So much has happened since I last posted – so much of it good, and some of it very challenging and frustrating. First of all, my camera had a bit of a…problem. This resulted in a lack of pictures from four very exciting field exercises, which is a huge bummer. The good news is that it is sort of working again (although I still have to ship it back to Canon when I get home…sigh), and I have pictures from my most recent adventure, and will hopefully have them here on out.
On my first Friday here, we had our first Principles of Resource Management field exercise. I couldn’t quite believe that we were going out into the field twice in our first week, with so little preparation, but there we were, getting our dry bags and our kayaking paddles. We drove about five minutes out to an unpolluted area of the bay where Vero, our PRM professor had set a number of “traps” for octopuses. There is a huge trash problem here, as there is no reliable trash service. As a result of the trash and the wind, much of the trash ends up in the bay. Vero believes that some of this trash may act as a suitable habitat for octopuses, and as a result, she has staked down a number of cans in different substrates. Our mission was to kayak to the rodolith substrate and retrieve the cans in the transect, before bringing them back into the lab to be analyzed.
While I have kayaked before in the pool at school, I have never really kayaked before – and I love it. In spite of the fact that I was pouring sweat inside my wetsuit (zipped all the way up so I wouldn’t get sunburned), and in spite of the fact that my kayak refused to go straight and was constantly drifting to the left (the open ocean), I had so much fun kayaking to the site. Once we reached the mangroves, we hopped out of our kayaks, beached them, and got ready to go for a dip.
While SFS recommends that you bring a wetsuit, and while I had already swum in the open water in nothing but my bathing suit (the wetsuit gives you buoyancy, and effectively allows you to cheat while you’re treading water), it was still a shock when I stuck my feet in the water. Nonetheless, we all put on our masks, snorkels, and fins, and got prepared to dive in. As soon as my head hit the water, however, I started hyperventilating from the cold. As I tried to calm myself down enough to breathe properly underwater, I realized something that I objectively knew, but hadn’t thought through: you can’t breathe bubbles out your nose while wearing a snorkel mask. As I tried to dive to retrieve the first can, I panicked as I couldn’t breathe out, and hauled myself up to the surface. After that, I decided to tread water and hold the bags that the cans were placed into (in case there were octopuses inside). I was frustrated with myself – I have been swimming for more than fifteen years, and I love being in the water. As I resigned myself to my disappointment over my first snorkeling experience, I clutched the bags and swam back to the kayaks, where we stored the octopuses. The kayak trip back to the other side went much more smoothly – now that I was wet, I wasn’t as hot, and the tide had changed so that I didn’t drift.
When we reached land, we had a surprise: octopuses had crawled out of their cans and were wriggling around in the cans! To most people, octopuses are not beautiful, and are only something to be avoided. These creatures, however, are incredible: smart, beautiful, and very dynamic. The octopuses in my kayak were incredible: one, a female, started out white and translucent, before changing color dramatically during our ride back to the lab. As soon as we got back to the site and pulled off our damp wetsuits, we ran to the lab to get started. We counted the prey inside the cans and attempted to coax the octopuses (many of whom had retreated back into the cans) to come out so that we could measure them. As I cut open the can on our first octopus, we got an even better surprise: We had found a mother with eggs! She had laid her eggs along the string tying the can to the stake, and she was refusing to come out. We kept her, and she is still sitting in our lab while we wait for her babies, along with those from the four other mothers we found (one of whom is a new species!) to hatch. It turns out that octopuses are very poorly understood as a whole, and even more so in this bay, where few people have elected to do research.
The next field exercise we went out on was even more incredible: On Monday, we headed out for another whale watching experience. Where our first experience was choppy and nausea-inducing, this was enchanting. We started out in fog so thick that in places we couldn’t see more than five feet in front of us. As we moved away from this, the ocean took on a glassy sheen, so that it appeared like liquid mercury. It was utterly beautiful (at this point, I had only realized that my camera was dead). We moved all over the bay looking for whales, and spotted a number of whales, two pods of dolphins (including dolphins who were playing with two whales!), and a sea lion swimming in the sea – it was amazing. The dolphins were perhaps the most exciting of the day because they swam all around, under, and after our boat. When we finally left that spot, it seemed like they would follow us on our way – they were playing in the waves and spray of our boat!
Three days later, we headed back out whale-watching (by which time, I knew something major was wrong with my camera…). We headed to a completely different part of the bay, close to the Santo Domingo channel – the boat ride was unbelievable, in part because we got to see a part of the bay we hadn’t yet. It was back in the estuaries, surrounded by mangrove peninsulas. When we entered the channel, we immediately started spotting whales – and more whales, and whales logging, and finally, BABIES. When we realized that there were babies, there were shrieks and many of us began hyperventilating (do you see a theme to my field exercises so far?). We were all so torn about which whales to watch, especially when we saw one in the distance breach six times in a row (breaching is when they come fully out of the water and slam back down, causing an amazing spray). We drove all over the bay, and ultimately thought we saw at least eight mom-and-calf pairs…and we had a mother and baby swim right next to our boat, to the extent that the baby blew out its blowhole and sprayed us all! It was an unbelievably magical experience – the attention the mothers show their babies, along with the curiosity exhibited by the babies was just amazing. There was a small playgroup going for a while with four babies and their mothers – and we literally sat right in the middle of it and just watched. Fortunately, Amber let me borrow her camera for the occasion, and once I have pictures, I’ll add them here. I literally can’t even describe how elated I was to be seeing what we did – I have never seen anything like it.
It was tough to come down from the “whale-watching high” as it’s termed here, but finally we did. Two days later, we were out in the boats again, but this time for another PRM exercise. I’d made it a goal that by the end of the trip I’d be comfortable diving when I snorkeled, and within a week, I was completely comfortable with it. This time, we were looking at catarina scallops and their average size within one square meter. My group and I had a great time and got it down incredibly quickly – I dove multiple times, and was once again so excited – and so pleased that I had not trouble diving the second time! Once we finished, we had to wait for the second group in our boat, and so we swam around, exploring what was around – and saw two small stingrays! While this shouldn’t be particularly exciting, it actually was, although I was grateful I wasn’t walking around them. I was so comfortable swimming and snorkeling the second time that I really didn’t want to get out of the water.
The downside to these multiple field exercises, however, has been the sun exposure I have sustained. Like my mother and my sister, I am nominally “allergic” to the sun – meaning I break out in a rash if I’m not very careful with sunscreen, etc. I am currently recovering from this (
itchy, irritating, disgusting) rash right now.
In spite of this, I went this past Sunday on a trip to the sand dunes across the bay – they are part of Isla Magdalena, at its narrowest part – you can climb up and over them within ten minutes, and be at the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, I was thrilled to see the Pacific, to stick my toes in it, and lie out and read for several hours. Naomi and I went on a wonderful walk, during which time I collected some incredible shells. There are few shells in the bay, so this was a really nice opportunity to find some treasures. Unfortunately, that further sun exposure did not do my feet (in particular) any good – I have been coating them in cortizone and wearing socks ever since then. As a result, I didn’t go on the field exercise that was planned for today, which was to plant the cans back in the different substrates in the bay to catch more octopuses for the study. I am working in the lab later today to make habitats for the octopus larvae (to determine what their preferred habitat is). My feet are slowly recovering, and my camera is now partially functional, so all in all, things are going well.