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.
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.
Lauren chasing an enormous whaleshark
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.
Patience and quiet were rewarded with some close shots
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.
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 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.
It’s not a list, its a ‘swagger’.
Returning to Yemaya after a dive
Drone photos during a sunny day.
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.
The Yemaya, on a Panamanian river
The camera shelf… very expensive.
Doug hates ‘El acuario’
Our first sight of Malpelo.
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.
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.
Lauren holds on as her bubbles go down with the current
The currents bring plankton, and fish.
Vertical spires continue underwater.
Giant schools of jacks
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.
A passing manta.
Large yellowfin tuna
Lauren photographs a wahoo
An oceanic manta passed by during a safety stop.
Lauren chasing an enormous whaleshark
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.
Moray eels abound at Malpelo
Morays, leather bass and bluefin trevally work together
Imposing schools of leatherbass pass by
The armada arrives
More moray eels
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!
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.
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.
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.
Lauren poised on the edge of a dropoff, waiting for hammerheads.
Lauren and Steve Trainoff photograph a shy hammerhead
Simon sits on a rocky seat, waiting.
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.
Patience and quiet were rewarded with some close shots
A silhouette was often all we could manage.
Wide angle lenses did not help with close up photography
Hammerheads would sometimes approach in small groups.
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.
The last three weeks zoomed by on this little island, and we are wrapping up data collections and switching over to conference mode for our last week in Hawaii.
We were up well before sunrise thanks to jet lag the first week, & enjoyed many beautiful mornings at the beach.
Joey & Blake love spending time with their grandparents
So how is it going? The short answer is fairly well. We (I) spent a huge amount of time prior to arriving carefully selecting a house that was suitable for kids and grandparents, planning travel to arrive a few days early so we could adjust & set up, finding local stores and restaurants, sussing out activities for them, and packing items like power outlet covers and night lights so we could quickly “baby-proof” the beach house. These efforts paid off, as the children made a fairly smooth transition to life in Hawaii. We had a very long day of travel and arrived after their bedtime, so thankfully they were tired enough to sleep until 5am local time the first morning (that’s 10am in Virginia- they usually would wake up at 7:30). Joey was good to go after that. Blake had a few tough nights and we had a little more trouble getting his nap schedule on track, but we are now cruising along with a good routine for everyone. The team agreed that the most crucial piece of planning to everyone’s happiness was the house – easy walk to the beach, bedrooms for everyone plus a lab, and a spacious backyard safe for the kids to play in.
The boys are getting very good at their job – clean dive/snorkel gear with hose
Group hike at Manoa Falls on a family morning
We got into work relatively quickly, sorting out instruments, unpacking gear, and connecting with local colleagues. We had tank experiments up and running within days. Weather kept us off of the water longer than we had hoped, but we managed to start collecting in-water data within a week of arrival and are now on track. Our first week was very busy and the boys started asking for more time with us. Thankfully we crossed off a few big hurdles early on (tank experiments!) and were able to adjust our schedule so that we had a fun family activity with them every few days. We are living in Kailua on the windward side of Oahu, so grand adventures like kayaking, hiking, and swimming are easily within reach for morning play before nap.
Simon collects a shallow water acoustic recorder from one of the patch reefs in Kaneohe Bay
Joey & Blake love swimming, especially with Grammy
Papa & I out for a snorkel
The boys love spending time with their grandparents, and the beach is a few minutes walk from our front door, so in general their days are spent playing in the sand, swimming in the surf, and enjoying our luxurious backyard complete with banana trees while Simon & I work. When the weather keeps us off the water and/or we are able to schedule half a day off, we take them further afield to different parts of Oahu for hiking, beaches, tide pool exploration, and a couple of memorable boat & kayak excursions.
One of our data collection sites in Kaneohe Bay
A sea turtle glides past our boat as we approach a work site
The NASA ER-2 aircraft flies over us collecting hyperspectral imagery of Kaneohe Bay, while we collect acoustic data & ecological surveys below the surface.
