Setting Sail

Dearest friends and family all,

On Tuesday, I depart from San Diego aboard the S.S.V. Robert C. Seamans. We will be at sea for 46 days, the first 36 without making port. During those six and half weeks, we will sail 3600 nautical miles to Tahiti.

The S.S.V. Robert C. Seamans. She’s a 134 foot Brigantine, steel-hulled and -masted, with 34 crew including 18 students.

For the next 46 days I will not have internet, cell phone, or immediate contact with anyone not onboard the ship. I can get snail mail when we make port and would love a letter while at sea; mail to:

Robin Byron
Class S-250
P.O. Box 6
Woods Hole, MA 02543

The letters will be forwarded to our port stops.

The SEA office also maintains a blog for the Seamans while we are at sea, found here. Each of us students will write one or two of the daily posts while we’re on the water which we transmit to shore.

I won’t be maintaining this blog while at sea; the lack of internet makes doing so a bit difficult. I will, however, continue to write while at sea and will post about the voyage when I return around Christmas.

Finally, for your entertainment:

I hope you have a glorious autumn, wonderful Thanksgiving, and a very happy Christmas/Hanukkah/holiday season. I’ll see y’all in December.

Love,

Robin

Basically, We’re Screwed

Last week the first part of the International Panel on Climate Change’s 5th assessment report (IPCC-AR5) was released. The assessment is clear: Climate change is real. It is caused by humans. And there’s almost nothing we can do to stop it.

The assessment couches their terminology in the language of bureaucratese and scientific terminology, but at base, and you can get a sense of this reading the Summary for Policy Makers, is that even if we stopped emitting CO2  entirely tomorrow, the climate will be affected by our mess for upwards of 1000 years. The changes necessary to stop or even to slow climate change are so drastic that I, for one, do not believe we will be able to make them. In order to keep the climate below a 2oC change in temperature, a widely agreed upon mark of “when the really bad stuff starts”, we would have to drop the carbon dioxide emissions of the developed world to considerably less than their current levels and halt the precipitously rising emission levels of the developing world. The former may be possible, if the United States government pulled itself together enough to get something done (I’m talking to you Congress). The latter, though, is virtually impossible as far as I can see it. In recent years, China has vied with the U.S. as biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and it has been increasing fossil fuel use rapidly to fuel its growing economy. You will forgive my skepticism that China will halt its use of fossil fuels anytime soon based solely on science.

Climate change is already happening. We’re already seeing the effects in shifting weather patterns and warmer temperatures. The worst effects may not occur for some time, say 50 or 100 years down the road, but they will occur and it will be, if not in my lifetime, then in the lifetime of my children.

Basically, my conclusion is that we’re screwed. Our generation has a mess to deal with that I think is far beyond humanity’s ability to handle. If we pulled together, governments and people and companies and economies across the globe, and singlemindedly pushed toward this one goal of halting climate change, we might, might, be able to stop it. But that would require humanity to unite on a scale we have virtually proven to be incapable of.

Yes, this is a late night rambling. Yes, it is dreary, pessimistic, and lacking in all hope. But it’s the truth. And I cannot think of anything more depressing.

Bioluminescence

I’ve seen pictures of marine bioluminescence before (the scene from Life of Pi comes to mind).  Of the many fantastic phenomena encountered in biology, bioluminescence is, to me , one of the coolest. The pictures are gorgeous: blue-washed sand glowing by night.

Until tonight, I’d never seen the phenomenon for myself. And you know what? It’s more incredible in reality than I could imagine.  Walking into the warm waters of the Atlantic, a burst of green stars rises with each step. Kick your legs underwater and a cloud of green rises to the surface. Spin your arms and it feels like you are in Avatar. Floating with the Milky Way overhead and glowing plankton all around, I’m reminded once again of why I’m a scientist, because trying to understand such beauty is something I cannot give up.

Back in the U.S.A!

As always when leaving a place, my final few days in Panama were rushed. Following a frantic last day at work  and a flurry of last minute late night packing, I took off from Tocumen International Airport on a direct flight to Boston Logan. I’m back in the U.S.A. and it feels good to be home! Somewhere where cool air occurs outside instead of only by the artifices of man, where the leaves rustle in a breeze that doesn’t forewarn the daily rain, and where I don’t drip with sweat every time I walk out the front door. What can I say? I’ve missed a temperate climate.

