Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tricky Little Blighters

...are fish when you are trying to catch them, according to highly reputable scientific sources (such as my supervisor). A good two weeks after starting on the whole fish catching mission I have managed to catch a grand total of 9 of the things. They swim a heck of a lot faster than you. They maneuvre faster. They can go down little holes in rocks and don't come out. They find the one tiny hole you have left when surrounding their shelter with fence nets and zoom out of it at warp speed. This is not, by any means, a piece of (fish) cake. (Sorry.) After a brief spate of beginner's luck (midway through the first week), we hit a total dry spell, days and days and hours underwater with nothing to show for it, but most recently we have had some minor success again, so it's no telling what will come next! It is kind of fun trying to outwit them. Whether or not the effort (on average so far probably something like three hours to catch one fish, which we keep in a plastic bag and admire for all of about two minutes to take measurements and squeeze their bellies and also to tag them, followed by immediate release) is proportional to the results is something I am not thinking about quite too hard...

Otherwise, research is chugging along. I'm at about the halfway point, and am finally sort of getting on with data collection (it seems a bit odd that it took a whole month just to set things up, but I hope/think I didn't just waste it all), or at least as much data collection as I can manage given the fact that the Tricky Little Blighters are so good at not being caught and also for well over a week now they have not been spawning at all, despite singing of suggestive songs at them underwater.

Life here has become very much the norm, my three or four dives/snorkels a day (this is a punishing physical regime, I think it's been a very long time since I was so fit -- lugging dive gear around and pulling up the boat anchor is bloody hard work), as much sleep as I can get at night, and our very much needed one day off a week where we sleep in till 9 and have pancakes for breakfast! I imagine after the next month when I re-emerge into the world of civilisation there will be something of a culture shock. I haven't actually touched any cash for a whole month, excepting one evening when we went to the staff bar of the resort, which is the only bit us scruffy researchers are allowed into.

Here is a picture of a Tricky Little Blighter that we managed to outwit, hurrah.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Fishy trials and tribulations

Have fairly rapidly discovered that one of the difficulties of being on field season is that you think about your fish literally all day every day, and often dream about them in the night or wake up at 5am finding yourself trying to plan the next day's research activities. Hence today we are taking an Entire Day Off, what a luxury, not really one which I feel I totally deserve but I think it will prove good for my sanity, I not only see bicolor angels everywhere now but they are always buzzing around the back (and often the forefront) of my mind in their exasperating cute little fishy way. The Entire Day Off consists really of just staying on dry land and allowing all these little cuts and scratches (I am a walking feast for the mozzies here and I am very bad at not scratching, so I have many!) to dry out a little, and letting me catch up a little with land-type work; so in reality I am not totally avoiding the bicolor-related thoughts, but I do intend to spend some of the afternoon mooching in a way that totally belies the fact that every hour I spend at the research station is very Expensive and Valuable Fieldwork Time that should never be wasted on pain of producing a crap PhD. I also woke up at 9am today, the luxury (we normally wake around 7 and are at the dive shed to leave for morning dives/snorkels at 8:30). We may climb Cook's Look which is the highest point on the island (a reasonable height I think, it takes about 3-4 hours round trip) later in the afternoon if the weather holds.

The past week has been a bit of a rollercoaster, things looking totally grim and prompting thoughts of quitting and becoming an investment banker one day, then bright and sunny with research for life beckoning the next day, and then the cycle repeats. The main issue has been study sites, which I had thought I had settled on by the end of my first week (according to plan) but which then proved to be a problem in terms of diving regulations, as I need to dive at dusk at my sites to watch my fish spawn, and a couple of the sites were too far away for the station's directors to be happy for us to do that without a third person to sit in the boat as an extra safety precaution. So halfway through my second week I found myself starting the search for study sites all over again. Having thought I'd found a wonderful one closer to the station, I then discovered that once the south-east tradewinds start blowing (which happens any day NOW) that site would be too exposed and rough to dive. And so on and so on -- if it wasn't one obstacle it was another putting a big black cross against site after site. Finally I think I may be back on track (though I am now very wary of being overly optimistic and am totally mentally prepared for it to all collapse tomorrow) as I've found yet another site, still exposed to the tradewinds but marginally more sheltered, and the station directors have very very kindly allowed us to dusk dive at one of my further away sites. Phew. You didn't need to know that, but it makes me feel better to have complained about it all one more time!

In happier thoughts, next week I am going to try to catch some fish (to measure and tag them, and also to squeeze their bellies to see what if anything comes out...!) which sounds like most frustrating fun, everybody has warned me how much of a total nightmare it can be, so we will see. Er, maybe that's not a happy thought after all. Anyway I am glad to be starting on something new instead of searching for yet more study sites -- in plan anyway.

Home sweet home:

Wet season means I've been taken out of or not been able to get into the water countless times due to the weather, but when it's nice, this is the view from the dive shed of our beach and weekly BBQ area:

Looking the other way down the beach towards Palfrey and South Islands at low tide:

Research station boats -- mine is No. VII with a 25hp motor in the front and behind it is Kirsty K, used for longer trips to reefs outside of the Lizard Island Group.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lizard Island Life

End of my first week on Lizard Island -- it has been a good week in that we have more or less achieved what we wanted to for the first week, which I must keep in mind is far more than can be expected for most fledgling projects of this kind! In celebration we are taking the afternoon off, actually just time out of the water to catch our breaths and sort out various mundanities of island life like laundry and collecting the next fornight's worth of food from today's barge and thinking about some science...

This place really is the most luxurious field station one could possibly want to work on. Perhaps the pinnacle of this luxury is the (solar) hot water showers that are available not just up at the houses that we live in but even round the corner of the dive shed. I think this is the first time I've ever had a hot water dive shed shower in my life, including visits to fairly swanky resorts. (I wonder if the Voyages resort a few beaches down, the only other development on the island, can boast as much.) More totally unexpected amenities include spacious kitchens far better than my own (and a free food supply from research groups who have left!); washing machines; satellite phone and Internet connections at reasonable rates; a well stocked library with all the theses ever written about Lizard as well as other science and fiction; lovely composting toilets; and I could certainly go on. Normally, the privations of tropical coral reef island life (in the past this has included tent living and unsavoury loos 200m from camp) one tries not to mind because of the beauty of the area and the simple fact that you get to dive gorgeous reefs every day; but here we are totally well supplied with creature comforts in addition to experiencing views like the following (this picture taken on the way home after a particularly exhilirating dusk snorkel in which I observed my fish spawning for the first time; fish sex and romantic sunsets complete one's day very satisfactorily):

So yes, it is an extremely nice life. The Research Station is fairly empty at the moment with only one other small group of researchers here other than myself and my field assistant, so I can certainly see how one would go a little stir crazy after a while (as is this time typical of tropical island life, one's world revolves around a very small triangle of house, lab and dive shed; with all other forays outwards always by boat with scuba gear), but I hope to put that off for a while at least. I am too busy now dealing with my visions of my little Centropyge bicolor -- I have started to catch sight of them everywhere out of the corner of my eye, including whilst on dry land walking through a field... hmm.