One of our long-term dreams as a science family is to take on “family fieldwork.” The idea is that Simon & I would conduct joint or collaboratory fieldwork in the same location, and bring along our kids and caregivers for them. We are so excited to have the opportunity to do just that during the month of February when we will return to Hawaii. In the meantime, Simon had a short work trip to Nags Head, North Carolina last weekend and we were able to put together a mini-version of family fieldwork to try it out.
We visited Nags Head to facilitate collection of large, fresh, whole pelagic fishes including tuna and wahoo. These fish subsequently traveled with Simon & a colleague to San Diego for high resolution scanning in an MRI machine. The resultant data are a key first step to Simon’s newest project at NRL developing a fish-inspired autonomous underwater vehicle.
November is the tail end of the season for the fish of interest, so a three-day window was allotted where Simon could assess the daily catch from his vendor fisherman and pick the specimens he wanted, then carefully package them for shipping to San Diego. Time was critical as he wanted to ensure the fish were whole fresh specimens (fresh is better when it comes to MRI) and never frozen.
The fish collection window fell over a holiday weekend, so I made plans to join Simon and bring the boys & their grandparents along for the ride. We rented a house in Nags Head across the street from the beach and brought along a stroller and sand toys. Overall, everything worked. The kids and I made it home safely, Simon is in San Diego proceeding with data collection from the fish scans, and the grandparents are still excited about our trip to Hawaii.
That said, we learned quite a few things to operate more smoothly next time!
Our children are still very young (3 years, 10 months) so having a safe space for both of them to play indoors is critical. When we travel to Hawaii I’ll bring/buy extra outlet covers, baby gates, pop-up toy storage, and doorknob covers.
Simon takes Blake for a sunset walk
Joey inspects a shark egg case that he found at the beach
This past weekend was REALLY hectic because of the aforementioned time crunch on getting the fish into the MRI as quickly as possible. We were only in Nags Head for three days. In addition, we had extra people coming and going from the house. This was definitely stressful for the boys. I was reminded (again) that we need to keep everything as simple as possible for them, and preserve their routine. I think things will be easier in Hawaii since we are there for a whole month, and they’ll have more time to get settled and used to the family fieldwork norm.
On the same note, buffer days are really critical for kids. I had a free day with them after arriving in Nags Head, and spent another day with them at the grandparents’ house in Williamsburg before returning to our home in Alexandria. That extra time really helped them re-group and stay happy.
The final challenge with family fieldwork is delineating my time between work and kids. At home, I never work when I’m with them – I reserve all work things for when I’m at my office, or when they are asleep. This is a harder line to draw with a shared house in a new place. We are still piecing plans together, but now will prioritize a clear schedule of work time as well as a separated office space in the house that the boys will not usually be allowed to access. I’m glad a have a few more months to brainstorm before we go so that V2.0 Hawaii Edition gets off to a smooth start!
We 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.
We’ve almost never deployed or collected our instruments without additional flotation of some kind. A raft helps us transport heavy and large equipment from shore, and when equipped with a dive flag, signal to others where we are. We’ve had to swim out quite far in many places – the beach at Nu’u bay is far from deep water, hydrophones needed to be distant from the boat traffic at Maliko gulch, and we needed to show where we were to the boats coming in and out of Kewalo basin.
Our first ‘vessel’ was the “Sea Hawk 300” – a toy inflatable boat complete with plastic oars we got for $30 (what a bargain!). Apart from its tendency to occasionally leak it was a great help, hauling equipment from the beach to dive sites and back. It even served as a real boat when Simon had a cold and followed Lauren as she snorkeled to retrieve the instruments at Electric Beach, Oahu.
We had a few problems with the sea hawk. We left the car keys inside while we were down which didn’t go well on one occasion when the waterproof plastic bag with the keys inside took flight over the side. If anyone ever finds a floating bag on a pacific beach with a new-looking Volkswagen keyfob inside (which should be in perfect working condition), its worth $370 when returned to Enterprise.
