Amsterdam, a minke whale, and the importance of citizen science

IMG_0943 Applications for ORCA’s Marine Mammal survey routes for this year just closed, and I applied for approximately all of them.

ORCA is a charity dedicated – so its tagline says – to ‘Looking Out For Whales and Dolphins’. What this means in practice is that trained members are able to piggy back, as it were, on ferries and cruises that cross the oceans in regular patterns at regular times. By carrying out marine mammal surveys from these ships with consistent methodologies they build a picture of cetacean species’ – at the very least relative – estimated populations, spatial and temporal ranges, and behaviours around boat activity.

I became a member after I took part in one of their training days December the year before last; once you’ve done so and paid up, you get the ability apply to take part in any of their UK or European survey trips. For free!

Last year I applied, and was lucky enough to be chosen for their Newcastle-Amsterdam route. Only two weeks before I jetted off to Malaysia I went up, visited some family, and then sailed the North Sea for two days. The journey takes a full day and night each way (in which we surveyed) and gave us the better part of five hours in Amsterdam (in which we went on holiday).

You have contact with your allocated team beforehand, organising who will bring the travel kettle and checking that everyone’s trains were arriving in on time, but when I eventually met them in person I could not have hoped for a better group of people to take me under their wing for my first survey. We got on brilliantly. Our fantastic team of ladies was headed by Marion, with Jenny and Bethany having both done a number of surveys between them; I was a proper newbie.

After meeting, in short order we were aboard our vessel the DFDS Princess Seaways, which acts as both transport ferry and mini-cruise, wherein people can do what we were doing as self-contained holiday (this meant that we got to enjoy the provided onboard entertainment when we allowed ourselves a drink in the bar on the second night, who I recall a few of our number finding rather dishy).

The surveying itself is pretty intense. You are constantly scanning the horizon, alternating between the wide field of view afforded by your eyes and the magnification of the binoculars, the later being pretty mycg your only hope of spotting a porpoise. If you do make a sighting, everyone has to be alerted and people scramble to their battle stations, grabbing data off instruments, using the sighting board to take a bearing, and making as many notes as to behaviour and movement as you possibly can.

Though you rotate effort positions (half an hour starboard, scribe, half an hour port, rest) you are on effort as long as the sun is up, and weather and sea conditions remain suitable that you won’t be missing any small cetaceans between big waves. This gave us approximately ten hours sighting time a day, meaning we became both very familiar with and very fond of the bridge. IMG_0947 Ferry bridges are rather plush, all dark wood and gold edging. The contrast of incredibly high tech equipment (which we used only to check the time, and hence were probably underutilising) with the chart tables was incredibly charming, and Captain Jasper Bern gave us a very warm welcome and didn’t seem to mind us sharing he and his crew’s tea and coffee supplies too much.

I did like taking my breaks outside, though. For obvious reasons. I can’t quite explain how breathtaking a towering offshore wind farm is from the middle of it.

As an aside, Amsterdam itself won my heart. It felt like a combination of Venice and the Shire, if such a thing were to exist, and I am desperate to go back. We wandered the twisting streets, went on canal boat tour, drank coffee, and got caught in a torrential downpour while buying fresh bread and smoked cheese from one of the city’s many markets.

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You can read the official report of our survey on the ORCA website, but it was an amazing experience to say the least. I personally sighted five of the harbour porpoises that made our survey record, and though I was on rest and the official sighting technically went to Marion, I got to watch a minke whale do a long roll at the surface before taking a dive. There were also a plethora of sea birds which would ride the air currents around the ship, our favourites of which were gannets; if you spot one diving, it’s a good place to keep you binoculars trained since any number of dolphins or porpoises might be cashing in on a shoal of fish.

ORCA is only one organisation that utilises everyday volunteers with a marine interest to help collect sighting data. Another is SeaWatch, the freely available public data of which Jess and I handled at length for our project in Malaysia, and which has driven me to think a lot on this topic of late.

SeaWatch takes sighting data, but in a far less quality controlled manner than ORCA. In fact, it is almost entirely unquantitative. The sightings are sent in by regular members of the public who’ve spotted a whale or dolphin while out and about. Even if someone makes the same route to walk their dog each and every morning, that doesn’t exactly constitute a regular survey transect. Estimating populations from surveys are all about a constant search effort in certain spot over a given time, augmented with other known information, such as the regularity with which the animals need to breathe. You don’t exactly get that with a lot of volunteer data – it’s more like, ’10 past 2, Dave saw a dolphin near the lighthouse’.

But that is not to say this data is not useful, not by any means. Some of the SeaWatch data does have very good temporal coverage, particularly for the South West, where regular whale watching cruise trips record the exact time and location of every sighting made. That’s essentially a 12 hour dedicated marine mammal survey, each and every day.

What’s more, studying the data really does reveal some unexpected things. Assuming that laypeople are identifying these species correctly – which is, unfortunately, a fairly significant assumption – then these data really do have the potential to inform what we understand about the distribution patterns of species around our coast. One of Jess and I’s most interesting take homes from our time in Malaysia and playing with their database is that, though the South China sea has a far greater species richness than anything closer to home, the regularity with which they see most of them is pretty low. A two-day survey with ORCA almost always sees the species the North Sea has to offer. Out of the packet of information on 50 species we got prior to a week on the boat in Malaysia, we saw one.

All of this is negligible, however, when you consider one thing. That the people doing this whale watching, this surveying, are just everyday people. People who are thinking keenly about not just the existence of whales and dolphins in our waters, but whether they are maintaing healthy populations. That conservation is more than simply an animal’s presence. Even if it is only for a free trip, people who otherwise might be barely interested in cetacean sightings are given the opportunity to see first hand exactly the kinds of creatures that need monitoring and protecting. It’s hard to remain indifferent to a cause when you see it up close. Citizen sighting schemes increase public awareness, in a very involved way.

