All posts by sfre033

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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. 

Newport:

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.

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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.

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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: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Malpelo Island

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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…

Malpelo

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

Hammerheads

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.

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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.

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

Taking a toddler on the Inca trail

The Inca trail can’t really be described as easy, but it is still possible to enjoy the trail while taking your toddler with you.

The trail involves approximately 42 km of walking over four or five days. “Less than a marathon!” you say, but this distance measure does not take into account 1) the altitude and 2) the significant elevation changes over the walk. As an example, day two involves a continuous ascent from 3000 m (9000 ft) to 4200 m (13,000 ft), followed by a descent to 3600 m (11,000 ft). That said, the key to happily completing the trail is to avoid overexertion and take regular breaks. Once you’ve pushed too hard and have fallen into the realm of altitude sickness, it is hard to come back.

We did not see any other small western children on the trail. The youngest walkers we saw were probably about 10 years old. We also noticed that most people who were hiking the trail were either young (i.e., in their 20’s) or older (i.e., over 50). The purpose of this blog post is to encourage the people in between – with young families – to take part in this kind of adventure. Done right, everyone can have a great time and your kids will have a great experience. It is my view that a safe childhood lacking in adventure is a sure path to dullness and mediocrity. Some discomfort and acceptable risk in return for unforgettable experiences can provide memories from which strength of character can be drawn for the rest of their lives.

It is important to firmly have in mind that this kind of trip is very different to one where you and your partner and/or friends visit some exotic adventure destination for wild times and late-night drinking. A multi-day excursion with a toddler is the same anywhere – it is an exercise in time management and in prioritising the happiness and sleep schedule of the child. The fact that this occurred over the Inca trail and in Machu Picchu was almost irrelevant to the happiness of the family. As most parents are well aware, a well-slept child is a child more able to handle an unpredictable schedule and moments of boredom. Sleep is the number one priority.

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Joey in the Osprey ‘Poco Premium’, which is priced like it’s made of gold, but is also worth its weight in gold.

We carried Joey in an Osprey ‘Poco premium’ baby backpack carrier. This expensive but quality piece of kit was probably the one item we had that contributed most to our happiness (with “Pete the Cat goes to the Beach” by James Dean a close second).  The Poco was designed so well that Joey was comfortable sitting in it for hours. So comfortable in fact that he napped in it during the middle of the day, every day. The gentle rocking of his carrier laboring up steep stairs was enough to have Joey nod off and the Poco did a satisfactory job of holding his body so that he would remain comfortably asleep. This benefit alone meant that whoever was carrying Joey could keep up with the group, who would not be willing to stop for several hours in the middle of the day while Joey napped. In fact, stopping was almost always a bad idea during this time. The cessation of rocking almost always lead to Joey waking prematurely and being grumpy for the rest of the day.

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Spectacular views were the norm. We are happy to report that this toddler had some sense of self preservation near large drop offs.

During the hike, Joey spent his wakeful hours partaking in a combination of the following:

  1. Eating snacks, preferring ‘Peru crackers’ a.k.a. oreos (which we learned are vegan, strangely).
  2. Drinking water from his bottle.
  3. Playing with his toy car, which was run back and forth along the drool pad in front of him.
  4. Looking at the scenery, trees and hummingbirds.
  5. Reciting stories.
  6. Calling for mummy/daddy and asking to be let down.

While nap time called for continued walking, regular breaks during wakefulness in which Joey was released from his carrier and could walk around were probably critical to him remaining in good spirits during his stints in the Poco.

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The ‘Glamp’, complete with yoga mat.

Camping on the Inca trail with a toddler was made considerably easier by the fact that it wasn’t really camping at all. Upon arrival at a campsite, the porters had already set up the tents and the chefs were busy making dinner. “Glamping” is the more appropriate term to describe this scenario. Given that the parents did little to no work in meal preparation and setting up the tent/bedding, putting Joey to bed was fairly easy.

One challenge was the lateness of dinner. As the porters had to build the kitchen every night, as well as make dinner, the meal was not ready until around 8pm – after Joey’s bedtime. He was bought to dinner a couple of times but his tiredness and irritability did not go over well with tired parents and other hikers. Eventually, the schedule was changed so that he was given an early dinner and sent to bed before the adults were fed. That way, everyone could eat in peace while the toddler regained the sleep time that was lost with the early (4-6am) starts.

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Unique encounters with nature were a highlight on this trail.

