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.
Papa & I out for a snorkel
Joey & Blake love swimming, especially with Grammy
Simon collects a shallow water acoustic recorder from one of the patch reefs in Kaneohe Bay
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.
The NASA ER-2 aircraft flies over us collecting hyperspectral imagery of Kaneohe Bay, while we collect acoustic data & ecological surveys below the surface.
A sea turtle glides past our boat as we approach a work site
One of our data collection sites in Kaneohe Bay
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.
Joey scrambles over volcanic rocks without trouble
Blake is now a confident walker
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 😉
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.
I wanted to call this “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” but I’m pretty sure my mom reads it.
You may have gathered that we have taken to the air again with our two kiddos and are currently in Hawaii. The lack of a pre-departure post is a fair indicator of our lack of organization for this trip.
Usually, I am a super-planner. Every detail thought out, from snacks for everyone on the plane to printing out hotel confirmations and addresses ahead of time (or more recently, saving them to my iPhone). Simon is surprised if I cannot spout off our itinerary in detail at any point on an adventure.
This trip was not well planned. In fact, it coalesced together in a messy fashion after we both were given slots for conference talks at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu this week. From there, we slowly added on items. We decided to bring both boys & a dedicated care giver (Japanese Grandma!). We decided to come to Honolulu early to use rewards nights at the Marriott for our anniversary, and to stay the weekend after the conference with friends on the North Shore of Oahu. Somewhere along the way, we had the idea to make a long layover in San Diego en route to Hawaii where we would visit Scripps to give talks, catch up with friends & colleagues, and Simon would collect some data off the pier while we were at it. So in summary, in two weeks we would visit two cities, stay in six different places, do a wide variety of work things, vacation with our kids, and catch up with friends.
What could go wrong?
Turns out, a lot:
We forgot toothpaste
We didn’t realize that we wouldn’t have childcare in San Diego for all of those talks and experiments & had to modify our plans at the last minute
Joey took three days of sharing a room with Blake to nap quietly without waking his brother, much to my dismay
Our bags didn’t really fit in the rental car with the car seats (so I had either a large suitcase or stroller on my lap)
Renting car seats with the rental car is expensive & they didn’t tell us that ahead of time. In fact, our first rental car reservation added so many costs & fees that Simon elected to cancel it and find another rental car at the airport, adding nearly an hour delay before we got to our digs for the night.
We missed our flight from San Diego to Hawaii and had to fly standby the next day
On our standby flight, we were seated behind another child who spent a lot of time screaming, making it extraordinarily difficult for our non-screaming children to nap and remain well-behaved
We lost Simon’s wedding ring and the quadcopter (not at the same time)
We continue to not have baby wipes available when we need them, despite bringing at least five packages with us
I’m forever optimistic, and am inclined to now list the things that are going well. I’ll spare you bullet points, but will say that we are still having a good time and for the most part the boys are not phased by our stress and struggles.
Our little champion flyers wait patiently to get on the plane to Honolulu. Our standby tickets meant we were last to board.
After three days in a hotel, I finally had two children napping at the same time!
We were as happy as we look here all day in Waikiki, despite various struggles before and after.
Blake scored us an upgrade to the oceanfront suite at the Waikiki Marriott – an unexpected perk along the way!
Whether this trip is a set of unique challenges or a complete disaster depends on your point of view. For example, we found ourselves leading a discussion with graduate students about government jobs and postdocs while holding a very alert and cheerful Blake, watching Joey play with the foozball table out of the corner of our eyes. At least we’d had the foresight to suggest this event occur in the graduate student lounge? And the grad student coordinator that organized for us had kindly provided Joey’s favorite snacks (bagels) as refreshments, further sweetening the deal for him. In fact, he has been asking to go to another “work meeting” with us since.
So what do you do when your plans fall apart? Or you failed to make a plan in the first place?
Make a new plan stat.
Simon & I will waffle endlessly about things like where to go to dinner – until we get to a critical situation. Then we both switch gears and start damage control. We dish out orders to each other and the children, and follow one another’s instructions exactly.
This trip has been a healthy reminder that planning is important, but even more important is learning to roll with the punches and make the best of it. We could have let various challenges ruin this trip, but that would have been a much bigger loss overall. The kids mean that we spend more money (missed flight? better just get a new hotel and go out for lunch so the boys can eat & nap), they also keep us on the happy end of the spectrum. They achieve this magic partly because we want the best for them, including happy parents, and partly because they are delightful and they cheer us up. Joey has even started making jokes. We also have some perspective that the most challenging situations wind up being some of our favorite memories and most endearing stories later on.
