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.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Beware the Jabberwock (and the BAF)

Beware the Jabberwock (and the BAF)
October 8, 2009

I was really sad to do my last day of snorkeling here in Pembe Abwe until the bio group comes back at the end of the program. Though I don’t seem to be physiologically well adapted to snorkeling (prolonged diving still results in an inability to clear my ears and a splitting headache), I really love it, both the swimming/being in the water aspect and the overwhelming seeing all the fish aspect.

On the subject of fish – they are so fascinating and alien. I was sitting on the beach tonight talking to Rachel R. and Lydia about how I think I like mammals more because I understand them innately because I am a mammal. Sure, I can’t convey complex thoughts to a dog or a horse effectively, but our basic body language is the same. If I face a horse head on and look him square in the eyes, I’m telling him to go away. If I crouch low to the ground and drop my eyes, I’m in a very friendly and inviting position for a dog to come over and say hello. If I really want to make sure I have the dog’s attention before I ask her to do something then I make sure we have a light sort of eye contact before I give the command, the same way I would with a human person.

I can tell when a dog or a cat or a horse or a deer is scared, happy, angry, etc. because the basic way we express these things as mammals is the same. I’d probably also be able to tell pretty quickly if a lion or tiger or other large carnivore wanted to eat me and be able to then panic accordingly

Fish are not like that at all. Watching them I have no idea what they might be thinking. I don’t know if they are scared of me or just indifferent or even curious! I had a very interesting experience today that really highlighted this for me. I’ve been trying to work hard on my free diving, so while I was waiting for Sam to swim down the line of our final transect today I practiced diving. The second or third time I dove down, one of my flippers started to slip off my foot, so I kind of twisted around to adjust it as I started to let myself drift back up to the surface only to be starting at what can best be described for my non-biologically inclined friends and family as a big ass fish.

The BAF was probably slightly longer than my torso and a beautiful, silvery blue color with very large forward set (predatory) eyes and a big powerful caudal (hind) fin. The BAF seemed very curious about me as I continued to make dives in its general direction and even though it had appeared to have been swimming along with a school of snapper, it definitely circled back a couple of times to check me out.

I wasn’t scared, but I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I wasn’t a little uncomfortable with the situation. Obviously, the BAF wasn’t going to eat me or anything silly like that but it was just so strange to have it staring back at me again and again, with such an (ok, here I go anthropomorphizing in a distinctly unscientific fashion) intelligent expression. I had no idea if the BAF was trying to figure out if I was a predator or a prey or just confused or curious about the strange spandex clad creature waving an underwater notebook and flailing about ineffectively in its territory.

The best guess, after consulting with Ken and checking the fish books is that the BAF was a barracuda, which is pretty cool, though even if I have to discuss my encounter in more correct terms, in my memory, I’ll always remember this as the day I swam with the BAF.

I also saw a lion fish out swimming around the reef, which is quite unusual. Normally you only see them if you are looking in, around and under corals. It was neat to see one actually using all of its many funky looking little fins to mauenever around the corals in a pretty strong current. I also saw two instances of predation, which is really neat. The first was a grouper who was swimming around with the tail end of something or another sticking out of his mouth. The second was a snapper finishing chomping into something or another just as I dove down past him.

The data collection Sam and I did today went really well. We were back at Maziwe, the protected reef and even though we haven’t done any anlaysis of the data yet, just looking at the charts we can see a difference in the number of grouper and snapper observed, though we don’t know if any of that will prove to be statistically significant or not.

Another amusing occourence at the reef today was Hatibu giving Daudi swimming lessons. Hatibu and Daudi both work for the Petersons. Hatibu is an incredible snorkler, swimmer and sailor. He even built the boat that has been taking us out to the reefs. Daudi is a Maasai. Maasai don’t do water. Ever. Daudi’s job involves helping out around the main camp with pretty much everything that might need doing (and all with a cheerful, welcoming smile and a willingness to listen to us wanafunzi butcher Kiswahili), but he wants to learn more about fish and the ocean, so he was out there in a life vest and snorkel mask with Hatibu learning how to swim! Learning how to swim on a reef would be so overwhelming and Hatibu looked to be a task master! He wouldn’t even let Daudi wear shoes!

At the end of the day we had about fifteen minutes just for some free snorkeling time, during which I tried to work more on my diving, but the splitting headache factor was making that more difficult than necessary. Also, the current had started to really pick up and was quite strong. When Rachel R. and I looked at our watches and saw it was about time to go back to the boat, we started swimming against the current to get there, in a confident and strong, but not fast or overly concerned fashion.

