One of the first sites I had on my schedule while in the Philippines was an island called Marinduque. It is actually just south of mainland Luzon Island (not that this description is helping for the 99% of you that don’t study in the Philippines). All you have to realize is that it is one of the closer islands to Manila. So as you guessed, it only took about 12 hours to reach our destination. Unlike our Aurora bus trip though, the Marinduque voyage was broken up nicely into four, three-hour segments—Bus, Boat, Bus, Jeepney...and water buffalo. Maybe the water buffalo didn’t actually carry us the last leg, but the place we stayed at had one roaming the grounds. The island’s habitat has been nearly completely disturbed by heavy mining over the years. There still is some habitat remaining, however, and we were hoping to scout future sites while making courtesy calls to the mayor. Unfortunately for us, we arrived late Friday night, which meant the offices were closed until Monday.
We headed to the only pension house in town—The Buenavista Hot Springs Resort. I know, doesn’t that sound just delightful. A resort, hot springs; I could see the room service serving up some amazing Italian food and pastries. Even the prices were hinting at something amazing. At 1,000 pesos a night, roughly 20 US dollars, this resort was as expensive as staying in moderately scary places in Manila. Everything felt right…and then we got into the room. If you know the feeling of sleeping in a place that wasn’t cleaned since it was built, you were secretly right there with us. The air conditioning didn’t work, cockroaches scuttled across the floor, there was no door to the restroom, and the toilet didn’t flush.
Actually, I might as well just point out that the only running water came from a dripping pipe out of the wall (but the water was warm, probably from their hot springs). Yeah, this was definitely a “shoes while showering, sleep with your clothes on, wear a mask and rubber gloves 24/7, kind of place.” Finally, Monday arrives and we head to the Mayors office to seek a local site permit. Just for your own knowledge, Monday, the 23rd of February is a Buenavista holiday. We found ourselves in quite a predicament having to be heading back to Manila Monday night. Fortunately, the town was small enough that we were able to simply visit the Mayor at her home and she was happy to collaborate on our project.
It is not clear to me what point in time I became incapable of comfortably traveling long distances by bus, boat, and small, motorized jeeps. However, last week I was quickly reminded of just how old my overweight body feels at the ripe age of 28 (I really need to lay off the queso). I traveled with my friend and collaborator Dr. Arvin Diesmos to Aurora Province on Luzon Island. We are setting up our next site for the large KU biodiversity expedition planned for May and June of this year. Aurora Province is only about eight hours away by bus. Unfortunately, you need to leave on the 4 a.m. bus, which in turn means you leave the house at 3 a.m. to make that same bus. One thing you should note about busses overseas is that the rows of seats do not always provide the same amount of leg room some people might be accustomed to experiencing. In the Philippines, I would describe the legroom as negative space. Somehow the row in front of me continually gets smaller as the trip goes on.
The good news is once my knees have become numb, and my back spasms have subsided, I am quite comfortable. The trip was a great first step to setting up our site though. We presented our research proposal at the Aurora State College of Technology (ASCOT), which is a beautiful campus buried in the foothills of the southern Sierra Madres Mountain Range. The buildings are surrounded by forest and it was much cooler than we were used to in Manila. I was there for a few days with Arvin, and then I returned to Manila to prepare for my next adventure to Marinduque Island, which would take place the following morning.
If you were to take a little drive around a city in the Philippines, several things might strike you as creative ways of taunting death. First, it appears to be a challenge to see who can fit the most people on their little motorized scooters. I mean, it’s unbelievable. I have seen as many as six people on one scooter bike. Of course this usually entails two of the kids to be sitting on the parent’s lap, a baby in one parent’s arm and the other child delicately balancing on the rear seat while juggling three oranges. Here's an example(http://bp3.blogger.com/_PsuSutj5h-k/R4ONL8QvIbI/AAAAAAAAAjk/v1cHvJmCrlQ/...), courtesy of this blog (http://isaaccurrey.blogspot.com). If that isn’t too safe for you, lets talk about “trick” number two. Driving techniques are not what I would call standardized. Often scooter drivers enjoy making sudden U-turns in the middle of the road without checking to see if any traffic is around. Now you might view this as suicidal; I simply view it as courageous. Who else in the world except movie heroes would have the guts to play Russian Scooterette with oncoming traffic? Is there a bus about to hit me, or is the road clear? I don’t know, maybe I’ll just — SCREECH! BANG! — Darn, it was a bus. The third common death-defying act here is cell phone abuse – on scooters. Yes, it happens all the time. Before going on, for those of you that may be unaware of how a motorized scooter works, the clutch and brakes are instruments controlled by both hands. Unlike a car where the steering wheel could potentially be operated by a single hand, scooters require much more concentration and control. Which is why talking on a phone while driving a scooter should be a challenge on Fear Factor.
