Saturday, September 25, 2010

"You're a Dancing QUEEN! You just LOVE to DANCE!"

Once again, paradise delivers a wonderful day to me on a silver platter. I was a bit groggy getting up this morning, especially knowing I had a test and site cleanup to tackle. I got up 20 minutes earlier than I usually do to cram a few extra terms into my head; animals I probably wouldn't see out there, but that my teachers would be delighted to point out if we did. After the morning meeting we had site cleanup and our room was assigned to "beautification". Which was more like a communist activity… Pete said, "Ok ladies, I need you to move this pile of rocks, to there, and make another pile of rocks." Well, not EXACTLY like that, but that was the gist. We spent an hour moving rocks and concrete slabs from one side of the volleyball court to the opposite side where the large rubble pile is. 8 trips of a broken wheelbarrow and some country/rap music later, our hour was up and it was time to return to the group. We went to go change for the test, and quizzed each other on names and terms on our way out to the boats. Overnight, somebody had stolen our teeny Mercury 8 HP backup-backup motor and we had to use the Zodiac chase boat instead to haul everyone out to the dive site. People were cramming and freaking out and humming and screaming before the test, utterly nervewracking habits to have before tests, at least for me. A few of us decided to sing Motown songs instead, and our boat turned into a much better atmosphere for test taking. A nice rendition of "You've lost that lovin feeling" later, and it was time to take our test. The first fish we saw was one I had never seen underwater before. Great. The next 2 were stingrays, a rare sight. 17 more fish later and the test was done, complete with parrotfish, damselfish, snappers, groupers, and a honeycomb cowfish, one of those 5 fish I had crammed before getting on the boat. I got a few minutes to review my answers abovewater and on the boat before I had to turn it in, and I remembered that first fish I had seen. Malacanthus plumieri. Success! So with that madness behind me, we headed back in for some lunch and preparation for our community outreach program.

I was helping with computer classes today, most of which were just people coming in wanting to perfect their typing skills, set up facebook accounts or emails, install skype, etc. However, today the Port Authority was sending employees in to learn some basics so there were a few more people in the computer room than usual. I was working with a woman from the P.A. that wanted help with an email account, and then was needing to learn Excel for future P.A. work. However, excel is really difficult to teach when your student is unfamiliar with mathematical terms and cursor functions. The nuiances of Excel are rather tricky to learn if you haven't been using a mouse for a while, and mathematical terms and functions don't make sense if you don’t use them often. It was a harrowing 2 hours, but I think she was in a good mood when she left. Her sentence-forming skills were poor too, but we powered through it, setting up basic ledger sheets and yahoo email accounts. Whew.

Dinner-time was shortly afterwards, and it was already dark by the time we had cleaned up. Time to go out! The Center was abuzz with energy ready to blow off steam from our huge test. We started out at Chicken Bar and chatted with some locals and just released general energy after such a stressful study week. A few of us talked about making trips to see other students or travel to other states. Mike is all set to come visit Stephen and I in May so he can run Bay to Breakers, a famous San Francisco race. Mike and I have been swapping stories recently about track and cross country and this race has been on his bucket list for quite some time. We got bored at Chicken so Alex (Pags), Sean and I went over to Rooster's so shoot some pool. We ran into Red, a local man that had teamed up with me in dominos to beat Goochie and Money last week and he challenged us to some pool. Him and I have had some cool conversations, so he gave me one of the shark teeth he had collected earlier in the week. Way cool.

We left Rooster's to return to Chicken bar, but met the crowd of students migrating to Bayside Ballers, the closest thing we have to a club here. Which happens to be right next to Roosters. Almost the whole Center was there, and we spent the next 4 hours dancing and dancing and dancing and dancing until we had all sweated 8 lbs or so and could barely stand. I love that all the guys in this program are both willing to dance, and rather good at it, and we all just have an absolute blast when we do go out. A few of us danced with our favorite local characters too, and we all were drenched and out of breath by 12 when it was time to make curfew. I walked home (1/2 a block?) with Pags and we met everyone else playing spoons in the common area. A few rounds later and it was time to calm down and settle in for the evening. Pags and I swapped epic back and arm massages and enjoyed the temperate evening, talking about our families and childhoods. He's always good for great conversation late at night, as is Mike (Sway), some of the few night owls that tend to keep me company in the wee hours of the morning. I crashed into bed around 2, exhausted, exhilarated, and content with life in this beautiful place.

