The foray into a legit office aquarium

I had a lot of aquatic pets growing up, from a betta named Neemo adopted from a friend to a Pacman frog that lived like 6 years to an African dwarf frog that killed himself by getting stuck in the tank decoration.

I tried goldfish in college, but it’s just too hard to have pets when week or two-long quarter breaks beckon ya somewhere else. Now that I have my own office in grad school (and friends who are always around taking care of their experiments if I’m out of town), it’s easier to have a pet. I’ve used a Kritter Keeper on and off for the last year, but after buying a new large pet shrimp spur-of-the-moment, I decided he needed more room.

Thus, I decided to go big…or as big as 5.5 gallons gets me. Petsmart’s Top Fin brand has quite the deal in a $30 tank that comes with a pump, filter, and an LED light. A light alone costs more than this package separately!

I’m in love with it so far, but even more in love with the little guys in it. Way more on them in the future!

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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!

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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!

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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.

 

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Classic kelp forest, complete with a garibaldi!

 

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

 

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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.

 

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First fish on our data sheet in Little Harbor!

 

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

 

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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…

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

 

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

 

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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)

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

 

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Me and a baby!!! OMG so cute.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dune jumping!

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Squishy sand at the bottom, thank goodness

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

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

Bahia Magdelena Pt. 1

Guys, I have a confession. I ate this:

Megapitaria squalida, the chocolate clam

Megapitaria squalida, the chocolate clam

It all went down last summer when I spent five weeks in the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur, Mexico for a tropical marine biology course, as mentioned here. The initial part of the class focused on comparing different marine habitats, like the rocky intertidal zones, eelgrass beds, and sandy subtidal zones, as well as contrasting those to what is common in our lovely Pacific Northwest. Mainly, these studies were an excuse to snorkel at a bunch of different beaches, and it also led us on a field trip to Bahia Magdelena all the way on the other side of the Baja Peninsula. After a few hours traveling through the desert on a bus with no air conditioning, stopping along the way to look for fossilized shark teeth (it was ludicrous to image that giant swimming beasts were once in this place that could now support nothing bigger than barren, twiggy shrubs) and an hour of off-roading, squeezing through cacti on either side (our bus driver Jorge was pro, knowing exactly which unmarked fork to take every time), we arrived at a sandy point and fled the bus, so happy to see water again.

The closest thing to a road sign

The closest thing to a road sign

The afternoon was wiled away exploring our campsite. On a large sand flat bordered on one side by the bay and a small channel that increased ten fold at high tide on the other , we hunted for good sea shells. There was no shortage; we found cockels the size of cereal bowls, scallops in vibrant oranges, pinks, and blacks, and sand dollars larger than my palm. We waded in the shallows of the ocean side, watching for the telltale puff of sand and the brush of smooth skin as a stingray darted out from under our shuffling old lady feet. As the sun set and the tide came in, we played bocce ball, almost losing the pallino multiple times in the loose sand, and we built a fire in a turtle-shaped sand pit. Screams ensued when a scorpion emerged from the burning wood and scuttled across the sand at a panicked pace towards us. I didn’t regret my choice to stargaze through the mesh ceiling of a tent that night, especially after one of my classmates later recounted waking up to find something making itself cozy in her sleeping bag.

Cuddly local fauna

Cuddly local fauna

 
Hermit crab occupying a moon snail shell

Hermit crab occupying a moon snail shell

 

Molt of a blue swimming crab, Callinectes arcuatus

Molt of a blue swimming crab, Callinectes arcuatus

 

Exercise after a long bus ride a la beach soccer

Balls of sand that hermit crabs create by filtering sand to pick out organic munchies

Balls of sand that hermit crabs create by filtering sand to pick out organic munchies

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There could have been millions of scorpions lurking just beyond the edge of the light, and we would have never known…

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As soon as the moon rose above the bay, the waves started washing in with force. The second night we camped there, we built a sea wall to protect the tents.

The next morning, we found ourselves on four small boats in the middle of the bay, each bow pointed to a line of green on the horizon. This was what we had came for: mangroves. As we slowly chugged our way over there, we caught sight of a lone dolphin before pulling up next to the boats of a few men our guides knew.  A few words were exchanged in Spanish, and one man bent over, reaching into a white bucket next to a generator that pumped air down to a diver below us. A couple of clams came flying through the air and with a deft flick of a knife, our guide had them splayed open in front of us. They were chocolate clams, a native species with a thick brown shell. Cut in half, the bright red foot was visible, along with the gills, siphon, and intestines…filled with what I’m pretty sure was poop. Yup, after my professor ran the knife along the inside of the shell, separating the body from it, I downed the entirety of that half. Yup, I ate a raw, live clam, complete  with sea water, poop, and all. Trust me, the chocolate clam does not get its name from its taste. 

What have you eaten that still kind of makes your stomach turn when you think about it?