Fast Ice

Fast ice: it sounds so exciting. In a ship surrounded by bobbing icebergs, mountains shrugging glaciers off like very slow coats, and pack ice dotted with penguin footprints drifting by, “fast ice” sounds adventuresome. What’s fast about it? Well, it turns out that it’s “fast” to land. Fast ice is essentially sea ice that is connected to unmoving ground along its edge- much less thrillingly speedy than I had expected. Chief Mate Lubo must have noticed my slight disappointment at his explanation of the concept, because he was quick to explain that “looking for fast ice” was, in fact, going to be just as fun as I had originally hoped. The Orion was a sturdy little ship, and she was going to find some pack ice that was just the right thickness… and run right into it.

DSC09066

And so she did! With much crunching and cheering, the bow of the ship went right into the ice.

Where we went in, the fast ice was at least two years old- not old enough to have become too thick for our hull to break, but thick enough that a hundred people walking around on it wasn’t likely to end in disaster. From what I could tell watching from the tip of the bow, it was somewhere between four and six feet thick, though my estimate is by no means professional or trustworthy. Having formed from seawater as the temperature dropped far below the freshwater freezing point of 32 degrees F (0 degrees C, for scientists and pretty much anyone outside of the US, Palau, Belize, the Cayman Islands, and the Bahamas), much of the salt had worked its way out of the ice and back down into the ocean below.

The intersection of ice and sea is always an interesting one. Justin Hofman, the “Undersea Specialist” aboard the Orion, took a dive at the edge of the ice and brought back video of the creatures living below. Krill requires ice, as a substrate for their algae food, and since krill make up an almost incalculably large part of the Antarctic food web, the ice/water border is imperative for life in the polar region. But besides krill, the rocky bottom was covered with limpets, giant isopods, sea spiders, and the occasional zooming penguin. Under fast ice, they’re relatively safe. Under the shadow of a glacier, they’re fairly likely to be scraped off of the bottom by grinding bergs, falling or pushed by fierce winds. The scars are visible for a long time, as life returns slowly to rocks scoured clean by moving ice.

Surface-side, the fast ice looked clean and bare. It was only slowly that we started to notice the little bumps and cracks running through it, and with all the hullaballoo around the ship itself, it was almost an hour before we actually started paying attention to the local fauna. In the meantime, the crew (who had never experienced this particular adventure before) piled off of the ship with the guests, bundled up with coats and cameras, to pose for a series of adorable pictures with their boat/home.

DSC09085

More on fast ice and penguins to come!

Advertisements

Blue-Eyed Babies

DSC08581

The blue-eyed shag aren’t graceful, like albatrosses, or as cute as penguins. But these birds (Phalacrocorax atriceps) are excellent at catching fish, and as attentive parents as a baby cormorant could hope for. One of the coolest things about the nesting colonies we visited on the Antarctic Peninsula was that the birds were at all different stages of breeding: some were recently arrived, constructing nests from seaweed, grass, mud, poop, and feathers; some sat on small clusters of eggs; some guarded their new-hatched fuzzy babies from skuas; some watched as their gigantic young flapped their ungainly wings, preparing for the day they’d take to the skies.

In colonies, the shags aren’t as aggressive as the penguins- we watched the nearby gentoos pull tail feathers, smack each other with wings, steal rocks, and scream full-throated into each others’ faces- but seemed more widely-spaced, and more likely to build a bit apart from one another. The shag in the photo above had claimed the top of that rock and apparently all the space around it, risking predation from the skies but earning a bit of piece and quiet, or as much as a parent could reasonably expect while sitting on two giant squawking babies. As it waited for its partner to return with a belly full of fish (they can dive over a hundred meters deep to catch their prey), this parent contemplated the bustle of the penguin colony and the comparable awkward waddle of the orange-coated humans onshore.

They’ve struck an interesting balance between the aquatic optimization of the penguins and the aerial competency of more typical birds. They take off with difficulty, especially when laden with full bellies, and land in an ungainly jumble of feathers and webbed feet, but beat their wings powerfully through the air once airborne, and dive like black-fletched arrows from sky to sea to catch their prey. From their perches on the rocks, the young shags watch their parents and, presumably, dream of leaving their awkward adolescence for the slightly less awkward, occasionally glorious life of a grown-up. I can relate to that.

