Saturday, June 16, 2012

New Adventures Along the Pacific Coast

Hello all!  Just when you thought you were rid of me, I have returned with more adventures to report AHA!  For those of you who do not know, I am currently in San Francisco, California, for the whole summer!!  For what, you might ask?  Well, I am working as a research intern at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University!  Twelve other students from around the country (mostly the west coast) and I are a part of an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program in ecology, evolution, and development at SFSU.  Upon request of many of my fans (a.k.a. my Mom), I have decided to keep y'all posted on some of the adventures I embark on while on the west coast!  I am sure this trip is going to be so different from my experiences in Bonaire but is one that will be just as pivotal to my personal and academic growth.

Yes, that's right, I am in CALIFORNIAAAAAA!!!!

I arrived in San Fran almost two weeks ago Monday and already have started to assimilate to life as a west-coaster and as a city-slicker. Let me tell you, it's been quite the culture shock, especially coming from Bonaire, where life was so relaxed and chill.  I'm living in an apartment in the southern part of the city, just south of SFSU's main campus.  I'm living with three other girls on the program and we've hit it off so well!  The area's pretty quiet and far from downtown but it's nice and there's even a courtyard behind our place.

The first week was an orientation where all of us students, several research mentors and TAs went on trips to several intertidal zones and saw a bunch of model organisms' embryos under the microscope.  This was to introduce us to the theme of the program which is all about understanding the impact of environmental factors on the evolution and development of organisms.  After many early mornings and long days spent looking at tunicates, frog embryos, and tiny sea stars (they were so small they looked like sprinkles!), it was finally the weekend!

Heather, one of my roommates, documented my first encounter with the Pacific Ocean!  It's COLD! (Photo credit: Heather Schneider).

Pillar Point, one of the sites we visited to get a sense of the intertidal zones of the coast.  There's also a little sign there that says something about a tsunami warning - talk about scary!!!

 What we found in the tide pools.  Here you see mussels and tons of different algae.

We walked out along this rocky, algae-y, intertidal area almost to those large rocks in the background.  This area differs so much from the salt marshes of New England because it has so many intertidal species; we saw at least three species of starfish (one had at least 20 arms), 10 species of algae, two species of sea anemones, and even a harbor seal!

My roomies and I decided to spend our weekend days exploring the city.  The weather was pretty warm (but nothing like Bonaire...sigh) and sunny, which apparently is a rarity for San Francisco considering the typical "June Gloom" of fog.  On Saturday, we hit the MUNI (public transit) and went downtown.  After some exploration and many hills (my legs died) we arrived at Pier 39.  This is your standard boardwalk lined with seafood restaurants, tourist shops and SEA LIONS.  That's right, California sea lions.  They were sunbathing on several docks by the pier.  I guess they are typically found there except for a stretch of time several years ago when they weren't.  But they returned!  We spent a good while just watching them, observing the alpha males surrounded by their harem of females, and just marveling at how cute they are!  After that, we continued up the road, got San Francisco's famous Mitchell's ice cream, and eventually arrived at Giradelli square where we got free chocolate samples!  Vicky, you would have been in chocolate heaven here!!  It's like Sweenor's but five million times more chocolately!  On Sunday we took the bus to the Haight Street Fair which was in an area typically inhabited by hippies and totally awesome!  There were so many street vendors, tasty foods, and funky-dressing characters.  We all got some delicious chicken enchiladas and moseyed with the locals, taking in all of the culture.

 Cable car!  Riding one of these bad boys is on my San Fran bucket list.

So. Many. Hills. 

I tried looking for Mrs. Doubtfire, Mia Thermopolis, Raven Baxter, and the Tanners, but to no avail. 

Did I mention how many hills there are?

Fisherman's Warf.

Da roomies at Pier 39.  From left to right there's India, Abby, and Heather. I am looking forward to many more adventures spent with these lovely ladies all around the city! (Photo credit: H. Schneider).

We just HAD to get a picture with the sea lion sculpture.  Photo credit: H. Schneider).

 SEA LIONS!!!!!!!!! (Photo credit: H. Schneider).

The Haight Streetfair. So many people!!! (Photo credit: H. Schneider).

