Santa Catalina Snorkels

I know I’m really procrastinating on my homework when I decide I’ll write a whole blog post instead of working on what’s due soon. Normally, I tell myself I’ll have a five minute break and then get back to it (yeah, right), but a post is serious business.

Basically, I’ve realized that this blog may not be widely read, but it’s a way for me to catalogue my memories. And now, I’m starting a PhD program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy and I hope the next 5 (maaaaybe 6) years will hold some pretty amazing periods. This summer, I’m taking a class with a bunch of master’s students, and boy do we go places!

A few weeks ago, we took a field trip to Catalina Island off the coast of CA. The boat ride over there was not as bad as I had expected–my parents both provided a horror story of their own less-than-pleasant rides years earlier. We docked at the USC Wrigley marine station, which they graciously let other institutions use. The first problemo was getting our stuff up the dock to a truck to get up the hill (how did a desert island in the middle of the ocean get so elevated?!?!). Thankfully, it turns out 30 of us did a fantastic hand-off line and the 10 boxes of beer and dozen bottles of wine our program provided made it safely to our dorms (apparently: college=alcohol no bueno; grad school=bring on the beer).

The USC marine station! Of course, the dorms were alllll the way at the top

The USC marine station! Of course, the dorms (and food!) were alllll the way at the top.

Also, Imma take this time to apologize for the lack of above-water photos. This is one of the few you’re going to get, likely due to my painstakingly expensive acquirement of an underwater camera (finally!). I seemed to forget I could actually use it out of water.

We soon hopped in the water for some initial snorkeling exploration, then wrapped up the day with a lecture by the most wonderfully relaxed yet innocently excited professor, Dick Norris. He even led us in a drinking game during his lecture of Catalina geology!

The next morning involved a closer study of the geology by kayak, so we set off for the diatomaceous cliffs just outside the harbor.


Thousands of years of diatoms, little marine algae, dying and landing on the ocean floor. This is proper wonderment, people!

Thousands of years of diatoms dying and landing on the ocean floor. This is proper wonderment, people!


Entering a dark and previously unexplored realm. JK, it was a fairly short tunnel. Watch your head on high waves though!

The next few days found us working our science magic and completing a series of transects both in our little bay and at Little Harbor. We counted fish, invertebrates, and algae. While a useful way to quantify what an area has in terms of life and then compare it with other area, transects can be hard to do and even harder to do well. Tom (my summer field trip buddy!) and I had a difficult time in the shallows as waves tried to pick us up and drive us five feet up into barnacle-encrusted rocks. Try bushwhacking giant pieces of algae out of the way while counting snails on the  12′ bottom on one breath. Science is not all glamour, kids! Thankfully, our data wasn’t destined for publication in Science, so our class used it more as an experience in the difficulties of field work.

I honestly know I’m happier now with rooting all my work in the lab, which I was a little bummed about at first. I appreciate how so many variables can be controlled–out there, scientists have to worry about how their introduction into the environment is affecting animal behavior, whether they accidentally missed a really important species, or something as simple as how much air they have left in a SCUBA tank.

So all my complaints aside, spending so much time in little plots of shore has its benefits. We saw some sights that makes Catalina famous!


Leopard shark! These guys adored the warm pool of water near the dock. Shy and small, they stick to the bottom and don’t bother snorkelers desperately chasing them with cameras. This one is about to make an about face and head away from me.



Classic kelp forest, complete with a garibaldi!



A kind of kelp called Macrocystis, which is recognizable with a bulb for every frond. Very common!



Beneath the dock, a kelp bass lurks. This part of Catalina is a marine protected area, meaning fish like this can’t be speared. It’s almost impossible to find fish this big elsewhere on the island, which our data supports.



First fish on our data sheet in Little Harbor!



The first time I’ve ever seen a wild octopus! What a beauty :)



More Macrocystis. Catalina is well-known for its kelp forests.

Something I think everyone should do is peer a little closer to what’s around them in the water.  I often find the coolest things when I don’t just have my eyes peeled for bigger animals. So grab a rock and pull your face in! Just check for any eels first…


This species of anemone grabs little bits of shell and rock to its body for protection.



