The Dual Science Job Hunt: Finding Our Newport House (Part 7)

After quite a journey, our jobs are going well, the boys love their school, and we have delighted in exploring our new island home and the bounty that summer provides – from warm enough water to swim at the beach, to pick your own blueberries and sunflowers at the farm. The quaint fieldstone walls, farms, marinas, and neighbourhoods of Newport have enchanted us.

The House

Our house in D.C. finally closed in March and we had started looking for a more permanent home in earnest, not just because we only had 3 months of lease left at Crest St. Although it was small, we thought to consider staying at Crest St. until we were told how much it would cost. The rent during December-May was $1750 a month for the 3 bedroom home. After June 1, the rent increased to $3000 a WEEK. Newport gets awfully popular during summer. The owner offered a $200-a-week discount but helpfully suggested we find better value elsewhere. We were psychologically prepared to move to San Diego or Monterey, where 3-4 bedroom starter homes within reasonable commuting distance of SPAWAR or NPS approached a million dollars (or more for Monterey). When we came to Newport, we were astonished to find comfortable 3-bedroom homes within 10 minutes drive from work selling for below $300K! Amazing! But then, we took a drive along the coast and saw the quaint New England waterfront homes…

It started as a pipe dream – could we really find a way to raise our water babies in a home where this could be their backyard?

Waterfront is still somewhat affordable in Rhode Island (remember we are comparing to Washington DC, San Diego, and Monterey when we say that). There were, and still are beach-batch-style waterfront homes for sale in the area for less than $400K. There are always a bunch of multi-million-dollar mansions and modern, updated flippers going for seven or eight-figure prices. However, there was recent historical evidence (on Zillow, Redfin, etc.) of a comfortable middle ground – ‘normal sized’ family homes not designed for cash buyers or foreign money laundering, but still big enough so they couldn’t be labelled “holiday home” or “beach batch”. These homes were in general slightly less expensive than what we were thinking for San Diego or Monterey. The problem was that very few came to market in proximity of work and when they did, they were only on market for approximately 12-24 hours before someone had put pen to paper and they went under contract.

Lauren, always the perennially positive one, suggested that we could just wait for the next ideal home to come to market. We could have the mortgage pre-approved and swoop down with an offer immediately, she thought. The odds of that happening were low, but in general 3-4 appropriate homes seemed to have been listed each year for the past few years, so we decided to focus on waterfront and ignore the incredibly tempting, modern and spacious homes available for half the price just up the road from work. We flip-flopped over this plan for some time. On one hand, we could potentially find a golden nugget. On the other hand, the plan seemed stupid, fanciful and would potentially stress us out. Why unnecessarily subject our family to continued moves, temporary homes and uncertainty?

There seemed to be a distinct lack of appropriate homes from February to June 2018. Sitting around waiting for something to be listed while watching the days count down to the end of our lease on Crest St, and seeing many fantastic non-waterfront homes come and go, was not comfortable to say the least. There were many times we doubted our strategy, although those times typically ended with one of us reaffirming “keep our eyes on the prize” with a sigh. We wasted a huge amount of time spending endless hours looking at the same listings online, hoping that the more we stared, the more likely that some perfect house would magically come up for sale.

Whenever one of us wanted to give up on this seemingly impossible search, the other recalled just how much our family enjoys water activities and we kept trying.

In April, Lauren had a casual discussion with a co-worker and came to the conclusion that he lived in one of our dream neighbourhoods, and that his neighbour may be thinking of moving in the next 1-2 years. Lauren asked him to inquire if the neighbour would be interested in selling to us in a private sale. The co-worker came back a few days later and said the neighbor may be interested, but was still a long way from moving and wanted to make some improvements. At the same time, our realtor had helped us send 27 letters to waterfront homes that seemed like they may be within our price range and hadn’t changed hands recently, explaining our situation and our desire for a waterfront home. We didn’t apply any pressure – we just wanted to know if anyone was thinking of selling soon and if they would be interested in meeting us. We received 5 responses. Some were polite “maybe in a few years”. Some wanted more money than we could afford. One offered to sell us another home. We actually viewed one property but discovered later that it was in a flood zone. We decided to follow that model and send a letter to the co-worker’s neighbor, which we wrote ourselves introducing our family, our wishes for a smaller home with a big yard on the water, and our plan to raise our family in Rhode Island. Then, we received a phone call:

“Hello Simon and Lauren, this is Forest. I’m calling because I received your letter that you sent me, a really kind letter. I’m interested in meeting with you folks and discussing the possibility of you buying our house. So give me a shout when you have the chance. Hope to talk to you soon and hope you have a good evening. Bye now.”

The house was in Sea Meadow Farms, a neighborhood of quaint colonial-style Cape Cod style houses. Of the three hundred or so coastal properties around the island, perhaps 50 have piers. Houses with piers are generally unobtainable because the permitting required to get one is so arduous. If a house has a pier, the structure is typically grandfathered in from a time when permit rules were less strict. Being a sailing town, houses with piers are so desirable that they are typically handed down or sold privately to friends. Only one house with a pier had been on market over the last four years. This one had a pier.


This house seemed impossibly ideal for us, pending the unknown price of course. Location (something we can’t change) was the most important thing about the house and this one could not be beaten. The house was older, smaller and not updated which meant the price would hopefully not be astronomical. We have dreams of sailing and they could become reality with the pier and mooring that came with the house. Our oyster farm, which we had left in Mathews, VA, could be re-created here. Many dreams could be made a reality with a structure on the water like the pier on this house. If the pier was icing on the cake, the cherry on top was the cupola with a yacht-shaped wind vane above the garage.


We dressed up nicely (but not too nicely..), brought fresh homemade banana bread, hired a sitter, and went over to met Forest and see the house. We were nervous but he was truly a gentleman, down to the hand-written thank you note for the baked goods. Forest and his wife were looking to downsize. They wanted to sell to a family who would appreciate the home. They wanted a flexible move-out schedule. An agreement was hashed out, with both parties taking care to be open and considerate at every step. Two appraisals were conducted (they were incredibly varied, with a ~25% difference in estimated value!). After the appraisals, Lauren went over by herself to offer Forest the average of the two appraisals, which we could just afford (interestingly, the bank’s appraisal after we went under contract was within 3% of this average). I hung out with the kids at a beach nearby, anxiously building sand castles and waiting for a yes/no text message. She walked out with a handshake agreement that quickly turned into a written contract. We brought the kids to the house and showed them around, much to the delight of Forest and his wife. We would be house-poor until the kids started public school, but we could do it. Inspections revealed an older home that had been well cared for. Critically, the septic system was in good shape (we would have had to pay $40,000 for a new system, had this old one failed its exam) Forest wanted up to a year to move out leisurely after we purchased the home, which was fine with us because we had just signed on for a year lease at a Navy-owned duplex. A private sale would save both us and Forest tens of thousands of dollars, and would be easy with such a good relationship between buyer and seller. Forest invited us to a party where we met his friends and neighbours, who were all wonderful people, including the man who was Lauren’s office cubicle neighbour, who would become Lauren’s actual neighbour!  We closed on the house. It is now ours. We still cannot believe it. There is a guest bedroom downstairs with a sliding glass door to the yard, beach and ocean. Friends always welcome!