We have almost completed our data collections, both in water and in tanks with collaborators at the University of Hawaii. We have a few instruments still taking data that we need to pick up early next week before we ship our equipment back to NRL on Thursday, but otherwise we are starting to clean and pack gear. In terms of work, we have shifted to preparing our presentations for the ASLO Meeting this week. My talk is tomorrow morning, so I’m finalizing the details of my powerpoint presentation today while Simon takes the kids on a rock pool adventure (apparently the sea urchins were their favorite animal). We are also taking care to back up data, start running codes for quality control, and organize our notes and photos from the trip.
Blake is now a confident walker
Joey scrambles over volcanic rocks without trouble
A few highlights from our time here include Joey’s growing knowledge of sea animals. After reading a couple of books about sea turtles ingesting trash by mistake, he has led us on quite a few beach clean-ups. Blake is now walking confidently on grass, sand, and rocks. Both boys love to play in the ocean, and scramble around on dark black lava rocks in bare feet with smiles on their faces. We are very happy with our decision to bring them along, and are immensely grateful to the spoilers (Grammy & Papa) for caring for the boys so well and on an ever-changing schedule while we take care of our fieldwork requirements and juggle work needs with family time.
The boys explore rock pools with Daddy while I prepare my conference talk
Joey discovered many types of sea urchins & claims they are his new favorite animal.
Everything is wrapping up in DC as we prepare to fly to Honolulu tomorrow. Inevitably a few fires popped up at the last minute, but in general we’ve been quite organized as we prepare for our great family fieldwork adventure.
Our scientific equipment was shipped on Monday, which meant we spent a good chunk of last week packing. We’ll pick up two pallets of scientific equipment, ranging from a hydrophone array and underwater spectrometer to lab and office supplies, on Thursday in Honolulu.
Our personal gear was mostly packed the prior weekend. Since we are traveling to a different climate, I was able to pack everyone’s clothes well ahead of time. There are a few last minute things to add to the suitcases tomorrow morning (the baby monitor, my electric toothbrush, and the kids’ water bottles for example).
Tiny flip flops packed & ready
Car seat bags hide extra diapers
Traveling “light” has a different meaning with two kids….
We have detailed lists of data collection objectives, listed by priority. We have fancy schedules & dive plans that will inevitably be modified by weather. We also have children’s books and toys, a tiny snorkel set, and two little wetsuits. We have plane tickets for six people. We are, for all practical purposes, ready.
Both Simon & I have been chipping away at preparation tasks for the past month, and I have to say this is possibly the best job we have done to date with trip prep. We are both excited and anxious for family fieldwork v2 to go well!
Curious what we are taking for the kiddos? Two car seats (bundled with compostable diaper inserts and wipes), one double stroller, and two baby hiking backpacks (packaged as a stroller). About five days worth of clothing, with extra layers for wind, rain, and warmth after a swim. Cloth nappies for Blake. Wetsuits and lifejackets. Snorkel set for Joey. They each have a small carry-on bag packed with their favorite toys, books, and stuffed animals. All of our personal belongings have miraculously made it into three checked bags.
More soon! For photo updates follow us on instagram @adventuretoddlers. Next stop, Honolulu 🙂
This expedition has been years in the making, from applying to proposals & gathering funds, sussing out a timeline, and making a plan where we could bring the boys, caregivers, and still get our work done. Here’s what is going to happen & how we got there:
Me & Simon (the science team), Joey & Blake (the nuggets), and Grammy & Papa (the caregivers) are flying to Honolulu on February 1 for one month. We are staying at a rental house by Kailua beach, a short drive from the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base and Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay, where Simon & I will be working. In addition to space for the six of us, the house has a semi-attached “in-law suite” that will serve as our lab.
It all started with a NASA proposal two years ago that I developed with my postdoc advisor, to inform the HySPIRI satellite mission during an expedition to Hawaii. NASA will fly over the Hawaiian Island chain with hyperspectral remote sensing imagers to simulate HySPIRI data, and during the same time a science team will be collecting data on the ground to validate and test the imagery. We are on the coral reef team. My question is how well coral reef health can be determined from some of the highest quality satellite imagery, utilizing the relative proportion of coral and fleshy macroalgae as the metric of health. This proportion can be detected from space with the correct sensor, and is a well established indicator of coral reef ecosystem state. A healthier reef has more live coral, and a more degraded reef has been overgrown with fleshy macroalgae.