They’re Everywhere and They Don’t Eat Crabs

DSC08345

And those are the two most important things to know about crabeater seals. Well, maybe not the most important. And maybe a bit misleading.

They’re not EVERYWHERE. But there are more crabeater seals on the planet than there are ALL OTHER SEALS. That’s right, just crabeaters might outnumber the entire rest of the pinnipeds. Then again, they might not- the population estimate on Wikipedia gives a total number of 7-75 million crabeater seals in Antarctica (…that’s a lot of uncertainty). Either way, they’re among the most numerous large mammals in the world, topped only by humans. Anyways… Crabeater seals, Lobodon carcinophaga, are thus named not because they “eat crabs,” but because they do in fact have “lobed teeth” and have (clearly) been wildly successful in hunting the most abundant Antarctic food source, krill. Krill are not crabs. More on krill to come.

From the numbers we saw, we would never have guessed how many crabeaters exist in the Antarctic. They tend to spread out, one or two at a time on the pack ice and sea ice, near their food sources and the water in which they transform from graceless meaty grubs on solid ground to graceful… meaty grubs in the water. Of all the majestic things about Antarctica, I’m not sure these were one: their ice floes tended to be considerably poopier than seal-unoccupied floes (that red stuff on the seal’s tail in that photo? Not a reflection), their general behavior when we saw them tended to be either contortionist stretching, fighting, or boneless napping, and they couldn’t compare to the size and grandeur of nearby whales, whose poop we never saw. But on occasion they sure were cute!

One of the major benefits of the National Geographic/Lindblad trip was the presence of amazing photographers and people who appreciated the photographers’ desire to spend forever setting up a shot and then taking ten thousand iterations. Getting a photo like this- seal sitting up, face amiably composed, poop more or less obscured, lovely icy background- took probably half an hour of lurking near this seal. A photographer for The Magazine might have spend days setting this up, and as a result would have gotten a much nicer photo… and a very cold butt. The crew and staff on the Orion were awesome about giving us enough time to play and explore and take obnoxious numbers of seal, whale, penguin, and bird photos (not to mention photos of straight-up ice, water, clouds, mountains, the boat itself, each other…), but still managed to get us all back aboard and moving in good humor and with entirely unfrozen butts. They knew we’d never want to leave… but they also knew we’d never want to miss out on whatever was next.

Nobody Keeps Baby in the Corner

My little friend from a few weeks ago escaped from her yard and found me again yesterday, but this time wearing a collar complete with name and phone number. So everyone, you may now officially meet Lilly, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

IMG_2754

She wants you to throw the stick. She wants anyone to throw the stick. I’ve never had a dog that enjoyed making “fetch” happen this much before (did you remember that yesterday was October Third, official international Mean Girls Day?), and though we had to go over a few ground rules (no diving for the stick while I’m picking it up, no snatching it out of my hand, no jumping up to lick my face when she brought it back) we had a rollicking good time.

IMG_2749

Staffies, as they’re referred to in this neighborhood (which seems to host a fair number of them, actually) are supposed to be both fearless and affectionate, which describes her pretty well. As she’s been visiting a house of biologists she’s been well observed, traits mentally catalogued, body condition assessed, behavior analyzed. It’s basically unavoidable habit at this point: we can’t help but notice the shape of her head (triangular, similar to carnivorous seals and supported by a strong neck, likely advantageous for vigorous shaking of prey), her short but muscled legs (well-adapted for lunging), and her very short fur, ideal for warm climates and not getting tangled in things. She’s a tough-looking little pup- if she weren’t always trying to lick my face or curl up in my lap, I guess I might think she was intimidating?

Apparently the breed was intended originally for bull baiting, in the days of “blood sport,” and have recently received a fair bit of bad press for similarity to pit bulls and other related terriers here in Australia (New South Wales, in particular). I suppose these sorts of things should make me warier than I am, but Lilly hasn’t shown even a twitch of aggression while I’ve been in her presence. The other characteristics this breed is known for are loyalty and rapid progress of affection, both of which I think it’s safe to say I’ve found.

