The Drew Crew is coming up on our one-month mark of being here in Fiji, and this month has been so jam-packed with experiences that it’s hard to even begin putting things into words. I’ve been keeping a running list in my field notes of all the things that I absolutely do not want to forget, but looking back on that list (which includes such items as “jungle chickens” and “moth in the oven”) I realize it will do nothing to help me recall the exact hues of vivid pink sunsets that I hope have been seared into my brain, but may actually fade over time (“Were they really THAT colorful? Nah, there’s no way…”), and the faces of Masi, Mere, Christiana, Heidi, Tukai, and the many more warm, selfless, wonderful people who welcomed us into their homes, told us their stories, and fed us endless meals of fish, coconut milk, fresh fruits and homemade bread. This list I made includes the names of various village cats and dogs we came to know over the week, but does not capture the politeness with which they tiptoed across the threshold of our little lab house to lick our hands and sniff at our equipment. Also on the list is “not showering”, which…is self-explanatory, and elicits memories of crispy beach hair and smelly fish hands, as well as the shock on Mere’s face when she found out :) But who needs to shower when you’re in the ocean every day for hours on end!? Spearfishing over patch reefs, sand flats, steep coral walls – at times it was difficult to drag ourselves out of the water even when we were exhausted and shivering. Except I guess there were a few hours of being on land as well, pulling out gills and brushing scales off our clothes and labeling fish and then laying them in beds of toxic chemicals to harden and be sent back to New York. (We did shower eventually.)
Also on that list is the morning where our fisherman friend Tukai happened to mention he had caught fifteen mullet a few hours earlier, and upon seeing our immediate interest, lead us around the village to the homes of ALL the people he had sold his mullet to so we could take gill samples from them. We thanked everyone profusely, they thanked us profusely in return, and many insisted that we take some bananas and papayas in addition to their fish gills, which didn’t really make sense but then it also kind of did, in an amazing, overly-hospitable, Fijian sort of way.
Then there was the night (our last night in the village actually) where we sat cross-legged on the floor and did the tatau. The tatau is a closing ceremony where we present our hosts with a bundle of kava and apologize for all the things we don’t even know to be sorry about, because we’re visitors and probably messed some things up, and they say “we totally forgive you” (which is a GREAT practice and should really be incorporated into every awkward social setting in the US). And as we were all sitting there in our garlands of fresh flowers listening to Masi forgive us, a MASSIVE moth – a small bird, really – flew into the room. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I have a major phobia of moths (and yes I know how silly that is). I thought I held my cool pretty well, but was amazed when Lily reached out, caught the thing in her hand like a ninja, handed it to Mere, who then went into the kitchen, threw the moth in the oven and slammed the door! Hence, “moth in the oven” on my list. This simple act is amazing to me not only because it proves Mere is a badass woman who can manhandle huge, bird-like insects, but also because it is one of the many examples of the kindness and thoughtfulness that our hosts constantly displayed. Mere knew how much I hated moths, and she also knew that the thing would almost certainly come back if she simply threw it outside, so she locked it away in the oven for the entire night so I wouldn’t have to worry. She gently released it the next morning.
While a story about an incarcerated moth may not capture the entirety of our hosts’ amazingness (another person may have chosen a more elegant anecdote to demonstrate this concept), we really do owe SO much to these people. Without the help of our companions in Nagigi we could not have gotten even half of the work we had set out to do this week done – and not just because they housed us and made sure we didn’t starve, but because they also put us in contact with fishermen and fisherwomen, people who truly know these reefs. This is one of the main reasons we strive to come back year after year (Josh has been working here for almost a decade now), and we spend as much time as possible talking to the village, getting to know them, and translating our science into useful and accessible knowledge. One of our lab’s central tenets is to avoid parachute science at all costs – which, at its most extreme, is when scientists “parachute” in to some community for a short but intensive amount of time, get a ton of amazing data, and then bail with minimal (if any) follow up with the community or people who helped them. I think this mindset – recognizing the importance of integrating scientific endeavors within the context of communities they rely on in – is especially important for students like us to be exposed to, and immersed in, as we train for future careers in conservation work around the world.