That ^^ was supposed to be the end, in hopes that posting would put an end to our comedy of errors. Nope! Cue some important emails to Simon yesterday about his first day as a federal employee – not only does he have to be in the office in person with paperwork on Monday, but he needs to arrive no earlier than 7:30am and no later than 8:00am. Our flights would not get him there in time.
We each had our own itinerary on the same flight, and Joey was attached to Simon’s. Much of our first day at the conference was spent looking for flights, calling airlines and travel agents, and establishing that Simon really had to be at work by 8am Monday (he does). We went through a string of options and came down to the choice of 1: buying Simon a new flight home early, while I traveled alone with both boys on a red eye and really hoped that they would let me add Joey to my reservation without asking for large sums of money or 2: cancel all of our flights home and buy three seats on an earlier flight together.
I think we’ve finally learned something from the last few weeks, because we picked #2. This sadly means cutting our family fun weekend on the North Shore a little short, but based on how things were going we decided to plan conservatively.
What else can go amiss in the next few days? Stay tuned for updates 🙂
We’ve been (happily!) receiving more family travel FAQs since we returned from Japan. At least half are about how to deal with basic baby necessities while on the road, in the air, or overseas. Here are some pro tips we’ve built up over the last few years. Bear in mind that every child is different, and its always important to find the right groove for your family. Our strategy has generally been to be adaptable and teach our kids to do the same, whilst being one step ahead to ensure that they get the nutrition and rest that they need. There is a lot of patience and planning ahead, and we are also more lenient than we would be at home. It is ultimately most important that they eat or sleep – happy baby happy life!
We have always prioritized our kids’ sleep more than anything else, because we have found that a well rested baby is a happy baby. We knew that there would be lots of trips and outings long before our first was born, so we made an effort to teach him to be somewhat flexible in terms of where he sleeps. In other words, anything goes as long as the kid sleeps – walks in the baby carrier, car rides, co-sleeping, etc. We are more strict at home about keeping them in their beds (at least, the older one 🙂
We always plan ahead so that we have some means to help the boys nap during the day, which is often in a baby carrier or stroller. While this isn’t as great as napping in a bed as they get older, it works for us. The biggest key is to identify when they are starting to get tired and get them comfortable in their napping spot before they pass the threshold to overtired and cranky.
Jet lag is tough for adults and tougher for littles. The same rules that apply to us do them – hydrate well, go outside in daylight hours, and try to force your schedule to local time as quickly as possible. However, between jet lag and activities while traveling, we often wind up with an earlier waking time and earlier bed time while traveling.
Both boys have a bedtime routine that includes certain items. Blake is swaddled every night after receiving his last feeding and PJs. Joey reads stories with his stuffed toys, and brings a stuffed toy into his bed. We maintain these routines on the road, and always bring key items with us (swaddle blanket, a couple of stories, 1-2 stuffed toys of Joey’s choosing).
Even so, it doesn’t always go to plan – which is why we fall back to “anything goes as long as they sleep.” If they will only sleep in the bed with me for the first few nights in a new place, then they can sleep in the bed with me. Trust me when I say that the less tired the kids are, the more enjoyable everyone’s trip is!
Also – me and Simon always come home tired. We no longer ‘vacation’ in the restful sense. (Actually we never did, but it used to be because we spent all of our time diving and exploring!)
This advice also depends on age, but the short story here is that our kids eat what we eat (or some part of it).
For the first year, we combo feed. Breastmilk comes everywhere with me, and we always brought our own formula and bottles to avoid any issues with switching brands/types on them. We usually buy bottled water to mix it with unless we can get access to filtered water.
Once on solids, the children eat what we do, and that continues overseas. Our rule is that they have to try the food, after which it is OK if they don’t like it. Since the rule is the same wherever we go, J has never really questioned it. Like me, he likes some foods and dislikes others when introduced to new things. I will never forget Joey slurping soba noodles with delight in Japan or demanding more sashimi. At the same time, he wasn’t really into gyoza (dumplings) and other items we thought he would like.
As with sleep, we are more lenient with food when we are away from home. Processed/packaged foods that are normally not around our house are provided at opportune moments. Joey still calls Oreos “Peru Biscuits” since he first received them there, and he only gets them when we are traveling. It’s more important to me that they eat something to avoid hanger. There are also inevitable long, boring, waits associated with travel and having special treats/snacks helps mitigate that.
