Egypt: the video

As Whitney alluded to in the previous post, we also have a video of our trip to Egypt!

Well, to be more precise, we have lots of videos of our trip to Egypt. Over the course of ten days, we recorded nearly 400 individual clips, totaling more than 26gb of footage! Can you tell we enjoy traveling with our GoPro?


Believe it or not, we actually recorded so many videos on purpose. Following our snowboarding adventure in Austria,  I discovered that I thoroughly enjoy putting our trip into video form. So this time, we decided to document as much as we could and compile it into one movie. Of course, this meant we were often running around pretending to be filmmakers working to get the ‘perfect shot’ (warning: NONE of the shots are perfect) but that ended up being part of the fun. Unlike pictures, the videos allow us to share our trip from a first-hand experience, as it was happening. Filmmaking aspirations aside, it’s just a fun travel element that we will definitely be continuing in the future.

So, without further delay, I give you our Egyptian adventure!

I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I did making it!

Until Next Time,


Egypt: Giza, Marsa Shagra, & Cairo

I’ve never actually sat down and made a ‘lifetime bucket list’, but if I had the Pyramids at Giza would have been on it.


But not anymore! 🙂

And they don’t call them ‘great’ for nothin!


We had three nights total in Cario which bookended our trip to Marsa Shagra for diving. The beginning of the trip was dedicated to the pyramids, starting with the amazing view from our hotel, aptly named, Best View Pyramids Hotel!

If you ever find yourself planning at trip to the pyramids we can’t recommend this hotel enough! The Australian owner, Grace, is beyond accommodating and the view is really the best! And to top it off, the hotel is perfectly primed for viewing the pyramids nightly ‘sound and light show’. That’s a savings of about $30! *wink!*

We planned a full day tour with a private guide & transportation to the Giza Pyramids, Sphinx, the ancient capital of Memphis, and Saqqara (the step pyramid).

Having the guide was great for multiple reasons: someone else drives you through the madhouse that is Cairo traffic, you don’t get hassled if you’re with a local, and you actually learn about what you’re looking at.

Having a guide was also great, because he insisted on being our photographer and knew all the classic typical tourist poses.

Quick recap on pyramid facts.

The Giza pyramids are actually the last of a series of pyramids that act as tombs for various pharaohs (kings) during the time of the Old Kingdom. Essentially, earlier pharaohs perfected the pyramid, so by the time King Khufu was ready to build his tomb he was able to go big or go home with the Great Pyramid. And contrary to popular belief, the Great Pyramid is the first in the series of three. The 2nd pyramid, built by Khufu’s son – Kahfre, didn’t want to outshine his dad so his pyamid was smaller out of respect. It only looks larger because the plateau on which it’s built is higher. (Strategic planning maybe?) The third and samllest pyramid belongs to Menkaure, the grandson of Khufu.

Unfortunately, the Great Pyramid (Khufu) was closed on the day we were there. We were able to go inside the third pyramid, though, which may have actually been a blessing in disguise. The tomb of the third pyramid is in the bottom. The tomb of the great pyramid is in the top; aka: we didn’t have to climb up 300+ stairs to see an empty room (all the tombs have been raided).


Next up, the Sphinx!


The second half of the day was spent at the ancient capital of Memphis and Saqqara which was the necropolis for the capital. Saqqara is home to the Djoser step pyramid (named after King Djoser) which was the first pyramid and considered highly innovative. Saqqara itself is a large complex, and we were able to go in a few other well preserved tombs.


After Giza, we headed south for a little R&R and diving at Red Sea Diving Safari- Marsa Shagra. This was the same place that we visited in 2015 when we completed our open water course. We decided to come back because we didn’t feel like we were able to really take advantange of all the diving this place has to offer. We were newly certified and still timid, and needed a repeat!


I’ll try not to rave too much and skip straight to the pictures, but I can’t say enough good things about this place. Our days went a little something like this….

wake up with the sun – dive #1 – breakfast – dive # 2 – lunch – dive #3 – beer – dinner – bed- repeat.
Breakfast view.

Any place that revolves around food & diving is my kind of place!

