Monday, April 30, 2007

Up Close and Personal

I write this in Cairns airport, with a latte and a wireless connection for breakfast. Funny how easily one settles back into it, when yesterday I was soaking in the great blue sea on my last swim, nothing but coral reef and horizon as far as you could see. (Unfortunately it turned out to be my last wade as the tide had gone out; I plonked myself down in the knee deep water and watched a juvenile damsel use me for shelter.) I got into Cairns last night and at first it was fairly unsurprising, but then as I walked down the esplanade towards the town centre and the number of people went up and I hit my first restaurants, buzzing with neon lights and chattering customers and enticing menus, it all seemed so very, well, novel. It's only after two months on a tropical island I suppose that I would actively choose to walk the restaurant and souvenir store strip of road, rather than through the grassy parkland flanking the sea. I am glad to be back in civilisation, I do like my lattes and I have always really been a city girl, but I also already miss the peace and beauty and solitude (when you want) of Lizard. Although most researchers on the island work their butts off and barely ever see the scenery, there is still a calm to it. When you are bumpily driving along in your boat getting soaked with cold spray at 7 in the morning, not quite awake, having just dropped a tank on your toe, with three dives ahead of you and recalcitrant fish, you generally still manage to recognise that it is a beautiful drive, the best commute in the world. So I am glad to be done with field season one, but I'm also already looking forward to number two.

We stopped fieldwork a few days before leaving the island to allow plenty of time to pack and clean (I never did get eggs again successfully, which is a real shame, but I still hope to make it work more reliably next trip). The directors of the station, Anne and Lyle, decided to spend their day off on the outer Barrier Reef and very kindly invited us along, and so after well over a hundred dives in my two rather nondescript study sites in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, we finally got to experience what it was all meant to be about.

On this particular day what it was all about was this:

Cod Hole! Where the visibility is close to 30 metres (in the Coral Sea, just beyond the outer barrier, it regularly exceeds this -- after some 6 metre vis dives on an island where there is a known crocodile this sounds like paradise) and the coral is kaleidoscopic and the huge potato cod are extremely friendly. A couple of them took an especial shine to me and would swim right at me then just sort of stay there, bumping my knee in a friendly fashion every so often for a good half an hour, the perfect fish face models. I couldn't actually get far enough away from them to take anything but fish face photos. We have a theory that they thought the blue coil lanyard on my camera housing was a pilchard, which the big dive operators feed to the cod in a bit of a circus act -- 20 divers with cameras sitting in a large circle with a lady with a large box of dead pilchards in the middle, moving round it with the cod following her and feeding it in front of each diver so that they could get a good shot. Well away from the mayhem of the circle we had our own much more personal experiences with the fish. They were wonderful individuals and their trust and heft and personality put me in mind of a slightly more taciturn version of the Florida manatees. But then again, they would never be so friendly if they didn't hope that I'd produce food from somewhere. We also did a quick snorkel on close by reef called No Name (!), which looked like a gorgeous dive, a wall that dropped off vertically to maybe 30m, deep blue water beyond it, schools of unicornfish and anthias everywhere, the occasional shark patrolling -- that sense of excitement, what will I see next, was palpable and rather different from the tens of dives I had done counting foraging bites (sometimes in Chinese and Malay to keep myself awake).

Edit 4/5/07: Back in Cambridge! Woo. As promised here are a few more photos. I write this at 6:45 am -- jetlag always makes me feel virtuous coming this way.

The wall on the outside edge of the north tip of No. 10 Ribbon Reef:

A couple of fish faces.

Um, and a fish eye...

Goodbye Lizard!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Caviar in Bags

Less than a week left to go here on Lizard. I've started to enjoy myself a lot more these past few weeks, partly because we simply stopped exhausting ourselves with work (cutting down from an average of 4 to 3 sessions in the water each day), and partly because I have reached that happy state of existence where I am very philosophic about my research: getting data is good, not getting data is not so good but not a good enough reason to fret myself awake at stupid times in the middle of the night. So anyway I hope to finish up with fieldwork in the next few days, leaving a few days for gear to dry out and be packed up, and all sorts of other exciting end-of-season work like taking our boat out of the water to waterblast all the slimy green stuff off it (we actually do this every few weeks, it's amazing how much difference it makes to the speed, no wonder all those boat guys in Malaysia are constantly hopping off the side and cleaning their boat from underwater while we're diving), and lots and lots of cleaning.