And this mentality is exactly why we took a dry day on Wednesday, so Josh could meet with Nagigi’s chief to discuss the implementation of a tambu area (a temporary, traditionally-managed protected area) on the village’s adjacent reef. The meeting was very successful, and it looks like there may be a tambu put in place before the year is out. This is a major step towards the protection of Nagigi’s marine resources, and it’s really amazing that our team is in a position to be able to provide information that the village can use in making these decisions (for a more direct example of what I’m talking about, check out this publication that resulted from last year’s interviews and biodiversity surveys in Nagigi).
So, sitting here on the ferry as we travel to our next field site on the island of Taveuni, I am happy to be looking back on an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding week. While our team did face many challenges (e.g. lack of overlap between days with boat and days with tanks – there was lotttttts of walking across tidal flats wearing about 50 lbs of dive gear), we were able to collect over 100 more samples than last year and add even more species to the list of biodiversity present in Nagigi. I have also almost entirely changed the complement of species I’m targeting for my thesis, which was stressful and still is a little scary but also has been an incredibly useful learning experience in troubleshooting. And, most importantly, we have strengthened the ties between Columbia University and the community of Nagigi, and there are plans for further protection of their marine resources in the works. I’m looking forward to our next four weeks of fieldwork in new and exciting places, but I hope that by some miracle of funding and timing I’ll be able to return to this wonderful village of Nagigi next summer and personally report the findings of my Master’s thesis to those who helped make it possible.
Iridescent fish of all colors school around the branching corals as I swim among them, suspended in liquid turquoise. Although the tip of my spear glints beckoningly ahead of me, I am distracted from the task at hand – collecting samples for a biodiversity survey of Nagigi, Fiji – by a pair of beautiful butterflyfish, mates for life, dancing through the current. I try to swim closer, propelling myself through the current with just a slight motion of my fins, but they dart away, making a strange, shrieking sound, over and over again… Oh wait. That’s my alarm clock. Damn it.
In my waking life, Fiji is now thousands of miles away. Rolling out of bed in my tiny New York apartment, it’s hard to believe that only six months ago I was immersed in tropical fieldwork. Memories of village life are at times immediately accessible, almost tangible, but often they feel incredibly distant. I try to hold on to my dream of that blissfully warm water, but it slips away as my current situation makes itself sharply known. My apartment is freezing.
I’m a first-year Master’s student in Columbia University’s Conservation Biology program, studying marine conservation as it applies to coral reefs. Whenever people here ask me what I do, they’re always taken aback by my reply – “You study marine science here?” – and invariably make some comment about NYC’s lack of marine biological opportunities, or the filth of the Hudson river. But what they don’t realize (besides the fact that Manhattan is literally an island, surrounded by water, come on people) is that New York City is full of amazing opportunities for my particular brand of scientific research – using genetic information to learn about and protect the planet’s biodiversity. The American Museum of Natural History, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Columbia University itself all provide me with the resources, support, and infrastructure I need to process and analyze the data I collect from the field each summer, which I then use to figure out how marine reserves can be designed to protect fishery-targeted reef fish in Fiji. The museum in particular is a treasure-trove of scientific opportunity (see my blog post on the importance of museum collections), with frozen tissue banks, massive vertebrate and invertebrate collections (they have a giant squid!!), and incredible research groups that address fascinating questions ranging from the taxonomy of malaria parasites to the population dynamics of big cats.
Walking to Columbia’s campus each morning, I often think about the strange juxtaposition of scenery my life has taken on these days – summers spent diving in azure tropical waters, winters spent walking under frozen, crystallized trees that sparkle in the sunlight. To many, these winters spent in New York might be seen as a necessary evil, the place you have to go back to in order to maintain some sort of cosmic balance after spending so much time in paradise. But I see it as an incredible gift, giving me the ability to experience the best of both worlds while seamlessly pursuing my goal of making a positive change for our ocean’s future.
I don't doubt that the cold and the snow will begin to weigh on me eventually (knock on wood), but for now, it’s hard not to pinch myself as I walk through my winter wonderland, to make sure this all isn’t just a dream.
This city has ensnared my heart completely. I’ve been wanting to write about my new love affair for quite some time but have been uncertain as to how to put it - New York is so elusively enchanting there are almost no words. This small island of Manhattan is absolutely humming with energy, it’s enough to simply walk on the streets to be instantly invigorated, to be reminded that we are all so vibrantly full of life. I am so grateful to be able to conduct my graduate studies in a place so conducive to thought and creativity and movement. As hard as it is to stay focused with sheet amount of things happening here (man, is it hard), I simply can't imagine a better place to stimulate the growth of my mind and character. New York, I love you. Already, I do.