Some peer-reviewed literature actively encourages them for that very reason, especially as, in this case, the data collected revealed previously unknown seasonal dynamics in a Sardinian basking shark population. Casual, low-cost science can produce valid findings, findings that can go on to help manage and conserve populations.

Though the ability of data collected by volunteers to inform real scientific study is unquestioned, it is also entirely reasonable to say that the greatest strength of ORCA, SeaWatch, and all those projects like them is that they have the capacity to increase public awareness, and bring investment of not simply money, but time, effort and enthusiasm into the monitoring and conservation of the whale and dolphins that live around the UK.

I’ll send you a postcard from Amsterdam.

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On communication

So my time in Malaysia ended with a brief but immensely enjoyable stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang. We consumed delectable food, luxurious spa treatments, gorgeous and near constant live music, and sufficient Happy Hour margaritas in the swim up bar that the bartender named Darwin and who liked Pitbull greeted us by name and knew our order by heart.

…See? That wasn’t hard, was it? Apparently so. I mean it’s taken me a month to write that so, surely, we can infer that an awful lot of thought went into it.

Not so much. In fact, that delay originated from an incredibly stressful volume of thought going into other things. I returned back to my beloved university to a piece of coursework as heavily weighted as an exam and a side job writing for the university entertainment newspaper, in addition to having to settle back into required rhythms of student life (bravely facing alarms, tea consumption, and fighting the temptation of the amazing Greek place down the road).

I’m self aware enough to know my failings – I am deeply, damn near religiously committed to things I have been a) told to do, and b) that which would otherwise inconvenience people should I not do them. However to meet these deadlines, self imposed or otherwise, I tend to throw myself under the bus. My sleep cycle and general mental health suffers (I lasted three weeks into term before crying down the phone to my mum, that’s pretty good for me!) and things which I would otherwise do for myself, such as this blog, fall by the wayside.

I apologise for this. For someone who is passionate about discourse, about openness and conveying the important or the personal, this is pretty shameful. But it relates pretty nicely into what I’m going to write about today, so I am shamelessly going to use my personal experiences to give power to a broad, abstract concept. It’s going to be poetic, almost.

When Jess and I met with our supervisor for a post-Malaysia debrief and present exchange, we were keen to show him the value of the science we carried out, what we learnt. He was interested, definitely, although slightly less so than he was regarding the food that we tried and the cat that was named after us. And it was in contemplating, in trying to explain to both him and to friends and family back home, what the take away messages were from our trip that I truly discovered them myself.

Jess and I discovered a lot about ourselves in our time away. Not in a grand, character developing way (at least not that we’re aware of, and my character is perfectly well developed as it is, thank you very much) but rather in a way that highlighted what we are passionate about. Though they are fantastic, neither of us are – it turns out – particularly interested in cetaceans. I know, right?! What’s up with that? Dolphins are great. Whales are proportionally really, really great. I know, I don’t understand it either. Fantastic and slightly magical to observe, I just can’t say that they get my scientific blood pumping. That is an honour still reserved for bioturbation, ecological functioning and sea cows and, for Jess, her newly discovered intense passion for turtles.

Over our time in Terengganu, we spoke at length to Kirat regarding dugongs. Dugongs are sea cows, the slightly morphologically different Indo-Australian cousin of the manatee. An incredibly shy species, particularly in Malaysia, there is a huge amount of mystery and superstition surrounding these animals – they’re seen as holy or magic, good luck charms whose bodies can be broken down and consumed to cure all sorts of ailments. There is a persistent problem with illegal poaching and trading on dugong body parts, or the animals themselves – we heard a story about a man who accidentally caught an individual in his fishing net, and under the stilts of his house set up a net ‘cage’ for it, only releasing it when he was haunted by dreams of the creature’s mother coming for him. There is huge cultural significance and educational misunderstanding regarding these animals. Both boat and aerial studies are incredibly difficult and building a picture of abundance and distribution is a mammoth task. Dedicating herself to her thesis for nearly five years, she has yet to see more of one than a snuffly nose as it surfaces for a split second to take breath. Hence, other means have to be employed.

Kirat explained to me something I had never before heard of – interview surveys. Working alongside psychology researchers to treat people’s personal memories of sightings and opinions as quantitative, powerful and analysable data. She said that, particularly when dealing with species which are so rare and so important to protect, it is imperative to consider the opinions of every day people. Of the fishermen and women who come into contact with these animals most. She explained that publishing a journal article about the patterns of distribution and suggested conservation methods for dugongs would be all well and good, but that paper would just circulate within the scientific community. Unless it’s been commissioned by a government body who will actively employ her suggestions, the information will never reach any one who isn’t already sufficiently educated about the plight of these animals. The information needs to be disseminated down to the people on the ground who can change behaviour, who can help these animals in their day to day lives.

Scientific information has its greatest value outside of the scientific community.

The other week I attended a seminar on Science Communication & Journalism. The former is predominantly of the going into schools, enthusing about science, and encouraging women to stay in STEM fields sort. Science journalism, we were told by Nicole Skinner from UCL, is like any other specialisation in journalism in its simple goal to convey the facts to its readers.

At first thought you could consider academic study and journalism to be poles apart and consequently difficult to mesh. To quote Quentin Cooper of BBC Radio 4

Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now.

However, the core of the thing remains the same. We gain vital information about current events in the world through the news,  and how to interact with other people and the world in light of and scientific discoveries with the potential to change our behaviour and the way we see the world should be no different. Understanding the world will let us – the general, news watching, every-man us – make smarter decisions to protect it, and I have a newfound passion to help people do just that.

So long…

After our day with Jelly, Jess and I visited Taman Tamadun – the Islamic Cultural park, which involved a monument park that featured replicas of famous mosques all around the world. These were good fun to go around, and a little bit of proper touristy sightseeing did our little white girl souls good, though my self esteem was irreparably damaged from the bicycle Jess insisted I ride.

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Look at those bastards.