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Just for you, mom. 😉

Of course, the resort itself is beautiful. We choose this particular company becuase they work hard to preserve the reef by treating their properties as marine protected areas, having designated days for ‘reef clean-up’, they offer conservation courses, and have an overall focus on ‘earth friendly’ practices. For example, each person who comes is given one water bottle (if you don’t bring your own) and you’re asked to refill at various water stations placed around the property.

The main area: dive shade and relaxing shade.

What makes this place particularly special though, is the attitude. The staff are beyond friendly and helpful. The dive instructors go out of their way to get to know the guests, and the boat drivers may not know your name but they know your face and they know your dive preferences. “North reef zodiac-zodiac?” – yes please.

Here, your unlimited dive package allows you to dive as much as you want in their house reef, which in itself has 6 different options and, according to the instructors, is “one of the best in the Red Sea”. Everything is completely relaxed and at your own pace. You just write on the boards where you’re going, what time you leave, and your expected return time and off you go!

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“The Board” (North side)

When we arrived I would say we were relativley inexperienced even though we have our advanced certificate. But this trip, we literally doubled the number of dives in our lifetime and used the time to practice some important skills.

Such as…

Flipping off a zodiac.


Getting back on a zodiac.

It’s really unfortunate that I don’t have a picture or video of this because let’s be real. No one is graceful getting back in a zodiac. Just imagine a fish out of water… 1-2-3 heave! … and you’re flopped head first over the side of the boat with your fins flappin’ in the air trying to wiggle all the way in.

Descending in open water.

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Ascending in open water, and deploying our surface marker bouey (SMB).

Jumping off a big boat for a dive. 


Underwater selfie skills. 

Clearly the most important of them all.

We started and ended the week with beautiful weather. The middle of the week (you may want to sit down for this) it RAINED. Yup. I call it the curse of The Netherlands. I mean, it didn’t’ rain for three days straight or anything, but on three afternoons there was high winds and a passing storm which, as you can imagine, drastically changed the visibility.

Same spot, different day.

Overall though, we can’t complain. Now, here are just a bunch of diving pictures.


I call the next series “The Shwits with Jellies”.


And our favorite dive: Long Canyon


I think you can understand why we didn’t want to leave, but we had to.


Back to Cairo for one night. Main goal: The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which (no lie) every Egyptian person we spoke to asked “Have you been to the museum?”. Egyptian people are very proud of their museum, as they should be, becuase it’s quite literally jam packed with cool things. And yes, we were able to see King Tut’s mask (his mummy is in Luxor). No photos allowed though. It is amazing how well preserved it is.

The Nile River

And that was our trip! The only thing we could have asked for is more time. There is so much to see in Cairo, and we weren’t able to make it to Luxor as we orignally hoped. But that’s ok, because we are already daydreaming of our next trip.

As for safety, because we’ve had a lot of peole ask, never once did we feel unsafe, even in the wake of the attack in Alexandria. Every Egyptian person we met bent over backwards with kindness and was THRILLED to meet two Americans who were not afraid to come to their country. For example, as we were leaving the Egyptian Museum a man just struck up a conversation with us (“I’m  not a taxi driver, I’m an English teacher!”) and proceeded to tell us about Tahrir square, the oldest street in Cairo, the festival that was happening that evening for Easter, and where to find “food that is OK for American stomachs”.  And perhaps this is just an illusion of security, because I realize that the government isn’t held in the highest regard by locals these days, but we experienced more security checks at varioius points in our journey than in any other country we’ve been to so far.

I think the key to Egypt, as with any country, is to be aware of your surroundings, know the basics of the local culture, and be respectful of it. For instance, I wore pants and shirts that covered my shoulders despite the warm weather and I wasn’t offended when people addressed only Shane for any decision making (even our tour guide).

Long story short, don’t be afraid. Egyptians are friendly and welcoming people and the extremists who commit terror acts do not represent them. So if you have a chance, GO TO EGYPT!


Shane is working on a video compilation of the trip, so keep a lookout!


