Sunday, December 29, 2013

Life in the Bunk House

Location: Seattle, WA
Outside Temp: 42 F

Well, it's happening, I'm really here in Seattle! Training is pretty cool. It's still normal life, a little like a cross between a college class and a job interview. The class is focused on four basic topics: sampling procedures (aka how to actually do my job), filling out paperwork (putting numbers in little boxes), fish identification (playing with dead fish in ethanol) and safety (60 seconds to pull on your full immersion suit and jump into Lake Washington). It's a little like having your favorite class, everyday ... All . Day . Long.

But for fish nerds like myself, its pretty enjoyable! The training is at a secure NOAA facility, so they gave us all official badges with our pictures on them. Confession: I'm terrified to forget mine at home and have to wear the lame visitor's sticker one day. Our badges are connected to little retracting key holders, which when you've been in class for eight hours, are the most fun toy ever. They even have the Fisheries Management mascot printed on them ... An angler fish!

Angler fish retractor toy attached to my ID

Outside of class is when my life really gets interesting. I am staying in a moderately sized apartment, that, from the outside, looks generally unremarkable, aside from the foul weather gear and scientific equipment stacked in the garage. It can house up to 8 people, but comfortably 4-5. Unlike the other trainees, I am not staying in a trainee bunk house, but with prior observers who are traveling to and from assignments, briefings etc. Pretty much everyone is in a constant state of jet (or more often boat) lag. There are no normal sleeping, or meal times. Every day I wake up and check the bedroom whiteboards to see if anyone new has shown up and claimed a bed. People walk in from adjacent apartments just to check up on who's living in the unit next door for that day.

In the kitchen we have an entire cabinet shelf of free items left behind by observers that got called out suddenly. Most of the common items left behind include pasta sauce, beans, cereal, coffee etc. Its pretty much accepted that unless labeled or specifically noted, anything in the fridge is fair game as well (Be sure to confirm it is unspoiled before consuming!). It is good practice, upon arriving, to raid the free shelves, and if you're lucky you can eat for free for a couple days.

Sunsets ... at 4:30 PM

My bunk house at the moment is almost empty. I have my own room, and bathroom, for now. I also have a great living room with a patio and floor to ceiling windows looking over the hills to the west. It makes for beautiful sunsets ... at 4:30 in the afternoon. But the best part about my apartment is outside in the front, there is a small standing light-post. And for the holidays our housing manager decorated it with christmas lights. So when I come home, I always know my house, its the one with the lit barber pole. If she ever takes down our christmas lights I'm not going to know where I live!

My Christmas-Lighted Home Sign

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas, Now Get To The Plane

Location: Huntington Beach, CA
Outside Temp: 73 F
Wind: 5 kts
Swell: 2-3 ft

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was sti- ... oh wait that's me, packing what's left of my life into a large navy blue duffle till midnight on Christmas Eve -and then continuing again early Christmas morning. I've had that Run Run Rudolph song stuck in my head all day. By the time I get to the airport I'm going to look like one of the McCallisters from Home Alone tearing through the airport to get to my plane. Essentially this is in my head right now: 

It has occurred to me that packing everything you need for half of a year into one container is not easy. I am also regretfully aware that I am a chronic over-packer, and this time I have certainly out-done myself! You know you've reached a new level of over-packing if you are vacuum sealing your clothes to save on space. Two points if, after figuring out the vacuum bag life-hack, you laugh maniacally like a mad scientist while shouting "It's working! It's working!!" ... Anyways - On the plus side, I won't worry about my workout for the day, I will have more than enough heavy lifting just getting my bag from the airport shuttle to baggage drop off. I have to carry a duffle because its bad luck to have a suitcase on boats (you can't make up that kind of crazy). So from here on out, no wheels on my luggage all thanks to superstitious fishermen!

I feel like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal applies to not only subatomic particles, but anything I'm attempting to pack at the moment. For example: I can know what I want to pack OR I can know where a particular item is but I can NEVER know where an item is that I want to pack.  

