Thursday, September 24, 2009

Diving the Red Sea

There are no jokes in this post. This is merely a celebration of the fact that I had finally made it to the water. I had this adventure a few days before departing for Bahrain - Thursday, August 17th, to be exact.

I woke up psyched, ready to go, now nearly a month in Saudi without setting foot near the sea (kind of - there is a beach in front of campus, but it is still gated off with scary barbed wire and razor wire). Our marine science professor had chartered a dive boat through Dream Divers in Jeddah and I was finally going to see the coral reefs of the Red Sea. I was super excited because our professor would probably end up being my research advisor / boss, so I wanted to be able to bounce ideas off of him here and there. One idea I was particularly curious to chase down was related to climate change and the Red Sea's unique chemistry. In my academic pursuits I have had problems motivating myself to apply research to climate change - all my friends seem psyched about it and recognize its importance, yadda yadda - it's not that I don't agree, it's just that I'm not good at jumping into that massive crazy debate when all I want to do is study reef fish ecology (i.e. what does that fish eat, does it compete with that fish, where does this fish spawn, when, where do the babies go, do they come back here, etc. etc.) Working in the Red Sea might give me a chance to address the climate change issue without trying because the Red Sea is warmer than comparable reef ecosystems elsewhere and still has many of the same species of fishes. Here could be my chance to compare, say, population growth of a particular fish species between Red Sea reefs and non-Red Sea reefs and then make conclusions about what the reef ecosystems of the world would look like if all the reefs were warmer...

But that's a bit of a stretch. The conventional wisdom from my last coral reef biology course in Australia was that it was temperature anomalies that caused problems on coral reefs - that the corals were adapted somehow to the temperature regimes of the environment in which they grew (i.e. the warmer-than-usual Red Sea condition) and only "bleached" (lost their symbiotic algae) under abnormal fluxes in average temperature... Also, the Red Sea is saltier than other oceanic water masses, and that's certainly not a step in the "climate change" direction if ice caps are melting - but it does make for interesting physiological studies on salt tolerance in fishes... hmm...

But back to real time here - I took not a single pre-dive photo because I was saving my batteries for underwater shots. I wasn't paying much attention to our two-deck dive boat either - maybe 46 feet or so? I only caught the name - "Dream One," which left nothing to the imagination for excited tourists chartering through Dream Divers (which is OK, because I'm pretty sure tourists don't exist in Saudi Arabia). On our way out of the marina, some cocky young guy was jetski-ing circles around our boat, wake jumping, and removing his shirt for the few women that came out with us. Occasionally we passed by your average mega-yacht here and there tied up to various large houses on the side of the channel out to sea - not unlike Miami Beach, except with more garbage... At one point, we pulled up to some government dock just before leaving the channel - to pay some sort of tax, or register our day trip, or something. I really wanted to take a photo of this, but photographing government institutions in Saudi Arabia is a huuuuuuge no-no, which can cause much grief, possible camera confiscation, and possible jail time... In any case, the water in the channel was shockingly clear by this government dock, and you could see down to the bottom maybe 15 feet deep where there was amazingly an occasional Acropora sp. colony or three, with some playful damselfishes!

Our ship's bow received much mammalian attention while cruising out to the reef - human above, and dolphin below. I saw the largest dolphin I'd ever seen along this perhaps 5-8 miles offshore cruise to the reef through deeper blue waters; there was one perhaps ten or eleven feet long, really. Plenty of the dive boat's passengers had never seen dolphin; there are only 10 marine science students at KAUST, and only a handful of those have any kind of SCUBA certification or experience with the ocean ecosystem at all. The oohs and ahhs and huzzahs were a gentle reminder and a standing hope that yes, the ocean is fascinating and that maybe this is enough of a truth to convince the world to pay attention to its needs. But our dive boat could not hold 6 billion guests this day.

At the reef, my buddies and I were first in the water - and right away it was spectacular. Words can't describe. The first photo I took was this one:

In which you can see Pocillopora, Acropora, Porites and other corals, some species of damselfishes, and the astonishing reef goatfish of such yellow that I'd never seen before (the Caribbean species are whitish/reddish or silvery with a single yellow line). These goatfish had pinkish/purple under their eyes, and such vibrant yellow bodies! See the "barbels" under the chin, which you often see it using to root around on the reef for little invertebrates to eat...

Our deepest logged depth was almost sixty feet, hence the mostly blue coloration of a lot of these later photos. Our eyes are much better at picking up the little red light available at depth than a camera is, and it is hard to "fix" the photo in photoshop without ruining it; ideally a strobe would be a nice addition, and I'll be investing in such an advanced u/w photography system before leaving KAUST. It would help take more vibrant photos of every organism at depth, including this awesome species of coral I was really excited to see, as (I believe) it is a Red Sea endemic - the waving hand coral, Xenia sp.

