Ducie Island, Shark Finning, and BIRDS!

Ahoy, mateys! As you can see from this blog, I was not consumed or mortality wounded by an elasmobranch. In fact, we just completed a third dive at Ducie Island and I have seen a total of 0 sharks. I did see a freaking sailfish and that was awesome, but alas no sharkie sharks.  Now normally this wouldn’t bother me and in most places I wouldn’t think anything of it. But this island WAS known for sharks.  Perhaps a little too well known I guess.  While I didn’t see any sharks I did find evidence to why.

As scientists we seek answers to perplexing observations. Past reports said there would be sharks, so our hypothesis was that we would see sharks. Our hypothesis was rejected by a replicate of three dives across three very different sites on the islands. So we formulated several new hypotheses. 1) The sharks are gone because its winter. 2) The sharks are really there but we just haven’t been to the right place or dove at the right time. 3) The sharks aren’t here because someone or something made them go away. Well on my first dive I found pretty strong evidence that is was the latter hypothesis.  

While looking at the corals, Pete, the dive photographer (who BTW filmed Steve Irwin get killed by sting rays and has hung out with Patrick Stuart OMG) and I found two ‘shark clips’ connected to some brand new rope. My guess is whoever left that tackle did it not but one week ago because those clips were brand new and the line had no algae or anything on it. So there was some data to suggest that the sharks were fished recently. (Please note…if you don’t want to be depressed skip to paragraph that starts “To end the blog on a good…”)

But what about the other hypotheses. In my distress of not seeing any sharks, yesterday I emailed a colleague, Alan Friedlander, who was the first author on that paper about the unusual amount of shark biomass here on Ducie Island. I asked him if he only saw the sharks in one place on the island. He immediately responded and said no, the sharks were everywhere and they saw lots on every dive. Thus hypothesis 2 was rejected. I guess we will never know if the sharks simply come here only in March (hypothesis 1) when the last survey was done unless someone comes back in a future March to document that.

So most of the evidence and rumors about fishing boats in the area suggest that the sharks were poached. Yes, poached! This is a British Island and they don’t fin sharks here. For those not familiar with finning, it’s the process of catching a live animal, namely a shark, and cutting all its appendages off while it is alive and then throwing it overboard to die from a) suffocation b) bleeding to death c) being eaten by other animals or most likely d) all of the previously mentioned combined. Personally I think it’s a brutal and savage way to kill an animal…any animal. Clearly I’m upset. In fact I’m truly depressed about this. I came here thinking (see blog #1) that we would see an unspoiled habitat, one somewhat untouched by humankind. But clearly that was a fantasy and there is no such place anymore. As most of you know I’m a pretty positive person, but this really makes me sad and extremely angry.  I was up all night thinking about it. I don’t have any answers, but I do know that as a society we should fight finning as much as we can. Sharks kill a handful a people a year, but we kill millions upon millions. Sorry for the grim post, but unfortunately a lot of marine biology is sad news these days.  

To end the blog on a good note, despite the sharks, we had a wonderful last two days here at Ducie Island. It is a postcard island with amazing breaking waves on one side, a huge lagoon on the inside, and several sets of motus filled with trees and birds. The weather is fair and cool with onshore breezes refreshing us during the day and night, but mostly sunny and clear during the day. It feels a little unfair that we get to experience such perfection. I can certainly understand why those guys on the Bounty wanted to stay because this is truly a tropical paradise.

All the science teams had successful collections of corals, fish, water, and video.  All the crew worked tremendously hard to make a flawless day on the water and on Tara. The fish here are shockingly friendly and a tad annoying as they follow us very closely (dude, fish, get out of my face) as we dive and collect. Now we also have some resident fish who’ve taken up living under the boat and who’s days are likely numbered given the spear fisherman on the boat.

We plan for more sampling tomorrow and hopefully more shark sightings and encounters. We hope to find a way to enter the lagoon which remains shrouded in mystery. Alan told me that they sampled inside it, and that’s its very different than the forereef. I asked him how they made it in, and he replied “crazy kiwi.” Well we don’t have a crazy Kiwi. We have some crazy Frenchies but none that are willing to be that crazy. It’s like Jaws on the outside, barrels 10 feet tall that break on the reef. We’ve watched the tides and even at high tide it seems semi-suicidal to attempt getting a zeppelin in there. And if you did make it in, how the hell would you get out? So right now the plan is to find a way to venture on foot. I am particularly excited about this because I’d like to see the very populous bird colonies that are all over the tree and ground. There are masked boobies, white terns, tropics birds, and Murphy’s petrels. These petrels are special here. 90% of the total world population live at Ducie. So if we travel across land we need to be very careful not to disturb the birds or trample on their nests. So we likely try and stick to the beach and give the birds their space. But still…BIRDS!!!    

Rest, Relaxation, and Fish Stories

Date: Sunday September 16, 2016, 14:57 (now on PST)

# days since arriving on Tara: 16

Current Location: 25 05 408 S; 121 31 631 W

Current Speed: 9.5 knots using both engines

Max Wind Speed in the last 24 hours: 12 knots

Current wind speed: 4.5 knots hence the double engines

# of hours before we reach our next destination, Ducie Island: 23

# of times my head hit my hatch today: (0! But, there is still time)

# of Nautical Miles Tara has gone since it left France: ~11,000

# of Marine Life Animals Seen in route to Ducie Island: 11 birds, 5 flying fish (4 alive, one dead on the deck), 3 jellys, and 1 green plastic jug mistaken for a turtle

# of other boats seen on the radar: 0 since Easter Island

# of pots de crème I have eaten in 24 hours: 4

# of papers written since arriving on Tara: 0

Amount of science in last blog: 0

Amount of science in this blog: 0

Amount of science in next blog: Undetermined. Likely 0

# of French words learned in the last 24 hours: 8

# of French words learned in the last 24 hours that I can repeat on this blog: 0

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Hi everyone,

So it’s Sunday. Sunday Sunday Sunday! A few things are different on Sundays. We get to eat meat, and it is drill day (fire drill today at 16:15). And yes, I said we get to get meat today. Meals on Tara are almost 100% vegetarian (vegetarian being no animals with four or two legs shall be consumed) with Sunday as the exception. Strangely enough I hadn’t even noticed that the food lacked meat until last Sunday when someone pointed it out. That is how delicious and amazing the food has been, that it’s so good, meat is not necessary at all. Although, I will admit, after a week with no protein other than cheese, fish, and shellfish I was super excited. So today we ate an insane lunch of braised and herb crusted pork in duxelle (mushroom) sauce with roasted potatoes and carrot salad. Oh and coffee pots de crème. Wheeeeeee!!

