We had the first Climate Change Book Club discussion and it went a lot better than I thought it would! Everyone was excited to share about their experience reading the first half of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and we had some really meaningful discussions about what steps we can take to reduce our climate change footprint as twenty-somethings living in the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unexpectedly, that conversation turned to banking. Specifically, where banks invest our money when we’re not using it. And, SURPRISE— a lot of those investments end up going to Big Oil & Gas and other insidious industries. Shout out to Naomi Klein for once again educating me and ruining my day in the same breath.
As someone who takes regular steps to live more sustainably, banking is something that had never crossed my mind when making adjustments toward living a greener lifestyle. Banking has seemed pretty harmless in my day to day life – sure the banks were bad back in like the Great Depression, but we’re living in 2020. I can deposit my paychecks online! The future is now! That was until I started learning about where my bank is investing my money.
I started banking with Chase back in my first year at UCSB.There wasn’t an easy way to access my hometown credit union (this was in the time before functional mobile deposits) and there was a Chase right in the heart of IV. Later when I moved to Miami, it wasn’t a problem to keep using Chase because their banks are everywhere. Andddd that’s about the extent of all of the thought that has gone into my banking.
But after our book club discussion, I realized it was high time that I did some research about what my money is actually going toward.
So, this morning I decided to look into just how “bad” my bank was – Chase can’t actually be the worst, right? W R O N G! According to this report Chase invested almost 64 BILLION DOLLARS in fossil fuels in 2018 alone. What kind of environmentalist do I think I am, if I’m out here FUNDING exploration for fossil fuels in precious and fragile ecosystems?
What do you mean that Chase is “bad”, Bree?
JPMorgan Chase is a big investment bank. Investment banks provide a number of services to their customers including credit cards, savings accounts, mortgages, loans, and investments. But what I didn’t understand about banks until recently is that banks need to make money in addition to just holding onto it in checking and/or savings accounts. Until exploring this topic further, I had just assumed that banks made their money from the interest rates on loans and mortgages - things like that. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So the money that I paid to keep my account open has become capital for Chase to invest as it sees fit. And Chase it turns out invests BILLIONS in the fossil fuel industry.
According to Statista, worldwide, global oil production was generating 95.192 million barrels of oil a day. And banks like Chase invest in “continuing production” — meaning that as we run out of “easy” to access oil reserves, money is still pouring in to explore for oil that is more difficult and environmentally costly to access.
So what’s a girl who wants to save the planet to do? Going full Christopher McCandless and burning all of my money isn’t exactly an option.
To divest means to deprive of power, rights, or possessions, and in this case, I decided I wanted to use my power as a consumer to take away what little capital I was holding with Chase and place it with an organization that is more in line with my beliefs. Lucky for all of us, there’s actually a few financial institutions that aren’t totally spineless that we can choose from. While poking around and looking at other banks in my region – focusing especially on ones that have similar sustainability goals with respect to our planet— I found OneUnited Bank and Bank of the West, both of which I am seriously considering investing my money into. Unfortunately with Covid cases on the rise in my county, I have to wait until I can open an account in person. In the meantime, I have decided to withdraw most of my money out of my Chase account and place it in my old Credit Union account.
If you are reading this and are interested in divesting from fossil fuels and banking with a different organization than the one you are currently using, this list from Yes! Magazine has banks by region of the U.S. that do not invest in fossil fuels. Additionally, this map tool from Green America helps you find a better bank as defined by the Global Alliance for Banking on Values – so a bank with sustainable economic, social, and environmental development goals. Who would have thought!
Are you going to make or have you already made the switch to a greener bank? Tell me all about it in the comments section!
My Climate Change book club has started a new book, and as such, it is time to philosophize about the meaning of climate change in the face of the hopefully long and prosperous life I plan on leading, which I’m not going to lie, is uncomfortable.
We have started the book: Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World. An apropos pick for a group of science nerds trying to cope with climate change, Covid, and long term social isolation. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M HERE TO TALK ABOUT.
In the introduction to the book, the editor John Freeman ponders climate inequality and he observes “... here is the thrust and heave and beauty of life on a planet that seems hostile to our presence.” What struck me in this sentiment and sent me scrambling towards my computer is the view that our planet is hostile towards us, HUMANS!!!
I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of some fellow sailors while I was on my trip sailing up the East Coast, and as conversation these days always seems to drift, we found ourselves talking about the Covid virus, and my companions strayed towards the idea that nature couldn’t be so insidious towards people, that there was no natural explanation for this seemingly hostile virus. Aside from my knee-jerk reaction to respect the opinions of the VAST MAJORITY of scientists who work on the topic at hand in the case of Covid the immunologists, doctors, and say I don’t know the virologists. But what really bothered me was this notion that the Earth is simply here to be our sunshine-filled perfect habitat.
The natural world is filled with SO MANY EXAMPLES of the hostile dog-eat-dog world that we have walked away from to build our own definition of civilization - one that I am more than happy to be a part of. But we can’t expect that the whole world is going to resemble our perfect condition petri dish that we’ve created for ourselves. Natural selection is at play all around us - pushing evolution forward in an endless march that we are lucky enough to witness in real time! But alongside the march of evolution comes the subsidence of different organismal regimes - from the early Cambrian when microscopic life flourished in the oceans to the legendary reign of the dinosaurs in the Triassic to the slowly changing progression of dominant reef-building organisms from sponges to corals in our shallow oceans over millions of years.
I could go on for thousands of words pondering the progression of life, but what really strikes me is the terminology Freeman uses to describe our planet.
“...Here is the thrust and heave and beauty of life...”
I remember where I first heard the word “ephemeral.” I was sitting in a lecture hall halfway around the world in Brisbane, Australia listening to my professor talking about ephemeral pools that appeared and vanished in the course of weeks in the Australian Bush habitat. I sat dumbfounded in my class wondering if it was a uniquely Australian word like “billabong,” and was embarrassed to learn from a classmate that, no Bree “ephemeral” means lasting for a short time. It clicked into place the concept of a pond that exists for only a short period in a desert, and it’s a word that jars me back to reality whenever I contemplate climate change.
Even before we consider the possibility of human-affected climate, the Earth is remarkably violent in its movement. Earthquakes can move tons upon tons of rock, shifting feet at a time in some cases. Volcanoes erupting from continental crust destroys pieces of mountains. Entire sides of mountains just exploding out. Tsunamis can move a wall of water miles inland due to the underwater shift of land mass. Hurricanes don’t count as hurricanes (by our human metrics) until they reach 74mph of sustained wind. THAT’S THE LOWEST CATEGORY OF HURRICANE!!! Have you every stood outside on a windy day and moved inside because the wind was irritating? I have. I get pretty unhappy when the wind blows faster than about 25 mph JUST A THIRD OF WHAT THE SMALLEST OF HURRICANES PRODUCE!!! Hurricanes have the capacity to blow down trees and level islands.
At its core, nature is thrusting and heaving.
And it is beautiful.
Because life is resilient. Life takes nature’s tricks and evolves new and incredible ways to survive. Earthquakes are responsible for the shift of the continents - plate tectonics have given us some of the absolute breath-taking diversity we see through isolation of populations and allopatric evolution. Why we see amazing marsupials that flourished and monotremes that to a lesser extent survived in Australia, but left the rest of the continents with placental mammals like us! Following volcanic eruptions, lichens are the first life to infiltrate the charred remains, and so they begin the colonization of newly available real estate. And all of this flies in the face of the hostility the Earth shows towards its inhabitants.
Now the scientist in me says Bree, the Earth can’t think and therefore can’t be hostile towards you, which leaves us with an even more terrifying possibility: that the Earth is indifferent towards us and all other life here. And in the face of this indifference life has diversified and multiplied and expanded into the most unlikely places from the hottest places to the coolest places, the most directly hit by sunlight to the places that will never see the light of the sun. And all of it is constantly changing and shifting and growing and dying, and somehow we find ourselves in the middle of it all. An ephemeral existence on a blue spinning rock flying through space entirely indifferent to our existence.
Or almost indifferent.
We are undeniably having a negative effect and irreversible on the very climate we have engineered solutions to survive and flourish in. And these negative effects are coming for all of us, especially if we don’t hit the breaks soon.
I think a lot about why I’m not absolutely dejected in the face of climate change. It was a question posed to me months ago and it bounces around when I sit down to talk about Marine Ecology, or at Climate Change Book Club, or will sneak up on me when I’m on a long walk.
The fact of the matter is I am terrified. But each one of us that is here comes from a long line of survivors.
We definitely have work to do and definitely need to apply the brakes to climate change before it's too late (since we went screaming by the first too late deadline).
But I have trust in the beauty that lies in life surviving the thrust and heave of this magnificent, hostile, perfect planet.
Having a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California - a university which prides itself on the well-rounded education it provides - as well as having attended some great public schools in Southern California, I had assumed that I knew most of what there was to know about the significant parts of the United States. We have 50 states, tons of National Parks, all kinds of war memorials and sites on the East Coast, and I guess historical Gold Rush sites on the West Coast. So I was absolutely SHOCKED to move to Florida and learn that there was a WHOLE CANAL THAT WAS CARVED AS AN INLAND WATERWAY FROM THE NORTHEAST ALL THE WAY DOWN TO FLORIDA???
I have done some (limited) surveying of my friends that also grew up on the West Coast and using my very small sample size I’m going to make a vast (non scientific) generalization : The East Coast’s best kept secret is the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW).
GEORGE FREAKING WASHINGTON HELPED DIG THE ICW. WHAT IS THIS MAGICAL/STRANGE PLACE? Well let me tell you about it because after arriving in Charleston, South Carolina and spending a couple days restocking on groceries and wandering in search of a laundromat (quite the big ask from the water apparently), we cruised north to Maryland on the ICW.
Just your local Trash Scientist blending in. (Photo by Grant Bemis)
SO LETS TALK ABOUT THIS RAD WATERWAY
Kismet (Photo by Grant Bemis)
After we ran aground, we tried to get off the sandbar that we were stuck on and almost made it off before we got good and stuck. Just our luck, the tide was dropping, so we had to just sit. A dolphin swam smug lazy circles around us shortly after realizing that we were really really stuck before leaving us to wait on the tide. 6 hours later the tide had come back enough for us to pull Kismet out of the mud and creep cautiously over to the closest anchorage where we spent a night a little shaken before continuing our cruise north.
Contrary to the speed this picture portrays, we were not moving
(Photo by Grant Bemis)
So much of the ICW is surrounded by absolutely beautiful natural land, and I think my favorite natural area in the Carolinas had to be the Alligator River. We saw a bald eagle soar across the river, an osprey flying in front of a rainbow, and nothing but gorgeous trees and water for an entire day of gorgeous motoring.
The Alligator River
We spent about a week in Elizabeth City, North Carolina waiting on the Army Corps of Engineers to clear the Great Dismal Swamp Canal for boat passage following Hurricane Isaias. The Great Dismal Swamp is actually one of the more beautiful places we went - it’s this incredible natural area made up of thousands of acres that sits just outside Norfolk, Virginia. But maybe the most exciting part of the canal through the Great Dismal Swamp is the two locks you get to go through! Locks are really cool tools in waterways to raise or lower boats - we got to get lifted into the swamp and we got lowered into the waters just outside of Norfolk!