Fun Fact: The Heisenberg Principal states that it is not possible to simultaneously determine the position and momentum of a particle. Moreover, the better position is known, the less well the momentum is known (and vice versa). The principle is sometimes known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and can be stated exactly as:

Ok, I have approximately five hours to have everything organized and together, so I'll just leave you with Science Cat and note that I wish I traveled like a photon. Oh and I almost forgot, Merry Christmas everyone! Next time I write it will be from Seattle for training!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Foul Weather Test Run

Location: Newport Beach, CA
Outside Temp: 52 F
Wind: 18 mph
Swell: 4-5 ft

Today was the first day, since I've been working with the CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (CADFW), that I actually had to use my foul-weather gear. The first time in almost a YEAR.  The weather was bad enough to necessitate rubber boots, my waterproof parka, down liner, and neon orange slickers! They're all the rage in Alaskan fashion I hear. I'm a marine biologist, so I was a little excited to go out in my stuff and see the angry ocean. Even though I know this is nothing compared to the Bering Sea, it was a good test run for what I'll be wearing everyday once I start up north.

The wind wasn't so bad in the beginning, just a little cold. The swell was noticeable but not violent. While we were en-route to the fishing grounds I climbed into one of the galley booths to watch the weather from a warm spot. I have to be outside while everyone is fishing to take data, but while we're traveling I can do whatever I want (usually I put my head down and read to avoid political fishery/conservation/regulation questions). As soon as the rain started coming down sideways I called it, forfeited my pride, and started dawning my rubber-coated dork gear.

Now don't get me wrong, I love my parka, it's a reasonable navy blue with a small CADFW insignia. The best part is that it's wind, water, and fish mucus proof. The down liner is probably my best friend, mostly cause it doubles as a down pillow (on overnight trips of course). The dork gear comment comes from pretty much everything else. I knew it was supposed to be shi- crappy outside today so I put on my rubber boat boots as soon as I got dressed this morning. Lucky I did too, upon putting them on, I realized that they're at least one size too big. No problem, its not like I'm going to use them to walk over unstable, wet, slippery surfaces - oh wait. But being dry is always a priority on the boat so I put on two pairs of thick socks and headed out the door!

Like I was saying, rain sideways, forfeiting pride etc etc .... I pulled on my neon orange overall-style foul weather slickers. And of course they're too big also, rolled them up a few inches and declared the problem solved! As soon as I was suited up one of deckhands looked at me and said, in the best smart-ass-in-awe impression he had "Wow, you're glowing!" Because I've never used my foul weather gear it hasn't faded and I was pretty much glow-in-the-dark orange. Shortly after the boat arrived at the fishing grounds. We all headed out into the sideways rain to go fishing.
This is the bright orange. Sorry, I couldn't get a full length photo and
keep what was left of my good-standing with the deckhands intact.
Aaaaand about 15 minuets later at least two-thirds of the tourists were either huddled inside from the wet and cold or too sea-sick to function. So the deckhands and I hung out in the rain for a few hours, all in our neon overalls and puffy waterproofed jackets feeling like kings. They sang different renditions of the "I'm dry and you're not!" song between making fun of the sea-sick tourists. I sat on the leeward side of the wheelhouse (out of the wind), waiting for the last five anglers remaining to give up hope of catching a fish. I suddenly had a new found love for these hideous beyond reason outfits. I really was dry, and comfortably warm. Now I know, I just need to make sure to get a small enough size when I get my gear for Alaska! 

PS On the way back in the sun came out ... Thanks a lot.

Monday, December 2, 2013

No Fun: The Badge of Logical Honor

Location: Seal Beach
Outside Temp: 59 F
Wind: 3 mph
Swell: 1 ft

At my bike shop I carry the Badge of Logical Honor, as a friend at the shop once put it. Most of the regulars in the shop run with the mantra: “Sounds like a bad idea … Lets do it!” This can be applied to everything from staying up all night gambling in Vegas during an important bike convention, to eating an entire foot-long cheeseburger-sub (yep, a cheeseburger in a sub-sandwich, and they're awesome!) before going for a 60 mile ride. I'm the only scientist in the group and I am usually the one to say, “Or we could share the sub, pay half the price, and NOT puke our guts out on this ride.”  Two which everyone replies “NO FUN! NO FUN! NO FUN!” I think this was originally meant to make fun of me, but now it comes up every time I say anything logical, almost as a term of endearment.