A species of nudibranch that I didn’t even see until I stuck my hand on him!



Man, I don’t even know half of what’s in this picture. The brown/black circle is the opening to a stationary snail, there’s some turf algae (green bits), some coralline red algae (pink/red stuff–it’s actually got a “skeleton” of calcium carbonate), and I think the orange is a sponge.

We even got a whole day to do paired projects. I worked with a classmate on identifying zooplankton from two different areas. I’ll leave you with one last shot through a fancy microscope/camera combo! Talk about looking closely!

Spionid larval worm (left) and a fish egg (right)


Thank you

Dear readers,

I hope you have enjoyed popping by my blog the last few weeks as much as I’ve enjoyed picking out pictures and jotting down memories. Sadly, the academic quarter is wrapping up, which means that soon I won’t be in a blogging class anymore. Thus, no more assigned blog posts. Now don’t get me wrong; writing for this blog has felt like more like a break in studying rather than a task.

Still, homework has always been the most important thing to me while I’m in school, followed by swimming, working, and dominating my roommates in the hangman game we have going on a whiteboard (not necessarily in that order). So, many other things will probably be queued up on a to-do list before “write blog post.”

While future posts may not be as frequent, I hope to still post every once in a while (probably on breaks). I’ve got some exciting things coming up that I’d like to share: yesterday I decided I’d be swimming at USMS Nationals in Indianapolis in May, plus I have an internship in Maine this summer, radio-tagging salmon. Like many of my classmates, I’ve chosen a topic–actually two!– to blog about that will thankfully never be fully explored.

Since I won’t be posting as frequently, posts will probably be longer and ideas more carefully fleshed out. So, my lovely readers, do you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see in the future? Has it bummed you out that I haven’t posted very many beginner swimming tips? Let me know about anything you’re interested in, and I’ll try to make sure to cover it in the future!

Whew, too much talkie, not enough pics, right? Let’s wrap this up; throw out your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond!




Book Preview

Exciting news guys! I’m writing a mini-book! I’m deep in the process, cranking out plenty of new material, and it will be completed in a week or two. For now, enjoy an excerpt from the book (I’m also still looking for a title–any suggestions?). This part delves right into more of the Mexico study abroad, weeks after the camping trip I’ve been focusing on lately:

After the final presentation was given, after the final paper was turned in, we loaded backpacks and sleeping bags onto a dive boat in the hotel’s marina and headed north as the sun set right over islands in the distance.



Such a phenomenal sunset requires over-the-top modeling

We snorkeled once that night, and I slept in my swimsuit in a bed below deck, struggling to fall asleep as first my feet jammed into the wall and then my head hit the headboard, over and over again.

We were already on the move when I woke up the next morning, and soon we were snorkeling with a small colony of sea lions.


During lunch, I was presented with a piece of cake—my roomie had remembered it was my birthday! I hadn’t mentioned it for a few days since I didn’t want it to overshadow the trip. Salwa, one of the local students, taught me a bit more about Mexican tradition when she shoved the cake in my face. The resulting picture is one of the worst photos of me ever taken. Let’s not post it.

A few hours later, we had snorkeled twice around Los Islotes, one of the most popular islands with a sea lion colony in the Sea.


A male watching over his territory and females during breeding season–it’s terrifying!



The problem with mask tunnel vision: you don’t know a large male is sneaking up behind you until BAM! there he is. We weren’t supposed to swim too close, but this guy was calm since he chose to approach me. Aggravated sea lions will sometimes dart at a swimmer and end up within inches of his or her mask, bare their teeth, and blow warning bubbles.



Me and a baby!!! OMG so cute.



Snoozin’ in the sun. Sea lions can also regulate their body temperature in the water by sticking up a single fin as a sun catcher and float in the shallows like that.


The boat turned around and began its journey back to the marina a few hours away. We sprawled across the forward deck, perfecting tans before heading back to the US in two days. There was always at least one of us on the very front of the boat with a pair of binoculars, looking for spurts of mist on the horizon, a sign of whales.

