10 April 2011

Island in the Sun

Ah this post has been waiting all week to be written. And now I'm finally getting down to it because I'm procrastinating and avoiding a terrible but quite important oceanography assignment while drinking energy drinks so I can stay up to do it later at night. Student life :)

So last week was the week long camp for my Ecology and Evolution course. I've heard so much about this camp from people who've done the course before, but nothing anyone told me captured how amazing it would actually be. The camp is four days and five nights long and we stay at the Geelbek Environmental Centre in the West Coast National Park, near Langebaan, just next to the lagoon. The class is split into nine groups and each group is given four out of six projects to work on everyday. So every morning, we'd go out with our group to a site where we'd collect data and samples for that day's project, spend the whole day out, come back to Geelbek and be done by about 2 everyday.

My group's first project was on quantifying marine debris which basically involved combing the beach and collecting litter. Each group that did this project went to a different site each time - I'm pretty sure our group got the filthiest beach to work on, which wasn't encouraging. We were by a patch of really rough sea next to an island where there is apparently a small colony of Cape fur seals so we saw about a dozen baby seals washed up on the beach, it wasn't very pleasant but it was pretty interesting. There were also a few chunks of rotting whale carcasses, dead gulls and tons of crab bits lying around - not fun to dodge while collecting litter. Our task was basically to collect all non-natural debri we came across in a section of the beach and then take it back to sort into different categories and weigh. It definitely wasn't the best project of the camp, although we did get to see some oyster catchers and I miiiight have seen my first albatrosses, but didn't get a good enough look to identify :(

I can't say I gave the second project the best of my attention because I spent the whole day multi-tasking; working and trying to keep myself updated on the India vs. Pakistan semi-final :P Jeremy Midgley and Ed February were the supervisors for this project, and I've decided they're two of my favourite lecturers so far, such cool guys and we bonded through some cricket banter :) We were looking at a couple of species of mistletoe to see if they are selective parasites on other plant species and determine which species get targeted most by them. We sampled three 5x5m plots containing plants parasitised by mistletoe and did various measurements on the host and non-host plants as well as the mistletoe itself to determine if the mistletoe specifically target the host species. I'm not normally too keen on botany, but I really enjoyed this project, actually learnt quite a bit from it.  The highlight was using the pressure bomb to measure moisture stress of the different plants. Although one of our first ones went wrong and nearly injured a couple of team members :P

The third project was one about biomes, basically a comparison of strandveld and fynbos. It was another very botany-heavy project, involved lots of plant identification and being attacked by thorns (and ants - not fun). One part of the project was looking at functional traits of strandveld plants and taking various measurements of different species - leaf length and width, stem diameter, that kind of stuff. The other was identifying all the species in a 50m section of fynbos. It's gotten me quite excited to add the Fynbos field guide to my book list in fact... Botany's not as bad as I thought :P

The last day's project was the most exciting, the kind of project I anticipated going into the camp. We were trying to determine what areas juvenile fish congregate in by trek-netting. Going into it, I was very iffy about catching and killing a bunch of little fish...we had to catch and bag hundreds of them. It wasn't pleasant. When you're studying conservation the last thing you see yourself doing is killing animals. I understand that sometimes you have to do it for the sake of research, but it's a difficult thing to swallow... Fortunately, we released most of what we caught, we just took sub-samples for most of them. It was pretty amazing catching and measuring these shy sharks - beautiful little things, adorable, and none had to be killed :) And we got this stunning eagle ray which we also just measured and released. I won't lie, it scared me just a little. I got a little too close to its tail while trying to straighten out the measuring tape until someone made a comment about something to do with Steve Irwin and I remembered the little barb attached to it. Rookie error. Anyway, we went to a few sites and got about three sub samples of fish from each and then took them back to camp to sort. I'm ashamed to say that after a while, you don't feel so bad for the dead little fish. Maybe it's because they're fish and we're so used to seeing them dead and eating them...which is a little sad. What did get me was that we had to catch a sand shark and keep it so it could be dissected later for one of the demonstrator's projects. That was beyond difficult. They're such beautiful and gentle animals and we had to just leave it trashing around, suffocating out of water until it died. What made it really touching was watching one of the guys in my group sitting with this shark in his lap and stroking it, giving it a little kiss before putting it in the bag. It sounds silly but it was very emotional. Glad I didn't get to watch the dissection... we were outside busy sorting through bags of dead fish, splitting them into piles of different species, measuring them and weighing them. Maybe the dissection would've been better though. The smell of fish stayed on my fingers for a couple of days after that. Not nice.

