In a lab near the sea, there lived a biologist. Not a dark, uninviting, cramped lab, filled with overflowing glassware and a bacteria media smell, nor yet a bright, sterile, medical lab with no animals to watch: it was a marine lab, and that means fun.
It had a door with no window like a porthole, which made near misses of unsuspecting passers in the hallway a frequent occurrence. The benches were full of interesting tools, that whirred and beeped throughout the day. The hallways were filled with students, the cabinets were always full of chocolates and snacks, and the fridge was always full of ale... er, iced tea. It is here our blog begins, but the story begins much earlier. You see, the biologist has always been curious...
When I was an undergraduate, I traveled in Charles Darwin's path to the Galápagos Islands, to create a short film about the restoration of Pinta Island by bringing back the famous tortoises. It was my first trip to the Pacific Ocean, and I spent as much time in the sea as I did on land. I snorkeled with cheeky sea lions, sleepy sharks, and majestic sea turtles. I learned how to create films about wildlife and it’s conservation, and spent a lot of time photographing tortoises. If you’re wondering, they mostly just stand there and eat. I saw firsthand how grassroots efforts can turn into huge conservation projects and can save a species from extinction, and restore islands to the beauty they knew before settlers began to meddle with nature.
The following summer, I traveled to Guam for a research project - to study pollution on this beautiful island and how it affects the mangrove forests and reef communities. I went from filming and photographing science to being a scientist myself. I collected leaves from mangrove trees to examine whether they record differences in nitrogen pollution (an indicator there of sewage). Sounds easy enough, but mangrove trees are home to these massive spiders which build their webs just at a hobbit’s face height. And I am irrationally and unconditionally afraid of spiders. I know it’s unrealistic as a biologist, but I am and it’s never going to change. When I was hiding from the spiders, I was swimming among coral reefs and seeing the impact of climate change and pollution on the Pacific reefs. So I decided to research how the same pollution I was measuring in mangroves would affect corals and their relatives, anemones.
To do that, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to Aotearoa New Zealand. My goal was to study how pollution, like farm run-off, can impact anemones, tiny jellyfish-like animals that live on the ocean floor. While in New Zealand, I explored mountains and volcanoes. I white water rafted through caves to see glow worms, which form the brightest night sky you can find underground. I visited Hobbiton, which is clearly home. I spent my weekend in the bush, pulling up invasive plants and planting endemic trees. Trying to help the extensive effort of reducing invasive species on these islands, an ongoing and tedious battle. I helped track kiwi birds to their nests, where dad raises the chicks. I even held a baby kiwi while his dad was being checked up on. And so my love of the Pacific grew and grew, much like a hobbit’s love for ale and pipeweed.
I returned to the US to study physiology for a PhD program at UC Irvine. Because of my time in New Zealand I refocused my entire PhD to study an animal I had fallen in love with in Aotearoa, the pāua. Really it was the art I fell in love with first. You see, their shells are a beautiful iridescent sea of deep blues and turquoise, lavender, and green. I firmly hold that nature has created nothing more beautiful than these shells. Pāua themselves are unassuming creatures, they look like rocks as they slowly (they are in fact massive snails) wander along the sea floor, eating kelp as they go. We have pāua here in California too, only we call them abalone. Lurking in our northern abalone is a dangerous parasite, a bacteria that causes a disease called withering syndrome. It’s helped wipe out much of the abalone on the western North American coastline. That’s where I come in, I study how this disease impacts abalone. I also study how warming temperatures affect them, because the disease gets worse when abalone experience heat stress.
Here is where this story begins. Since I started studying abalone, it’s been my dream to return to Aotearoa and study pāua. Within a few days, that dream will be realized, thus the title of this post. I am returning as a National Geographic Explorer to examine how climate change impacts pāua physiology. I’ve packed my raincoat, wetsuit, cameras, and ukulele (which is conspicuously absent of any pāua inlays, this must be remedied). Follow my blog to hear about my (mis)adventures with pāua and the other amazing wildlife Aotearoa has to offer.