I’m not sure how, when, or if these bloggy posts (blosts?) are going to get posted, so I’ll give some general background as to who I am and what I’m doing. I tend to shy away from these details for fear of boring my poor sister who is my target audience either consciously or subconsiously. Other friends, family, advisors, and colleagues are also in my mind as I write this, as well as a general audience, especially strangers. However, besides trying to preserve nature for all of eternity, give the mute animals of this world a voice, and stop the inevitable stomp of man on this earth, my life’s work beginning at age eight has been trying to make my sister laugh. Anyway these are my stories. I’m a sixth year PH.D. student at Scripps on my last field trip studying an endangered coral in very shallow water. Most of the stories so far are about how it’s too windy for me to find and resurvey my plots. Enjoy.
Full disclosure: this blog may be one long confession to my daughter, once she is able to read, of why I had to leave her for three weeks. Sach, you are a wonderdad.
Halloween. Oct 31. La Jolla. Speaking of wonderdads. Today was my dad’s birthday. A perfect birthday for a fun loving guy. My dad passed away in 2005 but he is never ever far from my memory. And especially on Halloween. A party day that carries for me a somber, not ghoulish tone. This was to be day one of my fourth journey to Jamaica. The last field trip for my PhD dissertation. I study an endangered coral (Acropora palmata). And upon the advice of my mentor, the legendary Jeremy Jackson, the coral that was dying in
Florida seemed to be recovering in Jamaica,”so go check it out”.
That was in 2006. So I came and went and came and went and one more time. Each time, I had to sit out a day or two but could spend most days on the water doing my work. Yesterday a storm popped up and I postponed my trip by a week.
Tuesday, November 9. It’s day one of diving and my can’t-do attitude is rearing its ugly face. I already postponed my trip by a week, waiting out Tropical Storm Tomas (not Thomas, or hummus) during this year’s active hurricane season. 19 (28?) named storms. (P.S. The way hurricanes are tracked is sadistic, if the storm weakens it is said to be “struggling”, as if growing stronger is a good thing.) A named storm has not appeared so far south and so late in the season since 1914. Cool! So the storm is gone but the wind is still here and according to the forecast doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
Galumph. My stomach sinks like the 12 pounds of weight I’m about to strap on to my waist in an effort to snap my spine in two. (The weights keep me down while my wetsuit, fins, and, eventually, empty tank will try to pop me up. Why scientific divers ever wear recreational gear is mind boggling. We should all have lead laced wetsuits. Death to BCDs and weight belts!) I have come for 3 weeks. For the past three years, the work has taken no more than 10 days. I had planned to spend the extra time conducting two additional studies, and now I’m not sure I’ll have decent enough weather to do the bare minimum – re-survey my plots. Oy.
Wednesday. November 10. Deep dive. Rio Bueno. After hunting for rebar and aluminum in two foot visibility for 45 minutes. I give up. Ten times, I’ve pranced around on the ceiling of this 300 foot vertical wall of corals. I’ve glanced down at it. Several times. But in past years, after diving in 12 feet of water for 10 days, the deep looks enticing and beautiful, but also, scary. Which makes no sense. Because you can’t fall in the water. (Perfect for klutzes!)
The dive is nice. It could be clearer and brighter but the diversity of corals is apparent, and I’m happy to be silently floating and reflecting on coral species composition, bleaching, and how macro algae grows even at 50 feet, rather than exercising futility. I came across one of the permanent quadrats (1m^2 PVC pipe nailed to the reef) that Jeremy Jackson and Terry Hughes established from 1984, and touched it with the same gentle fondling I reserve for signed copies of Exile on Main Street.
Thursday. November 11, 2010. Discovery Bay, Jamaica. UG. Day Five on the Island and the wind has not let up. We go out despite what I know. That it’s going to suck out there. It’s difficult to know when to draw the line between “i’m pretty sure this weather is too rough to go out in” and “i am not a meteorologist”. Moreover, I spend 3 weeks/year here, so I ain’t Teddy the fisherman who can predict the seas by glancing up at a cloud. (By the by, Teddy tells dirty jokes and color coordinates his outfits from head to toe everday. Yesterday his blue outfit was topped with a blue santa hat with Pepsi logo.) Even if I ask Teddy, I don’t think he understands what six hours in one to six feet of water feels like — SCUBA diving in a washing machine. I feel like a prima donna but it needs to be flat calm to study Acropora palmata or I’m a big grouch.
Marine biology sounds so glamorous. Emerging from the water. Slick, glistening, long hair plastered to my back. Stark watch tan. Droplets of water on my eyelashes. My scuffed pedicure a hint that I have spent time on dry land but choose, instead, to be wet, in nature, working hard, studying an ecosystem that is withering. Doing it for the earth, the world, the next generation. That’s how I got into this racket.
The illusion of glamour is no longer a part of my reality. I pin my hair back with ugly head bands so it stays clear of my gear. I strangle myself with a wetsuit to the point of nausea to keep warm and pale. My mask presses hard against my forehead (I have no indentation on my brow ridge — a lizard’s face). Between the mask fogging up, the increasing siltation of the water today, and the protruding nose piece on this mask (I buy a new one every year in hopes of increased comfort and visibility), I can’t see what is directly in front of me. What am I looking for? A cow ear tag purchased from a veterinary supply store that I nailed to the reef in 2007. This way, I can come back each year, visit my coral friends, and refer to them by name.
“Oh hi #43! Looking rather, uh, like damselfish decided to nip away at your flesh so that some algae could grow in the scars. ‘Chimneys’ you call them? You’ll make this reef go up in smoke. Is there not enough @#$%^&* algae out here for you? Howdy #1! L’originale! Still dead? Yes, sorry about that. #44, still looking splendid. Hello? Hi? What’s that? Who are you? All of the ink is gone and I can’t tell if my eyes are crossed or not as I try to make out the embossed marking that ink leaves behind on plastic when it spends four years underwater. 8? Defog mask. Find myself at the surface. Kick down. 5? Wait out set of three rough waves. Pick up gear from where it fell to the sand channel twelve feet down. 2? Defog mask. Wait out another set of waves. Look at last year’s data. It’s official. You are number 5.”
Friday Nov 12. Disco Bay. Computer Lab. I made them give me a key to the computer lab. That’s how much time I am not spending on the water. The tides are conspiring against me today as well, so I am waiting for at least one facet of nature to cooperate. Hopefully these blog posts get out and I will feel that all is not lost.
—Tali Vardi is blogging from Jamaica and doing science to save coral reefs.