For those out of the know, I don’t cycle. Like, I really, really don’t. It perhaps even deserves capitals. I Don’t Cycle. I mean, I can, for a given amount (or so I thought) – my parents of course taught me to ride a bike as a youngster, but as the road directly adjacent to where I lived was a dual carriageway and not exactly conjunctive to eight old me who could not see a bollard without ploughing straight into it, I just… never really did it again.

After the initial moments where I couldn’t get on, was absolutely mortified by the people staring and behaved – admittedly – like a giant baby, I was outfitted with a smaller bike in the style of those ridden by 12 year old boys, and we were off!

(For a short while, before I tried to use the brakes and apparently ‘broke’ the bike. I didn’t, it was clearly already not working when I got on, okay, alright? Some people like to say I broke it. I didn’t.)

In between my driving into every conceivable tree and/or hedge; getting the flares of my linen trousers caught in the chain and requiring two groundskeepers to come over and help free me; crashing whenever forced to corner; driving across the landscaped grass in an effort to avoid cornering; and falling into the shallows of a fountain, we had a great time and saw some cool stuff.

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First one! The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, in Brunei. I hadn’t driven into anything yet.

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My favourite was the Dome of the Rock, in the distance.

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It had a miniature Rock and everything!

After this, we had only two more days left at work! They went smoothly, us finishing up as best we could, and gathering together all of our thoughts that we’ve assimilated from people we’ve talked to here and the work we’ve done. But the best bits of these last few days were the contast well wishes, the goodbyes, the presents from people who weren’t sure if they’d see us before we left – the extraordinary kindess and generosity of everyone just kept hitting us. And as we collaborated to write an incredibly sweet, tear inducing and really kind of good (if we do say so ourselves) article about our time here for the university newsletter In Focus, it really, really hit us that those were things we’d miss most. Here’s an excerpt –

Malaysia was a dream that became a plan and then was followed by more than we could imagine. Challenges have of course had to be faced in our journey across the world, however at no point have we ever felt alone. This is down to the people here, and the unwavering kindness and generosity they have shown. INOS as an institute is amazing, however in combination with the people here it is truly unique. We could not have imagined we would be so lucky to not just be interning somewhere and taking part in this research but to be interning here, and taking part in research with these people. We were so happy to be able to give a little back in whatever ways we could, telling our own stories from home and sharing a traditional British roast dinner and pudding. Kuala Terengganu has had so much for us to discover, from the beach to Pasar Payang, from China Town’s decorated alleys to hot noodle soup right beside where the fishermen bring in their catches. However the greatest of all these discoveries has been here at UMT in the laughter and friendships we have made. It is with great sadness that we leave, however the blow is slightly softened by the knowledge that these people will remain our friends for many years to come.

On the day before our last, as we departed the office we were presented with some of our favourite gifts. Lionel, a student from the office, was leaving his studies for a job interview for his absolute dream job – a steward with Malaysian Airlines! We shared a cake, dedicated to both ‘Turtle Uncle’, as Lionel was called, and ‘Jelly’. Our cake. We got teary.

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As well, after trying more special foods Acaq brought back from a trip home, we were gifted beautifully beaded pencil covers – a popular thing here – and the most absolutely adorable hand stitched little seahorse, before all the girls in the office cooed over us, and fixing us to try on the hijab!

That night we went out for coffee and cake with Yanti and Nisa, and had an absolutely brilliant time, but not before Jess took charge of baking three lemon drizzle cakes, a Victoria Sandwich and an apple crumble, of which I made the filling for as well as finishing sewing up three lots of little British bunting.

(We also burnt a large white mark into the varnish of the wooden TV shelf with the crumble dish, which made Jess nearly have an embolism and prompted me to call my mother. We ended up leaving a note for Lucy as it was too late at night, and despite all of our panicking, Sideboardgate resulted in a pricey £6 for sanding and revarnishing the mark).

Our last day, we proudly carried in our cakes and crumble, which were met and eaten with great gusto by most everyone in the office, largely including ‘the lads’ Acaq and Bu, who missed dinner at Yanti’s the previous week (and apparently cannot use a microwave, like, genuinely, could not even hazard a guess as to the purpose of the dial and the button that opens the door). We handed out our presents – Awin and Kirat loved their bunting, though the reaction was possibly the best from the lovely girl who’d made us our seahorses. She pretty much started crying there and then. Yanti and Nisa whisked us out for lunch at the noodle soup place with the palm trees and the purple drinks, and we had a teary goodbye as we handed her the fudge we had made. Our day ended by a final meeting and thankful hand shaking with Dr Saifullah, before we were taken out to dinner by Dr Jarina – the head of International students at UMT – and her student of Biodiveristy & Conservation, who over dinner we discovered is the daughter of one of the Lucys who manage the lodge! Small world!

Sadly, Dr Wan was ill – she was not there to receive her present, which we’d ended up having to leave on Acaq’s desk along with a lemon drizzle cake for her. From our car rides, we’d discovered our great shared weakness for love songs. Really, really emotional love songs. So we made her a mixtape. A mixtape composed of 15 of Jess’s and 15 of mine favourite love songs. Jess made adorable cover art, and we were definitely proud – a proud feeling that only increased when we received a text from her, saying she would treasure it forever.

We received this text from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the afternoon – the afternoon after the morning we left. Bright and early we’d awoken and left William’s Lodge much to, I imagine, the relief of the Lucys. Regardless, they’d given us a leaving present of beautiful little compact mirrors, and when we got into Ina’s car to drop us at the airport, she too gave us a present – little turtle shaped magnets, with handwritten messages on the back wishing us all the best.

Ina stayed with us at the airport, and we had breakfast as we were joined, much to our joy, by Yana, Acaq, and Dr Wan – they’d all come out to send us off! It was really, really lovely, though it felt a little strange that my last meal in Malaysia consisted of a Vietnamese beef soup. With minutes to spare as we finished our food, we ran through the startlingly brief security to board our plane.

Where did we go?

