and therefore can’t be hostile towards you, which leaves us with an even more terrifying possibility: that the Earth is indifferent towards us and all other life here. And in the face of this indifference life has diversified and multiplied and expanded into the most unlikely places from the hottest places to the coolest places, the most directly hit by sunlight to the places that will never see the light of the sun. And all of it is constantly changing and shifting and growing and dying, and somehow we find ourselves in the middle of it all. An ephemeral existence on a blue spinning rock flying through space entirely indifferent to our existence.
Or almost indifferent.
We are undeniably having a negative effect and irreversible on the very climate we have engineered solutions to survive and flourish in. And these negative effects are coming for all of us, especially if we don’t hit the breaks soon.
I think a lot about why I’m not absolutely dejected in the face of climate change. It was a question posed to me months ago and it bounces around when I sit down to talk about Marine Ecology, or at Climate Change Book Club, or will sneak up on me when I’m on a long walk.
The fact of the matter is I am terrified. But each one of us that is here comes from a long line of survivors.
We definitely have work to do and definitely need to apply the brakes to climate change before it's too late (since we went screaming by the first too late deadline).
But I have trust in the beauty that lies in life surviving the thrust and heave of this magnificent, hostile, perfect planet.
Having a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California - a university which prides itself on the well-rounded education it provides - as well as having attended some great public schools in Southern California, I had assumed that I knew most of what there was to know about the significant parts of the United States. We have 50 states, tons of National Parks, all kinds of war memorials and sites on the East Coast, and I guess historical Gold Rush sites on the West Coast. So I was absolutely SHOCKED to move to Florida and learn that there was a WHOLE CANAL THAT WAS CARVED AS AN INLAND WATERWAY FROM THE NORTHEAST ALL THE WAY DOWN TO FLORIDA???
I have done some (limited) surveying of my friends that also grew up on the West Coast and using my very small sample size I’m going to make a vast (non scientific) generalization : The East Coast’s best kept secret is the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW).
GEORGE FREAKING WASHINGTON HELPED DIG THE ICW. WHAT IS THIS MAGICAL/STRANGE PLACE? Well let me tell you about it because after arriving in Charleston, South Carolina and spending a couple days restocking on groceries and wandering in search of a laundromat (quite the big ask from the water apparently), we cruised north to Maryland on the ICW.
Just your local Trash Scientist blending in. (Photo by Grant Bemis)
SO LETS TALK ABOUT THIS RAD WATERWAY
Kismet (Photo by Grant Bemis)
After we ran aground, we tried to get off the sandbar that we were stuck on and almost made it off before we got good and stuck. Just our luck, the tide was dropping, so we had to just sit. A dolphin swam smug lazy circles around us shortly after realizing that we were really really stuck before leaving us to wait on the tide. 6 hours later the tide had come back enough for us to pull Kismet out of the mud and creep cautiously over to the closest anchorage where we spent a night a little shaken before continuing our cruise north.
Contrary to the speed this picture portrays, we were not moving
(Photo by Grant Bemis)
So much of the ICW is surrounded by absolutely beautiful natural land, and I think my favorite natural area in the Carolinas had to be the Alligator River. We saw a bald eagle soar across the river, an osprey flying in front of a rainbow, and nothing but gorgeous trees and water for an entire day of gorgeous motoring.
The Alligator River
We spent about a week in Elizabeth City, North Carolina waiting on the Army Corps of Engineers to clear the Great Dismal Swamp Canal for boat passage following Hurricane Isaias. The Great Dismal Swamp is actually one of the more beautiful places we went - it’s this incredible natural area made up of thousands of acres that sits just outside Norfolk, Virginia. But maybe the most exciting part of the canal through the Great Dismal Swamp is the two locks you get to go through! Locks are really cool tools in waterways to raise or lower boats - we got to get lifted into the swamp and we got lowered into the waters just outside of Norfolk!
I love locks (photo by Grant Bemis)
Virginia was a particularly exciting part of our trip for me because we stopped to meet a friend that I made on the internet! Emily is a journalist and rad lady who runs the blog Dinghy Dreams. We started talking on Instagram at the beginning of my trip in Florida and we got lucky enough to meet up in person, socially distant of course! I also got to meet another super cool lady sailor, Julie (check out her Instagram here), who happened to be visiting Emily at the same time! In addition to absolutely wonderful conversation, Emily and Julie gifted me a totally rad romper, which was a welcome clean clothing item as well as an upcycled piece of clothing - win-win!
This is the motion I do when I talk about kelp...so Emily, Julie and I decided to all be kelp! (Photo by Grant Bemis)
We sailed across the Chesapeake and got Kismet tucked into her slip at the marina without too much more of an ordeal, and my gosh, the first shower at the marina definitely is one of the top best 5 showers of my life - nothing beats the first shower after a long adventure! And after nearly 6 weeks of sailing and motoring and learning, I’m flying home to the West Coast breathing in stale coffee breath from that good Atlanta Airport coffee in my N95, already daydreaming about the next trip where I can say goodbye to land and see what the next adventure will bring.
Kismet in Maryland - we made it!
**Author's Note: It has been brought to my attention that the ICW does in fact extend past Florida and goes up through the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf ICW extends from Carrabelle, FL to Brownsville, TX. It bears noting that I have neglected over 1000 miles of the ICW by only discussing the East Coast portion of the canal.
Writing is something that I have struggled with my entire life. As one of the lucky kids that had most subjects in school come pretty naturally, I found myself consistently frustrated with the writing process. Creative writing was my favorite type of writing – coming up with made-up stories excited my fantasy-reading younger mind – however this form of writing was less common than I would like and much to my frustration, I learned from various teachers throughout the years that compelling writing takes planning and thought. Starting in elementary school and into middle school and chasing me throughout high school, I was convinced that good writing has to be planned out and I can’t just write down every passing thought in the scattered chaotic fashion they enter my mind. Now this is fine and good for making grades, especially because as a future scientist, I convinced myself that it was just English classes that I needed these skills for – what am I going to use this for in my real job? Trick question: I now blog about science for part of my job!
Then the unthinkable happened: I went to college for ecology and evolution and professional writing chased me into my science classes.
Professional scientists taught me that we need to document the science that we conduct so that other scientists can replicate our tests and confirm or refute our hypotheses. YIKES. Begrudgingly I recalled all of the English classes I’d taken, and I relearned the art of telling a story, only this time through a scientific lens: where does this work come from, what were my results, and finally the most important part of any paper – why do my results matter?
I’ve spent two weeks ruminating on how to write about my time offshore on S/V Kismet and the adventure that is offshore sailing. And it feels like I’m writing about myself, so suddenly it’s like I’m tongue-tied at a job interview for a position that I desperately want: how do I describe the sky of endless stars? The feeling of sailing away from shore and slowly watching everything you know about normal life fading away leaving you on a small floating object that is subject to the whims of the sea? I’m not sure, but it is the middle of the story I started telling when I arrived in Florida, and it was a lot easier and a lot less scary than prepping for your first hurricane (or tropical storm) onboard a sailboat, so I guess we can start with leaving land behind.
Offshore views were pretty tight
Offshore sailing is the coolest. I’m just going to start there. It’s like remote camping on the ocean – you have everything you need on the boat, and you are entirely reliant on your skills and planning to get you through the time you’ve allotted for it.
Sailing off from Stuart, FL after waiting a day for the seas to calm after the passing of Tropical Storm Isaias was remarkably smooth. We hauled the anchor like any other day and made our way out into the Atlantic, chasing the storm north on our way to Charleston, SC. Now driving from Stuart to Charleston, Google Maps estimates that it is approximately 7.5 hours. We managed to make the passage more directly (see image) in a mere 51 hours straight! So cool right? Sailboats are remarkably slow, but how many people can say that between Stuart and Charleston they saw two endangered adult leatherback sea turtles??? NOT THAT MANY (that is of course, unless you get really really lucky and happen to stop off at a Florida beach during sea turtle nesting season).
The approximate path of S/V Kismet from Stuart, FL to Charleston, SC
(via Google Maps)
So for those that haven’t had the privilege of sailing offshore, or who like one of my coworkers think it sounds like an absolute nightmare, I’m more than happy to run you through the good, the bad, and the questionable about this wonderful and slightly bizarre experience.
There are a few main differences between sailing nearshore and sailing offshore (for our trip).
The first big difference between sailing nearshore and offshore is that you don’t stop at night. This difference is readily apparent when you split up watches. The watches matter at night the most because one person got to sleep on deck while the other person was at the helm making sure that we were both on course and not on course to collide with other boats (but we’ll address that later). Aside from feeling very piratey while taking watch, the job is supremely important because if we steered too much off course during someone’s watch we were tacking on additional hours of sleep-deprived sailing.