 Just one of the incredibly colorful and awesome outfits of that day. (Photo credit: H. Schneider).

Well, that's San Fran for ya! (Photo credit: H. Schneider).

Ok, so enough of the fun and games of last weekend... This past week we began working in our respective labs.  Each student is working on a different project either at the SFSU main campus in the Biology Department or at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies which is across the Golden Gate Bridge in Tiburon.  I'm at RTC and it takes 45 minutes to an hour to commute out there.  It's a complex of old buildings (from like WWII) nestled within a hill overlooking the bay.  Every time I get there I stop and look at the water and the mountains (I call them mountains but apparently they're just hills) across the bay and am in awe that this is my summer.  It's hard to explain exactly what RTC looks like so my next blog entry will include pictures and descriptions, I promise!  I've begun working on a project looking at the genetic diversity of several invasive copepod species (copepods are a kind of zooplankton for all of you non-science peoples).  I've gotten to combine some old skills with several new ones.  Everyone in my lab (and at RTC, for that matter) is super nice and laid-back, yet so hardworking.  It's refreshing to be in an environment of such intelligent and passionate people who care about environmental issues and address them in practical and pioneering ways.  I just know I'm going to learn so much this summer and look forward to many adventures embarked on in the bay area.  

Until next time,
Catie (I haven't gone diving yet, so I feel a little distanced from my mermaid self.  Not to worry, I have found some passionate divers out here and we're planning a trip soon!)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

About to get philosophical on y'all

Waddup loyal fans!  I am no more in Bonaire but have recently returned to the lovely Narragansett, Rhode Island, as I'm sure you all know now seeing as it has been almost one month now!  Sorry it's taken me so long for another post, I've been kinda busy seeing friends and adjusting to life in the US.  I have decided to have a final reflective post about my time spent on Bonaire. I find it a little challenging to think about the last four months because I've really jumped into the flow of things back home.  It feels almost like I was dreaming and that I just woke up, but maybe that's what it feels like when you live your dreams.  I could not have asked for a more amazing adventure, full of new experiences, new knowledge gained, and a lot of personal growth.

I think my study abroad experience came at the perfect time in my life.  Here I was in the middle of my college career, not really knowing what to do with my life, but having a passion for the environment, scientific research, and community outreach.  Before going to Bonaire one thing I knew I wanted to do at some point in my life was live in a tree-house away from the world for a while and to just be in nature.  Sounds like a lovely plan, right?  After my time spent on the small island of Bonaire, I realized that by living away from the world I would be avoiding all of the world's problems, in denial of anything wrong, and oblivious to those around me.  In a time where our society needs not people who live in denial of problems, but those who confront them and try to solve them, I realized that I could not just stand by and ignore the world like a coward.  Our Tropical Marine Conservation and Biodiversity course not only highlighted things I already knew about the environment, like pollution, overfishing, our dependence on oil, and deforestation, but it also taught me that there are ways to combat these terrible issues if only people were educated and aware of them.  We learned about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that close fishing in certain areas, but that eventually result in larger and more numerous fish elsewhere, helping restore fish populations.  We learned that not many people on Bonaire except well-educated tourists even have a clue about climate change.  My time on Bonaire, both on land and underwater, has shown me that I cannot just sit back and watch the world's ecosystems suffer from further degradation, but that I can be one who does something about it.  I'm not talking about saving every ecosystem and coming up with a miraculous alternative energy and then curing cancer, but I can do something.  What that is, I don't know yet, but I think that's the beauty of the promise of the future. 

Something else being in Bonaire has taught me is the importance of doing what makes me happy.  As cliche as it sounds and as simple as it may be, I have learned how great it is to do something you love.  Oftentimes I would do things because I knew that they would enhance my resume or help me appear "well-rounded," but my current motivation is to do what I find interesting and to let the pieces fall where they may.  My experiences in Bonaire have shown me that I have an incredible passion for marine research and conservation.  I guess that might not be much of a shocker for those of you who already know that I've spent every summer since I can remember at the beach and spend my free time wading in the salt marsh with my friends.  I needed Bonaire to help reiterate what an impact the ocean has on my being.  You have no idea how much I wish I could just don my bathing suit, walk ~70 meters and jump into the ocean right now (which is what I would do every day in Bonaire).  With this passion I now have a little more focus to what I want to do with my life, but then again who really knows.

