Adventures of a Red Sea diver

This week on Dispatches, we are excited to welcome Alysse Mathalon, who adds a point to a brand new area of our map as she tells us about her adventures doing fieldwork in Israel’s Red Sea!

When I first accepted my Master of Science research project, I had no idea what I would be diving into – literally. I knew that there would be diving involved, that my dive site would be accessible by boat, and that I would be doing a lot of fieldwork. This combined with the location of the project, in Eilat, Israel, on the Red Sea, was enough for me to accept the opportunity and not look back. I got myself to Eilat four days after officially accepting the position.

A view of the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. A strong wind event resuspended shallow sediments, making the water murky. Mountains in the frame are in Aqaba, Jordan.

Eilat is a spectacular place. Situated at the southern point of Israel’s Negev Desert, it is surrounded by mountains as old as 500 million years. From its short coastline there are 3 countries in view; bordering from the north is Jordan, from the south, Egypt, and just across the narrow sea is Saudi Arabia. To make it even more extraordinary, beneath the sea surface are some of the most northern coral reef ecosystems in the world.

Eilat is located in a desert climate, where the weather is hot and sunny the majority of the time. However, rains can shower unpredictably and cause flashfloods in the otherwise silent and still desert. Dry river beds transform into rushing rivers, flowing seaward. My supervisors were fascinated by this unique phenomenon, which can bring tens of thousands of tonnes of sediment into the Red Sea in hours. Little is known about the frequency and magnitudes of flashfloods in this region, as such events have only been documented in the past 24 years. Flashfloods are important because they supply large amounts of sediment from land directly to the sea. The presence of flood sediments within the seafloor can therefore help paint a picture of past climatic events.

Flashflood flowing into the Red Sea in October 2016.

For our research project, we looked to the sediment layers below the seafloor to tell us stories of flashflood history. We asked whether it was possible to find flashflood deposits in the seabed from the previous 2000 years. First, we had to try and determine if flashflood deposits were actually getting preserved within the seafloor. This is where I came in. I set out to discover what happened to flood sediments after they settled on the shallow seafloor. Were they being removed by water currents, or being redistributed by fish? Were animals in the sediment mixing them up, destroying their pristine layering and making them unrecognizable?

To answer these questions, we conducted underwater experiments at a research station 13 metres below the sea surface, just offshore of the main location where flashfloods entered the sea. Here, instead of the vibrant coral reefs in the shallow waters by the marine institute, the waters were murky and the seafloor was packed with sediment.

On a field dive after a year and a half of experience. Neutral buoyancy? Check!

Upon arriving in Eilat, I immediately got my dive certification, as I had to jump right in and start the experiments. My supervisors now admit that they were slightly concerned about my diving skills; I was not the most graceful. A big part of being a good diver is being able to achieve neutral buoyancy. This means choosing the perfect balance of weight versus air in your diving vest, so you are hovering in the water. Each time I failed to be neutrally buoyant I would crash down onto the seafloor, and plumes of sediment would rise up, driving the visibility to zero. Diving in this challenging environment so frequently pushed me to become a much better diver, quickly.

The PhD Candidate and I about to jump into the water for a dive! We are pretty happy about it .

Throughout the project I brought many fellow researchers and friends along to help out with the experiments. We usually had to carry armloads of supplies on our dives to collect our samples. We became expert silent communicators, and we were highly determined to achieve our dive goals each time.

However, despite our determination, some frightening things happened down there that put me in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once, we became so disoriented by the murky water that we didn’t know which way was up. We lost countless lab supplies, and had to avoid poisonous animals such as huge lion fish and potentially deathly scorpion fish. We spent hours upon hours under water at that station, and surfacing from those dives was always a glorious feeling. If we were extra lucky, on our way back to the marine institute we would stop by the Dolphin Reef to say hello to the dolphins, who live in a partially enclosed area of the sea.

Poisonous scorpion fish making himself at home in our equipment.