This is the final post in our series detailing our decision to make a lifestyle move for our family, and the steps from that decision to finally making a home in Newport.

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

The Dual Science Job Hunt: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn (Part 6)

We had decided to make a lifestyle move and settled on Newport, Rhode Island as our destination. We had the promise of two good jobs, family friendly neighborhoods with good public schools, a plethora of outdoor water activities, and an achievable cost of living. Making the move was far more arduous than we had anticipated and our first months were exceptionally trying, albeit a cherished time for our family. 

The Jobs

When people ask me what my new job is like compared to my old job, I say that both labs have their problems. The difference, however, is that the Newport lab’s problems are comparatively small, while the old lab’s are large. Here, it is hard to buy yourself a computer without paying absurd amounts of overhead and waiting for six months. However, your boss and their bosses genuinely care about you and the people they serve. At the old place, one can buy computers all day but if you want to go out on a limb and do something unusual, good luck.

I started in the sonar division in December. Adjusting to the more restrictive (security wise) environment was difficult, especially when attempting to do scientific discovery-type work. Lauren had been given a verbal offer, then a written one, but there were delays. A poorly timed government shutdown meant her background check was postponed. Months went by when we were on one income. We were starting to really feel the expenditure. We did not want to dip into our deposit for our next home. After one attempt that ended poorly, we kept the boys out of school during that winter, saving us about $2K per month. They enjoyed the time with Lauren, but it was clear they desired an environment where they could interact with their peers and learn from loving teachers, just as they had in D.C. It was also challenging for Lauren to finish her remote sensing paper that was the culmination of her remote sensing postdoctoral work. It got dark at 3 pm and going outside was a challenge, and especially hard on little hands and faces. The small house became much smaller when the kids had to stay indoors. We were at a nadir here, and depression was starting to rear its ugly head.



It was March 2018. Lauren had finally started her new position and we were a two-income family again. We had found a fantastic new school for the kiddos. Our Alexandria house had finally sold. While still cold (unusually so in 2018, according to neighbours) the thaw was beginning. Daffodils were popping up and most of the snow had gone. While we were moving, we had continued our conversation with funding agencies. They had merged our ideas with some others and had issued a broad agency announcement on the topic. We flew down to D.C. and presented at a “proposers day” – a public event designed to team interested parties so that they could generate more effective research proposals. Pre-proposals were due and it was clear to all that Lauren and I would be making a submission. The budget was an eight-figure number and we wanted to involve five institutions, but we figured now was the time to go big or go home! The concept and team seemed natural and intuitive to us and the proposal development seemed to be moving forward on greased skids. Supportive staff and new opportunities in Newport meant that we were coming to our program manager with further news they wanted to hear. They told us to cut the budget but to submit a “full” proposal. The situation was becoming serious. A full proposal is a lot of work (hundreds of pages) and a funding agency would not make such a request unless there was a very good chance we would be successful. Lauren secured an internal grant to support our salary while we put the proposal together. Several of our collaborators flew to Newport to meet with us at their own expense so that we could be more effective in proposal development. All of this took place during Lauren’s first month of employment as a “new hire”, equivalent to someone who has just graduated with their Ph.D, with no expectation that they would bring in funding themselves. I would love to have heard the conversations between her managers. Fast-forward a few months and here we are, with several million dollars for 18 months of Phase I work. We will be going to Hawaii again for field work next year and the one after, just like we did last year. We will take the kiddos again.



On the sidelines of building a joint multi-million dollar research program, the algae bubble paper is in press, we have set up two international grants for overseas collaborations, and we continue to build our team of scientists and engineers. The science and tech community in New England has welcomed us with open arms and we are very happy to be here.

We were a little desperate ten months ago. Now we are desperate again – for staff! Lauren will be returning to Scripps in August not for a conference or holiday, but to recruit graduates to full-time federal oceanographer positions. What a triumphant tour de force of her Ph.D!

This is part of a series chronicling our decision to leave DC and make a lifestyle move to Newport, RI. 

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s So Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Job, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

The Dual Science Job Hunt: Welcome to New England (Part 5)

“Newport has this way of enchanting you and making you fall in love with it.”


We arrived just in time for the coldest winter New England had experienced in over 100 years, although our proximity to the Gulf Stream protected us from some of the more serious snowfalls felt further north. Newport is a summer vacation town, and feels empty in the winter. In fact, Newport is America’s original resort town. When industry was sweeping across the Northeast, Newport decided that it didn’t want factories, it wanted to capitalize on it’s giant natural harbor and stunning beaches and be a recreational playground for the well-off. Downtown Newport is charming, and jam packed with local shops and restaurants. There are no high-rises, no roads with a speed limit over 45. Middletown has a few chain stores like Home Depot, then Portsmouth again has nearly all locally owned businesses. Mixed in are farms serving up fresh local eggs, strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins, cheese-making class, and goat yoga. There are polo fields with matches on the weekends, outdoor movie nights, and nearly every festival imaginable throughout the year. Newport really outdoes itself in the charming department, and we fell for it. I continue to be surprised by how much we like it here, and how many of the things we enjoy are available on the island. After Simon’s first visit, he summed Newport up as being like Auckland and Williamsburg having a baby, and the baby got most of the good features.


The beach, the rocky headlands, all of the varied coastline is stunning. While I waited for my official start date, I explored “the island” (Aquidneck Island – home to Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth. Aquidneck is the original Rhode Island) with the kiddos. We found seashells, watched waves from winter storms pound the rocks as we huddled in snow suits, and spotted an amazing variety of birds including snowy owls. We learned about beach bounce – the beach rotunda building used for events in summer filled with bounce houses in the winter. We started to make friends. We had one really good dumping of snow and all had an amazing time sledding. We went for a memorable walk in the blizzard on my birthday to see the snow falling on the ocean. Despite what sounded like a brutal situation, we were becoming enchanted with our little island.