Go broncos!

Chase, Sean, Mikenna, Pags, Myself, Savannah, and Money, our local "tour guide" of sorts.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What's Your Favorite Fish, John?

Not much happening today except a few morning classes about reef fish reproduction from John, our fish-sex-obsessed Center Director. His favorite fish happens to be a boxy looking fish that has trouble staying upright during copulation. Hmm. By lunch we were all cramming for our test on Saturday before our 3rd and final ID session out in the field. I got the slow boat again, and Sarah, one of the interns with 420 logged dives (holy COWFISH), took us out into the field at Shark Alley. Right away before we even got into the water, Serena started yelling "shark! Shark!" She had seen a dorsal and caudal fin sticking up out of the water in the distance by the rocks. We all scrambled to get in the water to find the said shark, but alas, no shark. However, shortly after we jumped in, we did see a magnificent spotted eagle ray. These creatures are beautiful soaring through the water, flapping their "wings" and gliding between schools of fish. They are navy blue with brilliant white spots on their topside. As soon as it saw us, it gave  2 great pectoral kicks and it was quickly 100 feet away from us. We saw many other really cool fishes underwater while we were out there, along with a coral field and a really cool fan coral landmark. No shark though. Towards the end of our snorkel, we saw a large Southern Stingray cruising along the bottom with 2 cute little ones gliding along behind it. It was like seeing a little duck family underwater! So adorable. Fun fact! I have learned the difference between "fish" and "fishes"! Fish is either singular or plural, but only plural when referring to multiple individuals within one species. Fishes is plural for multiple individuals amongst several species, but cannot be used in the singular. Interesting!

Dinner followed shortly after our ID session and after dinner I studied more fish. Mike and I took a walk to blow off some study stress and ventured around the docks, exploring more tidbits of the island we hadn't seen before. We came back and played several intense games of ping pong before  calling it a night and heading back to the computer room for more intense cramming before the test. Big day tomorrow, but I get to sleep in an extra hour! :)

Thursday, September 23, 2010


No. Clue. Where. To. Start. So, I guess I'll backtrack to the beginning.

Today started out really slow, very tired. We got to our Environmental Policy class and luckily our professor gave us a more interactive assignment. We were divided into groups to assess how to solve the problem of litter on the island. Back story: people don't use garbage cans here. At bars, you can give the bottles back behind the counter, but there's not really trash cans or anything. Litter just gets thrown outside wherever, and by whomever, and the DECR (Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources, I'll mention them a lot in the future) pays tons of money to get the trash picked up. See, the locals will tell you, when you ask them why they just throw stuff on the ground, that their buddies are the ones getting paid to pick up trash, and if all the trash was gone, their friends would be out of a job. However, the DECR says that if there wasn't trash, they would reassign the garbage men to other more important jobs, and save a large amount of their budget. They need their budget for other things like protecting their marine areas and reducing illegal fishing practices. Our assignment is to come up with ways to reassign opinions about trash and propose a method to tackle the issue. So far we don't have too many ideas yet, but we walked around town to gain more insight into the problem. Litter is noticably more dense around restaurants, bars, and stores, and also in piles of rubble leftover from Ike.

