Stars in the Southern Hemisphere from my iPhone. (It's not good but you can see them which is pretty cool.)
I always balk when it comes to writing about the stars.
They are beautiful, ever-present, and ever-shifting — much like the march of my own life — across the country and globe, chasing whatever tomorrow may bring.
The omnipresent constellations meander across the sky at different times throughout the year help keep me grounded and act as a reminder that we’re all insignificant, a gentle reminder that everything is gonna be okay.
The subject of the stars is personal to me. Perhaps it’s their impartial view of the goings-on of our planet as seen from lightyears across the universe. Just like when I write about sailing, writing about the stars makes me itchy with the feeling that I’ve put too much of my heart on display. See, the stars are personal for me in their impartial view of the Earth from lightyears across the universe, and just like writing about sailing, writing about the stars makes me itchy because it feels like I’ve put too much of my heart on display.
But I’ve had a faithful reader ask that I write about the stars in the Southern Hemisphere, and that is something I am happy to do.
The first time I stopped and looked at the stars in the Southern Hemisphere was while I was studying abroad in Australia in 2015. I looked up and was absolutely blown away by just how bright the night sky was. We were out in a national park, far away from the city lights, and I couldn’t believe how much light was reaching, smiling back down at us.
The band of the Milky Way stretched across the sky the way it does in pictures of space, making the small swath I’d learned to identify at home seem small and insignificant in comparison.
I was confused by this brilliant celestial display. As were my classmates.
We were told that the Northern Hemisphere faces out, away from the center of the galaxy, giving us our small piece of a spiraling arm of the Milky Way. But the Southern Hemisphere faces down, towards the center of the galaxy.
Our perception that the night sky was brighter was not just an illusion, but based in fact.
I’ve written previously about how I center myself at sea using the stars, and somehow it was just as comforting when I was visiting the Southern Hemisphere in late 2022. The magic of being out in the field and knowing that I would find constellations when I looked up, regardless of how unfamiliar they were.
So you can imagine my shock when while laying in a field on Stewart Island in New Zealand trying to listen for kiwi birds when I looked up and saw none other than my favorite Northern Hemisphere constellation Orion rising in the sky but upside down!
A friendly constellation as far from home as I’ve ever been?
What a pleasant surprise.
I’m a diurnal creature by habit, but the stars remind me of my love of camping and adventure and storytelling because it feels like they connect all of those elements of my life.
Of course, my love of storytelling is a big part of my love of music, and the song “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash has been an essential on my Going to Sea playlist for many years.
While sitting on Heron Island with Dave, we had just finished relocating a sea turtle nest to one of his experimental plots when a mother sea turtle crawled up next to us (outside our testing area this time) and decided to dig her own nest on the beach. In consideration of this turtle, we turned off our lights, and sat listening to her do her thing while we looked up at the night sky.
Heron Island is far enough from the mainland which allows for some of the best stargazing I’ve ever done.
Sitting on the beach stuck between turtle science and natural turtle behavior, Dave pointed out the Southern Cross, shining and unmistakable in the night sky.
The magic of that moment and the shared joy of recognizing the same set of stars is a theme throughout my life that I’m happy to carry with me. While working in New Zealand, I got the Southern Cross tattooed on my ankle, and earlier this spring I added Orion to my own star map on my body, facing the way he does from home.
I don’t know all that much about the stars and space, but I think that is part of the magic for me. The more I learn, the more comfort it brings me as I get to explore our little blue planet and look up at the night sky.
The Southern Cross over my penguin (Mumble), a nice reminder of the Southern Hemisphere, even when I live and work thousands of miles away. (I have Orion on the other side now too!)
A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) swimming on the coral reef at Heron Island
I set out writing This Blog Is Trash to talk about the fresh and fancy life that is being a marine biologist and what my experience was as one. This was sure to include my summaries of scientific papers I was reading, detailing exploits at sea, and whatever else came to mind.
In the last couple years, between juggling jobs and residences and just general chaos of the not-quite-back-to-normal-post-COVID world that we find ourselves in, I lost sight of both my blog and enthusiasm for writing.