The compass and I were bffs on my night watches
Now the last time I sailed offshore, we had this nifty piece of technology called an autopilot that made staying on course for long straight lines really easy. Autopilots on sailboats are akin to the cruise control function in a car, only instead of keeping your speed constant, the autopilot helps you keep the same compass heading. Without an autopilot this trip, we were tasked with having someone holding the steering wheel of the boat for the entire 51-hour duration of our trip, which is A LOT of standing and a whole heck of a lot of passing the time spent scanning the horizon and checking the compass against the chart (nautical map!!!).
The second big difference between nearshore and offshore sailing is, intuitively, you are far away from land – and as such need to be a little extra aware of the boats near you. Sailboats move really slowly. We averaged about 7 knots (knots are nautical miles per hour, or 1.15 miles per hour), which feels pretty quick when you’re under sail, but when you compare that to the speed of shipping vessels that are cruising around 20 knots, it allows REALLY BIG BOATS to creep up on you REALLY quick. We weren’t really traveling in a well-trafficked area so we didn’t see that many large ships on the horizon, and for my watches the first night, I didn’t see any other boats. The second night I definitely had some large ships that were moving but none got near us, which was a big relief.
So what’s so cool about sailing offshore?
For one, you’re out in an ecosystem that we don’t get to access all the time, and as such get to see cool marine life that’s a little different than the life we see normally. As I alluded to earlier, this trip I was lucky enough to see not one, but TWO adult leatherbacks! These sea turtles are ocean wanderers and are not frequently seen. In addition to being rarely sighted, they happen to be my favorite species of sea turtle and I had only seen their hatchlings in the past, so getting to see adults made my entire week. We had a few different pods of dolphins that followed us, which always leaves me feeling like an excited and over-enthusiastic little kid again. This trip we also had dozens if not over a hundred dragonflies surrounding the boat for probably 15 minutes. Since returning to wifi we learned that there are dragonflies that migrate across oceans.
No I didn't get a picture fo the Leatherback...but this is me right after I saw it!
Another part of offshore sailing that always sticks with me long after I’ve left the ship is the raw power of nature while out there. Weather is incredible. It’s remarkable how quickly the sky can go from crystal clear to an imposing wall of gray clouds that represents a squall. Lightning takes on scary significance when your 50 foot mast is the tallest thing in the water and you are at least 10 hours of motoring from shore. Additionally, sailing offshore fosters an incredible respect for the wind, especially when it’s blowing in your favor. In my daily life, I’m not usually very concerned about what direction the wind is blowing from, but when the wind is aiding you in returning to shore hours sooner (and potentially hours sooner to sleeping all the way through the night), it is devastating when the wind drops or shifts on you.
I think that for me the coolest part of offshore sailing is the reconnection to nature I feel. Unplugging from the world and taking a deep breath while watching the sunset or a moonrise is infrequent in my suburban, post-Covid life, and in the absurdly light-polluted and fog-covered community I call home it’s remarkably difficult to see the stars at night. And while camping has been the closest I’ve found to the same peacefulness I find while out on the water, there’s nothing quite like taking a deep breath with the knowledge that you are one of the only 2 people for dozens of miles in any direction surrounded by the world’s ocean.
Nothing beats a sunset offshore.
A big part of starting This Blog is Trash was to show people what my favorite parts of being a marine biologist were – a big piece of which is spending time on the water, starting with my time offshore with The Ocean Cleanup on the Maersk Launcher. The majority of time I’ve spent on the water on boats has been day sails and whale watching trips, but since grad school, I’ve had a few opportunities to spend days on end on boats out in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Sea of Cortez on power boats and sailboats. While powerboats are fun and a great way to get around, sailing has captured my imagination since I was a little girl, and it’s been impossible for me to turn down any opportunities to go sailing.
I love sailing... a lot... here's me at the helm!
Due to the Covid pandemic, my dream job of sailing and teaching about marine conservation up in Seattle was responsibly and understandably put on an indefinite hold. This put a rather large and sailboat shaped hole in my heart, so when my friend asked if I wanted to help him sail his sailboat from Miami to Annapolis this summer, I said yes before I’d even processed what the question was.
As an idea, sailing is the best – time out on the water for days on end, moving under the power of Mother Nature and nothing but ocean all around? Let’s GO! The reality of sailing is a little more complex - working with the wind means that we are at the mercy of the elements which are not known for bending to our plans. In addition, in order to go sailing on a long trip like the one we find ourselves on, there are a number of checks and work that needs to be done before you can even leave. Before setting sail from Miami we had to go digging around in the engine and check all the different fluids – coolant and oil and transmission, oh my! I can’t say that up until this point in my life I’ve spent a whole lot of my time thinking about how engines function but as the only other member of this trip, you can BET I now know which parts of this one particular engine are which (okay so maybe I only know where the transmission and cooling chamber is just by looking at it BUT THAT’S A BIG STEP FOR ME).
After making sure that everything was functional/full/running, the next step is to prep your living space for life on an angle. This is something that I always forget about – when under sail, your world goes from flat like the ground in most of the rest of your life (short of like stairs and I guess hiking) to a few degrees heeled over to one side. Add in some fun wave action and suddenly you find yourself on a rollercoaster where your living space is constantly shifting and tipping. How do you prep for a world of constant tipping? For one you pack EVERYTHING up – anything taller than a coffee mug (and even that sometimes) is liable to fall over in the shifting seas on S/V Kismet. What’s nifty about a sailboat that’s designed to go around the world is they have PREPPED the boat for the constant change – the stove rocks back and forth sort of like a gyroscope so we can make coffee while underway – WHICH IS SO COOL! Additionally, there are SO MANY PLACES to hold onto while inside – it’s unexpected when you’re not moving, but while moving it is SO IMPORTANT to have places to hold on because otherwise you go flying across the cabin in big waves (yes, I am speaking from experience).
Under sail on the Atlantic, somewhere off south Florida
The first couple days of sailing were idyllic – we had just enough wind to push us at a whopping 6.5 knots (or nautical miles per hour) to travel all the way to Stuart, Florida before Hurricane Isaias came creeping up the Caribbean and Southeastern Coast of Florida. In general, wind is a good thing for a sailboat, to an extent. Hurricanes can cause all kinds of damage from the possibility of pulling us off our anchor to whipping out the sails and causing a lot of damage to them.
With Isais chasing us faster than initially predicted, we had to stop to prep the boat. Seeing as this was my first hurricane dealing with a boat, I was a little nervous but we did everything we could to keep ourselves and Kismet as safe as possible. Prep for this storm involved finding an anchorage in a mangrove estuary in Stuart, Florida. Mangroves provide a number of helpful ecosystem services, but are especially effective as windbreaks - which served us immensely well. For other prep, we put out two anchors 45 degrees apart and battened down the hatches (!!! fun nautical terms that finally apply!) while we waited on the storm. Battening down the hatches may be a bit of an exaggeration, but we did put vaseline on all the of the hatches, which helps them keep a good seal in the rain, took down the shade structure on the back of the boat called a “bimini”, and putting extra zip ties on the solar panels to keep them down.
Luckily, Isaias was kind to us – the storm was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm before it made landfall near us, and during a lull in the winds, we were even able to move anchorages and find a new spot to hang out and wait for the seas to calm down before a short offshore hop to South Carolina.
Though we’re still in the first week of our journey, I find it so crazy that this is a lifestyle that lots of people lead – the cruising life is sorta like long term tent camping – your entire existence revolves around the sun, rain, tides, and wind. It’s so cool to tune back in with nature and check out from electronics for a little bit - a win-win! Plus I’ve been getting to see some of my favorites in the ocean – dolphins and flying fish galore and hopefully will be seeing lots and lots of stars when we go offshore.
The sunsets have been pretty killer this trip
Unbeknownst to me until very recently, July 14th was Shark and Ray Awareness Day! In honor of these amazing elasmobranchs, I have decided to write a little about this cool group of cartilaginous fishes! Around the time of Shark and Ray Awareness Day, I decided that it would be as good a time as any to reach out to my friend Elana Rusnak, a shark biologist who started her master’s research on sharks at the same time I started my own research on Fish Aggregating Devices at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in 2017. Although we focused on different research topics, we’ve had a great few years talking about everything from the ocean to our shared love of punk rock music to the joys of rollerblading! It was really exciting to talk to her about her work for the purpose of sharing information about some of the coolest fishes swimming!