Tot ziens,


The Shwits Go to Egypt: Part 2

That’s right! As Whitney alluded to in Part 1, we are officially scuba certified! This is basically the whole reason we went to Egypt in the first place. And to make it even better, this was technically for the sake of my work and future career. A slight deviation to explain: As I have mentioned in a number of previous posts, I study fish. In fact, I have now worked in fish-related research for about 6 years.  For those of you not so familiar with fish – they live in water.  We as humans are not so good in water, especially when trying to stay under it for long periods of time.  Therefore, not being scuba certified has always been a bit of a hold up in my research (especially when working on Lake Victoria). So, following my field work last year, I decided that it was time for me to certify.  Of course when I informed Whitney, she decided that she would not be left out and would join in the fun.  Thus, we went to Egypt! Now I know what most of you are probably thinking: why go all the way to Egypt to do the open water certification course? Isn’t it much easier/safer/cheaper to do it locally? To this I simply say: Yes, you are right. But where is the fun in that? Practicing diving in a swimming pool is useful, but it’s nothing like this:

Or this:

So I think it’s safe to see why we went all the way to Egypt.

For those of you not so familiar with the PADI Open Water course, allow me to briefly explain.  The course consists of both knowledge and skill based instruction that takes you from (in our case) having never dove before to competent and able to dive freely without the aid of an instructor.  This comes in the way of video and text study, combined with quizzes and a final written exam, while also completing a series of confined and open water dives with your instructor. We completed this over the course of 4 days (would have been 3 had Whitney not gotten a little too carried away with the “all-you-can-eat” portion of the stay). Day one was pretty laid back with some videos, text study, and swim tests. Day two, however, had us literally in over our heads: we quickly went from trying out breathing with the regulator underwater to diving at depths of 8-10m (sorry, we are officially on the metric system. I’ll try to convert for those of you not as versed in metric: ~30 feet). While in hindsight, it makes sense that the course should move this quickly, it was definitely a surprise for us at the time. Nonetheless, we survived!

From here, things progressed in both complexity and duration.  I had heard about all the various skills and tests of the open water course before the trip, but I don’t think it ever really occurred to me that I would actually be doing them. The idea of removing my mask (I wear contact lens and am blind without them) or taking off my entire scuba kit at depth seems ridiculous, but there we were doing them. While there were certainly some moments of hilarity for both of us, we passed all them with relative ease. So, that was it. We had officially passed. And with that, we were set free to dive alone. Before moving on to our diving adventures, I have to first mention our instructor: Mahdi.  He was fantastic! We couldn’t have asked for a better instructor. Not only was he extremely patient in letting us figure things out, but his overall excitement and enthusiasm was unbelievable.  And he was extremely smart.  From talking with him, we learned that he is actually a lawyer and spent time as a professor of law at an Egyptian university (in his early 20’s!). He had been diving since he was a teenager and worked as an instructor for the past eight years.  You could tell he just really loved what he did. I’m sure a majority of the instructors are just a good but Mahdi definitely made it an enjoyable experience. Thanks again Mahdi! So that was it, we were free to dive.  And dive we did! Aside from the guided dives that we did as part of the course, we were able to do 3 dives on our last day (we had to stop diving on Monday since we flew on Tuesday – pressure differences between diving and flying are not kind to the body, you have to give it time).

The resort that we were at was not like your typical tropical vacation spots.  It wasn’t a place you go to lounge on the beach with a drink in your hand or party the night away at a local club or bar.  It was a diving resort and that is what everyone was there to do.  Of course you were free to drink as much as you would like or sleep the day away in the sun, but no one did that.  Everyone was there for the diving and the desert sun is really hot….

The picture above is from the ‘diving shade’ – essentially the staging area for all diving activity.  From this point, everyone prepared for their upcoming dives. Diving options consisted of the North or South Reef and you could choose whether you entered/returned from shore or by boat (as can be see below).  You would simply write your name on a whiteboard, check where you wanted to go, and then go.  If you chose to go by boat, there was always one available at anytime of day.  It was an extremely simple, yet extremely efficient system. 

Being that Whitney and I were very new to diving, we stuck to shore entry and exit. To give you a bit of an idea of what this looked like, the following series of pictures tracks one of our dives from beginning to end.  You will see that we began at a rope that leads out past the dock for boat loading. From here, you chose either the North or South side of the reef (this dive is the North), swam out until you hit your desired time/air usage, and then swam back to same rope leading back to shore. The scenery along the way requires no explanation, the pictures speak for themselves.