The Beach House:

While we had committed to Rhode Island (NUWC had said Lauren would be sent an offer…), we were not certain we would be able to both work there. One thing we have learned is that until a signed piece of paper is in your hand, you don’t really have anything job-wise. To hedge our bets, Lauren had visited Rhode Island twice to interview at the University of Rhode Island and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

During one of those whirlwind trips, she took it upon herself to find a winter rental home where we could live until we had sold our home in D.C. and used that money to buy another house in Rhode Island. Seeing as it would surely only take a few weeks to sell our D.C. home (so wrong) we figured we would only need a six-month rental! Lauren found a little gem on Easton’s Point. About 100 meters from the most popular beach in Newport, the beach house on Crest St was the quintessential New England beach home, for better or for worse. Originally built in the 1920’s as a clubhouse, there had been at least two add-ons in the past, possibly converting the garage into another lounge, so that the house was almost two houses linked by a narrow hallway. Two bathrooms, two ‘kitchens’, and three bedrooms. It was small, it was incredibly dirty (four days of cleaning until the asthma and dust issues were under control), but there was a somewhat dry basement capable of swallowing all our stuff and the location couldn’t be beaten. The price was reasonable too, although we did not figure out why the electricity bill was $400 a month until month 4/6 (the baseboard heating in half the house was electric! We had mistakenly thought it was connected to the central heating system..).


Soon the house was filled with the sounds of playing children and people bumping into each other as they cooked a meal and simultaneously stood in the way of the front door. We will cherish our memories of Crest St, even though the doors did not shut and the roof was impossibly low in the guest bedroom that had been converted into a storage closet. We made a point to take the slightly longer route and drive down the beachfront road next to our house every time we came and went. Walks to the beach in all weather, including blizzards, were amazing. We enjoyed a Christmas visit from Peter and Lydia, who flew down from Ottawa. Our dear friends from Alexandria stopped by on their way to visit family in Massachusetts. Auntie Jenn came down a couple of times and visits from the grandparents were always very much appreciated. New friends from Newport came over for shared meals in our tiny kitchen. Too soon (or not soon enough, depending on the mood) it was time to leave – more permanent accommodation had been found in Naval Station Newport housing. More practical and less expensive, Naval station housing was the sensible choice. However, it was far from the beach. Not to worry, because plans were afoot that would make our first attempt at beachside living look amateur by comparison.


We hadn’t found a house near Newport yet, but the more we talked about it the more we were certain we wanted to stay on this island. April came and went, and by the time May arrived we were all ready for spring. Finally it showed up, later than usual but with such a bang. Everything was in bloom, trees and hedges dripping in flowers, green everywhere. Bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, and a whole new suite of birds. So many different types of flowers. “Our beach” was now flooded with people nearly every time we visited. The snack bar opened, the lifeguards were out, and much to Joey & Blake’s delight Del’s soft lemonade trucks were often on hand to offer up a Rhody classic. The boys had been swimming in the shallows since March with wetsuits (and sometimes their winter coats if I couldn’t stop them in time!), but by June it was warm enough to play in the waves and visit the deeper water. Most of our fellow beach-goers were tourists, who always said “you’re so lucky you get to live here.”

This is part of a series chronicling our decision to leave DC and make a lifestyle move to Newport, RI. 

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s So Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Job, New Home

Part 6: The Darkest House is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

The Dual Science Job Hunt: New State, New Job, New Home (Part 4)

We had decided to make a lifestyle move and after carefully comparing our three most serious options, we decided to move to Newport, Rhode Island. Now we had to prepare to leave our home in Alexandria, VA near Washington DC

Changing Jobs and Cities:

Lauren’s postdoc fellowship was up. We were now eating our emergency savings. Thank goodness Lauren had decided to set that up to the tune of 6 months salary. We burned it all and then some. We decided to keep the kids in preschool at the cost of about $2300 a month, to give them as much stability as we could. In turn, Lauren would prepare the house for sale and thus save some of the costs associated with staging. The market was hot and our realtor was confident. We would probably have an offer within the first week of listing! Our realtor was relatively inexperienced, our friend, and our neighbour. How foolish we were.

Listing our first house for sale was bittersweet, as we prepared to move north to Newport

As a side note, during this time, there was a Request For Information (RFI) issued by an office at DARPA. The request was about biological sound produced by underwater organisms and the utility that sound could provide for the Navy. Lauren and I responded and the program manager met us at NRL. Since Lauren was no longer employed there, she had to come in as a temporary visitor. We invited other people to meet the program manager with us. We gave her an enthusiastic presentation together, explaining our ideas about coral reef and other biological sound and the sensitivity of these animals to their environment. Although they were invited, no one else came to the meeting.

The Sale:

Packing with some help

After several months of packing, selling and preparation, the house went on market. Lauren was so excited, but then confused and scared that no one came to view the house in the first few days. Not much interest in the fall and few views is a normal thing, our realtor said. She reassured us and told us to hold tight for an offer soon. Weeks passed. We lowered the price. Took the home off market, put it back on. No dice. Lowered the price again. Every time someone came to view it was enormous trouble to clean up all the kid’s stuff and vacate the home for a couple of hours. Our realtor kept telling us the same things, but her look gave it away: a deer in headlights. She didn’t know what to do – she was incompetent and we only discovered that fact after she made the mistake of listing our home at the wrong time for too much money. She listed her own house, next to ours, while ours was still on market. It made her home look like a bargain. Hers went under contract in a couple of days. Ours ended up languishing for 5 months in a red-hot D.C. market where very similar homes were going under contract in a matter of days. She moved to the west coast, where she said she was going to become a realtor again. I wonder what will happen. Shortly before we left D.C., we cancelled her contract and contacted the realtor who we had purchased the home with, three years ago, Ali. He was a magician. He re-listed, removed all furniture, and got us under contract. The home sold for $45,000 less than the initial listing price. Had it not been on market for so long, we are certain it would have sold for closer to what we expected. Be wary who you hire as realtors.

The Move:

My program manager had been so kind as to fund me for the next year, and to send the funds ahead of time to Newport. I was to start on December 11th and we needed to set up our new home! The kids were sent to their grandparent’s home for a week. Lauren and I hired a truck and we began to pack. The plan was for her to drive one car, and for me to drive the truck with a trailer on which we would transport our second car. We only had the truck for a few days so the packing was intense. Friends came to help us box and load – very much appreciated. In the end, the truck was totally full. We had to leave our lawnmower, vacuum cleaner and TV behind! I wonder what the new owners thought of our stuff being left there?

Leaving the house for the last time was a sad and difficult moment for us. It was the first home we had ever bought. Many happy memories had been made there. Blake was born there. While the house had not been sold at that stage, we lost a lot of money (we were never reimbursed for our move, either) and moved away from dear friends. I will never forget Lauren getting into the car, tears in her eyes. Now we were being forced to move because of some short-sighted management at our old lab (not you, Greg, you were great). I always had faith that Lauren was declined unjustly, but I could never have imagined how much these people would be proven wrong in the coming months.