But here we are at the end of 4 long months in the Southern Hemisphere assisting the second of two friends conducting research for their PhDs and I’m here to bring back some of the classic vibes of TBIT bragging about how cool my life is.
As I type this, I’m sitting on a small coral cay (sand island) at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef called Heron Island. In name, I’m here to assist my friend and peer David Adams as he conducts his doctoral research on embryonic sea turtle development. David’s research involves both lab and in-situ experiments on the effects of irrigating sea turtle nests in sand to bring down nest temperatures in the face of climate change.
Me and Dave on Heron Island with his experimental plot (Turtle Deterrent Device)
Sea turtles, similar to some other reptiles, have temperature determined sex ratios of their hatchlings. Warmer sand temperatures in the nest cause more females to be born, and cooler temperatures cause males to be born. With increased temperatures due to climate change, islands along the Great Barrier Reef have experienced changes in nest success and higher proportions of female sea turtles being born. This effect is exemplified by some places where nests that have hatched have had only female turtles born.
So David’s research is both important and exciting because not only does his research set an important precedent for sea turtle nests in Queensland, and all over the world, but it means that as his research assistant, my job is to assist him in collecting the eggs that he needs for his experiment.
But as with all field work, what I expected is not quite what I experienced.
We spent the first six days on the island building and crafting and waiting out rain and watching the weather radar. I got to lift, haul, and drag lumber from the Heron Island Research Station onto the beach where we constructed David’s hatcheries. We collected sand from the beach and sifted it and baked it in drying ovens to sterilize it for his in-lab study. I got to use a sledge hammer to drive rebar stakes into the beach, feeling a bit like I was on Mythbusters out on the GBR.
Experimental Plots/Turtle Deterrent Devices. Dave did a lot of excellent work, and I stood and looked pretty (as is my job)
Maybe you’ve heard of a Turtle Excluder Device for fisheries, but we were building what I jokingly called Turtle Deterrent Devices, because nesting green sea turtles make an absolute mess of the beach. They dig a big pit, the likes of which would make any child on the beach proud, and then carefully dig out an egg chamber with their back flippers. The chamber is made just so, with a narrow neck and a larger base, similar in shape to a lightbulb, to lay their eggs in, and then cover with heaps of sand for the two month long incubation.
Because Heron Island is the nesting place for thousands of green sea turtles and its beaches aren’t huge, there are many instances where one nesting mother will dig up the nest and/or eggs of other females. While this is a natural process, David’s research needs a constant environment, and having a nesting female bowl through all of his clutches would be pretty catastrophic for his project.
And as luck would have it, a couple days after we constructed the hatcheries, a nesting female came through and plowed straight through all the work David and I had put into building the hatchery. She laid her eggs right behind the hatchery and managed to scoot right under our structure and proceeded to throw David’s sensors out from where we buried them as well as the stake we used to denote where the sensors were in the sand. She proceeded to crawl out of the enclosure, breaking our beautifully connected corner without batting a lady turtle eye.
Broken Turtle Exclusion Box. "Life finds a way" - Ian Malcom
We woke up the next morning and had to contend with this hurdle, and locate our missing sensors. While we were lucky that there were no clutches in that hatchery at the time of disturbance, we learned how better to keep turtles out and made some changes to the design, essentially creating a rebar fence that won’t allow adult female turtles past even if they do get the sand level low enough to pass under the wooden frames.
A common thread throughout field science is thinking creatively on your feet when faced with an unexpected problem.
If you are interested in reading more about David’s research, you can read the paper he published on critical oxygen requirement for embryonic sea turtle development here.
The content of this essay includes references to gun violence and a school shooting.
Until now, it had never crossed my mind to write about the trauma that I’ve carried with me. The unending hurt, shock, and frustration I feel every time I remember the lives that were lost blocks from where I would sit and study after class.
How for weeks afterward, a stray bullet hole seemed to stare at me from the window of my favorite coffee shop as I cycled home.
How thousands came together to mourn and weep and try to comprehend how hate could overrule the love we thought we had cultivated in our college community.
