Fiji Fish - What happens after we catch them?

Check out this video put together by Helen Scales, our brilliant science communicator while on expedition in Fiji this summer. This video addresses what happens AFTER diving in the sublime Fijian sea all morning - processing our fish samples! Which ended up being one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, second only to the diving itself.

The Drew Crew's First Sample Collection

Check out this video our amazing science communicator, Helen Scales (, put together of our first dive in Fiji! I'm the diver in all black (helpful!), and interviewed at the end are - from left to right - me, Maddy and Amy. Enjoy!

Field Work


Annnd we’re back! We arrived in Suva yesterday after a week of sample collection in Nagigi (pronounced Nai-ni-ni) on the northern island of Vanua Levu. And man, what a week…I’m at a loss for words when I try to articulate what we’ve experienced. Coming to mind right now are the vibrant colors of the reef fish - brilliant oranges, silvery greens, pale yellows, deep reds, fading slowly from the limp fishes’ tissues as they wait patiently in their plates for us to process them. The cerulean blue of Nagigi’s lagoon, impossibly clear as the prow of our tiny boat cleaves a path through liquid color. The weightlessness of diving, being suspended in space with the tip of my spear glinting five feet ahead and the mechanical sound of breathing through my regulator punctuating the depths. Life in the village was elegant in its simplicity, everything revolving around those few hours spent underwater and the golden afternoons processing samples. The villagers were among some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, especially our hosts Nancy and Nyo. These wonderful people cooked our every meal, insisting we eat more than our fill, and made sure we were comfortable and well-kept throughout our time spent in the village.




More importantly, our research endeavors were extremely successful. By the end of the trip we had collected over 100 different species of reef fish, and had observed over a dozen endangered species that we can’t collect but can record as present. The biodiversity on Nagigi’s reefs was astonishing, while apparently not even being up to its full potential. We collected dozens of surgeonfish, damselfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and triggerfish, a handful of groupers, jacks and mullets (which are more commonly fished by the villagers), two lionfish and a handful of extremely small gobis, blennies, and cardinalfish. I’m definitely missing a lot of fish families there, but that’s what I can remember without looking at my field notebook. :) And, like most field expeditions, we did experience a few hiccoughs in the plans - delayed ferries, boat problems, having to take time off because of terrible weather, etc. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about fieldwork, and not just on this expedition, is to always expect the unexpected. It sounds really cliche but it is truly crucial to have a back-up plan for when things don’t go as planned. For instance, one of the days we were supposed to collect a lot of data we woke up to torrents of rain hammering on our little tin roof, and when we saw the current absolutely RIPPING in the lagoon, all chance of diving that day went out the door. So we had to improvise, sending a few of us into the nearby town to run some necessary errands we had been putting off, and the others staying behind to do interviews with Helen. It ended up being a productive day despite not getting our expected work done, and that day was chalked up as a success. Thankfully the weather wasn’t always like that and we did get to dive in some absolutely fantastic waters (eee!), and collect all the fish and sediment samples we needed.




Sitting here in Suva, heading back to the US in three days, I realize how much I’m going to miss this place over the next year. BUT, I’m also bolstered by the possibility of returning next summer for my thesis research (!), and am so looking forward to what my graduate school experience holds in store - it has certainly started off on the right foot. :)


Off to Nagigi


Stumbling upon a praying mantis in the street, we fall to our knees - cameras up, voices low, immediately ensnared. It starts moving towards Amy’s arm, which is outstretched in hopes of a species to species greeting, and soon she has the insect close to her face, cooing encouraging noises. I keep my distance, perfectly content with getting a close-up of its alien-like eyes through the lens of my camera. We hear a car approaching and reluctantly get out of the street, urging Sir Manty out of harm’s way. This is such a field biologist moment.


Life here has settled into a comfortable routine. Breakfast around 7am at the Hot Bread Kitchen amusingly located on Butt Street or the coffee shop on Loftus, reading the paper and discussing our day’s plans in between bites of coconut buns and fruit rolls. The beginnings of our days are usually filled with field preparations, yesterday involving permitting (always, always checking on the permits), tracking down ethanol and formalin, maps, and liquid nitrogen. Today involving more permitting, tying up loose ends from yesterday’s errands (the formalin quest has taken us on a wild goose chase around various University of South Pacific campuses), and playing with underwater cameras and GoPro rigs. Lunches are taken at the food court just down the hill from our hotel, filled with amazing Indian food and sushi, and afternoon activities usually involve either doing interviews with Helen in scenic places or the tedious but extremely necessary prep work like filling hundreds of microtubules with ethanols and sharpening pencils. Evenings usually consist of more amazing food, lots of laughter and story telling, a bit of down time and then early to bed to prepare for another jam-packed day ahead.