Inside the tent, care was taken to ensure Joey did not sleep on the floor. Previous experience had taught us that in a cold climate, the floor of a tent is very cold as there is no ground insulation. While a cold floor could be mitigated by an air mattress, the air against the walls of the tent cools and then pools on the floor. A back-sleeping adult typically lies with his or her nose and mouth above the coldest of this air, but a small child – who often sleeps on their front and does not possess nearly as much thermal mass – will be affected greatly. To avoid the chill, Joey slept on a collapsible child stretcher that raised him about 100 mm off the ground. While he sometimes rolled off his little platform in the middle of the night (and on to me) he remained fairly warm and comfortable even when the temperature dropped below freezing and/or he struggled out of his sleeping bag, which he disliked intensely.

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Joey in the Poco with his parents at the “Sun Gate” – the entrance to Machu Picchu, when arriving via the Inca trail.

It is interesting to note that while westerners think of taking a toddler on this trek as a challenge, the locals who live on the trail – far from any road – raise their kids here without porters, expensive compostable nappies or fancy baby backpacks. As far as we could tell, these people were extremely happy. I suppose difficulty is all a matter of perspective.

Joey had a great time on this walk and so did his parents. A couple of other parents on the trail mentioned to us that they would have liked to bring their children along. I wondered why they did not. Sure, the additional complexity is a burden, but that is the nature of raising children. I started to adopt a different point of view about these things which went something like: “If your child is amenable to this kind of thing, you could say you have a responsibility to do it. Not because you can, but because others either cannot, did not think of it, or thought it too difficult. Show by example that such a thing is possible, and that far from being just a burden, it is also a pleasure”.


Backcountry 4th of July Sale

Hawaii – top picks from our 5 month odyssey

After spending almost half a year in the Hawaiian Islands we’re on our way home! We’re excited to be back in San Diego with good friends, an apartment we can call our own, and reliable Mexican food…but we’re still sad to say goodbye to the Hawaiian Isles…for now.

Now that we have the luxury of hindsight we thought we’d write about our favourite experiences in the main Hawaiian Islands.  If you’re ever thinking about paying a visit,   maybe these places will be just as fun for you?

Oahu

Surprisingly good hiking: out the back of Niklas’ house

Honolulu was perhaps our least favourite place in the Hawaiian Islands (but still very nice). The melange of third-world squalor and ultra-trendy tourist hotspots detracted somewhat from the idyllic beaches and spectacular views from Diamond Head. That said, there were some great experiences we had here, both on and off the beaten path. The most unbeaten path was the hike from the back of Niklas and Sharon’s house, where we were staying.IMG_8369

Honolulu and Waikiki Occupy a narrow strip of relatively flat volcanic rock between the ocean and a steep mountainous ridge, formed as erosive forces cut away at the volcanic cone that initially created Oahu. Walk inland a couple of miles from the beach and you’ve gained about 200 feet elevation. Walk a couple more and you’re at more than 2000 feet. Such is the steepness of the mountains behind Honolulu. The houses stop at the line between habitable land and steep mountainsides. Incredible wilderness beckons beyond.IMG_8477

The Schneider residence is right at the edge of the jungle. Walk inland and you’re instantly amongst groves of strawberry guavas and mountain apples. A steep and poorly maintained track winds through the trees and up ridges, climbing all the way to the top of the chain of peaks behind the city. A glorious view awaits atop the cloud-shrouded mountains. Honolulu city is but a small inhabited region to the South. The reclaimed land around Pearl Harbour and Pearl city are visible to the west. Facing North, Kaneohe bay and the “windward side” is visible beyond an immense precipice. It appears so shear that it seems you could lose 2000 ft in altitude by just stepping off the ledge. Luckily, most of the time the wind is so strong you couldn’t really fall off by accident!IMG_8470

Haleiwa and Aoki’s shave ice

Haleiwa is a quaint surf town on the North Shore of Oahu that still feels reminiscent of big wave films like North Shore.  It was the first place we visited on our journey that really felt like Hawaii, and it is a great way to get out of the city.  Near Haleiwa we enjoyed excellent diving and snorkelling, the Dole Pineapple Plantation, and Sunday afternoon polo by the beach, complete with live music. The gem of Haleiwa town, however, is Aoki’s shave ice.  This is the second best shave ice we had in all of Hawaii, and is probably the best for ambience.  The shop doesn’t appear to have changed much since its inception 50 or so years ago, the ice is fluffy soft and melts in your mouth, and the array of flavours is excellent.  This was one of our favourite places to go after working (or fun!) dives.