My time in Bonaire has also helped me to slow the heck down.  If anyone saw me at all last fall semester at Conn, I'm sure you were frightened by how frazzled and crazy I was.  I had planned every hour of every day with what I was going to do, and although I managed to do everything I set out, I had hardly any free time.  Looking back on it now, I took way too much on last semester and never want to do that to myself ever again.  In Bonaire, I would actually go with the flow.  This may be hard to imagine, but I think I used my planner maybe three or four weeks out of the 16 that I was there.  The laid-back vibe of Bonaire rubbed off on me immediately upon stepping out of the plane back in January.  I have never been more relaxed in my life than I was for the last couple of months.  Although things in America work at a much faster pace (I was overwhelmed by the highway when I got back - it's crazy!), I do hope to stop planning everything I do and to just go with the flow.  

Bonaire has also shown me just how wonderful of a support system I have.  Going to school just an hour away from home was a luxury that I did not realize I had until I was in another country for four months.  I was completely on my own and couldn't just call up mommy if I needed something or text my sister when I found something funny.  Although I made wonderful new friends during my time in Bonaire, it was encouraging to have so many loved ones back home to talk to and who I knew understood me.  As wonderful as it is to embark on independent adventures, this experience has shown me how great adventures can be if you embark on them and share them with people you love.  I look forward to the day when I can bring my mom and sister to Bonaire and really show them what it's like.  

I am so glad to have had the incredible opportunity to study in another country for a semester and to have met so many amazing people in such a short time.  Even though us students came from completely different backgrounds, as soon as we were together, it was like we already knew each other.  We were a bunch of science nerds and I loved learning, living, and laughing with them.  They made the experience one that I will remember forever.  They pushed me to be more adventurous, more relaxed, and even more academic (which is hard to imagine, I'm sure).

Thank you all for supporting me during this wonderful journey.  I loved recounting my adventures and sharing all of my stories with you!


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Island in the Sun (why have I not so cleverly come up with this title before??)

My oh my it's almost been a month since my last post!  I apologize for being so busy - I've had multiple loyal fans approach me (well not exactly considering y'all are up in the states and whatnot but you know what I mean) requesting updates, updates, updates, I say!  So without further ado, here they are:

Beginning first with where I left off on my last post - my sickliness.  Fortunately, I have recovered!  That was quite the terrible week in bed but just like a rainy day, it has been replaced with the ample sunshine of life on this island.  Yeah, I tried to be clever and poetic there...not sure if it worked exactly but moving along now...

Rather than going in super chronological order like usual, I'm just gonna mention some highlights from the past couple-a weeks for you dears.  It's another novel, so get ready for lotsa reading!

Firstly, A MANTA RAY SWAM 1.5 FEET UNDER ME.  Yes, you heard me, a manta.  Now, that's not what killed Steve Irwin, let me just clarify.  That was a sting ray. Mantas are much cooler and aren't really stingy - at least I don't think so, but I'm no expert.  So here's the story of that adventure, kids:  one casual afternoon during our two-hour lunch period (yes, we have those) several of us were just chillin' on our favorite local dock (it's literally a 1-min walk from our house) when everyone from the dive shop comes out and looks to the south.  Here I am thinking that they have a missing diver and we need to rescue them, so I ask them what's up.  They apparently heard word that a manta was on the way.  That's all we needed to hear before Abbey and I full-on sprinted into Yellow Sub (the dive shop), acquired masks and snorkels, and jumped into the water.  Before I knew it, Abbey pointed to my left and the manta was making its majestic way toward me!  I swear we locked eyes as it turned.  Staying as still as possible and not even breathing, I floated motionless on the surface while the manta swam right under me.  It was by far one of the most sublime moments of my life (that and the ostracods make the top of da list).  After that amazingness, I tried to follow it from the surface but it was just too fast!  And it was probably trying to get away from all of us humans on the surface surrounding it.  Minor detail...

Just imagine this baby swimming under you.  Yep. 