A week and a half ago had a Happy Scientific Moment. We were trying out this method which sometimes sounded to me totally implausible. Basically you wait for your fish to spawn with bated breath (well not really because one must Never Stop Breathing while on scuba, for fear of a very painful condition known as a burst lung or two). If they are being cooperative, which is only about 50% of the time currently, the male and the female will swim upwards together then simultaneously release eggs and sperm in a little cloud in the water column. You then rush towards the area where they have spawned with this gigantic plastic bag and you surround the entire gamete cloud with your bag. Then you bring it to the boat and try to figure out how on earth you are meant to lift 33 litres of water in a plastic bag onto your boat; then you subsample your bag; then back in the lab you filter your subsample several times and count eggs and sperm. I couldn't get any sperm, possibly because my methods weren't quite correct and also I had no clue what fish sperm actually look like (I had never before seen this done in my life and was simply following the descriptions in papers); but I did unbelievably get some eggs despite the total mess we'd made of the whole thing, and staring down the microscope I found that they were mostly actually fertilized. It really makes very simple logical sense but for a while it gobsmacked me that you could do this at all; that you could take a big plastic bag and collect gametes with it and subsample and filter and stain and stick in a petri dish and look at under a microscope and COUNT fertilised egg ratios. I suppose it is only because I am a whole animal biologist that I find it amazing, because most of the time I do things that any child could do, counting the number of bites a fish takes or following it around, so anything that involves a slightly more complicated procedure (and things that require a microscope!) seems incredibly sophisticated. But anyway, it worked. Once. We've only been able to do it again once more, due to the fish being uncooperative, and that time it failed utterly with no eggs at all. I'm hoping to repeat it successfully just once more before the season is out, just to prove it wasn't some kind of weird fluke, as the aim really was just to pilot the method for use in the next season. But it might require underwater Barry White broadcasts, as one of the other researchers suggested.

When we are not waiting for fish to get it on we somethimes find time to go on little excursions.

On the way up to Cook's Look, the highest point on the island:

Finally made it!

Another trip to Coconut Beach round the other side of the island, totally deserted with no sign of human habitation...

...except for the fact that the seagulls will come and sit next to you when you are having lunch.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Island Food

Work progresses as usual, we are well into the slog it out and try desperately to collect enough data (I only have 3.5 weeks left) phase of this field season. We are hampered every so often by exciting events like a tsunami warning due to the Solomon Islands earthquake, that prompted us all to go sit on a rock on high ground with a good view of the sea and eat an apple each whilst listening to the radio. It was quite a bizarre event, all the research station staff and volunteers and researchers (at the time, a grand total of eight) suspending normal activities to go sit on a rock. At any rate there wasn't even a ripple in our area and we went out as usual in the afternoon having been told that the threat had passed.

So in answer to "am I sick of maggi mee yet", the answer is actually no because I only brought four packets of Maggi Mee with me from Cairns and I've only eaten three of them. We order in food from a supermarket in Cairns (barge day -- every second Wednesday -- is rather like a fortnightly Christmas), and cook all our meals in very well appointed kitchens in our houses. I am vaguely sick of spaghetti aglio olio e pepperoncino which is what I always make for a quick lunch (or sometimes when I am very hungry I have a ham sandwich instead, which is even quicker); but we have also had both red and green curry, once I made a rather improvised hainan chicken rice, every Thursday (our day off) we have pancakes for breakfast, every Saturday evening which is the weekly barbecue night we have a gigantic steak each, and it is truly amazing what one will find in the "free food" cupboards (food left over from other groups which have left). Free food had provided us with pizza bases, popping corn (for our movie nights in the library), huge bottles of supermarket home brand bright green lime flavoured cordial that I have discovered is actually made of apples and lots of chemicals and which we have fondly christened our "detergent" drink, more bread than one could ever eat, proper Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce, a whole array of spices, and etc. As is usual when one is diving a lot we eat like pigs, the Tim Tams (Aussie chocolate biscuits with a chocolate filling and chocolate covering, hmm why does this make me think of certain college folks...) get wolfed down as soon as they appear on barge day. But the sheer amount of physical work this whole marine biology thing is turning out to be means that I think I am actually burning it all off as fast as I can eat it.

Which all means that I feel no guilt in baking up the Cadbury's chocolate cake mix that I impulsively ordered on the latest barge cycle, it is Easter this weekend after all!

P/S Fish in the last post was a female, also fondly known in my books as individual A8_3... (I don't give them names, firstly I am looking at close to 50 fish and I'm not that creative, secondly I don't really think you are supposed to according to some points of view -- not anthropomorphising them and all that). Don't worry, they always recover pretty quickly from the stress of being caught and in five or ten minutes they are usually swimming about and eating happily again -- though they do get very paranoid about divers which is a bit of a pain when you are trying to watch them still!