Kaena point from the south side

During a scouting trip around the southwest side of Oahu, we decided to drive as far as we could to the West. We drove past electric beach and continued northwest. Eventually, we got to Kaena Point state park – the westernmost part of the island. We heard that one could walk all the way to the end of the point, but we did not (not a suitable hydrophone deployment site). However, just the ocean conditions at Kaena were very interesting. Past the last beaches, the shoreline was made of rough volcanic terraces. The water seemed exceptionally clear – its often very calm on the leeward side of the island, and Kaena Point park is on the inside of an “L” shaped portion of coastline. There didn’t seem to be any rivers to mess up the visibility and not many buildings to speak of. It looked like a fantastic place to dive, although we never got the chance (we deployed our gear at electric beach instead – one hour’s drive instead of two). We’d like to go back and dive Kaena one day, especially now that Simon has seen so many youtube videos of giant Uluas taken in those parts!

Marukame Udon

Search yelp for ‘cheap dinner’ in Waikiki Beach, and this shop is one of the first to come up.  Nearly 5 star average with hundreds and hundreds of reviews, we figured it must be good.  The concept is simple and executed perfectly.  Thick Japanese wheat noodles (udon) are made fresh on one side of the tiny kitchen.  They follow an assembly line from being rolled out and cut, to being placed in individual serving sizes, to being added to broth of choice.  Every time we went we waiting in a 20-50 minute line out the door, and it was always worth it.  It is always fun to watch your food being made, and although simple, the udon was delicious.  You could buy tempura fried eggs, seafood, and vegetables to add to the soup.  Even with that, we never spent more than $10 each. Excellent when you’ve just lost a $360 set of rental car keys.

Kauai

Kalalau trail

IMG_8765This was certainly the best nature hike (with the exception of the lava hike on the Big Island, which was more about the lava) we did during our stay in Hawaii. The Kalalau trail is 11 miles each way through steep cutbacks and dense jungle and a full day’s work if you plan to do the return walk straight away. IMG_8737The terminus is at Kalalau bay – a surreal place that really evokes the fantastical meaning of the word “Paradise”. IMG_8785The mountainous surroundings are difficult to believe unless seen: Giant, unbelievably thin spires and sheets of rock rising more than 3000 ft from the ocean covered in lush green jungle and roaring waterfalls cascading down their sides. No wonder many people out here basically live “off the grid” – camping out for months at a time, growing their own food, living an idyllic lifestyle. Clothing optional. Simon and Rob Grenzeback made the walk out and back in a day, but regretted not staying. Next time we’re in Kauai, we’ll be sure to bring a tent!

Tunnels beach

Imagine a calm tropical beach with white sand and palm trees. Imagine wading into the water and snorkeling over corals from about waist deep. Swim out to sea about 50 m and witness the coral reef disappear from beneath you as you swim over an underwater precipice overlooking deep blue water. Such unusual bathymetry exists at Tunnels beach, but why the odd name? Dive down the underwater cliff and discover the massive underwater caves that reach far back into the cliff. Swim inside and observe snorkelers through the small holes in the ceiling. The underwater caves at tunnels beach are ancient lava tubes, formed when liquid rock flowed through and cooled from the outside-in. Once the flow stopped, the hot stuff in the middle flowed out to leave a hollow tube. Local divers say that some of these tubes go back under the beach, under the houses by the beach, and out under the road! Amazing stuff, but we didn’t dare go back too far without cave reels and lights.

Terry Lilley and Hanalei

IMG_4122We met great characters on every island, but Terry takes the cake for us. Without him we couldn’t have done much on Kauai – the dive store owner recommended we dive only one site on the entire island! We desperately needed local knowledge if we were to find worthwhile sites at which to do our work. Terry was our man – he’s done more than 1000 dives around Kauai and is out almost every day. Terry calls himself a marine biologist and is not affiliated with any university.  Many people discredit him as he ‘only’ has an undergraduate biology degree. This is truly a sad thing, because Terry is more passionate about the ocean than 99% of the “marine biologists” we have ever met. Having known all three, we would put terry in the same basket as people like Lisa Levin and Paul Dayton.

Terry showed us how to dive Tunnels beach – ripping currents can take you away here if you’re not careful. He also dove Ahukini jetty with us, showing us how to avoid the strong swells that almost constantly bash that place. His emphasis was safety but not at the sake of adventure and scientific appropriateness. We’re indebted to Terry for helping us so much and hopefully we can meet up again…if he’s still around, that is. Terry and other residents of Hanalei (of “the descendants” movie fame) are fighting a big housing development that’s planned for the bay. The developers are extremely disliked by the locals, but official corruption on Kauai (which, when compared to the lawless Western U.S. of the 1800’s, isn’t so different in some regards) and other factors are driving the plans forward. Fearing the worst for the marine environment, Terry is an outspoken critic of the plans and local officials. Presently Terry is apparently recovering from having his arm broken. We hope things stay small in sleepy Hanalei.