Now I thought I was gonna come home thinner and tanner than before. Ixnay that first part for sure. So given the 10,000 calorie meal, after brunch I led an impromptu yoga class on the deck. Since the seas are so light and following it wasn’t an impossibility. In fact, it was quite a success, and several others of the crew and science team want to do it tomorrow too. Ideally in two days we can find a remote beach and even get the whole boat to Downward some Dog at Ducie Island. Namaste, people. Namaste.

In other news, last night I was on watch from midnight to 2am. Sounds tough but it was actually one of my favorite parts of the day because it’s so rare to see the skies at night in a place where there is literally NO light pollution other than that from the moon. Also how often can you see the sky in 360 degrees? Every star is brilliant and any meteors that streak across the sky are breathtaking. Sadly, I think we are going to just miss the new moon, but I can only imagine the sky around here in the middle of the ocean on a completely dark night. I’m off tonight but will definitely stick my head outside after dinner to see if the skies are clear again.

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Tomorrow, we reach our second sampling site, Ducie Island (I know it’s a super weird name), which is in the Pitcairn Islands, some of the most remote places in the world. A recent paper by Friedlander et al. (I guess there is some science in this after all, whoo hoo) suggests that this island has some of the largest top predator biomass of any island in Polynesia, with ~33% of all the biomass being in the form of large bitey things. How nice. It is also home to many more species of reef-forming corals that take up another 33% of the biomass. So sharks and Scleractinians will be found in abundance, and I mean abundance. Or so we are told.

Now fish stories are fish stories, so I’m trying to keep my expectations low which is a nice way to live cause you are always pleasantly surprised. I think in this case I’ll be pleasantly surprised no matter which way the fish story goes. Basically I’m also trying to keep my apprehension about the bitey things at minimum too. But just this morning one of the French sailors aboard, Fanch, said that when he was there 4 years ago, there were so many sharks that everyone GTFOed from the water.  Then, in a somewhat sympathetic tone, he said, “but it will probably be fine for you though.” Probably. Oh good. Good old… “probably!” A favorite word of mine. Goes nicely with “well maybe” and “likely” and “who knows if” followed by “you’ll get eaten.” So if you don’t get a new post by tomorrow night…. “probably” was more like “actually” or “certainly” or “I’ll put money on it.” So sailors, wish me fair winds tonight and recently well fed sharks tomorrow.

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My Hatch and 15 Other Things That Can Hurt You on a Schooner, an Autobiography

Like most of the sailors and science crew, I’m currently covered in bruises and cuts and abrasions. A sail boat is a veritable ER doctor’s dream because literally almost everything on it can hurt you due to the fact that the floor is moving and there is lots of stuff everywhere to fall and slip onto, whack your noggin on, crunch your fingers and toes in, and basically disfigure you continuously. So here is a little summary of the most notable injuries I or others have sustained since I’ve arrived.

1. The Hatch

This mini door that allows fresh air to be exchanged with stank in my room is the bane of my current existence. It hangs down from the middle of my ceiling in my cabin, which is often where my head is also located. I’ve stopped counting now the number of times I’ve hurt myself on this jerk, but I’ve hit basically every part of my head on this thing, the front, back, sides, and even poked my eye on it. F-bombs galore.

2. Doorways

I’m lucky enough that with my height this is less of a problem for me, but every day I see someone whack the front or back of their heads on these. I am more prone to hitting my arms on the sides when a big wave hits.

3. Steps

Toes and feet beware, as there are many of these to stub yourself on. Some are wood and some are metal, but all hurt.

4. Dishes

When this boat is a rocking those dishes and knives can go flying. The trick during meals is to gauge the period and height of those waves and get your mitts ready to grab whatever flies off the table. Yesterday in the middle of the night I got so sick of listening to the dishes smash into the side of their storage space I got up and stuffed the dish towels around them. Surprised this wasn’t standard operating procedure before, although it seems to have been adopted now.

5. The Deck

Actually this was my first introduction to the pain inflicted by the boat. On my first night watch I tripped on a line (see #11) while checking out a strange noise in the dark and wham….the whole left side of my body was strongly caressing the deck of the boat.  Ow.  But I somehow managed to not hit any of the random metal things on the deck so I think that’s a win-win. Plus it was a good lesson to learn….always be aware of what’s near your feet.

6. Scuba Tanks

These are some of the more scary items on a moving vessel. 20-30 pounds of steel that contain pressurize air waiting to come out. In tall cylinder form, these tanks are not stable and warrant severe caution while managing them. The tank holder set up they have here works on three tanks at a time so if you release one you release them all. That means your toes and feet could get crushed if you don’t mind the other two while working on yours.  

7. Other People

Throwing your fellow sailors and colleagues under the bus is looked down on in any good crew, but seriously we all seem to find ourselves hitting or hurting each other, physically and emotionally. For example, Marion is cutting onions at this moment and I can’t see anything as a result. But on the super small dinghy, this is especially rampant. I must have clocked or gotten clocked by someone putting on their gear like 3 times already. I had someone put a tank on my foot, and I managed to elbow Chris in the face.Sorry dude. Also since my French is so bad this is where I tend to get teased. During our dive at the super big swell site, I was on watch for the other divers. Two Taranauts, Nico and Monche were waiting with me when I said “Over there guys.” In a not-so-flattering and highly nasal voice (Do I really sound like that?), both French dudes immediately said “Over thereeeeee guyssss!” and then giggled. Hmmm. Interesting. It’s the fact that they both did it simultaneously that suggested to me that this reply was practiced behind my back late in the night when I was asleep. But it’s all in good fun and I’m thick skinned. Next time I will make it even more annoying and high pitch to add to the fun.     