Another fun thing that happened was our field trip to the Washington Slagbaai National Park.  The national park takes up like the entire northern part of the island and is hilly (or mountainous as I like to call it), has tons of cacti, donkeys, lizzahds (how my Mom likes to pronounce it hehehe) and flamingos, and also lots of rocky coastline that is made up of old coral reefs.  You can actually see the old corals embedded into the earth.  Pretty cool indeed.  We spent almost an entire day cruising along the rough terrain for a while then would turn up at a little spot near the shoreline, get out, take pictures, look over the edge of the cliff we were on, and then continue on our adventure.  One scary thing we did was climb up to this thing called Seru Bentana, which means "Window to the sea" in Papiamentu.  I was pretty frightened (shoutout to ma sis: Sticky, you know how to pronounce that one) when we got to the top and did not want to touch ANYONE for fear of losing my balance and tumbling to my doom.  The view was incredible, though.  On one side we could see the ocean and on the other the mountains and cacti of the national park.  We also stopped at a beach to have lunch and jump off a 30-ft cliff.  Casual.  Except that was probably the scariest thing I have ever done.  But I just HAD to, you know?

Entrance to the national park. 

At Playa Chikitu.  This isn't the beach where we had lunch, however.  Check out the wind turbines in the background, too! 

Driving through the park.  I took this picture from the back of the divemobile, pictured below.   

Our mode of transportation.  Just imagine sitting in the back of that going over rocky terrain.  Needless to say we went flying a couple of times and may have ran into some thorny acacias. 

Another one of the places we stopped along our journey to take pictures.   

"Window to the Sea" - From this angle, it doesn't look too high up, but it was.  And we went and stood on top of that.  Scary scary. 

Looking out the window with Shelby and Jul. 

A blau blau (it means "blue blue" in Papiamentu).  I just love all of the different colors of this lizard. 

Being a daredevil, no big deal.  Pretty sure my heart stopped during that drop, though... (Photo credit: Devon Chalfant)

Last weekend (not like two days ago weekend but the weekend prior) I was able to go on a recreational dive on the eastern side of the island, just north of Lac Bay.  A bunch of us piled into the dive van and headed over for an adventure.  Some of the people we went with weren't too sure of the dive site but we went in anyway.  I was kinda expecting to see like sharks and rays and lots of turtles (that's what I was told was near Lac), but I only saw one turtle.  I was a little disappointed, but I did see lots of black durgons, a queen triggerfish, and tons of pretty corals.  The corals were more diverse than at our usual dive site of Yellow Sub, and they were a combination of massive corals and soft gorgonians, making for a pretty dive.  One of our friends we dove with caught 12 lionfish and was filleting them while we were on shore.  That was pretty cool to watch - we were all just sitting watching him cut fish after fish.

Now, this past weekend was one full of earth love on behalf of Earth Day - Saturday we picked up trash from the sea and Sunday we picked it up from the shore.  Saturday we did a clean-up dive with Dive Friends and Yellow Sub (our trusty dive shop).  It was kinda tricky to dive searching for trash considering a lot of it was already incorporated into the benthos.  Sponges and corals were chillin' on pieces of metal and glass so we obviously left those babies there.  It was a little like a scavenger hunt and was kinda fun.  That evening we went to a pot-luck BBQ at Yellow Sub.  Shelby and I contributed fruit salad (yummy yummy) while other CIEE contributions included rice krispie treats and pasta salad (Mom, they put in feta cheese into theirs; I highly recommend it!).  Sunday was our CIEE-organized Earth Day beach clean-up.  Most of us wanted to organize a beach clean-up because there was so much trash on the southern and eastern shore of Bonaire.  We did a lot of PR (Amelie and I were actually on the radio a couple of times!) and got about 20 people (I know, kind of a small number, but whatever) to come other than us from CIEE.  We filled two dumpsters (yay!) but there was still an entire shoreline of trash.  It was just an eyeopening experience because most of the trash was plastic bottles, plastic caps, and shoes.  Yikes.

Everyone before the clean-up dive.  Six of us from CIEE joined in the fun.  This is the dock we always hang out on, too.  

