The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

And that’s how I get my tail…

And that’s how I get my tail…

October 4, 2009

Today was the first day I went snorkeling in the coral reefs. The only way I can think to describe it (and laugh away if you will) is that my first thought was that it must be like what an astronaut would feel like if they traveled to a distant planet and found it teeming with all sorts of unknown life.

The reef we snorkled in today is an area that is largely protected from exploitation by humans (though of course people do sneak in and fish/take things they aren’t supposed to on occasion). It is so incredibly diverse. Looking at the reef is like observing a city. The corals, amazing living creatures in and of themselves, are like blocks and blocks of city high rises, each teeming with residents of all shapes and sizes. There are the lion fish (beautiful, beautiful creatures), who hide in the crevices, the eccentric neighbors no one sees; the anemones gathering in congreations during the day like businessmen in conference; the giant clams appearing to breathe in and out, taking everything in stride as the rest of the world bustles around them; the enormous sea stars wrapping themselves in around and everywhere; the groupers and snappers traveling from section to section of coral, underwater pedestrians and the colorful butterfly fish, so flashy they remind me of the hustlers in Zanzibar waving their brightly colored wares.

The feeling of awe I have just continues to increase. I am so overwhelmed by all that I saw today, that I can’t even really begin to comphrend how amazing and diverse this ecosystem really is. For all that mammals are my favorite (and always will be), I have to say that fish and other underwater animals are looking very interesting too! For the next week of study here on the coast, I’m in a group with Alex and Sam to catalogue the various species of grouper and snapper and their average abundance for a section of our study reef. Starting tomorrow we will learn the techniques we will use to do this and also learn to identify the different species.

I love snorkeling so much! I was pretty much the last person on the boat when it was time to come in after being out for a couple of hours just to orient ourselves with the area today. Rachel was my “snorkeling buddy” – we each had to pair up to make sure no one got lost – and she was really glad of my Jane Fonda outfit (this time worn with an electric blue bandana) because it was easy for her to keep track of me even at the end when she was back on the boat and I was still messing around in the water. I love my flippers because they make me feel so strong and elegant and graceful in the water. It is so sad to take them off for break time or to leave the water for the day.

Even riding out to the reefs (30 minutes to an hour depending on the tide and if the motor keeps cutting out as happened to the boat I was on today) is incredible. I can’t get enough of the air here – every breath feels like an incredible priveledge.

And now a funny and slightly embarrassing story – I went for a run with Anton, Michael, Alex and Laila this morning before our 7 am breakfast time. When we were almost back, nature called in such a way that I really couldn’t make it another ten minutes running so I told the group I was going to just duck behind a bush, take care of business and I’d meet them back at the start of the road/trail. They agreed, took off and I went into the bushes, did my thing, came out and made my way back to the start of the trail. It was super close and the rest of the group wasn’t there so I just assumed they had thought I would figure things out and had left, so I went, changed my clothes, ate breakfast and then realized I hadn’t seen any of them. Turns out, they had taken a wrong turn and went straight for a long time, then thought I probably was still looking for them, so they kept looking for me!

What I have learned from this experience is that A) I need to make sure communication is clear when separating from a group and B) my running partners have truly terrible senses of direction if they can’t follow the sound of the ocean to get back to the beach. One or two of them are quite upset with me now, and I do really feel very bad that they were looking for me, so will make sure the situation doesn’t happen again.

Before my run though, I was up quite early and saw a large troop of vervet monkeys. I was able to get a bit of video of them before they scampered away and will get up even earlier tomorrow to try again. After snorkeling and lunch, I also went on a solo walkabout to try and find more creatures to video. No mammals to be seen other than a shrew scurrying away in the underbrush, but I saw some beautiful birds and even managed to creep up very close to a tree full of beautiful red headed birds with broad, short black beaks, grey bodies and long black tail feathers only to turn my camera on and have the battery die.

I really prefer exploring on my own as I can be much quieter solo and I see so much more! I also don’t mind just sitting down and waiting off the trail for cool things to just wander by.

This afternoon we met to discuss goals for the biology independent study course that will happen later. We have to do a presentation for the group on an vertebrate creature of our choosing. I really, really want to do mine on hyenas because I think they are fascinating for all sorts of reasons. They are the only canine species that has a matriarchal social structure, kill their prey by disemboweling it and are almost eerily intelligent. However, I want to be able to use my video in my presentation, so if there are no good hyena filming opportunities, then I will probably want to do my project on zebras.

Also, I’ve started to think about what I want to do my independent study on. I want to do something with group dynamics, preferable about tactics to survive predation, but that would probably be too difficult to study in the space of time I will have. Mainly I just want to do something that means I will get to watch zebras a lot. (Really I’d like to do this project on hyenas, too) but I think we are encouraged to pick not predator species.

I’ll ask Prof. Ken about all of this at some point, but he’s been sick today. Sick enough that he even missed a day of snorkeling (which is pretty much unheard of) and though he rallied enough to give us a brief lecture, the last thing he needs is someone bugging him about all sorts of details that aren’t even relevant yet.

Right now Rachel, Lydia and I all are all sitting in our little house listening to music and writing. We can still here the ocean. The sun has just set and the faintest afterglow of orange lingers just above the horizon line. I’m looking forward to some more star gazing this evening.

We are currently listening to “The Mermaid” by Great Big Sea. It is about a man who falls in love with a mermaid, but only loves the upper part and doesn’t love the tail, but then meets her sister who has a fish head and a women’s lower body…and that’s how he gets his tail!

Wish you could all be here!

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