After nine years, I’m still not sure how to talk about this event has affected me. Memorial Day Weekend should bring the promise of summertime fun, longer days, and ideally, a three-day weekend. And yet every year, around Memorial Day Weekend I am reminded of the tragedy that took place at my school. Up until now I haven’t been ready to write about what happened and the reasons that prevent me from articulating why I am still so upset, years later.
After a lot of reflection and working hard to absorb everything that has happened to the world over the last year alone, I have realized there will never be a perfect time to vocalize my feelings. There is no such thing as the day that I suddenly wake up and am both equipped and qualified to articulate my thoughts on what transpired. Writing about what happened in Isla Vista on May 23rd, 2014, whether or not I am ready, will simply be another one of the many steps that take me further from grief and closer toward action.
Here’s how I remember that night.
I was 19 years old and in my first year of college. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and my friends and I had plans to go out and have fun on the Friday night of a long weekend. Homework could wait, and we walked out to the graduate student housing for a large group game hosted by the social club we were in.
At first when a friend mentioned offhand that there had been gunshots fired in our community, I thought he was making some kind of sick joke. And then the news began flooding in: there was a police chase going on, the shooter was moving through the neighborhood in a car, and sirens began to scream past the building we were in.
I don’t care to remember the shooter’s name. I know it and wish I didn’t. I can’t imagine harboring so much hate in my heart. I can’t imagine the privilege of him saying out loud that he was going to murder people, and that when the police evaluated his mental state (and determined he was of sound mind) that he was allowed to go out and steal the lives of six young college students. Friends, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, PEOPLE.
Whenever I find myself in a discussion that turns to gun control or Second Amendment rights or school shootings, I shut down. It is impossible for me to separate the lives that were stolen far too young from whatever diluted congressional bill is currently being debated. And it’s made me realize there are just so few people who understand what the impact of a school shooting actually entails.
There’s the event itself. The alarm, the fear, the uncertainty. We panicked about how to get back to our dorm rooms safely - but what’s the safest way to return home while navigating multiple ongoing crime scenes? Then I remember furiously calling, texting, finding friends and classmates and neighbors all trying to figure out who had died. Maybe by some terrible stroke of luck I was going to walk away from the shooting not knowing anyone who was killed. As I waited for the list of names to be released I wondered if everyone I knew survived. I lulled myself into a false sense of security: no one I know has died. I repeated it to myself. No one I know has died. Again and again until I believed it.
And then suddenly the rug was ripped out from underneath me as I read the list of names.
I knew her.
She had lived across the hall from me all semester. We kept promising to catch up soon and our schedules never aligned. It was the type of glib promise friends make all the time, yet nine years later I still find myself fixated on how it was never fulfilled. 19 years was all she got. Her life was ripped away from her because toxic masculinity took and took and now she lives only through collective memory.
The Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest our school’s memorial. They started a hashtag: GodSentTheShooter. Members of that church were barred entry to campus but I think the damage to morale was already done.
In the days after the shooting happened there were cameras and news crews all over our small community and campus. Rage filled me as I would walk by the crews shoving cameras into the faces of anyone who would talk to them. How dare they intrude on our mourning, I thought. How dare they ask anyone to speak about the horror that ripped through our community. As if one grieving 20 year old with a microphone shoved in their face has the capacity to speak on behalf of thousands.
Nobody talks about how collective trauma can leave you feeling guilty by association. Like how I never felt that my reaction to the event was justified because it wasn’t me or my best friend who was killed. But how does one control their grief? How does one control the feeling of an overwhelming sense of loss? Loss of life and loss of peace shattered our community that night.
Every year for the next three years that I attended UC Santa Barbara, there were threats of retribution that someone was going to come and finish the job of the shooter. And every Memorial Day Weekend since, I find myself struck by the time that has passed and I am once again transported to my teenage self, crying in the bathroom at my dorm, grateful to be alive but confused as to why someone would do such an awful and hateful thing.
From that night on, the shooting was something that defined my university.
The rest of that school year took place in the shadow of the shooting, with counseling services available to any student who needed it. But how could I, someone who really wasn’t even that affected by it, take up those resources for those who really needed them? Every incoming class after mine was already aware or made aware of the shooting, but we danced around the topic. The once-popular song, “Pumped Up Kicks,” sung from the perspective of a school shooter, stopped being played on the radio stations in the county. We only discussed who we knew or where we were the night it happened during candlelit vigils in the following years.