Penang. We went to Penang. And, when I am safely nestled at back home, I shall tell you all about it. But, for now, our Terengganu adventure is over. We will miss the place, the food, the heat; the cool blast of the air conditioning we sit directly under at the office. But what we will miss most from KT, and will remember clearest from our time here, will always be the friends we’ve made.

Working girls

Due to a wedding party’s booking in the lodge, we were unable to return to our beds the night we touched back on blessed dry land. Malaysians are very big on their weddings – people are apparently always very keen to invite absolutely everyone. These people however did not seem to fancy it, and though Lucy tried to wiggle us an invitation to the reception as a kind of cultural experience they weren’t having any of it. Though our room was not actually needed they desired a little privacy, and booked out the entire B&B.

So instead of returning to our cute quilted beds, Lucy booked us at a very good rate into a new hotel, called the ‘J Suites’. Entirely unable to find it on any single form of social media and becoming ever so slightly concerned as to its actual existence, we were much relieved when Yanti kindly dropped us off outside and it proved to be a very contemporarily decorated and entirely pleasant hotel. It had shiny black granite floors, and really cool automatic door locks with light-y up ‘Do Not Disturb’ and ‘Please Clean My Room’ signs.

(It did, however, have a small hole in the bathroom ceiling and an area of spackle on the wall that had not been finished. Made no problem for us, slightly amusing actually).

After being treated to coffee the night before by Yanti and her friend Nisa (I consumed an Americano at midnight that kept me up for about three hours), we decided to cheekily skip off work the next day, due to both the feasibility of getting taxis and also a bone deep need for a 15 hour sleep, and enjoyed the fact that our hotel was directly adjacent to China Town. We had a lovely but slightly rushed mooch around the lantern-filled streets, wherein I completely and utterly pissed off Jess by lackadaisically wandering through the decorated streets taking photographs on my big camera while she urgently tried to ensure we made it in time.

My favourite was the Umbrella Lane, though the Fabric Lane, Love Lane and Weird Kite Thing Lane also placed.

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Without much fuss we caught a taxi back to the lodge on Sunday night and with it, our general pattern of work for the next week began.

Dr. Wan was off on holiday, so we caught a daily taxi in to INOS (with varying success – sometimes a lack of understanding of English/our poor Malaysian led to us being dropped any given distance away from our actual destination out of pure  simplicity). Work was a 9-to-5-what-a-way-to-make-a-living kind of grind, but we really started enjoying it as Jess hit a groove in her graph making and I found my skill in making one giant table which complied species presence data for different Malaysian states, and different countries within the United Kingdom.

The atmosphere in the office was brilliant – every day, someone would bring in some new food for us to try, or we would be taken out for lunch, or… invited to play badminton in the pick up/drop off area outside?

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What I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm.

Regardless, we had a busy week of playing with databases and making illustrative figures, such that we were glad when the weekend rolled around. After much talk on the boat and explanations of all our favourite British foods, Yanti had expressed an interest in trying them. We had said yeah, that’s totally fine, we can definitely handle cooking for you, what a fun challenge!

Then, Yanti said she’d maybe invite some of her friends over, if that was okay. Again, yes, the more the merrier!

A few friends turned out to be… 11. 11 people. We were making roast dinner and apple crumble for 11 people, in a kitchen in Yanti’s friends house where everyone was genuinely surprised to find there was a conventional oven (it’s really not a thing here).

We were taken out shopping at Giant for supplies, and then Yanti and her boyfriend treated us to lunch at the oft recommended Chicken Rice Shop which was brilliant. In the end, we had a slightly hectic and incredibly lovely evening – there were seven people in the kitchen at any one time and, or course, Jelly.

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Brogan’s comment was, “BRING HOMEEE”.

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The cat whisperer, post-dinner.

Jelly is Yanti’s kitten. She’s a tiny tortoiseshell and she is absolutely adorable. She is kept at Abung Herry (Yanti’s friend, whose house we had invaded)’s house since Yanti herself can’t have pets, and she was rescued from a restaurant that her new mum was eating in when she saw her. She likes chasing after our blue Malaysian Samsung brick phone when we slid it along the floor, and had no name until we turned up to cook. Yanti named her Jelly as a combination of ‘Jess’ and ‘Millie’. Like Bradjelina.

I really, really like the idea that there is going to be a cat somewhere in the Malaysia who will forever be named after us.

Somewhere, beyond the sea

It was after receiving a perfectly heartfelt email from my parents, and with a healthy level of homesickness that necessitated a little soppiness about home without the wish to be back there at that precise moment, that Jess ad I headed into work on the morning of the 26th. Or, rather, the early afternoon. Upon receiving the news that we had to head to the boat at 8:00pm, we thought that perhaps over twelve hours in the office might perhaps be pushing it a tad too much. We got a taxi instead of troubling Dr Wan, who was heading off on holiday that evening.

A few hours later and hard at work at our desks (coffee at the ready, to be deployed when required) we looked up when heard a hustle-bustle at the door – Yanti had arrived! As well as her replying to my near constant messages about our preparations to come here, Yanti is on out survey nearly all the time. She needs an awful lot of sighting data for her thesis so if there is a boat going somewhere, she’s going to be on it. Everyone in the office clearly misses her, so they were looking forward to seeing her for a little bit before she headed out again – almost as excited as were were to meet her! Though we did feel like we were vaguely kidnapping her from her adoptive office family.

Yanti is, in a word, lovely. Really, really lovely. She showed us the example sighting forms and gave us a twenty pages booklet of all the marine mammals we could possibly see (then told us we’ll probably only see two or three species) before launching into a whole conversation about how we were, how our stay so far had been, had people been nice to us and, of course, what foods we’d tried. Always with the food here. I love it.

