Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Dangerous Animals Club

"Total blackness, starry sky, warm water, silence and waves. It was perfect."
-Field diary entry, 8 July 2015

When I try to make the days of last summer fit into some coherent order in my mind, all I'm left with is a jumbled mass of random scenes (which is, I suppose, the fate of all memories), and so...

I'll abandon chronology and jump 10 days into our summer chronicles with the tale of what will forever be known as...

"The Scariest Thing That's Ever Happened To Me, Ever"

or in benign field terms:

"How S8 Came To Be Known As Crocodile Island."

*Spoiler alert: my story involves a crocodile...*

This is a BARBUS, not a croc (obviously). But this gives you an idea of how bad the GoPro footage was...
Jumping right to the middle of a story without context is a gutsy move, but I suspect I'll get around to discussing the reasons why we returned to the lake in a future blog post. Plus there are a few years of backstory to draw upon if you're new to this blog.

First off, if you've never heard of Stephen Tobolowsky (yes, the creepy guy on Glee Season 1 and Deadwood, among other things), stop reading this immediately and go check out 'The Tobolowsky Files'. His stories are sincere and endearing, and my hope is that if I listen to him long enough, I'll become a wiser, more Zen version of myself. Seriously...

Awhile back, he wrote an episode called "The Dangerous Animals Club" (which all parents should listen to) about his childhood in Texas collecting deadly animals with his buddies.

I thought about that title a lot this summer, since for awhile, almost every day, we'd encounter some kind of deadly creature while going about the business of Collecting Data. And I somehow found myself an honorary member of a club I never wanted to be in.

So there I was...


The scene:

a sliver of a moon on a cloudless night, far from the boat, a crappy dive light and a GoPro in hand to collect what I assumed would be documentary-worthy film footage of docile cichlids. At night, the fish let you get really close.

The waves at Kalya had been kicking our collective asses for days*, and the Tanzanians on the team made a (convincing and surprising) argument that we should camp on the beach following the night fish collection and resume sampling early the next morning (and avoid dashing our boat against the reef when attempting a return to shore at 3am).

We were attempting to collect 6 of every type of fish species in this particular spot in the lake which, at first glance, seemed to have not just lots of fish, but lots of types of fish. Since we were entering a new part of the lake this summer, the food web collection became priority one ('Amass a food web collection!' appears to be a standing lab order whenever we start working in a new part of the world). I've described this in detail elsewhere, so I won't go overboard on explanations, but when you add in samples of what each fish eats, you get some insight into how all the living parts of this system are connected. Since we have to kill the fish to get the samples (...), this summer we added on some additional metrics, like DNA, fatty acids, etc. to make those little deaths all the more worthwhile.

Our fearless captain, Mr. Kabumbe (who's not afraid to Shut It Down if waves threaten the boat)
Camping on the beach meant packing up all our stuff (i.e, several hundred pounds of gear) post-dinner, leaving port without the aid of daylight, pitching our tents on a vacant beach, and casting off again for the big rock island where we'd been collecting and processing fish for the past days.**

Isotope days go long, but the scenery's nice if you remember to look up once in awhile. Plus the locals get a kick out of the spectacle. It's a pretty sweet setup, complete with plastic tables and chairs. (Photo by Katie Wagner)
For the record, since nothing (EVER) happens fast in Africa, it's now about 11:30pm. And we haven't actually started 'working'.

Pete and George were off collecting fish via SCUBA (you catch different fish at night than during the day), and since no one felt like hopping in the water with me and there were several hours to kill before we could conceivably sleep***, I decided to venture forth solo.
Really. What's the worst that could happen? (Photo by Katie Wagner)
When all of a sudden, 10 feet in front of me, was a crocodile.


I spotted the claws first.

Then my brain registered the body and scaly tail.

And in that moment, I learned that I'm a flee-er, not a fighter.

We were never really briefed on what to do in this situation..., so I did a 180 and hauled ass back to the boat.

According to the video, the whole scene lasted just over 7 minutes. That includes me stalking fish for the first 3 and a lively discourse about whether and HOW we should warn the others once I got back for the last 2...

...because George and Pete were still out diving.

Meanwhile, across the water by the big rocks, we saw red eyes on a dark head swimming away from the islands towards land, so we're probably all "safe". And more importantly, I had witnesses.

George and Pete eventually surfaced but were generally unfazed by the news and promptly headed back underwater****.

I saw the footage for the first time a couple days ago, and it's disappointing to say the least. The sad combination of camera and dive-light angle prevented a good shot of the croc, and even my cichlid footage is pretty...meh.
Back on the boat, long-arming a barbus George caught in the net, generally no worse for the wear (photo by Katie Wagner)
...and playing with crabs (photo by Katie Wagner)
We saw what we assumed to be the same croc the next day, basking lazily on a rock and on a typically toasty African afternoon. He was probably only 8-feet long, tops...but underwater everything's ~33% bigger, so I maintain that I had reason to panic. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition...or running into a giant reptile whilst out swimming.
Slightly less scary in daylight (photo by Katie Wagner)
* Kalya, it turns out, is famous for its Big Waves. On the journey from Kigoma, we were forced to take shelter for a few hours so the waves would die down and we could commence the voyage (which had been far from smooth up until that point). Since "we" didn't add any flex days into the schedule, this would prove problematic later on.

** For the record, I was NOT on board with this plan, much as I love to camp, on account of the lack of a bathroom and having questionable bowels...

*** George can make a tank of air last a shockingly long amount of time.

**** George said I probably would've only lost a finger at most in the encounter. Still, I'm fairly attached to my digits. And for the record, I don't believe him.

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