When I graduated and moved away from Isla Vista, it wasn’t just the tragedy’s omnipresent physical reminders that were suddenly removed from my life, but context for who I had become. Once more the radio waves were flooded with a song about gunning down classmates, and it felt like the rest of the world had moved on, if it had ever paused in response to the shooting in the first place. I moved across the country to a state where concealed-carry guns are more common than not. And I started graduate school with a new cohort who knew nothing about the event that had shaped my community and the entirety of my undergraduate experience. I found myself forced to justify my opinions on gun control and gun safety and talk about the trauma and guilt of surviving a school shooting. All the while, school and mass shootings continued.
So, no. School shootings don’t end the moment bullets stop flying. They live on in perpetuity — in physical expressions of grief. Vigils for the lives lost, murals painted on campus to honor our fellow students. There’s intangible reminders too. A fear that sticks with you, wakes you up in cold sweats in the middle of the night.
Nine years later and I still weep when I think about that weekend for longer than a few moments. Nine years and I still feel like there’s a piece of me that was broken that night that will never ever heal. It is a darkness that bubbles up, an exposed wound that brushes against everything, and a brokenness I don’t think I can fix. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if my friends and I had decided to go out a little earlier that night, whether we would have been in his path. I’m haunted by the knowledge that I was a woman walking alone down the streets of Isla Vista less than two hours before the shooting began.
This fear is what drives me to feminism. The shooter was a man who identified as “involuntarily celibate” or incel for short. This term refers to a group of men who blame their inability to obtain a romantic and or sexual partner on women at large. Their culture is steeped in misogyny and has led to numerous acts of violence against women since the early 2000s. The violence that erupted in my community that night was a symptom of what happens when that misogyny is left to fester unchecked. Until death was on the line, I didn’t realize that just because I happen to be born a woman, I occupy a different playing field from my male peers. I represented something he hated - simply because I existed at all. Once I understood this, my life became framed in a new way. For the three years following the shooting, I walked home stiff-backed, alert, and fixated on each car that passed me a little too slowly, praying that it didn’t contain dark motives.
The fear that other students will have to go through what I went through drives me towards demanding common sense gun control. I’m not naive enough to expect that we could demand no guns for civilians in the United States. But I fight for mass shootings to be harder to commit. I fight for all of the students who should feel that school is a sanctuary and not a potential graveyard. It’s incredibly hard to learn when you fear for your life; I don’t remember much of the end of my freshman year of college - classes or my life at home.
And I am sick of justifying my political beliefs to people who see shootings as just another headline on the news - not something that levels their world. Moving to Miami was jarring if only because suddenly no one knew about my trauma. I even had friends who hadn’t heard of the event, and upon hearing about what happened offered sympathetic platitudes. Without the personal context of living through a school shooting, sympathy feels a lot like pity. And I don’t want to be pitied. I want everyone to be enraged. Like me.
And I think that rage is what has compelled me to finally pick up a pen and share my story.
I’m angry that in nine years nothing has changed. Because in the time it took me to write and edit this piece there were two mass shootings in Miami-Dade County where I reside. Over 30 people have been shot in the past 2 weeks for just going outside. While these aren’t school shootings, the violence and trauma created by these two events will affect the victims for years to come.
As a side effect of wondering what the post-pandemic world would look like, I have decided to speak more honestly, and try to communicate about what is important to me. I’m tired of finding myself unable to talk about gun violence and common sense gun control. This year I find myself willing to take more risks, striving for personal goals, and saying what’s in my heart: I’m sick of reading news articles about school shootings. I want the lives stolen too soon returned. Barring that, I want not one more mass shooting.
And above all I’m done hearing about “thoughts and prayers”.
I have shouted myself hoarse over these last nine years. I have marched and petitioned and contacted my government representatives all to be told time and again that “thoughts and prayers” go out to the victims of this tragedy. I’m sick of thoughts and prayers. And I know I’m not alone.
Although writing about my experience on the internet may not be the solution to gun violence, I wanted to share my story to show that there’s more to it than a sensational news story.
