Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The warmest dive ever, plus the actual research

The last entry of this travelogue is being penned (an outdated but aesthetically attractive metaphor for recording information, which is in this case being typed) as I sit in the Bermuda airport, exhausted out of my mind, waiting to board my flight. I am, as mentioned, tired beyond belief, but I am also very, very, happy.

It should also be mentioned that I have been reading Cryptonomicon, and am currently in the midst of an extraordinarily long journal-type letter written by one of the prominent characters, Randy, described on the dust jacket as a "cryptohacker", a profession of which I was previously unaware but which strikes me more and more as a glorious and remarkable career choice. As a result of this recent cerebral input I find myself wanting desperately to emulate Neal Stephenson's brilliant and inimitable writing style. If such feeble attempts creep into my own hasty scrawlings (another outdated metaphor) in a few places, I hope my readers can forgive me this little foible, knowing that it will soon pass.

Remaining on the subject of Cryptonomicon for a few paragraphs is worthwhile and relevant to the purpose of this communication. First of all, Randy the cryptohacker has made me aware of the intriguing similarity between hackers and divers. (By divers I refer to scuba divers, and not to the Olympic sort to which those inclined to watch television may have been exposed recently. It has always seemed perfectly natural, if somewhat unfortunate, that these two activities should have the same name, but it was recently brought to my attention by my Venezuelan roommate that it is not natural, is in fact quite strange, and is not the case in other languages. Here I would like to employ the Spanish metaphor which she used to describe her confusion: "No tienen nada que ver!" i.e., they have nothing to do with each other.)

Divers of the scuba sort, Randy has asserted, are not unlike physically fit and active hackers. For the full explanation I will refer the reader to the novel to which I have thus far made continuous reference. In short, both professions involve deep and intuitive understanding of a body of knowledge that is generally inaccessible to the general public. I have always had an abiding respect for divers--not the recreational sort, nor even the research sort, until these reach a certain degree of hardcore-ness, but the intrinsically hardcore and competent commercial sort of divers. A good commercial diver is, in my opinion, the ultimate badass, and a career to which, in certain moments which I share with all the young males described in another Neal Stephenson book, I have aspired.

These aspirations have been brief. Much more consistently, I aspire to be a hardcore and competent research diver. Consequently I try to dive whenever and wherever possible.

This rambling is all coming around to the point of telling another travel story. So, of course, I brought my dive kit to Bermuda. (I use "kit" here in the English sense, due to the influence of an English girl with whom I spent yesterday at the beach, because the novelty appeals to me. Also it is a distinctly more pleasing word, auditorily, than the grinding "gear".) There was no diving involved in our course, but the biostation (Bermuda Biological Station for Research) divemaster organized a recreational trip for those of us who were anxious to dive while we were here. Unfortunately this dive was scheduled for the weekend immediately after the incident with the Knee and the Stitches. It is possible that a truly hardcore diver would have disregarded the Stitches as a trivial complication, but it is also possible that such a diver would be wise enough not to risk anything. At any rate, I didn't go diving.

Thus, I expected to have brought my dive gear all the way to the middle of the Sargasso Sea for nothing. Such was my thinking up to the day of our final presentations for class, which occurred in the morning and went extremely well. After these presentations, as I sat in the computer lab working on the paper which was due the next day, a girl in the class named Courtney came in and asked to borrow my dive kit. Moments later, she realized I could probably dive by now, and asked if I wished instead to use my own kit and join the small dive group.

With little hesitation, I abandoned my writing for the much more urgent responsibility of experiencing a dive in Bermuda. Courtney managed to borrow some gear from other members of the course, and off we went, along with two others.

The dive was magnificent. It was without question the warmest dive in which I have ever participated. Diving in California, I'm used to being cold at the end of a dive. Often not painfully or even uncomfortably so, but I do have a very strong association between diving and cold. But I was not cold at the end of this dive. I was not even cool. We spent nearly an hour in the water, during which I wore only a swimsuit and board shorts (and, of course, my dive kit), and I emerged not one noticeable iota colder than when I entered.

And that was the least of the marvels. We had rented the tanks and weights from a small dive shop in a hotel that was right on the beach, and then simply walked into the surf. We sank and swam out along a pipe that was supposed to take us to a wreck. We never found the wreck, but none of us cared--we were on the reef and that was what mattered. The reef was absolutely crowded (New-York-crowded, or London-crowded) with creatures. Soft corals, hard corals, gorgonians, anemones, and tube worms jostled each other, and those are just the sedentary things.