Sometime after navigating the public transit, much easier when the system is in English, I am safely ensconced for the weekend in Boston until Monday when I travel down to Woods Hole to begin the next adventure.

The next three months are going to be interesting, and I will write about what I am doing. Whether or not that writing is worth publishing, even if only on the internet, remains to be seen.  I will be in Woods Hole until November 1st, studying oceanography, the global carbon cycle, and the policy of climate change, along with the necessary background for sailing. Thereafter, I will be sailing for six weeks, from San Diego to Tahiti, making port on the morning of December 20th. Between those dates, I will be completely out of contact with the outside world: no internet, no mail, no cell phone. No such amenities are possible on the ocean, except satellite phones in the case of absolute emergency.

I don’t want to leave out six weeks of what I imagine to be solid adventure (and on a 134′ two-masted sailing ship, I dare anyone to contradict me), but as I will have no internet during that time, I’ve yet to decide how that will work. But I will face that hurdle when I come to it. For the time being, I am excited to start a new school year on Monday.

Cool Science Things

 

It has been a long while since I wrote a science blog, and as my internship in Panama hurtles toward its end in a mere three days, I thought it high time to discuss my projects, or at least the coolest one.  Rather than just telling the results, it’s easier to show you:

 

Natica_3

 

The above is an image of a larval moon snail, stained with calcein and imaged on a confocal microscope. Ostensibly, the project was intended to develop a procedure for accurately measuring the volume of larval shells; secondarily, I was to determine whether calcein, a fluorescent dye known to actively bind to calcium carbonate in living cells, would bind passively to the CaCO3 of a shell of a dead organism. In reality, the project just became my excuse to learn at least a bit about confocal microscopy. Officially, the results were mixed: the procedure, while theoretically useful, is not so practically, as it takes extensive time and resources to prepare samples for use and as the size limit  for samples under the scope is less than the actual size of most of our samples. However, calcein can be used to stain non-living calcium carbonate, a very useful bit of knowledge. As far as I’m concerned the project was a raging success: I got to learn about confocal microscopy and work with Michael Boyle, post-doctoral fellow and microscope photographer extraordinaire (really, check out his photos), and I got some really cool pictures as a result.

The Passport Issue

My time in Panama is rapidly drawing to a close, and I’m sorting out what I will need to do on the weekend I’m back in the States before starting classes. Foremost among these miscellaneous items is the Passport Issue, something of such pressing concern that it is mentally capitalized whenever I think of it. At the same time, though, the situation is a lineup of flukes so comedically infortuitous I cannot but laugh every time I think of it and assume that, with a bit of planning and preparation, everything will work out for the best.

The route we will be sailing during my upcoming semester is from San Diego to Tahiti, landing on December 20th; I will be staying in Tahiti overnight and flying home on the 21st, just in time for Christmas. In order to land in Tahiti, though, everyone must have a passport valid for 6 months after entrance to the country. I last renewed my passport June of 2009. Which means my passport expires May 31, 2014, less than three weeks shy of six months after our entrance to Tahiti. Point 1 against me.

This shouldn’t be a big deal. I could renew it online… except I can’t. Point 2 against me: I last renewed my passport before my sixteenth birthday. Which means I have to visit an actual passport office in order to renew. I could have renewed it at the U.S. Embassy in Panama, except that would have required 4-6 weeks notice. I learned of the problem four weeks before my departure. Point 3.

I’ll have barely six weeks on shore once I return to the States, meaning that I’ll have to get the process expedited. Point 4. Because my last renewal was underage and I’m applying for an expedited process, I cannot go to a standard post office renewal site and have to go to a regional office, which is not open on the weekends. Point 5.

Alternatively, we can look at the bright side, and laugh at the situation. I’ll be flying into Boston Thursday, so should be able to arrange an appointment for Friday before I leave the city.  I realized the problem far enough in advance that I’ve been able to sort out the issue with relative ease. And I’ve had to request foreign travel permissions to be expedited before (not a passport, but a visa), so at least I have some idea of what’s required.

And I promise the next post here will be more interesting: an actual science post.

Deviled Buses

Disclaimer: The writer is absolved from any attempts to use the below as a travel guide. Such attempts are ill-advised and will end disastrously.