The Freeman & Freeman paper that came out in December was a thorough investigation of passive acoustic indicators of coral reef state in the Hawaiian Islands from our 2012 fieldwork. One of our most interesting finds was that different acoustic signals come from reefs with lots of coral (healthier reefs), versus reefs with lots of fleshy macroalgae (more degraded reefs). We were very interested in testing this further, and seeing if we could use remote sensing & acoustics together to improve the overall ability to determine coral reef state from afar. When Simon started his fellowship as a federal scientist in June, he was given start-up funds and has been able to dedicate part of them to his own, complimentary experiments in Kaneohe Bay in February.
The timeline was heavily constrained by flight time for the NASA aircraft and instruments, but thankfully it was confirmed with enough advance notice that we have been able to get all of our coordinating pieces into place. Simon requested and scheduled his experiment. My parents were able to take a month away from work & home duties, which meant that we could bring the boys. We can’t express enough gratitude to them, as neither of us would be willing to leave our kids for a month right now. The kids, in turn, are so excited for a month on the beach with their grandparents:
We have dreamed for far longer than we have been parents about conducting joint fieldwork and having our children along, a-la Rosemary and Peter Grant style. What an incredible experience for them – an opportunity to live in a new place, enjoy a new culture, and learn about the diversity of the natural world. Not to mention lots of QT with the grandparents. We are beyond excited that this is happening, and can’t wait to share it with you over the blog-channels in the next few weeks.
We’ve written about our vacation deal before – we promised one another before we were parents that every year we had dependent children, we would go on at least one vacation without them. So far we’ve managed to pull it off, and one of our friends started to use the term “annual honeymoon.” It is a perfect description of why we do this.
The point isn’t to get away from our kids – we adore them both, and we love spending time with them. The point is to spend time focused on ourselves and each other. You know – what we used to do all of the time before we were Joey’s Mom and Blake’s Dad. We had full lives with hobbies and activities. We’ve been fortunate enough to find ways to carry on most of those hobbies with our little explorers, but in some cases it just can’t be done. Scuba diving comes to mind (and will be featured in the 2017 honeymoon…!).
That’s why we have the annual honeymoon. Special bonding time for me and Simon, to keep our relationship happy and healthy so that we can best serve our family. Special bonding time for the older and younger generation, where the grandparents are given full control and the grandchildren receive exotic treats like juice for breakfast, pet fish, and all the educational toys they can get their little hands on. It is always hard to leave, but wonderful to come home well rested and energized to hear of their adventures at the Grammy & Papa resort.
Joey’s new pet fish, Dory
Blake practices riding his new scooter
Dog included at grandparents’ resort
We have been long due for a honeymoon, as our last was a dive trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia in December 2014/January 2015 (it was a big enough trip that we counted it for both years). Blake arrived in December 2015 – making it tricky to plan a trip in 2016. Fortunately, a good friend planned a New Year’s Eve wedding in San Diego and gave us the perfect excuse to fly as a duo at the end of the year, just after Blake had cleared his first birthday.
In our four day trip, we visited old friends, favorite restaurants, and re-lived many of our graduate school dates. (Most of them involve take-out burritos and a hike on cliffs overlooking the sea). We had hours of time to talk to one another without interruption. We didn’t worry about nap time or bedtime, and slept late in the morning. The wedding was beautiful. It was time and money well spent. There is truly nothing better to come home to than my sweet boys’ smiles and hugs.
Oh, and Dory the pet fish lives at Grammy and Papa’s house now 😉
One of our long-term dreams as a science family is to take on “family fieldwork.” The idea is that Simon & I would conduct joint or collaboratory fieldwork in the same location, and bring along our kids and caregivers for them. We are so excited to have the opportunity to do just that during the month of February when we will return to Hawaii. In the meantime, Simon had a short work trip to Nags Head, North Carolina last weekend and we were able to put together a mini-version of family fieldwork to try it out.
We visited Nags Head to facilitate collection of large, fresh, whole pelagic fishes including tuna and wahoo. These fish subsequently traveled with Simon & a colleague to San Diego for high resolution scanning in an MRI machine. The resultant data are a key first step to Simon’s newest project at NRL developing a fish-inspired autonomous underwater vehicle.
