Friday, May 27, 2011

May 27 - Guam

Yesterday I got a particularly up close and personal look at the health infrastructure of Guam. At about 30 feet, I got a seriously bad pain in my ears that just got progressively worse as the night went on. By 7pm, I was in tears and two of the instructors, Tom and Judy, took me to Guam’s only ER at the recommendation of DAN and the hotel. Our hotel went above and beyond the call of duty and escorted us in a security vehicle. I curled up in the fetal position in the back of the car as Judy held my hand and assured me that it would be alright.
At the ER, we were shuffled through triage and admissions fairly quickly, but sat and waited to see a doctor for about an hour. My ears felt progressively worse until I heard a popping sound and lost all hearing in my right each and partial hearing in my left ear. By this point, I was completely hysterical and Tom went to tell the triage nurse that my condition worsened. They recoded me “blue,” whatever that means, and I was quickly taken to a bed and a doctor sat down with us.
(picture of the offending dive site)
When they moved me into a room, they wanted to take Judy and Tom away from me because I am twenty-one and it is hospital policy that they do not allow unrelated people to accompany patients during treatment. I wouldn’t let go of Judy and Tom flashed his sheriff’s badge at the “rent-a-cop” trying to separate us, so they let us all in together.
The doctor was a short and very thin man with a good sense of humor and some background in hyperbaric medicine. He looked in my ears and tsked, saying that I had endured a moderate barotrauma in my middle ear and my tympanic membrane was bulgding and red. Luckily, my tympanic membrane was not perforated, so they gave me some painkillers, prescribed an antibiotic and a topical analgesic, and a steroid for the swelling in my ear. They had me sit and wait for a nurse to give the injection but fed me a fairly high dose of painkillers. I was loopy by the time they told me they wanted to inject me in my butt. I protested vehemently, saying that they would have to stick me through too many layers of fat. So they did half of the injection in each arm and it turned out okay.
The hotel van driver took us to the only restaurant in the area that was open at the time – Wendy’s. I got a frosty and went back to the hotel and passed out. I missed the hike this morning to Lost Pond, and ended up sleeping for much of the afternoon. I feel a lot better today, but my ears still hurt a bit and my hearing is still muffled.
We went to a restaurant called the Marianas Trench, which was a Thai restaurant that was very tasty. There were tons of military-looking men being served by women dressed in pirate costumes, and it took me back to a time where comfort women were common in Southeast Asia. It was a very strange atmosphere. The food was good. We just got back and I’m about ready to curl up in bed and fall asleep.
One more thing – I’ve not been lazy with blogs! I just can’t post them here because they’re in the pipeline for publication on Scientific American.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24 - Guam

I woke up this morning at 5am because I couldn’t sleep. I went for a barefoot run on the beach surrounding Tumon Bay and ended up with two matching blisters on each of my toes because the beautiful white sand ended up being much coarser than it looked.
After a lecture from a member of the Department of Agriculture about Marine Protected Areas and Guam’s fisheries, we set out on a boat to northwest Guam. We did our first tropical science dives today on Twin Reefs and off Gun Beach. We laid 100m transects and did substrate counts and invertebrate counts of sea cucumbers, urchins, spider conks, and giant clams
To be honest, I was disappointed. And as much as I felt disappointed for myself, I was even more concerned for the reef system. There was absolutely no size diversity. We saw a handful of fish that were six inches long, but most were only two to four inches long. On the first dive, there were almost no fish besides small juveniles hiding in the coral. The second dive had a modestly larger number of fish, but still lacked the diversity and vibrancy I expected to see. We were told that these were the healthiest reefs on Guam – I can’t even imagine how barren Apra Harbor look when we dive it tomorrow.
Coincidentally, there was a policy that was debated and voted on today in the Guam legislature creating penalties for breaking coral. Currently, penalties for breaking coral only apply to fishermen; these would also apply to other recreational and commercial uses of marine space. I think that this is a good plan.
Whether it is the nitrogen loading or the time difference, I’m exhausted tonight. We ate dinner at the hotel because we were all too tired to walk to any nearby restaurants. A Micronesian dance show started halfway through. Addy and I went on stage and ended up winning the dance competition by a vote of the fans.
Sorry I didn’t write more. Yesterday, the President of DAN gave us a lecture on diving safety after one of our professors met him by chance in the lobby of our hotel. This is a picture of he and I together.
I promise there will be more tomorrow!

