Friday, August 10, 2012

The last time

I learned a long time ago that health is something you really can’t take for granted here. In fact, every day you wake up feeling *great* you should thank your lucky stars.

I did not wake up feeling great this morning.

Our crew has been plagued with everything from random/explosive diarrhea to rampant bouts of foot fungus this season. But with T-minus 6 days until I leave Kigoma (!!), I assumed I might be in the clear. As it turns out, a good-intentioned goodbye-dinner for Ryan and Vanessa at a fancy restaurant last night has permanently ruined anything bearing the name ‘fish pasta’ for me, forever.

Maybe fish in general.

Probably pasta too.

Our crew is now officially down to 4 members. And after Ryan and Vanessa took off for the airport this morning, Ben and I hit the lake for yet another attempt at offshore nutrient profile sampling. I got to the ‘label the sampling bottles’ step before I felt the first surge welling up in my throat. But since we’re short on days and the thought of hauling that beast of a winch even ONE more time broke my heart, I powered through despite Ben’s kind suggestion that we abandon the task at hand and motor home.

Distraction is usually a magical cure, and I duly marveled at the sulfur stench that accompanies everything below 150m and thought it was pretty awesome how the water was noticeably (~3 degrees C) cooler at 200m.

And then I started puking off the side of the boat…

and we headed home soon thereafter.

Still, mission accomplished! A 3-hour nap and a Tangawizi (delicious ginger soda) have worked wonders, and I feel loads better already.

My time here is rapidly coming to a close (as evidenced by my quickly-diminishing stockpile of malaria meds and vitamins), and we’re running out of time to get everything done. The original field schedule we wrote last spring says that as of today, I should be relaxing on a tropical beach in Zanzibar or watching for cool wildlife in the Serengeti. 

But (for reasons that are too boring to mention) I instead decided to forgo vacation and stay in Kigoma a bit longer to help Benja. He’ll be flying solo soon as he begins his studies of Tanganyika in the rainy season.

Daily afternoon view from the lake as the fisherman head to port.
Plus (if I'm being honest here...) I wasn’t quite ready to leave. It turns out that my (cold, dead, cynical) heart has developed quite a soft spot for Kigoma, and I am in love with this lake.

So this final week will involve a long series of last times for me, some that will make me cry a little on the inside (the last time I pull my face out of the water, perhaps) and others that definitely won’t (hauling the (heavy, awkward) motor from the storage shed comes to mind, off the top of my head…).
Last day of weeklies...and it POURED. This is what a downpour looks like from under the water. I wish I could have captured the sound!
But while funding isn’t guaranteed for this project next year, I know that someday I will be back regardless. And I don’t really believe in ‘last times' anyway. Not really.

So I’m taking it all in (as per always), because even a puke-y day on the lake is better than the best day in the lab. Real life will be here soon enough, so in the meantime, I’m enjoying the sunset.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The final push

It's my last week on Lake Tanganyika for the year, and Ben and I have One Last Big Project component to finish up before I head home: Fish excretion, or more aptly: making tiny fish toilets out of Ziploc bags.

For the few of us that remain, it’s all hands on deck, as each of us has a part to play in the endeavor. I won’t even attempt an explanation of the various components, but here’s an Extremely Brief Overview of what the others are doing:

Renalda is doing something involving length and weight relationships of Tropheus brichardi (again, the details are fuzzy…)

Lesley is studying fish metabolism, so her fish go into special PVC chambers and she monitors the oxygen demand of the fish.

Look closely! There's a little fish in there, swimming away.
Benja and I collect fish pee from 6 species of cichlids representing different trophic levels (more on that in a minute…)

We're trying to get sponsorship from Ziploc.
And Ryan collects poop.  

The life of a field ecologist is nothing if not glamorous. 
We’re currently on Day 3, and at any given moment it has potential to cross that fine line between Well-Oiled-Machine and Total Shitshow. 
We did a version of the excretion project last year, and I seem to have forgotten (until recently!) how intricate and all-absorbing and absolutely exhausting it all is (and I’m not the one staying up until the wee hours playing with “cancer juice” and the fluorometer. That’s Benja’s job. But more on that in a minute). 

The downsides (baking in the sun, sitting on hard rocks all day, and sweating bullets on shore) are mostly outweighed by the good stuff (Ryan’s homemade guacamole, not-super-stale popcorn from our friendly duka-owner, and good tunes blaring over the lab speakers). I still maintain that even a bad day on the water is better than the best day on land. But that’s just me.
Here’s the rundown of a typical excretion day:

The night before:
Benja spends a couple hours or so filtering lake water with an electric vacuum pump. That may seem like an unnecessary detail, but it is NOT, Dear Reader. Last year we did it all in the field with hand pumps, filter towers, and flasks, and by the end of the summer I had Popeye forearms. I did not wish to repeat that muscle exercise, so the mechanized version is a dream!

I label up water vials and Ziplocs for all 41 fish we'll be sampling.

Early AM:
Gather all the gear for the day and walk it down the beach. Lately we’re using George’s boat, the Maji Makubwa, since we’re down to one Zodiac and Too Many People/Too Much Gear. 