I’m still not sure how I feel about intensive dog breeding. Inbreeding is a huge issue, and creating dogs for looks rather than health seems both dangerous and cruel. As a biologist I clearly have lots of thoughts about natural selection, but the purposeful selection of companion animals by humans makes me uncomfortable… Essentially what we’ve done to dogs is arrest their mental development. They act like wolf pups, lower in aggression, higher in loyalty and affection, shorter puppy-like faces and sweeter temperaments. On top of those traits, we continue to select and mate dogs for characteristics that can be detrimental to the dogs themselves- large heads, long bodies and vulnerable backs, size that cuts their life spans down by years… I love them all- ask any of my housemates, any of the Costa Rica 2013 crew, anyone in my family. But I still can’t imagine getting a pup anywhere but from a shelter or another person’s home.

Which is not to say that I will be stealing Lilly and being her best friend forever.

I probably won’t.

But I’d like to.

IMG_2755

Things to Ponder

IMG_5149

*Photo courtesy of the lovely Kaja Wierucka

Well, it’s actually a tidepool, not a pond (ugh I’m so ashamed of myself but also, haha, puns).

Anyways, I like the symmetry/obvious symbolism of this photograph, plus some of you (hey!) may actually not know what I look like and stuff, so here- that’s me! Agent Red Squirrel, blogger and aspiring scientist. You oughtn’t be surprised that I spend a fair amount of my time crouched down to look at stuff- bugs, plants, scat, octopuses, shiny rocks, trash, alternate dimensions, microuniverses, alien spacecraft- you know, all the interesting things. From way up high where my head is when I stand up, I can see a fair distance, reach tall things, and speak to people in a normal kind of way… but down closer to the ground I can pay a lot more attention to all the tiny things that happen all the time.

Without moving my feet from that spot in that photo, I saw mantis shrimp, hairy crabs, octopuses, tiny fish, pistol shrimp, hermit crabs, three kinds of algae, a sponge, a baby giant clam, and a swimmer crab. Presumably without me moving my feet from that spot in that photo, all of those things also saw me. I like to think about the reflexiveness of observation in moments like that- I’m watching them, they’re watching me, I’m aware of myself watching them and the filter through which I see their interactions with the world. It’s all very meta.

A science project: go somewhere, find something you’d normally overlook- a patch of mushrooms, a trail of ants, a puddle of water, a weirdly shaped icicle- and watch it for ten minutes. Your primary objective is to observe the thing. Your secondary objective is to observe yourself. Can you look at a thing for ten minutes? Can you find different things with which to interest yourself within that thing? Can you resist the urge to reach down and change the thing you’re observing? Is it changed, just through your observation?

Geography and Geology

I have always loved being able to find myself on a map. It’s not narcissism (or at least not wholly…) but a deep-seated desire for a sense of place. Those of us who travel and those of us who don’t: we all want to know where we are. For some people it’s as simple as knowing the turns and twists of the streets in their neighborhoods. For me, for a long time, I navigated my world based on the ocean and the Bay, I-280 and I-101, the San Andreas fault and the billowing fronts of fog that poured across the San Francisco peninsula. Everything ran north to south, and I could never be lost because to the east or to the west a landmark stretched across the horizon. The sun rose over across the San Mateo Bridge and set behind the hills over by Half Moon Bay, and that was how I found my orientation anywhere I needed to go.

As I’ve grown older, my sphere of travel and my referential compass has grown as well. The sun rises now over Boston, but still sets in the Pacific Ocean. New Hampshire is north, but so is San Juan Island- I have traveled North America from San Diego and the Navajo reservation to Wyoming and Alaska, watching the landscape change from water-carved sandstone canyons to glacial moraines and basalt bays. In the west the mountains are newer, higher, craggier, and in the east they are older and rounder, smoothed and solid under hemlock and maple trees. This is how I find myself in the world…

But here I am in the southern hemisphere. Maps of the world and my own compass have failed me here- they’re all north-centric, biased by colonialism and self-obsession and convenience to the point that Greenland rivals Africa for size while Australia and New Zealand shrink to nothingness below the equator. Google Maps helps some, but nothing on the North West Cape is labeled north of Exmouth. I recommend that you take a second to check it out, if you’ve got the bandwidth- I’m so used to living in the Bay Area, where Google has mapped every last brick in the sidewalk, while the Learmonth airport that I flew into and the entrance to the National Park aren’t even labeled as entities on this continent. But the satellite imagery for this area is stunning.