Aside from all those lovely adventures, we've gone on a couple of dives for our classes, but none were too exciting.  We actually went on our last academic dive of the semester last Tuesday (sad times, my brother).  Things are really finishing up around here.  We finished our Independent Research papers, gave our final presentations to the public last week, and are all working to put our papers together into a student-designed journal.  The journal is kept printed out all fancy at the research station and also available online so it's kind of a big deal.  This week we have no classes really and are only working on putting together Physis (which is the title for the journal and Greek for allowing nature to heal itself).  It takes a lot of work and patience to put it together and I know that after all of our hard work it's going to be really great!  Mom, I put on my Patience Hat today and probably won't take it off until Friday.

Aw, look at us, all cleaned up and adult-looking.  This is the gang before the second half of our presentations.  It was a little weird to wear normal clothes, fancy shoes and actually put make-up on.  (Photo credit: CIEE)

Anyway, with only two more weeks left here on this incredible island I've been trying to spend as much of my free time enjoying all Bonaire has to offer.  I've been working on laying on the dock like all the time (that's actually what I've been doing with my time, not writing papers or presentations; I just made up all that stuff so you guys would think I'm busy) and having fun with all of my wonderful new friends.  I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to coming home (I had a dream last night about my mom, sister and dog sooo yeah), but I know I am going to miss it here.  We've all shared so many pivotal experiences and grown as individuals that it'll be weird not seeing everyone 24/7.

Ok, that's it for dis post y'all.  I'll probably have a final reflection post in two weeks, so stay tuned for that little ditty!

Until next time, sending lots and lots of love from the Caribbean,

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Oh Sweet Poseidon!

Why hello there!  My, it sure has been a while hasn't it?  I apologize for how long it's been since my last post; things have been super busy around here with our Independent Research Projects finishing up (well, the data collection part...), diving to see ostracods spawn, kayaking and snorkeling in mangroves, snorkeling in an Acropora cervicornis thicket, collecting plankton, playing ultimate frisbee against our professors, and spending a week in bed with bronchitis!  Oh, these last few weeks have certainly been quite the adventure, my friends.  It's gonna be a long post fo' sho'. BUT, there will be lots of PICTURES!! YAY!

Hm where to begin, where to begin?  Alrighty, so about three weeks ago we went on a night dive to see these little crustaceans called ostracods spawn.  About five nights after the full moon they bioluminesce (light up) in order to attract a mate or release their gametes (I'm not too sure which one it is...).  Anyway, we took a boat out to this dive site at 7:00 pm, descended into the darkness at 7:30 pm and did not turn our lights on.  After waiting several minutes I turned my head and these little spirals of light began to move towards the surface.  It was like being surrounded by tiny stars while you're floating weightless in the night's sky.  Everywhere I turned little glowing specks were lighting up and spiraling around me.  It was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed.  I was in awe the entire time. 
After a good 5-10 minutes of amazingness we continued the dive only to see something equally as cool: glow-in-the-dark corals.  That's right, we had blue lights with us, that if you shine them on certain corals, the corals will fluoresce a color that's a lower wavelength than blue (most of them were that green glow-in-the-dark color).  My buddy, Abbey, and I were holding hands while we were shining the corals with the blue light.  We get a little afraid of the dark sometimes...  But anyway, that was probably my favorite dive yet because oh my gosh it was just so darn cool!  Yeah, I know that was not a very descriptive reason, but you know what I mean.  I am still at a loss for words.  On the boat back after the dive, everyone was just so excited and happy; we all had such a wonderful time!

Ostracods.  We didn't take this picture, but it's like the best one out there to give you some idea of what we saw.  Just multiply those little spots by like 100.

Agaricia agaricites under blue light at night.  Jason Flower, one of the interns, took this picture on our dive!  Isn't it so cool?!

A. agaricites in the daytime.  What a difference!

Montastreaea faveolata under blue light at night.  Jason got this shot, too!

M. faveolata in the daytime.

Let's see...moving along now.  Ah yes, also that week we went on a field trip to the mangroves and seagrasses of Lac Bay.  Lac is basically the only place on the island that has these ecosystems, which serve as prime nurseries for many juvenile fishies, provide nutrients to the adjacent coral reefs, help provide a buffer zone between the land and storm surges, and are unfortunately among the many habitats being destroyed for coastal development.  So I really like these habitats, but I don't particularly enjoy snorkeling in them.  That's only because the water is very turbid (lotsa sediments) and you have to get really close to the mangroves to see anything in them, and by that time they are covering your head and you're face-to-face with a barracuda.  I get a little claustrophobic so I was kinda freaked by the snorkeling.  But, the kayaking was really beautiful; we were led on a tour of the mangroves of Lac via kayak and got to go through these little channels where you would just push yourself forward using the mangroves' prop roots instead of the paddle.  It was always one of my life's goals to kayak through the mangroves and I'm glad to check that baby off my bucket list! 