I am so grateful for my exciting fieldwork experiences, and for all of the outstanding people and friends I got to share those adventures with. If you have an opportunity to do fieldwork, even if you aren’t necessarily passionate about the purpose of the fieldwork, I would still recommend doing it. Communicating in a field setting is an incredible way to get to know people. Team work is ample, and being out in the natural world feels so messy, and challenges you to adapt. I learned a lot, and grew through those experiences. I wish you all the best in your field adventures. Happy fieldwork!

Alysse grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and got her first taste of the Atlantic Ocean while visiting her grandparents in Florida throughout her childhood. She decided to study marine biology during her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, and once she started, she never looked back. She is fascinated by ocean life, and has developed a passion for promoting ocean sustainability. During her undergraduate degree she published a scientific study quantifying microplastic pollution in sediments and mussels in Nova Scotia. This summer, Alysse is working for the Ontario Government as a Stewardship Youth Ranger Team Leader. She will guide high school students in carrying out environmental projects in the field. When it comes to the water, Alysse enjoys surfing, swimming, snorkeling, and going for fun dives!

 

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Morning has broken (me)

When the repetitive beeping of my alarm rouses me, it seems like the punchline of an exceptionally cruel joke.  The room is pitch black; the glowing red numbers on the clock read 3:00 am.  I know I need to get out of bed if I’m going to make it to the field site for sunrise… but the sheets feel like they’re made of Velcro, pulling me back down every time I make a move to get up.

When I finally do manage to put my feet on the floor and stand upright, I’m as uncoordinated as drunk toddler.  I stumble around my room with my eyes half closed.  Despite the fact that I always lay my clothes out neatly the night before, getting dressed seems to take twice as long as it should.  I drop items of clothing, tie my hiking boot laces wrong, and even occasionally try to put both my feet into the same pant leg.

It doesn’t get any easier when I finally get myself out the door.  The world is eerily quiet and still at 3 am.  The occasional person I do encounter looks startled to see me, and often avoids my eyes.  It’s very clear that anyone with any sense is sleeping, and it’s hard not to let my thoughts drift back to the warmth and comfort of my covers.  I aim myself directly towards the nearest source of caffeine – but as I move farther away from my bed, I can feel myself getting crankier.

 

People who know me often ask why I choose to work with birds.  After all, I’m the first to admit that I am the opposite of a morning person.  So what on earth possessed me to study animals that start their day long before the sun has properly risen – and even have the gall to greet the dawn with a song?

It’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer.  And it’s been on my mind a lot this summer, because I’m back in the field for the first time in several years.  Each day, as I drag myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, every cell in my body resisting, I find myself seriously questioning my life choices.  (In my defence, I’m not sure being a morning person would make a difference, because frankly 3 am can’t be considered ‘morning’.)

But over the past few weeks, I’ve realized something.  I can’t deny that I really hate getting out of bed before the sun.  But I also can’t deny that once I’m up, I’m glad to be awake.

The day has a very different feel first thing in the morning.  The world is new and fresh, and there’s a sense of infinite possibility.  The entire day stretches ahead like a blank canvas, as yet unmarred by the small disappointments and frustrations that inevitably pile up over the hours.  As I drink my coffee and watch the sun peek over the horizon, I feel like I can do almost anything.  It’s exhilarating…and perhaps even worth the struggle it takes to get myself there each day.

Nevertheless: on my days off, I’m more than happy to let the sun win the race!

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back another familiar guest blogger: Kim Stephens, a graduate of Queen’s University who now works for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust.  Kim shares with us the importance of citizen science and some of the many opportunities for citizen scientists to get out in the field!

I’m flipping the blog this week: instead of bringing the field experiences to the community, I’m aiming to bring the community to the field! Since finishing my undergrad, I’ve moved into the environmental not-for-profit world, working at the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust as a ‘BioBlitz Coordinator’.  My job involves planning events which teach the public about species found in their area, while giving them an opportunity to interact with local flora and fauna in the field.