I love locks (photo by Grant Bemis)
Virginia was a particularly exciting part of our trip for me because we stopped to meet a friend that I made on the internet! Emily is a journalist and rad lady who runs the blog Dinghy Dreams. We started talking on Instagram at the beginning of my trip in Florida and we got lucky enough to meet up in person, socially distant of course! I also got to meet another super cool lady sailor, Julie (check out her Instagram here), who happened to be visiting Emily at the same time! In addition to absolutely wonderful conversation, Emily and Julie gifted me a totally rad romper, which was a welcome clean clothing item as well as an upcycled piece of clothing - win-win!
This is the motion I do when I talk about kelp...so Emily, Julie and I decided to all be kelp! (Photo by Grant Bemis)
We sailed across the Chesapeake and got Kismet tucked into her slip at the marina without too much more of an ordeal, and my gosh, the first shower at the marina definitely is one of the top best 5 showers of my life - nothing beats the first shower after a long adventure! And after nearly 6 weeks of sailing and motoring and learning, I’m flying home to the West Coast breathing in stale coffee breath from that good Atlanta Airport coffee in my N95, already daydreaming about the next trip where I can say goodbye to land and see what the next adventure will bring.
Kismet in Maryland - we made it!
**Author's Note: It has been brought to my attention that the ICW does in fact extend past Florida and goes up through the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf ICW extends from Carrabelle, FL to Brownsville, TX. It bears noting that I have neglected over 1000 miles of the ICW by only discussing the East Coast portion of the canal.
Writing is something that I have struggled with my entire life. As one of the lucky kids that had most subjects in school come pretty naturally, I found myself consistently frustrated with the writing process. Creative writing was my favorite type of writing – coming up with made-up stories excited my fantasy-reading younger mind – however this form of writing was less common than I would like and much to my frustration, I learned from various teachers throughout the years that compelling writing takes planning and thought. Starting in elementary school and into middle school and chasing me throughout high school, I was convinced that good writing has to be planned out and I can’t just write down every passing thought in the scattered chaotic fashion they enter my mind. Now this is fine and good for making grades, especially because as a future scientist, I convinced myself that it was just English classes that I needed these skills for – what am I going to use this for in my real job? Trick question: I now blog about science for part of my job!
Then the unthinkable happened: I went to college for ecology and evolution and professional writing chased me into my science classes.
Professional scientists taught me that we need to document the science that we conduct so that other scientists can replicate our tests and confirm or refute our hypotheses. YIKES. Begrudgingly I recalled all of the English classes I’d taken, and I relearned the art of telling a story, only this time through a scientific lens: where does this work come from, what were my results, and finally the most important part of any paper – why do my results matter?
I’ve spent two weeks ruminating on how to write about my time offshore on S/V Kismet and the adventure that is offshore sailing. And it feels like I’m writing about myself, so suddenly it’s like I’m tongue-tied at a job interview for a position that I desperately want: how do I describe the sky of endless stars? The feeling of sailing away from shore and slowly watching everything you know about normal life fading away leaving you on a small floating object that is subject to the whims of the sea? I’m not sure, but it is the middle of the story I started telling when I arrived in Florida, and it was a lot easier and a lot less scary than prepping for your first hurricane (or tropical storm) onboard a sailboat, so I guess we can start with leaving land behind.
Offshore views were pretty tight
Offshore sailing is the coolest. I’m just going to start there. It’s like remote camping on the ocean – you have everything you need on the boat, and you are entirely reliant on your skills and planning to get you through the time you’ve allotted for it.
Sailing off from Stuart, FL after waiting a day for the seas to calm after the passing of Tropical Storm Isaias was remarkably smooth. We hauled the anchor like any other day and made our way out into the Atlantic, chasing the storm north on our way to Charleston, SC. Now driving from Stuart to Charleston, Google Maps estimates that it is approximately 7.5 hours. We managed to make the passage more directly (see image) in a mere 51 hours straight! So cool right? Sailboats are remarkably slow, but how many people can say that between Stuart and Charleston they saw two endangered adult leatherback sea turtles??? NOT THAT MANY (that is of course, unless you get really really lucky and happen to stop off at a Florida beach during sea turtle nesting season).
The approximate path of S/V Kismet from Stuart, FL to Charleston, SC
(via Google Maps)
So for those that haven’t had the privilege of sailing offshore, or who like one of my coworkers think it sounds like an absolute nightmare, I’m more than happy to run you through the good, the bad, and the questionable about this wonderful and slightly bizarre experience.
There are a few main differences between sailing nearshore and sailing offshore (for our trip).
The first big difference between sailing nearshore and offshore is that you don’t stop at night. This difference is readily apparent when you split up watches. The watches matter at night the most because one person got to sleep on deck while the other person was at the helm making sure that we were both on course and not on course to collide with other boats (but we’ll address that later). Aside from feeling very piratey while taking watch, the job is supremely important because if we steered too much off course during someone’s watch we were tacking on additional hours of sleep-deprived sailing.
The compass and I were bffs on my night watches
Now the last time I sailed offshore, we had this nifty piece of technology called an autopilot that made staying on course for long straight lines really easy. Autopilots on sailboats are akin to the cruise control function in a car, only instead of keeping your speed constant, the autopilot helps you keep the same compass heading. Without an autopilot this trip, we were tasked with having someone holding the steering wheel of the boat for the entire 51-hour duration of our trip, which is A LOT of standing and a whole heck of a lot of passing the time spent scanning the horizon and checking the compass against the chart (nautical map!!!).
The second big difference between nearshore and offshore sailing is, intuitively, you are far away from land – and as such need to be a little extra aware of the boats near you. Sailboats move really slowly. We averaged about 7 knots (knots are nautical miles per hour, or 1.15 miles per hour), which feels pretty quick when you’re under sail, but when you compare that to the speed of shipping vessels that are cruising around 20 knots, it allows REALLY BIG BOATS to creep up on you REALLY quick. We weren’t really traveling in a well-trafficked area so we didn’t see that many large ships on the horizon, and for my watches the first night, I didn’t see any other boats. The second night I definitely had some large ships that were moving but none got near us, which was a big relief.
So what’s so cool about sailing offshore?
For one, you’re out in an ecosystem that we don’t get to access all the time, and as such get to see cool marine life that’s a little different than the life we see normally. As I alluded to earlier, this trip I was lucky enough to see not one, but TWO adult leatherbacks! These sea turtles are ocean wanderers and are not frequently seen. In addition to being rarely sighted, they happen to be my favorite species of sea turtle and I had only seen their hatchlings in the past, so getting to see adults made my entire week. We had a few different pods of dolphins that followed us, which always leaves me feeling like an excited and over-enthusiastic little kid again. This trip we also had dozens if not over a hundred dragonflies surrounding the boat for probably 15 minutes. Since returning to wifi we learned that there are dragonflies that migrate across oceans.
No I didn't get a picture fo the Leatherback...but this is me right after I saw it!
Another part of offshore sailing that always sticks with me long after I’ve left the ship is the raw power of nature while out there. Weather is incredible. It’s remarkable how quickly the sky can go from crystal clear to an imposing wall of gray clouds that represents a squall. Lightning takes on scary significance when your 50 foot mast is the tallest thing in the water and you are at least 10 hours of motoring from shore. Additionally, sailing offshore fosters an incredible respect for the wind, especially when it’s blowing in your favor. In my daily life, I’m not usually very concerned about what direction the wind is blowing from, but when the wind is aiding you in returning to shore hours sooner (and potentially hours sooner to sleeping all the way through the night), it is devastating when the wind drops or shifts on you.
I think that for me the coolest part of offshore sailing is the reconnection to nature I feel. Unplugging from the world and taking a deep breath while watching the sunset or a moonrise is infrequent in my suburban, post-Covid life, and in the absurdly light-polluted and fog-covered community I call home it’s remarkably difficult to see the stars at night. And while camping has been the closest I’ve found to the same peacefulness I find while out on the water, there’s nothing quite like taking a deep breath with the knowledge that you are one of the only 2 people for dozens of miles in any direction surrounded by the world’s ocean.
Nothing beats a sunset offshore.
A big part of starting This Blog is Trash was to show people what my favorite parts of being a marine biologist were – a big piece of which is spending time on the water, starting with my time offshore with The Ocean Cleanup on the Maersk Launcher. The majority of time I’ve spent on the water on boats has been day sails and whale watching trips, but since grad school, I’ve had a few opportunities to spend days on end on boats out in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Sea of Cortez on power boats and sailboats. While powerboats are fun and a great way to get around, sailing has captured my imagination since I was a little girl, and it’s been impossible for me to turn down any opportunities to go sailing.
I love sailing... a lot... here's me at the helm!
Due to the Covid pandemic, my dream job of sailing and teaching about marine conservation up in Seattle was responsibly and understandably put on an indefinite hold. This put a rather large and sailboat shaped hole in my heart, so when my friend asked if I wanted to help him sail his sailboat from Miami to Annapolis this summer, I said yes before I’d even processed what the question was.
As an idea, sailing is the best – time out on the water for days on end, moving under the power of Mother Nature and nothing but ocean all around? Let’s GO! The reality of sailing is a little more complex - working with the wind means that we are at the mercy of the elements which are not known for bending to our plans. In addition, in order to go sailing on a long trip like the one we find ourselves on, there are a number of checks and work that needs to be done before you can even leave. Before setting sail from Miami we had to go digging around in the engine and check all the different fluids – coolant and oil and transmission, oh my! I can’t say that up until this point in my life I’ve spent a whole lot of my time thinking about how engines function but as the only other member of this trip, you can BET I now know which parts of this one particular engine are which (okay so maybe I only know where the transmission and cooling chamber is just by looking at it BUT THAT’S A BIG STEP FOR ME).
After making sure that everything was functional/full/running, the next step is to prep your living space for life on an angle. This is something that I always forget about – when under sail, your world goes from flat like the ground in most of the rest of your life (short of like stairs and I guess hiking) to a few degrees heeled over to one side. Add in some fun wave action and suddenly you find yourself on a rollercoaster where your living space is constantly shifting and tipping. How do you prep for a world of constant tipping? For one you pack EVERYTHING up – anything taller than a coffee mug (and even that sometimes) is liable to fall over in the shifting seas on S/V Kismet. What’s nifty about a sailboat that’s designed to go around the world is they have PREPPED the boat for the constant change – the stove rocks back and forth sort of like a gyroscope so we can make coffee while underway – WHICH IS SO COOL! Additionally, there are SO MANY PLACES to hold onto while inside – it’s unexpected when you’re not moving, but while moving it is SO IMPORTANT to have places to hold on because otherwise you go flying across the cabin in big waves (yes, I am speaking from experience).
Under sail on the Atlantic, somewhere off south Florida
The first couple days of sailing were idyllic – we had just enough wind to push us at a whopping 6.5 knots (or nautical miles per hour) to travel all the way to Stuart, Florida before Hurricane Isaias came creeping up the Caribbean and Southeastern Coast of Florida. In general, wind is a good thing for a sailboat, to an extent. Hurricanes can cause all kinds of damage from the possibility of pulling us off our anchor to whipping out the sails and causing a lot of damage to them.
With Isais chasing us faster than initially predicted, we had to stop to prep the boat. Seeing as this was my first hurricane dealing with a boat, I was a little nervous but we did everything we could to keep ourselves and Kismet as safe as possible. Prep for this storm involved finding an anchorage in a mangrove estuary in Stuart, Florida. Mangroves provide a number of helpful ecosystem services, but are especially effective as windbreaks - which served us immensely well. For other prep, we put out two anchors 45 degrees apart and battened down the hatches (!!! fun nautical terms that finally apply!) while we waited on the storm. Battening down the hatches may be a bit of an exaggeration, but we did put vaseline on all the of the hatches, which helps them keep a good seal in the rain, took down the shade structure on the back of the boat called a “bimini”, and putting extra zip ties on the solar panels to keep them down.
Luckily, Isaias was kind to us – the storm was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm before it made landfall near us, and during a lull in the winds, we were even able to move anchorages and find a new spot to hang out and wait for the seas to calm down before a short offshore hop to South Carolina.
Though we’re still in the first week of our journey, I find it so crazy that this is a lifestyle that lots of people lead – the cruising life is sorta like long term tent camping – your entire existence revolves around the sun, rain, tides, and wind. It’s so cool to tune back in with nature and check out from electronics for a little bit - a win-win! Plus I’ve been getting to see some of my favorites in the ocean – dolphins and flying fish galore and hopefully will be seeing lots and lots of stars when we go offshore.
The sunsets have been pretty killer this trip
Unbeknownst to me until very recently, July 14th was Shark and Ray Awareness Day! In honor of these amazing elasmobranchs, I have decided to write a little about this cool group of cartilaginous fishes! Around the time of Shark and Ray Awareness Day, I decided that it would be as good a time as any to reach out to my friend Elana Rusnak, a shark biologist who started her master’s research on sharks at the same time I started my own research on Fish Aggregating Devices at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in 2017. Although we focused on different research topics, we’ve had a great few years talking about everything from the ocean to our shared love of punk rock music to the joys of rollerblading! It was really exciting to talk to her about her work for the purpose of sharing information about some of the coolest fishes swimming!
Shark photos by Stephen Trbovich.
Because of movies like Jaws and The Shallows, sharks and their brethren get a bad reputation, so I brought in Elana to talk to This Blog Is Trash a little about sharks and how she got to work with them for her career!
Shark Facts with Elana:
Elana and me at the Wetlab in our matching Great White Shark Socks.
To start: sharks and rays are cartilaginous fish belonging to the scientific group Chondrichthyes, which means that instead of ossified (or calcium-rich) bones like you and I have, they have bone structure made of cartilage (which we have in our ears and noses!!!). There is incredible shark and ray diversity in the oceans – they’ve been around for 450 million years – which makes them older than TREES!!
Elana’s favorite shark is the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) - in part because they’re just so darn cute and because they’re low key SO COOL. When most people think of nurse sharks, they think of them laying on the bottom of the ocean, which Elana admitted is essentially what they do, but she also says that they’re practically indestructible. They’re really tough and just hang out on the seafloor essentially straight vibing.
Nurse shark photo by Matthew Bernanke.
While we were talking, Elana also shared with me some amazing fun facts about my favorite shark, which is of course, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which is THE BIGGEST FISH IN THE OCEAN, growing up to 18 and 19 meters long or about 60 feet long!!! They can sustain this because they eat KRILL which are very small animals that live at the surface! Whale sharks are usually nocturnal and often feed vertically with lots of tiny teeth that point in towards their throat to trap their prey. Each whale shark pattern is unique to each individual - just like zebra stripes! In addition to being uniquely identifiable, they live for a really long time too!
Here's a picture of me with my favorite shark...in Animal Crossing New Horizons on my Switch.
When asked what were some common misconceptions about sharks, she responded: “I think sharks are kind of portrayed as mindless killers when really they’re mindful killers.” After a small chuckle, she explained what she meant - sharks are smart and they’re curious, and the only tool they really have to explore the world is with their mouths, so that’s what they use. Sharks aren’t killers, they’re predators in their natural environment, and when it comes to eating, sharks are like us - they have taste buds and preferred foods, some like octopuses (like catsharks), and others like seals and sea lions (like great whites). Elana wants to remind everyone that sharks don’t infest waters - they live there! As a reminder to beach and ocean goers, Elana wanted to reinforce that “sharks should not be feared but they should be respected.”
Elana also wanted to dispel a common misconception that sharks can smell a drop of blood a mile away. She says that while this misconconception is based in fact, it has to do more with the fact that the strongest sense a shark has is chemoreception, which is similar to the way we use our noses to smell. In order for the sharks to pick up on smell it has to reach them, usually via dispersal due to water movement. Something that is really nifty about their sense of smell is that they can smell in stereo! We humans hear in stereo - for example if you were to close your eyes and someone were to snap their fingers, you would know which direction it was coming from - and sharks can do that with SMELL!!! How cool is that? Sharks have an incredibly keen sense of smell and can pick up on extremely low chemical concentrations - somewhere between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 1,000,000 depending on species. This is the reason people say they can smell a drop of blood a mile away - it’s not instantaneous, but in a large volume of water they would be able to pick up on very few molecules of that smell reaching them and would be able to track it to the source using their stereo olfaction. And while this could be a potentially scary factoid, science has found that sharks aren’t really all that attracted to human blood, they respond more to blood from fish and crustaceans - their normal prey.
Sharks have social hierarchies and behaviors - in the shark world, if you’re bigger that means you’re the boss. They are usually sexually dimorphic (meaning that males and females look different) and in general, mature female sharks are larger. That said, there are over 500 species of shark, and most of them are small! The smallest shark is the dwarf lanternshark (Etmopterus perryi) which is only 6 inches long when fully grown!
So now that we all agree that sharks are excellent - what is going on with them in the oceans?
According to Elana (and my own field of fisheries science), sharks are being overfished, so they are well below their natural levels in the ecosystem, but thanks to increasing knowledge and education, some shark populations are on the rise! This is a good thing for our oceans because we need sharks as an important part of the balance in the ecosystem as mid- and high-level predators. What are sharks fished for - is it fear alone? No we actually harvest sharks for their meat, their fins, and their oily livers (which they use for buoyancy instead of an air-filled swim bladder found in other fish). The oil from their liver is called squalene and is used in lots of different products including cosmetics, however the use of squalene is contributing to overharvesting.
In order to help sharks, Elana recommends education: learning about the relationship they have with the environment, and the relationship you can and should have with them. In order to help prevent further overfishing of sharks for their squalene oil, Elana recommends shopping vegan and/or avoiding products with squalene in them.
So who is Elana Rusnak, and how did she get to be a shark expert?
Elana grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Windy City, Chicago and found her way to marine science in a similar way to me – she grew up going to the beach and absolutely fell in love. Having spent time at the Shedd Aquarium (which does BOSS research btw), Elana also spent time on the Jersey Shore with her grandparents.
When asked how she found her way to the marine science path, Elana responded with a common theme that I’ve encountered from fellow marine scientists: “I had never really decided what I wanted to do – we all know how broad Marine Biology is.” A huge part of the separation that I feel scientists have from the average non-scientist is the ultra sterile image that scientists are presented as in the media, and I think it’s important to show the world that we are normal(ish) just like everyone else and above that, we just love our jobs and our research. So how does one go from loving the ocean and going to the aquarium to a full-fledged scientist? In Elana’s case, she went on high school trips with Broadreach and Odyssey Expeditions in the Caribbean and absolutely fell in love with sharks. From there it was all about getting into a shark research lab in college which led her directly to the University of Miami.
Shark research is pretty tough to get into however. Elana spent every semester for her first five semesters at UM trying to get a position in the RSMAS Shark Research and Conservation Program, finally achieving her goal during her junior year of college. Upon graduating from the University of Miami, Elana applied to be a master’s student in the SRC and was not initially accepted, as the position was for shark movement ecology, which she later realized would not have been a good fit for her (silver linings!). She instead found herself being offered a spot in a master’s program on shark eco-immunology, and jumped at the opportunity.
The first thing Elana wants you to know about her research is that “shark immunology is dope!” Sharks have incredibly robust immune systems that contribute greatly to their overall health – just like people! For the basics of immunology there are two systems we need to consider: the innate and adaptive immune systems. Innate immunity is a nonspecific response that fights pathogens and adaptive immunity is the part of our immune system that learns what pathogens look like and is able to mount an immune response more quickly and efficiently the second time a pathogen is encountered - this is why vaccines work!
Sharks are the most ancient animal that have an innate and adaptive immune system comparable to mammals - as such sharks have been used as immune models for humans! The reason Elana is so excited about shark immunology is because our scientific knowledge of the shark immune system is relatively limited.
Let’s dive into Elana’s research!
Elana taking a blood sample on a nurse shark (photo courtesy of Elana Rusnak).
Elana’s research was separated into two parts. The first part of her research was studying a specific protein - C-reactive Protein or CRP - that has a naturally low baseline (meaning that there are relatively low concentrations of the protein in an mammal’s blood normally) which skyrockets during an infection and drops back off once the infection has run its course. Cool, right?! Elana spent 2 years looking for the CRP gene in nurse shark liver tissue RNA and DNA. For this part of her project all she could conclude was that CRP is present in the nurse shark genome but was not able to conclude that it acts in the same way during an inflammatory response in sharks as it does in mammals. Elana said of her work on CRP: “It took me 2 years to get the CRP result and 99% failure - that’s a really important part of science. Trying something and failing.”
The second part of Elana’s research was looking at transcriptomes, which detail the active cellular and protein processes occurring in that part of the body at the time of sampling. For this project, she had the novel opportunity to look at a sick and healthy nurse shark’s liver transcriptome to compare the two. In order to compare them, she built the transcriptome and looked at the differences in gene expression between the two sharks. In order to understand what was happening in these different sharks, Elana used gene matches from genetic databases (which are apparently out there like little libraries for genomes!!!) and found that the genes and proteins from the complement pathways were really active, which shows that the complement pathway is a fundamental part of the shark immune system! The complement system is a part of innate immunity that functions to clear infection in the host by boring a hole into the pathogen’s cell wall, causing it to burst open and die. Conveniently, this is Elana’s favorite part of the immune system, and she’s really looking forward to learning more about this process in sharks!
Elana’s research has contributed to a greater understanding of the role different genes play in shark immunity, and she hopes to pursue a PhD learning more about shark or other fish eco-immunology.
You can see Elana giving a lecture about obscure sharks as part of an online series with Broadreach here.