After lunch was another fish ID session back at Admiral's Aquarium, a gorgeous, stereotypical "reef" snorkel site. It still amazes me how beautiful the fish are! They have so many spots, stripes, striations, blotches, and lines of different brilliant colors, its absurd. My favorite, Microspathodon chrysurus or, yellowtail damselfish, is a cobalt blue as a juvenile with electric blue spots. When it gets older it is a dark brown/black/purple color with the same electric blue spots but a golden yellow tail.
(Not my pictures...) Pictures cannot accurately depict the shine, brightness, and brilliance of these fish underwater. They are quickly becoming a favorite of mine. At Admiral's we also saw a Hawksbill Sea Turtle and an assortment of weird looking fish in this ID group. I wish I had my camera, but we're not allowed to bring them on educational snorkel/dives.
We came back exhausted from our dive around 4:15, as the current was fairly strong still from tropical storms, and I was attempting to write my blog, when my one of my roommates Leah burst into the computer room completely out of breath, scrambling for her camera. She managed to eek out "Dock. 10 foot. Tiger shark. Fisherman" so we all bolted to our rooms to put on community appropriate clothes and shoes, grab our cameras and raced down to the fishing docks to see what she was talking about. What I actually saw I was unprepared for. The shark was a massive 10 foot beast, writhing around on the cement of the boat launch, with a rope tied around its caudal fins.The fishermen were sharpening their knives, getting ready to skin and slice the shark before dark, its meat contributing to a great night of feasting. It seemed like all the students were there, crowding around taking pictures of the fisherman that caught it, the shark itself, gulping for air on land. We took turns getting close to it, touching its tail fin. Tiger sharks are very inflexible so touching or holding them on the tail is fairly harmless as they lack the movement to turn around quickly. Especially after being on land for 30 minutes. However, the sheer size of this female shark was ominous and it was frightening to even get within touching distance. I feel that the mood of the group shifted throughout the 2 hours we were down on the docks from an initial giddiness and awe that we could see such a shark up close, to pity and horror at the following events, to a final acceptance and peacefulness towards the community and the ended life of such a beautiful animal.

WARNING, GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS AND PICTURES TO FOLLOW. If you are vegetarian (or otherwise animal super-enthusiast who can't stand factory farming videos), reader discretion advised.

After the initial picture-taking and rapid fire questions asked of the fishermen, they finally began to cut up the shark before it got too late. The hard part was that the shark was still alive. From a logical standpoint, its very difficult to kill a shark that size. There's no way to cut its head off or smash its skull to put it out of its misery. Really, your only options are to severe its notochord (sharks are made of cartilage, so hence, no vertebrae, only a cartilaginous spinal chord thing), or let it suffocate to death. The fishermen chose the latter, and began cutting a wide strip from the caudal fin (tail fins) past the dorsal fin (the triangle one at the top that you always see sticking out of the water in shark horror films) up to the base of it's neck. The strip was tossed into the shallow water to get cleaned by fish and retrieved later. This was to expose the skin on the sides to be removed from the body, allowing the fishermen to access the meat of the shark. It was difficult to see the shark sputter, wriggle and twitch as fishermen cut off its fins, alive. There was no time to waste though, and it had to be done. The shark was clearly struggling for air and its gills were leaking blood. At this point, one of our professors who was with us asked the fishermen (butchers? island men? renaissance men?) why they didn't just severe the notochord. The simple reply came back, "Well the shark wouldn't put ME out of my misery if was to eat me!" But, in any case, they did just that, and the rest of the twitching came from residual nerve endings, as the shark couldn't feel anything, and was rapidly expiring. Next, the fishermen took foot-long knives and began separating the skin from the meat down the sides, and removing the rest of the fins, including the tail fins (this is the picture with the blood spout). Some students had left due to their light stomachs, and some students stayed, grimacing and wincing. The vast majority of us however, were exhilarated to be so close to an animal so big and scientifically fascinated at the sight. We got very brave and began taking pictures with the fins and other various places next to the shark. At this poitn the shark became less of a shark and more of a meat or commodity. After the skin was removed, the meat from the tail was sliced into small rounds (almost like filet mignon) and the upper body was sliced right down the middle, along the notochord. The notochord was removed and the organs were removed. 1/2 of a shark is a fatty liver anyways, used to control their buoyancy in the water, and the rest of the organs were stomach, filled with about 12 crabs. Once the skin was completely removed, it was tossed back into the ocean along with the organs, and the meat was washed off and put into a cooler. The head was sliced to remove the jaw and they were waiting for the Tooth Guy to come over and remove its teeth.

