Sunday, May 13, 2018

Graves Light

Kristina rolled onto her side and peered back at me. She crossed her arms over one another across her chest and slowly drifted forward in the current. In that position, with her black drysuit and neoprene hood, she looked very much like an otter. I giggled at the thought of her cracking urchin shells on her chest with a rock.

I beat my own fins and swam forward to join her. The seafloor beneath us was covered in boulders - giant, impossibly heavy rocks that played host to amazing biodiversity. I kept running into rocks throughout the dive, not because I was struggling to control my buoyancy (this dive was the first time I actually have felt in full control of my buoyancy in my drysuit), but because I was too curious about what was living on the stones. I would hover over one, exhale to sink, and get my face as close to the organisms as my mask would allow. There were giant ribbons of kelp rippling in the water. Every rock was covered in thin, branching strands of red algae, and attached to the algal fronds were ascidians, or sea squirts. One of the species in particular caught my eye. It was white and had very small zooids (small individuals in the colony). It reminded me of Didemnum vexillum, an invasive sea squirt that I'll have to collect for a project later this summer. I concluded that it must be Didemnum albidum, the sister species that is native to New England. It lived in small blotches on fronds of red algae. I made a mental note that the easiest way to collect Didemnum specimens would be to just rip up bits of the algae. That could help during my project later this year.

Elsewhere on the rocks, Kristina and I noticed numerous small black objects, again clinging to the red algae. We both stopped swimming for a second and hovered there, placing one hand each on the rock to steady ourselves in the current. We debated what the black things were in a way that only SCUBA divers can. Speech was precluded by the presence of a regulator in each of our mouths, so we used hand signals. I shrugged at her to ask "What are they?" We each took a look. We exchanged signals for "clam?" and "I don't know." Then Kristina opened her hand and wiggled it like a fish swimming out of a cave. I had no idea what she meant, so we moved on. Back on the surface, with speech to our aid, she clarified she had meant to say "egg." I actually believe the tiny things were blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. They were all gaping, as mussels often do when feeding, with their fleshy insides and siphons exposed to the current. The ubiquity of adult shells strewn on the seafloor indicated that M. edulis certainly occurs at the site, and the little guys may have been this year's recruits.

Altogether, Kristina and I did two dives at Graves Light, a lighthouse on a rocky island that marks the entrance to Boston Harbor. It was a marvelous day. Every time I go out diving, especially if it's on a small boat, I go through the same series of thoughts. First, I am nervous for the dive and make sure I have all of my gear no less than 15 times. I am hot, queasy, and uncomfortable on the boat and start to ask myself why I ever bother to dive at all. I tug at my neck seal and gripe at my weights and get frustrated by the number of things that snag on my straps (SCUBA gear is not comfortable to wear on surface.) But then, as soon as I am underwater, ever negative thought melts away. My mammalian dive reflex kicks in, my pulse slows down, my breaths lengthen, and I am mesmerized by the seafloor beneath me. Submerged habitats in New England have about the same level of biodiversity and fill the same function for me as the intertidal did in Oregon. It is where I go do decompress, to re-focus, to remember why I fell in love with the ocean in the first place.

On our second dive, Kristina and I again swam along the rocky seafloor, but we ventured a little farther than before. We found an area with even larger boulders and a sheer rock wall that rose from 15' depth to the surface. We ventured out over the sand a bit, too, and what we found there was a most impressive sight. Northern moon snails (Euspira heros) crawled across the sand with their fleshy, pale purple feet extended in a radius around their shells. I had always heard about moon snails but never seen them in person. Hovering there, watching the graceful mollusks glide along the sand, I felt like an alien visitor to another world. I could survey the planet's life forms from low altitude, but I was incapable of staying in their world for long.
A quintessential post-dive photo. Kristina still has her hood
on and is giving the "OK" symbol (used frequently underwater).
One of my braids has fallen out and my face is sun-kissed, but
we are euphoric. Graves Light is in the background.

Eventually, we began to get cold, and we were running out of gas. We found our way back to the boat's anchor, let air out of our suits and buoyancy compensators, and swam for the surface. I could feel the pressure release in my ears as we rose, not unlike during take-off in an airplane. We rolled onto our backs at the surface and paddled to the boat - now mimicking otter behavior almost perfectly. I took my gear off and settled down on the deck. The post-dive haze is a marvelous feeling, equal parts satisfaction, comfort, and euphoria.

We had two excellent dives to the bottom of the ocean. It was an awesome day. 

Construction day: part 4

Those white tubes are the casings for my larval traps, laying
in the lab's fume hood until their PVC glue dries. 
Friends, some of you may remember that last year, I spent a lot of time building larval traps to be deployed on moorings in the Arctic. It was a long process that required a lot of planning, figuring out, improvisation, and, ultimately, power tools. Well, I am embarking on a similar journey this year, with one key difference: this time, I know what I'm doing. I have my design for the larval traps all sorted out, so I can crank through the construction process and have the joy of just building the things.