Another cool thing about the camp was the "cocktail hour" every evening. Basically, every night one of the lecturers would give a presentation on the research they do. It was amazing learning about what they do when they're not in the classroom lecturing us on the basic stuff. Charlie Griffiths, who is the course convenor,  did this great presentation on marine invasive species, how they get introduced and how it's such a new area of research, really interesting, definitely worth reading into. Mike Lucas told us about his research on phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean and how increasing iron content in the oceans can cause blooms that we can use to decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The talk I got most excited about was by this PhD student Charlene who's now working at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, doing research on fisheries and sharks to see how they can be made more sustainable. It was quite a controversial subject, because on the one hand, she is an absolute conservationist, but she's still working on the side of the people who exploit the oceans, even if the work she's doing is great. At the end of the day I guess it's about whether they actually listen to you and implement the research you do...I had tons of questions about sharks, tuna, long lining, foreign vessels (like the Japanese) exploiting stocks that aren't theirs to exploit...I guess when you watch things like the End of the Line, it's hard to wrap your head around how these things can possibly be done in a balanced, sustainable way that doesn't empty the sea of all life when all people have in mind is money... But it's a tough area to get into. How do you enforce all these regulations and quotas when you're dealing with the world's oceans where the boundaries between different countries' laws are so blurry? I really admire Charlene's work...marine conservation is an overwhelming one to solve.

Finally, here's my bird list for camp, though I really wasn't on top birding form, so it's quite incomplete:
- Black Oystercatcher
- African Marsh-Harrier
- African Pied Starling
- Sacred Ibis
- Arctic Tern - I'm not sure if they were Arctic Terns, but I took Mike Lucas' word for it since he spends his time doing research at the poles
- Black Harrier
- Bank/Reed Cormorant (quite sure I saw both)
- Black-shouldered Kite
- Blacksmith Lapwing
- Cape Bulbul
- Cape Weaver
- Cape Wagtail
- Cape Francolin
- Kelp Gull
- Common Fiscal
- Ostrich
- Curlew Sandpiper
- Egyptian Goose
- Greater Flamingo - haven't seen a wild flamingo in something like 10 years :)
- Hartlaub's Gull
- Pied Crow
- Rock Kestrel - we went down to the bird hide by Geelbek one evening and stood less than 2m from one - amaaaazing!!
- White-backed Mousebird
* saw lots of interesting waders but it was too difficult to identify them, potential sandpipers/greenshanks/red knots :(

Sadly no pictures because I'm terrible at remembering to take out my camera when it's needed...hopefully some pictures will surface from somewhere.

While on camp, I was checking my twitter the one day and found that Laurens de Groot replied to one of my tweets, looked at my blog and said I should help them set up Sea Shepherd in India. I've since been in contact with him, but before we can get started on any ideas, I need to fill the onshore volunteer application form. That's where the inner conflict began. I've had lots of people advising me against associating myself with an organisation that's labelled as a bunch of "eco-terrorists" and the potential consequences of it... I have to say, until now I've had no issues about being an avid Sea Shepherd supporter, but when it comes to doing so on paper and signing this form, it does feel a bit like you're signing your life away :P I've always been aware of Sea Shepherd's eco-terrorist/pirate/fundamentalist reputation, and I've been careful in distinguishing my own beliefs from their extremism whenever they cross lines and I disagree with a lot of Paul Watson's views and how he chooses to express them. But I've been thinking about it a lot in the last week and decided it's worth it. Sure they're a risky brand to endorse, but at the end of the day, I want to be a part of something I believe in and I want to make a difference in an area I care strongly about - marine conservation, which brings me back to that rant up there about Charlene's presentation. As long as I know the difference between supporting a cause and becoming an extremist, I think I'll be fine... So I've signed the forms, now I just need a scanner and the brainstorming can begin I guess :) I really want to get involved with their shark conservation work in South Africa too, so that should be a bonus.

Now that camp is over, the most exciting thing happening in life right now is that after queuing from 7:30am and skipping an ecology lecture to do so, I have tickets for the talk Sir David Attenborough will be doing on Wednesday as the vice-chancellor's guest speaker :) EXTREMELY excited. He'll be talking about his birds of paradise so that just makes it even better.

I want to say that I'm going to blog more regularly about interesting things from now on, but when I have pending blog posts, it's just an excuse to procrastinate and I should really be working hard this month so let's see what happens.

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  1. Paul Watson--I knew him back when his hair was black. I certainly have my disagreements with him (and sometimes his tactics) but I have to acknowledge that he has persevered for many many years now.

    --Patricia K Lichen, www.patriciaklichen.com

  2. Yeah, he can be an absolute fundamentalist at times but he's brought Sea Shepherd in the spotlight and at the end of the day, they are quite effective

  3. Oooh, and David Attenborough! Now there, I'm jealous! ;o)