Shark photos by Stephen Trbovich.
Because of movies like Jaws and The Shallows, sharks and their brethren get a bad reputation, so I brought in Elana to talk to This Blog Is Trash a little about sharks and how she got to work with them for her career!
Shark Facts with Elana:
Elana and me at the Wetlab in our matching Great White Shark Socks.
To start: sharks and rays are cartilaginous fish belonging to the scientific group Chondrichthyes, which means that instead of ossified (or calcium-rich) bones like you and I have, they have bone structure made of cartilage (which we have in our ears and noses!!!). There is incredible shark and ray diversity in the oceans – they’ve been around for 450 million years – which makes them older than TREES!!
Elana’s favorite shark is the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) - in part because they’re just so darn cute and because they’re low key SO COOL. When most people think of nurse sharks, they think of them laying on the bottom of the ocean, which Elana admitted is essentially what they do, but she also says that they’re practically indestructible. They’re really tough and just hang out on the seafloor essentially straight vibing.
Nurse shark photo by Matthew Bernanke.
While we were talking, Elana also shared with me some amazing fun facts about my favorite shark, which is of course, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which is THE BIGGEST FISH IN THE OCEAN, growing up to 18 and 19 meters long or about 60 feet long!!! They can sustain this because they eat KRILL which are very small animals that live at the surface! Whale sharks are usually nocturnal and often feed vertically with lots of tiny teeth that point in towards their throat to trap their prey. Each whale shark pattern is unique to each individual - just like zebra stripes! In addition to being uniquely identifiable, they live for a really long time too!
Here's a picture of me with my favorite shark...in Animal Crossing New Horizons on my Switch.
When asked what were some common misconceptions about sharks, she responded: “I think sharks are kind of portrayed as mindless killers when really they’re mindful killers.” After a small chuckle, she explained what she meant - sharks are smart and they’re curious, and the only tool they really have to explore the world is with their mouths, so that’s what they use. Sharks aren’t killers, they’re predators in their natural environment, and when it comes to eating, sharks are like us - they have taste buds and preferred foods, some like octopuses (like catsharks), and others like seals and sea lions (like great whites). Elana wants to remind everyone that sharks don’t infest waters - they live there! As a reminder to beach and ocean goers, Elana wanted to reinforce that “sharks should not be feared but they should be respected.”
Elana also wanted to dispel a common misconception that sharks can smell a drop of blood a mile away. She says that while this misconconception is based in fact, it has to do more with the fact that the strongest sense a shark has is chemoreception, which is similar to the way we use our noses to smell. In order for the sharks to pick up on smell it has to reach them, usually via dispersal due to water movement. Something that is really nifty about their sense of smell is that they can smell in stereo! We humans hear in stereo - for example if you were to close your eyes and someone were to snap their fingers, you would know which direction it was coming from - and sharks can do that with SMELL!!! How cool is that? Sharks have an incredibly keen sense of smell and can pick up on extremely low chemical concentrations - somewhere between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 1,000,000 depending on species. This is the reason people say they can smell a drop of blood a mile away - it’s not instantaneous, but in a large volume of water they would be able to pick up on very few molecules of that smell reaching them and would be able to track it to the source using their stereo olfaction. And while this could be a potentially scary factoid, science has found that sharks aren’t really all that attracted to human blood, they respond more to blood from fish and crustaceans - their normal prey.
Sharks have social hierarchies and behaviors - in the shark world, if you’re bigger that means you’re the boss. They are usually sexually dimorphic (meaning that males and females look different) and in general, mature female sharks are larger. That said, there are over 500 species of shark, and most of them are small! The smallest shark is the dwarf lanternshark (Etmopterus perryi) which is only 6 inches long when fully grown!
So now that we all agree that sharks are excellent - what is going on with them in the oceans?
According to Elana (and my own field of fisheries science), sharks are being overfished, so they are well below their natural levels in the ecosystem, but thanks to increasing knowledge and education, some shark populations are on the rise! This is a good thing for our oceans because we need sharks as an important part of the balance in the ecosystem as mid- and high-level predators. What are sharks fished for - is it fear alone? No we actually harvest sharks for their meat, their fins, and their oily livers (which they use for buoyancy instead of an air-filled swim bladder found in other fish). The oil from their liver is called squalene and is used in lots of different products including cosmetics, however the use of squalene is contributing to overharvesting.
In order to help sharks, Elana recommends education: learning about the relationship they have with the environment, and the relationship you can and should have with them. In order to help prevent further overfishing of sharks for their squalene oil, Elana recommends shopping vegan and/or avoiding products with squalene in them.
So who is Elana Rusnak, and how did she get to be a shark expert?
Elana grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Windy City, Chicago and found her way to marine science in a similar way to me – she grew up going to the beach and absolutely fell in love. Having spent time at the Shedd Aquarium (which does BOSS research btw), Elana also spent time on the Jersey Shore with her grandparents.
When asked how she found her way to the marine science path, Elana responded with a common theme that I’ve encountered from fellow marine scientists: “I had never really decided what I wanted to do – we all know how broad Marine Biology is.” A huge part of the separation that I feel scientists have from the average non-scientist is the ultra sterile image that scientists are presented as in the media, and I think it’s important to show the world that we are normal(ish) just like everyone else and above that, we just love our jobs and our research. So how does one go from loving the ocean and going to the aquarium to a full-fledged scientist? In Elana’s case, she went on high school trips with Broadreach and Odyssey Expeditions in the Caribbean and absolutely fell in love with sharks. From there it was all about getting into a shark research lab in college which led her directly to the University of Miami.
Shark research is pretty tough to get into however. Elana spent every semester for her first five semesters at UM trying to get a position in the RSMAS Shark Research and Conservation Program, finally achieving her goal during her junior year of college. Upon graduating from the University of Miami, Elana applied to be a master’s student in the SRC and was not initially accepted, as the position was for shark movement ecology, which she later realized would not have been a good fit for her (silver linings!). She instead found herself being offered a spot in a master’s program on shark eco-immunology, and jumped at the opportunity.
The first thing Elana wants you to know about her research is that “shark immunology is dope!” Sharks have incredibly robust immune systems that contribute greatly to their overall health – just like people! For the basics of immunology there are two systems we need to consider: the innate and adaptive immune systems. Innate immunity is a nonspecific response that fights pathogens and adaptive immunity is the part of our immune system that learns what pathogens look like and is able to mount an immune response more quickly and efficiently the second time a pathogen is encountered - this is why vaccines work!
Sharks are the most ancient animal that have an innate and adaptive immune system comparable to mammals - as such sharks have been used as immune models for humans! The reason Elana is so excited about shark immunology is because our scientific knowledge of the shark immune system is relatively limited.
Let’s dive into Elana’s research!
Elana taking a blood sample on a nurse shark (photo courtesy of Elana Rusnak).
Elana’s research was separated into two parts. The first part of her research was studying a specific protein - C-reactive Protein or CRP - that has a naturally low baseline (meaning that there are relatively low concentrations of the protein in an mammal’s blood normally) which skyrockets during an infection and drops back off once the infection has run its course. Cool, right?! Elana spent 2 years looking for the CRP gene in nurse shark liver tissue RNA and DNA. For this part of her project all she could conclude was that CRP is present in the nurse shark genome but was not able to conclude that it acts in the same way during an inflammatory response in sharks as it does in mammals. Elana said of her work on CRP: “It took me 2 years to get the CRP result and 99% failure - that’s a really important part of science. Trying something and failing.”
The second part of Elana’s research was looking at transcriptomes, which detail the active cellular and protein processes occurring in that part of the body at the time of sampling. For this project, she had the novel opportunity to look at a sick and healthy nurse shark’s liver transcriptome to compare the two. In order to compare them, she built the transcriptome and looked at the differences in gene expression between the two sharks. In order to understand what was happening in these different sharks, Elana used gene matches from genetic databases (which are apparently out there like little libraries for genomes!!!) and found that the genes and proteins from the complement pathways were really active, which shows that the complement pathway is a fundamental part of the shark immune system! The complement system is a part of innate immunity that functions to clear infection in the host by boring a hole into the pathogen’s cell wall, causing it to burst open and die. Conveniently, this is Elana’s favorite part of the immune system, and she’s really looking forward to learning more about this process in sharks!
Elana’s research has contributed to a greater understanding of the role different genes play in shark immunity, and she hopes to pursue a PhD learning more about shark or other fish eco-immunology.
You can see Elana giving a lecture about obscure sharks as part of an online series with Broadreach here.
