Unbelizeable, part I

We oceanography grad students get into the PhD racket for lots of reasons.  For some, it’s the passion of intellectual inquiry; for others it’s the big bucks and light hours.  For me, the fieldwork was always a draw, which is why I picked a computational biogeochemist as an advisor.  Kidding!  Computational means ‘mostly uses computers’ – whoops, forgot about that one.  In “mostly computer” fields like mine, unless one’s advisor has something lined up, chances to get out in the field for grad students are like faeries in a Finnish forest – all around, within one’s grasp, yet elusive, always spotted half a second too late.  Then, sometimes, you get lucky.  Last month, I landed myself one big faerie.

Last fall I heard about this artist-in-residence at MIT, Keith, who was teaming up with a physicist, Allan, to do some fancy new high-speed underwater photography work.  Sounded cool, so I went to a talk.  If you didn’t click the link just there, click the link, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  Keith’s photography is incredible.

After the talk, though, Keith and Allan mentioned that they want to put together a ‘class’ (loosest possible sense of the term here) for January.  They’d teach a handful of students how to become professional underwater photographers in 2.5 weeks, then take them to Belize for 1.5 weeks to be just that.  After that, we get to talk a little bit, and it turns out that while because of their funding source for this trip, they need to bring some undergrads, they’re really looking to attract a few oceanography grad students – preferably those with some sort of arts background, like me!  I’m hellbent.

Fast forward through lots of nervous, hopeful daydreaming to mid-December, when I get an email. To paraphrase: ‘hi, after getting roughly a million applicants for roughly less than a million spots, one of those spots is yours, congratulations your January is ours.’  (It would’ve been 10 million had you not needed to be SCUBA certified to apply).

Our hosts will be the Wildlife Conservation Society, who have a research station, in a marine reserve, on an atoll, off the coast of Belize. We were to take photographs related to conservation stories that they have ongoing there.  These photographs will form a touring museum exhibit, aiming to educate and activate the public on marine conservation. Bizarrely, the best way to save a reef in America is to show people pictures of reefs.   It’s either e   mpathy (‘oh, look at the cute fishy!’) or Manifest Destiny (‘oh, look at that pretty fish, which I’d like to see in person once I make it rich and retire to there’), but it sure beats ecological and environmental arguments.  At least, that’s what I’m told.  If it helps, and I’m one of the ones who gets to take the pictures, me take pictures in Belize, then I’m all for it.
Except I know nothing about photography.  Sculpture, music, sure – not photography.  Which is why they weren’t kidding when they said ‘your January is ours’.  This may not come as a shock, but, underwater photography is pretty darn difficult to pick up, even for those of us who had worked as professional photographers before.  It’s sort of like photography on land, which takes, you know, all of your attention to do well, but then you’re also scuba diving, which takes, you know, all of your attention to do well.  Even the water itself messes with you, by sopping up red light ~100x faster than blue – so you need an elaborate lightning setup to boot.  Then everything is moving, and it all moves way faster than you… All told, there’s a lot to figure out for two weeks and change.
Luckily, the best way to figure it out is just by doing it a lot, and MIT has a pool with a finicky heating system that’s for some reason pretty unpopular in January.  We got to know that pool rather well.  Another thing about us grad students, though, is we tend to get addicted to email, manuscript revisions, and other insipid vices which make it difficult to let one’s responsibilities slide for a month.   The first half of January became a juggling act: wake up at some unholy pre-sunrise hour, get that coffee fix, that email fix, maybe that catnap fix if you’re lucky, then photo boot camp.  We would build cockamamie sets to toss in the pool and photograph,  tinker with fancy underwater photo equipment, process photos, critique photos, and more – all in preparation to gear up and shoot in the pool.  Get home, maybe squeeze another email fix in, then fall asleep with your shoes accidentally still on from sheer exhaustion, ready to do it again a few hours.
Ok, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic.  It was an intense couple of weeks, though – an adventure the entire time.  We were split into teams of four, two dive buddy pairs to a team, and we got to know each other rather well by the end of it all.  For my team, Team Sunshine, I was mostly responsible for sarcasm and snacks (duties which I performed excellently, thank you).  Over these days of prep, Sunshine secured ourselves a handsome albino better fish mascot, built an ROV, and took some incredible photographs.



(Amelie attaches our team’s logo to the ROV)
Then it was time to roll out.  As often happens, it came down to the wire.  We were supposed to fly out the morning of a big snowstorm, but we were a large group (pushing close to 20, once the Curator of Fishes for the New England Aquarium, a writer for Science, and a couple others decided to tag along) so getting the flights moved was dicey.  Also there was dive equipment and nearly a dozen cameras to pack, one of which was a medium-format Keith had on loan that cost $100k, or so the legend goes.  The transition was split-second – from preparation and training, to frenzied stuffing of bags and nail-biting, to departure – but before we knew it we’d beat the storm, sitting in the terminal in Atlanta, just an overnight away where the rubber meets the road in Belize.

(A jellyfish at the New England Aquarium – an exciting teaser photo opp of what in store for us)
Apologies for the suspense!  We’ll pick this back up next month, with a description of our paradisiacal/tropical art/research island adventure, interviews and photographs galore from our first gallery opening, and more.  For now, check the oceanbites Instagram page for some sneak peek photos, or if you’re interested, the first gallery opening will be at MIT on 7 March, and the second will be at the Boston Museum of Science Planetarium on 24 March – contact me at [email protected]!

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