8. A Random Box on the Floor

While labelling the other day, (see last blog) I managed to destroy my shin on a plastic box filled with samples. I then realized that the stupid person who put that box right where my leg goes, was my very own self. Nice.   

9. The Bathroom Door

Really the bathroom doors should count as two because you can get hurt on both sides, where it latches and where the hinge is. The doors are always kept closed for a reason but if you are unfortunate enough to try to get in one of these small coffin-sized potty rooms and a big wave hits, you better hope your finger isn’t in the hinge (did this yesterday) or on the latch.

10. The boom

It’s called this for a reason. Keep your head away from it.

11. The lines/ropes

While lines (sailors’ term for ropes) will trip you up easily (see ‘the deck’) they can also do all sorts of other horrible things to your body.  They can give you a burn and tear small parts off of your body, as Chris and his toe nail found out a few days ago. Chris was moving his scuba tank to secure it when he managed to clip a rope on the deck and bent that sucker right back and then off. Cue cuss words and squeals about the blood. Definitely the biggest ouch since we got here.

12. The boat as a whole

As I mentioned, she rocks, she rolls and she shudders, especially when in big seas. Yesterday in our 15 foot waves and 35 knot winds she rocked, rolled, and shudder half the science team into their beds. Barf city. I was all good all day until the chef served a delicious pasta with blue cheese sauce that sent me on the vomit comet. No one wants to spew blue cheese, believe me.

Panoramas don't work too well when the ship's rocking like crazy...

Panoramas don’t work too well when the ship’s rocking like crazy…

13. A sponge

This one was unexpected, but Guillaume my cleaning partner managed to throw a soapy sponge straight into my face while attempting to toss it to Monche during cleaning time. Soap + eye = sad Becky, but hysterically laughing French sailors (see #7).

14. Your laptop

Besides the induction of seasickness while reading and writing on this, I managed to somehow pinch my leg skin in between the screen and back of the computer while writing on my lap. What is my deal, really?  

15. A pineapple

Before we left for Ducie island, Marion our chef had to go shopping on Easter Island for enough supplies to feed 16 people three 3-course French meals for 20 days. That is a lot of food. So I offered to help put the food away. I hauled, packed, and lifted hundreds of pounds of food across the ship. Mostly I managed, but I did end up damaging one orange, crushed one box on a door way, and slit my right wrist. The culprit of the cut wrist was a freaking stray pineapple. In revenge, Marion immediately cut the bastard up into pieces for fruit salad. But there remains one loose pineapple. I got my eyes on you, Pineapple. Come any closer and it’s piña colada time.

Still having good time, though!

Still having good time, though!

A Day in the Life: Tara Edition

Right now it 5:45pm. We are underway to a new mooring because our last one was too rough. The swell was considerable, I’d say 3 meters, and relentless. We were getting beaten up and stuff on the boat was falling and breaking all over the place. Yet with the transit I have some free time to write this blog.

One question I had been asking myself (and so maybe have you) since I found out I’d be on this ship was what an average day would be like. So here’s my first week’s impression of life on Tara. Overall it’s remarkably busy but oddly relaxed. I never feel too rushed like I often do in the field. I do often feel like I am in people’s way, but I guess that comes with living on a boat with 16 people.  Hallways and stairwells can really only hold one person, and I am constantly say “Pardon” or “Excuse moi” to get past people when I am on my tenth trip to the stern to get something I ran out of or forgot.  Despite this everyone is generally agreeable and pleasant despite my running around and always being in the way.

A day in the life of a Taranaut

An average day consists of 1) eating, 2) cleaning, 3) diving, 4) sample processing, 5) cleaning, 6) eating, 7) dry lab working, 8) more eating, 9) more cleaning, and 10) sleeping. This is a French boat so the eating part is very important, and amazing. Meals are not to be rushed and they are surprisingly formal given the very relaxed nature of the crew. In fact, I got some tut-tuts and stink eye from the crew for trying to finish putting away the samples during lunchtime. Breakfasts are self-serve (lunch and dinner are served) and usually consist of coffee and tea with bread, jam, butter, fruit, and cereal. The French use bowls for their coffee and dunk their bread, butter, and jam into it. A BOWL OF COFFEE! Yes! It’s like my favorite thing ever, and I don’t understand why we American’s have never picked up this tradition. I mean a BOWL of coffee, people! Also Marion, our chef, makes her own jam and butter. Wowzer. I can’t get enough of her passionfruit spread and feel guilty every time I eat more of it cause I know there is not much. In fact she also brought homemade cheese and honey from France along with many other French products.   

Dive time; and yes its winter in Easter Island

After breakfast we clean up the kitchen and then prepare for the dive and coral- and water-sampling. This entails packing our sampling bags of five main things: camera, quadrat, sampling bags, hammer/chisel, and slate with underwater paper for sampling notes. We also get our dive gear ready and don our wetsuits. The water here is unusually cold for Polynesia, so we are wearing a 3mm long john suit under a 3mm hooded top. That’s six mm chest and 3 everywhere else. Despite this everyone is cold. After 1 hour underwater in 20°C water you are pretty darn cold. Then we put out the “dinghy” or zeppelin boats and load them up. On day one, I called the dinghy a “zodiac” but was quickly chastised. Apparently this company who makes these inflatable boats is “zeppelin” not “zodiac” and I was warned not to make the mistake again. Um. Okay?

Scientific Tangent:

Fun fact… rapamycin, the commonly used antibiotic, is named after the place where it was discovered, Rapa Nui! This drug comes from a strain of Streptomyces bacteria previously isolated in the soils of Easter Island where we are sampling now.