I’ve described driving in Panamá as a harrowing experience, although it has become marginally less so with practice and development of my mad truck-driving skills. As I’ve driven it has become apparent that the drivers, though aggressive, are generally at least conscious of what’s going on. With one glaring exception: Buses. Down here, the rules of right-of-way are simple. Bigger things go first. And buses are bigger than everything.  If you’re in a small car, good luck. If you’re on a bike or walking, god help you.

Panama City has two bus systems. The first is the official public transit system. Initiated in 2010, the Metrobus System is part of Panamá’s push for modernization. The buses cost 25₵, paid off a rechargeable orange-and-white card.

The second system is older and less of a “system” than a coincidence of independently owned and simultaneously operated buses.  The buses, for the most part retired American school buses, are vividly and imaginatively decorated according to the owner’s and artist’s tastes. Called Diablos Rojos (red devils), the buses are run by a two person team of driver and conductor. The driver will stop at official bus stops as well as any promising-looking corner or cluster of people, and the conductor will jump from his perch just inside the doors, often before the bus has fully stopped, energetically calling the destination. To get off the bus, one stands and shouts “aquí” (here) or “pare” (stop), or loudly slams the ceiling of the bus.

Photos from http://locationpanama.com/archives/237, http://www.holomagic.com/blog/insider-update-on-ted-ciuba-piii/, & http://www.flickr.com/photos/zinnie/6816130113/

Diablos Rojos: flashily colored; garishly lit by night; and festooned with the faces of celebrities, Jesus, or the owner’s own children on the rear door.

Strictly speaking, the older buses are no longer legal. Partially to cut back on competition when the official system was instituted, and partially because the Diablos are old buses and heavily polluting, the government paid buses to stay off the road. The initiative was largely unsuccessful and there are still at least as many Diablos Rojos as Metrobuses on the roads.

Unfortunately, the attempt to institute a uniform public transit system leaves much to be desired. While the new system is supposedly more attractive to outsiders, with its shiny new Mercedes-Benz buses and swipe card system, its streamlined face feels like a façade covering its shortcomings. The system fails to account for the number of people who use the buses and for the times of highest demand. The routes in the new system don’t go as far or come as frequently, leaving gaps in service of sometimes considerable length. There is no bus schedule, so drivers arrive and depart more or less as they please. The drivers themselves are often the very same ones paid by the government to leave their old buses behind, then rehired to drive the new ones.

This is not to say that the system doesn’t work. The gaps in the Metrobus service are readily filled by the old system, which still thrives despite government attempts to phase it out. And while I wouldn’t say it is the most efficient or effective system, it works.

A glimpse of what’s to come

I don’t think there is anything on earth as dwarfing as the open ocean, the sensation of perching atop the curvature of the earth with naught but water in all directions. To be on such a vast expanse is to confront something larger than the mind is capable of grasping. We were seven miles offshore, collecting plankton in an 8-meter boat, yet at even such a short distance, there was only the barest sense of shore just beyond the horizon behind.

It is funny, but we often do not recognize the accuracy of a poetic cliché until we experience it ourselves. Such I have found to be the case when describing the ocean. I can find no more accurate description of sunlight on the waves than to speak of the ever shifting colors of the sea. While undoubtedly poetic and overused, such a description is also unquestionably accurate.

Curvature of the Earth

Returning, we could see the jumbled towers of Panama City rising from the cloud banks in the distance, and wove our way through the mess of ships awaiting the Panama Canal.

Cityscape

Ship

San Blas Revisited

In my memory, the San Blas islands are perfect. The water in my memories is crystal clear and stretches to the horizon in deepening shades of turquoise, the beaches of blazing white sand finer than sugar, and the gently swaying palms laden with their sweet heavy fruit. In short, my memory paints a picture of a tropical paradise strictly adherent to the stereotype. Vacation spots are rarely as sweet in reality as our memory would recall them, especially when the memories are those of an overly imaginative and introspective thirteen-year-old.  But here, my memories, if anything, downplayed the Islands I found this weekend upon returning in the company of friends.  Let me show you…

Isla Chichime, home of grand host Umberto, fish twice a day, and the bamboo huts in which are strung our sleeping hammocks.

Isla Chichime, home of grand host Umberto, fish twice a day, and the bamboo huts in which are strung our sleeping hammocks.

Tropical sunset

Conches

Mar Caribe

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This blog, like my attempts to learn guitar, re-learn Spanish, and practice my writing, has fallen by the wayside of late. Time simply seems to slip through my fingers at an ever increasing rate.