Hungry bellies and wet asses

We’ve just finished our annual surveys at Turneffe and Lighthouse Atolls, which amounted to approximately 5 1/2 weeks of field work. We tent-camped for most of it (although my boss splurged on air mattresses, thank goodness), and I have to say it’s nice to be dry. Completely and utterly dry and unsalty, along with all of my clothes.


The first 3 week stint was a bit of a slog, with bizarre winds, low catches, and long transiting times (read: somewhat boring and difficult work conditions), and our crew just didn’t quite gel. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun or get a lot of good work done.

One of the groups of fishermen we work with come from a tiny village in the south of the country. These guys all grew up together (half of them are related) and have probably spent most of their lives together. When we’re in the field, they all bunk in the same room, and they are constantly, tirelessly, laughing and joking together. I can’t imagine what new jokes they have to tell each other, but they never seem to get old, and it makes the guys fun to be around. I have no idea how many times the “put salt water in their water bottle while they’re not looking” game was played out, but every fresh sputter and gag was treated with the same hilarity as the one before it.

The culture of Belize is very much like that of most of Latin America, and gender roles are fairly well defined. Despite having worked for a female boss for many years, there is still a bit of, let’s say, mothering expected by some (most) of the fishermen we work with. We can bait as many hooks as we like, lug more gear than all of the guys put together, and pee over the side of the boat: we’re still expected to feed the men. So one morning, well into our second week, I decided to jump on the boat as the guys were heading out to check and re-set a longline. I wasn’t scheduled to be on the boat that morning, but there was space and I thought I’d lend a hand with data collection. Given the location and the time of day we set out (7:00 am), I didn’t expect us to be back until well after lunchtime. I packed a snack.

So naturally as we anchored up around midday to wait out the soak time, 5 heads turned towards me to inquire about food. “Do you have any biscuits, Ivy?” I rustled around in my bag. “Sorry, just the one pack. Looks like we get 2 cookies each.” Evaristo gave me a good-natured smile. “Das ok, Ivy. We fishermen. We’re used to hungry bellies and wet asses.”

When the rain settled in a few minutes later, we were all miserably huddled against it, ill prepared for the out of season shower. Most of the crew retreated to the water to hunt conch, but a few of us toughed it out.


The next week, we managed to pack enough food for sandwiches, but none of the guys thought to bring a bowl for the salsa, which was their contribution. Men who need salsa casero are the mother of invention.


Several days later, on the last day of field work for that site, we were again anchored up, waiting for the longline to soak. Instead of rain, we were treated to a blistering mid-day sun. Again we were working through lunch, and yet another miscommunication (I thought we should save the gas and wait it out, they thought we were motoring in for lunch back at the station) led to more hungry bellies. Again, I sacrificed my meager cookies. Clearly, I hadn’t learned.


“When you put this picture on the internet, put a note under it that says, ‘MarAlliance is in desperate need of a boat canopy.'”

So I have to admit I was really surprised a few weeks later, on another atoll, in the same boat, when I found my actual offering of real food to be rejected. Oranges are a great boat food, especially after you’ve been in the sea (and were all were, every day, for hours). The oranges grown here are delicious but have a very tough skin, which makes them difficult to peel by hand. I’d been admiring for weeks the patience and skill the guys had when peeling oranges with any rusty knife available, and decided to try my hand at it. The trick is to only remove the thin outer peel, but leave the rind intact, then cut the orange in half. The tough rind makes it so that you can eat the meat by biting into the top without spilling juice all over yourself. A novice orange peeler, I did a passable job (I ate the first one myself as it was a bit hacked). My second attempt was nearly flawless, with only one tiny section that was cut too thinly, revealing the pulp. I proudly offered my orange around the boat to the tired, salty fishermen. One, two, three… four men side-eyed the orange, heads shaking. In response, Andonis reached into the bag and procured the very last orange, and set about peeling it himself. The captain finally took pity on me, but made a show of eating it out over the side of the boat so as not to get juiced. I guess that’ll teach me.


Office mates

Sometime in the near future, my work group is supposed to be moving into a new office trailer.  Well, office modular unit to be more accurate.  I’m actually pretty excited because it will mean that I will, for the first time ever, have my own office.  With a door.  And a lock.

I currently have 2 office mates, both of whom are just about the best people ever for sharing a 20×10 space with.  One is a bit of a neat freak (she probably hates me) and is really funny when you’re least expecting it, and the other is my Chinese daily affirmation coach.  Not really, he’s a Ph.D mathematician named Xinsheng, but you can call him Dr. X.  Among the things I will miss about having Xinsheng (shin shing! say it really fast) in my office are his random phone calls with other, I’m assuming, Chinese scientists.  These are completely indecipherable, except for the random English words that pop up, like “jellyfish assessment” and “chlorophyll.”  Despite being in the US for 20 years, he still has a very thick accent and can be really difficult to understand at times.  He and my Spanish boss have had some amusing conversations; yesterday Dr. X kept shouting a word at my boss while making “air quotes,” and my boss just kept shouting random sounds at him until finally realizing he was saying “factor.”  That took about 20 seconds.