The dinghy boats are quite nice and feel really sturdy in the water even though they only have 70 horsepower outboard engines.  Once the dinghies are launched and the dive gear loaded by crane, we can climb down the ladder into them.  This is an interesting experience every time as Tara’s deck sits about 15 feet above the water. Today the swell was about the same height so it took quite a couple of tries for the captain of the zodiac, I mean zeppelin, to get everyone on board unscathed. Getting out was actually more interesting today.

captain sam on dinghy

Captain Sam on the dinghy

These dive boats have one captain and can fit another 7 people on them. We work in teams of three underwater so that’s two teams and one “watcher”: a person (our dive safety officer actually) who floats in the water and looks for the divers. The captain follows the watcher as we cannot anchor these boats, and in these seas we would never even try. Once we are onboard, we head out on our heading to the GPS point.  Today that consisted of a rock motu (island) off the west side of the main harbor of Easter Island. So it was … BIG … out, today. I think that is probably the biggest seas I have ever dove in, although I was never worried about my safety in the least. This crew is not phased by 12 foot seas, and they exude so much confidence and are so relaxed that they make you relaxed and confident too. Plus, I knew that once we were under the water we’d be fine. One issue with these boats, however, is space! It’s hard to put on your gear next to the other divers in such a small boat, so we go one-by-one. This is kind of annoying in big seas, cause if we could all go in at the same time that would reduce seasickness and air use, which seems to be my problem this trip. But it’s all good.

On the dives, we hunt for two very different species of corals, Pocillopora and Porites. These two corals are very different. Pocillopora is small (~20cm across) bushy, bumpy, and hard as diamonds. The other, Porites, is massive (we saw one that was 2 meters across and 3 meters tall), pillared, and soft. They also have different reproductive strategies and grow at different rates. Basically they represent very different spectrums of corals, which is why we chose them. At each site we need to collect small samples of 10 colonies of each of these species for the variety of analyses we aim to do (which will be another blog post). This is not a problem at all here because those are the ONLY two species we could find anyways. But in other places, it will be difficult to find them among all the coral diversity. Easter Island, like many remote places, has very few species and 25% of its species are endemic (meaning they exist here). Since this research cruise is to evaluate corals across the Pacific we had to pick two species that are pan-Pacific. Thus another reason we chose those two species for this study.

Diver job: find coral, take sample, photograph coral, fin.

To be as efficient as possible, underwater, each diver has a specific task. One person finds the proper specimen, confirms its taxonomy (easier said than done) and then takes some data about the specimen including taking a photograph of two. A second person cuts small fragments of the coral and puts it into some bags that the third diver is holding along with all the materials divers number one and two might need. This sounds really easy huh?  Well today my job was the camera person and I sucked at it, literally and figurative. Personally, I blame the swell.

dive selfie

Now 12 foot seas are fine if you are diving deep but this site wasn’t deep (12-15 meters), and we were close enough to the shore that it was like being in a washing machine underwater. One second you were above your coral and the next you were 30 feet away on the other side of the reef. Wheeeee! I actually think this is kind of fun, like an underwater rollercoaster… but not when you are trying to photograph something or sample it. So we ended up holding onto the substrate as hard as we could and sometimes getting slammed into the rocks around us. Some places were better as the surge was less, but for the most part it was a bit ridiculous and most importantly frustratingly slow for sampling.

Again I want to reiterate that I was never scared or worried that we were in a dangerous situation. It was very safe, just hard sampling conditions. My biggest issue ended up being air. I use a little tank. I’m a shorty and these are steel tanks and super heavy and anything bigger and I’d be unable to swim. These tanks generally only have 200 bar in my tank (or about 2000 psi) when everyone else has 300 to 350. So after fighting the swell for 40 minutes, I was at my limited 50 bar and needed to go do a safety stop and get in the boat. Emilie and Gullaume, my buddies, swam back to the boat with me but still had air so they managed to go back down and finish up without me. So I sucked my air. When we got back to the boat and checked out the photos…. we also realized that somehow I manage to take videos and not photos of the individual corals. So I sucked at taking pictures too.  Nice. I am so “that” person right now; the person who runs out of air first and didn’t even do a good job at their job which was pretty darn simple. At least I didn’t get seasick on the boat too which can’t be said for all the divers. And luckily I have a few more dives ahead of me to redeem myself. Lastly, I asked Monche (our dive safety guy) for a bigger tank, so I can suck more air and not worry about it.

Pocillopora

Pocillopora

Once back on the boat we have to weigh and count all the pieces of coral to confirm we followed our permit and then process all the samples. Here in Easter Island the authorities actually watched us do this every day. While normally we’d do this the moment we get aboard we have added an additional step to this pipeline here in Easter Island… shower and warm up. With the wetsuits and exertion from fighting the swell no one was really cold at the end of the dive. But add a 40-minute boat ride to that and everyone was cold, really cold. So most of us stripped off of our gear and headed to the showers. After warming up in a three-minute shower (our allotted fresh water for the day) we tackled the samples which takes about 1 hour with six people.  Sadly, we won’t have six people at our next two stops so it will take longer.

Porites

Porites

4 hour lunch

After sample processing and cleaning up we head to lunch, which is usually consists of very large portions of food including a salad, a grain or pasta, and some vegetable and/or cheese dish like a stuffed pie or stew or curry. There is always a French dessert of cake or pots de cream or fruit and yogurt at the end too. Yum. Oh and more coffee of course. As I said everyone takes time with their lunch which often goes more than an hour. People generally do their daily chores then too, like vacuuming the floor, washing the showers, or the worst job, cleaning the toilets.  

After the boat is cleaned we start working on the next aspect of science, LABELING.  Labels, labels, labels. Even more labels: Making labels. Sticking labels on tubes. Sticking labels on bags. Sticking labels to sheets. Sticking labels to labels. Lots and lots of labels. Think… four people and 1.5 hours of non-stop labeling. But labeling is somewhat meditative actually, and it’s a skill every scientist should have. That and making stuff out of PVC, duck-tape, and zip ties.  

