Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Round Two *Ding*

I have been privileged with receiving a renewal of my fellowship and am hoping to return to Africa this summer! I have created a new blog for this new adventure, you can view it at: eamaxwell.blogspot.com

Thank each and every one of you for all of your support and encouragement throughout this past year! It has been a incredible journey thus far and I look forward to what the future may hold in store! 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Farewell to South Africa

I hate the word "Goodbye". I truly do! I have a memory attached to that word which causes me to wonder, every time I hear someone say it, if it is the last time I will see that person. I prefer ANY other way of saying "Farewell".

-"Hasta luego"
-"See ya later"
- "Till the next time"
- "Here's looking at you, kid"
- "Catch ya later"
- "Adios"
even, - "Bye"

See! Aren't those much better choices? Yes, I agree. They are!

I laid awake for hours last night. I cannot believe that the time has past this quickly. There is something uniquely special about this place! Its the scenery, the ocean, the people, the atmosphere. Everything! I never thought that I would feel so at home in a place so far from my heartland. Isn't it remarkable that a person can travel to the other side of the world, completely away from everything familiar, and find a place of which it feels so natural to be a part.

I miss my family and am excited to see all my friends again. But now I have two families and I will always be missing one of them. Now I have two homes and my heart will always wonder when I will return.

All the sappy "goodbye-thetimeispassingtooquickly-iwillalwaysloveyou-wherehaveyougone" songs playing on the radio definitely do not help!! I suppose feeling too much is better than not feeling anything at all.

To all the wonderful people I have met on my travels this summer: I love you and will miss you more than I can express. Each and everyone of you has made an impression on my life and I could never forget you. Thank you for making me feel welcome, helping me to enjoy the good times, and for being there during the difficult moments. I only wish that one day I will be able to be as good a friend to someone as ya'll have been to me!

To my family and friends back home: Thank you for always being excited for my adventures during this trip! The support from all ya'll has been phenomenal. I truly love you and look forward to seeing you again soon!

Watch out Texas - Lis is heading home!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Z-Fields, Lorentz Force, and Maxwell's Equations (the other Maxwell)

When I came to South Africa the last thing I expected to be studying was the Earth's magnetic field! Not only am I designing my very first research project, and conducting it on sharks, but I am altering the geomagnetic field! "Nope, I don't want North to be on this side of the tank. Let's put it over there instead." How cool is that?!

Here is the really interesting part: it has been proven that pelagic sharks, such as scalloped hammerheads, utilize the earths magnetic field and magnetic anomalies, such as sea mounts, to navigate across oceans. Much in the same way that whales, sea turtles, and pigeons migrate. But we do not yet understand the biological process by which sharks have this "internal magnetic compass". Sharks have a sense organ called the Ampullae of Lorenzini which allows them to perceive electrical currents in their environment. This is utilized in detecting prey and some believe that it is linked to magnetoreception as well. I would be extremely interested in finding out exactly how these amazing animals detect the geomagnetic field, but that is a little beyond my current ability. So, we decided to answer a slightly simpler question. Do demersal sharks, such as the species found here in Walker Bay, have the ability to detect changes in magnetic fields and do they respond to these changes in a way that can be observed in behavior.

The first step was to do some research into previous studies of magnetoreception and design an experiment that we could conduct here in the SASC Lab. After gathering all the background information, we consulted with the South African National Space Agency Magnetic Observatory here in Hermanus. We met with two of their best engineers, Elda and Dannie, several times to discuss coil placement, voltage amounts, field homogeneity, and structural design. Along the way, we discussed the physics of magnetic fields and how to apply mathematical equations to understand them. Most of this flew over us poor shark biologist's heads! A favorite moment came when Dannie said: "Its okay - this isn't rocket science." To which we cried out: "But you ARE rocket scientists!!"
Despite feeling that a degree in mathematics would be a requirement for this adventure, we continued to push on. As with everything in Africa, it has taken a LOT of time. We were fortunate to receive the copper wire as a donation from the Copper Development Association of Africa, but had to wait a while for it to be delivered to us.
Once Danie and Elda had applied the tank measurements to a simulation computer program, we could look at the graph to see the distribution of the field throughout the tank. Another meeting, and more tweaking of the experimental design took place to make sure that we get the field as close to "perfect" as possible.
Then it was time to start building the frames for the coils, so us interns were off to the hardware store! YAY!!!
Over this weekend we were able to assemble the frames, thanks to the wonderful SASC connections, at one of the local Abalone farms that had a full workshop. Complete with power tools :)
This morning, Cindy, Edna, and myself have been dancing with copper wires trying to braid them into a manageable coil that we can thread through plastic tubing. Talk about a team-building exercise!
And now we are patiently waiting on the final coil dimensions for our friends at SANSA and hoping for a nice day of shark catching. 