The line connecting the sea hawk to us was fairly thin and had the disconcerting tendency to break. This happened three times at Kahekili bay on Maui’s west coast. Luckily, each time the stiff tradewinds were blowing along shore. As soon as it was discovered that the boat was gone the drill was the same – everyone surfaced and swam to the beach, whoever got there first would dump their gear and run downwind. After running a kilometre in a full wetsuit and then walking back upwind with the sea hawk in tow several times, we upgraded the line to an anchor warp. It was hoped that the extra hassle of carrying a heavy line like that underwater would be offset by never having to retrieve the boat again. We were right about never having to retrieve the boat again, but wrong about the rope..
Our deployment at La Perouse Bay, southern Maui, involved a swim of a couple of hundred metres offshore into water between 10-20 m deep. The tradewinds were fairly strong this far from shore and we could feel them constantly tugging on the sea hawk while we were underwater with the heavy line clipped to our belts. During the last survey of the day we clipped the sea hawk to one of the anchors that was already screwed into the sand. When we came back…it was gone! The line hadn’t snapped. Instead, the spring loaded swivel snap had somehow come undone – something very difficult to replicate (as we tried many times) but possible under the right conditions. We surfaced as fast as we could (which was fairly slowly, as we had equipment and an ascent rate to watch) and looked for the boat. If it was close enough we could make a dash for it, or so I thought. I will never forget the view on the surface: a wild and windswept sea, a glowing sunset over Molokini, and the sea hawk flipping over and over wave crests far in the distance, forever freed from its anchor and on its way to the deep ocean via the Lanai channel. If it made it past Lanai, Molokini, and Maui, its three independent floatation chambers may mean that sea hawk will voyage over the north pacific gyre for many years.
Both of us were rather upset. It was sunset and we had to swim back to shore with all our stuff. We had become used to the convenience that sea hawk provided. What shall we do? We swam back to the beach and discussed/commiserated on the way home. Could we find an inexpensive replacement on Maui? Craigslist was consulted and sea hawk #2 (A.K.A. ‘the donut’) was found.
The donut is actually a ski tube (or ski biscuit in NZ). Bought for the humble sum of $25, it proved its worth the first time we used it – in choppy seas on Maui’s north shore where the sharp rocks might have pierced the thinner hull of the sea hawk.
Sometimes however, the distance between shore and where we want to put our equipment is just too far to swim. We have a permit to do our work in the marine reserve at Kealakekua bay on the Big Island, about 2 km from the nearest shore access. Although almost no-one swims, hundreds of kayakers make the trip every day to view the monument in the place where Captain Cook was killed and to snorkel the reef. We were tempted to use a kayak. But to rent or buy? The going rate for a double kayak is around $60 a day. We would need one here and at two other locations, so we would end up spending at least $300, which was roughly how much used double kayaks were going for on Craigslist. To cut a long story short we bought one – the “Pelican apex 13 twin”. Whether or not we save money depends on whether or not we can sell it in a couple of weeks!
Regardless, it works very well after a few quick mods (there were no porthole lids, so some real estate signs were sacrificed). The one exception was when we tried to take our scuba gear on board with us. With the tanks in the footwells, the centre of gravity is dangerously high. If you neatly put your mask away in the foot pocket of your fin (which sinks), its impossible to find everything on the bottom when the kayak tips over and spills all your gear! Luckily this occurred in a shallow safe place during our ‘sea
trial’ deployment at Puuhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) Bay and a short swim to the car (to get a spare mask) meant that we recovered everything. We now tow the donut (with our dive gear inside) behind the kayak as a kind of trailer, which works very well. Needless to say we get quite a few comments from the other kayakers.
Initially we thought we would be spoiled rotten during our time on the cruise. The idea of working from a small boat with a tender seemed so much easier than lugging all of our heavy equipment between car and beach, and beach and dive site. Such luxury would be hard to come down from, and we weren’t sure how we would handle it.
