you're reading...


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 snail@mit.edu!



  1. […] back! Where were we? Oh, right – just about to land in […]

Post a Comment


  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 1 year ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com