When someone spied splashes in the distance, my professor Ben determined it was jumping manta rays. As we got closer, however, the number of splashes grew exponentially and a small yacht appeared in the middle, apparently an attractant. The captain steered that way, and before too long, a few of the splashers had moved over to our bow. They were dolphins! The captain kept us at a speed to keep a bit of a bow wave and more and more dolphins began surrounding the boat. Dozens crisscrossed under the bow, taking turns popping out into the air before arcing back down to the depths. Hundreds more spread out far into the distance; my three professors estimated we had chanced upon a pod of about 1,500.


For every dolphin jumping, there’s at least ten chilling below the surface! This was also at the tail end of the experience; they had tired of us and we didn’t chase them.


It was honestly a challenge to put down the camera and enjoy the experience–there are so many times when I’ve been too busy trying to adjust the shutter speed or get a good angle instead of enjoying the experience. Alas, I didn’t get as many good shots as I would have liked, but I do have some great memories. My whole class gathered on the bow, leaning over the railing and darting from side to side. It was perhaps the most exciting birthday present ever–the crew members hadn’t seen a pod this large in years.


I’m still not sure what species they were. There wasn’t a consensus on the boat. Some thought they were common dolphins; others thought they were Pacific white-sided dolphins. To me, they don’t match online images of either of those species.





Check out the fish on the side of this dolphin! I’m not sure if it’s a cleaning remora or a parasite, but it sure is hanging on at top speed.

The group began dispersing, perhaps chasing schools of fish elsewhere. However, we were left smiling for hours.



I went to the gym last night with my roommate for by far the best Saturday night activity ever: exercise. Okay, so maybe not, but it sure beat doing homework in my dorm room. For me, it’s a weird feeling heading to the student rec center without my mesh swim bag, and I definitely looked wistfully in its direction while resigning myself to situps.

Anyway, mixing up the routine is good for any athlete and dryland workouts (what us swimmers call non-pool exercise) are no exception. Although I didn’t do any arm workouts last night (except trying to do a pull-up; I can’t!), my shoulder is really killin’ me today. So I decided I’d share with you some possible swimming-related injuries, in order of silly to OMG.

My friend Chelcee was always dealing with knee pain throughout her high school swimming career

My friend Chelcee was always dealing with knee pain throughout her high school swimming career, but she made it through all four years!

Injury: lane line scratches  

Cause: Hear me out on this; the plastic discs that comprise lane lines get dragged across the concrete pool deck each time they’re pulled out, which can be up to a few times a day. As a result, they’re pretty rough. And even though most of us have been swimming for years, that doesn’t mean we swim straight! If you brush against them accidentally, it’s more of a shock out of a blue-tinged reverie than anything, but one that oftentimes causes a sharp veer into the middle of the lane, perhaps in front of other swimmers…

Result:  Minor abrasions to mid-pool pileup

Injury: Swimsuit chafing

Cause: Swimsuits can wear out quickly sometimes, and often us girls will double up on two old ones. That way, we don’t have to drop a wad of moolah on a new suit as often, but we’re also not running around in see-through getups. Win-win! Maybe… One time my sophomore or junior year of high school, I attempted this method, but instead experienced a small, one-off side-effect. Namely, the two straps  on one shoulder kept working their way up my neck and rubbing with each stroke. After a few days of practice and chlorine gettin’ all up in that business, I was left with a lovely red patch on my neck. My yearbook teacher actually asked me if it was a hickey (he had a goofy relationship with everybody on staff), which was especially awkward since I hadn’t even had my first kiss. I went out and bought myself a new suit pretty darn quick after that.

Result: Questionable red patches of skin

Injury: Arm slaps

Cause: When there’s more than two people in a lane, we circle swim, which means we constantly stick with the lane line on our right side, traveling counterclockwise. Sometimes less than a foot away, there is another person swimming exactly the opposite way. While this leads to many accidental gropings (we get verrrry close on the swim team), there’s also the occasional time when one person smacks arms with another person. Again, it’s mostly more of a shock than anything; still, sometimes swimming at high speeds and with even faster arm movements, it can kind of hurt. Of course, if you happen to also be a drama student and wishing the swim season was over already, then it will probably be a lot worse.