 Kayaking through the mangroves.  Stole this pic from Wiley Sinkus.  He was the only one to bring a camera on our mangrove adventure.

We're all professional kayakers, obviously.  (Another of Wiley's pictures)

Post-mangrove kayak.  (Photo credit: Jason Flower).

Alright, continuing to the next week... One day we went on a field trip to see an Acropora cervicornis thicket and compare the fish biomass there to that of a location where there used to be this coral, but most of it got destroyed from a hurricane.  A. cervicornis used to be the most abundant shallow water coral in the Caribbean, until white band disease and hurricanes wiped out most populations.  It is now considered an endangered species.  Luckily for our educational purposes there exists one thicket of this coral out in Lac Bay.  We snorkeled there two weeks ago and it was just breathtaking.  We did have to walk about a half mile in waist-deep water to get to it, though.  That was quite the workout, let me tell you.  But once we got there it was such a treat to explore its many branches and nooks and crannies.

A. cervicornis (also known as Staghorn coral).  (Photo credit: Juli Schroger).

Another thing we did that week was collect tons and tons of plankton and larval fish from Lac Bay.  We went out at night during the new moon and set up light traps and had plankton catching nets in which we collected lotsa little fishies and plankton.  Most of the time one person stood about knee-deep in water (song reference yay yayee) holding a flashlight into the water while another person had a big net that they fished up tiny plankton every once in a while and dropped them off into a collection bucket on land.  We also used a plankton tow collection thingy attached to the end of a fishing rod, so we would cast it off into the water and reel it back in.  Well, due to my impeccable fishing skillzz, when I cast off the plankton tow, the line broke and the tow was out in the middle of the water.  Surprise there, I know.  But, being the superhero that I am, I jumped in and rescued the tow before it was left to ol' Poseidon's mercy.  After that little adventure, we continued to collect plankton, showed some of the local people what we were doing, and did a lot of sitting around.  I mean, you can only collect so many plankton, right?  The next day we took our samples to the lab and examined them under the microscopes; that was pretty cool! 

Everyone's pretty enthralled in all the plankton they're catching!  Check out the headlamps; super intense, I know. (Photo credit: Jason Flower).

Hard-core plankton identification in the lab. Here are Jules and Hilary.  (Photo credit: Fadilah Ali).

Continuing with all of the fun that's been going on 'round hurr, last Friday all of us with CIEE (students, staff, interns, families, pets, etc) gathered at a local baseball field for some good ol'fashioned competitive fun, Ultimate Frisbee style.  It was students versus staff, and things got pretty intense.  Within the first round we had one black eye and one scraped knee (not on the same person, thankfully!).  Needless to say everyone was really competitive, but in a light-hearted way.  It was just really fun for all of us to blow off some steam and to play against our professors!  In the end, the staff ended up winning (dangit...) but it was all in good fun!

Now, getting to this past week.  Unfortunately, both Hilary and I came down with quite the assortment of pulmonary diseases and have been incapacitated for the whole week.  I hardly left CIEE property (let alone my room) for days.  At the end of the week we both finally made it to the doctors (we're both kinda stubborn and thought we were getting better...) and are now on antibiotics and are on the path to recovery.  Don't worry, we're OK!!  But, to ensure that we do not infect everyone else, we are currently residing in an apartment that is next to our resident director's house.  It is fully equipped, except for a TV (oh no whatever will we doooo!).  I have to admit, it's almost nice being away for a little while.  And, the front porch overlooks the water, so I can't really complain. 

The view from our illness isolation apartment.  Just remember that I've been sick for a week so I don't exactly look my best or know how to interact with the outside world anymore...