Connect with Elana on Instagram: @elasmo_elana
or Linked in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elana-rusnak-marine-bio/
Elana Rusnak recently completed her MSc degree in Marine Biology and Ecology at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. She worked both as an undergraduate and a graduate researcher in the Shark Research and Conservation (SRC) program for 4.5 years. Her work focused on the immunobiology of the nurse shark (her favorite!). She was able to isolate some potentially important immune genes for the first time, and learned more about what an immune response looks like in a sick shark's liver! She hopes to continue on and get a PhD in the field of Eco-immunology, where the immune function of an organism, like a shark or a bony fish, is related to how it interacts with its natural environment (ecology). Elana loves to teach and would like to become a university professor after she completes her doctorate.
During the Covid-19 Lockdown in California, I joined a Climate Change Book Club. This experience has been both exciting and more than a bit surreal as I read about one impending global crisis, while living the shocking reality of an entirely different global crisis. The club is made up of some of my peers and friends in marine science careers as well as two friends in other biology doctoral programs. This group brings super interesting perspectives to the problem of climate change because we all have different backgrounds (even those of us in marine science focus on different topics, and it’s been super interesting to try and take the additional time offered by not having ANY commute (or a whole slew of other time consuming activities) to dedicate to a topic I care rather desperately about.
We are reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Captialism vs. the Climate. The book is about how Climate Change and Capitalism are fundamentally at odds with one another, and how despite the fact that we’ve known about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change for decades (Plantico and Karl, 1990), the interests of free trade and the economy have always come ahead of the needs of our fragile environment.
I went on a (socially distant) walk with a close friend during the first week of being a part of my climate change book club and we were talking about the implications of climate change to our generation – catastrophic changes to our climate that cannot be predicted exactly but what we do know is that we can expect increased intensity of storm events like hurricanes, enormous rain storms and flooding, as well as hotter and drier droughts. My friend looked at me and said she didn’t know how I did it – working with climate change as a biologist, how to not get depressed in the face of all of these uncertainties, in addition to the knowledge that there is an alarming number of people denying that these changes are occurring in the first place.
To be honest, I don’t know how or why we are able to keep our heads up, but every other scientist I know working in the field of marine or atmospheric science has something they hold on to in the face of climate change – be it coming up with resilient solutions for communities using natural barriers, or researching the aspects of a creature’s biology which allow survival in changing environmental conditions.
So why start a book on climate change in the midst of a global pandemic?
Well to be honest, I had been meaning to get around to books about the climate and more “serious” books than the escapism fiction books I normally read, but realistically it took my friend reaching out to me and asking if I was interested in joining the book club before I could actually commit to the task that is reading about how badly we’ve messed up our wonderful planet. I’ve struggled throughout my academic career to look at extinctions caused by humanity as a whole because it’s such an emotional topic for me but at this point climate change is coming, and I’d rather be informed about all the steps we took to get here so at the very least I can be a little more prepared.
This topic is inherently uncomfortable. It’s close to home because it quite literally is going to affect our home and the world at large in ways we can’t know until it happens. And that’s scary. Now what’s fascinating about reading this book has been the reaffirming of the beliefs that I’ve held for quite some time about the uncertainty we face due to climate change. Now as a young overly progressive ridiculously loud environmentalist, I’ve been told for YEARS that I’m overreacting or that “it’ll work itself out”.
Klein’s book has highlighted a lot of the changes that we can expect to see in the face of climate change, especially given that we’ve been operating business as usual in terms of our emissions for the past 30 years in spite of scientific evidence clearly stating that increased emissions WILL impact our climate in ways that will become additive and unpredictable. And although this knowledge isn’t comforting, it is refreshing to hear about climate change in direct terms rather than the wishy-washy watered-down nonsense that has been such a large part of the political discourse since I was old enough to listen to what politicians were saying.
Yeah. I’ve been hesitant to talk about the current Covid lockdown/social distancing/whatever exactly is happening because it’s equally uncomfortable for me to talk about. But one day on a walk down to the beach near me, I set up a towel on the grass about 100 feet from the closest person and laid down to read the introduction of This Changes Everything. It was a Thursday afternoon, and you wouldn’t know that it wasn’t the middle of summer for how many people were at the beach. In fact, you’d have no idea that there was a disease ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in our country because there were very few people wearing masks or practicing social distancing at the beach park. I don’t claim to know the circumstances of every group of people hanging out in the park, but it felt out of sync with the events transpiring from Covid.
While I was sitting at the beach, reading the beginning of this book I was met with this quote about climate change in the introductory chapter: “Faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it.” As I read this chapter, a large family moved a whole picnic’s worth of stuff onto a table nearby and started blasting music. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t think twice about a family having a picnic in such a wonderful location but I live in a place where people are adamantly ignore the CDC recommendation of wearing masks in public places, and seeing everyone behaving like it’s just an extended break and there aren’t people on ventilators in our hospital just up Pacific Coast Highway feels icky. And putting some learning about the impending climate crisis was just a little too much for this young scientist.
There is a silver lining somewhere here, I just know it.
A recent paper in Nature found that the shut-downs caused by the pandemic have decreased daily global carbon dioxide emissions during the lockdowns by 17% by early April as compared with the average 2019 values (Quere et al., 2020). While cool, without significant changes to how we as a planet, as a country, as a society decide to return to “normal”, the drop in emissions may be just a small blip in the increasing trend of climate emissions over the past few decades.
Quere, C., Jackson, R., Jones, M., Smith, A., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R., De-Gol, A., Willis, D., Shan, Y., Canadell, J., Friedlingstein, P., Creutzig, F., and G. Peters (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change.
Plantico, ,M. and T. Karl (1990). Is recent climate change across the United States related to rising levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases? Journal of Geophysical Research. 95(D10): 16,617 – 16,637.
Science is a funny hobby. Sometimes you get to go out to sea for months on end for your work. Sometimes you spend hours in front of your computer staring at a blank Word document wondering how exactly you should write the results of your study. And sometimes we get to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and put on your blazer and pj pants to give a presentation at an international meeting on the research you’ve spent 6 months working on. You know – that casual first scientific paper presentation vibe you know?
Socially distant science presentation
How did I get here? Great question!
Back in October of 2019, I was wondering what I should do with my life – I had defended my master’s thesis, finished my seasonal job at the Miami-Dade County Sea Turtle Program, and was mostly done with writing my thesis manuscript. And I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do: with my time, with my life, with my career. Those pre-graduation jitters are REAL. So I started casting around trying to make connections and put in my due diligence towards finding what I wanted to do.
Looking around South Florida for work in the field of fisheries science is a surprisingly small pool to draw from. I was watching the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center job board like a hawk, but in the meantime I was trying to find a way to get my footing in the field. I found The Billfish Foundation through a really cool Miami-based company called Waterlust that makes super cool water apparel AND donates 10% of their profits to different organizations working to help environmental conservation.
ANYWAY The Billfish Foundation is a non-profit with a mission of conserving billfish worldwide through research, education, and advocacy. For those who don’t know, the grouping “billfish” includes sailfish, marlin, and swordfish – the pelagic fish with big noses, um I mean rostra. These big pelagics are super cool fish with enormous migrations that can be thousands of miles long. According to this article in Marlin Magazine a study found that one blue marlin had traveled over four thousand miles in 120 days! That’s SO MUCH SWIMMING! I love pelagic (open ocean) species because they have cool life histories and are just the epitome of world travelers. These wanderers span ocean basins in search of food and breeding grounds WHICH IS SO NEAT.
But I digress from the topic at hand…
Having a love of big pelagics and a strong background in fisheries science, The Billfish Foundation seemed like the perfect place to start my science career after receiving my Masters. I was pleased to begin the Wintrhop P. Rockefeller Fellowship at the Billfish Foundation in October of 2019. For this fellowship, I was tasked with writing a paper, and in order to explain the topic of my paper/project we’re going to dive into a brief lesson on fisheries management.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) is an intergovernmental organization that manages tuna and tuna-like species (including billfish!!!) in the Atlantic Ocean. There are other organizations that manage highly migratory species in other parts of the ocean, but since I went to school in Miami, which is on the Atlantic, we are gonna focus on ICCAT. Because big pelagic species like tuna and billfish wander the oceans, it is most effective to manage them jointly by the countries that fish for those species. ICCAT was established in 1966 and has been managing highly migratory species ever since!