Connect with Elana on Instagram: @elasmo_elana
or Linked in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elana-rusnak-marine-bio/
Elana Rusnak recently completed her MSc degree in Marine Biology and Ecology at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. She worked both as an undergraduate and a graduate researcher in the Shark Research and Conservation (SRC) program for 4.5 years. Her work focused on the immunobiology of the nurse shark (her favorite!). She was able to isolate some potentially important immune genes for the first time, and learned more about what an immune response looks like in a sick shark's liver! She hopes to continue on and get a PhD in the field of Eco-immunology, where the immune function of an organism, like a shark or a bony fish, is related to how it interacts with its natural environment (ecology). Elana loves to teach and would like to become a university professor after she completes her doctorate.
During the Covid-19 Lockdown in California, I joined a Climate Change Book Club. This experience has been both exciting and more than a bit surreal as I read about one impending global crisis, while living the shocking reality of an entirely different global crisis. The club is made up of some of my peers and friends in marine science careers as well as two friends in other biology doctoral programs. This group brings super interesting perspectives to the problem of climate change because we all have different backgrounds (even those of us in marine science focus on different topics, and it’s been super interesting to try and take the additional time offered by not having ANY commute (or a whole slew of other time consuming activities) to dedicate to a topic I care rather desperately about.
We are reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Captialism vs. the Climate. The book is about how Climate Change and Capitalism are fundamentally at odds with one another, and how despite the fact that we’ve known about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change for decades (Plantico and Karl, 1990), the interests of free trade and the economy have always come ahead of the needs of our fragile environment.
I went on a (socially distant) walk with a close friend during the first week of being a part of my climate change book club and we were talking about the implications of climate change to our generation – catastrophic changes to our climate that cannot be predicted exactly but what we do know is that we can expect increased intensity of storm events like hurricanes, enormous rain storms and flooding, as well as hotter and drier droughts. My friend looked at me and said she didn’t know how I did it – working with climate change as a biologist, how to not get depressed in the face of all of these uncertainties, in addition to the knowledge that there is an alarming number of people denying that these changes are occurring in the first place.
To be honest, I don’t know how or why we are able to keep our heads up, but every other scientist I know working in the field of marine or atmospheric science has something they hold on to in the face of climate change – be it coming up with resilient solutions for communities using natural barriers, or researching the aspects of a creature’s biology which allow survival in changing environmental conditions.
So why start a book on climate change in the midst of a global pandemic?
Well to be honest, I had been meaning to get around to books about the climate and more “serious” books than the escapism fiction books I normally read, but realistically it took my friend reaching out to me and asking if I was interested in joining the book club before I could actually commit to the task that is reading about how badly we’ve messed up our wonderful planet. I’ve struggled throughout my academic career to look at extinctions caused by humanity as a whole because it’s such an emotional topic for me but at this point climate change is coming, and I’d rather be informed about all the steps we took to get here so at the very least I can be a little more prepared.
This topic is inherently uncomfortable. It’s close to home because it quite literally is going to affect our home and the world at large in ways we can’t know until it happens. And that’s scary. Now what’s fascinating about reading this book has been the reaffirming of the beliefs that I’ve held for quite some time about the uncertainty we face due to climate change. Now as a young overly progressive ridiculously loud environmentalist, I’ve been told for YEARS that I’m overreacting or that “it’ll work itself out”.
Klein’s book has highlighted a lot of the changes that we can expect to see in the face of climate change, especially given that we’ve been operating business as usual in terms of our emissions for the past 30 years in spite of scientific evidence clearly stating that increased emissions WILL impact our climate in ways that will become additive and unpredictable. And although this knowledge isn’t comforting, it is refreshing to hear about climate change in direct terms rather than the wishy-washy watered-down nonsense that has been such a large part of the political discourse since I was old enough to listen to what politicians were saying.
Yeah. I’ve been hesitant to talk about the current Covid lockdown/social distancing/whatever exactly is happening because it’s equally uncomfortable for me to talk about. But one day on a walk down to the beach near me, I set up a towel on the grass about 100 feet from the closest person and laid down to read the introduction of This Changes Everything. It was a Thursday afternoon, and you wouldn’t know that it wasn’t the middle of summer for how many people were at the beach. In fact, you’d have no idea that there was a disease ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in our country because there were very few people wearing masks or practicing social distancing at the beach park. I don’t claim to know the circumstances of every group of people hanging out in the park, but it felt out of sync with the events transpiring from Covid.
While I was sitting at the beach, reading the beginning of this book I was met with this quote about climate change in the introductory chapter: “Faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it.” As I read this chapter, a large family moved a whole picnic’s worth of stuff onto a table nearby and started blasting music. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t think twice about a family having a picnic in such a wonderful location but I live in a place where people are adamantly ignore the CDC recommendation of wearing masks in public places, and seeing everyone behaving like it’s just an extended break and there aren’t people on ventilators in our hospital just up Pacific Coast Highway feels icky. And putting some learning about the impending climate crisis was just a little too much for this young scientist.
There is a silver lining somewhere here, I just know it.
A recent paper in Nature found that the shut-downs caused by the pandemic have decreased daily global carbon dioxide emissions during the lockdowns by 17% by early April as compared with the average 2019 values (Quere et al., 2020). While cool, without significant changes to how we as a planet, as a country, as a society decide to return to “normal”, the drop in emissions may be just a small blip in the increasing trend of climate emissions over the past few decades.
Quere, C., Jackson, R., Jones, M., Smith, A., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R., De-Gol, A., Willis, D., Shan, Y., Canadell, J., Friedlingstein, P., Creutzig, F., and G. Peters (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change.
Plantico, ,M. and T. Karl (1990). Is recent climate change across the United States related to rising levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases? Journal of Geophysical Research. 95(D10): 16,617 – 16,637.
Science is a funny hobby. Sometimes you get to go out to sea for months on end for your work. Sometimes you spend hours in front of your computer staring at a blank Word document wondering how exactly you should write the results of your study. And sometimes we get to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and put on your blazer and pj pants to give a presentation at an international meeting on the research you’ve spent 6 months working on. You know – that casual first scientific paper presentation vibe you know?
Socially distant science presentation
How did I get here? Great question!
Back in October of 2019, I was wondering what I should do with my life – I had defended my master’s thesis, finished my seasonal job at the Miami-Dade County Sea Turtle Program, and was mostly done with writing my thesis manuscript. And I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do: with my time, with my life, with my career. Those pre-graduation jitters are REAL. So I started casting around trying to make connections and put in my due diligence towards finding what I wanted to do.
Looking around South Florida for work in the field of fisheries science is a surprisingly small pool to draw from. I was watching the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center job board like a hawk, but in the meantime I was trying to find a way to get my footing in the field. I found The Billfish Foundation through a really cool Miami-based company called Waterlust that makes super cool water apparel AND donates 10% of their profits to different organizations working to help environmental conservation.
ANYWAY The Billfish Foundation is a non-profit with a mission of conserving billfish worldwide through research, education, and advocacy. For those who don’t know, the grouping “billfish” includes sailfish, marlin, and swordfish – the pelagic fish with big noses, um I mean rostra. These big pelagics are super cool fish with enormous migrations that can be thousands of miles long. According to this article in Marlin Magazine a study found that one blue marlin had traveled over four thousand miles in 120 days! That’s SO MUCH SWIMMING! I love pelagic (open ocean) species because they have cool life histories and are just the epitome of world travelers. These wanderers span ocean basins in search of food and breeding grounds WHICH IS SO NEAT.
But I digress from the topic at hand…
Having a love of big pelagics and a strong background in fisheries science, The Billfish Foundation seemed like the perfect place to start my science career after receiving my Masters. I was pleased to begin the Wintrhop P. Rockefeller Fellowship at the Billfish Foundation in October of 2019. For this fellowship, I was tasked with writing a paper, and in order to explain the topic of my paper/project we’re going to dive into a brief lesson on fisheries management.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) is an intergovernmental organization that manages tuna and tuna-like species (including billfish!!!) in the Atlantic Ocean. There are other organizations that manage highly migratory species in other parts of the ocean, but since I went to school in Miami, which is on the Atlantic, we are gonna focus on ICCAT. Because big pelagic species like tuna and billfish wander the oceans, it is most effective to manage them jointly by the countries that fish for those species. ICCAT was established in 1966 and has been managing highly migratory species ever since!
SO ICCAT has lots of meetings where they assess the status of the various highly migratory species that they are responsible for managing. My introduction to the ICCAT was at the 2018 Blue Marlin Stock Assessment as a member of the U.S. delegation where we learned about and discussed the management of – you guessed it – blue marlin! I also had the privilege of participating in the 2019 White Marlin Stock Assessment. The way we assess fisheries is through complex mathematical equations. The standard way we measure “stocks,” or the amount of fish in that population, is something called Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE). Looking at trends of CPUE over time can indicate how well or poorly a stock of fish is doing in the ocean, since it’s incredibly difficult to physically count every single fish that is out there.
What does this have to do with my project? Everything!
The models that we used in both the 2018 Blue Marlin and 2019 White Marlin Stock Assessments assumed that for recreational catch (tournament fishing and charter trips) it is as easy in 2020 to catch a billfish as it was in the 1970s. Both anglers (fishermen) and scientists have expressed concerns that this is not the case, and we should be changing our models to reflect these concerns – which is where my project comes in! For my paper, I conducted a literature review and 8 personal interviews with anglers and fisheries managers to determine what pieces of technology and fishing gear have made it easier to catch marlin over the last 46 years.
After 6 months of working on the paper, I finally had the opportunity to present our results to the ICCAT meeting for the Working Group on Stock Assessment Methods on May 7. This was an incredible opportunity because I presented to scientists from all around the world who work on all sorts of highly migratory species. However, the meeting started at 12:00 in Madrid which is where ICCAT headquarters are located. For those keeping track, 3:00am PST is noon in Madrid so I got to wake up and dress up for a presentation to almost 50 other scientists!
I was talking about the presentation to a friend of mine and had made a joke about playing at being a real grown-up scientist and he laughed and fired back that it couldn’t exactly be considered “playing at being a scientist” when I was presenting my own research at an international meeting. It didn’t really feel super “real” presenting my results over a Microsoft Teams meeting, but when we got through the end of my presentation and I got to answer questions about the project, it hit me that after almost 7 years since graduating high school with the goal of becoming a marine biologist – I’ve done it!
I guess I’m a “real” scientist now. And I’m so excited to see where this career takes me.
The Connection Between Single Use Plastics, My Paddleboarding Weekend Adventure, and the 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference
This weekend I went paddleboarding – a sport and workout which is both immensely peaceful (for me at least) and able to be done while social distancing. Really a big win in my book because let’s be real, I have been LUSTING for some time outside of my backyard/neighborhood/solid land in general.
While out on the water I had some time to actually breathe and think with clarity that I haven’t really experienced in these odd socially distant times, and while sitting on the Pacific I had some time to process what happened this week. For my job up in Washington I am going to be the Lead Educator for Deep Green Wilderness where I will be teaching middle- and high-school students about ocean conservation and sailing on a ship called Orion.
A really exciting part of my new job was attending a conference on the Salish Sea Ecosystem. For those who are like me and didn’t grow up in northern Washington or BC Canada, the Salish Sea is the ecosystem which encompasses the Puget Sound, Straits of Juan de Fuca, Straits of Georgia, the San Juan Islands AND the watershed that feeds into these bodies of water.