We asked some of the fishermen what was done with the meat, if it was sold, and how much they got for it. Their reply was the same: shark meat is way too expensive to buy on the island, and nobody wants to pay for it. Since catching a shark is a large, multi-personed task, everyone usually just demands their share and doesn't want to pay a cent. It is more profitable (socially and personally) to just give the meat away to whomever feels like cooking shark that night, and share it with the community. The jaws are kept by the man who speared it, the teeth are given away as souvenirs, the meat is divided up and the fins are taken to be sold illegally on other islands. Also given away free, since it is dangerous to sell illegally, so whoever wants to risk it, can. This is where the peaceful mindset kicks in. Yes, it does bother me that such a magnificent animal was killed, and slowly I might add, but the fishermen use it as subsistence. It is shared throughout the whole community and everybody gets a slice of the shark pie, if they so choose. At the end of the day, all fishermen let some of their catch suffocate to death, and this shark was no exception. It feeds their families and it doesn't happen all the time since no profit is made. That is what comforts me at the end of the ordeal. We waited around the docks for another half hour or so, waiting for the tooth guy, but he never showed up and we spent our time freaking out that we had just seen something so amazing, educational, and gruesome, and talking to the fishermen. A small child was practicing his skinning skills with one of the foot-long knives and some stomach tissue. More locals were discussing and debating the size and ferocity of the shark. It was all a community event. However, I did end up with some sort of sympathy, or empathy, or some sad emotion towards the students (and professors) that were affected strongly. I feel like I am slightly more unbiased, coming from many dissections in classes and a general awe of ocean creatures, but some students just viewed the whole thing as cruelty, and it was not our purpose to come here and witness such things. I wanted to comfort them somehow, but didn't know how because I couldn't relate. I don't know, I'm sure they're fine, but as time crawls on, looking back on the pictures, they get more and more gruesome not being there. I hope nobody reading this gets too freaked out. Sorry! The rest of the day was uneventful, as we all just studied and studied and studied and studied for our big test on Saturday. Well, besides the gun that some guy pulled out at a bar we almost went to. Again, weird fluke incidences of violence that usually is NEVER seen on this island. Don't freak out mom and dad, its fine, the police came quickly, but it happens, it happened back at Edison, and Im fine. :)

Just another Wednesday in the Caribbean. :)

Stephen getting a bearing

The fisherman who caught it, showing dominance

Chase, in the lion's den
First incision
Starting to cut the meat

Severing of notochord
Intent spectator

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sky Was What Color?

Its been a while since all the hair on my arms has been blond. The UV here is so intense sometimes, and I'm developing a gnarly watershoe tan on my ankles. Other than that, I don't wear socks, or much of any footwear unless I'm going into town. I've started to notice that none of us have an un-tanned standard. UV does penetrate swimsuits, even if it is very, very slowly. We're all tanning at the same pace and we're not going to know what neon white looks like anymore when we get home until we get ostracized from our own families for being a different skin color. I have only the skin underneath my ring that shows my real winter colors, since my regular swimsuit tan is a decent shade of golden brown already.

Wednesdays are our dive days, so we suited up just after our morning meeting and prepared to go out to sea. However, (Nick, you'll grimace...), one of the boats is running on a very slow backup motor and it was difficult to get out to the spot we wanted, so we ended up at the Spanish Chain. We normally run Yamaha 90 horsepower's here on our ocean boats, but our backup-backup motor is a Mercury 8. Go figure. Don't you appreciate your 25 Nick? :D  Visibility at the Spanish Chain was horrible, but we saw a few cool things. Fish mainly, but there were two absolutely gigantic Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americanus) just sitting in the sand. I hovered over them with my arms spread out, and their wingspan was larger than mine. Most likely about 8 feet wide and 6 feet long. As with most dives, it felt really short though, and we had to come back up fairly quickly. We scrambled out of our gear and into fresh clothes so we could be on time for our community outreach. All the students volunteer at the primary and high school on Wednesdays, so Stephen, Mikenna and I went to the primary school to assist the reading class. We helped a few cute kids with their ABC's and then made flashcards and curtains for the teacher during the remainder of the class. I was also assigned to help teach a music class with 2 other students, and coach cross-country/track after school, but the primary school let out early due to an unexpected teacher's inservice.

The rest of the afternoon was ours to study and dilly dally, so I went for a snorkel with Serena and saw some really cool fish, despite the horrible visibility. I studied some more, read my homework for the night, and after dinner went for a long walk with Mike. Too much free time around the center makes it really hard to stay in one place, and I often get antsy and just need to get out. The skies here are every color in at 64 crayon Crayola box, I swear. During the day, its all the blues and creams and whites that you can imagine. At night, the oranges, reds, and purples come out of the box, and during storms its green and grey. Tonight however, the sky was an inky brown, reflecting a good amount of the full moon and becoming a dark chocolate color. I've never seen a brown-black sky, and it was beautiful. There's nothing ugly about this island, except maybe the litter around here, but we are doing projects to try to fix that too. More studying 85 scientific names and making flash cards, and its time for bed.

