Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Wonderful Life Aquatic

There are many adventures I have yet to recount to you all - the January research cruise, the trip to Lebanon, and a future post on the good things at KAUST, including my cool housing. Now rushed for imminent departure to Ecuador with Erin, I chose not to pack my laptop - and figured it would be a shame to not share some photos from a research trip I just returned from.

This last trip was fantastic. In an effort to maximize the utility of KAUST funding for the sake of reef fish ecology, tens of thousands of dollars of acoustic transducers (pingers and receivers) were purchased for the sake of tracking reef fishes and learning more about where it is they go, among other things. Using that money means learning lots of new skills, especially since the transducer company's (VEMCO) workers came down to help us design the field arrays, deploy receivers for range testing, retrieve data, and analyze patterns in data. I learned how to do all of these things.

I also learned how to perform surgeries on fish to implant acoustic pingers into the body cavity, so that fish can be detected when they swim by our receivers on the reef. I never considered myself steady enough to be a surgeon, but I sewed up a dead grouper OK:

With these new field skills, I can dream up and achieve future projects to fit together small pieces of the puzzle of reef fish population dynamics in the Red Sea. Exciting for me.

Most awesome of all - swimming with young whale sharks. We know almost nothing about this gigantic fish, so a side project here is to tag and track whale sharks, too. Down in Al-Lith is one of the prime spots to see whale sharks in the spring time. And we were lucky enough to see them. With maybe four or five different sharks in total over the last several days, I was lucky enough to swim with them a few times. Most of the time they move at an incredible pace, difficult to keep up with, but I was lucky enough to go eye-to-eye with these gentle plankton feeders for mere minutes before the fish dove down into the depths again. Most fortuitous, on my last day we chanced to swim with a young shark for nearly half an hour, our presence no more cumbersome to him than a fly to us...

This young nine or ten foot male hung out at the surface with us, gulping plankton, and lazily moving around at 60-80 feet above a coral reef. It was one of the most fascinating experiences I have ever been lucky enough to have. We were working so hard all week that I didn't even get enough sleep to believe I wasn't dreaming. When I am at sea, studying reefs and who lives there, I begin to lose sight of the differences between reality and dreams - when on the reef, I'm living them.