Each polyp opens and closes their tentacles, like a hand opening and closing a fist (not what I would call "waving," but to each his own). I even took a video of it that you can check out on YouTube.

Just to let your mind wander, here are some more photos sans excessive narration:

In the photo above, you can see a vertical pillar of coral rising perhaps forty feet to the surface... The photo below shows a fangblenny species, which eats fish scales and mucus - and takes the occasional hilarious nip at a diver's legs.

In the photo above, you can see some Chromis sp. damselfishes hiding away from me in the branches of an Acropora coral. In the photo below, you can see a diseased Acropora colony - the lighter colored left side of the coral is alive, the right side is dark colored to to algae growth over dead limestone skeleton, and the bright white barely distinguishable "war zone" between the two lines is where disease is spreading through the colony, from right to left.

Below is a photo of coral competition*; the purple coral has settled on some dead part of the tan coral, and is now trying to compete with the tan coral for the tan coral's own skeleton (i.e. for the purple coral to grow on)!
(*Although it could also just be an indicator of heavy coral recruitment here; that the tan coral is dying for whatever reason, not related to the purple coral, and the purple coral is just gobbling up the open space; but not probable)

Above, a monogamous pair of bluecheek butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus) swims by a coral buffet. Below, a shot of a lone regal angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus).

I even came across some of the ornamental fish that Proaquatix (my last job) raises - like this little fangblenny (not the same genus as the one pictured earlier that eats fish mucus), Melacanthus sp. in the below photo (look in the middle for a pale yellow and blue guy - and see it on the home page at Proaquatix)

And finally, the endemic Red Sea clownfish, Amphiprion bicinctus, which I found in several areas on the reef; always only associated with anemones.

Above, an adult female clownfish tries to shoo me away - possibly from a clutch of eggs, as it is summertime when most reef fish spawning commences. In the photo below, the research assistant for the future KAUST fish ecology lab (?) attempts to net some of these clownfish and clip off a bit of fin for a DNA sample. The DNA is used for paternity analyses planned in the future, not unlike the techniques used in court, in order to identify the parents of any newly recruited (settled out of the plankton down on to the reef) baby clownfish that this lab catches in the future.

This clownfish research was started by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute & James Cook University scientists with a clownfish species in Papua New Guinea and is now being applied to the Red Sea clownfish. The whole point is to understand another topic I'm insanely curious about - population connectivity. If a pair of fish that live in the same place all their lives keep having babies, where the heck do the babies go? Can they, for example, supply baby fish to a damaged reef a few miles away where all the adult clownfish there have disappeared? You begin to see why this info is important...

Every time I surfaced on SCUBA, I cast off my BC & tank and gleefully leapt back into the sea to snorkel around and take more photos. It was fantastic.

...Of course then I went to the U.S. Consulate's social event in Jeddah - and that's a karaoke-and-alcohol story for another time...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

So... Bahrain!!!

I am very excited because I'm going to Bahrain for three days, two nights over the upcoming Eid Fitr holiday break (end of Ramadan)!

Wait - what? No? No tickets eh? You needed your passport to pick the tickets up from the airport that somebody else reserved because you couldn't buy them online because - well, because the airline's credit card service doesn't accept credit cards? Oh.

It's OK, what really is "Bahrain" anyways, right guys-

Yay we're going to Bahrain again! We can buy tickets for a day later on NasAir, a new Saudi airline, and fly across -


After about a few dozen switchbacks the last few days, a steadily growing group of KAUST students (say, from 6 to 22) have decided to visit Bahrain, based on information that Bahrain is the most liberal of the Persian Gulf nations, and most likely, of the Arabian Peninsula, too. It is there that we hope to spend our Eid Fitr holiday break, or at least a few days worth - trying to understand the culture of another Middle Eastern nation, and indulge here in there in their "lax" alcohol policy.

The quotation marks are in place because Bahrain's alcohol policy used to mean actual liquor stores and pubs, bars and hotel clubs - but as of 2007 they've elected stricter regulations... i.e. no more liquor stores or bars; only alcohol at three-star and up hotels. Since the alcohol cutback, the owner of one particular one-star hotel went from making almost $4,000 a night to making about $250 a night. For a country based less on oil than other gulf/arab nations, this might be a problem, right? In any case, as of now we're just hoping to run into alcohol in the evenings at all in order to spice up our terse trip ( see this article: )

Due to glaring inconsistencies in information (VISA eligibility, existence of various hotel reservations), tonight in the library has been another laid-back night trying to iron out the kinks in this trip, and I'm finally writing this post (lower quality than usual) at 7:00 AM - after the talks with new friends, visits to the recently opened Baskin Robbins, secret adventures, more attempts at conversations with Bahraini taxi companies, and YouTube videos of the Flight of the Conchords ( see this amazing second season video I'd not yet seen ).