We completed the drive from Washington D.C. to Newport RI in one day. Due to delays, we left at around lunchtime. That meant an arrival in the small hours of the morning. The truck was almost certainly overloaded – the rear tires looked deflated, but tire pressure was high. What could we do to fix the issue? The clock was already ticking. We set off carefully. The truck weighed approximately 6 tonnes and carried at least another couple of tons behind in the form of a heavy, over-engineered twin-axle trailer holding a Subaru outback, packed to the gills and sporting a mattress on the roof. Incredibly, the truck was powered by a gasoline engine. Anywhere other than America and it would have been diesel. 10 hours of screaming V8 noise lay ahead. I recall foot-to-the-floor for several minutes at a time, getting up to highway speeds. Passing was an entertaining challenge. Trip highlights: A $115 toll through the New Jersey turnpike (I didn’t have enough cash, they still haven’t billed me). Rush hour traffic in New York City. The pleasure of cutting off an aggressive tesla that drove up the highway siding during said rush hour, and watching him wait for 5 minutes as I slowly crawled past. Parking in extra-large parking spaces at truck stops on the I-95. Driving for the first time over the Newport Bridge at night. Listening to the surf as we pulled up to our tiny beach batch: our home for the next six months.


This is part of a series chronicling our decision to leave DC and make a lifestyle move to Newport, RI. Read the rest here:

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

The Dual Science Job Hunt: What’s So Great About Newport? (Part 3)

August 2017: We had decided to make a lifestyle move and were deep in the process of researching, applying, and interviewing. We were seriously considering a couple of spots in California, but one east coast city kept popping up on our radar. 


It was now time for me to fly up to Newport to see the people at NUWC. Having met a keen scientist, Jason, from this lab in D.C. I was interested to see NUWC for myself as he painted a picture very different from the many other Navy labs I had seen. He depicted a place filled with young people, a burgeoning basic science and research group, a wonderful lifestyle and management willing to support their staff in whatever out-of-the-box thinking they were doing. Lauren had done some digging into school zones and cost of homes, the latter of which placed Newport solidly at the top of our three choices.

Eclipse shadows in the dappled light through tree leaves on that fateful August day in 2017.

I flew in on the day of the 2017 US eclipse, which became an important part of the interview process. I gave my talk in the morning, and was surprised to see Jason’s boss at the presentation. Senior management were interested in new hires? Strange. After meeting a bunch of friendly and foot-forward scientists, I was taken to lunch at the restaurant on base (!), which was located waterfront (!!). The eclipse began just as we drove back from lunch. People gathered outside NUWC to view it with some freely distributed cardboard glasses. While they watched the moon cover the sun, I saw something else amazing. The age distribution was homogeneous. Many young and old, and many in between. These groups also spoke to each other, like members of a “team”. Approximately 30% of the staff were female. What a contrast to the other places I had been, where old men dominated the payroll. I had briefly spoken to NUWC’s chief technology officer at NRL previously and he mentioned a big drive to hire young people had begun a few years ago. They had hired more than a thousand, and some were hired before a specific position had been found. That level of foresight at a Navy lab was incredible from my point of view.


Lauren’s resume had been circulated around and a phone interview was arranged for her while I was at NUWC. They issued her a verbal offer the next day. She called me after and said something like “I really hope you love Newport because I’m stoked to join this research group.” We had decided. (This was before Lauren actually visited Newport, which she had the chance to do in October to interview at two universities nearby. Apparently she really trusts my judgement). I described Newport to her as Auckland, New Zealand and Williamsburg, Virginia (our two home towns) having a baby that got nearly all of the good features. Of the three cities on the table for us, Newport had the best combination of work-life balance (amazing sailing, water activities), cost of living (Boston locality, but not Boston real estate), job security and positive working environment. We now had to figure out how to move there, the timing, how to pay for it, and what to do with the kiddos. We had also both visited in the summer/fall. We had never lived in the northeast. What was it going to be like in the winter?

This is part of a series chronicling our decision to leave DC and process of making a lifestyle move. Read the other parts here:

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

The Dual Science Job Hunt: California Called & We Want to Go Back (Part 2)

Spring/Summer 2017: We had decided to make a lifestyle move and were actively hunting for jobs. After what felt like ages of radio silence, we started getting (a lot of) feedback. We had promising opportunities in Monterey & San Diego and were about 90% certain we would be moving back to California. 


I traveled to Monterey again for a second interview at NPS. On Thursday night I sent Lauren’s CV to some people at NRL Monterey. Friday around noon (9am California time) Lauren’s phone starts ringing off the hook, culminating with an off the cuff interview with a branch head from NRL MRY who happened to be in DC on the same day. They were super excited about having a young scientist aboard, her work was relevant and fit well, and they explained they have had a hard time getting people to move to Monterey. It’s expensive and pretty isolated. The prospect of a young family with two science incomes was very exciting because the family would have enough income to afford an actual house! We would also probably love it there and want to stay, or in other words, they wouldn’t go to the effort of interviewing and hiring Lauren for nothing. We got pretty excited but tried to keep our other options open. In the end, it didn’t work for Monterey. I was offered a job at NPS, but it was only 25% covered rather than the 75% I was looking for. I would need to raise 75% of my salary myself and there would be no start-up assistance. The other job I interviewed for was much better (and almost impossible to come by – 75% hard money, light teaching load, and a federal position – people called it a unicorn job). But my lack of teaching experience really shone through during the interviews. Lauren has an interview scheduled for what seems to be a great job at NRL MRY, but ultimately I couldn’t say yes to coming up with so much of my own funding in such an expensive town. I turned NPS down and we closed our door to Monterey… for the time being. Long after this episode, at a scientific meeting, the folk from NPS approached me and informed me that the 75%-covered job was still open and asked if I was still interested. If only the stars had aligned!

San Diego:

It goes without saying that we have many happy memories in San Diego, so of course we jumped at an opportunity to return.

Joey got an ear infection and couldn’t go to school. We called Lauren’s mother at the last minute and she came up on the evening train to stay with him because the next day, we gave talks at NRL to visiting upper management from SPAWAR (the San Diego lab). We were effectively starting our interviews for San Diego at our current place of work, in front of the management who were choosing to let us go, who were simultaneously schmoozing our potential future bosses. It was a little weird. The San Diego people were great – enthusiastic about our interests and eager to help us both find a home at SPAWAR. We spend quite a bit of time, including a memorable airport dinner at Ben’s Chili Bowl, liaising with the SPAWAR folks in DC on Thursday and Friday. The irony that we were using her parents’ proximity to help us interview for jobs further afield did not escape Lauren. We wondered how San Diego would work.

Lauren and I both flew to San Diego separately for formal interviews at SPAWAR. It was July 2017. We were excited to catch up with old friends and PhD advisers, and to learn more about what the jobs would be like. When Lauren flew to San Diego, she was simultaneously eager to learn more about Newport (which she hadn’t visited yet, but I had been verbally offered a job there) and was stalling turning down the NRL MRY job as it had seemed extremely appealing. We realized that at this point we were much better at job applications, interviews, and job talks than we were when we started this roller coaster in January. SPAWAR had a different feel to NRL. We weren’t completely convinced that we could blaze our own scientific path in the fashion we wanted, although we were quite sure that the jobs were very good options. The interviews at SPAWAR go well, and living in San Diego with its ocean activities, glorious sunsets, many friends and colleagues, and abundance of burritos was tempting. Very tempting.