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. :)
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!
Hello from Suva, Fiji! It’s so crazy to actually be here, after months of talking and planning and prepping. The entire Drew Crew (which we dubbed ourselves this morning for an 8k fun run) arrived in Suva in a state of near disbelief, stunned that we had actually reached our destination with every single bag and piece of equipment fully intact. We landed in Nadi (pronounced “nandi”), crammed all of our things into a flower print, velvet-covered minivan, piled onto the plastic-covered seats (think grandmother's house) and shot straight over to Suva, the capitol of Fiji, where we’ve been for the last 3 days. And from there it’s been an absolute whirlwind! Buying gear for the field, checking up on permits, giving talks, unpacking equipment, playing with cameras (two waterproof GoPros lent to us by some colleagues - woohoo!), and planning our week of sample collection. And in between all the important things we have been doing, there are the gems of cultural experience that inevitably occur when halfway across the globe. We stumbled across a music festival last night, where we got to watch a bunch of adorable children do adorable dances and listen to some great music by a few local Fijian bands. We have been eating amazing food as well, lots of Indian curries and coconut dishes, although we have yet to eat any traditional Fijian food here in the capitol. The fish market in Suva is amazing, so many colorful reef fish alongside large offshore species, and whenever we walk through it’s kind of like a collective ichthyology nerdgasm. There is a beautiful flower market as well, and a very interesting kava/tobacco market where we’ll be getting our kava roots to present to the village officials for our sevu sevu (kava ceremony). We’re heading to the village of Nagigi on the south coast of Vanua Levu (Suva and Nadi are on the island of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu is the island just to the north) on Wednesday, and staying there for about a week.
More updates and photos later, mothe everybody!!
Why hello there, lovely Wordpress world that I so neglect! There's a ginormous amount of things I should post about, both marine news and personal life greatness, but I'm just going to ease back into the habit of blogging without making too much of a thang. Since my class has ended all there is left for me to do is prepare for the upcoming Fiji trip (!) and grad school in general, so I've been kicking back and truly enjoying the simple things in life. Lots of reading, cooking, random spurts of adventure, and sunshine. Oh yeah, and work, but these days tutoring the girls is more of an enjoyment than a chore, they've grown so much this year and are impressing me every day with their curiosity (the other day one of them asked me about vaccines, and let me prattle on about adjuvant and herd immunity and Guardasil for 15 minutes straight, it was bliss)! Basically, it's been a long time since I've had a substantial amount of free time. I've been constantly working, volunteering, studying for various versions of the GRE, and trying to add relevant and valuable things to my resume...and now that I'm in, now that grad school is actually happening, I am granted this amazing window of time where I can direct my energy towards whatever I want. And it's amazing! I'm trying to soak every ounce of it up, because come August (or June even, our first field trip as a lab!) things are gonna get realllll crazy up in here :) Which I am RIDICULOUSLY stoked for. And which brings me to my next point (of the sloppy, not-very-solid points I've made in this post so far): getting back into science as a daily way of life.
One of my favorite things I have going these days is the weekly literature review seminar I'm a part of at UCLA. Even though the research project I was a part of is technically over, our little lab group still gathers to talk about papers we find, chemical ecology, and science life in general. Today our lively discussion included (in addition to chemosensory systems, of course) the topics of worm castings, summer internships, victory gardens, and the colorful history of Fiji, as well as accounts of Dr. Z's numerous near-death plane experiences (note to self: never. ever. fly with Dr. Z). I left UCLA a happy camper, and even more excited for grad school in the fall where once again I'll be immersed in the scientific conversation every day :) Since graduating from undergrad, I've really missed lab life, being a part of a greater academic community, and the access to scientific resources/conversation/development that the academic community offers as a whole. Working at UCLA really opened me up to that realization (as well as the scary thought that I could maybe be happy with being a student my whole life - ahhh! *erasing thought from brain*), so even though I'm very happy living my easy-peasy lifestyle for the moment, it is so so so awesome that I'll be re-joining the hustle and bustle of the scientific community in the near future!
Hmmm that ended on a cheesier note than expected haha. Here are some random photos to distract you from that fact.