Since Thanksgiving I've really started feeling the stress of leaving for such a large expedition. Sometimes I feel like it's so much to take in, and I wonder how I will mentally prepare myself. Being the smart, rational one in the shop reminds me why I do science. I reason things out; I plan ahead and calculate my risks. I am a scientist. This is what I do. It takes a certain kind of person to take on the Bering Sea, and that person does not throw care to the wind and hope for the best.

Given the choice of the two I would much rather be No Fun than A Bad Idea.

Aforementioned Badge of Logical Honor

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Crazy Sea-Scheme Supporters

Location: Seal Beach, CA
Outside Temp: 56 F
Wind: 4 mph
Swell: 2 ft

      People show how they care for you in different ways. My mother shows it by reminding me, “Be safe and don’t fall overboard!” I can’t blame her for being worried; everyone’s mothers are worried about me. One of my best friends moms sent me a flashlight, and another is knitting me a scarf. My bike shop friends have discussed planning an Ali Carter Memorial Ride - to which I reminded them I am still alive, but the sentiment was there, I think. My grandmother, in an attempt to be prepared and supportive has insisted on giving me my Christmas present on Thanksgiving. I told her I plan to celebrate Christmas with the family before I go, that I’m not leaving for a month, and I prefer to open my Christmas presents at Christmas (or at least in December). None of these arguments had any effect on her resolve to really put the giving in Thanksgiving this year.  

      The past few weeks have reminded me of how lucky I am to have so many good people surrounding me. I will take the encouragement, flashlights, and scarves with me - and I will remember, however cold and dark it is on the sea, that I have my California family and friends to warm my heart wherever I go. This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for all of the caring individuals who support me in whatever crazy sea-schemes I dare to endeavor.

This is how I feel jumping into my next crazy sea-scheme;
it's nice to know you all have my back. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Getting My Affairs in Order

Location: Seal Beach, CA
Outside Temp: 60 F
Wind: 5 mph
Swell: 1 ft

About a week ago I accepted a position with the Alaskan Pacific Groundfish Observation Program. I will leave my sunny California lifestyle of playing at the beach, and racing triathlons (Yep, I said triathlons, are you impressed yet?) for 3 weeks of training in Seattle on Christmas Day. After that they’re shipping me off to Alaska for 90 days on a boat in the Bering Sea in the dead of winter, much to the alarm of my decidedly more sane family members.

 This program is generally considered one of the most successful scientific fishery management programs throughout the world. It looks over some of the most common seafood industries, keeps thousands of people employed and most importantly keeps imitation crabmeat on your dinner plate. Heaven forbid we forsake the imitation crabmeat. This experience is the post-college-resume equivalent of those sticky gold stars you lived for in elementary school.   

Side note: Before you ask, yes, this program also works on the boats of the TV show Deadliest Catch. But they make all the observers sign a non-disclosure agreement, and no, there won’t be any spoilers for next season in this blog. 

In a nutshell, I’m the wallflower of fishing. I record what I see, note regulation infractions, and identify bycatch. That’s it ... I think. 

As of now I know nothing about Alaska, other than that it's cold and windy and usually dark in the winter. And apparently you can see Russia from your house if you happen to live there. Did I mention it’s cold?
Sounds like a lovely holiday spot.

I don’t even own a decent pair of waterproof boots to wear for my three weeks of training in Seattle, let alone gear to survive the Bering Sea and the veritable armory of scientific crap I'll be forced to carry (think scales, species keys, textbooks, and lots of waterproof paper). My laundry-list of things to do before I go continues to grow almost as quickly as my list of questions about the trip. Examples: Can I bring a hair dryer? How does mail work on boats? Is there a gym? Or a treadmill at least? I intend on doing some serious research over the next few weeks, but for now all I can do is try to take care of my affairs on land, (It's not like I'm dying, "I need to get my affairs in order before I leave this place." *feigns faint*) before I head off into the wild unknown.

So I made a plan to get to Christmas safe and sane:
1. Don’t Panic (And bring a towel.)
2. Figure out what to do with my apartment, car, and stuff
3. Buy some real weather gear
4. Try to keep my mother from panicking

Because the holidays aren’t stressful enough, here’s to 36 days left of California sunshine.