I wish I could say that this was one of our better dives, that it wasn’t always this breathtakingly beautiful but I can’t.  Whether we went North or South on the reef, this is what we got.  As Whitney says: “it was real-life National Geographic; real life Finding Nemo”. As she’s right.  It was truly amazing.  I think it’s safe to say that we have found ourselves a new hobby. Future trips and adventures will most certainly be planned as diving excursions. Why did we wait so long to try this?! By the way, for those of you interested: all of these pictures, both above and below water, were taken with a Nikon Coolpix AW120. I highly recommended this camera if you are in the market for an easy to use, durable camera. We took this camera down to 18m (60ft) and it worked perfectly!

Until next time,


The Shwits Go to Egypt: Part 1

I know… its a shock. It’s been months since we’ve posted anything, but for good reason! We’ve been laying low and patiently waiting.

…for this

We went on our first vacation! To Marsa Shagra, Egypt to learn how dive to be exact. It’s beautiful right? It’s still kind of hard to believe we just spent a week there.

Marsa Shagra is a small village in the south of Egypt. It’s about four hours south of Luxor, and sits right on the coast of the Red Sea. We flew into Marsa Alam airport, and then it was about a 30 min car ride to the resort. Egypt is literally a desert. Hah, I know that sounds so ridiculous because of course its a desert, but it’s really made apparent when you’re driving on the only road through a sea of dirt and sand.

We stayed in the Marsa Shagra Village which is one of three owned by Red Sea Diving Safari. They aren’t your typical resort as they advertise themselves as “The Eco-diving Adventure”, and this ended up being exactly what we were looking for. For starters, most people stay in “tents”.

There are two types, regular and royal. We opted for the royal tent, and completely lucked out because ours was front row on the Red Sea! They did have electricity so we had 2 small lamps and a mini-fridge. Most importantly, the royal tent came with bean bag chairs.

You could also opt to stay in a one room hut, or a two room chalet. The tents and huts used communal bathrooms around the property, but the chalets had their own. The communal bathrooms really weren’t an issue. Each one had 3 toilets and 3 showers, and were cleaned multiple times per day. The only downfall is having to pee in the middle of the night…

The huts.

We spent a lot of our down time sitting on our “porch” reading and watching. The great part about this place was if you were at your tent then you really felt like you were away from it all. And at night (when the moon wasn’t too bright) you could just stare at the stars. I was pretty excited by this since we don’t see many stars in the city. In my opinion, it was beach camping at it’s finest.

If you compare the two pictures below, the one on the right is the view of our resort, and the one on the left is the neighboring. We walked down the beach and through it one day. Everything becomes artificially green, and the music is going, and people are drinking and dancing. None of this is a bad thing, it just wasn’t the experience we wanted.

If we wanted to have a little social interaction then we spent time either hanging out at the Cafeteria, or at the Bawadi Bedouin Lounge. The cafeteria made for some excellent people watching. This was situated right by the diving area so and was scattered with chairs, tables, and beanbags. It was great, because you could get a little sun, sip on your beer (or all inclusive coffee/Fanta/Sprite/Coke), and watch divers come and go.

The Bawadi Bedouin Lounge was on the property but not run by the resort itself. It was run by people from the local Bedouin tribe in the area. They had beer, coffee, hookas and you could have dinner there on request. Mostly we just stopped by for a beer on our way ‘home’ for the night after a day in the sun.

As I mentioned before, your basic drinks were all inclusive as were meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included and served in the Restaurant which had an outdoor seating area overlooking the sea and the diving area. The panoramic picture in the beginning was our view from breakfast. I think one of my favorite parts of the whole trip was waking up with the sun, going to breakfast, and having coffee with that view!

The food was incredible! Breakfast was usually the same, but lunch and dinner were always changing. Each night supposedly had a nation theme, but we were never entirely sure what nation. Hah. The only one we were ever sure of was Egyptian night because they labeled the traditional Egyptian dishes as such. And the dessert table! Oh sweet glorious dessert table. So much cake! and little cookies! and one night these chocolate cookie dough type balls! We were living the desert dessert dream!