The aptly-named violet coral fungus.

I love BioBlitzes! They’re a great way to get outdoors, explore nature, and learn about the species found in different habitats. Here’s what happens: over a 24 hour period, taxonomic experts and volunteers work in small groups to complete a full biological inventory of a property, identifying all the birds, trees, insects… you get the drift. BioBlitzes have taken Ontario and Canada by storm, with dozens of them taking place across the country last year for Canada’s 150th.  The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust hosted three BioBlitzes last year, and identified over 700 species in total! It’s a great way for volunteers to contribute to the knowledge that organizations need to direct management activities – and it’s also extremely fun! From exploring the leaf litter to find a violet coral fungus, to trying to spot an Eastern Wood-pewee calling in the forest, or sneaking up on a butterfly or dragonfly to catch and identify it, there’s something for everyone. With an estimated 140,000 species in Canada, only half of which have been identified, there are always new species to learn about and discover. Which will you find at a BioBlitz?

Although BioBlitzes are relatively new, having started in the late 1990s in the United States, ‘citizen science’ initiatives have been around for over 100 years. Simply put, they are ways for the general population to contribute data to scientific projects, and often require little more than a smartphone by way of equipment. There are many initiatives available for you to get involved in, whether you want to attend an event locally, or contribute data to provincial, national, or global projects.

Below are just some of the many other ways to get involved in citizen science.

Join me in the field:

Christmas Bird Count

A male and female downy woodpecker spending a cold winter morning together.

Last December, I participated in my first (and second) CBC. This annual bird census is administered by the National Audubon Society and has been around for over 100 years. For several chilly hours we hiked through conservation areas and drove through the countryside, counting every single bird we saw or heard in a pre-set 24km diameter circle. I was paired with birders who were far more experienced in identification than me. They took me under their wing and taught me tricks for remembering ID features. Once I was more confident in my skills, they encouraged me to try them out, confirming the correct IDs. It’s amazing to think that the species I saw on one winter day – as well as the species I should have seen but didn’t – could contribute to peer-reviewed scientific articles. I can’t wait to participate again next season.

Continue the research at home:

iNaturalist

I love getting out into the field and learning about what’s out there. During my undergraduate research project, in addition to measuring plants, I met a grey rat snake, lots of snapping and painted turtles, spiders, birds, and more. That summer, I snapped endless pictures of critters I either found fascinating or hadn’t encountered before. I was taking pictures because I loved doing it. But now, with smartphone apps like iNaturalist, anyone can take pictures and contribute directly to research, right from their phone! The primary goal of this app is to connect people to nature, and I find it great for those moments when you think: “Look at the cool thing I found… what is it?”. Users can post pictures of the species they see, and other users will add their identification to the picture. So there’s no need to worry: you don’t need to know what you’re taking a photo of. I sure didn’t know what mating adult caddisflies looked like until last summer!

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

Northern map turtles basking in the summer sunshine.

Turtles, frogs, snakes, salamanders and a skink: we have several species of reptiles and amphibians in Ontario, and many are at risk. But the full distribution of some species is unknown. This is not because their habitat doesn’t exist, or there aren’t individuals present, but simply because no one has reported seeing that species in that location. To address this issues, Ontario Nature developed a very useful app – the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (ORAA)– that allows you to report sightings of these species across the province. If you find individuals, reporting them to the ORAA can provide crucial information to help scientists accurately map the distribution of species.

eBird

I’ve picked up a new hobby since participating in the CBC: birding. As of last summer, I could identify about 20 different birds. Over the winter I became confident about a few dozen more. By the end of the year, I’m hoping that number breaks 3 digits. I’ve recently started logging my sightings into eBird, which allows you to submit ‘checklists’ of birds you’ve identified. Whether you went out birding for 4 hours, or watched your feeder for a few minutes, you can report species that you saw on eBird, adding to population and distribution records.  You can even submit reports from a ‘wild goose chase’ – that is, trying to spot a rare bird that is only around by accident, such as a Barnacle Goose.  Although the species is native to Greenland and Europe, I saw the directionally confused individual in the photo below an hour north of Toronto in Schomberg. If you want, you can even make it competitive, by adding to your personal life list. It’s like real-life Pokemon – gotta find them all!