So in an ingloriously bland summary, we plan to take a plane to Dammam, Saudi Arabia (on the east coast) leaving on Sep. 20th at 7:00 AM for $120 round trip - then hire a bus or a car (we're calling [again] today to check on that; $45 round trip) to drive 2-3 hours over the 28 kilometer King Fahd Causeway to Bahrain, a tiny island nation... On the causeway we stop twice; once to verify we're not Saudis trying to leave without the proper documents, another to buy our Bahraini tourist VISAs ($10 to $40, depending on who you ask?). We then make it to our hotel in Juffair, where for perhaps $12 each night each person will sleep, splitting 22 people between eight beds and four couches at a hotel we were lucky enough to find with the aid of a Bahraini KAUSTer... And then repeat the process in reverse on our way back on the afternoon of the 22nd... All so certain students can be back in time for their inaugural ceremony duties (as opposed to staying through Friday).

Let me mention that web sites have suggested that only those from the US, UK, European Union, Japan, Hong Kong, and maybe three other countries are listed as able to get VISAs. And also that somehow four of our Colombian friends already got in, but there are four Chinese going tomorrow, and then the main group on the 20th, which includes passport holders from the UK, US, Mexico, Italy, Germany... It should all be... fun. If I upload a single picture of Bahrain, it will have been an "intercultural" success story, and indeed we will all be receiving random e-mails from future internet-browsing Westerners looking for information on how the heck to get over to this liberal Arabian nation for a drink or two (Qatar has drinks, but you need to apply for special permits to get them, which must include a signed letter from your employer)...

Over our two half-days, two nights, and one full day in this tiny nation of 791,000 people & 290 square miles, we will visit local mosques, museums, and a ginormous water park where they will be playing Kung Fu Panda - and quote the film later at the crazy parties of Bahraini three-star hotels. Maybe four-star, if we're feeling fancy.

Happy Eid Fitr Holidays!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's like college all over the world

Do you remember what it was like when you first went off to college? Perhaps, if you're from the USA, it might have followed the paradigm of leaving the tearful mother and proud father behind at your old house and possibly old hometown to discover the adventurous freedoms of the knowledge/new people/alcohol laden world that is the American college scene. What a reckless, happy and unforgettable (except those one-too-many nights with one-too-many drinks...) four years, you sigh nostalgically. Enter graduate school: a specialized and perhaps melancholically dry experience where your new classes have fewer students and more math, and your Thursday night hang-out has been cut back to one bar and one early & responsibly self-imposed curfew - for you are becoming a mature adult now (at least you tell yourself; a new mantra that sinks in through those ongoing grad years).

Which is exactly what I wanted before I came to KAUST. What I've experienced in the past ten days is like no other "academic" experience ever before - what many universities herald but hardly understand and barely offer: diversity. Several nights thus far I have played football (soccer) - the universal unifier of foreign cultures - with peers from sixty countries. I can name for you at least one late-night footy player from Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Canada, Ireland, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina... and that's just what's coming to mind right now...

At KAUST, internationalism isn't some sad mini-celebration - some Caucasian cause for recognition of Roberto, your school's lone South American citizen, via the baking and sharing of intercultural cupcakes. At KAUST, you will find yourself, as I did, truly embedded into the culture, listening to traditional Saudi Arabian folk music (from around Jeddah) at some school-wide party -

& riding camels used by the bedouins of the desert for centuries (not the same exact individuals of course, for camels live only 40-50 years unless they are smacked by Saudi buses), now decked out for celebration -

& even joining in some Saudi sword dancing, totally free-form, with your similarly confused and bemused companions.

While surely, this cultural incorporation may occur in any part of the world at any foreign school, the key to my point about KAUST is that while you may have been falling off a smelly but charming dromedary last week while waving a sword and wearing traditional Hijazi Imma/Immama headgear - tonight, on walking back from the library, you'll find, say, 20 of your Mexican companeros dancing merengue and salsa in discovery square for Pepe's cumpleanos, and indeed you'll find yourself joining in - until 3:30 in the morning, perhaps - doing the macarena and learning how to jump and swing to new beats you never would have heard before were it not for Angel's apropos mp3-picking and the encouraging cheers of Berenice la hermosa...

(Unfortunately, you'll have to wait for more photos of those shenanigans until Damien of Argentina/USA/Mexico posts them on facebook...)

A final note explaining the coupling between true diversity and the unfettered years of undergraduate zaniness? And sans the typical rigor associated with graduate education? Well friends, as long as KAUST labs/marine facilities/dive safety office remain incomplete, and the concept of "original research" and daily lab work lay dormant and misty, the international 20-something is left free to wax romantic about the wonders of having friends from sixty or so countries - sixty or so styles of experiencing the joys of youth - and the wonders of the college years live on.