So after all that, it’s around 3 or 4pm and many of us take a nap. I napped on the first day of the dive and it screwed my night sleep up bad I’ve been skipping the nap since. But as you’ll see on the dinner section, napping is important for not falling asleep in one’s European dinner. While people nap, I’ve been reading emails or writing comments on papers or writing a blog, ha. I’ve also been trying to make sure all the science stuff is cleaned up. It’s easy to leave stuff around and sailors don’t like things lying around. Also the dive gear needs to be cleaned and put away. Our dive safety office often does this while we process the samples, but there is always more to do.

Taranaut Pascal

Taranaut Pascal

European dinner… late.

While we were processing samples and labeling, the other dive team was out collecting plankton and doing the benthic transect videos. Given the lateness of these dives that team often isn’t done with stuff and back on the boat until around 5. Then people are basically finishing cleaning up and the crew get everything ready for the evening around 7. Since they are French, dinner often doesn’t start until 9pm.  Plus, while the food is served no one touches it till everyone is sitting down which can sometimes take quite a while because the crew is in charge of a lot of things. Dinner is again three courses and people chat often until 10:30. If you are on dishes that means you are washing and drying till 11pm. The night watch starts at 11pm but most of the crew stay up for another hour or so. So it’s a long day but a good day.  

Rock me mama, like a wagon wheel  – or like an 83-foot schooner.

Even though she can rock pretty hard, sleeping is not hard here, at least not for me. In fact, I rather like the swaying; it feels like being rocked to sleep, and it’s even sometimes hard to not get sleepy from the constant rocking when you are just sitting around. Also my bunk bed is quite large and comfortable. I did, however, get the short end of the cabin stick. My room is the one closest to the galley so it’s a tad loud. But that’s not too bad. The main issue is that it’s also unfortunately above the gas and bilge. Think stinky. Super stinky. Stinky enough that I have to cover my face and even gag sometimes. Each night I turn on my fan, open my hatch, and open my door to get the fumes to dissipate enough that I don’t get brain damage from sniffing gas. If we’re moving I can’t have the hatch open and therefore I try to stay out of the room. I’ve spoken with the crew and they are aware that it’s the stinky room but someone has to sleep in it ‘cause there is not enough room on the boat otherwise, every bunk is taken. Hopefully I can convince the captain that this is a minor form of torture and that I should get to switch to a new room after a week or so. For now, I will keep my complaints to myself and suffer the stank in silence.

Have sweatshirt will travel

So what does one need to pack for a 5-week scientific trip, 4 of which are on a sail boat? Clearly I couldn’t bring everything I would have liked. Also much of the dive gear I would need is provided (regulator and BC) as are the materials for sampling and storing the coral samples were to collect. But still, in packing for Tara, I was highly concerned about space, so I devised a plan under the assumption that I would have no access to civilization for 4 weeks… oh wait that’s true. So here is a list of my gear and comments on many of them. Noticeably lacking is a rain jacket (face palm), but thus far I think I this was a good standard list and would have been even appropriate for a longer trip.

becky and chris moaiElectronics

Can’t really travel these days without a ridiculous assortment of things that can get fried in seawater and are really expensive. I tried to limit mine to just a few but it kept adding up so in the end it’s just 10 things. Had this been my husband’s blog it would be considerably more, so I am feeling smug.

  1. Laptop with charger. Ahh my lemon Mac lap. Clearly I had to bring it but this POS has windows office crash relatively commonly and its key board loves to stop working for no reason…see spare mouse. Had to buy this POS last year when we were in Curacao and mine was stolen by some a****** who broke into our house and took all the electronics and my wallet from the main room.
  2. Hard drive for backing up all my stuff from Tara and that includes all my stuff from my desktop back home sans my Next Gen Sequencing libraries. So I can work and complete all those papers and revisions that are outstanding….yeah time to work on papers!
  3. iPad for reading in bed mostly, with many recently-acquired YA books about various kinds of magicians and mythical creatures! Downside…doesn’t help with finishing those manuscripts.
  4. iPhone which apparently now is just an expensive paper weight in my gear cause I have no service. Will be important again when I return to the US I guess.
  5. Two USA-to-Euro converters ’cause why pack one when two are better?
  6. Noise cancelling headphones with extra batteries and cords for engine noise and French lessons. C’est bon!
  7. Dive watch with the necessary instructional manual because last time I dove in Hawaii all it said was “wet” the whole time and didn’t record a single dive. To the company who made that computer…really?…really really?.. why is that even a setting?  
  8. Headlamp for walking around at night. Shit’s dark in the middle of nowhere.
  9. Spare mouse for crappy laptop (see number 1).
  10. Digital camera. An oldie but a goodie. Ended up donating my flash card to the Tara underwater cameras so currently is useless. Hello iPhone.

welcome to easter island

Luggage and Gear

Like any good expedition, this trip was a great excuse to buy even more kit and gear to take up space and collect dust in my garage and lab for 11 months of the year. For example, item #one was an item I have wanted for many years, but had no reason to plop down the $140 (actually $98 thank you end-of-the-summer sale) in cash for. But hey…I’m on a boat so any gear needs to be water proof and relatively small right?, so cha-ching!  