Maui

The best shave ice (Ululanis)

Hands down the BEST shave ice in Hawaii can be found at Ululani’s on Maui.  We tried a whole lot of shave ice during this trip, and the unbelievably fluffy texture here could not be matched elsewhere.  The syrups were made from real fruits and had few ingredients, and were kept at a frosty temperature to keep them from disrupting the texture of the ice.  You must go if you are on Maui!

Nu’u bay diving – our favourite in the MHI

IMG_9162The best place we reckon we dived over the entire main Hawaiian Island chain is Nu’u Bay on the southeast side of Maui. The combination of extremely clear water, remoteness, relative sheltwe from the trade-wind induced swell, position on the flank of Haleakala, and excellent marine life made this place #1.  Nu’u was a challenge to get to by car along the lesser-known southern road to Hana.IMG_9240  The road is not always paved and most of it is one windy lane.  The real trick comes at the end, when we had to identify the correct gate along the road (which is never locked), open it and drive through, and navigate down a rocky drive that would have been moderately difficult for a 4wd.

Simon insists that our Honda Odyssey can offroad with the best of them.  It proved itself yet again on the gravel access to Nu'u Bay today
Simon insists that our Honda Odyssey can offroad with the best of them. It proved itself yet again on the gravel access to Nu’u Bay.

Our Honda Odyssey was barely up to the task but we only managed to get it stuck once.  Bring planks of wood to use as leverage. Other times we elected to remove heavy items like scuba tanks and carry them to keep the ground clearance as high as it could be.  We never saw more than one local fisherman at Nu’u, despite gorgeous views, a pristine black sand beach, and unbelievable diving and snorkelling.

Jaws

The north shore of Maui is famous for big wind and big waves. Some days we would see more than 60 kitesurfers and 40 windsurfers in the same bay. We sat there and counted the kites/sails in amazement. The steady alongshore trades and onshore swells make conditions ideal for fast sailing and wave carving, which looks extremely fun.

Along the “road to Hana” on Maui’s northeast side is a reef that only breaks when giant storm-driven swell from the Aleutian Islands of at least 25 ft in height rolls in. When these big waves arrive, they strike this deep reef in such a way that amplifies the breaking wave and creates the famous break known as “Jaws”. Although we didn’t witness the break under the right conditions, we had our own adventure driving out to one of the headlands overlooking the break. A search on google maps showed us that there was a dirt road that lead to this headland. We parked right where the turnoff on the satellite image was…and didn’t see it. The entire road had been overgrown with sugarcane. It was gone, but another dirt road a little way down the road appeared promising, so we took it. Some way down, we came across a burnt-out truck parked across the road with no wheels. It looked like it had been placed there deliberately, so as to keep people out. However, other vehicles had bravely forged a path around the truck, which we followed without questioning the abilities of our Honda Odyssey one bit. Soon the track became rutted to a level Simon would call “significant”. Our only hope was to keep the wheels out of the ruts, the depth of which now greatly exceeded the ride height of our minivan.  Some problems arose when the ruts criss-crossed, but aided by the fact that the clay on which we were driving was dry (and therefore not slippery) we managed to fight our way to the end of the road. We drove on to a verdant green pasture of coastal grass that ended abruptly at a cliff overlooking the ocean. Some locals were hanging out and had recently deployed a kite, from which they were about to hang what looked like an entire eel affixed to a 12/0 hook. “Big Ulua” was their reply when we asked what they were going for. Penn International reels showed they were serious: Ulua are very powerful fish. The coastline was rugged but the ocean was an inviting clear blue. Giant boulders could be seen strewing the bottom. Simon imagined them teeming with lobster. Swell pounded some nearby offshore reefs but “Jaws” was too deep to create white water in this weather. This looked like a fantastic place to dive, but even Simon conceded that the cliff walk down to the beach was “a challenge”. Several rickety iron stakes were hammered into the crumbling cliff face. A series of ropes were tied to them, allowing you to semi-abseil down the “path”. In an effort to check out the path, Simon discovered that the ‘ropes’ were in fact either garden hoses or scrap wire. It might be possible to get down the cliff with scuba gear, but a safer option would probably be to either A) bring your own rope ladder or B) go elsewhere (which we did, to Maliko Gulch).  Later, we talked to some local spearfishers who spoke of occasionally having to pay the fishing tax in this area. The currency was usually fish that had just been speared and the taxman usually wore a grey suit…

Big Island

Best dive shop – Sandwich Island Divers.