Georgie at the helm of the Maji Makubwa
10 a.m. and on:
Head to today’s site and try to find some nice (and accessible!) shoreline. It was Damn Windy this morning, and this maneuver involved a brisk (!) swim, floating gear over our heads while waves bashed us into the rocks, and manhandling aforementioned heavy gear over slippery boulders. Something about it didn’t feel very safe…

Set up shop. Measure 2L of filtered water into individually numbered Ziploc bags (this takes about an hour…)

This is my super-awesome/fabulous field hat purchased in Zanzibar. NICE, huh!
Georgie suits up and starts catching fish.

Georgie hands fish off to Benja, who aerates the water (read: shakes Ziploc violently for a few seconds) and gives the fish some alone time (enough time to pee anyway…)

Passing off a fish to Benja. Georgie brought along a friend who hung out in the boat all day during this operation. She was Bored Out Of Her Mind.
Into the filtered water he goes! On this particular day, we braved a lightening storm (!!!) to get to Site 9 and thanked our lucky stars no one was electrocuted. Seriously. It was terrifying.
After 30 minutes, it’s GO TIME, rapid fire. Benja filters pee-water for nutrients and I pipette straight-up-pee water into amber bottles for eventual ammonium analysis. 

I hand off the fish to Renalda, who gets lengths and weights for us. Ryan takes the Ziploc, holds it until all the poop settles to the bottom, and collects turds into pre-weighed vials. Mr. Fish goes into a holding tank until we can release him to the lake. 

I like to think they're happy, but there's really no way to tell. I think he's smiling?
Do this 40 more times.

START TO OVERHEAT and really need to jump in the lake and excrete with the fish :).

Avoid eye contact, avoid eye contact...
Late afternoon:
Load up gear, drop by tomorrow’s site to collect water for filtering, and start motoring home.

Heading home! Georgie always has a smile!
Unload, unpack samples, and pipette “cancer juice” (OPA, a scary, scary chemical necessary for ammonium analysis) into the samples. Wait 4 hours for the reaction to complete.

Meanwhile, Benja filters water and I label bags and vials for tomorrow.

The wee hours of the morning:
Break out the fluorometer and read the ammonium levels of all samples.

The next day:
Do it all again!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cooking snails (or "experiments with isotopes!")

With Benja on vacation this week, the Big Project for Team Madison has been an ongoing experiment with snails, the goal of which is study maternal investment in Lavegeria nassa communities and measure the production rate of babies using an isotopic labeling method.


Well these snails actively nourish their babies, in that they brood their young inside the shell until they are a safe size to be released (just over 1mm…which is still pretty tiny if you ask me) and then give birth to live young! It’s like a mini conveyor belt of snail production, and we basically want to see whether maternal investment in producing young reflects the quality of the mother’s diet.

Cool stuff, really.

So we picked 3 of our sites that vary in productivity, collected a bunch of cobbles and snails from each, and brought them back to the lab to get cooked (“isotopically labeled”) with 15N. 

And the lucky sites are...2, 4, and 5! 
 [Brief aside: By “the lab” I mean Pete’s former bedroom. 

Complete with drying oven, freezer, and bed!
Normally our Kigoma work is based out of the Tanzanian Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), but this year we arrived to find our lab space in the middle of a complete overhaul (read: total shitshow). So we rolled with the punches and set up base camp at our motel, Aqualodge. I call it the malaria lab, since it doesn’t have a fan and harbors brazillions of (likely-malaria-carrying) mosquitos. Plus it’s super-hot, headlamps are needed even during daylight hours, and it's been known to flood on occasion. It’s definitely sub-optimal…but it has a bed!]

So anyway, the snails…

This isotopes is distinct from what occurs naturally in the lake, so the label allows us to measure the rate at which new babies are produced and current embryos grow. Our study sites differ in productivity, so applying this method in parallel at 3 sites allows us to test the influence of diet and whether populations of the same species may have evolved different maternal investment strategies.

Since the goal was to put them back out in the wild and collect them at various time intervals, we had to make them stand out in some way from all the other snails at each site. So after Renalda bought the brightest nail polish she could find in Kigoma, Vanessa was tasked with making them pretty.

I like to think the other, non-polished snails were jealous. In a show of solidarity, I painted my toenails purple (which, for those of you who know me personally is not at ALL in line with my personality...)
After letting them “cook” for a few days, Ben and I took them back to the sites where they originated, found big, flat rocks surrounded by sand so they’d have a lower chance of…wandering off, and let them go.

The release was about as dramatic as you'd imagine, but they didn't stay on those rocks for long...
I know what you’re probably thinking: THEY’RE SNAILS. How far could they possibly go?

That’s what I thought too, but we apparently have some ambitious snails in the group. Prevailing theory said they’d only move a meter or so per day, but collecting them has become... challenging...after only a week. For example, a few abandoned the conditions at 3.5 meters and climbed the Mt. Everest of site 4 (I would have loved to watch time-lapse footage of that feat!). 

The plan is to collect them every week or so until we leave for the summer, and after every collection I try to consolidate them all on a rock. At some point it will involve SCUBA diving, but for now I can still find them by snorkeling.  
Three collections are done, and 7 more await. Here's hoping they don’t wander too far…