Finding magnetic North

Ahh, the lovely hum of a table saw!

Trying to look like I actually know what I'm doing.
Braiding copper wire isn't as easy as it sounds!

Determining the best method for building

Waiting for the wood glue to dry.

A very special thank you to:
Danie Gouws and Elda Saunderson at the South African National Space Agency for all their wonderful help, endless encouragement, and fabulous advice.
Cindy Zuluaga and Edna Santana, SASC Interns/evil scientists, for being beautiful. AND for helping me fulfill my crazy whims.
Rowan Yearsley (and the Aquafarm workshop) for selflessly donating his valuable time and intellect, all for a few pieces of wood.
Meaghen McCord and Tamzyn Zweig for allowing me to explore my ideas, guiding me when I needed it most, and for being fabulous every single day!
The two coolest ladies in South Africa!!!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Experiences of a lifetime

If you want to connect with a person, you have to appreciate and respect their history. This goes for individuals and nations alike. It is not enough to travel to a place and see beautiful sites, eat wonderful food, and take home a souvenir, if you want to experience the culture you must step away from your own opinions and listen as they tell you of their own trials and sacrifices.
On Saturday, 16 July, I had the exceptional opportunity to visit Robben Island. This small island, just outside of Table Bay, is the location of a maximum security prison which housed political prisoners during Apartheid. It is where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years of his life. And where many others who combated racial segregation spent the majority of their adult life.

Cell Seven - Nelson Mandela. 46664.
 And there I was. A young American, eighty-six hundred miles from home, sharing the experience with a South African who had never been to the island before. I tried to not think of blame, but instead I was intrigued by how any man could spend so much time in such conditions and not lose his sanity. It was very unique for me to just sit next to my friend and feel the range of emotions that came with this place. Perhaps a hint of shame for be associated with the group "responsible" but also a great deal of respect and admiration for the individuals who found the courage to hold on to their beliefs when everyone was against them.  No matter what your political beliefs may be you have to recognize that these men performed an incredible feat.

Up to sixty men would share this one room and a bathroom with only three showers.
 It was interesting for me to see some similarities between my own country and a country that is geographically so different. I kept coming back to my belief that we are all the same no matter what our country, color, or opinion. I challenge you to find any country in the world who has not struggled in some way, who's government has not made wrong decisions, or who's people who have not, on occasion, tried to suppress another group.

Robben Island has a diverse history that goes far beyond the prison itself. It was also home to a leper colony and utilized as a military base. It also has an incredible population of birds (about 132 different species) along with a variety of introduced plants.

Once our tour was complete, we returned to the mainland and enjoyed a late lunch at the waterfront. Then we headed up to Table Mountain, arriving on the top around 16:30. This was perfect timing because we were able to walk around and explore a little of the mountain before sitting at watching the sunset over the beautiful Atlantic swells. When we heard the bell signaling the last cable car we decided that it might be a better idea to hurry over and join the queue instead of getting stuck to walk down the mountain in the dark. Without a light. Or (in my case) a proper jacket. The good news is that we did not get left behind and were able to watch the last rays of the spectacular setting sun as we walked to the car.

I couldn't help but feel like I was on top of the world!

A beautiful end to a spectacular day!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Da dum ... da DUM.... dadumdadumdadum!!

Phenomenal. That is the best word I can come up with to describe this weekend!

It all started on Friday morning when I woke at 05:30 to drive to Gansbaai to go cage diving with White Sharks. I went with Nick and Gareth, who are MSc students from Rhodes University working in the HIK Abalone Farm, and Scotty. When we arrived at the White Shark Projects office we were warmly welcomed with a full spread breakfast, fresh coffee, and hot tea. Soon we were joined by the rest of the group. Following a briefing by our skipper, we donned life-jackets and walked down to the harbor where the boat was ready and waiting. It only took several minutes for everyone to get settled and before I knew it, we were on the water bouncing over the swells. It was a spectacular start to the day as the sun was just breaking over the horizon and filling the bay with color. This is the location of the famed “Shark Alley” where White Sharks are known for taking to the air in pursuit of seals. Interestingly, the sharks have been frequenting an area of the bay where they are normally only found in the summer months. So instead of heading over to “Shark Alley” and Dyer Island, we went to a spot closer to the mainland.  After dropping anchor, it was time to get suited up, organize the first group of divers, and start a chum line. The boys and I were fortunately in this first group. Before I had time to register what I was doing, someone yelled “Shark!!!” and we were climbing in to the cage that was lassoed to the side of the boat. The water was frigid! Despite the 7mm suite (which is the thickest wet-suite available) I could already feel the warmth leaving my feet. Of course, this is your least concern when a rather large Carcharodon carcharias glides past. It was magnificent! And the absolute antithesis of what the media leads you to expect out of these intriguing creatures – the attacking monster from the sea with rows upon rows of teeth aggressively reaching towards an innocent bather was not what I witnessed. Effortless grace, majestic beauty, and perhaps deceptive, calm. For being one of the largest fish in the ocean, they appear to exert no energy to glide through the water. It was one of the best twenty minutes of my life!  

The adventure of Friday morning was only the start of a wonderful weekend! After getting back to the intern house in the early afternoon, I get cleaned up and ready to go to a braai with some friends. Several people are celebrating birthdays in July so they had a joint get-together. I retold the story of our trip that morning several times throughout the evening. 

Saturday, I was able to see a little more of the beautiful SA coast as we took a drive up to Stellenbosch. We came around one curve and saw a breathtaking view of False Bay with a glimpse of Table Mountain way off in the distance. The sky was clear and the water beautiful, making for a wonderful day! 

Yesterday, we talked ourselves into going for a snorkel, a little hesitatingly for fear of the cold water. But were pleasantly surprised to find the water nice once we got in! We dived right here in front of SASC, around the Old Harbour. I almost jumped out of my wetsuit when I saw a Pajama Shark! Usually, they are nocturnal and avoid divers so I was excitedly taking pictures as he swam past! A few minutes later we watched an Octopus give chase to a crab! It was spectacular fun! There is so much to see here that it is hard to know where to start.

Pajama Shark!!



Haha! Not very flattering ... but what can I say?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Waiting for Whales

When life isn't interesting enough, one-way valves stop working. At least that is what usual happens at SASC. On Monday, we came into the office and noticed that the header tank was unusually low. A little investigating revealed that, once again, we were going to have to fight the dreaded water intake pipe. Because we did not have the proper tools we decided to wait till Tuesday to launch our assault.
Arriving at the SASC building early yesterday morning, the weather was beautiful but chilly. Meag and Tam, armed with hammer and screw driver, bravely faced the cold water to open up the valve. We were able to flush the pipe, removing a significant amount of sand and debris, and tried to put all the pieces back together again. After struggling for a while, we decided to call in reinforcements and requested the aid of Meag's husband, Mike. Of course, it only took the aquaculture specialist a few tries before he had everything lined up correctly. Thrilled with our success, we were soon listening to the lullaby of running water in our tanks.
The remainder of my day was quite busy thoroughly cleaning all the tanks, packaging squid into "serving sizes", and showing visitors around the lab. Because the schools here in SA are currently on one of their holidays and it is getting close to time for seeing whales, we have been receiving more visitors. One of my favorite moments is when I lead the kids over to the touch tank and show them our little babies. They light up with excitement and all start asking questions at the same time! It is always amazing to see how passionate children are about the marine environment. To them, it is a place of mystery and endless adventure. And they eagerly absorb all the information you can give them.
Even the adults are amazed when they come into our lab and see the sharks in our tanks. Many people do not realize that a significant number of shark species are less than a meter in length. And, of the more than 400 shark species, only a handful have ever been involved in a shark incident with a human. Humans kill more than 70,000 sharks every year for their fins. Approximately 10 people die, worldwide, every year because they venture into an environment that is not their own and encounter a wild animal with natural instincts.

On a happy note... the whales are coming! :) At least that is what Meag and Tam keep telling me. Every day, I see more people on the sidewalk above the Old Harbour looking out at the bay in eager anticipation. This morning driving to work, Tam and I glimpsed a whale coming up for a breath. I hope to soon be sitting on the rocks, enjoying my lunch, and watching lots of whales in the bay.

I greatly enjoyed my weekend as I was invited to tour one of the local aquaculture farms. There are several farms here in Hermanus that raise abalone and supply to markets as far away as China and Japan. Abalone steaks are considered a status symbol in many Asian countries and have become an important part of the local economy here in South Africa. It was very interesting to walk around, see all the different aspects of the farm and how the facility operates, and think of how some of the same principles could be applied to the fish farm where I work back home. It is always great fun to visit with other researchers and learn what issues they are addressing and how they are overcoming those obstacles. Marine aquaculture is a growing industry that contributes more to the economy than most people realize. I am excited about becoming involved, even if only in a small way.