Note to self with all inclusive… you can, and I did, eat myself sick. Literally. Not sure if it was dehydration, food I wasn’t used to, or the diving, but we lost half a day about mid-week to stomach issues. You know you’ve found a keeper when he cleans up your puke in the middle of the desert. #truelove

Other than the one incident, the trip was absolutely fantastic! Shane’s boss recommended this place to us, and it certainly did not disappoint! Everyone should go to the Red Sea!

The main dock where divers would come and go by boat.

Had to have the feet pictures. Just for you, Mom. 🙂

Well, I think that’s all! Now, on to the best part and the purpose of the whole trip…


Ok, so we’re snorkeling here but that’s not the point.

Check out Part 2!

Tot ziens!


Lake Victoria !..the follow-up

And…..I’m back (only a month late)! I know, I know, I should have done this post a long time ago. However, things have been very crazy as of late. For starters, my 4-week trip to Tanzania ended up being extended twice, for a total of 6 weeks. Then, after finally making it home, I had exactly 6 six days before I left once again to drive to Switzerland (10+ hour drive) for 4 days, then to a conference for 3 days in the southern part of The Netherlands, which was then followed up by a 2 day “retreat” with my research group. All and all, things have FINALLY settled down which means time for a blog post. So, with that, let’s talk Africa!

Warning: this may not go as you would have expected. In previous posts, I told about my project and what we were doing daily on the lake. For the most part, this didn’t change. So, instead of saying the same thing again, I’ll deviate a bit and focus on a completely unexpected part of the trip. I’ll throw in a lot of pictures along the way.

Have you ever stopped to think about how amazing the world is? Seriously, have you ever really thought about it? I know it’s a pretty generic question. In fact, it’s probably just as easy to argue the opposite – just watch the news. The world is full of some pretty nasty people and places at the moment. However, after spending six weeks living and working in Tanzania, I have to argue the opposite – the world is an amazing place. I had the opportunity to work on the largest tropical lake in the world, day after day, for a month and half. I went days without electricity or running water (on multiple occasions), slept only a few hours a night, burned most days under the African sun, and on the  others got so sea-sick and cold from some of the strongest, nastiest storms I’ve even seen. Every plant, fish, bug, or rock that I touched had some sort of spine, edge, or chemical that resulted in a cut, burn, or rash. If I wasn’t being eaten alive by mosquitoes (with a risk of malaria) then I was being attacked by some of the most ferocious ants I’ve ever encountered. Retreating to the “safety” of the lake (away from most insects) just meant you had to watch the water (where I’m trying to catch the fish I study) for the ever-present threat of crocodiles. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I spent six weeks in Africa and it is something I will never forget. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!

Now I know what most of you are thinking – what’s wrong with me? To be honest, had I not experienced it myself, I would be thinking the same thing. None of the things I listed above sound fun, nor where they fun when they were happening. However, I think it is more about perspective than it is actual inconvenience. Despite all of the hardships and difficulties that I list, I was never in any danger. Never did I feel unsafe, or did I go hungry or thirsty. I simply had to do without most of the modern conveniences that I (and most of you reading this) am accustomed to. For everyday day that I went without Internet access, TV, or a hot shower (or without a shower at all), I was continually rewarded by the opportunity to live and work in a place we only see on the Discovery Channel. It’s Africa, it’s the where we all come from (aka the origin of the human race), and it’s a completely different way of life. Things I would never even think about in ‘normal’ life became commonplace. For an example, let me share a quick story:

Some days we would not go out on the boat and would instead sample at a near-by stream. This stream was only a few minutes walk from our rest house and was off of a fairly busy road. As such, we would often draw a lot of attention to ourselves by simply fishing in this small stream. On one particular day, I was alone fishing and soon had a group of 6-8 children (probably 8-12 years old) watching me very closely. Being that I had a lot of supplies that these kids did not have, I gave each of them some hooks and worms so that they could catch fish as well (they were there to fish for themselves and their families so that they could eat). I couldn’t help but notice that one of the kids kept hanging quietly around me and did not join his friends to use their new angling supplies. Not only did he watch me very closely, but he also was very intent on checking out all of my belongings (not uncommon, we “scientist” had a lot of strange things). It was only after a while did I realize that of particular interest to him was my unopened, 1.5 liter bottle of water. When I opened the bottle and offered it to him, he quickly drank ~1/4 of the bottle, before turning to share it with some of the other kids as well. It was only at this point did it occur to me that we did not have running water at the moment and that it had been out for a day or two. Whereas we had cases of drinking water in our rest house, there was a good chance that these kids were not as fortunate. For me, a lack of running water just meant I couldn’t shower and had to risk smelling for a few days. For these kids, it may have meant little, if any, drinking water. Before leaving for the day, I gave the boy all the bottled water we had with us.

Talk about putting things into perspective….

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t say these things or share that story to make myself seem all knowing or above anyone. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I share that story to highlight what I experienced from the people of Tanzania. Despite all of these hardships and inconveniences that would have most of us running away (believe me, I was ready to be back!), the people that I interacted with daily where some of the nicest, happiest people I’ve ever met. A lack of running water or the absence of electricity wasn’t a reason to panic and be angry, it was just a fact of life and life went on. One other thing that really stuck out to me was the theme of various conversations that I had with any number of individuals who wanted to talk (and everyone wanted to talk to the American!). The common theme of just about all of these conversations? Race…but not in the way that you’d think. To summarize what I was told on no less than 5 separate occasions, usually while having my white arm directly compared to their black arm: we all need to realize that, regardless of color, we are all human. Black, white, yellow, or brown, it doesn’t matter, we are all human. I being from America and they being Tanzania meant very little. I was simply a friend that did weird things with small fish.

Again, it’s all about perspective…So in case you haven’t been able to tell, my time working on Lake Victoria was nothing short of amazing! For this biology nerd, it was truly a once in a lifetime trip and I’d go back tomorrow if I could. It sounds a bit cheesy to say, but I couldn’t help telling myself that this is what I want from life. I mean I spent six weeks in Tanzania, “working” on Lake Victoria. How cool is that?! And the fact that I did this for my PhD thesis makes it even cooler. It’s crazy to think that fish, by working with them and knowing a bit about them, have taken me all over the world. How is this even fair? As I said before, I think the world is and is full of amazing places. For a biologist, the wildlife and scenery that I was able to see in Africa was absolutely incredible, but then again, watch the Discovery Channel can see you that. For me, the unexpected surprise was the people. And to be honest, it was sad to leave. I spent nearly everyday working hand and hand with two local Tanzanian men, our boat drivers Mhoja and Muhammad. Mhoja and Muhammad have been working with cichlid biologists for over 20 years (30+ for Mhoja). For this reason, they are an invaluable resource when trying to complete our research. Not only are they the steady hand driving the boats in rough water, but also their knowledge of the fish is second to none. Their know-how and skill is impossible to replace.

We also had a TAFIRI scientist, Godfrey, joining on most days to learn more about the cichlids of Lake Victoria. Godfrey, being very well spoken in English, was a key resource for our work, both on the lake and beyond (ever tried to speak Swahili?). Outside of the boat team, there were countless people at TAFIRI who made our job much easier (and many of which we made their jobs extremely difficult – with no complaints at all). Individuals such as Makoja, our driver picking up things in the city while we were out sampling and Leticia, our house “mom” who kept food on the table and our rest house clean, made it possible to complete the amount of work we were able to do (and believe me, there was a lot). Even if we were not working directly with them, you were never offered anything less than bright smile and an extended greeting to see how your day and work was going. All and all, the people* are what made things bearable and kept you going day after day.

On the science side of things (aka the whole reason for going), I was able to collect all of the fish and samples that I need for my PhD project. In fact, I got more than I had planned and will basically spend the next three and a half years trying to analyze all the data – yay science. I also collected ~100 live fish and, despite being shipped all over the world (Tanzania – Switzerland – The Netherlands) they are now in our aquarium and doing well. If all goes as planned, these fish will establish lab populations that will can be used for years to come.