Turns out that some of those original assumptions were wrong. Fortunately, it wasn’t too big of a shock- since our original assumptions often turn out to be wrong!
Working from the Hi’ialakai was awesome, and we got to visit some of the most amazing underwater places on earth. However, it was also extremely difficult. We had to move heavy equipment between decks, and on and off our small boat every day. The small boat was often out in rough seas, which made dealing with our gear challenging. We were both looking forward to begin shore diving operations this past week to see how it compares.
The Perks of Shore Diving:
1- All gear (diving, photographic, and acoustic) can be assembled on land. It may be sandy, but it will definitely not be rocking, and no one will be seasick over the side while putting hydrophones together.
2- No one uses our car except for us! Unlike the small boat, which had to be emptied every day, our car can be the semi-permanent home for clean gear, removing one of the lugging stuff around steps.
3- Towing a raft full of stuff isn’t much harder than towing an empty raft. We had to tow a surface float at all times on the cruise, so our trusty SeaHawk raft doesn’t seem very different in terms of effort. It does serve a much more functional role as the main gear transportation device, however.
4- Surface swimming is great exercise, and you get all the pros without much risk of serious injury. At least, not much risk compared to lifting 50-100lb piece of equipment or bracing oneself against 2-3 meter seas in a small boat.
5- I get to pack our cooler! With whatever I want! Instead of sifting through the same array of potato chips and crackers that weren’t particularly appetizing on the first day (much less the 21st), we fill our cooler each morning with foods we like for lunch and snacks. What a great idea.
6- If someone becomes sick and can’t dive, the other one can just pick the gear up snorkeling- no lost equipment! This happened today when Simon’s cold was still too persistent for diving, and I recovered the two small hydrophones and camera tree from a dive site. He helped from the SeaHawk, which incidentally also works well as a small rowboat.
7- Shave ice. Instead of celebrating another successful deployment with increasingly stale cookies, we can each select our own preferred flavors of Hawaii’s best frozen treat.
All of our experiences in Hawaii have been incredible, and our time on the Hi’ialakai was nothing less. We both learned so much and got to see the most amazing things. But the challenges of really working at sea were real. We learned how to take it all in stride and had an awesome time, but being relieved of those challenges makes us appreciate what we doing now that much more!
I can’t believe this day is here already- we are embarking on a five day transit back to Honolulu! Our amazing adventure to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is drawing to a close.
We visited a total of four remote islands- French Frigate Shoals, Pearl & Hermes, Kure, and Lisianski. Each had its own unique character, both above and below water. Kure was by far our favorite, as you may have gathered from our earlier enamored blog posts! A combination of beautiful weather, extra time, and perfect diving really sold us on Kure atoll. At each island, we put out three different types of hydrophones to record acoustic data for two days, and 3-6 time lapse cameras. We also completed surveys of the surrounding ecosystem, using photo mosaics, transect lines, and fish counts amongst other things to quantify the character of each individual site.
We have learned firsthand about some of the most pristine ecosystems in the world, and collected as much data as we possibly could with the amount of small boat time we were given. We are both looking forward (really!) to analyzing it and turning it into scientific papers and PhD chapters. It is far more meaningful to research something that you got to experience yourself.
We have also learned some of the ins and outs and eccentricities of living on a research vessel and working at sea. It has been quite an experience in of itself! Lauren’s feeling is that this was an incredible opportunity, but she doesn’t want to base her career on working in such remote areas. There is so much planning, logistics, and time involved in collecting data, and at any moment technical difficulties or weather could preclude you from getting what you need!
On our last dive at Lisianski, we had two casualties. One was relatively minor- Lauren was bitten by one of the large ulua that have followed us around every dive site up here. It was a small injury, but certainly a big reminder that we are diving with large predators, and that they are not afraid of people! Much more significant was an incident that we began to suspect when the hydrophone array was not as buoyant as usual when we brought it up from Lisianski. Upon getting back to Hi’ialakai and opening the battery and computer cylinders, Simon quickly learned that the computer compartment had flooded with seawater. He is working hard to salvage as much of the equipment as possible, and will send the hard drive off for data recovery once we return to land.