SO ICCAT has lots of meetings where they assess the status of the various highly migratory species that they are responsible for managing. My introduction to the ICCAT was at the 2018 Blue Marlin Stock Assessment as a member of the U.S. delegation where we learned about and discussed the management of – you guessed it – blue marlin! I also had the privilege of participating in the 2019 White Marlin Stock Assessment. The way we assess fisheries is through complex mathematical equations. The standard way we measure “stocks,” or the amount of fish in that population, is something called Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE). Looking at trends of CPUE over time can indicate how well or poorly a stock of fish is doing in the ocean, since it’s incredibly difficult to physically count every single fish that is out there.
What does this have to do with my project? Everything!
The models that we used in both the 2018 Blue Marlin and 2019 White Marlin Stock Assessments assumed that for recreational catch (tournament fishing and charter trips) it is as easy in 2020 to catch a billfish as it was in the 1970s. Both anglers (fishermen) and scientists have expressed concerns that this is not the case, and we should be changing our models to reflect these concerns – which is where my project comes in! For my paper, I conducted a literature review and 8 personal interviews with anglers and fisheries managers to determine what pieces of technology and fishing gear have made it easier to catch marlin over the last 46 years.
After 6 months of working on the paper, I finally had the opportunity to present our results to the ICCAT meeting for the Working Group on Stock Assessment Methods on May 7. This was an incredible opportunity because I presented to scientists from all around the world who work on all sorts of highly migratory species. However, the meeting started at 12:00 in Madrid which is where ICCAT headquarters are located. For those keeping track, 3:00am PST is noon in Madrid so I got to wake up and dress up for a presentation to almost 50 other scientists!
I was talking about the presentation to a friend of mine and had made a joke about playing at being a real grown-up scientist and he laughed and fired back that it couldn’t exactly be considered “playing at being a scientist” when I was presenting my own research at an international meeting. It didn’t really feel super “real” presenting my results over a Microsoft Teams meeting, but when we got through the end of my presentation and I got to answer questions about the project, it hit me that after almost 7 years since graduating high school with the goal of becoming a marine biologist – I’ve done it!
I guess I’m a “real” scientist now. And I’m so excited to see where this career takes me.
The Connection Between Single Use Plastics, My Paddleboarding Weekend Adventure, and the 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference
This weekend I went paddleboarding – a sport and workout which is both immensely peaceful (for me at least) and able to be done while social distancing. Really a big win in my book because let’s be real, I have been LUSTING for some time outside of my backyard/neighborhood/solid land in general.
While out on the water I had some time to actually breathe and think with clarity that I haven’t really experienced in these odd socially distant times, and while sitting on the Pacific I had some time to process what happened this week. For my job up in Washington I am going to be the Lead Educator for Deep Green Wilderness where I will be teaching middle- and high-school students about ocean conservation and sailing on a ship called Orion.
A really exciting part of my new job was attending a conference on the Salish Sea Ecosystem. For those who are like me and didn’t grow up in northern Washington or BC Canada, the Salish Sea is the ecosystem which encompasses the Puget Sound, Straits of Juan de Fuca, Straits of Georgia, the San Juan Islands AND the watershed that feeds into these bodies of water.
Map of the Salish Sea & Surrounding Basin, Stefan Freelan, WWU, 2009
The 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference was held online and took place over 2 days that were filled with Zoom sessions and SO MUCH LEARNING for me! I went to sessions about contaminants in the ecosystem and learned about where large sources of toxins come from in the environment – I went to another session on microplastics in the Salish sea ecosystem which reinforced a lot of the themes I took away from my Master’s thesis, and I got to learn about kelp and the environmental stressors they have been facing over the past decade.
What stuck the most for me about this conference was the microplastics talk. Now I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to plastics I am fascinated scientifically and disgusted as a citizen of Earth, but I really am interested in learning more about the fate of much of the debris that we are polluting our oceans with.
So that I don’t immediately lose all my non-trash scientist readers, microplastics are generally defined as plastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Typically, microplastics do not get to the ocean in such a small size (though some like nurdles do). Instead microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics – things like bags, bottles, synthetic fibers – take your pick.
Microplastics on Long Island, Bahamas. Photo by Grant Bemis.
But Bree, what causes macroplastics to break down, and why are microplastics so bad?
WELL dear reader, I’m glad you asked! Macroplastics undergo what’s called photodegradation, which causes them to go from being recognizable – like the plastics I found while paddleboarding this weekend – to microscopically small. Now not only do microplastic particles remain a marine pollutant, they also act as tiny toxin sponges, absorbing toxins from the water column like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (Andrady, 2011; Bakir et al., 2014).
This whole microplastic/toxin sponge situation wouldn’t be all that bad if it didn’t do anything after it became a toxin sponge, but microplastics are pretty much everywhere. Plankton, corals, and other invertebrates (like mussels and clams) are all ingesting microplastics (Desforges et al., 2015; Hall et al., 2015; Shim and Thomposon, 2015; Lusher et al., 2017). These microplastics carry toxins which get carried up the food chain into higher trophic levels throughout marine ecosystems. These higher trophic level organisms, including seabirds as well as fish and crustaceans, can also ingest mircoplastics directly (Cole et al., 2016; Lusher et al., 2017). Basically they’re just the worst. And it’s not just in the oceans: people like you and me are ingesting microplastics from a wide variety of sources including our DRINKING WATER (Barboza et al., 2018)!
So what you’re saying is microplastics are the worst and they’re everywhere?! Why are you writing this blog Bree?
That’s true! Microplastics are pretty ubiquitous, AND there has been some really interesting research done to show just how pervasive the problem is! Take for example experiments like the one the Seattle Aquarium is conducting looking at the amount of microplastics and microfibers in the waters of Puget Sound, or the research done by NOAA employee Kim Parsons and master’s student Jenna Harlacher at the University of Washington studying microplastics in orca poop!
Although the issue of microplastics is one that scales from some of the smallest particles in the water column all the way up to the top predators in the Salish Sea, the microplastic problem is one that spans all seas – I couldn’t escape it in a short paddle in my local harbor, and I can’t escape it even when I’ve been out to sea for days on end. As inescapable as plastics are in the marine environment, I believe that talking about them can bring about a positive change too. I was talking to a colleague about marine debris and my master’s thesis and we got onto the topic of picking up trash when he goes to the beach and it made me smile. Sometimes being an environmentalist and conservationist makes it seem like it’s me versus the whole world, but in talking to people and attending conferences like the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference I get to remember that there are so many people out there trying to help the planet, and it gets a little less lonely.
In light of COVID-19 and the quarantine and the huge move across the county and and and I’ve been struggling to get the creative juices flowing to write something for this blog. Even though there’s a voice in the back of my head yelling about how now is the time to write because for the first time potentially ever since this blog was started, people have time. And it may be egotistical to think people would spend their time reading my blog with their newfound time BUT WE’RE HERE AND WE’RE WRITING SO HERE WE GO!
I did a very (un)scientific survey of blog reader (yes I did mean for that to be singular), and 100% of blog reader requested a manatee blog post (shoutout to Katherine thanks girl) – so here are some of the things I find coolest about the manatee.
1) Sailors mistook manatees for mermaids back in the day. A wild and weird idea in our times but come on. These gentle giants more closely resemble floating rocks than Ariel and her sisters, but I mean to each their own I guess? Now I picked up this incredible tidbit from a book called Manatees for Kids – a book about an almost 11 year old girl who goes to Florida to see manatees. Guess who was ALSO almost 11 when she visited Florida to see manatees for the first time! It was me!
Definite mermaids spotted in Virgina Key's best lagoon.
I guess this is as good a time as any to address this problem: if any of you readers ever had any questions about why I became a marine biologist the answer lies somewhere in hearing bedtime stories about dolphin’s first day and sea lions roar and an oceans A to Z book rather than I guess normal bedtime stories? I never had a chance.
2) Manatees are herbivores – they’re vegetarians! Like me! I love that we share a love of green things. Are manatees aware that we have similar dietary preferences? Absolutely not. Does it change the sense of camaraderie I feel for this species? OF COURSE NOT.
3) Manatees have 3 toenails on their front flippers. One of their close living relatives is the ELEPHANT! Elephants share these 3 toenails, and as my coworker pointed out in response to this photo…
Look at those toenails AND biologically accurate lettuce!
…though elephants are cousins of manatees, their closest living relative is the Hyrax – a mammal found in Africa (if you think this blog is really just an excuse to put my most embarrassing photos on my blog…you’d be absolutely correct).