There were fish--such fish! Big and bright, they were nibbling at things and flirting with each other without caring about our presence in the least. There were bluehead wrasse--tons of them. There's no point in listing all the other fish we saw, because there is no way it could convey the gloriousness of it all.

Probably the neatest part of the whole dive was the quasi-caves. About half an hour into the dive, I saw an opening under the wall of coral we were looking at, with plenty of room to swim through. It less a cave than an arch, because I could see the sunlight filtering down from the surface right on the other side, so I decided it was harmless and kicked through it. The others followed, and we spent the next few minutes exploring this extremely porous bit of the reef. It was beautiful.

This dive occurred at Elbow Bay, one of the numerous, and famous, South Beaches. Around the north shore, where the biostation is, the beaches tend to be small and rocky. The South Beaches are classic postcard beaches. I don't often wish for sunglasses, but I did the first time I went to a South Beach (Horseshoe Bay) and the expanses of pink-white sand glared right back into my eyes everywhere I looked. I spent most of that day with my eyes fully closed, slitting one eye carefully open every now and then to imprint the truly impressive scenery in my memory. The water is like that of a swimming pool in clarity and temperature, with the added benefit (?) of being incredibly salty.

To leap without proper transition back to one more mention of Cryptonomicon: it is indicative of just how busy I have been for the past month that I am only on page 609 of the 910 pages of this, the only pleasure reading I brought along with me.

And what have I been doing to keep me so astonishingly busy, you may well ask. Well, I have been participating fully in a course on the Behavior of Coral Reef Animals. The classwork was more or less minimal, but the research project which I undertook along with two lab partners, Rebecca and Nancee, was of broad enough scope that had we accomplished all that we aspired to, we would have had results worthy of publishing in Nature or Science.

Of course, in addition to being known as a nerdy, responsible, good artist, I also gained a reputation over the course of the last few weeks as being an incurable optimist, bordering on annoyingly happy, especially at hours of the morning when many people are rendered civil only by the consumption of large quantities of caffeine. So I may be slightly overestimating the importance of our research.

But it was a truly fascinating question, and the last time someone studied, and found evidence for, observational learning in cephalopods, the paper made Science.

To rewind slightly. Observational learning is a specific type of learning which is essentially learning by watching--if you think about it, a lot of the things you've learned have been learned this way. In a strict experimental setup, observational learning is studied by first having a given subject learn a task, perhaps a simple association. Another subject then observes this task being performed by the first subject, and if the observer is then able to perform the task significantly better than a naive subject, this is evidence for observational learning.

It stands to reason that an ability to learn by observation would be most useful in social animals--animals which regular associate with other members of their same species, particular in mixed age groups. This is what happens in human societies--young individuals learn tasks by observing them being performed by older individuals. So, the Science paper I mentioned before showed observational learning in octopuses, but aside from being controversial in its methodology, the results seem dubious to some because octopuses are generally solitary creatures, so what good is it to them to be able to learn from each other?

But what about social cephalopods that regularly aggregate in groups, like squids and cuttlefish? The question has been asked, but no one has answered it yet. We tried.

Our subject was the Caribbean Reef Squid, as I may have mentioned before. Anyway, there's no need to get into the details of the whole experiment, but in short everything took much longer than we thought it would (a cardinal rule of science--and of pretty much everything else) and we didn't get very far with it. But the question is still so exciting to us that Nancee and I spent some time plotting to resume the experiment at some unspecified future point, when we will have unlimited time and resources. Details are still vague.

So, we had to write up a report and present a presentation on all this, which was lots of fun but also quite stressful and quite a lot of work. And of course, at the same time, the class all realized that we were leaving each other in a few days and wanted to spend as much time together in social situations as possible, so we were often up past the wee hours of the morning pursuing the double agenda of accomplishing work and hanging out.

And that is why I am now exhausted out of my mind, and why I will now end this journal with acknowledgments, as I've been far too conditioned by writing scientific papers. Thanks are due to my parents, who out of the supreme generosity of their hearts loaned me survival money until I get back to the paychecks waiting for me in Santa Barbara, also to the friends who drove me to the airport and who will pick me up. Lots of warm and fuzzy feelings remain in my heart for all the wonderful, funny, fantastic people I met in Bermuda, who were really the ones to make the trip what it was.

I am now going to pass out for a couple of days, before packing all my worldly possessions and moving.

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