Equipment failure is a normal part of field work, but this was our first big hit. We are now both working on developing modified field plans and experiments for our upcoming time on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island. We appreciate all of the mentors who have reassured us that this is to be expected in seagoing work, and rather an important experience that comes with being a graduate student!
We are steaming back to Honolulu against swell and wind, so the Hi’ialakai is only doing 8 kts (she did 10.2 kts on the way out). It will still take four full days from Lisianski. We are scheduled to make port at 0900 Friday, August 24 (Honolulu time). Feel free to give us a call on our cell phones after that! We are looking forward to catching up with all of our family and friends on the phone, skype, and facetime. We’re planning a ‘vacation’ three day weekend when we return to rest and recover, and then we’ll be getting started on our next Oahu leg after unloading our stuff from the vessel. We’ll also be back to public blogging when we are off of the NOAA ship.
This cruise has given both of us some of the most amazing experiences of our life. The diving has been spectacular, in particular since we were in the water alone- never on a tour or as part of a large group, and often in places that may never have been dived before (or again!) We were so impressed by the natural curiosity and un-altered behavior of all of the animals that we encountered. By far the most memorable were the impromptu ‘lunch’ snorkels with dolphins, manta rays, monk seals, and sharks. We were completely alone in the sea with these beautiful swimmers, who were in their natural habitat and acting as they ‘should.’ (Before humans pushed these species out to the fringes, anyway). Our sense of ocean wonder has only grown from this trip.
We got lucky yesterday- we were given a full day at the last minute instead of a half! We used the extra time to explore Kure Atoll, and for the first time we brought our ‘big’ camera along for the ride. Here’s a collection of some of our favorite shots from the day. We are currently steaming full speed to our last stop, Lisianski, and gearing up for our final gear deployment on this cruise! (PS- don’t let our last title confuse you. It’s pronounced cure-ay)
Sunday saw us retrieving the last of our acoustic equipment from the lagoon at Pearl and Hermes atoll, which went very well. All through the dive Lauren and I had been admiring the half-dozen or so galapagos sharks that had shown up. We sent the hydrophone to the surface and watched them swimming around for about 15 minutes. As we ascended the sharks became more curious, reducing the distance between them and us. Being in blue water and surrounded by sharks and big alua was very special – so special that our coxswain and one of the science outreach team got back in the water for some snorkeling. Soon, the coxswain suggested they be picked up as the sharks were becoming very curious. After they got in the boat, we dropped over the side for a look. Initially, there were around four sharks visible in the very clear water. The bottom could be seen clearly, easily 30 m below. Slowly, the number of sharks began to increase. In almost no time at all there were around twenty galapagos sharks below our feet, swimming close by and inspecting our flippers. Lauren reports that this was one of the most amazing experiences of her life. Looking down on the school of sharks was absolutely incredible, and the visibility was perfect so we could see them all the way to the sandy bottom.
We motored overnight to Kure and were back in the water first thing Monday morning. We’re back from our first day’s diving at Kure Atoll, the northernmost atoll on the planet.
Initially formed much further south in warmer waters, Kure has been slowly transported north by the tectonic motions of the pacific plate. Sometime in the future, conditions will presumably be too cold for corals to grow. Right now, it’s hanging on, barely at the edge of the tropical currents that sweep through the Hawaiian Islands. Consequently, the species we see here are like what you’d see in Northern New Zealand!
Our first day of diving at Kure was very nice (Lauren says it was idyllic). Both topside and underwater colors were vibrant and bright, and most of the views we saw looked like they could be used for postcards. The term “gin clear water” describes well what we saw off the southern side of Kure atoll. Underwater visibility is around 50 m, making the search for an ideal hydrophone deployment site a task we could do from the boat, rather than having to get in, dive down, and swim around.