November is the tail end of the season for the fish of interest, so a three-day window was allotted where Simon could assess the daily catch from his vendor fisherman and pick the specimens he wanted, then carefully package them for shipping to San Diego. Time was critical as he wanted to ensure the fish were whole fresh specimens (fresh is better when it comes to MRI) and never frozen.
The fish collection window fell over a holiday weekend, so I made plans to join Simon and bring the boys & their grandparents along for the ride. We rented a house in Nags Head across the street from the beach and brought along a stroller and sand toys. Overall, everything worked. The kids and I made it home safely, Simon is in San Diego proceeding with data collection from the fish scans, and the grandparents are still excited about our trip to Hawaii.
That said, we learned quite a few things to operate more smoothly next time!
Our children are still very young (3 years, 10 months) so having a safe space for both of them to play indoors is critical. When we travel to Hawaii I’ll bring/buy extra outlet covers, baby gates, pop-up toy storage, and doorknob covers.
Simon takes Blake for a sunset walk
Joey inspects a shark egg case that he found at the beach
This past weekend was REALLY hectic because of the aforementioned time crunch on getting the fish into the MRI as quickly as possible. We were only in Nags Head for three days. In addition, we had extra people coming and going from the house. This was definitely stressful for the boys. I was reminded (again) that we need to keep everything as simple as possible for them, and preserve their routine. I think things will be easier in Hawaii since we are there for a whole month, and they’ll have more time to get settled and used to the family fieldwork norm.
On the same note, buffer days are really critical for kids. I had a free day with them after arriving in Nags Head, and spent another day with them at the grandparents’ house in Williamsburg before returning to our home in Alexandria. That extra time really helped them re-group and stay happy.
The final challenge with family fieldwork is delineating my time between work and kids. At home, I never work when I’m with them – I reserve all work things for when I’m at my office, or when they are asleep. This is a harder line to draw with a shared house in a new place. We are still piecing plans together, but now will prioritize a clear schedule of work time as well as a separated office space in the house that the boys will not usually be allowed to access. I’m glad a have a few more months to brainstorm before we go so that V2.0 Hawaii Edition gets off to a smooth start!
We love photography – something that started as a means to chronicle our travels and underwater adventures, but we’ve recently been adapting our techniques to document our children growing up. It is a fun hobby for both of us, and generally rewarding.
My favorite family/kid photos are not posed. I love shots of the boys engaged in activities or with one another, unaware that I’m off to the side with a camera. If you follow us on Instagram or Facebook (or even backtrack through the photos featured here), you’ll pick up on this theme quickly. That said, I force posed photos on our kids frequently. Trips to cool places, birthday parties, holiday weekends with friends – none of these are complete for our family until I’ve piled all of the children together unwittingly, promised them tasty snacks as a reward for their cooperation, and played peek-a-boo with the camera for a few minutes in hopes that they might all smile (ha!) or at least look at the camera at the same time.
This is not posed, and it is my favorite photo in this post.
Hug your brother! No, don’t knock him over. Hug him gently… never mind.
These photos look posed. Generally at least one kid looks pissed. Joey now says cheese and intentionally turns his head away from the camera. Why bother making everyone annoyed for what tends to be a mediocre photo?
Because one day, we will all want to see the posed photos. I’ll still love the shots of Joey chasing seagulls down the beach more, but he will want to see himself with his brother, family and friends. And some of the posed photos look awesome (about one in a thousand, but who’s counting?) Who was there? What did they look like? Did you really make me and Blake wear the same outfit EVERY TIME mom?
I could swim before I could walk. Never in my memory have I approached water without feeling confident in my ability to paddle around, navigate, or jump in. This was something that I very much wanted for my children.
Our first concern was safety – we are on the water often, and hope that our boys will not panic in an emergency if they are unexpectedly submerged. However, we also wanted to give them a true sense of confidence and understanding that would help them enjoy the ocean (and pools, lakes, and rivers) more as they grow. Finally, Simon really wanted to replicate the Nirvana Nevermind album cover.
