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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…
October 7, 2009

Tanzania just might be my favorite place in the whole world! Today I skipped my morning run as I didn’t sleep well and woke up with a huge headache, but luckily that was gone by the time we left to go snorkeling.

Sam and I, along with some of the other groups went out to a different reef today, called Zinga. Unlike the reef where we have done our snorkeling so far, this reef is not protected and fisherman can fish as much as they want. Groupers and snappers are popular eating fish here along the coast, so those we saw in Zinga were much smaller than the ones we saw yesterday in Maziwe, the protected reef.

The transect method that Sam and I and some of the other groups are using involves taking a long tape measure and measuring off a section 50 meters long by laying it along the bottom of the ocean floor at a depth of two to four meters. Then we to wait for five minutes so the fish have time to get used to it and not be scared of it. Then we each take two or three minutes to swim the 50 meters and count the number of each species of grouper and snapper we see.

The snorkeling went well and our data collection was successful, but Sam and I were both freezing cold by the time we were done. Also, all of the other groups succeeded in breaking their transects in some way or another, so we ended up having to share ours.

The other groups finished a bit before us and took off in the main boat because the students at the other reef had sighted whales! Sam and I were picked up in the little speed boat by Ken, Mike and Nicole and took off zooming across the waves to see if we could find the whales.

We found no whales, but riding in that tiny little boat with two motors was one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life. I was sitting right on the front of it and it was a very bumpy ride, rather like riding a very naughty bucking horse, but more fun because I didn’t have to scold the boat for misbehaving. At one point we kind of jumped up a rather large wave and Mike literally yelled at us all to hang on. I made a mad grab for the side of the boat, but there was so much air between my butt and the boat deck that I slammed down pretty hard and sitting is still a bit uncomfortable (and I have an excellent bruise too!).

But the salty air blowing in my face and whipping against my wet and salty snorkeling clothes until they were dry and the surf spraying me every now and then and the gorgeous Tanzanian coastline visible in the background was all just too incredible to adequately describe in words. I saw a school of tuna and a spinner dolphin hunting them off in the distance.

Everything in nature here just seems so real and relevant and in the moment. It kind of feels like I’ve lived my whole life in black and white and all of a sudden everything is in color, like when Dorothy wakes up after the cyclone and finds herself in Oz. I would say that I feel happy here, but I think it is more basic than that – I just feel content.

I could live like this for the rest of my life, I think. I mean yes, I’d need to find a way for a dog and a horse to come along, preferably and I admit that I miss the internet, but I feel like if I had a close friend or two nearby, the isolation wouldn’t matter to me given that I’d be in such an incredible place.

I love wandering off down the beach or into the forested area a little bit alone and just pretending that I’m the only one here and watching all of the birds and other creatures that can be seen only once I’ve sat someplace for quite a while and been very silent and still.

In the evening, we had a lecture on basic fish physiology, which mean that Ken bought a parrotfish and a grouper (a chocolate hind, or boenak, to be exact as I know from my newly attained familiarity with groupers) and dissected them with his pocket knife on the picnic table. It was really interesting and I learned so much.

For example, Parrotfish are called parrotfish because their teeth have fused together over their evolutionary process to form a bird like beak that they use for scraping algae off of the coral. They don’t have teeth for chewing, but instead have two molar like structures just below their esophagus that they used to grind the plant matter up before they digest it. Groupers on the other hand have teeth like spikes so that once they grab a prey fish to eat it, there is no way for it to escape, even if the grouper can’t quite shove all of it into its stomach at once.

I also learned that many fish change sex during their lifetime. In species where there are more females available, it is better for the bigger fish to be males as they will be more successful at establishing and protecting a territory and attracting many mates (so their genetic info will be passed on many times a result of being able to fertilize the eggs of many females), so as fish get bigger, their gonads change from ovarian to testicular type tissue. On the other hand, there are other species where it makes more sense for the females to be bigger, like when there are more males available, so being the one with the eggs makes it more likely that your genetic info will get passed on. For example, clown fish have just one mate and the pair consists of a big female and a little male that are a bonded pair. The male stays a male until the female dies or disappears and then becomes a female himself and attracts a new male. In other words, in the movie finding Nemo, after Nemo’s mother disappeared, his father Mervin, should have just become Marla!

I ate dinner on the beach with a bunch of the other students and watched the moon rise again. Again, words cannot even begin to describe.

Once again, I love Tanzania. I’m sure I’ll be coming back again at some point in my life, whether its for a job of some sort, or just because I want to (though the second option probably means I’ll have to wait much longer since I’d actually have to pay for the plane ticket…). Who wants to come with me? If I’ve done even a marginal job of describing what it is like here, you should all be saying you want to!


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