Fuck thoughts and prayers. It’s past time for real change.
A juvenile green sea turtle on the reef at Heron Island.
Death is a part of the cycle of life. Without it the world as we know it could not exist. From the early life forms that developed deep in primordial seas to the complex incredible ecosystems that we know and love, death has been an essential part of the story, an inextricable piece of the puzzle that is life.
As a biologist, I work in the liminal space between life and death. Without death, we could only study organisms in-situ, and could only glean so much from their behavior, physical attributes, and whatever they leave behind, in the form of feathers, fecal matter, or scales perhaps. Without living organisms to bring wonder to every environment I’ve ever visited, I don’t know where I would be. My love of marine life drove me from when I was as young as I can remember to chase this crazy dream of becoming a marine biologist.
Death is a part of my work. For better or for worse, much of my time as a biologist has centered around death. From the fish I dissect to better understand their life history parameters and contribute to their management in the US, to the excavation of sea turtle nests and seeing which hatchlings didn’t make it. It’s an ugly facet of my professional life, and one that has to be handled delicately. When faced with explaining what I do, I’m forced to use wishy washy language, and pull the punch of explaining that I am responsible for the death of organisms because it’s hard to say but harder to hear.
And yet I find myself struggling to wrap my mind around death.
I got some bad news about a family friend while I was working with sea turtles on Heron Island. On an island where I walked by the bodies of small terns who didn’t make it to fledging, past the shearwaters that fly through the night and hit buildings of the research station with too much force. The skeletons of corals long since dead lie white and in pieces all along one of the most beautiful stretches of beach on this earth. And somehow I couldn’t make the death of someone in my circles make sense.
Somehow death feels personal when it cuts too close to the people I love. I am surrounded by it day and night and all the spaces in between by career choice and by the time that I have been born into. Living in this day and age introduced me from a very young age to the concept of extinction, where we are losing species at an alarming rate.
Extinction was a concept that was easy for me to grab and hold onto. Extinction is the end. Whole generas and species and organisms that I never had the pleasure to see gone without acknowledgement. Extinction kept me up when I was young, wondering what I could do to stop it. And it feels like my own personal extinction event whenever a loved one is gone. My own personal loss of something unique and special and contributing to the world in its own special way.
And yet, life inexorably marches onward.
Years ago, a friend told me that the answer to life was to live. And though I didn’t see the parallels at the time, that advice is echoed throughout the animal kingdom. Corals today live on the skeletons of their ancestors, thousands of years down the line, and we have a coral structure that is visible from space. Sea turtles face abysmal survival rates, and yet, year after year, decade after decade, sea turtle mothers emerge from the sea to lay clutches of eggs, where perhaps one in 100 will survive to adulthood.
It's not as though life is ever wasted in the biosphere either. Though few sea turtle hatchlings will survive to adulthood, they serve as an important food source for hundreds of animal species – from the birds, crabs, coyotes, armadillos, raccoons, and fish that feed on this annual supply of nutrients into the terrestrial and marine ecosystem. The corals of today will serve as the backbones for the corals of tomorrow. And so life marches forward, with death in the shadows cleaning up behind.
Though my grief doesn’t care for metaphors or comparisons, it is comforting to know that every living thing on earth is following the same path, no more or less significant for brushes with that which comes for us all.
Meet the Tawaki, the most fabulous penguins I've had the pleasure of working with. (Photo by Jeff White)
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to conduct penguin research? Well you’re in luck, because I have spent all of October assisting my friend and University of Miami PhD student Jeff White while conducting research on penguins in New Zealand.
When imagining penguin research and what it would entail, I pictured ice, cold, and big open views of cloudy skies. What I didn’t picture was wrestling tree ferns and getting caught by lianas (vines) while being followed by kākā (mountain parrots). However, the latter scenario has been my reality for the last month, as Jeff studies, Tawaki , a species of penguin that lives in the temperate rainforests of Fiordland on the south-western edge of the South Island in New Zealand.
The temperate rainforest, ideal Tawaki nesting habitat. (Photo by Bree Gibbs)
Since 2017, Jeff has been coming to the South Island to conduct research on penguin colonies in Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland. This year,I have been helping him collect data with the Tawaki Project, a New Zealand nonprofit studying the penguins, as relatively little is known about them.
