Saturday, December 1, 2012


That’s the subject line of an email I just received from Benja.

When the rest of Team Tanganyika left Tanzania back in August for (a much less exciting) life in the States, Benja stayed behind on a quest to collect data on the lake for an entire year.

And while the stories from the field are no longer mine, I still hope to share noteworthy updates from time to time (and live vicariously through my friend). 

This week something Very Noteworthy happened, and what follows is Benja’s epic tale regarding the critical piece of field gear that we love to hate: the thermistor chain.

It's been At Large since sometime in September, but luckily for Benja, the lost has been found.

Keep on keepin' on, Benja!

Hi All,

So here is the thermistor chain story…

The day was off to a very bad start. 

All of the gear was loaded up in the boat and Hagai, George and I launched out from TAFIRI at about 8:45 am to go install a new thermistor chain mooring. After motoring for about 200 meters, the engine started making a terrible noise and died. George started taking apart the engine as we drifted north across Kigoma bay. When we opened up the carburetor, we discovered what was wrong: where the carburetor should have been full of fuel, it was full of WATER. 
 Georgie's boat. It's a little more robust than our Zodiac
Uncertain about where the water came from, we decided to investigate the contents of the fuel tank. George unplugged the fuel line from the engine and pumped the contents of the fuel can into the lake. Sure enough, the liquid streaming from the fuel line was entirely clear. There was no rainbow sheen on the surface of the
lake like you would expect to see if it was fuel. To be sure, George stuck the fuel line in his mouth and gave a couple pumps. It tasted like water too. 

So, we started paddling back to TAFIRI, wondering about how the fuel tank could have come to be full of water. The best explanation that we could come up with was that the gas station where I filled the fuel tanks must have gotten rainwater in its storage compartment. Rainwater that subsequently got pumped into our tanks and sold as fuel. 

When we got back to TAFIRI, we started dumping all of the fuel I had recently purchased into buckets to see what was inside. Of the 80 L of fuel I had bought the week before, about 60 L was water. Determined to deploy the thermistor chain anyway, we decanted the actual fuel into one fuel tank and George worked on fixing the engine—taking it apart, emptying the water, replacing the spark plugs.

After taking the engine apart and putting it back together 3 times, the engine was fixed and we were on our way.

For the new thermistor chain, I planned to center the boat over the target deployment and toss the anchor/rope/buoys overboard and let it fall so that the anchor would have a better chance of embedding into the sediment. So we centered over the point where the 2012 thermistor chain had been deployed 5 months before and tossed the new thermistor chain overboard. After snorkeling from the surface, it appeared that the metal TAFIRI buoy was right at our target, 10 m below the surface. George and I loaded up our SCUBA gear and went down to add more buoys to the string to give it some extra floatation just in case one of the buoys were to fail.
We added a little good luck charm to last year's chain (yes, I mangled some US currency! On the 4th of July! I felt twinges of guilt...) hoping we'd be able to find it again.
But, when we got down to the top of the mooring, I arrived first and saw that the metal buoy had already failed. The pressure had caused the buoy to totally collapse, and a slow stream of bubbles was emanating out from one of the resulting cracks in the metal. Feeling quite dejected, I started thinking about what to do. 
This photo is from last year, but it illustrates the point. Even under the best conditions (i.e., no biofilm accumulation, no waves, etc.), that tiny white dot is all you can see from the boat at 10m. And THAT is what holds this Very Expensive Equipment!
Just then, I turned to my right, and there IT was, in all of its biofilm-covered glory, the thing I had spent days and days searching for, months lamenting its loss, not 10 meters away from where the new thermistor chain had been deployed. I turned back to George and he was already excitedly pointing at it. We swam toward each other and gave a big underwater hug. I’m sure he could see the grin on my face even with the regulator in my mouth.
It's hard to express emotion with a regulator in your mouth...
So, our plans changed a little bit. We swam to the old thermistor chain, attached a surface tracer buoy, detached the sonde and thermistors, and came to the surface with shouts of joy. We brought it all back to Aqualodge, downloaded the data, redeployed the instruments, and made it back to TAFIRI at sunset. In light of all that had happened that day, so many unanswered questions came up:

What do we do with the new mooring?
What do we do with the new thermistors that are, as we speak, on their way to Kigoma?
What do we do with the 60 L of water that we paid an exorbitant amount for as fuel?