I thought that I should at least give you some background in the amazing world of tropical diseases, from my own experiences of course. It never ceases to amaze me how many stomach problems I develop on any typical trip to the Philippines. For instance, it took me all of 4 days here on this trip to be back on antibiotics. Four days! I mean, come on, that is ridiculous. For the most part I try to stick to bottled water as much as possible. When we are surveying mountain sites, the pristine river water is just fine, and it is usually the city water that gives me problems. Stomach problems aside, you have the constant worry of infections as well. Numerous scratches, mild wounds, and rashes are just a few of the wonderful side effects of field biology. As long as you can keep the wounds clean and dry they will heal quickly. Of course, in an environment of 2 million percent humidity, and heat that can only be matched by actually standing on the sun, it is often difficult to do this. We do the best we can though. Prior to my first expedition in 2004, I was aware of all of the possible diseases I could catch and be vaccinated for. The vaccination process took several months and was incredibly expensive. I had to receive vaccines for typhoid fever, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, tetanus, flu, hepatitis – the list went on and on. In addition to the shots you can get ahead of time, there are areas where the most dangerous viruses and diseases are mosquito born. Everyone has heard of Malaria, and luckily, you can protect yourself while traveling by taking one of several anti-malarial medications. However, what I was never aware of prior to my first expedition was Dengue Fever, and I bet you can’t guess what the first illness I encountered in the Philippines. It was 2004 and I had been in the Philippines for my first month of Asian fieldwork…ever. It started in Bohol Island. Fever. Chills. I didn’t know it at the time but I had caught Dengue Fever five days earlier on a small island elsewhere in the archipelago (Dengue has an incubation period). The “fever” is actually a mosquito born virus that comes in four strains (flavors, if you will) here in the Philippines. The mosquito is larger than most people are used to, has white stripes, and occurs more often than not in cities and towns rather than in the forest. Oh yeah, it is diurnal, meaning it attacks its victims during the day. Now, I am not saying these harbingers of doom are the size of cars; they are noticeably bigger.
The way it works is a lamok (that’s Tagalog for mosquito) bites an individual already infected with the early stages of the virus. Then it finds someone else to bite. So not only was I unlucky enough to get bitten in broad daylight, probably while walking down the street in my town, but the insect had been one of the infected. I spent the next eight days in a hospital bed, on an IV, and close to needing a blood transfusion. The blood’s platelet count usually drops significantly with the virus, sometimes to a point that a person will actually experience internal bleeding. Just so you know, a normal platelet count is between 150,000-400,000. My count had gone from 155,000 on day three to 115,000 that evening, and by day six was down to 58,000. The fever is a continual 103 degrees for the duration of the virus. It is not all bad; the hallucinations can at least be an adventure. One night in particular I remember having to capture the dragon each time I wanted to fall asleep. Finally on day 8 my fever broke. My body slowly stopped aching and my platelet count started to rise again. Now I find that when I see a mosquito I jump back and start swatting at the air. What a wimp, huh?
There is leaving for an expedition, and then there is leaving for a nine-month expedition. Where to begin packing is a question I am always asking myself. The airlines have not made it any easier. While we used to be able to check-in two enormous 70-pound bags, we are now only allowed two 50-pound bags. This means I will be leaving my car at home this year. I would say that I get a little too meticulous about packing. Everything has to be placed out on the floor organized by size, and then by color. Lists have to be checked off, and then the list listing the original lists also has to be reviewed. Don’t get me started on making sure you have duplicates of everything in preparation for the day a thief targets my Britney Spears music collection and 15 containers of dental floss.
In the end, I have packed and repacked. Each time a bag gets full, I have to hold it standing on a scale to make sure it will make the weight. The process is tedious, but if you can pack 90% of the field supplies you intended to, you are a rockstar. Important equipment always comes on the plane with me. This means I have a daypack filled with camera equipment, my computer, important documents, and of course, my passport. With all of this equipment, my carry-on bags get pretty heavy. By the end of a long trip overseas I have the most beautiful red rashes on my shoulders and a back that has aged 10 years. Finally, you arrive to check in at the airport and you do what every field biologist does while checking in. You hold your breath. Are the bags underweight? Will I be charged one million extra dollars for my luggage? Can this Northwest Airlines agent smell my fear? Unfortunately, I am convinced that the scales at the airport make everything heavier, and what weighed 48 pounds at home will weigh 53 pounds at the airport. The lesson I have learned over the years is to pack with 5 pounds to spare. And so I depart for the Philippines, by way of four cities, and 48 hours of fun travel time. At least I have two copies of Britney’s recent hit.
Right now I'm at an Internet cafe in downtown Manila. Last night we arrived in Manila at 11:15 p.m. New Year's Eve. The city was lit up and fireworks were going off non-stop. It was quite a sight to look down at the city to see all the fireworks from the plane. We celebrated the New Year right outside the immigration office, en route to baggage claim. Today we walked around Manila. Many of the businesses are closed due to it being New Year's Day. All the people are out on the streets and in the parks celebrating and everyone seems to be in a fun, holiday mood. Later we're going the National Museum. And tomorrow, hopefully, we head out to Mt. Palai.