After she left with a promise to see us later, we cracked back on to work. Work and, of course, composing a mixtape for Dr Wan and writing the previous blog entry. Running close to the time at which we’d promised to be downstairs waiting for the bus, we hit send on our blog posts still resplendent with spelling errors and ran outside. We carried our stuff out, helping Yanti as she met us there, and took pictures with some of the children of the other crew who were getting on the bus too. More people joined – to whom we gleefully said hello – as the bus set off for the dock, located on Pulau Duyong in the middle of the river, right beside the Heritage Resort & Spa. Waving that in front of out faces was a cruel temptation, let me tell you that, especially considering we were about to go for a week without a shower. Hulking equipment off the bis and down to the marina in a couple of trips, we were helped onto the majesty of the RV Discovery. Made of aluminium it was big, white and apparently very, very light – it was too far out from the dock to half-step-half-jump on to, so one of the crew simply walked over to the rope and gave it a little pull. It obediently bobbed straight over. We feared Kirat’s warnings regarding the seasickness inducing properties of this vessel may prove true, but this didn’t stop us from eagerly clambering aboard. And where did we go, you ask? To our cabin.

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In view is the Purple Box (capitals necessary). It held the binoculars, camera and sighting forms. It was our charge. It made us feel important.

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I honestly can’t express how happy this sign made us. Us – proper scientists!

Scientist Cabin Number 1! How great is that!?

We were thrilled. Yanti put her stuff in the Senior Scientist Cabin, much to her joy, and with the rest of the scientists and some of the crew we headed along the boardwalk to a little cafe, where we enjoyed teh tarik and watched some football before bed.

The next morning we woke, as instructed, at 6:45am. A luxurious lie in. Though we’d bedded down as the ship sat motionless at the dockside, in the middle of the night we’d away anchor and started sailing. I woke up to the motion of the ship and started feeling decidedly queer. Something was sitting low in my stomach. Trying to brush it off, Jess and I dressed and hopped across the little corridor to the dining room. We were offered a breakfast of hot chilli noodles, which I enjoyed for approximately two mouthfuls before I turned and whispered to Jess, “I feel sick. I going to be sick.”

I quickly exited stage left and, while I was not sick, experienced the most intensely unpleasant feeling I have ever had the misfortune to. I felt like my entire body was just shaking, vibrating. I couldn’t move my fingers (or, at least, felt like I couldn’t – Jess insist I was stood there saying, “I can’t move my fingers!” while clenching and unclenching my hands with absolutely no problem). It was all the joy of four days of flu packed into about two and a half minutes. I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat it.

Stood by the railing on the main deck, we were snapped out of our revive by the captain, calling us up to the top deck for a safety briefing. Informed as we were on hard hat regulations and what we were ready to do, Jess and I were eager to get to work!

…Only to be told by Yanti we couldn’t yet. Why? Because it was raining. Yes, fair enough in theory – rain could affect visibility and mean you miss sightings and your data is unrepresentative. But this rain could barely have been called drizzle. Jess called it mizzle. It was mizzling. I deciding to head inside to escape it, but was outside again and revisiting my breakfast in under two minutes. I was on my tiptoes with my head over the starboard side of the main deck when a cheerful voice directly beside me exclaimed, “Dolphins!”. Actively wiping vomit from my mouth (apologies for the detail), I snapped my head up from staring mournfully at the waves to be greeted with an absolutely amazing sight.

A pod of 30 bottlenose dolphins, splintered all around the boat. Twenty foot away at the most. The mood was amazing – the crew were whooping and cheering as the dolphins splashed in and out of the water. I’ve never been so happy so directly following being sick.

After about five minutes the dolphins dispersed and, considering what we’d just witnessed, we dubbed the weather good enough for surveying. Jess took the ship’s bow and I took the starboard side – even when we took the occasional break off survey effort, we stayed outside out of simple fear that venturing inside would cause a repeat of earlier. I still felt queasy though the feeling went away with time, and was helped in part by my discovery that singing as the boat bounced along the waves kept my mind off it perfectly. I think I worked my way through most Disney classics, the best of the 40s and 50s, and the collective discography of the Rat Pack (see: the title of this post). I had a great time. The people on the bridge when the door was open, likely less so.

I think I skipped dinner in the end out of fear of both the food and the idea of being in confined spacesl Jess took hers and definitely regretted it.

The next day, we woke comfortably later as Yanti and ourselves realised that the most important meal of the day took priority over starting survey promptly. I declined food (a recurring theme throughout the whole week that led to me being lovely and svelte if I do say so myself), and soon we were up doing our work. It felt absolutely brilliant to get into a rhytmn of actually… working. Pulling our own weight. Doing science. Actual science! That afternoon we’d come off effort for the first time in about four hours, only to be called by a ship wide announcement through the tannoy; an excited call of, “Dolphin! Dolphin!”.

(With exactly that emphasis, we loved it.)

We dashed up the steep stairs to the bridge, scanning around through all of the windows, but we could not see a single dolphin. Yanti and a few of our new friends on the crew were stood at the bow, though – we ran out.

Bowriding ten foot below us were six bottlenose dolphins. Weaving around each other, leaping in and out of the water and flicking sea spray up at us. We were on our bellies, faces and arms dangling off the side to get as close as we could. It was absolutely amazing.

 

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We could hear them whistling to each other! It was amazing. I guess you need to co-ordinate this kind of acrobatics.

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Feet for scale.

Jess and I assumed they must have been the local pantropical spotted dolphin, from the fact they were not plain grey and instead had a freckled pattern on their underside, however Yanti assured this that this was the Indo-Pacific colouring of the bottlenose. There was, I confess, a moment after she wrote ‘bottlenose’ on the sighting form that Jess and I shared a look, almost as if to put forward a condescending, “Noooo, Yanti, I think you’re wrong”. Bear in mind this woman has been on over thirty survey cruises in the past two years. This is her PhD.

Yeah, I’m glad we didn’t actually try and correct her.

We had our third and final sighting that evening – I was sat on the sofa and enjoying a gorgeous lamb curry while watching Captain America: The Winter Solider when there was another announcement.

“Dolphin!”

The others on the sofa turned to grin, and we quickly assembled up on the bridge – from where we popped out, on the starboard side we could see three dolphins; two adults and a juvenile. They didn’t spend a lot of time at the surface, instead only making one or two clear jumps from the water. From our position over an artificial reef, we knew that this behaviour was that of active hunting.