Nothing in the data suggests how we could have missed it. For example, according to the depth sensor, the chain did NOT spend a month down at the bottom of the lake only to be resurrected when we plunged the new mooring down on top of it. We did, however, catch another offshore spike in chl-a at the end of September that coincides with a chl-a spike near shore. More on data updates later, though.

I hope this news finds all of you happy and healthy back in the US! If you have any ideas on the questions above, let me know. I’ll probably come up with a plan early next week for the new mooring. 

Happy December!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tell me a story

If you and I have ever visited for longer than 10 minutes, I’ve undoubtedly found a way to bring a Radiolab* reference into our conversation. In writing this blog over the past few months, the episode called “Tell me a story” often came to mind. In it, Robert Krulwich gives the commencement address to a fresh crop of CalTech graduates and urges them to talk about their research to anyone who will listen, even if they feel completely inept at doing so…

…because science has to compete against so many other (inaccurate, dangerously misleading, beautiful-but-wrong) stories about how the universe works and how we all came to be upon this planet.

In the case of Lake Tanganyika, it’s no easy task giving voice to a giant body of water that likes to keep her secrets. But we measured this and that, took samples and conducted experiments when we could, and now begin the hard-won task of turning those numbers and observations and samples into a story:

The story of a place that can’t speak for itself.

And in my humble opinion, it’s a good one.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but my hope is that in reading my stories about Lake Tanganyika, you have a slightly better understanding about my little corner of Africa and the absolutely incredible place I got to call home for a while (and have a new-found appreciation for where a tiny fraction of your tax dollars go!). 

The last fish (a kazumbe!) of the fish pee study (oh, happy day!)
If not, the fault is mine, and I promise to try harder next year.

I’ve been home a whole month now, and I think I’m almost back to what could pass as normal. Coming home again is always tough for me, so big thanks (and bigger hugs) to all of you who helped get me through the (painful) transition. Without recounting the incredibly stress-inducing details of my final hours in Tanzania (most assuredly, I lost years of my life ensuring those damn water samples made it to These United States), suffice it to say that if you’re willing to throw down enough cash, you can get even the most overweight of coolers across international borders. And miracle of miracles, everyone and everything arrived home safely once again. 

Some illegal fishing in Mahale (lest we forget the big picture...)
And as the brazillions of samples wait patiently for analysis in the CFL freezers, I have the added advantage of time to look back on what I officially call a Very Successful (if not challenging) field season.

Thank you all for joining me on this journey, and hopefully I’ll have more stories to tell soon.   

*Radiolab is just the BEST PODCAST IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I have a secret crush on Jad Abumrad. He and Robert are coming to MADISON at the end of the month. GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!!!

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…

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lost cause

Things have slowed down a little since Pete left a week ago.

And by a little I mean a LOT. 

21 July 2012: Last day of fish counts, fish-wrangling for site surveys, and snail collections for community composition and density (woohoo!). And yes, thanks to the intense rays of the tropical sun, I'm now blonde (oy vay...)
After a long day in the field, the crew sets up shop on the porch to crack some shells, take some measurements, and cut isotope samples.
Having my post-dinner evenings back and work-free has been pure heaven, and I’ve even had time for novel activities like showering, sleeping (!), reading-for-fun, and instigating 30 Rock marathons. Aah...

But on a Skype call the other night, Pete suggested I use some of my new-found down time to repair the defunct Zodiac. So yesterday morning I amassed as much hypalon glue, marine epoxy, aquaseal, and patch material I could find and gave it the ol’ college try. 

In his defense, I don't think he realized the extent of the damage until I sent him this picture...

The transom is on the left, and I'm holding the pontoon. What started as a hole half the length of the boat soon became much, much larger...
Once I removed the floorboards, the piece connecting the pontoons to the floor peeled off completely. I attempted to glue it all back together, but I trust it almost as far as I can throw it.

I officially declare it a Lost Cause and would like to reiterate that it was a *MIRACLE* we made it back to land that day at all.