Dr. X is also constantly telling me how important I am, what good work I do, how I need to negotiate for a raise, and how great it is that I spend so much time mentoring our interns: hence the affirmation coach.  But the main thing I will miss about him is this.  About twice a week, after silently squinting at his computer screen for hours, he will suddenly pop upright and exclaim “Jesus Uhcoriiiiisht!”


For those of you who want(ed) to be a marine biologist when you grow up, I thought I’d share a bit of the project I’m currently working on.  It should make you feel better about your life choices, since you are likely not a marine biologist.  If you are a marine biologist, it should make you feel better about whatever boring project you’re working on.

We are building a giant database for all Gulf sturgeon, and to do this we have to incorporate historic data from several different agencies.  Fortunately, most people have digital copies of their data (e.g. an Excel spreadsheet), but UNfortunately there are two years of data that were never entered (more on that later).  Which brings me to what I’m doing now: entering data from paper datasheets into an Excel spreadsheet so that it can be incorporated into the bigger Oracle database. Now, I’m no stranger to data entry and for the most part I can be pretty zen about the whole thing. Turn on some tunes and pretty much let my fingers do the thinking. Until this came along.

What fresh hell is this?

For the non-scientists, you should know that the language of science is numbers, and those numbers are ALWAYS metric. Inches are stupid and imprecise.  If you look at the picture, you’ll notice that the lengths of these fish are in feet and inches, and not just regular feet and inches, but there are entries such as 4′ 8 3/8″.  Three eights of a motherfucking inch!!  Unfortunately, I’m an idiot and have spent the last month using an online conversion site to get each individual length in cm (hence the blue penned in numbers).  This picture represents the exact moment I realized I could just type in the feet and inches and have Excel convert them for me.  Which is much faster, but still so annoying I want to claw my eyes out, because I have to enter things like =(3/8+8). ‘Cause I’m sorry, but I do not know what 3/8 is, other than just shy of 0.50.  You might not notice that the weight is in pounds, unless you were to know that the “#” above Weight means lbs to whoever was taking data.  Sometimes they were nice enough to denote the units, sometimes I have to guess. Sometimes the same column has both lbs and kg, which is my favorite because then my autofill stops working.

I don’t even want to talk about the fact that we live in a world where datasheets representing hundreds of hours of work, tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and hundreds of fish (which are listed under the Endangered Species Act) can sit in a filing cabinet for four years.  It fulfills the oldtimer government employee stereotype and confirms that some scientists just don’t give a shit. Which shouldn’t really be surprising. I mean, it is just a job afterall. I’d like to think that people have enough pride in their work to at least TRY, but I’m often disappointed.  I can say, however, that for every one dead weight government scientist, there are at least two that more than make up for them.  By and large, we are hard working people who are honestly trying to make a difference, in spite of the fact that there are few personal and professional rewards for our diligence.  Bonuses tend to range in the hundreds of dollars, promotions are limited depending on your pay grade, and the inability of Congress to pass a budget hinders new projects and hiring of key personnel.  In spite of all of that, we largely remain excited about our research and continue to kick ass (on the research front, anyhow.  We’re all jaded curmudgeons about the bureaucracy part of the job).

So. I’m trudging through knowing that the finished database will be pretty awesome and all of those fish can now be tracked through time using their tag numbers.  My efforts will (hopefully) help some poor grad student figure out the natural mortality of the species, which will in turn lead to a better management plan and therefore a more certain recovery.  At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.


Frans de Waal [The Netherlands and USA] and Jennifer Pokorny [USA] for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.
REFERENCE: “Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception” Frans B.M. de Waal and Jennifer J. Pokorny, Advanced Science Letters, vol. 1, 99–103, 2008.

Scientific American

“I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something? I’m scared because I’m in 10th grade and I have a full life ahead of me so PLEASE I WOULD REALLY LIKE AN ANSWER TO MY QUESTION.”

This guy is my new hero. I mean, really. He has the patience of a saint.

In his day job, Dr. David Morrison is the senior scientist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in the Ames Research Center in California. There he specializes in asteroid impact, terrestrial defense from same, planetary exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. The asteroid 2410 Morrison was named in his honor because “his research into the infrared radiometric properties of asteroids has been fundamental in revealing the diversity of asteroid surface albedos and compositions.”

In an extracurricular capacity, though, he’s the closest thing that NASA has to an expert on the apocalypse.