The kayak fits in very well with our rented Avalon.
The avalon at Sandwich Isle divers.

We encountered the same challenge with every new island: find a dive store that would lend us lots of tanks, cheap! Our place in Honolulu was great at $5 per filled tank per day but the signs on their front door telling us how Obama was destroying their business made the place feel strange. The only dive shop on Kauai that would rent us tanks was great, but at $7 each they weren’t cheap and we felt sad when the owner told us we should only attempt to dive one place on the island.IMG_0093 Luckily he gave us Terry’s contact details. The place on Maui was inexpensive (only $4 per tank!) but the owner was gruff and seemed to like the female component of the team much more than everyone else.

So, when we arrived on the Big Island we expected the usual pros-better-than-cons deal. Calling around, few dive stores seemed equipped to deal with us. “$10 a tank, as many refills of that tank as you want” was one reply.IMG_0314 We explained we didn’t want to drive an hour each way just to fill up but no luck. Others didn’t call back or have enough tanks. Then we found ‘Sandwich Isle Divers’ in Kona, owned by the Myklebusts. They knew what we needed and were very accommodating, even allowing us to store our kayak at their store. So we found it, “best dive store in Hawaii” – from people who actually went through dive stores over the entire archipelago.

Kalapana lava walk – coolest non-dive activity

IMG_0845Search “Volcanoes national park” on the web and you’ll get all sorts of images of spectacular lava flows, giant eruptions, and people standing right next to flowing lava! Visit and the story is very different. Red tape everywhere, no approaches to lava allowed (unless you pay $200pp for a chopper ride, that is). IMG_6793 Safety rules over excitement and experience. The only lava scene visible is the overlook of Kilauea caldera, where you can see the reflection of red light from lava on the steam and smoke billowing out. Boooring! Go to Kalapana, where you can walk a couple of miles and stand next to real flowing lava on public land, outside the park! One small caveat – you can save about 3 hours walk by paying some locals $100 to walk over their private land. Is it worth it to you? It was to us.IMG_6850  This is how we ended up going with ‘Kalapana Cultural Tours’ – an outfit that takes tourists to the lava. This company is unique because they operate out of the “Hawaiian Nation” – a group of native Hawaiians trying to reclaim the islands as a republic/monarchy. Simon thought they actually have a strong case: there was a documented military takeover, it was against the will of the locals, no compensation has ever been negotiated. Maybe the NZ Maoris and their treaty lawyers should get together with the Hawaiians?IMG_0907

Anyway, after a walk over some land that was younger than us, we got to the fantastic lava flows. Totally worth it, and bring some sticks for roasting various campfire foods over the lava. Childhood dream realised.

Place of refuge snorkelling

IMG_9658This was probably the best easy-access snorkelling on all of the islands.  The Place of Refuge was a temple that native Hawaiians could flee to if they broke a kapu (taboo).  If you were able to reach a Place of Refuge and perform the rituals before you were caught, you escaped the rigid death penalty.IMG_9639  This is just south of the marine park at Captain Cook monument, and often frequented by locals who use the boat ramp, swim, picnic, and lounge on the rocks.  We found the snorkelling and diving here incredible, both in terms of coral health and sheer numbers of fish.

Morty the mantaDCIM100GOPRO

The single most astounding thing that happened during our five month journey was our encounter with ‘Morty’.  We were with Lauren’s parents touring the northeast side of the Big Island, and had stopped at one last beach for a short snorkel before heading home.  We puttered around near the rocks, where the water was somewhat cloudy and the fish shy. DCIM100GOPRO As the parents were headed in, they asked Lauren if she had seen the manta ray!  Lauren and Simon quickly confirmed that there was in fact a manta ray swimming around in shallow water over sandy bottom.  He was filter-feeding on tiny animals that seemed to hover just above the sand, and was swimming back and forth at medium speed in regular rows, like you would mow the lawn.IMG_6184  It literally looked like a winged vacuum cleaner was sweeping the sand clean! All four of us were able to swim with the manta and watch him find dinner for as long as we wanted, while the regular beachgoers and families nearby had no idea that they were within a stone’s throw from one of these magnificent animals. DCIM100GOPRO We were so impressed that we named him Morty. Native Hawaiians later told us that he was a manifestation of one of our Aumakua, or guardian spirits, which might help explain his unusual behaviour.

South point

DCIM100GOPROThe southernmost point in the USA is South Point on the Big Island. The land just ‘ends’ here. No beach or anything like that, just a cliff face into deep water. The wind roars constantly, so much so that the trees are all bent over and there is a wind farm just up the road. The windward side of the point is always rough, but the leeward side is excellent for swimming, provided you can get in/out. A boat hoist serves as a diving platform where groups of teenagers dare each other to jump in.DCIM100GOPRO A steel ladder up the cliff offers an easy return. The water is very deep here, dropping quickly to >100 m about 100 m from the cliff edge. The cliff meets the water and keeps on going to about 10-15m, from which the rocky bottom gently slopes away at first. The water is always extremely clear as it hasn’t met land for thousands of kilometres before currents transport it briskly past South Point. It’s real open ocean here, and this is well known by the locals: dozens of guys with big game rods and ‘kites’ (black rubbish bags) run huge baits downwind, hoping for strikes on Mahimahi, Wahoo, and big Ulua. We saw a line get ‘taken’ while we were there but the hook let go before the fish was close enough to be visible.DCIM100GOPRO

We found a place where we could climb down a gully in the cliff and get in/out of the water easily. A huge, tightly circling school of bigeye trevally awaited us just past the boat hoist. The school was relatively skittish, so Simon was particularly excited about the possibility of some big boys showing up… but no luck. Lots of life adorned the cliff edge and we even found a few Hawaiian lobsters in some of the deeper holes (apparently this place can get picked clean because of the relatively easy entry).

P.S….Baby F!

We came home from Hawaii with a little souvenir… currently in vivo but it will be out and about in early August! Thanks for reading our blog, hope to continue this the next time we’re on an adventure!

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The sea hawk, the donut, and the pelican.

The ski donut with our gear on board at Nu’u bay, Southeast Maui.

We’ve almost never deployed or collected our instruments without additional flotation of some kind. A raft helps us transport heavy and large equipment from shore, and when equipped with a dive flag, signal to others where we are. We’ve had to swim out quite far in many places – the beach at Nu’u bay is far from deep water, hydrophones needed to be distant from the boat traffic at Maliko gulch, and we needed to show where we were to the boats coming in and out of Kewalo basin.

The ‘sea hawk 300’ – our first trusty gear hauler.

Our first ‘vessel’ was the “Sea Hawk 300” – a toy inflatable boat complete with plastic oars we got for $30 (what a bargain!). Apart from its tendency to occasionally leak it was a great help, hauling equipment from the beach to dive sites and back. It even served as a real boat when Simon had a cold and followed Lauren as she snorkeled to retrieve the instruments at Electric Beach, Oahu.

We had a few problems with the sea hawk. We left the car keys inside while we were down which didn’t go well on one occasion when the waterproof plastic bag with the keys inside took flight over the side. If anyone ever finds a floating bag on a pacific beach with a new-looking Volkswagen keyfob inside (which should be in perfect working condition), its worth $370 when returned to Enterprise.

The sea hawk on that fateful day…

The line connecting the sea hawk to us was fairly thin and had the disconcerting tendency to break. This happened three times at Kahekili bay on Maui’s west coast. Luckily, each time the stiff tradewinds were blowing along shore. As soon as it was discovered that the boat was gone the drill was the same – everyone surfaced and swam to the beach, whoever got there first would dump their gear and run downwind. After running a kilometre in a full wetsuit and then walking back upwind with the sea hawk in tow several times, we upgraded the line to an anchor warp. It was hoped that the extra hassle of carrying a heavy line like that underwater would be offset by never having to retrieve the boat again. We were right about never having to retrieve the boat again, but wrong about the rope..

The sea hawk at Three Tables, Oahu.

Our deployment at La Perouse Bay, southern Maui, involved a swim of a couple of hundred metres offshore into water between 10-20 m deep. The tradewinds were fairly strong this far from shore and we could feel them constantly tugging on the sea hawk while we were underwater with the heavy line clipped to our belts. During the last survey of the day we clipped the sea hawk to one of the anchors that was already screwed into the sand. When we came back…it was gone! The line hadn’t snapped. Instead, the spring loaded swivel snap had somehow come undone – something very difficult to replicate (as we tried many times) but possible under the right conditions. We surfaced as fast as we could (which was fairly slowly, as we had equipment and an ascent rate to watch) and looked for the boat. If it was close enough we could make a dash for it, or so I thought. I will never forget the view on the surface: a wild and windswept sea, a glowing sunset over Molokini, and the sea hawk flipping over and over wave crests far in the distance, forever freed from its anchor and on its way to the deep ocean via the Lanai channel. If it made it past Lanai, Molokini, and Maui, its three independent floatation chambers may mean that sea hawk will voyage over the north pacific gyre for many years.

