Saturday, January 19, 2013

Karenia brevis Red Tide Doesn't Kid Around

When I saw the swell forecast last week I couldn't believe it- "4 foot waves with a 9 second period? That NEVER happens on the Gulf side of Florida!" But strong Northwest winds on the other side of the Gulf had indeed pushed a rare swell in our direction. There was no question in my mind that I was going to be ON it when it came.

The day arrived, I strapped the WindSUP 11'8" to the roof-rack, and headed down to Wiggins Pass State Park. At the entrance they had a little note posted- "Red Tide: Dead Fish on Beach." They were still letting people into the park, though, so I figured it couldn't be too bad.

The water didn't look red to me, but I did notice an awesome (by Gulf Coast standards) swell peeling along the sandbar. The too-good-to-be-true forecast was really happening! I opted to paddle rather than sail the WindSUP because the wind was ultra light and offshore.

Out in the break there were a few dead mullet floating around- not the most encouraging sign. The single-celled dinoflagellate alga that causes most red tides in Florida, Karenia brevis, contains a neurotoxin that poisons the fish when they ingest it. The poison can also be released into the water when the algal cells die, and waves or wind can froth the poison into the air. The airborne toxins can cause coughing, sore throat, burning eyes, congestion, and asthma-like symptoms in people.

There was one other SUP guy out there who seemed to be doing alright, so I didn't worry. The waves were FUN, and I finally felt like I was using the WindSUP to it's full potential. It caught the waves easily, went down the line with speed and stability, and even turned if I told it to. In the video it looks like I'm riding barely-there waves, but they were actually about waist high on average.

SUP Session in Smooth Waves at Wiggins Pass from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Unfortunately, I didn't completely escape the effects of the red tide. It made me cough and feel congested- like mild asthma and hayfever. When I got home I had a headache and a sore throat that hasn't gone away. I had been hoping to get out on the water some more this weekend but unless the red tide condition changes I don't think I should. Checking the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Red Tide Website was disheartening, as it showed the toxic algal bloom currently covering most of the SW coast of Florida.


Apparently, blooms have been known to last as long as a YEAR. Ugh.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Survived a Semester of Professing

My first semester as an assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University was busy (it’s now the second semester and I’m just getting a chance to blog about the first), but it went pretty well. The classes I taught were:

Marine Ecology- An upper level undergraduate elective with 31 students. This was my big lecture course, and the one that required the most preparation and grading. It was fun getting immersed in marine biology topics that I had always loved but which hadn’t been part of my own research. I spent late nights making slide presentations and writing test questions about deep sea hydrothermal vents, whales, coral reefs, sharks, sea turtles, barnacle sexual behavior, etc. My students were mostly junior and senior environmental science or marine science majors. There was a wide range in their readiness for the class, but they all managed to pass with at least a C. One weird-but-good teaching technique that I got from another FGCU professor was to give the students a lot of hard study questions with no answer key, but to select their test questions from the pool of study questions.

The best part of the semester was when we took a snorkeling field trip to the Florida Keys Marine Lab in early November. We spent all day on the boat, visiting some shallow nearshore habitats, and a nearly-pristine offshore reef with water as clear as the sky. A photography student, Samantha Oliver, came with us and took a lot of cool pictures:

Current Topics: Seagrass Ecology- The other two classes I taught were short “discussion” courses, where the students had to read a scientific paper about seagrass each week and then we would talk about it. One of the two classes was a graduate course with two students, and the other was an undergraduate course with 18 students. The grad student course pretty much taught itself, but I kind of struggled to get some of the undergraduates motivated. In the undergrads’ defense, they hadn’t known what the course was going to be about when they registered because it was just listed as “Current Topics: Biology, Instructor: Staff” and they assigned me to it at the last minute. If that happens again I’ll be loose with the topic and not try to stick with just seagrass.

Besides the courses I taught, I also sat in on a rigorous computer mapping (GIS) class taught by another professor in the Marine and Ecological Sciences department. That was to better qualify myself for research funding in the form of government contracts for seagrass monitoring. Environmental monitoring contracts typically require maps and spatially-explicit data analyses among their “deliverables.” It was good that I took the class, because I now have a grant now to do a year’s worth of seagrass monitoring in the Caloosahatchee River Estuary, and I’ve recruited some of the hotshot snorkelers from my Marine Ecology class to help with that. The project is related to something called the “Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan,” which aims to improve the health of estuaries and wetlands by restoring more natural patterns of freshwater flow from central Florida to the everglades.

There’s a lot more that happened in my first semester, too, but I don’t want to go on and on about it in my blog. My strategy for blogging this year will be to have more frequent but shorter / sloppier posts about whatever is on my mind at the moment.

Happy New Year.