So now that life is more or less back to normal, it seems I can get back to work on this whole PhD thing. Granted all of this fieldwork was directly related to my project, it didn’t feel like it. I got to spend 6 weeks in Africa, “working” on the largest tropical lake in the world, interacting with amazing people, and having the time of my life! If this is what ‘work’ will be for the rest of my life, I think I made a wise career choice…we’ll just overlook the whole ‘hard to find a job in academia thing’.

Until next time!


Lake Victoria !

Greetings from Tanzania!

I would do a Swahili greeting but I’m still working on that one. From my understanding, it is ‘habari’ which means hello/how are you? The problem is, ‘habari’ is typically followed by more specific things like how is your work, how is your family, etc. I haven’t mastered that part yet… Greetings!

I don’t have the best Internet connection here so I’m going to keep my text short and just upload some pictures (it’s better than my describing it anyways). As a quick overview: I’m two weeks into my stay and have two weeks remaining. So far, work has been going very well as I’ve been able to collect a large portion of the samples and data that I need. A typical work day consists of packing the boat full of gear and people, traveling to one of four islands, setting up an “office” on the rocks, and processing samples and fishing all day. We generally leave between 6-8am (depending on which island we go to) and then return around 5-6pm. At this point, there is usually lots of fish that need to be sorted and processed so it’s not unusual to work until 10 or 11 at night. After a quick dinner and shower, it’s off to bed to repeat the process again the next day. It may sound boring, but it has actually been quite fun. I’ve seen lots of wildlife and the scenery is amazing. Most days are very hot and sunny (I’ve gotten a nice tan), while other days are nothing but wind and rain. Regardless of the weather, we are on the lake, working as usual. Wind, waves, and rain just mean you wear a rain suit and hold on a little tighter. There have been a few days where we all got a little seasick, much to the enjoyment of our Tanzanian boat drivers. Nonetheless, it really has been fun and I’m glad I got to come.

Below are some pictures of Tafari (the research station near the house), the boat, and various pictures of the lake and islands we work on. There has been a lot more that I’d love to have a picture of but I don’t dare have my camera out when the weather is bad. I guess sunny weather makes for better pictures anyway…

The main gate to Tafari.
Office and lab space at Tafari.
The hatchery where we keep live fish. You can see the lake in the background
Our boat full of gear. The only thing missing is 6 people.
A typical “office”.
A tornado on the lake!
It takes an hour to get to one of the islands which means some extra sleep.

Until next time!


Tanzania, here I come !

Well, it’s official; I’m heading to Africa!

This time next week, I’ll be on my way to Tanzania for fieldwork. Despite a few months of uncertainty and a significant amount of delay (to be expected when working with African nations), I’ll leave Sunday, September 21st and won’t return until October 20th. Living in Africa for a month and working on the largest tropical lake in the world? I’ll take it! To follow is a brief overview of where I’m going and what I’ll be doing.

Where am I going?

As I just mentioned, Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world (by surface area) and it is located in East Africa, bordered by the countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. It is home to around 500 different species of cichlid fishes (among numerous other types of fish), most of which have come into existence within a very short period of time. Geographical data has shown that the lake was completely empty for several thousand and only refilled about 12,000-13,000 years ago (no water = no fish!). For this reason, Lake Victoria is an excellent place to study how new species comes into existence. Speciation is typically a very, very slow process, taking millions of years to form separate species. Cichlids in Lake Victoria have formed 500+ species in only a few thousands of years (a very short time frame in terms of species development) and therefore give those interested in studying it an opportunity to observe speciation in ‘real-time’. This is what my project focuses on, speciation of cichlid fishes.

I will be living and working on the southern portion of the lake, near the city of Mwanza. All work will be based out of a research station, and from my understanding, I’ll be living in a house nearby. I’ll be joining a group of researchers from Switzerland, most of whom traveled to the lake last week. In addition, there are a few locals who we will rely on to drive the boats and serve as our general guides on the lakes. All in all, it seems I will be working with a diverse group, many of which have lots of experience on the lake

What will I be doing?

