Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Science = War !!!!!

Data Collection Day 1 (Monday)

Enemy in Chief - Scyphozoa
In our first day of data collection for our group projects, the Old Man of the Sea let us know who was boss. Just as our group was heading out to start chasing some schools, we received dire warnings from a group which had hit the water before us. In fact, they were retreating, regrouping out of the water, donning armor against the perennial enemy of researchers - JELLYFISH! Quickly, the word spread to minimize exposed skin, layer up, and prepare for inevitable burning stings from the elegant creatures. Of course, we simply donned long pants, rash gaurds, etc., in an effort to ward off the stings and harvest some data.......a strategy of mixed success, as many jelly fish can send their stingers right through light material, and it is rather difficult to remain objective when your skin is stinging. Fortunately, the stings from the species which were washed in by the tide caused only a burning sensation which fades after a few minutes (just long enough for you to feel the next sting at full force)....but no lasting damage.
One of the frustrating things with jellyfish is the uncertainty of pain-although all species are undoubtably beautiful, only some species have nematocysts with painful stings.(Wiki commons pic)
One classic dilemma- seeing a large pack of jellyfish of various (unknown species for us newbies to applied marine bio), and wondering whether to stop and view the light show as the sun filters through their transparent bodies and they pulse with the elegance of highly evolved extraterrestrial spacecraft....or to flee from the pack, hoping to avoid stings (and if you flee, what possible direction is safe when the whole reef is full of them?).

Nevertheless, our intrepid bands of researchers plugged on through the pain, plying our various tools of the trade, the most important of which is of course universal tool of scientists since time immemorial - 'the notebook.' Unlike the easy lives of terrestrial scientists, who simply grab any paper and a pen, preparing to take observation notes requires a ritual which will be familiar to snorkel/scuba researchers:

1. Find a slate which is gauranteed to be covered in someone's illegible notes from a previous project
2. Don gloves
3. Sprinkle Slate with Ajax
4. Clean slate (coffee filters work surprisingly well, and are always available)
5. Very carefully lay-out spots for observations in the water - making sure that you include every observation category needed.
6. Realize that you don't have enough space for all the observations - repeat steps 1-5.
7. Realize that you've forgotten one category (like what percentage of time the fish spends in the middle of the school).....repeat steps 1-6 with choice expletives.
8. Tie pencil onto slate
9. Realize pencil is rather dull and you don't have any pockets to carry extras- sharpen with pocket knife.
10. Put slate someplace safe while you gear up
11. Head into water, put fins on.......then take fins off climb out, and retrieve slate from 'safe' place.

Now that you're in the water, the magic of field observation underwater starts to sink in. Although in a foreign medium, the subtle beuaty of just hos simple science's tools are is renifocred- almost all our of our data is collected with reference to a scientists best friend (SI units), very simple measuring tools, and noting them down- tools shared since before Aristotle. Of course, even the earlier pioneers of empirical science like Francis Bacon probably never dreamed of working quite like this!:

One quickly learns that accomplishing tasks, whether it is note taking or winding up a measuring tape is in fact mush easier when your face is in the water, and quote difficult if not impossible with your head out of the water. Also, The more time spent closely observing the foibles of fish (e.g. the yellowtail damselfish below),
the greater your affinity for them is. (Louis' pic, showing one of the prettier fish, which looks truly like precious jewels when viewed by the naked eye)
Typically, by the end of an observation session, your fins have morphed into caudal (tail) fins of a fish, your snorkel has simply become an extension of your lungs, your arms evolve into steering pectorl fins and your face feels funny with the mask off. In other words, one very quickly becomes a fish* when 100% of your time is spent observing them, and the only time your face leaves the water is to exchange a few words with your colleagues. Sometimes me thinks we took the wrong branch in evolution.....wouldn't doing nothing but play, eat fish, and enjoying the octupuses garden all day be more fun?

*(random sciency nitpick follows) Apparently, aquatic human mutants don't need to eat for 'days on end'......which seems a pretty silly point, since fish generally forage continually, so screw you Kevin Costner/Wikipedia- the Mariner should basically be either munching on algae or fish continaully, not less often than Homo Sapiens

Data Collection Day 2 (Tuesday)

Enemy in chief -"a disturbance or variation that transfers energy progressively from point to point in a medium and that may take the form of an elastic deformation or of a variation of pressure, electric or magnetic intensity, electric potential, or temperature."

"Tumultuous waves embroil'd the bellowing flood,
All trembling, deafen'd, and aghast we stood!
No more the vessel plough'd the dreadful wave,
Fear seized the mighty, and unnerved the brave."
- Alexander Pope

On Tuesday, my group, which spends the whole day chasing Blue Tangs and Ocean Surgeonfishes around, decided to tackle the south reef of Folkestone Marine Park. For each reef, there are three distinct zones, 'spur and groove' in deep water, 'crest' which is shallow water in the middle, and 'back reef' which is flat and fairly shallow close to shore. When a sea is running, things tend to get a little interesting on the crest, where the heavy swell rears up into white water. Murphy's law dictated that we were working on the south reef- so the game of avoiding white water and coral bashing began in the morning. This basically entailed dashing from one deep spot across the shallows of sharp, stinging corals to another deep spot, trusting to a wing and a prayer that you weren't picked up by a monster wave in the meantime and dumped onto the prickly reef. Even when on pavement (no coral growth with a relatively smooth 'rock'), the only way to avoid your masks/fins being ripped off by the roaring crest is luck- or madly scrambling for a place deep enough to dive below the wave. I had my mask ripped off while taunting the surf- a humbling experience, and one which reminded me of both the sea's limitless, totally impersonal power- and the feeling of security/completeness that a mask gives me.

Further out, in depths of 2 to four fathoms, the swell is certainly less dramatic, but another danger exists which is usually far from a swimmer's mind- seasickness. The gentle heaving of the sea can become ardous when combined with fatigue, salt water down your throat/lungs/nose/everything else, a sense of dislocation as you constantly switch from note taking underwater to observing to checking the horizon to make sure you swimming buddies aren't too far. I have to admit, that as a seasoned sailor I thought I would be immune to the landlubberly disease.....yet as I pulled my tired carcass out of the water in the afternoon, the solid ground beneath heaved from side to side- and nausea didn't subside for half an hour. Still I was lucky compared to the trials of some other groups, some of whom had to stay in one spot with little to do but notice the swell and wait for the right creature to swim by---one scuba diver actually had to puke into their reg. (hmmmm...our dive instructor's told us this was possible....I didn't think it would happen!).

Anyway, we're all a little more seasoned now, and can take pride that we too have endured the hazing of the sea and still came back with precious data points on our slates. We've all got the wounds of war- blisters on our feet our de rigeur for most of us (oooohhh how I wish I had brought my booties, my precious comfortable sailing booties!), large abrasions from brushes with coral are unremarkable, and strange rashes from sea water are par for the course.

In the end, we leave the sea a little wiser, knowing the dangers that lurk beneath the gentle soothing of the surf.....

(Louis' pic showing the diversity of coral and fish that we encounter on a regular basis)

"The garrulous sea is talking to the shore; let us go down and hear the graybeard's speech."
- Alexander Smith


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