Then all of a sudden the boat just kept getting farther and farther away from the direction we were headed. We definitely both had a moment of panic there and swam a few meters quite quickly until we saw Ken cruising along totally unconcerned, popped our heads out of the water and realized that the boat had just moved further in towards the reef so people wouldn’t have to swim as far to get back to it. Were we ever relieved!

The way back home was an adventure because the wind really started to pick up and dump water into the boat and the engines kept having trouble. Because of both of these factors, Hatibu decided we should switch to using the sail, so with a lot of teamwork (which mainly just involved all of the mzungu on board getting in the way), the sail was raised and we cruised back in on wind power. It was so fun!

Poor Nicole who is sea sick nearly all the time (but to her credit has been brave enough to go out, put on a life vest and snorkel every single day we have been here) was pretty sure we were going to die, though the rest of us thought it was a fine adventure indeed and were comparing ourselves to the Arab traders who used to travel the East African coasts in similar sailboats.

We had a lecture on coral reefs tonight which was interesting as well. Coral are actually little tiny animals (polyps) that form a symbiosis with algae in order to have enough energy to build the calcium carbonate “skeleton” which forms the actual reef structure. Coral reefs are like tropical rainforests in terms of their biodiversity and potential to contain cures for various diseases, plus they are simply amazing! I was so saddened to learn in more detail about all of the many ways in which human activity is damaging and destroying reefs. Some coral reef scientists predict that most of the reefs in the world may bleach out and die in as little as fifty to one hundred years. For those of you who haven’t seen in a tropical coral reef – find a way to do it – its one of the most incredible sights you will ever see. Perhaps if more people were able to experience what a reef is like, we would all try harder to make changes in the way we exploit and manage the ocean’s resources in order to make sure these beautiful underwater worlds will still be around for generations to come.

We also learned about coral reproduction. They can reproduce vegetatively, which seemed totally logical to me, with each little polyp simply splitting and becoming two, essentially cloning itself and continuing to build onto its parent coral community or a big piece of coral breaking off and continuing to grow. But it turns out that there is also such a thing as coral sex! Basically what occurs is that three or four times a year (coral carry a gene sequence which allows them in some way to sense the phases of the moon on a very basic level – many creatures have it – it would explain why so many natural rhytmns, even those of humans follow a monthly pattern) a couple of different species of coral will all at the same time spew billions upon billions of eggs and sperm into the water, where it will all intermingle and hopefully become fertilized and be able to settle back down onto the reef in a location where it will be able to grow.

To complicate matters further, some coral are hermaphrodites and can let loose both eggs and sperm, though they usually have some sort of structural trait that prevents “selfing” or a zygote receiving both sets of genetic info from the same parent. Also, the reason that several species do this at the same time isn’t because they can breed together but because many predators like to eat the gametes, so by having so many gametes in the water at once, it increases the chance of survival of more of the gametes of any given species.

You are probably all sick of hearing it, but once again, I just have to say how much I have loved it here. Pembe Abwe is everything I dreamed Africa would be and more and I haven’t even started safari.

If I felt like Dorothy in Oz yesterday, today I was Alice in Wonderland, just beginning to discover how far down the rabbit hole its possible to fall. I was diving a bit just off the edges of the reef and the few times I got down far enough so many different types of fish than I’ve seen during the past week on the reefs. I saw strange creatures that I can’t explain and don’t understand. Butterfly fish striped as brightly as any Chershire Cat; a group of Parrotfish feasting on algae, each of them as brightly colored as the Mad Hatter and his crew at a tea party; schools of small blue, silver and yellow fish as great in number as cards in a deck; a pair of Tweedle Dee and Dum like young black and white spotted snappers swimming circles around our transect tape and the grand BAF itself, a rather strange sort of rabbit encouraging me to see what might live even farther under the surface.

My mind is still on overload and it continues to feel more like magic than science. I’m slightly embarrassed that the first thing I think of when confronted with the magnificence of the reef is something frivolous like Alice in Wonderland and not something smart like “Gee, I wonder how the internal structures of the crown of thorns sea star differs from the other sea stars because it is able to digest coral itself which is something none of the other sea stars do?” (What I’d really be thinking – That creatures just looks sinister and like an alien, and probably should have been used as a villain in an old science fiction tv show, just by blowing up a video of it to an incredibly large size) or even just “Wow, that is an insanely huge brain coral – how old is it? (What I’d really by thinking – that coral looks just like IT, the giant evil brain from “A Wrinkle In Time”).

But I guess as long as the scientific thoughts come eventually, the rest is all right, maybe. I mean a little whimsy never hurt anyone, right?

Beware the Jabberwock (and the BAF) – you never know when it might sneak up behind you! Check your flippers often!

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