I’m used to carrying around a wide array of snacks wherever we go, and I usually stock up on favorites before any trip (fruit/veggie pouches, clif kids bars, goldfish or other little crackers, raisins and other dried fruits). I don’t try to bring enough for the duration of the trip, though, since I’ve always been able to find new and interesting snacks on site. Almost everywhere has some variation on bread, rice, or pasta and fruit – staples of the toddler diet.
J does have food allergies so I always learn how to say and write the offending foods ahead of time, and check labels/ask at restaurants as I would at home.
It can be a whirlwind with a lot of trial and error. We always say we will not plan anything during our first day at a destination, and we almost always wind up doing stuff anyway with catastrophic results. Dinner in particular has been disastrous several times with slow service, new food, and very tired parents and children. I’ve taken a tearful Joey out of restaurants in several countries to go to bed before the food actually arrived, and had Simon bring me leftovers later. Hang in there – it gets better!
We are still recovering from jet lag, but safely home from our journey to Japan. We had a wonderful time and will post highlights soon!
In the meantime, here are some notable things that are different in Japan from western countries that are particularly relevant to travel with little kids.
There are a lot of:
Vending machines. Selling everything from hot coffee to soda to ice cream to toys to full meals. This is often useful (quick drink or snack anyone?), although our toddler quickly learned to recognize the ice cream machines and requested that we stop at them often.
Trains. Travel by train or subway is challenging with small children since there is a lot of rushing through crowded, busy, stations and there isn’t always a lot of room to sit or play on the train. For infants, a baby carrier is 100% the way to go. For toddlers (Joey was 2.5 years) it is trickier. We used a light front to back double stroller (Kinderwagon Dual Hop), which was about the biggest stroller one could manage on public transit in Japan. In retrospect I’d recommend a light single (you will have to push through crowds and lift it over the step/gap when boarding and disembarking) or another baby carrier. This was one of our biggest challenges.
Huge, amazing, playgrounds. Even in the shopping mall on the roof. For a country with relatively few children (the current average birth rate is 1.2), Japan has extraordinary playgrounds. We made a point to stop every time we saw one, and often had it nearly to ourselves. No waiting for the zip line or complaints when the grown-ups joined in the fun!
Rules. The Japanese have solved the problem of high population density with several rules (walk on the path to the left, queue for the train, etc). Everyone was very polite to us despite our often lack of understanding.
Outdoor public baths (when you get out of Tokyo). Onsen require some guts and cultural awareness to get onboard with the naked communal bathing, but they are actually amazing for toddlers. Joey loved playing in the wash room where showers/water could be put anywhere, and in the cooler parts of the naturally heated outdoor pools. One place we stayed had a private bath, which allowed our whole family to enjoy an outdoor pool together. Toys were provided for the children and the temperature was perfect for both of them (about 96 F).
There are not many:
Public rubbish bins. No one litters (see above re: rules). The intention is that you take your trash home with you. This is a great idea, but potentially hard to comply with given the number of pre-packaged items (especially from vending machines!) Thankfully we carry around plastic grocery bags with the kids anyway so it wasn’t too challenging to collect rubbish and store it in the stroller basket.
Dirty things. I am a germ-a-phobe about public transit, but everything was remarkable clean from the sidewalks to the trains to the stores.
Dinner sometimes came with a baby bed
Our double stroller seems small at home, but was huge in Japan.
Joey still enjoys riding in the Ergo carrier
Changing tables in mens or ladies restrooms. Japan’s solution is much better in my opinion – there is a third choice at any public restroom area called a ‘multipurpose’ or handicap restroom. The room is open to men and women and includes a changing table as well as handicap access and a regular toilet. Some also have a little plastic seat on a stand to contain your kid while you pee (best for children 6-18 months. Blake was too small and Joey was really too big).
Spacious restaurants. Most dine-in establishments are tiny, seating less than 30 people at a time or standing room only. This is sub-optimal for the kids as well. We searched for cafes with outdoor seating, and places selling take out (check out the department stores in Tokyo) near parks.
Places to sit. In part because most living spaces and restaurants are small, there is a distinct lack of sofas, cushy recliners, gliders, etc both in homes and public spaces. This isn’t a big problem unless you have an infant the needs to be fed frequently. In that case, work on your core strength ahead of time and be prepared to get creative.
Loud people. In fact, people walking down the street during business hours are so quiet that I almost felt rude talking. Joey attracted a great deal of (positive) attention between enthusiastically pointing out various items and being dressed in bright clothing. Again, the reception from the Japanese was very positive, but our family definitely stood out!
Japan has nearly all of the same features as the US, but the details are different. Some preparation will definitely help, especially for train and subway travel! I can’t say enough about the benefit of our baby carriers for this trip.