4) Manatees are HUGE. And by huge I mean 800 – 1200 pounds and up to 10 feet long, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And I guess that there are a lot of big animals in the ocean, but the scale of swimming with a manatee is hilarious. Like definitely the biggest animal I’ve been in the water with so far and even though they move slowly there’s such a presence associated with them. 100% was very nervous the first time I swam with them even despite knowing that manatee attacks are VERY VERY rare ;p
5) Manatees have their nipples in their armpits! So when the calves nurse they swim up to mom’s flipper and nurse from there (as pictured here!!!)
Manatee calf nursing in Crystal River, FL
6) Mother and baby manatees communicate through chirps – and you can hear the babies communicating with their moms if you’re lucky enough to be in the water with a pair of them! It’s so cool!
7) Manatees migrate between fresh and salt water! It’s super weird to me because I learned about them as a species that lived in the rivers of Florida, but you can see manatees right off the beach at my grad school – and that was the very place I saw my first manatee while living in Florida. I screamed so loud everyone in the restaurant stopped to stare at me…I really like them, okay?
Manatees cruising through a saltwater lagoon
8) They have MANATEE LICENSE PLATES IN FLORIDA (this may be a cool point in Florida’s corner over the manatee BUT STILL!!!) And the money generated from the purchasing of these plates goes directly to manatee conservation!
9) Manatees have gone from “Endangered” to merely “Threatened” on the Endangered Species List because of conservation measures and population recovery! This change in status happened in 2017, but the manatee is on the rise. This of course continues protection for the species but in case you were worried, manatees are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Lots of love for these grey nuggets <3
10) Manatees don’t like cold water. In fact, they cannot survive in water colder than 68°F (I mean honestly same) BUT they have a pretty wide range in U.S. coastal waters venturing into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Southeast Coast. HOWEVER in 2006 one adventurous (or potentially lost?) manatee was spotted in New York City in the Hudson River! Talk about an epic manatee spotting!
So anyway. Was this post just an excuse to post a bunch of pictures of my favorite animal? Yes. Did I relish the fact that I could also post embarrassing pictures of me in my manatee onesie? Absolutely. But I also hope I have given you at least one reason to smile or shake your head about how excellent these ecologically irrelevant* floating potatoes are. They are the best animal on earth, contrary to my high school marine ecology teacher’s loving moniker for them of “ocean speed bumps”, these peaceful lil dudes are straight up chilling.
Turning 25 with the best animals on Earth!
*A note for curious readers. Why did I call my favorite animal ecologically irrelevant? WELL BOY OH BOY DID YOU COME TO THE RIGHT BLOG. Basically manatees were really just out here minding their own business for a few million years munching on sea grass, making sure the sea grass was in check and BOOM humans come in practically out of nowhere and have the audacity to take over the manatee’s role in the ecosystem AND cause crazy high rates of mortality for manatees leading them to drop precipitously in population numbers. For those paying attention, this crazy drop in manatee population numbers led to the West Indian Manatee to being listed on the Endangered Species List in the first place.
In honor of the state I just moved out of, I thought I'd share some about one of the most ridiculous laws in effect in the State of Florida: the Plastic Preemption.
The State of Florida has a preemption that prevents local governments from passing laws to regulate polystyrene products including plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, and plastic drinking straws to list a few. Florida’s economy is largely driven by tourism, much of which is ecotourism for our coral reefs, beautiful beaches, and amazing fishing grounds. As someone who has spent the last 2.5 years of her life learning about plastic and its awful impacts on the environment, I have a few opinions on why this bafflingly backwards piece of legislation is a really really dumb law.
Plastic pollution is a problem that has been documented to affect not just beach aesthetics but has environmental impacts on resident marine life and can threaten human health. The effects on marine life include engtanglement of marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as fish, birds, mammals, and over 800 species of marine animals that consume plastics in their environment. Even if you can push empathy for marine organisms out of your mind, WE ARE DRINKING MICROPLASTICS IN OUR DRINKING WATER!
For coastal cities like Miami, the plastic pollution problem is not some abstract environmental problem, but rather is something that we see when visiting the beaches in front of our homes and parks. Some concerned citizens might argue that cities should have the right to pass legislation that would protect their environment, but the Florida’s preemption has not only deterred, but actually fully prevented cities from doing exactly that.
Florida Statute section 500 Section 90 has proved a looming threat to cities like Coral Gables trying to ban plastic containers for takeout in businesses. In 2016, Coral Gables passed a law banning plastic containers and was promptly sued by The Retail Federation on the basis of Florida Statute sections 500.90, 403.708(9), and 403.7033. The court ruled these statutes unconstitutional and decided that the city’s Ordinance was not preempted. Following this ruling, the case was then taken to the Third District Court of Appeals which ruled in August that the preemption superseded the City’s ability to pass this Styrofoam ban. The City of Coral Gables has taken this case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Multiple cities around the state have passed plastic bags bans in the past year including Surfside, Gainesville, and Palm Beach. In response to the Court of Appeals ruling however, all three of these cities overturned their bag bans.
All hope on the plastic problem is not lost however; there are multiple ordinances around Miami-Dade County that were passed prior to Statute section 500.90. The City of Miami Beach has an Ordinance passed in 2014 which banned the use of Styrofoam city-wide. In addition, the voice of the people can act as a powerful call to action for our government. When faced with the environmental crisis of toxic algal blooms in 2018, the state created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, whose job it was to figure out what to do about the environmental crisis. With this precedent, I think there is definitely the hope to reverse this ridiculous assault on the environment.
Will I ever stop putting colons in my titles for blog posts? Probably not. But we’re not here to talk about me. We are here to talk about a personal hero of mine and #nastywoman, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Her name is common one in South Florida, but why do I consider this legendary woman a Nasty Woman? Read on and see what this COOL LADY accomplished in her 108-year life.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1890, Marjory grew up in the Northeast U.S. and received her degree in English from Wellesley College in 1912! What a cool lady! What were women doing in 1912? MOST OF THEM WERE MOST CERTAINLY NOT GRADUATING COLLEGE – ESPECIALLY with a degree in English.
Marjory left the Northeast, and her garbage brief marriage to a con artist, to work as a reporter for her father’s newspaper in Miami, you know, the newspaper that casually became The Miami Herald. After serving as a nurse in Europe in World War I, she returned to the Herald to serve as an editor – because why wouldn’t she??? Because she’s the absolute coolest! Did I mention that she was the ONLY woman working at the Herald? No? WILD.
And then in the 1920s, because she had some important things to say, Marjory started her career as an author, writing books and short stories for the rest of her life. Now naturally, she was known for being an environmentalist (which we will talk about later), and has been recorded fighting for Women’s Suffrage, fighting against slum-lords, and for free milk for babies whose parents needed aid.
Douglas is best known for her work titled River of Grass about America’s Everglades. Now as we are all aware, I am a HUGE fan of the Everglades, but Marjory took her passion for this incredible ecosystem to the page and the people. The book begins: “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them…” Not only does she capture the essence of a natural place so perfectly in this opening, she goes on to describe the natural history of the region in a way that transports the reader to the swamp where she invites everyone to see and love the Glades for the natural wonder they are.
In an NPR article about Douglas, one of her old English teachers, Kevin McCarthy stated Marjory “was fearless, it didn’t matter who she was talking to, with engineers, or governors or even presidents. She believed so strongly in preserving the environment that she was very effective.” For her environmental activism and writing, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, when she was 103 for those keeping track of the years, and was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.
Fun fact: Marjory and I love the same Miami parks! Here is one of them (Matheson Hammock) at sunset.
Douglas lived in a cottage she designed in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami from 1926 until she died there in 1998. Do I take inspiration from living in the same place as this incredible woman?! Every freaking day! But she also recreated in the same places I do – in the beautiful Everglades, in Matheson Hammock Park. She loved southern Florida for what it is and was – a beautiful, wonderful swamp. And in case I haven’t proved how motivating and incredible this lady was, I’m going to end this blog post on a quote from this lovely lady and real #nastywoman.
“Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action … Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening efforts of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up. You have to stand up for some things in this world.”
My love affair with alligators is one that is well-documented, but it came from an abject fear of them as a child. Big scary lizard = bad news was about the metric that young Bree had, but since moving to Florida in the Fall of 2017, I have discovered a soft spot for the reptiles that even my college self would have been baffled by. So how do you go from a manatee-loving, marine biologist to loving a freshwater dwelling ambush predator? I think it relates to my love of comics and all things nerdy, and of course, the fact that everyone loves a good redemption story.