While this time in Suva has been ridiculously enjoyable (the Drew Crew’s ab muscles have significantly strengthened from all the laughs), we are all intensely focused on the prize ahead - our week in the village of Nagnini, diving daily to collect samples, conducting interviews with fishermen and fisherwomen. This is what our expedition is all about, everything comes down to this week in Fiji’s “hidden paradise” (which we were delighted to hear the Suva locals calling it). We depart tonight at 7pm, after one last day of frantic errand running and equipment packing, boarding an overnight ferry that will land us on the northern island at 4am the next day. After arriving in Nagnini I will be effectively off the map, not using internet or phones both because it will be extremely difficult and also for the purpose of fully immersing myself in our work, enabling myself to be fully present for every aspect of the field.

Edit: We are now leaving tomorrow morning at 4am, arriving in Savusavu in the afternoon to head to the village. The ferry was delayed so we have scrambled to make it work and it looks like we won’t be too set back :) Ahhh the challenges of fieldwork! Adios everybody, talk to you again when we have 800+ fish added to our inventory!


The Future of Food (I Hope)

Fish farmed from Veta la Palma, a sustainable fish farm in Southern Spain that maintains a natural food web in order to feed their fish - purifying a major river and boosting bird populations while they're at it.  

I was just looking through proposed projects from a graduate program I applied to recently, and stumbled across this amazing TED talk in one of the project's resource webpage. This chef, Dan Barber, was in search of the perfect fish: delicious, fresh-tasting, sustainable. The "sustainable" part is becoming more and more important for restaurants these days, as not only are many types of fish growing increasingly toxic but some of the most palatable and well-liked fish stocks are in danger of (if not already) collapsing - Red Snapper, Chilean Sea Bass, Orange RoughyFreshwater Eel or Unagi (one of my own favorite sushi items), and Pacific Bluefin Tuna, which was actually just revealed to have dropped 96.4% in population, ahhh! So this TED talk is the story of how he stumbled across this ASTOUNDING fish farm in Southern Spain, you absolutely have to watch it:

[ted id=790]

It's extremely depressing to hear about the extent of the destruction of the oceans to date, and to imagine them as just barren, toxic expanses of water in the future. A few years ago I would have told you I thought too many people focus on the dire-straights predictions and let it scare them into hopelessness, rather than rising to a challenge and actually trying to do something about it (I was a bit of a pessimist when it came to humanity, haha). But over the last few years, that's all changed. Through many of my own life experiences, like helping with marine management programs in Fiji and working with fellow LA divers to restore kelp forests off our coastline, and reading the news, learning about how many people and organizations are out there trying to deal with this stuff, how many people actually CARE, man I have developed some serious faith in the world!

So this is what struck me while watching the TED talk: that the innovative human mind, combined with the resiliency of biological systems when given a chance, can restore and repair so much of the damage we've done to our planet. This guy points out some really awesome solutions to the decline of our food industries (because let's be real, it's nearly impossible these days to get your hands on some truly natural, unprocessed food in America unless you grow it/raise it yourself). If more people and businesses recognized the VALUE of intact ecosystems, in the sense that nature has developed these things for millions of years until they are literally almost PERFECT self-sustaining entities - why not use ecosystems themselves more efficiently to produce the things we need? I believe I read recently that the state of New York is looking into installing oyster beds offshore for storm mitigation, because they act as a natural barrier for surges - that is exactly what I'm talking about. It's not a new idea. The project at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Management that I was checking out earlier is about mimicking natural food webs to create more sustainable fisheries options, this is another example. It could probably be applied to a ton of different agricultural models as well. And this fish farm in the TED talk pretty much perfectly exemplifies this idea.

The more people we can get to learn about these things, realize how perfectly nature's tools have been honed to deal with the problems we're facing over vast amounts of time, we could really make some great moves towards cleaning up our planet. I'm choosing to be optimistic about this whole mess, and choosing to become a proponent of finding solutions!

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(PS - the links I provided for the fish above are all from this amazing resource from the Monterey Bay Aquarium called SeafoodWatch, it's a list of sustainable vs. unsustainable fish options for anyone to check out. They have an app, too!)

On Grad School and Saving our Reefs!