Result: Ranges from profuse apologizing when you and hittee are back at the wall to moaning for days that your wrist is broken and darn! you can’t go to practice after all

Injury: Head slaps

Cause: One time, I was standing against the lane line in the shallow end, waiting for the people ahead of me to push off the wall and begin the next round of swimming. All of a sudden, something connected with my head, and it was not the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had. One of my teammates in the lane next to ours was swimming butterfly and apparently had a hard time keeping his hands in his own lane. Don’t ask me how he managed to reach so high up in order to smack the back of my head, but he did it. It might have had something to do with the fact that he had a complete disregard for anyone else on the team, as he was the only one to swim individually at the state meet that year so he thought he was hot stuff.

Result: No apology, headache for the rest of practice, and one more angry thought to add to my mental list about him, joining others like having him as a co-captain that didn’t do anything and making videos to play for the rest of the school that featured only guys. No no, I’m not still resentful at all.

Injury: Heel-wall collisions

Cause: Heel, meet the top of the wall. You’re normally familiar with the underwater side of it, but now you get to very quickly get familiar with the concrete. Okay reader, do you know what a flip turn looks like? The swimmer approaches the wall and with a final stroke, ducks his/her head under and the rest of the body follows. The last thing to flip over are the legs and feet. There’s a little room for adjustment of distance to the wall, but for the most part, the extremes are not enjoyable. Too far away from the wall and you must get back up to speed from a dead stop. Too close and your momentum slams your heels down onto the pool deck. I’ve done this two or three times and hope it never ever happens again, as the bone aches for a good while. At a racing speed, the effects are even worse.

Result: Slight limping to spiking pain. One of my poor teammates had to wear flip flops for a week in the middle of a Utah winter because his feet were too swollen and painful to fit in shoes.

Poor Josh kept doing it over and over again, letting the mental aspect get to him

Poor Josh kept doing it over and over again, letting the mental aspect of swimming get to him. I just avoided the wall like it was an electric fence for a few days.

Injury: Meandering ribs

Cause: I’m notoriously bad at racing starts. In less than half a second after the starting beep, swimmers are in the water. I just have a hard time managing all of the different aspects of a good start in that little bit of time, since I don’t do them enough to have muscle memory. My freshman year, I let one of my arms drop by my side when I entered the water during a race at the regional meet. It slowed down my time a bit, but later that night, my back started aching. Chalking it up to soreness after an otherwise good meet, I ignored it. A week later, it was worse. A month later, after a bout of muscle relaxants, antinflammatories, and physical therapy that didn’t help, my doctor realized the lump in my back wasn’t another muscle knot, but my rib. After popping it back in place, I was back in business.

Result: A month of keyboarding class where sitting up straight and still for an hour was pure misery. Also, I realized I had a higher tolerance for pain than I thought, but now I definitely don’t relish the idea of growing old and experiencing chronic pain like that again.

Injury: Strained shoulders

Cause: Here’s the part that’s relevant to all of you! While the other things are petty and probably won’t happen, this is an injury that could just as easily ruin an inexperienced swimmer within a few months. Sore shoulders are most often the result of poor form when doing the same stroke movement thousands and thousands of times. The most important thing to remember is to keep your elbow above your hand at all times. Keep it high when bringing your arm back over your head and keep it closer to the surface when pulling. That reduces the strain on your shoulder joint. Once you wear this joint down, the only way to repair it is through surgery. I’ve had friends who went through this, and they would have been able to avoid that if they had listened to their bodies in the first place. Long story short, if something hurts, stop swimming for the day. If it returns, take a jaunt to see your doctor ASAP. Preventative care is the best care!

Result: Lots of time spent sitting on the edge of the pool, clutching one or both shoulders. Surgery and lifetime pain is the worst-case scenario.

Proper arm position: notice how the hand is well below the elbow. It should also stay under the elbow under the water too.