Where am I? Well, here’s the map that Tim created for our survey effort here on the cape:

transectmap

The red and blue and green lines are our transects- we follow them from one side of the cape to the other, hoping to cross paths with groups of dolphins. Each “zig” or segment is between 1-4 kilometers from vertex to vertex, and the red and blue lines are respectively about 93 km from end to end. The scale is hard to grasp- in three long days on-water, scanning and moving along the transect lines from sunup till sundown, with an average number of reasonable-length dolphin encounters, we can complete a blue or red line. That’s about 30 kilometers or maybe 16 nautical miles per day, exhaustively searched for any signs of dolphin activity. So is this where I am? This map doesn’t show the places that I recognize from shore, or the best snorkel spots or the tide pools or the mangroves or the Navy Pier or the VLF towers to the north.

At the tip of the cape, just around the blunt end on the west side, we see dolphins and manta rays and sea snakes and sharks, views of the lighthouse and the Cape Range hills, a shipwreck and the ever-visible radio towers that beam low-frequency signals to nuclear submarines across the southern hemisphere. We also see oil rigs: the North West Shelf Wikipedia page is entirely focused on its oil and gas resources, and the money flowing into Exmouth these days is all about mineral exploration. We see ancient coral fossils and unexplored water-filled caves along the shoreline, and we see the Indian Ocean, stretching to the Pacific and then, in practical terms, into eternity.

So where am I? I’m at my dream job, I’m thousands of miles from my closest friends, I’m on the opposite side of the world from my family, I’m on a couch, I’m in the Outback, I’m sitting above the red dirt and karst cave formations and millions-of-years-old marine fossils encased in limestone that was once the bodies of yet more thriving sealife. I’m in my head and I’m on the earth.

IMG_2524

In Search of Emu

The Emu Saga: Part 1

Still haven’t gotten any good face-to-face emu time, but the more time I spend wandering the bush the better my odds are, right? My recently-new Vans are getting less cherry-red and more Outback-dust red, but I find no little satisfaction in recognizing my footprints day to day out on the trails near town, especially when they’re overlaid or intermingled with ‘roo and emu tracks.

IMG_2026

Emus are tridactyl- they have three toes, wide and leathery, that press into the red dirt as they walk. I love thinking about emu feet- they have to be pretty intense to hold up that much bird, to handle the prickly grasses and sharp stones of the outback, and to be able, as claimed by the emu Wikipedia article, to tear down chain-link fences.

Those feet are so formidable, in fact, that they pose a significant threat to unwise humans who attempt to make a full-grown emu do… I guess anything that a full-grown emu doesn’t want to do (cue joke about the 500-pound gorilla, except imagine that gorilla with sharp toe claws and a very wide beak. And feathers? Okay, this is just getting confusing now). I don’t think that the emu’s feet were the deciding factor in the frankly embarrassing “Emu War,” waged between machine-gun armed Australian troops and thirsty birds in the 1930s, but hey- I’m sure with those feet, an emu could handily (haha) kick my butt.

Anyways, I’ve been trying to find myself an emu friend. Apparently they’re curious about people, and will sometimes follow a lone human on foot; thus far, no such emu magic has happened to me, but I’m working on it. I’ve encountered fresher and fresher emu poops (see http://animals.io9.com/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-emu-poo-1570013557 for… everything you ever wanted to know about emu poop) as I’ve wandered the hills near Exmouth:

IMG_2347

The stuff’s like tar filled with seeds, and over time (days?) the whole mixture dries into a black solid mess, seeds browning and eventually sprouting as the black stuff greys out and (weeks later?) blows away. There is a remarkable amount of this around all of the bushy areas near our house, considering the also remarkable lack of emus on my walks. But I live in hope!

Another thing I have lived in hope for, however, has finally come true.

“Emus on the beach!” I cried on one of my first days on the boat, out by the Bundegi boat ramp. “I want to see emus on the beach.”

So quintessentially Australian, I thought. How funny would it be, gangly-legged birds with stringy feathers draped across their humped backs, trotting across the soft sand? Combine the gentle waves and romantic dunes with nobbled knees and perpetually surprised faces: what could be better?

Beachmus. Dreams really do come true:DSC_0011