Jeff’s research is on stable isotopes, learning about what the penguins eat and where they eat it. Stable isotopes are variations of the same element with different atomic weight. While we can’t directly ask the penguins where they go during the year, Jeff can use a few of their feathers and a small blood sample to determine what they’ve been feeding on over a time period from days to weeks by looking at the relative abundance of stable isotopes in his samples.
The timing of Tawaki research is essential: the penguins are only here in New Zealand during certain times of the year. Between September and early November they are here nesting, and then they are back for a short period from January through early March when they molt their feathers. The rest of the year, these rad little birds are out swimming halfway to Antarctica foraging for small fish and squid.
Field season takes place for us and the rest of the Tawaki Project during the nesting season, since both male and female penguins are reliably found in or near their nests, protecting, feeding, and raising their chicks.
View of Harrison Cove, an area in Milford Sound that we worked in a lot this season, you get a nice sense of the glacier we were camping (far) beneath. (Photo by Bree Gibbs)
Ideal nests for Tawaki are rather difficult to reach as a grown adult – they love living in small rock caves and sea caves along coastlines. One of their favorite places to nest is inside the root balls of felled trees in the forest. From what I’ve seen, the Tawaki mentality seems to be: the less accessible, the better!
The two fjords that we worked in were called Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, and they had some important differences in the work environment.
Milford Sound is easier to access, and as such has become home to numerous invasive species, including rats, possums, and stoats (picture a tiny weasel) – all of whom pose threats to native wildlife, including Tawaki. Part of conducting research on the colony we work with includes a stoat trap run, trying to ensure the safety of the colony for the nesting Tawaki that are raising chicks there. This colony is made up of about 25 nesting pairs, and they have been well-studied by the Tawaki Project over the years.
While working in Doubtful Sound, we were stationed on predator-free islands. The name is a bit misleading, as it means that there are no non-native predators to Tawaki running around in the forest, but there are still numerous threats to chicks including weka, another type of flightless bird that was very interested in all of the elements of our campsite.
While the Milford colony that we worked with preferred rock cave nests, the Tawaki on the islands in Doubtful loved rootballs and tight root structures that were very difficult to get into. For our work, we were looking at comparisons between male and female Tawaki, which is tough because the female Tawaki at this time of year are out foraging for meals to feed their chicks, while the male Tawaki fast and sit in the nest to protect the chicks. . Like other crested penguins, Tawaki lay two eggs in the nest, and though both hatch, usually only one chick will survive to fledging.
Like all fieldwork, this project has featured some very high highs, and some funny-after-the-fact lows. In Milford Sound we got to camp in a valley under a beautiful glacier that could only be reached by a kayaking commute. The consequential low affiliated with kayaking to work is that at the end of the season, I was overconfident in my ability to get into my mode of transportation and successfully toppled my kayak in about a foot of water – soaking myself, significantly lowering my pride, and ruining a lifelong streak of not flipping a kayak.
In order to collect our samples, we needed to handle penguins, which was, of course, a lifelong dream of mine. Who doesn’t look at a penguin and want to give it a cuddle?! Well, as biology would have it, Tawaki are rage-filled beings, disproportionate to their 3kg size. They have immensely strong beaks that they use to bite and rip around, powerful flippers that they wave about with far more strength than I initially anticipated, and fantastically sharp nails on their feet for, you know, climbing up rocks and the forest. While I did not cuddle any penguins, I did handle many, and I have a lot of respect for everyone who works with any and all penguin species.
It has been such a privilege to have the opportunity to volunteer with both Jeff and the Tawaki Project, as I’m not sure whether I would have gotten to experience so much of Fiordland on my own. These amazing little birds have a lot of character, and I cannot wait to hear more about what we learn about them in the years to come.
One of our first selfies from an epic season. (Photo by Jeff White)
If you are interested in learning more about the Tawaki Project, you can do so here.
And if you are interested in supporting the Tawaki Project, you can donate here on Patreon or make a one time donation here. And you can shop for Tawaki Project merch here.
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 email@example.com
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!
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).