May 23 - Guam

I never thought I’d feel sorry for a crow. “He lost his mate on Friday,” our guide said. “It was a very sad day… now he’s only one of two Guam crows left.” She explained that this type of crow was often killed in order to avoid the land use restrictions that come with the presence of endangered species on your property. “I’ve asked each staff member to come out here and have lunch with him once a week. Otherwise, he gets too lonely.”
Today, we visited the Guam Department of Agriculture, which houses many of Guam’s most endangered species. Many of the animals that had no natural predators and slept too soundly quickly became snake food when the brown tree snake was introduced onto the island. We held kokos, a flightless ground dwelling bird that is completely extinct in the wild, with the exception of a one population released from captivity. Every bird raised in captivity has descended from just 10 individuals. We watched as a Guam fruit bat playfully nibbled our guide’s hand. The bat has to be kept indoors at all times to avoid theft – fruit bats are considered a delicacy in Guam.
Many of the most endangered animals are considered the tastiest. Our guide told us about a recent wedding in Guam. The bride and groom published in the local newspaper that they intended to serve kokos and sea turtles as part of the ceremony. I wonder if this was a genuine cultural need, or a conspicuous political statement?
The colonization of Guam by the Spanish, the Japanese, and the Americans has brought vast changes to the traditional subsistence lifestyle. The way people on Guam have lived for thousands of years was supplanted by a distinctly commercial culture. People on Guam have always eaten bats, turtles, kokos, and parrotfish, and American activities on Guam have disproportionately affected these populations when compared with local residents’ activities historically.
At the same time as American policies restrict the way individuals can use their own land and suppress traditional cultural activities, the United States takes actions in Guam that are devastating to local animal populations. The US Navy has a policy that no endangered species can be introduced on Navy property, not even on lands reserved for habitat development. The commercial consumption that is the cornerstone of American living is widely given moral preference to hunting threatened species, but is just as harmful to the environment. The only difference is that the harms of killing and eating fruit bats are felt locally, whereas the products that travel thousands of miles only to be consumed and discarded in seconds have more distant harms. Americans don’t get to see the direct impacts of our everyday choices – out of sight, out of mind. How can we expect to enforce conservationist policies that prohibit millennia-old cultural rituals when we propose to dynamite the coral reefs the policies aim to protect?
The policies enacted to protect environments like Guam are insufficient; restricting certain activities of certain groups will not address the cause of environmental destruction or lead to solutions for the future. A global cultural change that causes individuals feel responsible for the impacts of their lifestyle must occur to catalyze effective action. Prohibitive laws are merely an indirect way of addressing the plight of the bat, the koko, the turtle, the crow, and all the animals that will drift into extinction without ever making it to any sort of watch list. People must know what it feels like to look at a bird with the knowledge that it might be one of the last of its kind. People must know what that loss means for the ecosystem. And people must know what loss means for humanity. Watching the agitated kingfisher screech around his cage as we were told that mathematical models predicted the demise of his species within the decade made me wonder how often my children will ask me, “Did you really get to see one of those?”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Blog post on Scientific American

Scientific American ran my second blog post today!

May 22 - Guam

We’re nearing a twenty-four hour day and I’m still rocking from yesterday’s boat ride somehow. No blog for the 21st because we passed the international date line and I didn’t really have a May 21st. This morning we went from LAX to Honolulu to Guam. And now here we are! We caught a glimpse of the sunset as we were landing, and Guam is absolutely beautiful. It has all the tropical things you could want on an island – lots of lush forests, bright blue water, and sandy beaches.
Everything from the airport to the vans to hotel went surprisingly smoothly, considering we’re carting around 21 huge “action packers” filled with dive gear. The hotel shuttled all of the luggage in a gigantic catering truck, and we all piled into big white vans. We got our room keys, and made a mad dash for the pools and the ocean, even though it’s nighttime here.
The pools were fine, but the ocean was really cool. And by cool, I mean cold. Because Guam has had so much rain later, the top layer of water is more brackish and much cooler than the water underneath. The thermocline was reverse of what you would expect. I can’t wait to dive – the water is so clear and beautiful and there were rays just a few yards off the hotel beach.
I can’t help but think about the last “expedition” I made (see Biomials) and all of the things that happened on that trip and the comparisons between the two. They are similar in their intent but very different in the group and travel dynamic. Today in the van, I started talking to the driver who was Chamorro. I asked him about the military build up in Guam, and predictably (as a former soldier and a beneficiary of tourist funds) he believed that the build up would be good for the Island. I didn’t want to say anything about my own opinion, but I smiled and nodded and was thankful that he shared with me.
Back in the hotel, as we waited to be checked in and given instructions, I noticed the same driver watching me. I was reminded of a conversation with a Tuk-Tuk driver I had in Jaipur, in India. I happened to have read an article about a Tuk-Tuk driver strike and I was asking him about his political views on the drivers unions and such. Instead of wanting to talk politics, he ended up asking for my number and asking if I would like to go out and get some “hot rum” with him. It was a very strange situation and I was glad to be gone from the Tuk-Tuk driver and his Tuk-Tuk that had been aptly painted with the name “Naughty Boy.”
Aside from the Tuk-Tuk experience, I felt like I mostly shied away from “locals” while I was abroad last spring. Often, the places we visited seemed too dangerous to engage in casual conversation with the surrounding people – often people surrounding us were a little too interested. I think that this time, I want to make more of an effort to talk to people. I feel more protected in some ways than I did last spring – we are staying in an American hotel with security and a higher instructor to student ratio.
In any case, talking to the people around you can sincerely benefit you. The Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) president approached Jim in the lobby of our hotel. DAN is a huge organization and provides us all with diving insurance. The DAN president, conveniently named Dan, offered to give us a lecture about diving tomorrow. I’m thrilled!
I am overwhelmingly excited and feel like this is going to be a new and unusual experience. At the same time, I feel like I have a peculiar and particular perspective because I have been on a trip like this before. I think that I started this trip to Guam and Palau a lot more relaxed and comfortable than the trip last year, where I constantly was taking deep yoga breaths to mitigate my stress. I packed more thoughtfully this time. I’m more accustomed to accepting things unknown, and not necessarily being aware of or in control of the schedule. That trip did so much for me, and as we flew past Haleakala today, I felt a twinge of nostalgia, or sadness, or something else unnamable, when I thought of the epic hike the biomes group took on Haleakala a year and a half ago. And I know that as I dive in the tropics, I’m going to be reminded of the biomes group diving in the Maldives and Thailand. I think I had a very real desire when I signed up for this program to somehow replicate those feelings that I had last spring. But this is a separate program with completely different (and wonderful) people, and I can feel our unique dynamic beginning to be forged.

Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20 - Catalina

No blog last night because today was the midterm for the class associated with this trip – Environmental Studies 499. We all stayed up late to study. We just took the exam, and it took about two and a half hours.
And now that that is over, we can start having fun. Yesterday was our last dive in Catalina, and the visibility was less than a foot. The instructors thought that this would be a good time to have us do a navigation exercise, something that I’ve always been less than enthusiastic about. They laid a transect down, and we were given starting marks (my buddy and I were told to start from the 15 m mark) and navigate a triangle around the cove. Surprisingly, we actually managed to navigate to exactly the same spot we started from! The navigation part turned out to be easy; it was finding the transect tape that was hard. We literally had our noses to the bottom of the ocean floor looking for the tape. My buddy Emily was carrying and underwater camera, so we managed to take some cool pictures despite the green-milk appearance of the water.
The second dive for the day was called due to poor conditions, and that’s when we started to review for the test. Not much is going on in these next few hours. We will be going back to LA tonight, then leave for Guam tomorrow at 5am! The rest of the afternoon will be spent packing and then back on the boat. On the way from LA to Catalina, we were allowed to sit on the top of the boat because of cargo restrictions, and most of us were green by the end. Hopefully today we won’t be stuck down below.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18 - Catalina

I’m reading the executive summary for proposed military expansion on Guam. We were told that the group commissioned to compile this report was known for glossing over environmental concerns, but even with the glossing the proposal is bleak. As a result of the Department of Defense proposal, 18,000 new residents will burden Guam’s already struggling infrastructure and ecosystem. Guam’s Apra Harbor is the site of a proposed berth for an aircraft carrier. In order to meet the depth requirements for a ship of this size, the harbor will have to be dredged and widened. Dredging is a nicer word for hacking up all the coral reefs that are the backbone of the environment and biodiversity by serving as a home for many marine species.
Apra Harbor, Guam
One of the aspects of this proposal that was mentioned to us in class was that the United States is under great pressure to move the military out of Okinawa, Japan. After three US soldiers raped a middle school girl in the 1990s, there has been significant pressure to decrease military presence in Japan. That disgusting and reprehensible attack seems to serve as a symbol for the actions of the US military. Instead of evaluating the impact the military will have on the surrounding community, the DOD forges ahead and razes whatever objects they deem incongruent with their goals.
In this case, a coral reef is incongruent with the US military’s vision for Guam. I think that diving there next week will remind me of being in the Maldives. In the capital city of Male, it occurred to me after seeing the flood lines of the buildings that one day the only divers will flock to the Maldives to see the ruins of the city rather than the reefs. Maybe after some time, the only reefs left in Guam will be the manmade reefs of sunken military ships.
On a more upbeat note, there are gale force winds in Catalina this afternoon and I surfaced from our morning dive to huge swells that had come out of nowhere. The dive itself was less eventful that yesterday’s – the visibility was horrible and we were in a much more open area with a lot less kelp. Our professor, Jim, took some good pictures of us, though. We did another transect count of sea grass and molluscs.
Fisherman's Cove, Catalina
The wind has kept us out of the water this afternoon, so four of us hiked the huge hill behind the dining hall. We were told to follow the ridge but instead went straight up through thigh high grass and those same gale force winds plastering us against the slope. We ate some ripe prickly pear fruit and saw a fox. The rest of the afternoon has been spent reading and preparing for our class midterm on Friday.

The executive summary of the proposed military expansion can be found here: