Corsica, France

“Are you going to blog about your trip?”

“You never blog anymore.”

“You’ve been home a month and a half!”

“The blog is dead. It needs your contribution on account of I have nothing.”

….maybe I should write a blog post about my trip to Corsica?


I spent the entire month of June on an island in the Mediterranean Sea! Believe it or not, this was a work trip; a fieldwork to trip to be more precise. Not a bad place to work, huh? For all it’s frustrations, science can be pretty cool sometimes.

Perhaps I should explain how this came to be. Last year, I interviewed for a postdoc position in Tübingen, Germany. Ultimately, this position did not pan out, but it did lead to further discussions of potential collaboration. Simply put: this is science lingo for saying “write your own project and come do it here”. As an aspiring academic researcher, this exactly the exciting/scary/adventurous/bold opportunity I was looking for. To survive in academia, you have to 1) develop your own, independent line of research and 2) fund that work through grants. If this is to be my chosen career path, then why not start now?! So, since finishing my PhD, this has been my focus: I have written and submitted my own grant applications, in hopes of continuing my research career in Tübingen.

As part of this process, I have been in continual contact with my potential postdoc host. In one such conversation, I was offered an opportunity to join the group on their upcoming fieldwork trip. Naturally, I accepted. The fact that this trip would be to Corsica, France was an obvious plus, but more relevant was what it would mean for my research experience. For both my Master’s and PhD, I completed fieldwork very early in the project. These experiences proved invaluable to my later work – in evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology, it’s important to place your work in a larger context and to remember that these are natural systems, with real implications. Fieldwork definitely drives this point home. For all those non-science nerds out there, it’s also really freaking cool to spend a month diving in the Mediterranean!

Getting to (and from) Corsica was an adventure in itself; not because Corsica is so remote, but more so due to the logistics of scientific research. Any fieldwork trip, by necessity, requires lots of gear. As you can imagine, transporting all this gear to and from the field comes at a great expense. Scientists would much rather spend their hard earned grant money on actual research, so if a cheaper transport opportunity presents itself, you take it. Case in point for getting to Corsica: drive. For me, this meant the following travel schedule:

Day 1:
Groningen -> Amsterdam (2 hour train ride)
Amsterdam -> Stuttgart, Germany (1.5 hour flight)
Stuttgart -> Tübingen, Germany (~1 bus ride)
Overnight in Tübingen

 

Day 2:
Tübingen -> Savona, Italy (~9 hour drive)
Savona -> Bastia, France (overnight ferry)

 

Day 3:
Bastia -> Calvi, France / Stareso (~3 hour drive)

Station de Recherche Océanographiques et sous-marines or Stareso, for short, is a marine biology research station, located just outside of Calvi, in northern Corsica. Originally built in the 1970’s, Stareso has been the annual fieldwork destination of the Tübingen visual ecology group for the past 10 years. There are, of course, many other research groups that also make use of the station, many of which also have a long history of coming to Stareso.

I’m not going to go into much detail of our work at Stareso, as it’s not my research to share. However, I will give a quick rundown of what we did. In short, we conducted a large-scale behavior experiment using a small fish that naturally occurs in the Mediterranean Sea. This is particularly relevant for me, as this is one of the fish species I want to study (should I get funding).

Can you spot the fish?
A triplefin blenny – in the aquarium

For this trip, we had an array of experimental tanks anchored in a seagrass bed at ~10m (~33 ft) depth.

Each day, we’d work in small teams of 2-3 divers to transport fish to the tanks and then run a behavior trial for ~1.5 hours. A second team would then return to the tanks to collect the fish and GoPro’s used to record the trials. Meanwhile, there was the continual task of collecting wild fish for use in the next day’s trials, as well as the general upkeep and maintenance of the tanks themselves. As you can see from this list, we spent a lot of time under water. I logged a lot of dives on this trip!

Again, I won’t go into any details of the experiment or the results, but I can say that it was a very successful trip! All-in-all, the experiment worked well, we had no diving- or fish-related issues, the weather was great, and to top it off, the food at Stareso was phenomenal! This was certainly a much different field experience than when I worked on Lake Victoria.


In other news, we have been pretty low-key lately. Whitney has been busy working, while I am writing funding applications. Thus far, I’ve submitted one proposal and will soon submit a second. These processes are annoyingly slow; it will be November, at the earliest, before I hear any result. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself occupied with a few remaining publications for my PhD work and also enjoying life with little responsibility. After 5 years of intense PhD research, it’s nice to relax.

Stay tuned for blog-life to return to normal, as Whitney will be posting about our upcoming trip to France (in September).

Until next time,
Shane

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?

fullsizeoutput_140e
DSC_0065

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,

Shane

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.

DSC_0006

But not anymore! 🙂

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

DSC_0039

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).

DSC_0065

Next up, the Sphinx!

DSC_0047

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.

DSC_0098
DSC_0078
DSC_0088

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!

fullsizeoutput_138a

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.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif
Breakfast view.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 10.10.00

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.

fullsizeoutput_1393
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!

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 09.40.17
“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.

fullsizeoutput_13a7

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 10.46.18

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

Jumping off a big boat for a dive. 

DSCN2526

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.

fullsizeoutput_140b

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

DSCN2289
fullsizeoutput_1407

And our favorite dive: Long Canyon

DSCN2508

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

fullsizeoutput_13a2

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.

fullsizeoutput_139f
DSCN2580
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!

endrant.

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

fullsizeoutput_1399

Tot ziens,

Whitney

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,

Shane