It has been a tragically lengthy amount of time since I've posted, but not without good reason. I've been applying to graduate programs! :) Well, technically I haven't applied to a single school yet haha BUT I've been writing a ridiculous amount of essays for grant proposals! There are two huge pre-doctoral grants that I've applied to, one from NSF and one from NOAA, and they both involved long and torturous application processes. SO cross yo fingaaaas! I find out in May whether I'll be a funded grad student or not ;)

But one SUPER cool thing I wanted to share with you all has to do with the research I'm planning to conduct in the next few years. (Hopefully) we all know that our oceans are IMMENSELY important to the health of our planet, not only environmentally (providing climate stability, storing excess CO2, full of a ton of unique ecosystems and crazy cool critters), but also economically. Last year, CORAL REEFS ALONE were estimated to provide over US$ 30 billion in goods and services to world economies, through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection (uhh, Hurricane Sandy, anyone?? We could definitely have used a nice litte coral reef off the Jersey shore to break up all that wave action...) So if coral reefs alone provide all that, what about the high seas, the Arctic circle, the mangrove forests, the deep ocean? That's a lottt of money coming into the global economy. Couple that with the massive importance of oceans to our planet's general health, and it's pretty obvious. We need to start taking care of our oceans better, and inspiring people everywhere to care! There are actually a ton of amazng NGO's and non-profits out there doing just that, reaching out and connecting science to the public to raise awareness for the plight of our oceans, it's extremely inspiring and uplifting. I try to take an optimistic approach to the whole climate change/end of the world projections, because I'd like to believe that we won't let our planet die without putting up a good fight!

SOO, as a major ocean advocate myself, I'm hoping to pursue a graduate degree in Marine Conservation. I will hopefully end up at Columbia University in the fall, where I'll be working with Dr. Josh Drew to investigate the phylogeography of certain coral reef fish. Ahh, big word! Basically it means I'll be checking out how genetically related fish from one area of the ocean are to fish from a different area. This actually has a whole slew of conservation applications, because it's really important to know how connected two populations are if you're going to try to make management decisions about a specific area. The idea is, whatever you do to one area could very well be affecting another area down the road, or even across the fricken ocean on a different island! So I'm looking to get into that crazy world of genetics and use my findings to help make effective, informed management decisions. I'm pretty excited!

Here's a little video by Dr. Drew introducing some local, traditional forms of management already in place in Fiji! (Fijians are pretty on top of it with preserving their reefs)

[vimeo 39862662]

Have a great day everyone! More later!

Blanket Octopus, Weekend Photos

Happy Thursday everyone! Almost the end of the week, ahhhh feels so good. I have had a particularly excellent week so far, which is awesome - lots of productive lab work, diving, gym time, good food and hanging with friends :) What more can you ask for in a typical week? Last night I hung out with my madre and my neighbor Lily (it's really cool having neighbors you're not only friendly with, but are like besst friends with - even our dogs are super close!), we cuddled up on our amazing couch and watched Disney's Oceans. And let me tell you, I was BLOWN AWAY by some of this footage, it was bee-ootyful! One of the more fantastic things we got to see was footage of the elusive and ethereal Blanket Octopus - here's the clip! (yes, that is Pierce Brosnan, and yes, he sounds extremely silly )


Also in my list of favorites was the footage of the cuttlefish, I have a special place in my heart for the little guys. They remind me of that golden month I spent on Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef, full of sunshine and laughter and cuttlefish chases (always involving one cuttlefish, two 20-year old girls, three minutes of crazed, erratic swimming all over the reef trying to remain inconspicuous and also not drown from laughing so hard). Also, the boy (man? boy-man.) I'm dating calls me cuttlefish occasionally so...they've got that going for them too. Haha

Some photos from my awesome weekend/week:

That's all for now, ta ta sweet blogger friends! Have an absolutely marvelous weekend, and if that embedded video up there doesn't work, I WILL vanquish these technological trials of mine...someday! Soon! Probably not until Monday! But soon!

EDIT: Blast! Didn't work, stupid hyperlink...*gnashing teeth*

Solemn Thoughts on Life, Luck and Snails

Fun fact subject of the day: Corallivorous snails! (corallivorous = eats coral)


We're about to start up a pretty interesting experiment with these little dudes in the lab I work in, and I've learned some really cool things about them as a result! One species' feeding mechanism was particularly interesting to me. All corallivorous snails make these little feeding scars (white spot to the left of the snail in the photo) whenever they eat coral tissue, and most snails will feed at night and then retreat to a less-exposed nook or cranny during the day. However, one species stays in its feeding scar 24/7 - burrowing so deeply in the skeleton that it can't even turn around - and it will feed on all the nutrients and materials the coral sends to the area in its attempt to heal the wound! (Another completely different but still awesome fact, corals actually have immune responses! Not like our insanely complex immune responses, but gah still so cool!) Sneaky little snailies. It's almost a parasitic relationship, the corals will continue pumping defensive organic material to the site until it gives up and leaves the tissue for dead - and our little snails get a nice, extended meal before moving on to another spot and doing it all over again. I have no idea how common these snails are, but I could imagine that having a lot of them in one area could do some serious damage to a reef! Hmm, I wonder...