Map of the Salish Sea & Surrounding Basin, Stefan Freelan, WWU, 2009
The 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference was held online and took place over 2 days that were filled with Zoom sessions and SO MUCH LEARNING for me! I went to sessions about contaminants in the ecosystem and learned about where large sources of toxins come from in the environment – I went to another session on microplastics in the Salish sea ecosystem which reinforced a lot of the themes I took away from my Master’s thesis, and I got to learn about kelp and the environmental stressors they have been facing over the past decade.
What stuck the most for me about this conference was the microplastics talk. Now I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to plastics I am fascinated scientifically and disgusted as a citizen of Earth, but I really am interested in learning more about the fate of much of the debris that we are polluting our oceans with.
So that I don’t immediately lose all my non-trash scientist readers, microplastics are generally defined as plastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Typically, microplastics do not get to the ocean in such a small size (though some like nurdles do). Instead microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics – things like bags, bottles, synthetic fibers – take your pick.
Microplastics on Long Island, Bahamas. Photo by Grant Bemis.
But Bree, what causes macroplastics to break down, and why are microplastics so bad?
WELL dear reader, I’m glad you asked! Macroplastics undergo what’s called photodegradation, which causes them to go from being recognizable – like the plastics I found while paddleboarding this weekend – to microscopically small. Now not only do microplastic particles remain a marine pollutant, they also act as tiny toxin sponges, absorbing toxins from the water column like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (Andrady, 2011; Bakir et al., 2014).
This whole microplastic/toxin sponge situation wouldn’t be all that bad if it didn’t do anything after it became a toxin sponge, but microplastics are pretty much everywhere. Plankton, corals, and other invertebrates (like mussels and clams) are all ingesting microplastics (Desforges et al., 2015; Hall et al., 2015; Shim and Thomposon, 2015; Lusher et al., 2017). These microplastics carry toxins which get carried up the food chain into higher trophic levels throughout marine ecosystems. These higher trophic level organisms, including seabirds as well as fish and crustaceans, can also ingest mircoplastics directly (Cole et al., 2016; Lusher et al., 2017). Basically they’re just the worst. And it’s not just in the oceans: people like you and me are ingesting microplastics from a wide variety of sources including our DRINKING WATER (Barboza et al., 2018)!
So what you’re saying is microplastics are the worst and they’re everywhere?! Why are you writing this blog Bree?
That’s true! Microplastics are pretty ubiquitous, AND there has been some really interesting research done to show just how pervasive the problem is! Take for example experiments like the one the Seattle Aquarium is conducting looking at the amount of microplastics and microfibers in the waters of Puget Sound, or the research done by NOAA employee Kim Parsons and master’s student Jenna Harlacher at the University of Washington studying microplastics in orca poop!
Although the issue of microplastics is one that scales from some of the smallest particles in the water column all the way up to the top predators in the Salish Sea, the microplastic problem is one that spans all seas – I couldn’t escape it in a short paddle in my local harbor, and I can’t escape it even when I’ve been out to sea for days on end. As inescapable as plastics are in the marine environment, I believe that talking about them can bring about a positive change too. I was talking to a colleague about marine debris and my master’s thesis and we got onto the topic of picking up trash when he goes to the beach and it made me smile. Sometimes being an environmentalist and conservationist makes it seem like it’s me versus the whole world, but in talking to people and attending conferences like the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference I get to remember that there are so many people out there trying to help the planet, and it gets a little less lonely.
In light of COVID-19 and the quarantine and the huge move across the county and and and I’ve been struggling to get the creative juices flowing to write something for this blog. Even though there’s a voice in the back of my head yelling about how now is the time to write because for the first time potentially ever since this blog was started, people have time. And it may be egotistical to think people would spend their time reading my blog with their newfound time BUT WE’RE HERE AND WE’RE WRITING SO HERE WE GO!
I did a very (un)scientific survey of blog reader (yes I did mean for that to be singular), and 100% of blog reader requested a manatee blog post (shoutout to Katherine thanks girl) – so here are some of the things I find coolest about the manatee.
1) Sailors mistook manatees for mermaids back in the day. A wild and weird idea in our times but come on. These gentle giants more closely resemble floating rocks than Ariel and her sisters, but I mean to each their own I guess? Now I picked up this incredible tidbit from a book called Manatees for Kids – a book about an almost 11 year old girl who goes to Florida to see manatees. Guess who was ALSO almost 11 when she visited Florida to see manatees for the first time! It was me!
Definite mermaids spotted in Virgina Key's best lagoon.
I guess this is as good a time as any to address this problem: if any of you readers ever had any questions about why I became a marine biologist the answer lies somewhere in hearing bedtime stories about dolphin’s first day and sea lions roar and an oceans A to Z book rather than I guess normal bedtime stories? I never had a chance.
2) Manatees are herbivores – they’re vegetarians! Like me! I love that we share a love of green things. Are manatees aware that we have similar dietary preferences? Absolutely not. Does it change the sense of camaraderie I feel for this species? OF COURSE NOT.
3) Manatees have 3 toenails on their front flippers. One of their close living relatives is the ELEPHANT! Elephants share these 3 toenails, and as my coworker pointed out in response to this photo…
Look at those toenails AND biologically accurate lettuce!
…though elephants are cousins of manatees, their closest living relative is the Hyrax – a mammal found in Africa (if you think this blog is really just an excuse to put my most embarrassing photos on my blog…you’d be absolutely correct).
4) Manatees are HUGE. And by huge I mean 800 – 1200 pounds and up to 10 feet long, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And I guess that there are a lot of big animals in the ocean, but the scale of swimming with a manatee is hilarious. Like definitely the biggest animal I’ve been in the water with so far and even though they move slowly there’s such a presence associated with them. 100% was very nervous the first time I swam with them even despite knowing that manatee attacks are VERY VERY rare ;p
5) Manatees have their nipples in their armpits! So when the calves nurse they swim up to mom’s flipper and nurse from there (as pictured here!!!)
Manatee calf nursing in Crystal River, FL
6) Mother and baby manatees communicate through chirps – and you can hear the babies communicating with their moms if you’re lucky enough to be in the water with a pair of them! It’s so cool!
7) Manatees migrate between fresh and salt water! It’s super weird to me because I learned about them as a species that lived in the rivers of Florida, but you can see manatees right off the beach at my grad school – and that was the very place I saw my first manatee while living in Florida. I screamed so loud everyone in the restaurant stopped to stare at me…I really like them, okay?
Manatees cruising through a saltwater lagoon
8) They have MANATEE LICENSE PLATES IN FLORIDA (this may be a cool point in Florida’s corner over the manatee BUT STILL!!!) And the money generated from the purchasing of these plates goes directly to manatee conservation!
9) Manatees have gone from “Endangered” to merely “Threatened” on the Endangered Species List because of conservation measures and population recovery! This change in status happened in 2017, but the manatee is on the rise. This of course continues protection for the species but in case you were worried, manatees are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Lots of love for these grey nuggets <3
10) Manatees don’t like cold water. In fact, they cannot survive in water colder than 68°F (I mean honestly same) BUT they have a pretty wide range in U.S. coastal waters venturing into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Southeast Coast. HOWEVER in 2006 one adventurous (or potentially lost?) manatee was spotted in New York City in the Hudson River! Talk about an epic manatee spotting!
So anyway. Was this post just an excuse to post a bunch of pictures of my favorite animal? Yes. Did I relish the fact that I could also post embarrassing pictures of me in my manatee onesie? Absolutely. But I also hope I have given you at least one reason to smile or shake your head about how excellent these ecologically irrelevant* floating potatoes are. They are the best animal on earth, contrary to my high school marine ecology teacher’s loving moniker for them of “ocean speed bumps”, these peaceful lil dudes are straight up chilling.
Turning 25 with the best animals on Earth!
*A note for curious readers. Why did I call my favorite animal ecologically irrelevant? WELL BOY OH BOY DID YOU COME TO THE RIGHT BLOG. Basically manatees were really just out here minding their own business for a few million years munching on sea grass, making sure the sea grass was in check and BOOM humans come in practically out of nowhere and have the audacity to take over the manatee’s role in the ecosystem AND cause crazy high rates of mortality for manatees leading them to drop precipitously in population numbers. For those paying attention, this crazy drop in manatee population numbers led to the West Indian Manatee to being listed on the Endangered Species List in the first place.
In honor of the state I just moved out of, I thought I'd share some about one of the most ridiculous laws in effect in the State of Florida: the Plastic Preemption.
The State of Florida has a preemption that prevents local governments from passing laws to regulate polystyrene products including plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, and plastic drinking straws to list a few. Florida’s economy is largely driven by tourism, much of which is ecotourism for our coral reefs, beautiful beaches, and amazing fishing grounds. As someone who has spent the last 2.5 years of her life learning about plastic and its awful impacts on the environment, I have a few opinions on why this bafflingly backwards piece of legislation is a really really dumb law.
Plastic pollution is a problem that has been documented to affect not just beach aesthetics but has environmental impacts on resident marine life and can threaten human health. The effects on marine life include engtanglement of marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as fish, birds, mammals, and over 800 species of marine animals that consume plastics in their environment. Even if you can push empathy for marine organisms out of your mind, WE ARE DRINKING MICROPLASTICS IN OUR DRINKING WATER!
For coastal cities like Miami, the plastic pollution problem is not some abstract environmental problem, but rather is something that we see when visiting the beaches in front of our homes and parks. Some concerned citizens might argue that cities should have the right to pass legislation that would protect their environment, but the Florida’s preemption has not only deterred, but actually fully prevented cities from doing exactly that.
Florida Statute section 500 Section 90 has proved a looming threat to cities like Coral Gables trying to ban plastic containers for takeout in businesses. In 2016, Coral Gables passed a law banning plastic containers and was promptly sued by The Retail Federation on the basis of Florida Statute sections 500.90, 403.708(9), and 403.7033. The court ruled these statutes unconstitutional and decided that the city’s Ordinance was not preempted. Following this ruling, the case was then taken to the Third District Court of Appeals which ruled in August that the preemption superseded the City’s ability to pass this Styrofoam ban. The City of Coral Gables has taken this case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Multiple cities around the state have passed plastic bags bans in the past year including Surfside, Gainesville, and Palm Beach. In response to the Court of Appeals ruling however, all three of these cities overturned their bag bans.
All hope on the plastic problem is not lost however; there are multiple ordinances around Miami-Dade County that were passed prior to Statute section 500.90. The City of Miami Beach has an Ordinance passed in 2014 which banned the use of Styrofoam city-wide. In addition, the voice of the people can act as a powerful call to action for our government. When faced with the environmental crisis of toxic algal blooms in 2018, the state created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, whose job it was to figure out what to do about the environmental crisis. With this precedent, I think there is definitely the hope to reverse this ridiculous assault on the environment.