Clearly busy with their dinner the dolphins soon hurried off, and after filling out the sighting form we retreated to our own. Jess – previously feeling right as reign in the face of my seasickness – took a turn for the worse and went to bed early to try and ward it off. I merrily stayed up, watching the end of Cap (that film does awful things to my heart) and heading to bed with a spring in my step.

Those were the only sightings we had in our week’s survey, unfortunately. Though in all honestly I don’t feel we particularly noticed! We were having a fab time. We alternated in between staring at the horizon on gorgeously bright days, scanning for dolphins; chatting with Yanti about anything and everything, including our shared passion for Marvel films and the office gossip; hiding under the eaves of the bridge when the rain got too strong to survey; marvelling at the sea when it was a brilliant opaque green, like melted mint ice cream; teaching the crew rummy (which they insisted on calling ‘grummy’) and cheat (about which they were deeply enthusiastic on a level usually reserved for football supporters, in the pub, after a few pints); sunburning, myself on my arms and neck and Jess in a slightly embarrassing but very endearing sunglasses shape; and Jess discovering her predilection for rice crackers, which we foraged out from the pantry (kept within what was meant to be the Wet Lab, used for actual science) and made a squirrel-like stash of.

The days kind of blurred together. Every night found us tucked up in our bunks, reading our books and lulled to sleep by the gentle to and fro of the ship’s rocking (less ‘gentle’ when the anchor was lowered, though – think the noise that happens when the landing gear on a plane is lowered, then times it but 30 and make it last for five minutes). It was only at one point when we bedded down we realised… tomorrow was our last day surveying. We spent it taking frankly fabulous pictures with the crew, jumping all over the top deck and sitting in the small powerboat, as well as Jess and I sitting in our favourite position on the bow of the ship, wind artfully blowing back our hair as we dorkily jammed to our favourite songs.

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I had to be helped up onto it.

I think the best times we’ll remember from this trip are only half marine biology themed, unfortunately – we really, with the whole crew, had far too good a time doing everything else.

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“I just want you to dance with me tonight…”

Once in a lifetime

I have had two experiences that I could call magical in my life thus far.

The first was running, rom com style, through the stalls at Wembley Arena to hear Bruce Springsteen play my favourite song in the whole world as a second, surprise encore with nothing to accompany him but a mouth organ and an acoustic guitar. We’d just been about to leave and I’d been hoping throughout the whole concert, somewhere deep in my heart, that he’d play it. My mum ended up rubbing my back while I clutched embarrassingly at the railing and sobbed for five and a half minutes straight. I felt, stupid as it sounds, like he was somehow playing it just for me.

The second was swimming with wild manatees in Florida, watching these giants of ridiculous girth and surprising speed come right up to you, investigate you gentle with a bristly but soft skinned mouth, and swim off with a single flick of the tail.

This… this is up there.

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We arrived at INOS promptly after our lift from Dr. Wan, asking after her holiday next week and proffering her half of the cake that we made the day before, for her children. We killed a little time at the office, reading our respective books, before making our way at 9:45am from INOS, across a little patch of grass and under the covered walkway, to the Seatru (Sea Turtle Research Unit) office. There we met again with Yana, who is in charge of the project, and who asked us to fill out some forms to sign away our right and/or our families right to complain if anything happens to us while we’re out with them, including the cheerfully bolded, underlined and italicised death. Just as we finished that, Awin arrived with some hastily packed bags, as she’d pulled an all nighter to meet a deadline.

All together we hopped into the UMT pick up truck, and drove a very wiggly route from UMT, through Chinatown to the port. We passed very near our lodge and we were slightly impressed with our ability to navigate around the city well enough to pick up on the fact that we didn’t go exactly the most sensible route but, hey, no backseat driving from me. Yana parked us up, and after procuring our tickets for the ferry Jess, Awin and I lounged on the benches in the midday heat and waited until noon for the boat to depart, eating the translucent white, musky and sweet flesh of the longan fruit and lazily reading our books. When we eventually boarded what called itself a ferry but could be better described as some kind of utilitarian speedboat, Awin fell straight asleep. Jess was engrossed in her book as it was apparently getting very tense, and I spent the hour and a half’s journey alternately reading snippets of my own and looking out the window as we skipped gleefully over increasingly more cerulean waves.

We sailed past giant rocky stacks, liberally sprinkled with twisting green trees, so by the time we pulled into port at the Laguna Resort on Redang Island I was already kind of stunned. But getting out onto the back of the boat and having a good look around was something else. This sounds incredibly stupid and of that I am aware – it reminds me of when I likened Blood Brothers to Dumbo – but it honestly reminded me of Disneyworld. A decorative Disney scape features shocking electric blue water lapping at worn, round rocks, but only because someone was paid a surely ridiculous sum of money to ensure that it looks so beautifully, paradisally effortless.

This… this actually was.

Feeling rather like VIPs, instead of stepping onto the boardwalk we were helped straight off the back of the ferry onto another, smaller boat, lined on its open sides with seats but where the footwell was full of petrol canisters, for delivery to the sanctuary to power the generators. So we could only sit at the very back, which was no great hardship since it meant that we got the full blast of the warm breeze and sea spray.

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Kirat joined us from where she’d been at Laguna taking part in a turtle awareness campaign, and we took plenty of plenty of pictures. I was feeling elated, high on life. I couldn’t stop grinning. I think I shouted into my filming camera at one point, “I picked the right career path!”, but you couldn’t hear it over the roar of the waves and the engine.