On a completely unrelated note, one of the blogs/websites I frequent is full of witty and creative writings usually poking fun at the condition of being in your 20's, and today came across a great article outlining one person's interesting experiment posting a fake Craigslist job ad - said person was underemployed and looking for a good full-time job (what a concept) and wanted to see what it was like from the perspective of the people they were sending their resumes to. The article is here if you're curious, but the main thing that struck home for me was that the simple ad for a moderately-paid, full-time administrative position got over 600 responses within TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. Holy mackerel, I knew the job market was bad (hellooo, I have 2 part-time jobs and 2 more that don't pay me anything), but that is just an INSANE number! And as I went from shock over this number, to feeling pissed off about the state of the economy, to feeling depressed about my own future, I eventually came to the obvious (but sometimes elusive) realization that I AM SO FRICKEN LUCKY. Yes, I am completely underemployed and yes, I live with my parents because I am nowhere near being financially stable, annnnd yes I get extremely frustrated with the seeming lack of opportunity on the job front, but I have AMAZING parents that are willing to support me through all this "figuring stuff out" BS, and I've been able to slowly but surely add relevant experience to my resume despite the lack of payment. I'm in a much better place than a lot of people, and I need to remember that more often. Too often we compare our own lives to that of others and feel that we're "behind" or not up to par, but life is bizarre and complex and leads people down different, winding paths! Progress cannot be measured by a universal scale. I think I need to put the focus back on my own personal scale.. and count my lucky stars every single day!

K that's enough of me being a cheeseball, the next few posts will be more interesting and fun I promise ;)

Altruism is a Good Thing

Yesterday I learned two of the COOLEST things related to the whelks we're working with. 1) They are apparently highly venomous, and their venom contains neurotoxins that have the capacity to kill human beings (my reaction upon hearing this: slowly and carefully put the whelk down...) BUT, the reason I am here typing this instead of living out a slow painful death-by-sea snail scenario, is that they only use their venom when hunting and never in self-defense. Silly snails. Plus, even if they did get the idea to inject their neurotoxins into a person, the little drill that they use would take like 2 days to burrow through the skin and into the bloodstream. Hah! Still super cool though :)

2) These whelks eat mussels, and the mussels have evolved a pretty neat defense mechanism against them. Mussels live in huuuge beds so when a whelk finds a mussel it could pretty much be set for a lifetime of meals, just moving from one mussel to the next. BUT, these little mussels do an awesome job of being selfless little martyrs - when a whelk is in the process of eating one, the mussel's last act is to secure a bunch of byssal attachments (the strong threads that attach them to the rocks) to the whelk's shell - so when the whelk has devoured its meal and moves on to the next, it's completely stuck to the first mussel it ate! And the rest of the mussels in the bed are saved, yayyy!

Aka altruism rocks. :)


Just wanted to share some fun facts. I'm off to make dinner with my mom and maybe do some painting (I've been loving that have time these days to dabble in art every once in a while), and then spend a little with my "beau" (as my mother likes to call him) haha. Hope you guys are having a great week! Hump Day, almost the weekend!!


On Kitty Puke and Sea Stars

This morning.....sucked. I haven't woken up this ragingly grumpy since I was a hormonal preteen. Maybe because, oh wait, I was woken up around 1am last night by the sound of my cat PUKING, on my BED, next to my FACE. Cue gag-inducing image of cat-food colored nastiness hurtling towards your face, you dodge, it lands right under your boob and even though you are still half-asleep suddenly you're doing this awkward jumping thing to try to get out of your bed because, hang on, there are 3 more piles of puke neatly arranged around your (once) sleeping body. What!!!!!!! So yeah, this morning sucked.

I'm heading out to my little lab tech job at UCLA in about an hour, which to be quite honest probably won't lead to a burgeoning mood, even though I really do like the people I work with. The lab is studying chemical communication of marine (mostly intertidal) animals, so right now we're working with sea stars. Very slow-moving sea stars.


It took this little guy above almost an hour to realize that mussel was full of yummy protein gel, move over to it and start to eat it. Haha oh man, it's not always super monotonous though, we do get to go out to Malibu every week or so to return the sea stars we've used and go collect more! Always really nice to get out there :)


Alright, I feel mildly better now having done something (slightly) productive before 11am. Happy Tuesday everyone! I hope it started on a much happier note for you than it did me. Adios.