Will I ever stop putting colons in my titles for blog posts? Probably not. But we’re not here to talk about me. We are here to talk about a personal hero of mine and #nastywoman, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Her name is common one in South Florida, but why do I consider this legendary woman a Nasty Woman? Read on and see what this COOL LADY accomplished in her 108-year life.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1890, Marjory grew up in the Northeast U.S. and received her degree in English from Wellesley College in 1912! What a cool lady! What were women doing in 1912? MOST OF THEM WERE MOST CERTAINLY NOT GRADUATING COLLEGE – ESPECIALLY with a degree in English.
Marjory left the Northeast, and her garbage brief marriage to a con artist, to work as a reporter for her father’s newspaper in Miami, you know, the newspaper that casually became The Miami Herald. After serving as a nurse in Europe in World War I, she returned to the Herald to serve as an editor – because why wouldn’t she??? Because she’s the absolute coolest! Did I mention that she was the ONLY woman working at the Herald? No? WILD.
And then in the 1920s, because she had some important things to say, Marjory started her career as an author, writing books and short stories for the rest of her life. Now naturally, she was known for being an environmentalist (which we will talk about later), and has been recorded fighting for Women’s Suffrage, fighting against slum-lords, and for free milk for babies whose parents needed aid.
Douglas is best known for her work titled River of Grass about America’s Everglades. Now as we are all aware, I am a HUGE fan of the Everglades, but Marjory took her passion for this incredible ecosystem to the page and the people. The book begins: “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them…” Not only does she capture the essence of a natural place so perfectly in this opening, she goes on to describe the natural history of the region in a way that transports the reader to the swamp where she invites everyone to see and love the Glades for the natural wonder they are.
In an NPR article about Douglas, one of her old English teachers, Kevin McCarthy stated Marjory “was fearless, it didn’t matter who she was talking to, with engineers, or governors or even presidents. She believed so strongly in preserving the environment that she was very effective.” For her environmental activism and writing, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, when she was 103 for those keeping track of the years, and was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.
Fun fact: Marjory and I love the same Miami parks! Here is one of them (Matheson Hammock) at sunset.
Douglas lived in a cottage she designed in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami from 1926 until she died there in 1998. Do I take inspiration from living in the same place as this incredible woman?! Every freaking day! But she also recreated in the same places I do – in the beautiful Everglades, in Matheson Hammock Park. She loved southern Florida for what it is and was – a beautiful, wonderful swamp. And in case I haven’t proved how motivating and incredible this lady was, I’m going to end this blog post on a quote from this lovely lady and real #nastywoman.
“Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action … Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening efforts of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up. You have to stand up for some things in this world.”
My love affair with alligators is one that is well-documented, but it came from an abject fear of them as a child. Big scary lizard = bad news was about the metric that young Bree had, but since moving to Florida in the Fall of 2017, I have discovered a soft spot for the reptiles that even my college self would have been baffled by. So how do you go from a manatee-loving, marine biologist to loving a freshwater dwelling ambush predator? I think it relates to my love of comics and all things nerdy, and of course, the fact that everyone loves a good redemption story.
My embarassing love affair is documented here (we're making the same face)
Photo credit to my father, without whom this moment would have been lost to memory
Alligators are organisms that are well-associated with Florida (and the South), and have numerous headlines associated with them. My favorites include:
The formidable gator in her natural habitat/also my most frequented National Park in Florida - the Everglades
Alligators are large reptiles found throughout the southeast United States, occupying an important role in the swamp as ambush predators. They can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and grow to more than 12 feet. They have characteristic toothy grins (you can see both top and bottom teeth when their mouths are shut), and nice round snouts. During the winter, they can be found basking in the sun near water bodies – Shark Valley in Everglades National Park is a great place to find these toothy bois. They are cold-blooded reptiles so they spend that time basking warming up through the scales along their backs. They feed on fish, invertebrates, frogs, bids, and mammals.
A resting juvenile gator.
Now personally, I understand the fear of a large dinosaur-looking swamp dragon (or alligator if you insist). However, fear is not what caused the precarious dip in population: instead it was people hunting for alligator hides which drove their populations into a state where they were listed as federally endangered. The hide trade began in earnest in the 1800s, and by the 1950s, this species was severely depleted. Upon federal protection in 1973, alligator populations were able to begin the process of recovery. Alligator farms also aided in wild population recovery as they allowed for decreased pressure on wild populations to meet the commercial demands for alligator hide.
As of today, you can find alligators in most fresh water bodies in Florida (and throughout the South, but my focus is of course where I live), and they are an amazing sight at that. I love a good redemption story as much as the next comic book fan, but I really think that the American Alligator is an unsung hero of the American South.
Happy 2020! Is it almost the end of January? Absolutely! Do I still date things 2019? Definitely! AND IT WON'T STOP! Gotta love that first few months of the year where I don't have a CLUE what's going on, but I figured it would be a good time to stop and take stock of everything. And it is looking like it is going to be a good year! So without further ado, here's some updates to This Blog Is Trash.
First, and foremost, I have some AMAZING new art for the blog, created by my talented little sister Karen Gibbs. You can see more of her art here! Woo supporting new artists! And just look at it! It's SO COOL
Second, I want to post more frequently than once every few months! This goal was inspired by the Everglades Coalition Conference (which I just wrote about a week ago! AND JUST LEARNED I CAN LINK BLOG POSTS TO OTHER BLOG POSTS WOW!!). I had an amazing time, met some amazing people, and was reminded that not everyone knows a scientist, or even what scientists are up to these days! So I've decided to hold myself accountable - both by writing this post AND putting my blog on my business card. A BOLD PLAY BUT HERE WE ARE!
Third, I think I'm going to change up the blog a little bit. I know that all of my adoring fans only want to hear about trash, fish following floaty things, and of course the occasional extra long stint on big boats (ships... I know but some habits die hard), but I have a lot of friends doing incredible work for their research, jobs, and hobbies so I thought maybe I could include interviews of professional non-trash scientists to see where that takes the blog. If you have thoughts, concerns, topics of interest, or just want to say "hey", please feel free to leave me a comment, drop me a line, or maybe send me a message in a bottle! Writing this sort of feels like standing at the top of the Maersk Launcher talking to the ocean because I have no feedback without comments, so feel free to say something (if only to help me out).
Lastly, I'm really excited to start blogging back up and hope I can find a way to encourage people to keep up! Happy 2020!
Early January, I had the pleasure of attending the Everglades Coalition Conference in Captiva Island, a small beautiful place on the Gulf Coast. The conference was filled with a diverse group of people dedicated to the conservation and restoration of what has come to be one of my favorite National Parks. The weekend was filled with invigorating discussions of the challenges the Everglades faces including limited water flow, decreased space (because of pesky people moving onto Everglades land), as well as the all-present problem of pollution. To a newly inspired Everglades advocate, these challenges seem insurmountable, however, without skipping a beat the panelists at the conference presented numerous ways to face each of the listed challenges. The sessions were filled with nods to environmentalism - "Climate Voter" buttons, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax making his appearance on one attendee's shoes - and it was frankly inspiring to be in a room of people not daunted by the local apathy or corporate greed which threatens the very existence of our Park. A Park that I might add that is not only valued in the United States as a region of important value, but has also been listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 2020 Everglades Coalition Conference Scholarship Recipients (photographed by Cara Capp).
I was among a lucky 20 students who were granted a scholarship for participation in the conference by the Everglades Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association. These students were fellow graduate students as well as undergraduates who had a passion for the Everglades and conservation on their mind. Our weekend was filled with panel discussions, breakout sessions, and more networking than you could shake a stick at! From 8:00 in the morning at breakfast until 9:00 in the evening we were learning and listening and trying to keep up with the science, policy, and politics of an enormous Everglades watershed. One inspiring notion that I know I and a number of the other scholarship recipients was spoken by Dr. Melissa Abdo of the NPCA; "we have hope instead of dwelling on doom and gloom."
Another wonderful feature of the Conference was something organizers did not take advantage of (in my opinion): the Full Moon. Walking down the beaches of Captiva Island with nothing but the moon shining bright enough to cast a shadow while discussing all of the things we learned was one of those nights that I think I will carry with me for a long time coming - along with all of the friendships that were solidified in the nights after the lectures had stopped with boisterous conversation ringing out into the chilly nights.
Jumping dolphins in Captiva Sound
The end of the conference was a trip out on Captiva Sound, the water body to the east of the hotel we had been staying in. During the tour we learned about the cultural and natural history of the water body, punctuated with visits by diving cormorants, leaping dolphins, and a single bald eagle staring out at our boat from a sandbar within the sound. Each piece of the trip was a reminder of the importance of protecting beautiful natural areas, and the value of raising your voice. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Everglades Champion and personal hero of mine, once said, "Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public ... Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action ... Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics - but never give up. You have to stand up for some things in the world." Between this incredible woman who fought for what she believed in for her entire life, and the energy at the Everglades Coalition Conference, I have been inspired to continue raising my voice for what I believe in, which in this day and age is the protection and conservation of natural places in the world.
Mangroves in the morning sun
In addition to the conference attendees who have dedicated their careers to the conservation and restoration of the Everglades, I find myself inspired by the amazing women I got to spend time with at the conference. Women who have such passion and drive for the outdoors that they all collectively decided to get up and explore the Ding Darling State Park before our wildlife cruise on the sound, just to get a sense of the place we had been staying in. The crisp morning air and the shared sense of wonder wandering through mangroves brought a hushed chapel like atmosphere rather than the exuberant one expected from a group of twenty-something year-olds. Caroline Lewis of the CLEO Institute looked out at the conference and told us "I'd rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity," and I think these young women are doing just that.
We did it! And by "we", I of course mean Me, Myself, and I. But here we are! The other side of grad school. I received my masters! Bree Gibbs, Master of Science at your service! So what did it take? Let's take a walk back through what's gone down since leaving the Maersk Launcher behind.
Steps to Receiving My Master of Science After October 2018:
Me rocking my best Marine Biology Ms Frizzle dress and getting ready to rock a defense presentation pictured above.
So I guess we understand that Post Grad Joy but where does the existential dread come into it? Let me let you in on a little secret: it's really hard to get a job in today's world. That whole "go knocking on some doors" method really hasn't panned out, and honestly I've been more than a little disappointed to learn that the game in getting a job has more to do with who you know than your qualifications for the job at hand.
That said it hasn't been all bad! I've picked up a couple of jobs working in positions I really didn't expect, and yet love just the same. The main place I've been spending my time has been working for Key News, a local online newspaper where I have had the opportunity to learn about the ins and outs of being a journalist. I even get to write about an article a week and am the self-dubbed "Environmental Contributor" - getting to write about topics that I care about while also improving my computer skills? Dream come true! In addition to exploring the world through a journalist's eyes, I am also proud to announce that I am The Billfish Foundation's Winthrop P. Rockefeller Fellow! This means that I get to continue using my skills as a scientist to work on a project where I am analyzing the changes in technology and gear used to capture billfish since the 1970s! It's a fun project with a lot of moving parts and has been really eye opening in a way that I couldn't get from sitting in a classroom! Both organizations are non-profits, which is pretty cool too! Finally, I'm going to be starting 2020 at YET ANOTHER NON PROFIT and I'm thrilled to announce that I am going to be starting work as the National Parks Conservation Association's first Everglades Restoration Fellow. This position will be involved in advocacy and outreach, which will be an amazing opportunity to give back to one of the most incredible places in South Florida while also learning about the legal side of protecting natural areas. All in all I'm really excited to be moving forward in life but also trying to dampen the existential fear that set in as soon as I realized I needed to find a new "big girl" job to go with my "big girl" degree.