  1. One super hot and stylish 45 liter ‘Bottomless Pit’ duffle bag from Patagonia (cue hand wringing). Fully water proof! Shoulder backpack straps for easy carrying through airports! Sea blue and oh so shiny! Got a crap ton of stuff in it, including my full size fins, people. Its name ran true as it did seem bottomless.
  2. Timbuktu personally designed laptop case. Had one of these given to me in 2005 by my father in law. It never died and was still is in amazing shape after spending some time at the bottom of the sea (whoops) and in a cooler filled with fish (double whoops). So this last year I got a new one that I designed myself. Note to future buyers, go with the Velcro covers…my clothes and my couch are destroyed.  
  3. Mask, fins, booties, and gardening gloves for diving. While most the gear is provided, I’m just not comfortable diving without these very personal items. I like to know that I won’t have a leaky and foggy mask or weak-ass fins that are gonna give me leg cramps or worse fall off in any current.
  4. 3mm Scuba Pro wetsuit. Had to get a new one after 7 years of wearing the other one and constantly complaining that I needed a new one cause mine was jacked from hundreds of hours underwater. Now I can’t complain about it, right Ryan and Deron?
  5. Two pairs sunnies (sunglasses, mate), croakies (to keep said glasses on neck or afloat), and a case to store them in the event I throw something on them or have my bag unceremoniously thrown on the boat.
  6. 1 pair eye glasses that if they break I’m screwed.
  7. Mechanical pencils and sharpies (required science gear).
  8. Blue nitrile gloves (see above parenthetical statement).
  9. Hair brush and many hair ties to lose in the ocean (ladies and dudes with man buns you know what I am talking about).
  10. As Zapphoid recommends, 1 towel to dry oneself and double as a blanket and other things (see Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).
Eating dinner with the crew

Eating dinner with the crew

Toiletries

  1. Sunscreen for keeping the cancer at bay.
  2. Hippie biodegradable toothpaste for keeping the bad breath and cavities at bay…tastes horrible.
  3. Face lotion, which I probably won’t use till Moorea.
  4. Lip balm.
  5. A thousand kinds of decongestant and anti-diarrhea meds cause well…the tropics…see section on viral diseases below.
  6. Body lotion, which in retrospect is likely unnecessary given the humidity.

Clothes

  1. 5 pairs Patagonia travel chonies (underpants, gringos) which are washable and easily dried. Don’t travel without these ladies.
  2. 3 swim suits, two of which are Patagonia-made and they should sponsor me ’cause I buy all their stuff and even though the stuff’s expensive it’s really worth it. I buy the same damn swim suit every field season and it rocks for serious underwater work. No messy or uncomfortable straps and can take my hard wear and tear.
  3. 5 t-shirts (probably too many).
  4. 3 tank tops (ditto).
  5. 3 pairs of shorts: 1 nice, 1 water use, 1 for daily wear.
  6. 2 pants: 1 nice for meeting with important people, 1 for cool nights and morning.
  7. 1 pair of tights. I found that traveling in these is very comfortable, warm, and easy.
  8. 1 skirt for fancy night and attempting to look respectful…probably failing.
  9. 2 long-sleeved technical fabric shirts for cool nights and bug repellent.
  10. 1 Patagonia R-1 technical fleece jacket. Have worn everyday since I got here.  
  11. 1 old manky Stanford sweatshirt. Can’t go anywhere without this baby, even though its older than most of you reading this blog. My dad bought it for me in 1998 when I got into Stanford for graduate school. It’s like my safety blanket and has been to every continent sans Antarctica with me. Many photos of me in the field show me in this POS. It’s ripped to shreds at the cuffs and is not warm at all anymore, but it does serve as a shield from the tropical cold after a dive and keeps the mossies (mosquitos, people), sand flies, and other nasties that want a piece of me from getting a bite.  

Moai and Tara

Scientific tangent: Zika virus

Since I am a scientist that studies viruses, perhaps this blog should have something useful in it. So here’s an educational tangent, about Zika. Zika virus is one of the diseases that I aim to prevent by wearing long shirts and pants while working in the tropics. I’ve already got a few tropical diseases (amoebic dysentery being the most recent and wow did that suck) but for the most part have been lucky. Yet many researchers who travel to and of course the people who live in the areas we work are exposed to many serious tropical viral diseases, the most currently notorious of which is Zika virus. Zika is an arbovirus in the viral family Flaviviridae that includes Dengue and West Nile.

Zika virus was originally discovered in African monkeys in the 1940’s by people looking for Yellow Fever. Although all the most recent discussions of Zika have focused on Brazil, and although the origin of the disease is Africa in where there were small outbreaks since the 1950’s, the first major Zika outbreak was on the island of Yap in the South Pacific in the late 1990’s where it infected a large majority of the inhabitants. Since I don’t have access to the internet I can’t give you any numbers; clearly I’ve become too dependent on Wikipedia. But this major outbreak outside of Africa was probably due to transmission of the virus from its native African mosquito (Aedes egypti) to other more urban-style and broadly prevalent mosquitos like Aedes albopictus.

But the second outbreak was in Moorea, the French Polynesian island that Tara will land at in October and where my lab’s recent research on coral reef viruses and bacteria is focused. When the outbreak occurred in Moorea, it was first thought to be a nasty strain of dengue fever or West Nile, two other mosquito borne viral diseases with the similar symptoms of high fever, rash, and severe nerve and joint pain. Again, like on Yap, a large portion of the population got the disease in Moorea, and it was severe enough that people sought treatment at the local hospital, which was overwhelmed. It wasn’t until the 2015 Brazilian outbreak that people realized in retrospect that the outbreak in Moorea was not dengue.  

Effects and Treatment of Zika

Two major complications of this nasty disease are birth defects and neurological issues that are long-lasting. One of the researchers I met in Moorea had been afflicted with the virus in 2009 (I think) and she still suffers from partial paralysis in her left leg. My cousin in Dominican Republic got a similar symptom from West Nile. This is symptom is called Guillain-Barré (French pronunciation) disease and includes a variety of neurological signs and symptoms. For those who are curious, a sign of a disease is something that is visual like a rash, but a symptom is something that is recorded like fatigue or malaise. Anyways, remember, at the time of the Moorea outbreak, Zika was not rediscovered yet and so data were not taken on the number of children and adults or their signs and symptoms that were associated with this outbreak. But just last year, however, the World Health Organization started using the local doctors on French Polynesia to determine if the outbreak then also caused an outbreak of microcephaly in Moorea and Yap as it has been shown in Brazil. Since the population of these small Polynesian islands is very low, the doctors generally know almost all the local residents, so this kind of work can be done. To my knowledge it is unclear what the results of these outbreaks were in those two islands, but based on the 4 different and very large signs I saw at the Easter Island airport, it’s very clear people are concerned here. And they should be, as this new disease can be very serious to adults and pregnant mothers. Scientist have also found that it can be transmitted in bodily fluids such as blood and also sexually transmitted. Research on Zika has been very fast paced, and just recently a receptor that is unique to the virus was discovered, so hopefully we’ll have a vaccine soon. At the same time, methods to prevent spread of the virus have been using symbiotic bacteria that infect the mosquitos has not only been developed but actually used in urban areas in USA. However, taking personal protections to prevent breeding of and bites from mossies are the most essential way to keep Zika at bay.