Cichlids are a diverse group of fishes that are found all over the word, in South America, India, and Africa. I would venture to guess that anyone reading this has actually had close interactions with a close relative of cichlids, tilapia.   Yep, the same tilapia you fix at home or order at Red Lobster is actually a close relative (in scientific terms: an ancestor) of the fish I will be studying. Cichlids of the East African Great Lakes – Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria – represent about 2,000 different species and have been studied extensively for a number of years. As I mentioned previously, Lake Victoria is an extremely young lake, whereas Malawi and Tanganyika are millions of years old. Additionally, Lake Victoria is relatively shallow and the water very turbid. In comparison, Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are among the clearest lakes in the world. For this reason, the speciation processes that act in Lake Victoria are much different than those that act in Malawi and Tanganyika (and seem to act at a much faster pace).

I will be working with two very closely related species of cichlids, Pundamilia pundamilia and Pundamilia nyererei (Latin scientific names – no common names such as bluegill or bass). For simplicity, P. pundamilia is the ‘blue’ fish and P. nyererei is the ‘red’ fish. The two fish are very similar, differing mostly in the bright coloration of males. They occur at the same locations in the lake, with the blue fish in shallower depths and the red fish existing much deeper. Being that they are found at such different depths, the two fish live in very different lighting environments. Previous work has shown that the females of each species prefer the specific color of their species (red females prefer red males) and the way they perceive color differs (fish in deep water can see red much better while fish in shallow water can see blue much better). The purpose of my project will be to test how the different light environments has played a role in the formation of these two species (this is putting it very simply as there are lots of factors involved). This matters because Lake Victoria has recently undergone a dramatic change due to human activity around the lake. Increased agriculture and deforestation has caused the lake to become progressively more turbid. If vision and coloration is key to new species arising and maintaining their separation, then human activity could have detrimental effects. There is also the fact that the processes underlying speciation are of great interest but that only matters to science nerds like me.

My work will consist of not only collecting live fish to ship back to Groningen, but also taking light measurements at different depths in the lake and numerous preserved samples to be used later in molecule work. Outside of this, I’ll also be helping the rest of the members of the group with their respective projects. I’m not sure what all this involves but it will let me see much more of the lake and numerous other species of fish.

Males of each species we have in lab. The red one didn’t want his picture taken…


Since I am frequently asked about travel, I figure it’s worth sharing quickly. To get from Groningen to Mwanza, I have to do the following:

  1. 2 hour train ride from Groningen to Amsterdam Sunday afternoon (Sept. 21st)
  2. Leave Amsterdam at 9:00pm and land in Nairobi, Kenya at 6:10am (Sept. 22nd)
  3. Leave Nairobi at 8:10am and land in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at 11:05am
  4. At this point, I have to collect all of my luggage and change airlines to a domestic carrier. This means rechecking in and going through security again. No worries, I have a 7-hour lay over…
  5. Leave Dar es Salaam at 6:50pm and land in Mwanza at 8:20pm
  6. Hire a driver to take me the research station at Lake Victoria

For those of you keeping track, that means a full 24 hours of travel from Groningen to Lake Victoria. Yay science!

Other News

Aside from prepping for the upcoming trip, life in Groningen is still going great! We now once again live in a college town, as school has restarted and all of the students have returned. I think we got a little spoiled with everyone being away for summer holiday and the streets being relatively empty. Biking now, with thousands of students, is quite the adventure. Weather wise, it’s already starting to get cooler here and most of the trees are beginning to drop their leaves. I’m sure by the time I return from Tanzania it will be quite cold.

Whitney is now two weeks into work and seems to really enjoy it. There was a bit of an adjustment for her, going into industry after being in academia for so long (industry is much more strict) but luckily it wasn’t too bad. She seems to really enjoy the people she works with and has already made plans with a work colleague to go clothes shopping once they get paid (I’m very thankful for this…better than me!). Being that she works with a small group of people, all of which are Dutch, she is really starting to get the hang of the language. In fact, she was able to order all of our meats for groceries in Dutch, without having to repeat anything! At this rate, I’ll have my own personal translator by the time I return.

So with that, I’ll call this post finished. If Internet is freely available at the research station, I’ll try to do another post while I’m in Tanzania. If not, I’ll take plenty of pictures and update in October.

Until next time!