Bree Gibbs, Official Trash Scientist
For now, I live in Miami-Dade County Florida, where sea turtle nesting season (typically) ranges from May 1 to October 31. Why am I writing about it in November? Well this is the first time I've had to catch a break and take a moment to breathe and reflect on the crazy year that's almost over! But beyond the personal stuff - let's talk turtles!
Given that I grew up on the West Coast, I knew next to nothing about sea turtle ecology when I started working. In the 6 months I had the pleasure of working with sea turtles I learned a lot, and so I thought I'd take this time to get up on my soapbox to share some of that knowledge. :)
Here in Miami, we have 3 main species of turtles that nest: Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Green (Chelonia mydas), and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). In addition to the 3 main nesting species, we have 2 additional species that like to hang out in Miami waters - the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempi).
Sea turtles have a pretty cool life cycle, starting their lives as tiny little hatchlings that emerge from the sand at night. These hatchlings crawl towards the ocean where they swim OUT and they swim FAR to spend their young years out in the open ocean. Shockingly, only about 1 in 100 hatchlings that makes it to the ocean survive to adulthood. That statistic is CRAZY - how do we have any turtles today? Especially considering that they were hunted to near extinction not so long ago (sea turtles are currently protected under the Endangered Species List in 1973). But I digress. Once they make it to sexual maturity, the sea turtles move inshore during breeding season to mate. After breeding males will return to their offshore existence - they never come back on land after leaving it as a hatchling! - whereas females will come up on shore to lay their nests. Depending on the species, sea turtles can nest a few times a season (2-5 times), laying between 80 and 120 eggs per nest! These eggs will incubate in the sand and, like other reptiles, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the sand around the nest. Warmer sands make female turtles and cooler sands make male turtles - so we say that we get Hot Chicks and Cool Dudes, a phrase which gave me no end of amusement throughout the season.
So what do you do as a sea turtle nest monitor here?
Well, as I mentioned in my first post on turtles in April, we get up early. An hour before the sunrise we get to work, and begin surveying half an hour before the sunrise so we can see the tracks with the best accuracy (in addition to the perk that there are fewest people on the beach at this time of morning).
Loggerhead sea turtle tracks. Each species has a unique pattern to their track making identifying the turtle easy even though we haven't seen the turtle nesting typically.
When we locate tracks we have to take data on whether the crawl resulted in a nest or not. If it resulted in no nesting attempt, this is called a "false crawl". Mother sea turtles will false crawl for numerous reasons including people or anthropogenic lights disturbing her, her not liking the sand, or other reasons. However, if the crawl results in nesting, we get to mark off the nest to make sure that no one interferes with the incubating eggs.
A loggerhead sea turtle nest. Similar to how each sea turtle species has species-specific tracks, each species that nests in Miami has a specific nest shape!
After the eggs incubate and hatch, the county sea turtle nest monitors get to dig into the nest to take data on the nest itself like how many eggs hatched. Sometimes, we'd get stragglers too - hatchlings that didn't quite make it out of the nest with their brothers and sisters. By far this was my favorite part of working with the sea turtles because these were the only living turtles we got to see while working! When we'd get these stragglers, we'd get to let them rest in a safe and dark environment and let them go at night. The first hatchling release I got to do was probably one of the most magical moments I've experienced to date. And to be entirely honest, I felt a little like Moana in the first scene of the movie where she helps the baby turtle safely to the sea. And I think that's about as close to being a Disney princess as I'm ever going to get so I guess there's really not much more I can look forward to in my career (I'm KIDDING).
A loggerhead hatchling to complete our loggerhead nesting adventure.
A leatherback hatchling because I just think they are the coolest turtles around. Not gonna lie, I love how derpy they look. Leatherbacks spend the vast majority of their lives in the open ocean which is why they have enormous flippers. As babies I think it really just makes them look disproportionate and I LOVE it.
**All photos in this section of the post were taken by me in Miami-Dade County under FWC Permit number 19-017.
Sea turtles still face a lot of threats!
A really large concern that I feel after working in Miami is the problem of artificial lighting. Artificial lighting causes sea turtles (both adult and hatchling) to become disoriented. Artificial lighting leads to the death of thousands hatchlings every year in Florida. Why does this happen? Great question! To begin our story, sea turtles evolved millions of years ago and as a way to get to the water, hatchlings have evolved to emerge from the sand and go towards the brightest horizon. On a secluded beach (or a beach before civilization), the brightest horizon will be the sky and horizon as well as the reflection of the stars on the ocean. This all changes when we throw people and big cities into the equation. If you've ever been outside at night in Miami, you know how BRIGHT the city is - and from the water, you can see the glow of downtown for an alarming distance off the coast. This has deadly implications for our hatchling sea turtles, and can also lead to the disorientation of mother sea turtles as they attempt to nest. All in all, it is a heartbreaking situation with a relatively easy solution. Sea turtles are not disturbed or disoriented by long wavelength light. Specifically, amber lighting is particularly good for sea turtles and allows us humans to be able to see at night without leaving areas unlit. Win win, right? This solution is only kind of effective here in Miami because although we have lighting ordinances, they are poorly enforced, which leads to the disorientation of dozens if not hundreds of hatchlings each year.
Another problem associated with turtles is plastic. Plastic affects not only adults sea turtles, which commonly mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, but also recently hatched turtles, which will eat plastic instead of food particles and die. Another viral video features a scientist removing a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle (it's really graphic so please take this as warning). Obviously the plastic issue is one that is near and dear to my heart, but it is manifesting in these peaceful, incredible creatures that have been on Earth a lot longer than we have. Of course, the solution to this problem is one that has far reaching implications, but the use of plastic bags and straws and products can be mitigated by exercising consumer choice and spending money where you want to see it going - such as to organization working to decrease the amount of plastic in the oceans or by reducing your own plastic footprint. (I'm getting off my soapbox now XD)
Green sea turtles (mostly) contract a disease called Fibropapillomatosis (FP) which manifests in tumors. These tumors can hinder turtles numerous aspects of their life including swimming, feeding, and seeing. This disease can be transferred turtle to turtle through touch, and is commonly transferred through sexual activity. Though these tumors can lead to death, they can also be removed by sea turtle hospitals with the appropriate facilities. :) Yay for there being hope sometimes.
A healthy green sea turtle I spotted snorkeling in Maui!
If you encounter a sea turtle in distress in Florida, please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Injured Animal Hotline at 1-888-404-3922.
I went to a conference in November that reminded me of why I love the scientific community - the passion, the sharing of ideas, and the optimism facing the future. And then life caught up with me - being a student enrolled in classes, trying to finish my thesis in time, financial uncertainty in facing graduation without a job lined up - the normal parts of being a graduate student, I guess. But I started this blog to communicate what science I'm involved in! And that hasn't been happening! So here we go!
No one told me that science would be so much writing. You hear jokes all the time about how scientists do science because they were bad in English and BOY that was incorrect. I have to write all the time - essays for classes, my thesis is basically a short book I'm writing about how and why I did what I did for my thesis, and then if I want to go further into science there's the grant and proposal writing for funding - IT NEVER ENDS!!! But it's kind of cool because you go from texting your friends in emojis and memes to having a super professional voice that makes you sound like a PRO - all (sometimes) within minutes of each other! Crazy world we live in!!! Anyway...
I got a new job! I'm working for Miami-Dade County (yup that's still Florida) as a part-time seasonal Turtle Nest Monitor. Though it's a position I never thought I'd come anywhere near in my professional field, it is something that makes sense given my passion for conservation and education. I get to aid in monitoring the beaches in Miami-Dade County for nesting by the sea turtle species that come up onshore at night to nest! This entails getting to the beach before the sun comes up, and checking for evidence of turtles and on occasion doing outreach events with the public!! What an amazing way to get to participate in conservation (turtles are a federally protected species) AND getting to teach people about some of our aquatic neighbors!!! Loving life right now despite the impending deadlines of finishing my thesis!
Here's a rad view of my new "office" at one of Miami's incredible beaches that we survey. ...yes this is a sunrise - I'm back to early-bird mornings!
Hello all (if anyone is still reading XD) and welcome to 2019! The year ended with some rough news on the Wilson/System 001 front, but I'm here to talk about why though this news is disappointing, this is an important step in the scientific method.
The scientific method is what allows us to move forward in the world - we get to test hypotheses in a rigorous way, but a lot of the process is riddled with what may be perceived as failures by some, but are just as important as, if not more important than, the "successes".
For those that didn't spend nearly every class in both undergrad and masters going over it, the scientific method involves the following steps:
In case getting to be-bop around Oahu and Maui for the week(ish) following the trip on the Launcher, I flew home to California for a mere 40 hours before doing laundry and re-packing to go to Boston, Massachusetts for the 2018 National Ocean Exploration Forum, which was held at the MIT Media Lab.
The idea behind the conference was that because the ocean affects EVERYONE that we need to make the ocean accessible to everyone. This spoke to me because, well that's more or less what I've believed for my entire life/career, and all it takes is looking in a newspaper to see that the message about conservation is not being communicated effectively to the general public. The organizers of this event wanted to bring some diversity to the figurative table, and as such, the members in attendance were as diverse as was feasible. We had people of all ages - I was in a workshop in discussion with a 13 year old who's voice was heard with the same weight and value as the professor also in the same small group! In addition to a variety of ages, we had a variety of interests - we had artists, scientists, educators, film makers, and many more! Bringing together so many types of people led to some incredible discourse - the conversations ranged from silly to serious and spanned all topics! But before I dive deeper into that, I'd like to talk about the focus of the talks and workshops.
The event was centered around 6 themes that are critical to ocean exploration in this day and age. These themes are:
Play. For the first theme, play seems an odd word to associate with science. It is something deemed childish and a word that I found myself using less and less in my vocabulary as I grew up. But play most certainly played a HUGE role in my love of the ocean - from playing in the waves at the beach to pretending to be a mermaid in pools as a young girl - play is something that not only inspires but it ingrains a sense of ownership over the places we played as children. I'm comfortable at the beach and in the ocean because I played there growing up - and I think that integrating play into how we teach the public and especially the youth about the oceans will ensure that the oceans have a bright future - not the dim future we hear about in the news.
Imagine. A powerful word that can sometimes get lost in the learning of science in the modern day. As a young biology student at university, I was taught to memorize facts and regurgitate information, often with little to no imagination involved. However, as I grew into the field, it was DEMANDED of me to think and use my imagination to solve problems and, scarier, to come up with ideas that might explain what is happening in the natural world. Though I (obviously) made it through these challenges, I don't think (and I am happy to be wrong about this assumption) that imagination isn't associated with marine science. I'd love to bring imagination to the forefront of marine exploration.