Day 1 on the Tara

Tally:

22 hours of travel: one car, three planes, one taxi, one hike, one boat trip.

4 whacks to the head on my hatch.

1 face plant on the deck.

1 beer.

At least 10 cups of coffee.

1 amazing fish stew.

Getting there

So here I am, on the Tara Expedition. When I started this blog it was 7pm last night and the crew was returning from some much needed shore leave and exercise. They have been at sea for two weeks straight so it’s not surprising they want to stretch their legs. The flights here were mostly easy – many, but easy. My first flight was PDX-Dallas, and we were delayed, leaving me only minutes to pee and buy food before boarding onto the new flight to Santiago. That flight was long but a redeye, so I got at least 4 hours of sleep and got to watch two Marvel movies. Um the X-men movie kind of sucked. How is that even possible?

Bad movies about mutants aside, Chile was a brief but pleasant stop over. I’ve been to Chile before on holiday with Andrew when we toured the southern Torres del Paine National Park and volcano district. Even the two-hour layover reminded how nice and laid back the Chilean people were. The airport was lovely and easy to navigate even with my super crappy Spanish. I longed to spend more time in Chile but that will have to wait till another day.

The flight to Easter Island was surprisingly long – almost six hours; a good reminder how remote this place it. The flight was also remarkably rough. I’ve crossed the Pacific numerous times, and each time there is some turbulence, but that had to be the most intense and sustained turbulence I’ve experienced in a long time. It actually got a bit frightening at one point but the calm of the flight attendants made it seem pretty standard.

Once we arrived into Easter Island / Isla de Pascua / Rapa Nui, I met up with another Taranaut Calixte from Brittany, France, who will be working on the plankton side of the work. He is a young plankton researcher who will be doing a bulk of the water filtering with Guillaume B (there are two Taranauts named Guillaume). One of Tara’s main missions is to catalogue the various plankton communities across the sea. Guillaume told me they have already sampled over 60 sites on his watch. We waited for Calixte’s bag in vain, as his connection was so close from Miami to Santiago that his luggage did not make it. Neither did Chris Voolstra, another Tara PI and our collaborator from the Red Sea, who was delayed overnight in Frankfurt due to a whole airport shutting down due to a security breach. But we were given the bags of two other Tara folk who missed their luggage earlier in the week, so it was win win.

A Polynesian island like no other

Landing in Easter Island, I was immediately struck how different it is than the rest of Polynesia. It is not tall like the Hawaiian Islands or Tahiti or Moorea. It is rather flat with oddly short and squat cinder cones of the volcanos jutting out at the corners. Also, hearing Spanish being spoken in Polynesia is rather disarming, albeit comforting for this non-French speaker. Polynesia’s sordid history is clearly displayed when you realize that in all the islands there are many different languages spoken: English in the Hawaiian Islands, Samoa and New Zealand, French in the Southern French Islands, and Spanish here. The history of this island is strange, mysterious, and also rife with the colonial conquest issues of the past. Chile acquired Easter Island in the late 1880’s but not before many of the locals were either killed or expatriated. It was even run by Mooreans at some point, and also offered up to the British who oddly passed. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see any of the Moai statues for which Easter Island is famous, but we we will be here a few more days and hopefully get off the boat to see some of the sites.

Onboard Tara

To get to the boat we hired a cab, and when we told him where we were he had never heard of it but figured it out from our description. Also, I had seen Tara from the air so we knew where she was moored. We had to walk our luggage down a steep ravine but it was pleasant outside and another boat was moored alongside Tara. The crew of that ship was at the dock and agreed to buzz our boat and let them know we were waiting ashore. We got picked up at the same time as many of the crew were leaving to spend the afternoon in town. I quickly and sheepishly said hello and gave the required 2-cheek kisses. But then we were rushed off to the boat.

Once on board I wasn’t sure what to do with myself (I still don’t, which is why I am writing this). I image I will feel like for some time until I get my bearings and some directed science tasks. I did meet the captain, Sam, and keeper of the house Marion, immediately. Marion showed me my room, and I hastily unpacked my seasick meds and took 2 before I could succumb. My room is quite sizable and my decision to pack lightly was unnecessary really as there is quite a bit of free storage space.

The boat is really large but the seas here are quite rough, and so we are rocking pretty good. I hung out with another scientist, Emilie Boisson, on the back deck for a few hours, and we talked about the project and some logistics while occasionally laying down on the sea pads to feel better (she was slightly sea sick, too). The air is quite cool and that is nice. I was evening wearing my sweater and pants to stay warm most of the night.

After a while I realized how tired I was (only got about 5 hours of sleep and in a plane, so not good sleep), and so I took a short 1-hour nap. I felt remarkably well after that and even began this blog in the cabin without getting seasick (knock on wood). Dinner was started by Marion and Sam and when I asked if I could help they told me to start drinking beers. Now that’s a task I can do. Dinner was served quite late, around 8 (how European), and really excellent, ling cod (I think based on her description of the fish and its taste and texture) and vegetable curry stew with brown rice and salad. I ate just a little for fear of getting sick (no one wants to barf curry, much alone fish curry), but I wanted like three humongous plates of that stew. I hope all the meals are as amazing.