“Simon’s boss seems to have given up all hope of us staying and is telling people prematurely that we are moving to California. The increasing amount of red tape, frustration, and failed promises reinforces our decision to leave NRL DC. I talk to our realtor about selling our house.”

 This is part of a multi-part series on our dual job hunt and move – stay tuned and check out

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

The Dual Science Job Hunt: A Challenging Year (Part 1)

Things have changed a lot for us in the last 18 months. There have been some big ups and downs – emotionally, financially, and career wise. We’re lucky to have come out of it mostly on the up side, partly due to planning, partly due to luck, and in no small part due to the support of wonderful people who have helped us fight to keep our careers and find a place where the kids could grow up happily and safely.

We had built a happy life in DC, including local knowledge of all the best spots for kiddos and a strong network of dear friends. We weren’t excited to leave either of those things behind.

This story begins in Washington D.C., when we both worked at NRL. Lauren had won a research grant to go to Hawaii as part of the NASA HYSPIRI preparatory campaign and I finagled some of my fellowship funding to come along. Two things happened there. One, we discovered (along with Giacomo Giorli and Andy Haas) that algae make sound (accepted in PLoS ONE, watch this space!). Two, I discovered that Lauren’s boss wasn’t the best and did not think anything of her, as he told her to abandon the work she had been doing for the last two years and try to start afresh with six months remaining in her postdoc. For the record, she submitted the work to a peer reviewed journal and received a “publish with minor edits” response, first time around. There is another blog about that issue, but the consequence for us was that we were realized we would be leaving NRL / D.C. sooner rather than later.

I would need to walk away from a multi-million dollar research grant. One could consider that to be a difficult decision. While I liked my division and people in my lab, the decision was black-or-white for me. We had completed our PhD’s together, worked well together, and it was important for us that we remained as equals. It was in our best interests to fight anything that compromised that arrangement.

And fight we did. The search for an ideal solution to our two-body problem 2.0 began soon after we returned from Hawaii. All but the lowest hanging fruit from the data we collected were left on the tree. We submitted one paper but most of the data are still there, waiting. All our attention was now focused on solving the most difficult problem in science, again: how to find meaningful and interesting work for two Ph.D’s in the same geographic area and set up a nice life with a family.

We had an amazing time in Hawaii, and realized just how important family time and quality of life were for us as we thought about our long term plans

We discussed our most important filters and mapped out possibilities – we wanted to good jobs for both of us, good schools for the kids, a safe community to raise them in, and water access for recreation in the evenings and on weekends. There were a number of locations where these might all have been possible for us, and we both travelled extensively around the country to look for solutions. We considered other positions in the D.C. area. We interviewed at universities, private corporations and federal labs. Sadly, the timing was poor for academic positions: it was already March 2017 and universities typically open their applications for new faculty in the early winter, for faculty to begin teaching class the next September. People did not get back to us after initial enthusiasm. Some labs kept asking for copies of our C.V’s again and again. An excerpt from a diary Lauren kept is a great snapshot of the situation:

“April – We literally hear nothing from anyone. When we check in with folks in San Diego, they say they should know more soon. The hiring freeze is a problem for the San Diego jobs. I apply for a teleworking job in education technology.“

By June, we are oscillating through the roller coaster of applying for jobs – this is my dream job! I hope I get it! Think of all the cool things I could do at NPS! Wait, Monterey is really expensive. It is in the middle of nowhere. It’s far from everyone we know. NPS isn’t a traditional university. But wait – middle of nowhere is kind of nice, that’s what we were looking for. Check out the schools – they are amazing! We could give our family a great life here! I hope they hire us! Oh, they want to have me for an interview. I don’t have time for an interview…. So on, and so forth.

Giving our water babies a chance to grow up by the water instead of being weekend warriors was a huge driver for our search, and their joy and enthusiasm kept us going.

In the end, there were three serious candidate locations: San Diego, where a Navy lab (SPAWAR) were looking to hire, as was the University of San Diego. Monterey CA, where the Naval Postgraduate School were looking for new faculty and NRL Monterey were very excited about Lauren. Lastly, there was Newport, Rhode Island. I had met a scientist from NUWC (Jason) at a program review that year, who was interested in my bioinspired robotics work offered to circulate both our resumes at his lab.

Lauren was invited to Rhode Island to interview at the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. We love a lot of things about Rhode Island including the proximity of the two universities and NUWC. Both universities immediately offered Lauren a path to a soft money position (where she would have to raise all of her own money), and invited her up to give a seminar and talk about a more secure position. The possibilities were tantalizing and the little beach towns were quaint. Houses with a water view within walking distance to a beach cost about half of an average home in San Diego or Monterey. However, the big caveats here were that these ‘soft money’ positions were terrible. Not only do you have to raise your own salary, you need to pay overhead to work at the university! Paying to work? Perhaps an unsustainable model, academia. I hope everyone I know in soft money science survives and moves on quickly to tenure-track. Nevertheless, out of desperation, we interviewed for a number of soft-money university positions. They did not cut the mustard for us. Now that we have the kids, job security was an important priority.

This is Part 1 of a seven article series chronicling our job hunt and move – read the rest here:

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House


Women in Science: Marginalization is Subtle and Very, Very, Real.

I’m an oceanographer. Oceanography, ocean science, physical science – however you want to put it, it’s a male-dominated field. That never deterred me in the slightest, and I never felt that I was disadvantaged by being female. Until my postdoc. It took my awhile to wrap my head around the full story, but in hindsight I was severely marginalized and type-cast from the outset. It would have been the end of my career if it wasn’t for my own tenacity, the incredible support of my science husband (Simon), and my the professional network that I developed during graduate school.

 To My Fellow Women in Science & Tech – Do Not Get Stuck in the Girl Box

I graduated from Scripps Institution of Oceanography with a PhD – a stellar school. I left with a great resume and outstanding reference letters. After an intentional break for maternity leave, I started a postdoctoral fellowship at an institution that will remain nameless in this post. My two children* both turned one year old during my postdoc, during which time I published three first author peer-reviewed publications. I only published one in which I was not first author, which was with my science husband Simon (my husband). That’s your first clue that something was off.

It took nearly the entire three years of my postdoctoral fellowship for me to realize how badly I had been placed into the girl box. It was a subtle slide that started off with an unfortunate combination – my enthusiasm and willingness to help out, coupled with an institution where the predominant demographic is white men over age 50, and some stereotypical attitudes associated with that demographic.

How It Happened:

I arrived on the first day of my postdoc eager to meet my new colleagues and get started on my proposed scientific work. There were a variety of hurdles to cross to get my computer, get my computer on the network, software installed, trainings completed, etc. My advisor did not make any major efforts to introduce me to the other scientists aside from those in our immediate research group, so I wandered through the hallways and asked people for help with various technical issues (Do you know where I can get a copy of MATLAB?) and tried to learn about what they do.