Anyway, I'm just looking forward to getting back into the swing of actual school and stuff (oh gosh what has gotten into me?!) because we only have FIVE SHORT WEEKS LEFT.  It's crazy to think of how fast time flies here, but as the saying goes, it's because I've been having so much fun!  I do miss everyone back home and look forward to returning to little ol' Narragansett, but I want to make sure I'm healthy enough to really enjoy the rest of my time on this incredible island. 

Well, I hope y'all enjoyed this rather long post, but hey, at least I broke up some of my narrative with beautiful pictures!! 

Sending lots of love from the Caribbean,

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Flying Through The Sea

Greetings my dear fans!  It sure has been a little while since my last post; that's because I've been so busy being an underwater scientist!  We've all gotten started on our Independent Research Projects and things have been rather busy around here.  Remember how I told you I was going to do research on those sea urchins?  Well, my research plan has changed a bit and now I'm going to look at the impact of all herbivores (plant-eating animals) on algae growth, meaning my research will extend to fishes and whatnot!  I won't bore you the experimental details, but it involves cages, tiles, and algae growth!

Aside from everyone working diligently on their research projects, we've done some cool things in our classes, including dissecting a ton of lionfish, snorkeling to observe the behavior of surgeonfish, underwater videography (pic below), learning Papiamentu (I'm practically fluent), and taking field trips to the villages/cities of the north (pics below).  It's been a really great past two weeks.  Be forewarned, it's gonna be a long post.

Let's delve more into detail for some of these events, shall we?  Firstly, underwater videography.  You might be wondering, what is that?  Well, it's when you bring a camera in this giant housing down with you when you dive and you essentially video tape the benthic environment (i.e. corals, sand, rubble, etc).  What is challenging about this particular skill is that you need to move rather slowly and remain relatively close to the substrate without touching it.  After we get the videos, we go back to the lab, take still-frames and then analyze points on those frames to see if they have different algae and coral species in order to categorize the benthos. 

Just doin' some underwater videography. 

With my dive buddy, Abbey.  We're about to characterize the benthos using a method different from underwater videography.  This one involves measuring the height of coral heads, looking for invertebrates, and determining percent algae and coral cover.  Check out all that extra gear hanging from us!

In addition to all of the underwater science that has been going on around here, we've really begun to learn about the culture of the island in more detail.  The last two Fridays we went on two amazing and informative field trips.  Last week we went to a cultural and educational center called Mangazina di Rei, which used to be the place where the slaves on the island got their weekly provisions of sorghum (a grain).  To this day, Bonaire still uses its salt pans to harvest salt from the ocean water.  Back in the day, slaves would work at the salt pans in the south during the week and then hike about 26 miles back to their homes in the north on the weekend, get their provisions, and then make the hike back down to the salt pans. 

At Mangazina di Rei, we tasted fresh lime/lemon juice, had pumpkin pancakes made above hot volcanic rocks, played traditional instruments to the Bonairean Harvest Song (our fave song), and even learned how to make cactus fences.  It was a great experience to learn more about the island's history and to see how the buildings were made (they use chalk made from the corals as a kind of plaster for the walls). 

Making the pumpkin pancakes.

Learning how to make a fence out of cacti.

Now, let me tell you what the Harvest Song is.  So we learned it when we went to Kunuku Arawak our first week on the island and have seized every moment to dance to it since.  The song's title is something like, "Rei my lo" - which means "King of the sorghum."  The sorghum was considered the most valuable crop on the island back in the day (and even today), so the Bonaireans would sing to the King to ensure a bountiful harvest.  There is a dance accompanied to the song, that involves two parallel lines of people standing arm-in-arm, facing each other.  You take about eight steps forward, and about eight steps backward, all to the lyrics of the song.  It's not a very complex dance, but it brings people together.  The more people involved, the more lines develop behind the first two initial ones.  I hope you understand how this goes...  Anyway, we all love dancing to it because we truly feel a part of the culture here when we are dancing and singing with the Bonaireans. 

This past Friday night we went on another field trip, only to Rincon, one of the oldest still-populated parts of the island.  It was once the place where the slaves lived and is now a place where family members are neighbors and everyone knows each other.  We had a walking tour of the city, led by two local women whose stories were insightful and whose spirits were contageous.  They provided us with anecdoes about the area and about their lives.  For instance, they said that they used to have to carry wood on their heads for their fires and that they used the pods from divi trees for glue and for making leather. 