A single Barnacle Goose among hundreds of Canada Geese in Schomberg, ON

I really hope you can join me this summer at a BioBlitz, on a wild goose chase, or digitally on iNaturalist, ORAA, or eBird!

Kim Stephens is a graduate of Fleming College, and Queen’s University, where she researched the relationship between the different metrics of plant body size. She is now working for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, getting people outside to explore and learn about nature. When not in the office or at a BioBlitz, she enjoys directing Quidditch tournaments and trying to photograph every species of butterfly she can find.  Follow her on Twitter at  @kastep15.

Morabeza!

This week, Dispatches is very excited to welcome back guest poster Becky Taylor – who has become Dr. Taylor since we last heard from her.  Becky shares with us a true story of surviving a full-fledged fieldwork catastrophe with nothing more than determination and a lot of kindness from strangers.  For more about Becky, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It’s funny how some moments are forever fixed in your mind’s eye, like a snapshot that you can recall in absolute detail. I am standing on a beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, marooned on an uninhabited desert islet in Cape Verde (off the coast of western Africa), with two other people and no possessions but the clothes on our backs (and a bottle of Cape Verde wine), gazing at the carnage that was our campsite. How, you may ask, did I find myself in this situation?

The isolated beaches of Cape Verde are a beautiful place to work…and a frightening place to be marooned.

I don’t want this post to be in any way negative about Cape Verde itself. Quite the contrary. It is by far one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I have ever been to, and the sheer kindness of the people who live there was not only welcoming from the minute I arrived, but a life saver when things didn’t go to plan. They have a saying in Cape Verde: ‘Morabeza’! From what I understand, it translates as ‘treat guests exactly as family’…and that is exactly what they did.

I travelled to Cape Verde during my Ph.D., for which I was studying genomic variation in band-rumped storm-petrels. These are small, nocturnal seabirds that breed on remote islands, and a population of particular interest to me lives on some of the small islets in Cape Verde. I travelled first to Fogo Island, one of the bigger inhabited islands, to plan for field work and meet up with my wonderful field leader, Herculano, the manager of Parque Natural de Fogo.

Pico do Fogo

While we were planning our work, Herculano took me to Pico do Fogo, the active volcano that gives the island its name. It is an area of stunning beauty, and I had the opportunity to hike on the lava field and go caving through lava flow tunnels. While on Fogo, I also swam in a beautiful lagoon, enjoyed the soft black sand beaches, sampled wine in the local winery, and ate fried eel (which is actually very good)! There are few tourists who visit Fogo island, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets!!

Our campsite home on Ilheu de Cima.

After sightseeing and gathering supplies, it was time to start fieldwork! We needed to catch storm-petrels on a small islet called Ilheu de Cima. As Cima is nothing but rock and a string of beaches, we had to bring all of our supplies with us, including food and water. Herculano arranged for some local fisherman to drop the three of us (himself, my field assistant and childhood bestie Freyja, and me) off on Cima with our camping supplies. And for the first few days we enjoyed our own little island paradise.

By day we would explore the small islet, trying to find some shelter from the sun, although shade was very hard to come by. Luckily I like hot weather, so I was thoroughly enjoying the heat and our many private beaches.

All ready for action: Freyja and Herculano with our mist net.

As the storm-petrels are nocturnal, we would hike to the nesting colony before sunset, scramble down a rock face on the far side of the 1km islet, and set up our mist net to catch birds as they flew to and from their rock crevice nests. Usually we would catch birds until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before packing up and hiking back to camp. As it was September we were fortunate enough to be there during the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, and we (very quietly) would watch females lay their eggs as we wound down from our work!