After dinner I was briefed on some of my duties. As all members of the crew, I am responsible for lunch and dinner duties as well as night watch. Tasks for meals include service (setting the table and serving people), dishes (self-explanatory), and cleaning up. ‘Watch’ is an hour long duty everyone does each night. This essential job requires that you scan the instruments for issues like coming off our safe mooring site (not good), the dinghies or lines on the deck getting screwed up (bad), water in the instruments (very bad), and fire (really really bad). If any of these things happen then I relinquish any responsibility to someone else. For example, if our boat comes off its anchor or drifts too far into a danger zone I wake up Nico, who by my understanding is the second in command. If the wind speeds get above 25 knots (it was around 17-21 during my watch) then I wake up Nico. If there are any water or fire alarms, then I… you guessed it… wake up Nico. The only thing I can do on my own is close the hatches if it begins to rain. All in all, not a bad job, and the hour went quickly, but thank god I took that nap ‘cause I was pretty knackered. I got an early watch, so luckily I could sleep all night after 11pm. I think that was pretty kind of them. In retrospect, I wish I had brought my sweatshirt to watch and also peed beforehand. The only incident during my watch was me eating it on the deck when I tripped over a line while I was checking out a strange noise which ended up being two crew fixing something at the bow. I guess it was a good early lesson to learn… always look at where you are stepping on the deck cause there is a ton of things on it to make you fall down.

Becky’s on the Tara Expedition: Coral Viruses Across the Pacific

The Tara Trip

Apprehension. Excitement. Honor. Complete terror and insane wonder. These are the feelings I have been going through (sometimes all in the same five minutes) when I think about my voyage on the Tara. Tara you say? Yes Tara! Tara is a 36 meter (that’s ~110 ft for you Americans) sailing ship, devoted to the collection scientific samples and the dissemination of knowledge and good will across the world. Tara is currently on its 11th oceanic mission called the Tara Pacific Expedition which our lab was asked to join back in late 2015. Our lab’s mission is to help collect, catalogue and evaluate the viruses associated with two species of coral across the entire Pacific. In December of 2015 I travelled to Tara headquarters in Paris with my postdoctoral research and colleague Dr. Jerome Payet, who is an expert in aquatic virus ecology and conveniently French. Jerome helped me navigate and fall in love with Paris those few days  (merci beaucoup Jerome!) but more importantly helped the newly assembled Tara Pacific Team devise a sampling strategy and determine a few of the many logistical issues associated with the coral virus aspects of this expedition.

Tara anchored in Panama during the first leg of the trip. Photo by Maren Ziegler.

Most of the members of the scientific and logistics team are European (mostly French), as the Tara program is funded by the European Union and other European and international partners. In fact, our lab is only one of two non-European labs heading the scientific mission of the Tara Pacific expedition, and on the boat I will be the only one who doesn’t speak French. Doh! But what an honor to be chosen to lead this endeavor, and we were so lucky to be asked to participate! Thanks to everyone who threw our names into the collaborator hat!

Becky and 'conveniently French' Jerome during the planning meeting in Paris.

Becky and ‘conveniently French’ Jerome during the planning meeting in Paris.

The Tara Team

So since December the Tara team has been tirelessly getting the boat, equipment, permits, and all the amazing amount of paperwork and other 10,000 things done to launch the expedition in May. The boat successfully sailed from Paris to Miami and then Miami through the Panama Canal where the first leg of this year’s expedition started. Our very own Ryan McMinds was sent on that leg where he was instrumental in augmenting and finalizing the underwater protocol for collecting the corals. Ryan along with our friend and collaborator from KAUST Maren and ended their trips on the west coast of Panama.

Getting ready to dive in Panama

Collection site in Panama. Photo by Ryan McMinds

Can You Say Remote?

Currently the sailing team is in route to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) where I will meet them and journey across some of the most remote islands in the world. And therein lays my apprehension and terror. Now I’ve travelled a lot to many remote and foreign places. I have spent hours and hours on small boats doing coastal marine science, and I have logged hundreds of hours of dive time underwater in many tropical locations. But I have never spent more than 7 days on a boat, and that boat was an 83m (273ft) research vessel Atlantis, not a sail boat! Many of you might think I’m pretty adventurous, but I’m going to admit that I am kind of a wuss. I love traveling in retrospect, but usually when I do it I just want to go home. Yet I need to do this. It’s something every marine biologist dreams of…to be cliché…it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Expeditions like these are amazing life experiences both personally and career wise. It’s gonna forge new scientific collaborations and probably generate life-long bonds among the science team and crew. Never the less my ulcers get a little bigger each time I think about being at sea in the middle of nowhere. Well… it’s not that far you say? Oh yeah? So Easter Island/Rapa Nui is 2,182 miles from its protectorate nation of Chile. Its closest neighbor island is the least populous (only 56 people live there) nation in the world, Pitcairn which is famous for its descendants of the mutinous Bounty crew, a short 1,289 miles away. The island where we disembark, Gambier/Mangareva, is a short jaunt of 1,619 miles away. Also I will have no internet (yeah no politics for 4 weeks) or email (I dread my inbox on the day I return)! YES MIDDLE OF NO WHERE!

Famous Moai on Easter Island. Photo from Wikipedia.

Can You Say, Pristine?

Fortunately middle of nowhere might also mean some of the most pristine reefs of the world. I can barely imagine what I will see and experience. Whales? Sharks? Whale sharks (please please please)? Coral cover and species diversity like I’ve never seen? I hope. I’m also super excited about the microbiology we will be uncovering. We’ve never done such an extensive latitudinal and longitudinal survey of the microbes and viruses associated with corals before. This Tara trip will likely uncover new taxa and diversity like we’ve never recorded before. We might also be able to say what drives much of the co-evolution of these taxa with their symbionts. The data will be a long way in coming, but combining our GCMP data, we’ll hopefully have the most extensive geographical and phylogenetic analysis of the coral holobiont in history thus far. So I’ll keep you updated on the adventure. Wish me good weather, scientific luck, and whale sharks. Au revoir!

Hoping this Panamanian shark's cousins come out to play in the South Pacific. Photo by Ryan McMinds.

Hoping this Panamanian shark’s cousins come out to play in the South Pacific. Photo by Ryan McMinds.