It should have been clear within a few weeks that I was in danger. I was asked to help plan a baby shower for a colleague, which I responded to with an enthusiastic yes thinking it would help me get to know people. More concerningly, no one had any interest in talking to me about science. I would ask them and incorporate others’ work in mine, but the curiosity and collaboration was not reciprocal. They were vaguely interested in my proposed project and said things like “that will be a useful study”. In hindsight, I now see they really couldn’t have cared less about my dissertation work on coral reefs and climate change. They didn’t know my advisor or colleagues from graduate school. Everyone had their own project or task, and almost no one was interested in deviating from that task. I was on a fellowship, which sounds great, but what it really meant is that no one had any investment in me or reason to loop me in to ongoing projects and research groups. I was on my own.

At the baby shower, the other organizers and I received accolades on the event planning. Several people, including my new advisor, had indicated to me that my new place of work sorely lacked the type of social events and mixing of disciplines that my graduate school did well. I like event planning. I am good at it. But I made a mistake when I started advocating the idea of the chili cook-off, which my advisor had suggested I do. People were excited! They were finally talking to me! About chili, but still – it was a start that would surely lead to scientific discussion and collaboration in the future.

Let’s cut to the chase here. The chili cook-off was great – a huge success by all accounts. Everyone up my chain of command arrived, brought chili, and thanked me for organizing. In fact, everyone including my highest superior liked it so much that they asked me to do another cook-off. Except they didn’t want another chili cook-off next year – they wanted another cook-off in three months. And another after that. Three cook-offs a year for chili, barbecue, and pies. Help planning the Christmas party every December. Organizing baby showers and lunches. Organize an elaborate potluck dinner for visiting external reviewers and also please make dessert. I worked in a place with very few women, and very few young people, so I was an obvious choice to spearhead and help with all of these activities. At every one, my praises were sung for party planning skills and ability to bring people together. I felt I couldn’t say no. I had become the token young female event planner. I was asked by my advisor’s boss’ boss repeatedly and in person to plan these events “or else the holiday party may not happen.” (Read – this extremely busy man went out of his way to personally track me down to ask me to plan a party, but not to congratulate me on my recently funded grant or publication or anything else pertaining to my actual job description, nor to ask how my job was going.)

I was not without party planning help – but my help had been at this institution longer, and was far wiser to not invest too much time or enthusiasm in these activities. (My help also came solely from the young female demographic, and you’ve probably ascertained by now that there weren’t many of us in this particular research division). I burned out on it too over time. It wasn’t fun, and the time commitment snowballed. People kept asking for more social events, and events with greater complexity.

I love organizing and planning events, but if I wanted to be the party planner I would not have gotten a PhD in science and I certainly wouldn’t be applying for high level research and science jobs.

Things started to get ugly after about two years. I had written a proposal for funding which my advisor submitted on an idea that we came up with together, but heavily relied on my expertise in coral reefs. The proposal was funded! However, I was not offered a permanent job, even though there was now an obvious source of money to start paying me from and I had demonstrated an ability to pull in outside funding. Simon was more concerned than me, and pushed me to start applying for other jobs. Soon we were both fully entrenched in finding permanent science jobs – an exhausting process. The full details of our dual job hunt are a story for another day, but what you need to know is that we found pairs of jobs at a couple of places that represented a net improvement in work and quality of life for our family. We found those jobs without any help from either of our postdoc advisors or the chain of command at my postdoc. Instead, we did quite a bit of leg work on our own and relied on our extremely wonderful support system from graduate school and some folks at a funding agency, who came through for us in a big way on many fronts.

Without any support from my advisor, I published a peer-reviewed paper on my work as a postdoc. He told me in front of Simon to abandon the work after I had nearly finished, my first and so far only publication in a new field, but I submitted it anyway. It was accepted first go with minor revisions on the same day that my advisor’s boss’ boss, the same man who repeatedly gave me glowing accolades for bringing the division together, who told me with a straight face that he valued me immensely as a scientist and wished me all the best in my new position, who gave a sincere speech in front of others emphasizing that I should reach out to him for help if I ever needed it, notified me that he was uncomfortable providing reference letters for me for the faculty jobs I am currently applying for.

I am forgiving, and I give people the benefit of the doubt. Simon will say that I am far too forgiving and trusting. He has a point, because it actually took me the entire three years to realize that none of the folks I worked with ever valued or respected me as a scientist. They never had any intention of hiring me into a permanent position. They appreciated me organizing social events for them on my time, and thought I was a nice person. They were happy to give me an office and get credit for my publications and presentations when I was funded by a postdoctoral fellowship. They were happy to take the money I brought in. But I will go so far as to say that most of them pigeonholed me from the start as an idealistic young female that wanted to save the world, and to the subsequent conclusion that I was not a “real” scientist.

This is the trap. Simply by being an enthusiastic young female, if placed in a sub-optimal setting (and there are many – I now have a keen nose during job interviews), you risk being labeled as “not a serious scientist” and placed in the girl box. By being female, and particularly by being a younger female, you are at high risk of being asked to spend time performing historically female roles such as planning holiday lunches, which do not further your scientific career whatsoever. If you decline, people then think that you are both not that great of a scientist and mean. If you accept, you have to spend a bunch of time organizing events, and you’ve also given yourself a life sentence that significantly reduces the time available to you for your actual job.

It wasn’t obvious. I’ve heard stories from people involved in cruel or abusive relationships – everyone starts off with high hopes and good intentions, so it is harder to see the warning signs at the beginning – that remind me of the chain of events that occurred. Once you realize that you’re in trouble, you’re already in too deep. Let me be explicit that I did not experience anything at my postdoctoral position that would alarm an HR department or fall into the category of abuse or harassment. Rather, I realized over time that I had been marginalized, likely as a result of my demographic, which was harmful in the long term for my career.

I was naive. Our graduate school, Scripps, is a special place where most of the scientists and students are genuinely curious and want to hear about research outside of their area of expertise. Offering to help with social events is a good idea because lots of people do, so you not only meet the other people helping out, but you have more name recognition and a better chance of knowing your local expert on carbon chemistry or predatory plankton when you need them. I honestly thought that by instigating a few social events at my new place of work, I could foster that type of environment.

Experience as a student, postdoc, or professional scientist depends so much on the institution. I wish I had realized just how different attitudes are from place to place before I launched into my postdoc bright-eyed and expecting the same type of atmosphere I had recently graduated from at Scripps.

As much as I hate to say this, I am sharing my story as a cautionary tale. Avoid pigeonholes. Volunteer strategically. Learn to say no without being offensive. The more we do it, the more women in science will be seen as equals. Use caution when choosing a new workplace – entering a position where you are in an extreme minority is going to mean you have an uphill battle ahead of you. Really talk to other employees, especially more senior women (or more senior folks close to your demographic). Now I’m generalizing, but senior women have always been willing to take time to chat with me behind a closed door about the truths of working at a particular institution. I underestimated that battle in a big way. I hope that you learn from my mistake. I sure did.