Scrawled Cowfish (well, the back half of one, it was quite elusive!)

Mahogany Snapper (Lutjanus mahogani)

Can you find the scorpionfish?

P.S. I suppose there is one good thing to knowing the scientific names of fish. And that is the power to type in "Halichoeres bivitattus" into Google Image Search instead of "Slippery dick". >.<

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Itsy-Bitsey Spider Went Up the Waterspout

Well, probably not THIS waterspout...

CRAZY CRAZY weather today! I woke up the usual 10 minutes before our meeting and scarfed down some granola, and when we all gathered for our morning briefing, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. It was raining all through class this morning, off and on; sometimes drizzling, sometimes pouring, sometimes brilliant blue skies. But you could always see it raining in some far-off distance. After lunch was supposed to be our 2nd field ID session, but when we got to the boats, lightning struck in the distance, which meant we had to wait 20 minutes until we could go out for our class snorkel. It only continuted to lightning, and while we were waiting, a waterspout materialized. A waterspout is basically a water tornado, but more of a smooth, diagonal shape than wispy tornadoes. The clouds sent down a strand of wind and clouds, which reached 2/3 of the way to the water. Water was shooting up from the ocean too, to meet the waterspout in mid-air. It was one of the wildest things I've ever seen! Toto, I don't think we're in California anymore...The clouds were every shade of cool color. The sky that was downpouring in the distance was purple and directly overhead were emerald green-gray clouds that were reflecting the green water which was reflecting the gray clouds. To the right was blue clouds as they bordered the part of the sky that was still clear. Absolutely unbelieveable.

It was determined that it was going to be a while before it cleared up, so we went back to the Center, and as soon as we got there, it downpoured. And when I say poured, I mean the sky opened up its floodgates and POURED. Which, of course here at the Center means......shower day!!! 95% of the students grabbed their shampoos, conditioners, soaps and razors and took the most wonderful shower I've ever had in my entire life. We put our dirty laundry up to wash. We washed our hair off of the roof that was gushing good clean freshwater and it felt amazing. However, our snorkel was fairly obviously cancelled so the rest of the afternoon was utterly lazy. I found a small patch of free internet though from a local bar and was able to call Dad and chat. Mom, you would be proud. I've found every way and a half to contact friends and family through alternative means. Everyone keeps asking me for advice and technologic help, its funny; it reminds me of when you were SMS-ing and Skyping first :)

It's been thundering and lightning(ing?) for the rest of the day on and off, with some scattered showers. Matter of fact, it's raining right now. After dinner, a local fisherman came into the Center to talk about his practices catching lobster, conch and reef fish, his experience with sharks and inexperienced fishermen. Quite interesting! Following that was more studying for this impossible test that we have had too few ID sessions in the field for, and then a good 2 hour movie, Supertroopers. The best.

I took a break from the movie at one point and walked outside to THE cutest black kitten I have ever seen in my life, crying at me. He had big eyes and ears and long legs, a lot like Chopper's old pictures and the most adorable cry ever. He must have been 4 months old at the latest. He was frightened because he couldn't find his mom (I later found out from a staff member) and the storm was picking up. He kept crying and crying but wouldn't let me touch him, so I followed him around the Center until I met a staff member that knew the cat. She told me that it's mom was probaly down the hill, and she gave it water and I think it went away. My heart was breaking though, it was so cute and it reminded me of all my black kitties! :( It looked like that kitten in a bag that was my profile picture, but a little broader face. Adorable!

Its raining again, so theres nothing else to do but sleep before my busy day tomorrow. We're supposed to be diving, but we may ask to turn it into an ID session instead. In the afternoon I'm teaching a reading class, a music class, and after-school cross country to the primary school students in the town, should be fun but absolutely exhausting. Looking forward to it!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thanks a lot, 49er's

The air is still dead-algal. Yay.