My embarassing love affair is documented here (we're making the same face)
Photo credit to my father, without whom this moment would have been lost to memory
Alligators are organisms that are well-associated with Florida (and the South), and have numerous headlines associated with them. My favorites include:
The formidable gator in her natural habitat/also my most frequented National Park in Florida - the Everglades
Alligators are large reptiles found throughout the southeast United States, occupying an important role in the swamp as ambush predators. They can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and grow to more than 12 feet. They have characteristic toothy grins (you can see both top and bottom teeth when their mouths are shut), and nice round snouts. During the winter, they can be found basking in the sun near water bodies – Shark Valley in Everglades National Park is a great place to find these toothy bois. They are cold-blooded reptiles so they spend that time basking warming up through the scales along their backs. They feed on fish, invertebrates, frogs, bids, and mammals.
A resting juvenile gator.
Now personally, I understand the fear of a large dinosaur-looking swamp dragon (or alligator if you insist). However, fear is not what caused the precarious dip in population: instead it was people hunting for alligator hides which drove their populations into a state where they were listed as federally endangered. The hide trade began in earnest in the 1800s, and by the 1950s, this species was severely depleted. Upon federal protection in 1973, alligator populations were able to begin the process of recovery. Alligator farms also aided in wild population recovery as they allowed for decreased pressure on wild populations to meet the commercial demands for alligator hide.
As of today, you can find alligators in most fresh water bodies in Florida (and throughout the South, but my focus is of course where I live), and they are an amazing sight at that. I love a good redemption story as much as the next comic book fan, but I really think that the American Alligator is an unsung hero of the American South.
Happy 2020! Is it almost the end of January? Absolutely! Do I still date things 2019? Definitely! AND IT WON'T STOP! Gotta love that first few months of the year where I don't have a CLUE what's going on, but I figured it would be a good time to stop and take stock of everything. And it is looking like it is going to be a good year! So without further ado, here's some updates to This Blog Is Trash.
First, and foremost, I have some AMAZING new art for the blog, created by my talented little sister Karen Gibbs. You can see more of her art here! Woo supporting new artists! And just look at it! It's SO COOL
Second, I want to post more frequently than once every few months! This goal was inspired by the Everglades Coalition Conference (which I just wrote about a week ago! AND JUST LEARNED I CAN LINK BLOG POSTS TO OTHER BLOG POSTS WOW!!). I had an amazing time, met some amazing people, and was reminded that not everyone knows a scientist, or even what scientists are up to these days! So I've decided to hold myself accountable - both by writing this post AND putting my blog on my business card. A BOLD PLAY BUT HERE WE ARE!
Third, I think I'm going to change up the blog a little bit. I know that all of my adoring fans only want to hear about trash, fish following floaty things, and of course the occasional extra long stint on big boats (ships... I know but some habits die hard), but I have a lot of friends doing incredible work for their research, jobs, and hobbies so I thought maybe I could include interviews of professional non-trash scientists to see where that takes the blog. If you have thoughts, concerns, topics of interest, or just want to say "hey", please feel free to leave me a comment, drop me a line, or maybe send me a message in a bottle! Writing this sort of feels like standing at the top of the Maersk Launcher talking to the ocean because I have no feedback without comments, so feel free to say something (if only to help me out).
Lastly, I'm really excited to start blogging back up and hope I can find a way to encourage people to keep up! Happy 2020!
Early January, I had the pleasure of attending the Everglades Coalition Conference in Captiva Island, a small beautiful place on the Gulf Coast. The conference was filled with a diverse group of people dedicated to the conservation and restoration of what has come to be one of my favorite National Parks. The weekend was filled with invigorating discussions of the challenges the Everglades faces including limited water flow, decreased space (because of pesky people moving onto Everglades land), as well as the all-present problem of pollution. To a newly inspired Everglades advocate, these challenges seem insurmountable, however, without skipping a beat the panelists at the conference presented numerous ways to face each of the listed challenges. The sessions were filled with nods to environmentalism - "Climate Voter" buttons, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax making his appearance on one attendee's shoes - and it was frankly inspiring to be in a room of people not daunted by the local apathy or corporate greed which threatens the very existence of our Park. A Park that I might add that is not only valued in the United States as a region of important value, but has also been listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 2020 Everglades Coalition Conference Scholarship Recipients (photographed by Cara Capp).
I was among a lucky 20 students who were granted a scholarship for participation in the conference by the Everglades Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association. These students were fellow graduate students as well as undergraduates who had a passion for the Everglades and conservation on their mind. Our weekend was filled with panel discussions, breakout sessions, and more networking than you could shake a stick at! From 8:00 in the morning at breakfast until 9:00 in the evening we were learning and listening and trying to keep up with the science, policy, and politics of an enormous Everglades watershed. One inspiring notion that I know I and a number of the other scholarship recipients was spoken by Dr. Melissa Abdo of the NPCA; "we have hope instead of dwelling on doom and gloom."
Another wonderful feature of the Conference was something organizers did not take advantage of (in my opinion): the Full Moon. Walking down the beaches of Captiva Island with nothing but the moon shining bright enough to cast a shadow while discussing all of the things we learned was one of those nights that I think I will carry with me for a long time coming - along with all of the friendships that were solidified in the nights after the lectures had stopped with boisterous conversation ringing out into the chilly nights.
Jumping dolphins in Captiva Sound
The end of the conference was a trip out on Captiva Sound, the water body to the east of the hotel we had been staying in. During the tour we learned about the cultural and natural history of the water body, punctuated with visits by diving cormorants, leaping dolphins, and a single bald eagle staring out at our boat from a sandbar within the sound. Each piece of the trip was a reminder of the importance of protecting beautiful natural areas, and the value of raising your voice. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Everglades Champion and personal hero of mine, once said, "Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public ... Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action ... Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics - but never give up. You have to stand up for some things in the world." Between this incredible woman who fought for what she believed in for her entire life, and the energy at the Everglades Coalition Conference, I have been inspired to continue raising my voice for what I believe in, which in this day and age is the protection and conservation of natural places in the world.
Mangroves in the morning sun
In addition to the conference attendees who have dedicated their careers to the conservation and restoration of the Everglades, I find myself inspired by the amazing women I got to spend time with at the conference. Women who have such passion and drive for the outdoors that they all collectively decided to get up and explore the Ding Darling State Park before our wildlife cruise on the sound, just to get a sense of the place we had been staying in. The crisp morning air and the shared sense of wonder wandering through mangroves brought a hushed chapel like atmosphere rather than the exuberant one expected from a group of twenty-something year-olds. Caroline Lewis of the CLEO Institute looked out at the conference and told us "I'd rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity," and I think these young women are doing just that.
We did it! And by "we", I of course mean Me, Myself, and I. But here we are! The other side of grad school. I received my masters! Bree Gibbs, Master of Science at your service! So what did it take? Let's take a walk back through what's gone down since leaving the Maersk Launcher behind.
Steps to Receiving My Master of Science After October 2018:
Me rocking my best Marine Biology Ms Frizzle dress and getting ready to rock a defense presentation pictured above.
So I guess we understand that Post Grad Joy but where does the existential dread come into it? Let me let you in on a little secret: it's really hard to get a job in today's world. That whole "go knocking on some doors" method really hasn't panned out, and honestly I've been more than a little disappointed to learn that the game in getting a job has more to do with who you know than your qualifications for the job at hand.
That said it hasn't been all bad! I've picked up a couple of jobs working in positions I really didn't expect, and yet love just the same. The main place I've been spending my time has been working for Key News, a local online newspaper where I have had the opportunity to learn about the ins and outs of being a journalist. I even get to write about an article a week and am the self-dubbed "Environmental Contributor" - getting to write about topics that I care about while also improving my computer skills? Dream come true! In addition to exploring the world through a journalist's eyes, I am also proud to announce that I am The Billfish Foundation's Winthrop P. Rockefeller Fellow! This means that I get to continue using my skills as a scientist to work on a project where I am analyzing the changes in technology and gear used to capture billfish since the 1970s! It's a fun project with a lot of moving parts and has been really eye opening in a way that I couldn't get from sitting in a classroom! Both organizations are non-profits, which is pretty cool too! Finally, I'm going to be starting 2020 at YET ANOTHER NON PROFIT and I'm thrilled to announce that I am going to be starting work as the National Parks Conservation Association's first Everglades Restoration Fellow. This position will be involved in advocacy and outreach, which will be an amazing opportunity to give back to one of the most incredible places in South Florida while also learning about the legal side of protecting natural areas. All in all I'm really excited to be moving forward in life but also trying to dampen the existential fear that set in as soon as I realized I needed to find a new "big girl" job to go with my "big girl" degree.