* I have two small children. I do not think that being a mother played a major role in this story. The biggest thing that may have gone differently if we waited to have kids is that I would have been more willing to take one of the other postdocs I was offered, which were geographically further from Simon’s position but involved a more engaged group of scientists. I may have picked up on the issues described above sooner and been able to get out faster if I hadn’t been dealing with a newborn and associated concerns about job security.

Lessons From Malpelo: Patience


I now hear that word in my head almost daily, spoken with a soft Columbian accent.


Malpelo was a tough trip for me. It was expensive, both financially and in terms of time away from our kids. It came at a time when we didn’t have much spare money or time. We went anyway. And I arrived ready to make good on my investment and see some sharks. I asked the dive guide on the bus ride to the boat when we would see the schools of hammerheads.

Patience, he said.

The Yemaya at Malpelo, strongly listing to port.

We finally got to the boat in a lonely fishing town in Panama, and then waited for two hours before boarding so that we could clear Columbian customs.


We boarded the relatively uncomfortable and very top heavy Yemaya and steamed at 7 knots for 36 hours to reach Malpelo.


We went diving. The diving was OK. It wasn’t great (we are so spoiled with great diving, and it pains me to write the previous sentence, but that’s really what we thought). There were not schooling hammerheads or whale sharks. My enthusiasm waned with each dive.

Patience, said Juan. Patience.

We had seven days of diving planned. On days 1-3, we saw large schools of jacks, silky sharks, and a few Galapagos sharks. The diving was OK (I know. Spoiled). On the night of day 3, I gave up. I commiserated with other passengers that weren’t super wowed with the trip. I accepted that we had spent more money than I wanted, and that we may not see the iconic schooling hammerheads. I resolved to make the best of my time with Simon disconnected from the rest of the world.

On day 4 dive 1, I was visited by my aumakua (Hawaiian guardian spirit), an oceanic manta ray, when I was the only diver left in the water aside from our dive guide.  On dive 2, we saw a whale shark. After dive 3, we snorkeled with schools of silky sharks numbering more than a hundred. The ocean answered. We saw hammerheads too – far in the distance, but we saw them.


On days 5 and 6, we got closer. We saw more hammerheads. We saw one large school, but couldn’t get too close. They stayed just out of sight. On day 6 we completed four dives instead of three, because we had to leave early on our last day so that the crew could repair a generator that failed before they set off with their next charter. Day 7 would have only two dives.


On the last dive of the last day, we splashed into a school of hundreds of hammerhead sharks. They made space for us to descend to a small rocky reef, and closed in around us on all sides. Walls of hammerheads. Hammerhead silhouettes blocking out the sun. When finally our group neared their time limit at depth, we swam towards them. Hammerheads above, hammerheads below. This used to be the norm at Malpelo. Now, it is a phantom sight that not all visitors get to see.


We returned home from Malpelo at peace. We had both remembered our priorities in life, and realized that we needed some serious adjustments in our day to day life. More patience. Less rushing. More letting things be. Less stress.


I have never been patient (my family are laughing by now at this post). Quite the opposite. For that reason alone, the trip to Malpelo was worth it to me. We’ve just put our first home, our dearly beloved house in Alexandria that Joey has grown in and Blake came home to, on the market for sale. I’ve arranged for everyone to be away from the house for the first week so that people can come and view it. Day one – not a single person has scheduled a showing yet.

In the back of my head, I hear a soft Columbia accent.


I’m holding out for days 4 and 7.


Malpelo Island

Malpelo Island.

We were in a strange situation. Malpelo Island is hallowed ground for many divers. A “once in a lifetime” sort of place, a mecca for shark diving. The Columbian government will be closing Malpelo at the end of the year to charters that operate from outside of Columbia, or all the reputable operators to put it another way. We should have been super excited. But the timing of the trip could have been better. The only places left on any charter of the year were on dates that meant we would miss Joey’s 4th Birthday. Unbeknownst to us when we booked, the trip would also happen during the middle of intense job hunting by both of us, trying to solve the two-body problem after we had made the decision to leave Washington D.C.

So, at the risk of sounding impossibly spoiled, we weren’t sure we wanted to go on this trip. We are still not sure if it was the right decision, even though the kids had a great time with their grandparents for a couple of weeks and Malpelo lived up to its reputation for us.

We are still uncertain, but I figured it would be worthwhile to write a post and let you decide whether it was worth leaving the kids and a job situation in flux for a couple of weeks, just to visit a lonely rock 500 km off the coast of Columbia…


No traffic here…

Malpelo island is an old volcanic core that rises from a solitary undersea volcanic ridge in the eastern tropical Pacific. Surrounded by deep water, this area of the ocean does not offer up many islands. One has to travel a long way from Malpelo to get to land – Columbia is around 500 km away and Panama even further. 600 km to the north west lie the Cocos islands and to the southwest the Galapagos islands, both more well-known and far more frequented. The isolation of Malpelo is part of its appeal for us – difficult to get to, relatively undisturbed and no boat/scuba traffic (the Columbian government severely limits the number of boats that can visit). Malpelo is famous for one thing: sharks. Type in “Malpelo Island” on google image search and you’ll see massive schools of hammerheads circling over some lucky photographer. While you can see hammerhead schools at Cocos and Galapagos, the schools of silky sharks and the reliability of the hammerheads are two more reasons why we made the effort to come out to Malpelo instead of Cocos.

There are few reliable and safe operators that take divers to Malpelo. A recent set of diving fatalities, where divers were swept away by strong currents and died adrift, underscored our desire to charter a reputable operation (the Columbian group responsible for the dead divers didn’t alert authorities until someone else did, then did not have sufficient fuel to search for their missing party…).

After some time searching, we came across the Yemaya – a Panamanian boat with a great reputation. We booked with Ed Stetson out of UCSB and headed down to Panama City. Ed’s group of divers were unusual. All seasoned folks and no yahoos. We were humbled – everybody was unique in some way. A surgeon, a charter boat owner, a financial analyst based out of NYC, a successful real estate developer, the world editor of dive magazine. Everybody turned up with dive alerts (pneumatic whistles), 2 m long inflatable safety buoys, signal mirrors, signal strobes and Nautilus lifelines (AIS-based VHF position transmitters). No corners were being cut in terms of safety – becoming lost would mean being set adrift in the open ocean with no one but the others aboard your boat to rescue you.

