Tag Archives: family

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

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

The House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

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

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

Monterey:

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

San Diego:

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

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

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

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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.

Family Fieldwork V2.0: Notes from the Field

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Prepping for Departure to Hawaii Tomorrow!

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).

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!

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Pro Tip: Bungee diapers/inserts & wipes to car seats before placing them in gate check bags.

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 🙂

Family Fieldwork V2.0 – Hawaii!

We ticked off a major bucket list item recently with our first Freeman & Freeman peer-reviewed scientific paper. Another is on the horizon, our first joint family fieldwork adventure with kids in tow!

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:

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Our destination (more or less)

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.

 

The Annual Honeymoon

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.

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 😉

 

Re-Thinking Gifting: Save Money & The Planet Holiday Edition

Our family resolution for 2017 is to spend less money on things, and to start to reduce the amount of stuff in our home (in other words – make a more pronounced shift towards minimalism). Between that and our desires to reduce waste and leave a small environmental footprint, we have been brainstorming some less than ordinary gifting strategies this year.

Experiences

  • Instead of a physical gift, wrap up tickets to a theme park or activity (great for kids)
  • Make plans with another family to not exchange gifts, but instead go on a special weekend trip together (works well for other families with similar age kids)
  • Say that a financial contribution towards a vacation is your holiday gift. Simon & I agreed happily that our only gift to each other is our diving trip next year.
  • Take a person or couple out for a day – to a show, for a pedicure, hiking, for dinner. For most busy grown-ups, having an all-expenses-paid fun afternoon with no planning is nearly as good as a stay in a fancy resort.

Handmade Gifts

  • Kids’ arts & crafts are a time-honored tradition, and the options are endless (check out google image search or pinterest). These are wonderful for caregivers & relatives. When I know we are making a gift I use higher end materials so the finished product will look better and last longer. Creating wall art on a canvas or putting it in a frame are great touches.

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    If you have the skill to crochet this R2D2 hat, by all means please do. Pattern here.
  • Edible gifts are another time-honored tradition where you really can’t go wrong. We’ve gifted cookies, wine & hot cocoa jars, but again the possibilities are endless here.
  • The world of DIY seems to get bigger every day. We have received many adult-handmade gifts that we love including blankets and wall art.
  • If you aren’t crafty, check out Etsy to support local small businesses & find exactly what you want – i.e. Blake’s Halloween shirt from Simply Cloth Boutique.

Donations

  • For Blake’s upcoming first birthday (where did that year go??) we requested donations to the American Civil Liberties Union in his name in lieu of gifts.
  • For an older child, it can be a great experience to walk the donation over them self (i.e. to the animal shelter). Let friends & relatives know if
    you are requesting money or specific items, and have your child(ren) help package everything up & bring it to their charity of choice.

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  • Another favorite for both of our kids and give to others are books. New, used, hand-me-down, and maybe signed, these don’t take up too much space are timeless. True to our science-family style, we love a house full of books!

Second-Hand, Thrift Store, & Hand-Me-Downs

  • Buying second-hand is an easy way to save money & have a positive environmental impact. Check out Goodwill, Salvation Army, & thrift stores for just about everything under the sun. If you’re crafty, you can re-finish or paint wood pieces to then use as extra special gifts (not that I have time for that… I’ve been watching too much Fixer Upper!)
  • Hand-me-downs are another wonderful gift, in particular to a child younger than yours. Most kids clothes will easily last through several children since they outgrow them quickly, and parents are grateful to reduce their costs. Swimsuits, sun hats, flip flops, snow boots, coats, and other seasonal items are particularly good hand-me-downs because they are pricier and generally not heavily used any one child.

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    A neighbor kindly shares the monthly onesies with Blake, which is perfect as each kid only wears them once!
  • Cycling toys between families is a great way to keep your playroom interesting without letting it get too cluttered. If you are buying & selling used, there is a far lower monetary cost too.

Recycle & Re-Use

  • Recycle gift wrap, bags, tissue paper, & ribbons
  • Paint newspaper or brown packaging paper (handprints or finger painting are especially fun) to use as gift wrap.
  • Use cardboard as party decor – paint signs or banners or make a big card for guests to sign. Love this idea from Meredith Tested!
  • When it can’t be re-used anymore, recycle wrapping & tissue paper

 

Everyone loves giving & receiving presents, our family included! We are grateful for all manner of gifts that come through our door. This list is simply a collection of some different ideas we have tried to cut costs, be kind to the Earth, and maintain a festive & happy holiday with our friends and family.