To be honest, it's very satisfying to spend a day in the shop. After all the days I spend in my office, it's a welcome change to slice and grind and drill things. I love washing the dirt off of my hands at the end of the day.

I'm going much faster this year than last, which is good, because it's already May. My samplers need to be in Germany in June to be loaded on a ship for deployment. I am turning out samplers like a machine. It will take a lot of work, but I'm sure I can meet the deadline!

Monday, May 7, 2018

In print

Friends, I'm proud to announce that another one of my scientific papers has been published. This paper has been a long time in the making. I collected the data during my PhD, way back in the summers of 2014 and 2015. I built moorings from concrete blocks, attached fouling panels to them, and deployed them off of the Oregon coast to see what would grow. I had high expectations, but the project was plagued by misfortune. I struggled with seasickness every time I went out on the boat to visit my moorings. Cancelled or delayed trips meant my blocks stayed out much longer than I intended. Even after all the trouble I went through in deployment and recovery, my panels were pretty much just colonized by barnacles. It was disappointing data.

I really struggled with the analysis. None of my hypotheses proved to be correct, and it felt like nothing in the project could go right. But things started to turn around when I talked to an oceanographer at WHOI. Together, we realized that the patterns in barnacle recruitment that I observed were influenced by the flow of water around my study sites. It was a slow process, but my project started to turn around.

Eventually, that oceanographer and I wrote a paper about our findings. It was reviewed and accepted by the journal Estuarine, Coastal, and Shelf Science. At long last, I get to see my work in print! You can download the PDF here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272771417303773

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The sugar shack

The sugar shack
We turned off the country road and pulled into dirt parking lot. "We're here!" declared Julie, "the sugar shack!"

I stepped out of the van and scanned around me. The first thought in my mind was, "Ok, this is what I expected Canada to be like." I was standing on a sloping hill. To my right was a wooden cabin with several kegs on the sprawling front porch. Two meat smokers vented silver plumes out front. I could smell bacon and fresh air. Behind me, a stand of maple trees was entangled with bright blue tubing - a capillary network funneling their sap into a processing center. Sugar shack, indeed. 

Sap tubes strung between the maple trees near the sugar shack
The sugar shack was the reason I had come to Montréal. My friend, Julie, had raved about it to me when I saw her in November. Her vivid descriptions of the delicious and exotic food spoke to my inner foodie, so I knew I had to try it out. She invited me to join her group of friends in Canada for the weekend, and I was in for the adventure. 

The layer cake. Julie's face says it all.
We were seated at a long wooden table inside the cabin. The room was loud and busy, so it felt a bit like Oktoberfest - except that there were plaid shirts hanging on the wall and stuffed coyotes in the rafters. Bottles of homemade maple syrup stood open on the tables. Julie's boyfriend, Christian, poured some into a glass and handed it to me. "Newbie initiation," he explained. "Take a sip." 

Over the next three hours, we were served a series of 15 courses, each one more delicious than the last. Most of them included maple syrup - in fact, my cocktail was just champagne, gin, and syrup. 

Cheese souffle with maple-glazed bacon
Our first course was a layer cake with foie gras, maple butter, something with basil, and orange cream. We were instructed to put thin slices of the cake on toast and dab orange cream on top. I cannot for the life of me explain how it worked, but it absolutely worked. The toast-cake-cream dish is the single most delicious thing I have eaten in a long time. 

There were other more obvious dishes. Cheese souffle with maple-glazed bacon on top. Calamari stuffed with ground pork. Salmon meatballs with peas and avocado. Beef roast in clay pots with maple syrup, pineapple, and cranberry. 

"Eat it like nachos"
The waiters all walked around the cabin with pieces of bright blue tubing around their neck - the same tubing that was strung between the trees outside. I wondered why but found out between the appetizer round (which was 5 courses all by itself) and the main course. The tubes were filled with a brandy-and-maple-sap mixture that served as a digestif. I tried it, but of all the flavors I experienced at the sugar shack, I must admit it was my least favorite. I've just never been a brandy fan. 

Our meat-heavy main course was whisked away, and then dessert came out. In my opinion, dessert was the most creative round. We had deep-fried dumplings with maple paste inside. Maple toffee pops served in shaved ice decorated to look like snow. Maple ice cream sundaes. Then there was something on a wooden platter that I'm going to struggle to describe. It looked like a pile of tree bark, but it was really thin layers of fried batter alternating with maple cream. "Eat it like nachos," our waiter explained. It was unexpected and wonderful.  

This weekend was a Canadian cultural experience, to be sure. I got to experience North America's French-speaking island, and I have never eaten so much foie gras in my life. It was an amazing adventure! 

Montréal

As soon as I crossed the border, I found myself in rural Québec. Flat fields extended on either side of the road, dotted with silos, farm houses, and barns. The landscapes and the structures all resembled rural Michigan; in fact, the highway I was on could very well have been the country road I used to drive to church growing up. I had an intense moment of déjà vu. The only difference between Québec and Michigan I could see was that all the road signs were in French, so it really felt like I had entered an alternate version of my childhood in which the British had never pushed the French out of the North American Midwest. 
Row houses in Montréal with external staircases

I drove on for about another hour, and the traffic increased as I drew closer to Montréal. Instead of farm land, I was surrounded by industrial infrastructure. Smoke stacks, metal tubing, and gray-colored buildings lined the highway. 