In other news, class was easy today. Pete talked a lot about the history of environmental policy in the U.S., which is a refreshing change because I know most of it. However, he seemed to have distinctly opposite opinions of prominent public figures from Sean Watts, my policy-minded environmental sciences instructor. It was a nice change. Yosemite was discussed at length, again, refreshing because I knew all of that history as well, being a Californian. Our second class was cancelled so I had time for an hour nap before lunch.

My group ventured out to a divespot called Huey, Dewey, and Loius, or HDL to snorkel for our first reef fish ID session. The spot is named for its 3 protruding rocks that look like triplets. The water was gorgeous and there were so many coral strewn about the rocky bottom! Purple fans, wavy finger-like corals, brain corals, yellow leaves, and so many more. It was disappointing to not have my camera with me. I can't wait until we're allowed to bring them along. Sorry, no pictures until then :( The reef fish were a myriad of different colors, stripe and spot patterns, sizes and shapes. Unlike anything I've ever seen or read before. It was a little confusing, trying to learn them all by latin scientific names, but we struggled through and saw a few squid and rays in the process. Another group saw a pair of spotted eagle rays though, something I have been straining to see since I got here. Oh well, next time!

The sunset was absolutely brilliant, and a group of us powered through the readings so we could watch Monday Night Football at Chicken Bar. The 49er's vs. the Saints. But, alas, they haven't been able to pull through with several botched plays and easy mistakes and it was a disappointing attitude within the bar. Fried chicken and a Pepsi were delicious around the 2nd quarter, along with some dominos and local conversation. Just another night out with the boys. Around 3rd quarter, a bar fight broke out outside, a pretty intense one too. Such a rare occasion on this island, as almost every single heated encounter is strictly verbal. One fighter that we knew said he hadn't fought with anyone in 10 years, and he would be a likely candidate for frequent fights. After an eventful evening, we headed home at curfew to watch the rest of the game in internet updates and the niners just can't seem to get it together. They're heading into the last 2 minutes losing as we speak. Go 49ers, but lets have a better game next time, shall we?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tut, Tut, It Smells Like Hurricane

Dad knows what I mean. You can smell the hurricane's storms because the air is rank with decaying seaweed. It't not as bad as when Hurricane Charlie came through the Keys, but when you walk from an airconditioned room to the sticky, thick air outside, its like you dove into a pile of washed up algae on the beach. The swells have died down since yesterday, but the visibility is still pretty poor.

Today was fairly leisurely, woke up at noon, sweltering hot, but to homemade cinnamon rolls, so life isn't all that bad :) I puttered around the Center for an hour or so, read the articles for class tomorrow and made plans to snorkel later. I had had enough reading a computer screen for the day, so Mike and I went for a walk around town. We wandered over to the school since I had not been to that part of the island yet. We ran into "Iverson" or Gill, a young high school boy who visited the Center and was learning to play the guitar with Tyler. As we neared the school, the basketball yard had an interesting find....A high jump pit was just laying around! It reminded me of everything I loved about high jump so Mike and I did some jumping for a few minutes before continuing our walk. We passed a few wild horses on our way into the broken gate and found a mural on the back wall (pictures to come!). The mural was painted by a few previous SFS students of an ocean scene. Its cute and educational such as a diver attempting to catch a lionfish (an invasive species) and a boat dropping an anchor into some coral with a little stop sign over it. We wandered back past the high jump pit (of course stopping to mess around some more on the random occurance) and headed back to the Center for some snorkeling at high tide.

Visibility was still a little poor, but we went out anyways, trying to catch some fish with the camera and searching for Sean's prescription mask that got swepped off the dock a few days ago. We snorkeled around for an hour and a half, venturing all the way out to the jetty, the far end of our swimmer area. We found some sea glass, a new sea grass bed we had never seen, some great schooling fish, but most of the pictures were fairly grainy due to the sediment in the water.

Sunken anchor in our swim/snorkel area
Bar Jack

Discarded Queen Conch

After dinner of burritos, a small group of us went back to the hotel to escape the dead heat that is lingering around but were met with voracious sand fleas instead of mosquitos and had a hard time relaxing. We managed, and chatted with "Goochie Man" (a local 18 year old who's real name is Generio.....I can see the need for a switch) and "Money" a few local celebrities that frequent our crowd. Headed home past the sketchy house again, this time without any foot casualties, and enjoyed the last part of the evening in the air conditioned computer room. I don't miss Cali anymore :)