Immerse. An important point in the conference was how to immerse people in the ocean. If we can't literally bring people to the ocean and show them just how incredible it is, then there has to be a way to communicate that with the public. One way we talked about immersing the public was through story-telling, something that I have been trying to accomplish with this blog! Pictured below is me talking at a workshop on transmedia story-telling (it only seemed appropriate to post it on my transmedia story-telling page XD). Through interacting with people that tell and create stories for a living, I have been inspired to continue the blog, and maybe post a little more. We shall see.
Create. This seems like a given, but it is increasingly important to come up with new ways to explore the oceans more efficiently. Some of the speakers at the conference were designing autonomous underwater ROBOTS that are going to be able to explore the coral reefs in ways that would take people hours upon hours of underwater documentation! Truly creativity is crucial to coming up with ways to document the oceans if for no other reason than that our oceans are changing at unprecedented rates.
Explore. A pretty obvious theme for the National Ocean Exploration Forum, but the idea of exploring is one that I feel has been left out of the ocean science conversation. There is still A LOT to be learned about our oceans.
Connect. The final, and arguably most important theme of the conference was connect. How do we connect EVERYONE to the oceans? Well my current plan is to continue sharing my passions about the ocean using everything I've got - blogging, talking to high schools, and ideally getting involved in a career that lets me share the oceans with EVERYBODY! First step in that career path is … COMPLETING MY MASTERS!!! So welcome to the next phase of the blog: connecting the ocean to the rest of the world - buckle up, it's a gonna be a wild ride!
Land was a shock after the weeks aboard the Launcher, but the most magical part of going ashore in Hawaii has been the sheer ABUNDANCE and DIVERSITY of LIVING THINGS FREAKING EVERYWHERE!!! I think this was especially apparent to me because although I do love me a good Velella velella (By the wind sailor) or occasional crab found living on plastic, my love of the ocean stems from the absolute mind-blowing variety of life found in the oceans! This love was absolutely reaffirmed upon my journey to Maui, after wishing safe travels to the last of my friends from The Ocean Cleanup. Lucky for me, I have an incredible friend living on Maui and she showed me the magic of the island from coral reefs right off the beaches to waterfalls that you have to SWIM to get to (!!!) to sunrises with turtles returning to the sea with the sun.
A common theme has come up in multiple conversations recently - and that has been about death and life from the perspective of a biologist. Pictured above (thanks Dani!!!) is a (dead) baby hammerhead shark that my friend and I found on the beach. This lil buddy must have washed up with the evening tide because the decomposition had just begun. Though the loss of this shark is a bit sad, as someone who has spent far too much time loving animals that aren't at the top of the food chain, I have had to learn that death is a necessary part of the ecosystem! Death fuels life - this shark is providing a meal to lots of different types of decomposers, and the nutrients will be integrated into the beach ecosystem. This death-fueled nutrient cycling is seen all around the biosphere, from whale falls in the deep sea (which are totally real and totally cool) to humpbacks feeding on schools of fish. I must say I do prefer living organisms, there is a lot to be learned from animals like the one pictured above. With all that death talk, here's a picture of baby tiger shark at the Maui Ocean Center (another TOTALLY RAD PLACE TO VISIT if you find yourself in Maui)
Is it really holiday if you don't have unforeseen mishaps? I don't think so. Yesterday, Deb and I packed up the babe-mobile (pictured below) and drove back on over to Honolulu from the North Shore in order to go snorkeling at the famous Hanauma Bay! The only problem we encountered was: Hanauma Bay is apparently closed on Tuesdays... Not to be deterred from our adventure day, we continued along the coastline exploring the wonders that the southern coast of Oahu had to offer - we got to see blowholes, beautiful coastline, and most tragically, a beach absolutely covered in plastic. Though it was a sober reminder of why we ended up in Hawaii in the first place, it was hard to walk along the beach without feeling insignificant. After a small beach cleanup, we wanted to try to go for a hike at the famous Manoa Falls, but were deterred by the flash flood warnings in the area. The tropics are WILD y'all.
We returned to Honolulu for lunch at a hole in the wall sandwich shop where we were both DELIGHTED to eat gigantic veggie sandwiches washed down with kombucha (a probiotic drink, for those unfamiliar). After lunch, we headed to Banan at the University of Hawaii so we could meet up with a friend and that's unfortunately when disaster struck - FOOD POISONING! Deb and I have since figured out that the kombucha is to blame, but the hour-long BUMPY and rainy car ride back to the North Shore was filled with groans of discomfort and laughter at the situation we found ourselves in. Followed by napping and some giving up on the day, we were invited by another Ocean Cleanup Crew member to watch the sunset on Sunset Beach and WOW the beach lives up to its name! Even despite the food poisoning and rainy day and random beach closure, we got to witness and appreciate one of the best sunsets I've seen in a long while.
I feel the need to talk more about the plastic beach we saw. I think that it's important to remember that EVERYONE can help contribute to the plastic problem and that there are simple ways to help keep the ocean happy and healthy - bringing reusable bags to the store and refusing or minimizing plastic packaging are good starts! The problem of plastic is a global one, and the U.S. is a significant contributor to the plastic debris in the ocean. A favorite professor of mine taught us that from little things big things grow, and that's the stance I've taken on environmental change and conservation - even if it's one little change, every little bit counts. I don't want to have my legacy be the generation that shrugged its shoulders and said that plastic pollution was too big a problem to tackle - I want to be a part of the generation that learned from the mistakes of the generations before us and made changes to promote the stewardship of the environment and planet! Here's a scary picture of JUST SOME of the microplastics we found on the beach. This is what is scaring me this Halloween! Happy Halloween everyone!
Seeing as it took me approximately two months to get used to life on board the Launcher, it is only suiting that it will take me at least that amount of time to get used to life onshore again, right? Today's adventure began at the Airbnb we are staying at in the North Shore of Oahu - quiet enough beginnings for a holiday. Well, my friend and colleague Deborah and I have been traveling together since we got off the vessel, which has led to more funny moments than I thought possible - most of which relate to the realities of living life like a normal person again.
For one, money is a concept that pretty much ceased to exist for me offshore. I bought candy and chips from the "shop" on board, but the idea of carrying cash slipped my mind for almost two months. Which brings us to today. Deb and I left the Airbnb with some cash between the two of us, leaving our comfy pad behind for the wonders of Waiamea Bay including a turtle, surfers everywhere, and HYDROFOIL SURFBOARDS!!! We wandered the beach for most of the morning, enjoying the sand between our toes and the crashing waves on the sand without too much difficulty.
All this changed when we went back to the market for lunch food. Together, we had enough cash on us (using some of our emergency gas fund) to buy food for the week. Which left us both with $14 total. No problem - we were going back to the Airbnb! Side note: the eggs we picked up from the market were totally excellent. They were packed in styrofoam which is totally lame...BUT when I dropped them because I am an absolute butterfingers apparently, ONLY 2 OUT OF THE DOZEN BROKE!!! WHAT?!?! Anyway - good job on the eggs and their packaging Oahu!
After lunch we immediately raced back out to the car for more adventuring and stopped at a macadamia nut farm...upon our arrival realizing that we still had exactly $14 to our name. We picked up nuts and coffee, because that's what you do, and had fun chasing the roosters around in the front part of the farm. Another important sidebar to this tale - did you know that in different parts of the world they have different noises that animals make? We learned this on the Launcher, and specifically we talked about roosters because they make the CRAZY noise in the States of "Cock-A-Doodle-Do!!!" - which one of the Navigators found really funny. So naturally today Deb and I spent a lot of time chasing roosters on the island trying to film them for our navigator friend Rasmus. Cock-a-doodle-do Rasmus (I hope you're still reading). Anyhoo...on our way back from our after-lunch adventure, Deb turned to me in the car and was talking about how we should totally buy pasta to make for dinner! To which I had to remind her, "Deborah...we have 3 dollars" which was of course followed by peals of laughter from the both of us.
So adjusting back to normal life has been both totally awesome (I haven't fallen over putting my clothes on in at least a day) and really confusing (why is money so important???) - more updates on the adventures of two grudging seafarers making their way back into the non-boat world.
**Edit: Deb has pointed out that 4 eggs were broken...2 were very obviously broken and 1 other had to be thrown away for fear of E. coli BUT we got 9 eggs to cook with DESPITE my clumsiness and I think that's a win.
As all good things must come to an end, so has my trip aboard the Maersk Launcher ended. Though the trip was not without it's stresses and bad weather and bouts of sea sickness, I found it amazingly hard to leave the comfort and familiarity of the ship behind. In almost a two-month voyage, the crew of The Ocean Cleanup and the Maersk crew felt more like family than anything else, and it was more difficult than I would have imagined to pack up all my stuff and leave! For the record, I did not cry upon seeing my first tree on land, though I definitely paused and had to touch a palm tree to make sure I wasn't dreaming!
The craziest part of all of this is that I am ON OAHU NOW! There are birds and dogs and OTHER PEOPLE and ocean that meets land, which is NUTS!!! Adjusting to non-rolling ground underneath me has been a struggle as well - I tripped going up the stairs on the Launcher while we were in port...the first time I tripped going UP the stairs and naturally we weren't moving. Another awesome aspect of being on solid ground is that when putting say shoes on you don't have to THROW YOUR WEIGHT against any forces of the waves moving the ship...so needless to say I've almost fallen over while getting dressed more than a couple times...even since actually moving into Airbnb's and not even being in the ENVIRONMENT that the ground underneath me was rolling but I guess it'll be fine...
I am wishing Wilson the best and am looking forward to seeing the results of the trial in the GPGP, but for now I'm gonna go enjoy the salt and sand and waves at the beach - the first beaches I've seen in nearly TWO WHOLE MONTHS!!! Goodbye Launcher, it's been a real pleasure and adventure and I know you'll have a place in my heart forever, but aloha Hawaii, I think we're gonna get along just fine.
In the spirit of my favorite holiday being right around the corner, I helped in the organizing of a Halloween Party on the Maersk Launcher. There were paper bats lining the halls of the deck, there was excessive candy and coffee, and best of all almost HALF of the people that attended went in costume!!! As one of the only Americans on the vessel, I felt it was my duty to bring some spooky cheer to the crew, especially as our trip is winding down - we've all been working so hard together and such long hours, it felt like the least we could do was lighten the mood and share a night of laughs! As we were not planning on having a Halloween party onboard, the costumes had to be creative AND made using only the materials available to us on the vessel. We had a mermaid trapped in plastic, a witch, a blue whale, a fish, a mummy, a castaway and many more! Yours truly attended the party as Marine DeBREE (thanks to a friend in Miami for giving me the idea AGES ago) and we had a lovely night enjoyed in the company of friends and silly costumes and just a little too much sugar. It's the little moments like this that I'm definitely going to miss, but I'm excited that we got to share at least one last night of genuine fun on the Launcher. In addition, I'm beyond THRILLED to have a costume that matches my blog title: This costume is, in fact, trash!
I'm a little nervous about seeing shore for the first time in almost two months, but I'm also definitely looking forward to not having the world constantly moving.
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).