To be honest, Montréal caught me a bit off-guard. I was expecting Paris 2.0, but instead, I found an industrial Midwestern city. The buildings were mostly old, with the houses all looking like they were built in the 70s or 80s. It reminded me of Gary, Indiana. My friend, Julie, who had invited me north, described it as a "working man's city."

One very unique thing about Montréal that I noticed: all the homes have external staircases. Brick row houses line the neighborhood roads, and on the front of each one is a winding wrought-iron staircase leading to the second floor. The first and second floors of most row houses have different house numbers, so presumably, they are separate residences. Rather than waste space inside the house for stairs, Montréal residents put their stairs on the outside. I liked the aesthetic.

Notre Dame Basilica in downtown Montréal
We did find a bit of European influence in Montréal's downtown. The "old city" is packed with stone buildings and old cathedrals. One-way streets lined with restaurants, shops, and parallel parking open up into European-style plazas, always with a fountain in the middle. The diversity of people was also higher than I had noticed in the neighborhoods - individuals of Indian and African descent were more common in downtown. We even stumbled across a wedding party being photographed on the steps of city hall, and based on the style of the bride's dress, I think they were Sikh.

Montréal sits right on the St. Lawrence River, so we were able to take a walk along the waterfront. A zipline stretched over the pedestrian walkway, carrying screaming tourists at high speed to the river's edge. The wind blowing off the water teased my hair, and sunbeams poked through the fluffy white clouds. I'm grateful for the chance to experience Montréal and see a new part of the world. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The seminar

The opening slide from my seminar
Friends, this week, I had the opportunity to present my research to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Biology Department, where I am currently working as a Postdoctoral Scholar. I gave an hour-long seminar outlining the major questions in my research, experiments that I have undertaken to answer them, and directions that I intend to go in the future. It was a great chance to show my colleagues what I was working on and open up a discussion about future plans.

I've been at WHOI for about a year and a half and have been involved in a number of different projects. Preparing my presentation pushed me to summarize my work and integrate my ideas into a cohesive whole. Seminars always include a question-and-answer session following the presentation, so I received some good suggestions from colleagues about ways to refine my studies. The seminar really served as an assessment of where my research stands and where it is going. I was glad for the opportunity to present!

The pond: part 2

As I pulled up to the gravel pseudo-parking lot at Hathaway Pond, I could see E's Jeep was already there. It's a bright red Wrangler with a light bar across the roof, a gnarly grill on the front, and custom tail lights. It's the kind of vehicle you can't help but recognize.

I parked behind the Jeep and walked down to the shore. The water level in the pond was pretty high, covering even the dive rock (it's a rock that has a dive flag painted on it). I dipped my fingers in the water to feel the temperature. It was chilly. Thank goodness for my drysuit.

We suited up and waded into the water. There's an underwater platform at about 20', so I turned my body toward the platform's approximate location and looked down at my compass. "Initial bearing is 50 degrees," I told E. He nodded. We were off.

After making it out to the platform, we swam briefly in a circle and located a statue of the Virgin Mary. The underwater Maddona marks the beginning of a swimming route, denoted by a line strung between improvised posts on the pond floor. There are sticks and sunken lawn ornaments and shovels embedded in the sand. The line stretches between them, looping around each one, staying just a foot or two off the pond floor to show the way. We followed the line. Gradually, the water grew darker, and I could feel the pressure increasing in my ears. We reached 25 feet, then 30, then 35. At about 30 feet, I could feel the temperature of the water plummet. It was like sticking my face into a bathtub full of ice cubes, but instead of recoiling, I swam straight into it. We had crossed the thermocline.

At about 40' deep, the line we were following branched. I had my choice to turn right or left, and I chose right. Just a few feet down the right fork, we were faced with a shipwreck - a wooden fishing boat resting on the floor of the pond. I swam around it, examining the surface. The wreck was almost devoid of life - in a freshwater pond, there's not much that colonizes hard surfaces. I used the opportunity to practice fine-scale control over my position in the water column. I inhaled to rise slightly, then exhaled to sink. I rolled on my side to glide along the boat's hull, not too close, but not too far away from the wreck.

The air in my SCUBA tank was at slightly more than half its original pressure, so it was time to turn around. I signaled to E to go back, and we swam along the line. This time, I relied more on the presence of the line for navigation, because the water column was darker where we had kicked up sediment. Once we reached 30 feet depth, we emerged from the cold underlayer of the pond, and I could feel the warmer water on my face. We reached the Virgin Mary and the training platform. I did my best to hover over the sand and looked down at my compass. At a bearing of 230 degrees, we swam back towards shore and emerged near where we had entered the pond. We had been underwater for almost an hour. It was a great dive.