As the waters shallowed around the beach at Chagar Hutang, on the north side of the island, they became crystal blue, and the boat slowed to a gentle chug as it pulled in on the sand. We jumped out and the water was up to our ankles, warm like bath water. We grabbed our bags and helped haul the petrol canisters up the beach into just inside the trees, where we were met by the volunteers at the sanctuary and the leader there, who told us to call him Bob. He ushered us to a table in a open kitchen and sitting area, set back into the trees and surrounded by the three small wooden buildings that constituted the male, female and staff quarters, used when everyone’s not on their turtle patrol duties. We were plied with a mug of lychee juice and a snack of deep fried fruit, which they likened to a jackfruit – but which to me was just like a warm winter chestnut, surrounded by sweet batter-covered flesh – for a quick rest, before he gave an explanation of the work done at the sanctuary, complete with laminated sheets of paper.

Gesturing to a large collection of whiteboards behind him, he explained that the sanctuary takes groups of volunteers for a week at a time and each night, in shifts, they patrol the beach; take note of the turtles coming onto land; watch them through the process of nest digging (what they called ‘body beatings’, whacking sand up with their fins), settling and egg laying; and then after the patient turtle has properly finished, checking her tag number or tagging her if she doesn’t already have one, measuring her and marking her nest so it can be checked regularly during incubation.

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Then we were sent off, to kill time for a couple of hours until dinner – then the work would start. Jess and I escorted ourselves off to a gently shaded area of beach, where Jess used her frankly impressive skills at falling asleep most anywhere yet again. I instead went hunting for shells, and successfully found what I dubbed my ‘mermaid’s knuckleduster’, though the beach was made almost exclusively of small fragments of bleached white, broken coral, dotted among the sand.

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Yes Ariel, of course I’ll marry you.

We congregated for dinner, made by the volunteers, to whom we introduced ourselves and got chatting. Most of them came from another university in the north of peninsular Malaysia, and we had a lovely dinner, including the spicy tom yum soup, of which I’ve heard much about and was very excited to try (Jess found it far too spicy for her, but handled it with much grace and subtlety and I don’t think anyone noticed). Though it was already growing dark we were under strict instructions not to turn on any lights if we could avoid it – turtles navigate largely by moonlight, and there are a lot of fears that manmade light around our coastlines is affecting how the find their way back to shore, particularly for important times like the breeding season. At night there was a boat off the bay, with large bright white lights – I wonder if that was to help them find their way?

We washed up after ourselves, and at Bob’s instruction made ourself scarce until everything started up. We escorted ourselves to the hammocks and took selfies in the sunset. We might have got a bit soppy.

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We were feeling rather chilled out, when Awin ran over to us in the fading light, saying, “Want to see a turtle?” We pretty much fell out of our hammocks in excitement, and rushed over to the beach – there was our first ever wild green sea turtle, pulling her way slowly up the beach. In the distance we could already see another one making her way onto land, too. Bob sat almost lazily in his chair while the volunteers and ourselves hustled and bustled, trying our best to take pictures in the near pitch black. He said that we had to wait until she was far enough up the beach before we could walk behind her to patrol, and after that, to wait until she was laying to go check on her – so we might as well make ourselves comfortable.

We lay out straw mats on the beach – the kind of thing that very invested families put up around their tents on the beach, to secure it from winds and other invading forces. We lay on our backs looking up at the stars – now, this is the magical bit.

There were more stars than I have ever seen before in my life. With only one development on the other side of island, and other no civilisation for hours and hours around us, they were bright and vivid. The nebulous grey clouds of the Milky Way twisted themselves diagonally across the beach, and the occasional shooting star was met with a collective intake of breath from everyone present. With the treeline as an upside down silhouette against a star-bright sky, it reminded me of the canals of Venice at night – when you’re walking along a cobbled street with dark water and just one streetlight shines on the water, reflecting a thousand times in small ripples. It looked like the stars were infinite reflections of one light, but they weren’t – it was simply this immense canopy above us. The sight was broken occasionally by the shadow of a fruit bat flapping above us or a gentle moth the size of a handspan landing on you, just as the silence was broken by chatter between Awin, Kirat and Bob, or the cicadas in the bushes, or the movement of sand as the turtles dug their nests.

I have never felt so wonderfully, immensely small and unnecessary, and loved the feeling so much. It felt absolutely like there was not a single need for us to be there, and we were privileged enough to be let in on this great secret anyway. Jess and I walked the beach behind the turtles a number of times, near holding each other up.

We talked for ages in gentle whispers, despite Bob insisting the turtles are only bothered by light, not noise. We couldn’t help it – it just seemed the kind of situation that deserved a whisper.

Eventually we fell asleep under the stars for a restful seven hours, but only after following the volunteers in their work and watching the first turtle lay her clutch of eggs, and releasing a tray of hatchlings that emerged from their nest the day before. They were velvety soft in our hands as they wiggled, eagerly marching towards the sea as Jess tipped the tray out onto the sand.

The next morning we were treated to breakfast, and sweet tea into which Kirat tipped easily six teaspoons of sugar for me. We only had a few hours before our little boat back to Laguna had to leave, but Jess and I went snorkelling in the blue water, dunk diving to see corals and puffer fish.

Back at Laguna, we had some brief time in the souvenir shop – did I buy something for you, reader? You may yet find out – before we boarded our boat home. The journey back and our single night in the lodge was a blur – naps; Jess’s ice bucket challenge; packing; Jess’s second ice bucket challenge because I didn’t bring the cable for the camera we recorded the first one on.

It was a blur. An amazing, magical blur, which I will ponder over the next week. On we go, for our week’s marine mammal surveying on the research vessel!

Fun in the sun

This weekend has been absolutely fantastic – I’ve felt like I’m on holiday. Which, of course, I’m not! This is a working trip. But I can’t deny that I’m very chuffed to now feel like, well, like I’m away on some beautiful far off shore.

On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Wan asked us if she could drop us anywhere in particular. We didn’t want to impose, but she insisted that our destination was on her way home anyway – Chinatown. We were there with purpose, having been told that it was the one real place where we could get baking ingredients. We’d both read and thought that a gift representative of Britain would be nice so we’ve been hoping to give a charming Victoria sponge and a lemon drizzle cake to the postgrads in the office when we leave, as they’ve been so kind to us and have taken us out to sample each and every Malay food they can get their hands on. In addition, for our pseudo-babysitters Awin and Kirat, we were wanting to make a tiny run of Royal-Wedding-street-party-esque red, white and blue bunting for their cubicles. Walking along the street from where we were so kindly dropped, we did some nice sightseeing in the warm orange sunlight.