Once again, 2:30 am finds me wide awake and restless...oh weekends, how you throw my sleep schedule so. Well, I thought I would share this story my dad emailed me the other day - Japanese scientists have confirmed the existence of flying squid! What the what?! These little guys use their jet propulsion to propel themselves out of the water and then open their wing-like fins to catch the air, gliding above the water for a few feet before plunging back in! So cool!! Once again, cephalopods rock our socks off. In my personal opinion, squid are constantly being outshone by their super cool relatives, cuttlefish and octopuses (or octopodes - as I just learned - an alternative, more scientifically-oriented plural form), but these flying squid plus the recent footage captured of the Giant Squid by Japanese scientists are giving this group of creatures a serious leg up in my book. And now that I think of it, they also have super cool egg sacs! I've done a few night dives down at Redondo Beach and have seen a few bunches, they look like big fluffy bouquets of flowers to me, moving softly with the surge. A reminder of how ethereal and strange the underwater world can be...
Also, I took my new little Nikon to Griffith Observatory on a beautiful, stormy Los Angeles day recently. It was perfect timing, right after one wave of showers had stopped and just before another one rolled in - you could see the ocean all the way from Griffith. Here are some of my faves - gah I love this camera!
One year ago this month, I embarked on one of the coolest adventures I've been on thus far, heading to the middle of the Pacific ocean to help a friend with her research in Fiji. We went diving with bull sharks, ate traditional Fijian lovos, hiked to waterfalls and snorkeled in pristine turquoise waters. I learned SO much about marine protected areas and how they're managed, and Dani's work with three of the local villages opened my eyes to how closely the Fijian way of life is connected to the health of their reefs. Not only has this experience shaped a lot of my future career and life goals, but it also seems to have started the trend of AMAZINGNESS I've been enjoying for the last year - going to Fiji seriously rocked, and life hasn't stopped rocking ever since! :) So here are some favorite photos of mine to commemorate that game-changer of an adventure, and I hope you all have the chance sometime soon to embark on your own, be it 2,000 miles away or 20! Happy Monday everyone!
I am now 23 years old.
While I shove my shock and outrage concerning the lightning paced passage of time into the back left corner of my mind, let me tell you a little bit about the fan-fricken-tastic 2 week period I just experienced.
1) Morro Bay with the boy. You know you've found a good one when a month into "dating" (or whatever) he asks what you're doing for your birthday, you tell him you're planning on going to SF to be with old friends, and he looks at you and says "Great, I'll buy my flight tomorrow". Ummm, okay, YOU ROCK. Soo he voluntarily got sucked into my vacation planning frenzy, and before we knew it the plan had morphed into a 2-day road trip in which we spent a night in Morro Bay before getting to SF to hang with friends. And let me tell you, Morro Bay is awesome! Such a tiny little beach town, really chill and laid back vibe, great food annnd, the best part, wait for it... A SHELL SHOP WITH LITERALLY THOUSANDS OF SUPER COOL SHELLS! I definitely was wayyy too excited for this part of the trip, I made Will stay in that shop with me for about an hour too long and I purchased about 4 shells too many haha. But I've actually been actively looking for a specific shell for a while, after my friend Julie found a near-perfect Nautilus shell on Lizard Island in Australia (where I spent 2 of the happiest months of my life hehe), I have been absolutely fiendinnng for one. I almost broke down and bought one for $50 USD when I was in Fiji (what! rip off!) and thank GOD I didn't because this epic Morro Bay shell shop had some for $12!!! Wahooo, I am now the proud owner of a perfect little Nautilus shell, and am trying not to think about what happened to the animal inside! Yay...! Haha in all honesty I actually am very curious about how/where this shell shop acquires its rare and beautiful shell supply...they all come from animals at some point, and some of those animals are verrrry slow-growing and don't reproduce very quickly. Hmm, maybe that's what I'll make my next blog post about, the shell trade...
Oh dear, I am running out of time to write this post already...seriously, why does it take me AGES to write these things?? (well, maybe it has to do with the fact that my brother and his girlfriend came in while I was writing and I told them almost all of my detailed, highly exciting (and characteristically exaggerated) stories from this vacation haha) *sigh* I guess I'll get better at this over time...
Next post: Parts 2, 3 and 4 of my Epic August Adventure, as well as an investigation into the lucrative (?) trade of the Shell Shop ;)
Hope everyone is having a lovely weekend!
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*