Proper arm position: notice how the hand is well below the elbow. It should also stay under the elbow under the water too.

Again, a high hand position. Also, this makes me glad I'm the one behind the camera, so my friends don't get the chance to display the ridiculous faces I make across the internet.

Again, a high elbow position. Also, this makes me glad I’m the one behind the camera, so my friends don’t get the chance to display the ridiculous faces I make across the internet.

Another good example of a high elbow when entering the water is here.


Bahia Magdelena, Pt. 2

So there we were, scooting across the bay towards the mangroves with clams sitting in our tummies. Gradually, the line of trees on the horizon drew nearer until our guide maneuvered us into a rare wide waterway running among the trees.

Mangroves are unique in that they can live directly in salt water, forming very solid, impenetrable clumps that are rooted deep on the bottom. Roots catch detritous and mud and prevent it from washing away as well as provide habitat for all manners of species, from large fish to fish larvae.

Since the water they uptake is full of ions like sodium and chloride, their cells would normally burst, as water would want to rush in via osmosis to balance out the high concentrations of these ions. However, mangroves can exude salts out of their leaves, thus ridding themselves of any problems.

Crystalized salts on the leaves of a mangrove

Crystalized salts on the leaves of a mangrove

The silty depths…

As the motor cut off, we donned snorkeling gear (and in my case, two swimsuits under a 2 mm short wetsuit–brrr!) and slid into the water. The first lucky few got to see large fish that subsequent splashes scared back into the tree roots. Of course, the adventurous ones among us swam up to the edge of the trees, grabbed a breath, and pulled ourselves in among the tangle of the roots, eyes scanning for any movement in the muddy, murky water.

Most terrifyingly, it took a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the darkness after poking your head into this unknown, plus the space between roots was tight and fins made maneuvering difficult. I caught a flash of something large, and one of my professors saw a few barracuda, but I quickly realized I was happy to leave the rest of the dark mangroves in  Mexico unexplored.

Paddling over to the other side of the waterway made me wish I was holding hands with my night snorkeling buddy again (night snorkeling is a whole other scary experience, especially when your light dies and you don’t know which direction the beach is).

The current was quick, so I ended up a few hundred feet downstream of where I had started, and the middle of this psuedo-river was too deep to see anything but brown silt floating in the water column. Still, the trip was most definitely worth it. Within a few minutes, I found myself again against the trees, but here the sun shone into the first couple feet of roots.

Sun-bathed roots

While examining some barnacles, I grabbed a partially submerged branch to keep from being tugged away by the current. Before I chose to move further down, however, I noticed a few small orangey blobs right in front of my mask. Focusing my eyes, I realized these were the guts of clear fish and shrimp larvae, and as I scanned around me, I realized thousands of these babies had surrounded me. They faced into the current below me, in front of me, to both sides of me, completely accepting my presence. The fifteen minutes I spent there hanging on that branch are some of the most peaceful  moments of my life.





Leaving these guys behind, I explored a bit more before we all hauled our drippy selves back into the boats.

Fantail pipefish. I think this is my favorite animal from the whole trip!

Fantail pipefish. I think this is my favorite animal from the whole trip!

They're related to sea horses! The resemblance is striking, right? I spent a good five minutes chasing this poor guy around, snapping pics.

They’re related to sea horses! The resemblance is striking, right? I spent a good five minutes chasing this poor guy around, snapping pics.

Codium sp., aka dead man's fingers aka a large hunkin' piece of algae!

Codium sp., aka dead man’s fingers aka a large hunkin’ piece of algae! It’s unusual since it’s made of one cell with many, many nuclei.

To the bay

To the bay

Down to dune

Following the bends and curves of the waterway back in our boats, our guides eventually brought us to solid land–in the form of sand dunes. Here, we munched on mangoes and pb&j sandwiches (a staple of the trip; on these camping trips, we would have them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert).  There was also some time to get ourselves completely dirty again.


Dune jumping!


Squishy sand at the bottom, thank goodness


Setting back out, we began to make our way back to the open bay.

Up next: birds, snails, and whales, oh my!