It all sounds amazing, right? Too good to be true, I suppose. One night, after a really great night of sampling, we hiked back to camp to find….well…no camp.

All that remained of our campsite…

And that brings us to the point at which I started my story. We stood on the beach realizing that our entire camp was gone (aside from that one bottle of wine, which had somehow survived). We can’t be 100% sure what happened, but it looked like a big wave came in and washed everything out to sea. Bits of debris were scattered across the beach, and our tents (which we had anchored with boulders) were gone – along with everything that was inside. And obviously when you are camping on an uninhabited islet, there is no one to steal your possessions, and so you don’t mind leaving everything in your tent. For example, your passport, money, bank cards, and ID’s. Damn.

Can’t complain about the view…

So what do you do in that moment? Well, we sat on top of the islet, watched one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and swigged from the wine bottle, feeling defeated. Thankfully we had kept our phones on us and so could call for help.  Eventually, we managed to get hold of the fisherman, who rescued us that afternoon.

Back on Fogo, Freyja and I realised we were now in a foreign country with no way of accessing money or identifying ourselves. We relied on the kindness of Herculano, his family, and the other locals, to provide food and shelter (and some spare clothes). Without their help I don’t know what we would have done. It was a big learning experience for me, accepting so much from people I hardly knew. Morabeza indeed!

Freyja and I are both British citizens, but there is no British consulate in Cape Verde, so the British consulate communicated with the Portuguese consulate to provide us with temporary travel documents. Eventually, with the concerted efforts of a whole host of people, we managed to arrange our way back home. (It took a few days, though, by which point we were looking particularly haggard). At the time I was pretty traumatised, feeling like the whole experience had been a complete disaster. However, looking back I learnt a lot from it. Possessions can be replaced; the fact that we were safe was all that really mattered. And I will never be too proud to accept help when I need it.

I don’t regret my time on Cima: it was a unique experience and a wonderful place to have spent some time (not to mention a great story).

Plus, the samples we had collected that night were still in my bag, and thankfully provided enough material for me to sequence the storm-petrels’ DNA and finish my research project!

Cima has a unique combination of both black and white sand beaches. The wind mixes the two together in some places to create beautiful marbled beaches.

 

I would like to dedicate this story to Herculano, Emily, Bianca, and the rest of their family for their help and kindness, to Freyja for being a great person to go through a disaster with, and to everyone who was involved in helping to find us money and a way home.

Dr. Becky Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, after which she spent two years as a researcher for the conservation charity Wildscreen. She then completed her Master’s degree in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. During her M.Sc. she became passionate about wildlife genetics as a tool to study evolutionary questions but also for conservation purposes. This led her to undertake her Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Ontario, studying genomic variation in the Leach’s and band-rumped storm-petrel species complexes. She completed her Ph.D. in 2017 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, undertaking further work with the band-rumped storm-petrels and a few other wildlife genetics projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeckySTaylor.

Careful queries

“Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully.  And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 -David Quammen

Having spent more than a decade doing fieldwork all over North America, you might think I would have learned by now how to see beauty anywhere – how to look past the surface of a place to the awe-inspiring intricate connections beneath.  But last week’s guest post about the beauty of the tallgrass prairie got me thinking about my own experience in the prairies last fall.

In October, I took a trip out west with my father, who is a big fan of Canada’s national park system and wanted to see some of the western parks and historic sites.  We originally planned the trip as my ‘thesis submission celebration’.  (Of course, as any grad student knows, thesis submission dates are slippery things, very prone to change.  So when the time came to leave, my thesis was decidedly unsubmitted – but lucky for me, we decided to go anyway.)

When we sat down to finalize our itinerary, we discovered that we disagreed fairly substantially.  My father’s top priority was to visit Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan.  But to be honest, I just wasn’t that excited by the thought of an endless flat plain.  No, if I was going out west, my top priority was to see some mountains.