In the 2010s, teaching your infant or toddler to swim freely is not a straightforward task. The baby swim classes that my mom had taken me to don’t seem to exist anymore, at least not where we live. The premise that very young babies (less than six months) have an innate reflex to hold their breathe underwater, and will retain this with practice, seems to have been buried under concern of frightening children. It is our opinion that not knowing how to swim is a far more frightening option, but getting to the task at hand, there were no public or private lessons we could sign up for. We had to do swim school ourselves. For those that would like to try something similar, we found the following three resources immensely helpful. However, the most important thing was consistency and lots of time in the water. Experience is invaluable – I was far more successful with Blake than Joey at a young age.*
Little gear is needed – we used bath toys that we already had and let Joey pick out goggles at Target. One item that was immensely helpful in winter and spring was small wetsuits – both of our boys get cold quickly at an indoor pool. We like this one for infants and this one for toddlers.
Joey & Blake will now go underwater happily and hold their breath. They kick and paddle their arms to propel themselves, but don’t go far without adult help. I have let them lead the way for lessons in terms of what they are comfortable with. There are days when they don’t want to submerge, so we don’t. There are days when they enthusiastically ask for more, so we do. I had imagined far grander things, but for now I’m glad that we have been able to get them both comfortable in the water and solid on breath-holding.
As for the Nirvana photo – it’s a lot harder to replicate than we thought!
*We are not swim instructors – just enthusiastic parents sharing what worked for our kids.
We made it home! In time for Simon to start his new job! With most of our things!
After our last post, the comedy of errors continued including a rental car with no child seats (did you know that rental agencies are not obliged to guarantee child seats?, and that if you try hard enough, priceline will refund prepaid ‘nonrefundable’ rental car fees?), lost diaper covers, awkward seating assignments on flights, Blake being kicked out of a bar (too intoxicated), etc.
But something strange happened. After the first few days of everything seeming to go wrong, Simon & I stopped being stressed. We accepted the situation, paying an extra $1700 for flights, and moved forward calmly. We worked together to manage the safety, happiness, and well-being of our family first. We met many friends and colleagues along the way who were always surprised when we said our trip was full of things going wrong. “But you seem so calm and happy!” they said. Truthfully… we were.
The biggest reason is that we were with our kids, and my strong feeling is that happy parents make happy babies, and happy babies make everything easier. We both work hard to achieve family happiness at all times, but especially during travel and times of stress. The side effect of ensuring that the boys get time to play outside, timely meals, naps, and bedtime, is that we experience many of the calming benefits and are able to better handle the various fires being thrown at us.
In addition, we had a lot of good things happening alongside the fires. We had productive meetings with colleagues; Simon got good experimental data, we gave various talks, brown bags, and seminars at Scripps and at the International Coral Reef Symposium that were well received; we enjoyed quality family time in beautiful places; and we had happy reunions with friends.
Something else special happened on this trip though. In our times of great duress, we received unexpected assistance from strangers. Random acts of kindness that meant so much given our compromised state:
The strangers that switched seats with us on the red-eye flight from LA to DC so that our family could sit together in one row
The Virgin America flight attendant that provided six little bottles of water when we desperately needed it for the kids
The baggage claim clerk that helped me move all of our luggage to the street to meet Simon with the rental car and I was alone with Blake
The collection of Brazilian scientists at ICRS that happily held & played with Blake during the last night banquet for an hour while Simon & I ate and made friends with them
The friends-of-friends that offered to take photos of our whole family on our last day (and only day on the North Shore!)
The cleaning staff at both hotels we stayed at, who were amazing about providing extra towels and coming back repeatedly so as not to disturb our napping children when cleaning the room
That’s not to mention all of our friends and family that stepped in, whether or not we asked, to play with Joey, hold Blake, and in general help us out immensely. Japanese grammy came all the way from New Zealand to Hawaii to look after the boys during the meeting. She did the typical grammy thing – spoil Joey rotten with care and attention – so that now Joey wants to “go back to Hawaii”. Why? “Obaasan”.
Those relatively small kindnesses made all of the difference for these strung-out parents that wanted to bring their kids on a work trip. Kindness matters most to those who need it. Look for the need and pay it forward. You might be in the needful position some day.