Local kids jump off the pier at Maliko gulch as the donut drifts by.

Both of us were rather upset. It was sunset and we had to swim back to shore with all our stuff. We had become used to the convenience that sea hawk provided. What shall we do? We swam back to the beach and discussed/commiserated on the way home. Could we find an inexpensive replacement on Maui? Craigslist was consulted and sea hawk #2 (A.K.A. ‘the donut’) was found.

The donut is actually a ski tube (or ski biscuit in NZ). Bought for the humble sum of $25, it proved its worth the first time we used it – in choppy seas on Maui’s north shore where the sharp rocks might have pierced the thinner hull of the sea hawk.

The pelican twin – our new packhorse.
Simon swims out to meet the kayak/donut trailer at Kealakekua boat ramp.

Sometimes however, the distance between shore and where we want to put our equipment is just too far to swim. We have a permit to do our work in the marine reserve at Kealakekua bay on the Big Island, about 2 km from the nearest shore access. Although almost no-one swims, hundreds of kayakers make the trip every day to view the monument in the place where Captain Cook was killed and to snorkel the reef.  We were tempted to use a kayak. But to rent or buy? The going rate for a double kayak is around $60 a day. We would need one here and at two other locations, so we would end up spending at least $300, which was roughly how much used double kayaks were going for on Craigslist. To cut a long story short we bought one – the “Pelican apex 13 twin”. Whether or not we save money depends on whether or not we can sell it in a couple of weeks!

Launching the pelican kayak and its donut trailer at Kealakekua Bay. Local guy Daniel (right) helped us a lot.

Regardless, it works very well after a few quick mods (there were no porthole lids, so some real estate signs were sacrificed). The one exception was when we tried to take our scuba gear on board with us. With the tanks in the footwells, the centre of gravity is dangerously high. If you neatly put your mask away in the foot pocket of your fin (which sinks), its impossible to find everything on the bottom when the kayak tips over and spills all your gear! Luckily this occurred in a shallow safe place during our ‘sea

The kayak fits very well atop our rented Avalon.

trial’ deployment at Puuhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) Bay and a short swim to the car (to get a spare mask) meant that we recovered everything. We now tow the donut (with our dive gear inside) behind the kayak as a kind of trailer, which works very well. Needless to say we get quite a few comments from the other kayakers.

Success at Kealakekua bay!

The Kure

sunrise at Kure

Sunday saw us retrieving the last of our acoustic equipment from the lagoon at Pearl and Hermes atoll, which went very well. All through the dive Lauren and I had been admiring the half-dozen or so galapagos sharks that had shown up. We sent the hydrophone to the surface and watched them swimming around for about 15 minutes. As we ascended the sharks became more curious, reducing the distance between them and us. Being in blue water and surrounded by sharks and big alua was very special – so special that our coxswain and one of the science outreach team got back in the water for some snorkeling. Soon, the coxswain suggested they be picked up as the sharks were becoming very curious. After they got in the boat, we dropped over the side for a look. Initially, there were around four sharks visible in the very clear water. The bottom could be seen clearly, easily 30 m below. Slowly, the number of sharks began to increase. In almost no time at all there were around twenty galapagos sharks below our feet, swimming close by and inspecting our flippers. Lauren reports that this was one of the most amazing experiences of her life.  Looking down on the school of sharks was absolutely incredible, and the visibility was perfect so we could see them all the way to the sandy bottom.

schooling sharks at Pearl & Hermes- coolest thing Lauren has ever seen!

We motored overnight to Kure and were back in the water first thing Monday morning.  We’re back from our first day’s diving at Kure Atoll, the northernmost atoll on the planet.

Looking back at Hi’ialakai from Malolo over a flat calm

Initially formed much further south in warmer waters, Kure has been slowly transported north by the tectonic motions of the pacific plate. Sometime in the future, conditions will presumably be too cold for corals to grow. Right now, it’s hanging on, barely at the edge of the tropical currents that sweep through the Hawaiian Islands. Consequently, the species we see here are like what you’d see in Northern New Zealand!