After a four-hour bus ride from Panama City we arrived at a dinky old river port in the jungle. The muddy tide was running too low, so we cleared customs, loaded all our bags on to the dive tenders and drove out 45 minutes to the river mouth where the Yemaya was waiting. She was all that we needed, and some more we could have done without. Yemaya had her own water maker, air conditioning, nitrox bank for rapid filling, a substantial oxygen bank, two screws and three generators (5 engines total) and a wonderful crew of Panamanians who loved their jobs. She also had a slight list to port, a very high centre of mass and a vibrant population of giant tropical cockroaches. This was going to be a trip to remember.

From the river, it was a 36 hour transit over open water until we came to Malpelo: a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean. For the next 7 days, we did not see another vessel.

Diving Conditions

There are many similarities between diving Malpelo and other offshore islands, like the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, the Brothers Islands in the Red Sea or La Perouse rock at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI. Imposing cliffs and no beaches. Nesting seabirds. Deep drop-offs. Raging ocean currents that bring in the big schools but also threaten to remove your mask upon a sideways glance.

However, Malpelo differs in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is truly in the deep ocean. There is no fringing reef, nor does it occasionally receive licks of a coastal current and day fishers certainly don’t make it out here. Consequently, real ocean-going animals can be seen. Wahoos were the first sign. Then came bonito schools and big, fat yellowfin tuna. Ascents and safety stops in bottomless blue water were the norm and rather than being a featureless and boring affair, there was always the anticipation that at some point a large and majestic creature would materialize out of the blue. Sometimes it was a giant oceanic manta. More often it would be sharks.

The Sharks of Malpelo

The magic of Malpelo is made by the truly impressive number of sharks that migrate to and from, and live around the island. Hammerheads, Galapagos and Silky sharks are the main species seen here but there are also occasional sightings of ocean-going blacktip sharks and “el monstruo” or a rare species of sand tiger, which is usually only seen during the winter. Contrary to what you may think, sharks are a good sign. The first part of an ecosystem that is removed when humans encroach is the top of the food chain – it’s easy to catch sharks and their fins are valuable to unscrupulous Chinese. Next to go are the big fishes – the tunas, wahoos and big snappers. The cascade that results from their removal fundamentally changes the entire ecosystem and reduces it to an alternate stable state: the prey population explodes, meaning their food sources (coral, algae) are depleted, leading to barren reefs that can’t protect juveniles so no recovery can take place. That is a story that has played out all over the world, but has not yet destroyed Malpelo.

In fact, the ecosystem remains so intact at Malpelo that you can witness inter-species teamwork on a grand scale. Anecdotal evidence suggests this kind of behaviour used to be common everywhere, but the depletion of predators has all but eliminated observations of this kind: Picture a reef filled with many small fishes swimming about and grazing on plankton. All of a sudden: pandemonium. A large school of leather bass (groupers) hundreds strong, blue fin trevally and moray eels arrive quickly and purposefully on the scene. Small fish dart everywhere, trying to escape by finding small holes in the reef. The morays are able to squeeze in to these tight spots and eat/flush the fish out – straight into the mouths of the leather bass, waiting just outside. If some make it past the bass, they succumb to the blue-lined jacks waiting right behind. We witnessed these ‘gangs’ attacking reef fishes on a daily basis and we could get very close – the predators were so focused on getting a meal they seemed oblivious to us taking photographs from just centimetres away!

An incredible cloud made of thousands of enormous mullet snapper, Lutjanus aratus, at Malpelo. The ball is perhaps 60 m across.

Another thing that can be seen here and perhaps nowhere else are the numbers of mullet snapper. These predatory fish are large – about 1.5 m in length and 40 kg or more. They can be solitary but sometimes assemble in schools. At Malpelo, ‘schools’ doesn’t really describe the size of these aggregations. ‘Cumulonimbus cloud’ was the first thing that came to mind when we saw them. Untold thousands. Each an impressive creature, but together an almost prehistoric scene. The school wasn’t a spawning aggregation or some special event – the snapper frequent a particular reef next to the island every day.

Galapagos and Silky sharks could be seen on the reef and in open water. They were very curious and non-threatening. We spent many hours diving and snorkelling with these inquisitive creatures.

One more good sign is that the sharks are naturally curious – they aren’t wary of people. With the exception of hammerheads, which are a notoriously flighty species, sharks at Malpelo will approach you with a genuinely inquisitive demeanour that is so obviously unthreatening you’re embarrassed you ever considered them dangerous. The feeling is exactly the same as when you are approached by a strange yet friendly dog in the street. Relaxed and languid movements, a preoccupation with the surrounding fishes, casually sniffing out potential morsels under rocks on the reef, all within arm’s reach. The feeling remains the same even when surrounded by a school of silky sharks in open water, miles from the island.

Snorkelling with a large school of silky sharks miles from the island in open water was one of the highlights of the trip.


One thing that stood out to us almost immediately was that while we were at Malpelo, the hammerheads were going to remain very shy. The dive guides tell us that five years ago, schools of hundreds could be approached almost by accident. You know they’re there because you’ll occasionally see them at the edge of visibility – their wing-shaped head and large dorsal fin are unmistakable. But they never willingly came close. Our time at Malpelo quickly became an effort to get as close to and see as many of these elusive creatures together as possible. We were eventually able to get fairly close to hammerheads coming in to a cleaning station to be groomed. Divers would settle on a rocky ledge and remain still and low, breathing smoothly and making as little noise as possible. Eventually, they would come up from the depths, replete with little butterflyfish picking parasites off their skin. One mistimed strobe flash or careless move would send the nervous animal bolting back to the depths. Patience and timing paid off: Lauren (who uses much less air than I do) was eventually able to get some great photos of these very special animals.

The classic image from Malpelo is of giant hammerhead schools circling overhead, reminiscent of those old photos of enormous bison herds or clouds of passenger pigeons, now long extinct. This kind of hammerhead photo is very hard to take, especially on open circuit scuba, because of 1) the noise you make and b) rising bubbles in the frame. We learned that in order to witness these majestic schools, and to photograph them, many cards had to fall in our favour. In fact, we were only able to witness truly schooling hammerheads on the morning of our last day. The factors in our favour then were: 1. Early morning before other divers. 2. A strong current that bought the schools to a reef and swept our bubbles away behind us. 3. Rough weather meaning our bubble noise was obscured by wave noise. 4. A deep reef with nothing overhead. 5. A shallow thermocline that compressed the available warm water overhead.


In stormy open water, we descended without a line to a barnacle covered rock at 31 m, where the temperature dropped from 27 C to 15 C and the current was roaring. We became part of the reef. Slowly they appeared overhead, first in small numbers but then in their hundreds. They could be seen cavorting and displaying to each other, languidly cruising in mid water. They seemed oblivious to the freezing, breathless divers below, desperately trying to focus their cameras on the silhouettes above. I didn’t need to try to be quiet – at some point I realised I had been holding my breath for a minute or so (not recommended on scuba). It was worth the pounding headache. We hope our kids can see this one day.

Schools of giant, shy creatures silhouetted against the morning sun.
What we came to see.

love, life, and adventures of an ocean science family

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