We finished our field clothing ‘try-on’ this afternoon and have been told to report tomorrow (Weds) at 7:00 am. for our flight to the Ice. Of course, we’ve also been told that the weather is currently bad there, so we may not fly. Already, the ‘hurry up and wait’ that is so typical of Antarctic field work has started!
We arrived yesterday (Monday here) after our very long flight. Around midday, we took the bus into downtown Christchurch, visited the Botanical Garden and the Canterbury Museum. The weather is beautiful (as it’s spring here) and Christchurch is not called the Garden City for nothing. The gardens are spectacular! It seems every house has a neat little garden, some with roses blooming that are a half-foot across. We are too late to see the tree-sized rhododendrons, however, as this is later than we’ve left for the Ice before.
The Canterbury Museum had a spectacular exhibit of photographs from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the Pole and Shackleton’s 1914-1917 trans-Antarctic expedition. Their ship was trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea (first leg of their journey), crushed, and eventually sank. He and all his men survived by taking the life boats to Elephant Island (after dragging them across the ice) and then Shackleton and two others went on to South Georgia Island to get help. The Canterbury Museum had photos and artifacts (clothing, equipment, etc.) of the two expeditions and it was an amazing display. Makes you very grateful for high-tech synthetic clothing, helicopters, and aircraft!
Our field party (including the two researchers from Wisconsin that we hadn’t met yet) are a great group of people and we have had great fun so far, so I’m sure it will go well on the Ice.
A view of Cook’s Bay taken from the Gump Research Station boat dock
Moorea is one of many islands making up the Society Islands in French Polynesia, an overseas collective of France. The official language is French although Tahitian is spoken by many people in the local population. Many people speak or at least understand English, which is fortunate for me as I am struggling to remember French I learned at high school!
All of the Society Islands were formed as volcanoes 1.5 to 2.5 million years ago. Moorea is a heart-shaped island situated approximately 15 km northwest of the island of Tahiti. The island is almost completely surrounded by barrier and fringing reefs, so much so that Charles Darwin, while looking down on Moorea from Tahiti commented how the island looked like a picture in a frame made by the reefs. The lush forested island surrounded by clear turquoise waters makes for beautiful scenery, and I am sure I will come back with many photos like the one posted in this blog.
There are two major bays on the island and the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station (http://moorea.berkeley.edu/), where I am staying, is at the entrance to Cook’s Bay. I will be working with researchers on the Moorea Biocode Project (http://www.mooreabiocode.org) who are based at the Gump Research Station. The Moorea Biocode Project aims to inventory all non-microbial life of Moorea so there are people heading out to collect specimens every day. Let the fun of collecting begin!
I arrived in Moorea on a Saturday morning and quickly settled into the lab and accommodations. On my first afternoon I went out collecting with Dr. Arthur Anker and Ms. Sarah McPherson (both of the Florida Museum of Natural History) to search for sea anemones at Papetoai. At low tide, we waded in water about 0.5 m deep on a sandy/muddy substrate, flipping over dead coral boulders and rocks looking for sea anemones hidden from plain view.
Specimen of sea anemone specimens Triactis producta attached to a dead coral boulder
Sure enough, hidden under boulders we found specimens of the sea anemone species Triactis producta. This is one of the species I am researching for my Ph.D. and I have already collected specimens from the Red Sea, Zanzibar, Maldives, and Australia! The photo below shows one of the specimens attached to a rock – if you look closely, you can see transparent tentacles at the top of the animal, and a skirt of dark brown tissue about mid-way down the column. This extra tissue of the anemone is full of zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae are intracellular symbionts (organisms in a symbiotic relationship) that photosynthesize and produce sugars the anemone can use. The specimen in the photo was about 7 mm tall, so you can imagine that it takes a well-trained eye to spot them in the field!
After I collected these specimens, I took them back to laboratory at the Gump Research Station to look at them under the microscope and make more detailed observations. Once I am finished photographing and observing them, some specimens are preserved in 95% ethanol and the rest in 10% formalin. The ethanol specimens will be used for molecular studies while the formalin specimens will be used to study the morphology of the anemones. I can’t wait to get back into the field to collect more sea anemones!
Preparations for fieldwork start many months before your planned departure. After choosing where you want to do fieldwork you must start applying for permits you may be required to have to conduct research legally in that country. Some types of permits you may need include a research permit stating you are allowed to conduct research, a collection permit stating you are allowed to collect specimens, and an export permit stating you are allowed to export the specimens you collected back to the US. In some countries, you need an import and export permit for chemicals you need to bring in or take out of the country. You also need to check if you require a visa to enter that particular country. Processing of these permits and visas can take many months, so you must apply early. Once you are approved for your research activities, and your flights and accommodations are booked, it's time to get all your field gear ready! For me, this means packing a full set of SCUBA gear (wetsuit, BCD, regulators, fins, mask) and gear for collecting sea anemones (including a hammer and chisel!). Needless to say, I rarely travel light for fieldwork. The photo in this post shows some of the gear I am taking with me to Moorea.