Lauren on site

Our first day of diving at Kure was very nice (Lauren says it was idyllic). Both topside and underwater colors were vibrant and bright, and most of the views we saw looked like they could be used for postcards. The term “gin clear water” describes well what we saw off the southern side of Kure atoll. Underwater visibility is around 50 m, making the search for an ideal hydrophone deployment site a task we could do from the boat, rather than having to get in, dive down, and swim around.
We motored over an expanse of spur-and-groove coral habitat, and an ideal section of white sand straddled by two high spurs of coral reef was selected as a candidate site for our equipment. Diving down, a few galapagos sharks immediately came in to view. They stuck around but their numbers did not swell to what we had seen the previous day at Pearl and Hermes. The white sand was deep enough for our sand anchors – a critical aspect we needed to check out before the flyby array was bought down to the sea floor. The coral spurs adjacent to the sand were teeming with a large number of different fish species – there were hundreds of fish, but it seemed that there were very few which were alike.

Simon was stoked to find this ‘zebra-fish’ (Lauren’s name) on the reef (Actually, it’s called the Hawaiian morwong, similar to New Zealand moki)

The tropical species which are so familiar to us were there (surgeonfish, squirrelfish, angelfish, parrotfish, wrasse), but they were also joined by subtropical varieties (morwong, boarfish, endemic butterflyfish, etc). Interestingly, big snapper hung out near one of the overhangs, a good sign that fishing had not really taken place here in some time. The coral situation was an interesting one – the large spurs of rock on which coral was growing are clearly made from calcium carbonate, or dead coral. This suggests to us that at one stage massive reef-building corals existed here. Nowadays, however, small porites colonies dot the surface of the rock, too small and sparse to build reef, but enough to maintain habitat for the animals which rely on live coral growth.  This was the first site on this cruise where Lauren spotted one of her favorite sea slug relatives, a neon yellow and black flatworm.

Carmen handing the array down to Simon

The flyby and another hydrophone were put in the water and bought down to the bottom in short order. Working on the sea floor here was a pleasure not just because of the stunning scenery, but because it was also so calm! Our time at Kure is the first time on this cruise we’ve experienced good weather. The surface was mirror calm, the swell was of low amplitude, long-period, and manageable. We took a number of photographs of the array deployment, which runs as follows:

Simon pulling down the buoyant array

1) Assemble the hydrophone cable, battery pack, and data acquisition computer together. 2) Power on (don’t forget!). 3) Simon and Lauren kit up and enter the water. 4) The coxswain places the cable in the water, and lifts the computer/batteries to the boat gunnel. 5) The array is lifted from the gunnel and lowered into the water, Simon guiding it in while the coxswain does the lifting. 6) A rope is tied to the array and the divers descend to one of the sand anchors. 7) The rope is strung through an anchor eye and the array (very buoyant) is slowly pulled to the bottom. 8) As the array reaches the bottom, Simon maintains tension on the line while Lauren ties the array off to the sand anchor using a shorter rope. As soon as this is done, Simon can let go and relax! 9) The array cable is strung out and fixed to other sand anchors, the array geometry being carefully measured so we’ll be able to process the data with greater accuracy later on. Retrieval is the reverse of deployment – the only difference being that it’s much harder to bring the array back on board the boat than it is to put it in the water. Hopefully Wednesday will be just as calm!

The array is all set up and ready to go, in beautiful blue water

Once the array, another hydrophone, and our camera ‘tree’ were in the water, we moved site to deploy one more hydrophone and a couple of cameras in the inside of Kure lagoon. Arriving on site inside, it was immediately clear that things were very different here. The slow ocean swell was gone, replaced by some confused wind chop (wind and swell were in opposing directions). The clear blue water outside was gone too, and in its place was something more greenish. The

Boxfish! Lauren has been hunting for this type of box (cowfish, Lactoria cornuta) since she started diving

environment on the shallow lagoon floor was like what you would experience in a harbour. Fine silt, lots of dead coral, many small fish, including juvenile versions of what you’d find outside the lagoon. Visibility was worse but not bad. The temperature was considerably warmer at 28 degrees (as opposed to 25-26 outside). We positioned our equipment and began surveys. What initially looked to be piles of dead coral rubble turned out to harbour lots and lots of small critters – many kinds of reef fishes (including a boxfish!), cone shells (venomous), juvenile fish, rock lobsters, polychaetes, sea cucumbers, and some pufferfish! While definitely a dive where the small things were of greatest interest, the lagoon was an equally fantastic place.

Lauren on the bow, waiting for sunset. No green flash yet, but the last few nights we’ve been glad for clear enough skies to SEE the sunset!

Its our day off today due to the boat shortage.  We’re taking advantage of the down time to sleep in 🙂 enter data, back up data and photos, update our notes, and of course write a new blog!  We’re planning to head back out tomorrow morning for a half day to retrieve our gear before the Hi’ialakai steams back east towards Lisianski tomorrow night.