I was very fond of this bicycle outside a firework shop, decorated like a paper horse.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking I have a thing about horse-shaped objects. Honestly I don’t, it’s just a startling coincidence.

In addition to grabbing baking ingredients and a packet of pancake mix from our previously visited supermarket (which actually turned out to be a three storey department store that even sold ready made curtains), we found a cute little shop from which we bought four buttons, a spool of thread, a wheel of white ribbon and a tiny pack of needles, while I gazed longingly at yards and yards of gold and red lace. We returned home and spent a quiet night in, heading to bed for a ridiculously 14 hours sleep.

Oh, shush! We’ve been up at 6:15am every morning for a week!

Waking on Friday, we dined first on our pancakes. They could only be called pancakes if you consider that they were composed of a cake-like material and cooked in a pan, if you consider a wok a kind of pan. Discovering an absence of frying pans in the house, we attempted first to cook our pancakes in a saucepan and recreate a cool flipping trick which Jess described our friend Hannah effortlessly achieving on our field course earlier in the summer. Our attempt was… less effortless, and scraping the burnt remains of the pancake out of the pan (and putting in on to boil hot water for my first cup of Tetley thus far in my stay) we called Attempt One a flop.

Attempt Two, in a sping form cake tin with pin-prick holes in the bottom (which still managed to spit tiny globules of oil into the gas fire below) didn’t go much better. We started hitting a real stride with Attempts Three and up, in which we harnessed the wok, though they ended up loosing all shape due to the action of gravity and the curvature of the wok itself which collected a thick layer of uncooked batter in the middle bottom, unless shuggled about violently. In the end our pancakes were not unpleasant – they had a decidedly salty taste which our of wishful thinking we put down to the vast quantities of Vitalite we’d used to grease the wok, as opposed to the remaining flavour of any previous cooking adventures it took part in. We covered the salty taste with Oreo ice cream.

After waiting for breakfast to go down, we decided to fulfil Jess’s one stipulation about our time here – go to the beach. We’d heard what could only be termed ‘horror stories’ about swimming around here, with, “Oooh, no, too strong, very dangerous” from the students in the office, and even when no one had said so in so many words there seemed to be an unspoken atmosphere of ‘no one swims on the beaches’. We really didn’t know why, and checked online repeatedly for some kind of warning about dangerous marine life or terribly strong waves and people drowning constantly or, I don’t know, evil pirate ghosts? Nothing.

Now we weren’t going to let that stop us, but I must admit to some trepidation. It took me two different pools, an assortment of swimming teachers and about half a decade to learn to swim. I’m not even very good – I can survive if dumped off a boat, and I can swim from Point A to Point B with a tiny trace of grace, but that’s about it.

But I remember Jess and I bobbing delighted in a gently wavy ocean, on a beach with icing sugar-fine white sand on which there was not a single other soul. I turned to her and I think I just said, “I haven’t drowned yet.” Quite the non sequitur. 

So over the course of a long afternoon we had two dips in the ocean, and a nice long stretch sunbathing in between the two. Unfortunately, there was a strong but incredibly pleasant breeze that kept us a lovely temperature but meant that we kind of didn’t appreciate the heat of the sun. Within the following few hours we were a roasted lobster red, and have been generous applying aftersun to each other’s backs in a kind of cool massage that amounts to the only spa treatment I’m likely to get while away!

Today we visited the Muzium Negeri Teregganu – the state museum, and the largest museum in Malaysia. It’s a collection of giant buildings all in the traditional style but concrete, built in 1996.

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There were little waterfalls and everything!

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Shortly after this, some people asked to take a picture with us.

They’re connected across floors by high bridges and walkways, as well as a huge collection of outbuildings with smaller exhibits about Terengganu’s maritime history –

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Of course we went on the boat.

– set in sprawling land full of flowers and native plants –

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Pretty!

– with some aviaries –

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Kinda pretty?

– pens for geese (evil, evil things) and a collection of traditional boats in an almost garden of sorts.

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By far the most beautiful sheds I’ve ever seen.

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I liked this one the best. It had a wooden eagle on the back.

We visited the jetty which promised a river cruise to the other main attraction in KT, the Taman Tamadan Islam cultural park, with replicas of all the famous mosques from around the world. But completely devoid as the jetty was of any boat, life or sign of any kind indicating that either of the previous two options existed nor left at regularly timed intervals, we decided to call it a day and leave that as a separate adventure for our next spare weekend. We called Abdullah who picked us up sharpish, and headed back to the lodge for a fun afternoon that involved finishing our Miranda watch through and baking a ‘proof of concept’ cake in the strange little countertop oven with the rotating base. It is the spitting image of the thing my flat was given in first year when our oven broke, during the two week period when we had both the old, broken oven and the new, shiny oven (awaiting installation) sat in the middle of our kitchen and gradually becoming so commonplace that they ended up being used just sort of as end tables. It lost heat through all of the sides and kept making my bread in the cupboard above go off. We couldn’t successfully cook a pizza in that thing, and yet this time around Jess and I successfully managed to make a very pleasant vanilla sponge with buttercream icing.

As we head to bed tonight, we look forward to tomorrow. At 10am, we leave the INOS office to travel to Chagar Hutang, Redang Island, to volunteer overnight at the sea turtle research centre, sleeping on the beach and waiting for the turtles coming up onto land to essentially headbutt us to wake us up, before we set to work collecting all of the data that we can regarding their breeding habits, and monitoring the state of the incubating nests. From there, we have a night in, before a week on the research vessel, surveying for marine mammals.

It’s been a wonderful weekend of time off for ourselves – I feel relaxed and settled and ready to get back to work. And what work it’s going to be!