On our tour, we sampled a local liqueur made from cactus, limes, and sorghum at the Bonaire-based distillery, went across the street to have homemade cookies from a woman who runs a cookie business from her house, were hooted and hollered at by the locals (an everyday occurrance, actually), and then were treated to a delicious dinner of goat, rice, and plantains at a family's house.  Let me just tell you, I have never felt more at home than I did that night.  When we arrived at the house for dinner, each of us received a personal handshake from one of the hosts, which I found to be most welcoming.  The family's friends and relatives came to the house while we were dining, adding to the sense of unity and just overall welcoming atmosphere that was all around us.  They were just so darn friendly and happy that I wanted to become friends with them.  Unfortunately, many of them (aside from our guides) only spoke Papiamentu, one of the native languages of the island, so communication was difficult. 

What was a more universal language, however, was that of dance. After dessert, we had expressed interest in hearing the Harvest Song (our jam, like I said), and so they bumped the jams and we got up and started dancing. I was honored to dance with two of the older Bonairean men (one I think was the man of the house while the other I think was just a neighbor). The movement wasn't too challenging, but was one I knew came from their hearts. I will always remember dancing with them. 

The bottle on the right is Cadushy, the liqueur made from Bonaire's cacti, limes, and sorghum.  The rest are from the other Antillean islands, such as Aruba and Saba.

Our guide, Maria, demonstrating how she would carry bundles of wood on her head as a child.

They call this the "Love Tree," because of the little seat made from the branch.  How romantic!
It's a divi divi tree, which grows westward due to the trade winds.

The gang.

Something I found most interesting was that the people of Rincon do not really leave.  They are born there, they grow up there, find a mate (haha there's the inner scientist in me), and settle down next to or near their parents.  They obviously venture to other parts of the island and see what is there, but do not move away from Rincon.  When we were telling our new friends about where we're from and about our Independent Research Projects, everyone was so intently listening to us, hearing our stories, wanting to learn about us.  I was so touched at their sincere interest even if they couldn't fully understand us.  They were just interested in learning about our foreign ways of life and what brought us to Bonaire. 

I had never before really considered what the natives must think of us Americans, and I feel a little guilty for not thinking about that before.  Here we are, visiting their homeland for four short months, trying to understand their lifestyles, but then we go back to our lives of luxury and indulgence, with a world of opportunity at our fingertips.  The people I met last night love their lives and live with such happiness, they do not need to go galavanting around the world to find it.  However thankful I am to have the opportunity to travel, I know that I am a lot like the people of Rincon, always tied to my homeland, and my family.  It is comforting to know that no matter where you go in the world, the people are the same; they love their families, their friends, and their traditions.

Anyway, another fun thing that happened this week was a dive we went on to find spawning Blue Tangs.  They form these aggregations, where tons gather in one place, and then a male and female swim up the water column, release their gametes, then swim back down.  We didn't end up seeing any of the Blue Tangs spawn, however (kinda disappointed, not gonna lie), but what made the dive fun was that while we were looking for the fish we were just suspended in the middle of a blue, blue sea.  We couldn't see the bottom, and were about 50-60 feet deep, just floating weightless.  While we were waiting for the fishies, we were doing flips, taking pictures, and just reclining, enjoying the weightlessness that we were experiencing.  It was the most sublime feeling ever. 

This dive made me realize that diving is the closest thing to flying.  When you're suspended in the water column, with perfect buoyancy, you are weightless and then have the power to glide anywhere: up, down, left, right, and diagonally.  It's really unlike anything you can experience while on land due to the restraints of gravity.  What I love even more is being able to swim through a school of Brown Chromis or staring down a French Angelfish.  I just feel so close to the marine life when diving, it's a most incredible feeling. 

School of Blue Tangs.

School of Brown Chromis.

French Angelfish.

So yup, I'm loving every moment here, learning so much about the culture, the ocean, and about myself in the process.  If you read this entire thing, you are an amazing human being because I think this is the longest post yet.  It's time for me to go snorkeling (I'm helping someone with their research, this is serious business around here).

I love you all!