I’ve been fascinated by mountains since my first trip to Alberta with my family, when I was only six.  Even now, I find the dramatic landscape of the Rocky Mountains enthralling and iconic.  Despite growing up in Ontario, when I think of the Canadian wilderness, I picture the snowy peaks, mysterious green valleys, and jewel-bright lakes of the Rockies.

My dad was considerably less enchanted by the mountains than I was, but eventually agreed to add Waterton Lakes National Park to our schedule.  Waterton Lakes, in southwestern Alberta, lies at the point where “the prairies of Alberta meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains”.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place than Waterton Lakes National Park on a sunny fall day.

If you look the park up on Google Images, the pictures that pop up are so perfectly gorgeous that they seem almost unreal.  But as amazing as those pictures are, they don’t begin to the do park justice.  We visited on a sunny, crisp fall day.  The wind was so strong it almost felt like an assault, and the sheer majesty of the sun reflecting off the snow-covered peaks took my breath away.

We spent three wonderful days in the shadow of the mountains before starting our long drive east to Grasslands.  Not feeling all that inspired by the second part of our trip, I was reluctant to leave, and the seemingly endless drive across the flattest part of Canada didn’t increase my enthusiasm at all.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Rumpled, tired, and cranky in the way that can only result from spending a day in the car, we arrived at our accommodation, right on the edge of the park, just as the sun was going down.  As I stepped gratefully out into the fresh air and gazed over the sea of grass stretching from right in front of us all the way to the horizon, I felt the first faint stirrings of interest in this park.

First thing the next morning, we set off to explore.  My dad was single-minded in pursuit of his main goal: to see a buffalo.  I had visions of us roaming for hours, searching fruitlessly.  But within a few minutes of entering the park, we spotted one of the massive animals standing not far from the road, gazing haughtily into the distance.  As my dad pulled out his camera, I noticed a flash of movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned to investigate – and realized that on the other side of the road was a busy prairie dog colony.  Hundreds of the chubby rodents bustled around their burrows, often coming within a few feet of me.

Face to face with a curious prairie dog.

It was slowly dawning on me that, although this park lacked the obvious, dramatic majesty of Waterton Lakes and the other mountain parks, it had a quiet splendour all its own.  We’d been in the park only a few minutes, and already we’d had two up close and personal encounters with wildlife.  That night, as I stared up at one of the most phenomenal night skies I’ve ever seen, I realized that Grasslands was something special.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the experience was that we had the park essentially to ourselves.  During the three days we spent there, I don’t think we saw more than ten other visitors.  When I got home, I looked up the stats.  Between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017, Grasslands had just over 13,000 visitors.  In comparison, Waterton Lakes recorded more than 500,000 visitors over the same time period, and Banff recorded more than 4 million.  Apparently I am not the only person who prefers the mountains to the plains.

I can’t deny that having an entire national park to ourselves was mind-blowing, and part of what made our time in Grasslands so special.  There’s something about being the only car on the road – the only people within sight – that allows you to become truly immersed in the landscape.

But I also can’t help but think the vast difference in visitor numbers between Grasslands and Waterton Lakes may be indicative of a larger problem.  Many people – whether consciously or unconsciously – equate ‘nature’ with those grand, awe-inspiring mountain vistas that we are all so fond of.  And I can’t deny that those vistas are amazing, certainly well worth a visit.

However, a single-minded focus on majestic and dramatic landscapes can cause us to miss the more subtle beauty found in less obvious places – whether it be the muddy edges of a marsh, the vast grasslands of the North American plains, or even our own backyards.

And so the main thing I learned from my trip was to put a bit more time and effort into making those ‘careful queries’ that David Quammen advocates.  Less obvious landscapes may demand a bit more of us, but they have so much to teach.

Looking out over the badlands at Grasslands National Park.