Bree Gibbs, Official Trash Scientist
For now, I live in Miami-Dade County Florida, where sea turtle nesting season (typically) ranges from May 1 to October 31. Why am I writing about it in November? Well this is the first time I've had to catch a break and take a moment to breathe and reflect on the crazy year that's almost over! But beyond the personal stuff - let's talk turtles!
Given that I grew up on the West Coast, I knew next to nothing about sea turtle ecology when I started working. In the 6 months I had the pleasure of working with sea turtles I learned a lot, and so I thought I'd take this time to get up on my soapbox to share some of that knowledge. :)
Here in Miami, we have 3 main species of turtles that nest: Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Green (Chelonia mydas), and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). In addition to the 3 main nesting species, we have 2 additional species that like to hang out in Miami waters - the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempi).
Sea turtles have a pretty cool life cycle, starting their lives as tiny little hatchlings that emerge from the sand at night. These hatchlings crawl towards the ocean where they swim OUT and they swim FAR to spend their young years out in the open ocean. Shockingly, only about 1 in 100 hatchlings that makes it to the ocean survive to adulthood. That statistic is CRAZY - how do we have any turtles today? Especially considering that they were hunted to near extinction not so long ago (sea turtles are currently protected under the Endangered Species List in 1973). But I digress. Once they make it to sexual maturity, the sea turtles move inshore during breeding season to mate. After breeding males will return to their offshore existence - they never come back on land after leaving it as a hatchling! - whereas females will come up on shore to lay their nests. Depending on the species, sea turtles can nest a few times a season (2-5 times), laying between 80 and 120 eggs per nest! These eggs will incubate in the sand and, like other reptiles, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the sand around the nest. Warmer sands make female turtles and cooler sands make male turtles - so we say that we get Hot Chicks and Cool Dudes, a phrase which gave me no end of amusement throughout the season.
So what do you do as a sea turtle nest monitor here?
Well, as I mentioned in my first post on turtles in April, we get up early. An hour before the sunrise we get to work, and begin surveying half an hour before the sunrise so we can see the tracks with the best accuracy (in addition to the perk that there are fewest people on the beach at this time of morning).
Loggerhead sea turtle tracks. Each species has a unique pattern to their track making identifying the turtle easy even though we haven't seen the turtle nesting typically.
When we locate tracks we have to take data on whether the crawl resulted in a nest or not. If it resulted in no nesting attempt, this is called a "false crawl". Mother sea turtles will false crawl for numerous reasons including people or anthropogenic lights disturbing her, her not liking the sand, or other reasons. However, if the crawl results in nesting, we get to mark off the nest to make sure that no one interferes with the incubating eggs.
A loggerhead sea turtle nest. Similar to how each sea turtle species has species-specific tracks, each species that nests in Miami has a specific nest shape!
After the eggs incubate and hatch, the county sea turtle nest monitors get to dig into the nest to take data on the nest itself like how many eggs hatched. Sometimes, we'd get stragglers too - hatchlings that didn't quite make it out of the nest with their brothers and sisters. By far this was my favorite part of working with the sea turtles because these were the only living turtles we got to see while working! When we'd get these stragglers, we'd get to let them rest in a safe and dark environment and let them go at night. The first hatchling release I got to do was probably one of the most magical moments I've experienced to date. And to be entirely honest, I felt a little like Moana in the first scene of the movie where she helps the baby turtle safely to the sea. And I think that's about as close to being a Disney princess as I'm ever going to get so I guess there's really not much more I can look forward to in my career (I'm KIDDING).
A loggerhead hatchling to complete our loggerhead nesting adventure.
A leatherback hatchling because I just think they are the coolest turtles around. Not gonna lie, I love how derpy they look. Leatherbacks spend the vast majority of their lives in the open ocean which is why they have enormous flippers. As babies I think it really just makes them look disproportionate and I LOVE it.
**All photos in this section of the post were taken by me in Miami-Dade County under FWC Permit number 19-017.
Sea turtles still face a lot of threats!
A really large concern that I feel after working in Miami is the problem of artificial lighting. Artificial lighting causes sea turtles (both adult and hatchling) to become disoriented. Artificial lighting leads to the death of thousands hatchlings every year in Florida. Why does this happen? Great question! To begin our story, sea turtles evolved millions of years ago and as a way to get to the water, hatchlings have evolved to emerge from the sand and go towards the brightest horizon. On a secluded beach (or a beach before civilization), the brightest horizon will be the sky and horizon as well as the reflection of the stars on the ocean. This all changes when we throw people and big cities into the equation. If you've ever been outside at night in Miami, you know how BRIGHT the city is - and from the water, you can see the glow of downtown for an alarming distance off the coast. This has deadly implications for our hatchling sea turtles, and can also lead to the disorientation of mother sea turtles as they attempt to nest. All in all, it is a heartbreaking situation with a relatively easy solution. Sea turtles are not disturbed or disoriented by long wavelength light. Specifically, amber lighting is particularly good for sea turtles and allows us humans to be able to see at night without leaving areas unlit. Win win, right? This solution is only kind of effective here in Miami because although we have lighting ordinances, they are poorly enforced, which leads to the disorientation of dozens if not hundreds of hatchlings each year.
Another problem associated with turtles is plastic. Plastic affects not only adults sea turtles, which commonly mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, but also recently hatched turtles, which will eat plastic instead of food particles and die. Another viral video features a scientist removing a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle (it's really graphic so please take this as warning). Obviously the plastic issue is one that is near and dear to my heart, but it is manifesting in these peaceful, incredible creatures that have been on Earth a lot longer than we have. Of course, the solution to this problem is one that has far reaching implications, but the use of plastic bags and straws and products can be mitigated by exercising consumer choice and spending money where you want to see it going - such as to organization working to decrease the amount of plastic in the oceans or by reducing your own plastic footprint. (I'm getting off my soapbox now XD)
Green sea turtles (mostly) contract a disease called Fibropapillomatosis (FP) which manifests in tumors. These tumors can hinder turtles numerous aspects of their life including swimming, feeding, and seeing. This disease can be transferred turtle to turtle through touch, and is commonly transferred through sexual activity. Though these tumors can lead to death, they can also be removed by sea turtle hospitals with the appropriate facilities. :) Yay for there being hope sometimes.
A healthy green sea turtle I spotted snorkeling in Maui!
If you encounter a sea turtle in distress in Florida, please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Injured Animal Hotline at 1-888-404-3922.
I went to a conference in November that reminded me of why I love the scientific community - the passion, the sharing of ideas, and the optimism facing the future. And then life caught up with me - being a student enrolled in classes, trying to finish my thesis in time, financial uncertainty in facing graduation without a job lined up - the normal parts of being a graduate student, I guess. But I started this blog to communicate what science I'm involved in! And that hasn't been happening! So here we go!
No one told me that science would be so much writing. You hear jokes all the time about how scientists do science because they were bad in English and BOY that was incorrect. I have to write all the time - essays for classes, my thesis is basically a short book I'm writing about how and why I did what I did for my thesis, and then if I want to go further into science there's the grant and proposal writing for funding - IT NEVER ENDS!!! But it's kind of cool because you go from texting your friends in emojis and memes to having a super professional voice that makes you sound like a PRO - all (sometimes) within minutes of each other! Crazy world we live in!!! Anyway...
I got a new job! I'm working for Miami-Dade County (yup that's still Florida) as a part-time seasonal Turtle Nest Monitor. Though it's a position I never thought I'd come anywhere near in my professional field, it is something that makes sense given my passion for conservation and education. I get to aid in monitoring the beaches in Miami-Dade County for nesting by the sea turtle species that come up onshore at night to nest! This entails getting to the beach before the sun comes up, and checking for evidence of turtles and on occasion doing outreach events with the public!! What an amazing way to get to participate in conservation (turtles are a federally protected species) AND getting to teach people about some of our aquatic neighbors!!! Loving life right now despite the impending deadlines of finishing my thesis!
Here's a rad view of my new "office" at one of Miami's incredible beaches that we survey. ...yes this is a sunrise - I'm back to early-bird mornings!
Hello all (if anyone is still reading XD) and welcome to 2019! The year ended with some rough news on the Wilson/System 001 front, but I'm here to talk about why though this news is disappointing, this is an important step in the scientific method.
The scientific method is what allows us to move forward in the world - we get to test hypotheses in a rigorous way, but a lot of the process is riddled with what may be perceived as failures by some, but are just as important as, if not more important than, the "successes".
For those that didn't spend nearly every class in both undergrad and masters going over it, the scientific method involves the following steps:
Bree Gibbs, here. I'm a recent Master's Grad just trying to share what it's like to be a trash scientist (for those who aren't in the know, I'm a marine biologist).