We motored over an expanse of spur-and-groove coral habitat, and an ideal section of white sand straddled by two high spurs of coral reef was selected as a candidate site for our equipment. Diving down, a few galapagos sharks immediately came in to view. They stuck around but their numbers did not swell to what we had seen the previous day at Pearl and Hermes. The white sand was deep enough for our sand anchors – a critical aspect we needed to check out before the flyby array was bought down to the sea floor. The coral spurs adjacent to the sand were teeming with a large number of different fish species – there were hundreds of fish, but it seemed that there were very few which were alike.
The tropical species which are so familiar to us were there (surgeonfish, squirrelfish, angelfish, parrotfish, wrasse), but they were also joined by subtropical varieties (morwong, boarfish, endemic butterflyfish, etc). Interestingly, big snapper hung out near one of the overhangs, a good sign that fishing had not really taken place here in some time. The coral situation was an interesting one – the large spurs of rock on which coral was growing are clearly made from calcium carbonate, or dead coral. This suggests to us that at one stage massive reef-building corals existed here. Nowadays, however, small porites colonies dot the surface of the rock, too small and sparse to build reef, but enough to maintain habitat for the animals which rely on live coral growth. This was the first site on this cruise where Lauren spotted one of her favorite sea slug relatives, a neon yellow and black flatworm.
The flyby and another hydrophone were put in the water and bought down to the bottom in short order. Working on the sea floor here was a pleasure not just because of the stunning scenery, but because it was also so calm! Our time at Kure is the first time on this cruise we’ve experienced good weather. The surface was mirror calm, the swell was of low amplitude, long-period, and manageable. We took a number of photographs of the array deployment, which runs as follows:
1) Assemble the hydrophone cable, battery pack, and data acquisition computer together. 2) Power on (don’t forget!). 3) Simon and Lauren kit up and enter the water. 4) The coxswain places the cable in the water, and lifts the computer/batteries to the boat gunnel. 5) The array is lifted from the gunnel and lowered into the water, Simon guiding it in while the coxswain does the lifting. 6) A rope is tied to the array and the divers descend to one of the sand anchors. 7) The rope is strung through an anchor eye and the array (very buoyant) is slowly pulled to the bottom. 8) As the array reaches the bottom, Simon maintains tension on the line while Lauren ties the array off to the sand anchor using a shorter rope. As soon as this is done, Simon can let go and relax! 9) The array cable is strung out and fixed to other sand anchors, the array geometry being carefully measured so we’ll be able to process the data with greater accuracy later on. Retrieval is the reverse of deployment – the only difference being that it’s much harder to bring the array back on board the boat than it is to put it in the water. Hopefully Wednesday will be just as calm!
Once the array, another hydrophone, and our camera ‘tree’ were in the water, we moved site to deploy one more hydrophone and a couple of cameras in the inside of Kure lagoon. Arriving on site inside, it was immediately clear that things were very different here. The slow ocean swell was gone, replaced by some confused wind chop (wind and swell were in opposing directions). The clear blue water outside was gone too, and in its place was something more greenish. The
environment on the shallow lagoon floor was like what you would experience in a harbour. Fine silt, lots of dead coral, many small fish, including juvenile versions of what you’d find outside the lagoon. Visibility was worse but not bad. The temperature was considerably warmer at 28 degrees (as opposed to 25-26 outside). We positioned our equipment and began surveys. What initially looked to be piles of dead coral rubble turned out to harbour lots and lots of small critters – many kinds of reef fishes (including a boxfish!), cone shells (venomous), juvenile fish, rock lobsters, polychaetes, sea cucumbers, and some pufferfish! While definitely a dive where the small things were of greatest interest, the lagoon was an equally fantastic place.
Its our day off today due to the boat shortage. We’re taking advantage of the down time to sleep in 🙂 enter data, back up data and photos, update our notes, and of course write a new blog! We’re planning to head back out tomorrow morning for a half day to retrieve our gear before the Hi’ialakai steams back east towards Lisianski tomorrow night.