Wondrous Winter Wildlife in Essex

As my “Big Idea” for my ocean acidification blog post is still under construction, and I haven’t really done a local wildlife post in a while, I thought now might be a good time to write about the winter critters I’ve been spotting over the last few months. I mentioned in a previous blog post that we associate winter with a lack of life, a time where plants die, small animals hibernate and many birds migrate to much warmer climates. There is still plenty around though, even some new additions only seen in the winter time.

It might be difficult to believe, but some birds do actually migrate to the UK during the winter. These are birds that breed in places like Iceland and Norway, so come winter time, England seems like a nice place to visit for a beach holiday. Many of these are wading birds, and as it happens, Essex is a good place to spot these migrants. The Colne River offers the perfect array of habitats for waders; there are plentiful mudflats, brackish rivers and lagoons, and a vast selection of salt marshes. I’m lucky enough to live about 300m away from a tidal part of the river, and as such have been treated to rotating cast of local wildlife.

Common redshank (Tringus totanus)

The first guys to show up from around November onwards were these bright-legged chaps, common redshanks (Tringa totanus). Redshanks are medium sized waders, easily identified by their bright orangey-red legs and bill. Interestingly, these guys are resident in Essex all year round, but normally live on salt marshes. During the winter, they move inwards and are more frequently seen further up the estuary. They appeared in quite large numbers, sometimes there are groups of up to 10 of them all wading through the gooey mud.

Black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa)

A month later, a pair of black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa) turned up. Godwits are distinctive-looking waders that are easily told apart from shanks and sandpipers. They have long, straight bills, long legs, and a somewhat elongated neck. Two kinds of godwit occur in Europe, the black-tailed and the bar-tailed, and they are easily distinguished when in flight. The bar-tailed (as you might have guessed) has a striped tail, while the black-tailed, with its solid colouration, has a more “pied” appearance. There is a breeding population in East Anglia, but most godwits are winter visitors, and I think these definitely are. Over the last month or so, more of them turned up, and they got much more used to people so I have been able to get some good shots of them.

Other waders that I’ve noticed arriving since the winter months rolled in have included common sandpipers, some dunlins and a grey plover. I have been unable to get any (decent) photographs of these, but I am hoping I can snap them before they return to their breeding grounds.

I’ve also had a “stay-at-home” wader who seemed not to care when the weather turned nippy. This is my friend the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), who first appeared on the river this summer, and appears to now have gathered some friends. Last week, I saw 4 lapwings on the river at once, which was quite a pleasant surprise. Lapwings are beautiful waders, and very distinct with their flicked up crest, dark eye mask, and greenish-purple feathers – it is impossible to mistake them for anything else. Their call is also somewhat unique, a squeaky “pee-wit!”, which happens to be another name for this bird. Seeing the lapwing on the river will always make me smile.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

In addition to these, a non-wader also turned up on the river this winter. It is a member of a much overlooked group of birds – the ducks. I feel sorry for ducks. Because of the extremely widespread mallard, most people pass over ducks as “common”. In fact, I’m sure most people only think of a mallard when they think of ducks, and don’t realise the level of diversity that exists in the group. I feel sorry for mallards in particular. I wish they weren’t so common, because they are gorgeous animals. The beautiful shimmering emerald of the male’s head, with the brilliant blue wing patch, the sunny yellow bill and that little curled tail – this description for any other bird would have us conjure up an image of something very exotic. That’s why I was excited when this particular duck turned up, as I think it rivals the colours of the mallard.

Male Eurasian teal (Anas crecca)

This is the male Eurasian teal (Anas crecca), and I hope you can see why I was perhaps a little too happy when it turned up on the river just a couple of weeks ago. The identifying feature is of course the blue-green patch over the eye (incidentally, it’s where we get the name for the colour “teal”) bordered by cream on the chestnut head. Without the right lighting, the head appears much darker than in the photo. They are tiny little ducks, smaller even than the black-headed gulls that are always roaming the mudflats on the river. It’s actually the smallest dabbling duck commonly found in Europe.

Male and female teal

Teals can actually be found in the UK during any season, but in the winter populations from areas like Siberia migrate over here so they are seen much more often at this time of year. I was surprised to find them on the river as I’ve never seen one around here, and in the last few weeks the number of teals has gone from one pair to about fifteen. I guess there’s something in the water here.

While we’re on the topic of ducks, I would like to continue showing you that there is life beyond the mallard. Check out this handsome fellow who came and visited with his mate on the weekend.

Male and female tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula)

These are tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula), which, like the teals, are here all year round, but their numbers are bumped up in the winter by migrants from colder climes. I’ve actually seen tufted ducks here all through last year, so it seems that we have a few residents. I’ve cheated a little with these guys because I don’t see them on the river, they appear only on the pond behind my block of flats, or the lake on the university campus (but both of those are about 10 minutes from the river so… it counts). They’re medium-sized ducks, smaller than a mallard, but mallards are actually fairly large ducks (we just think of them as normal-sized ducks because they’re the most common). The males are quite elegant-looking, sporting a very smart black and white get up, golden eyes, and that nifty little head tuft. So, there you go, ducks can be very interesting, too.

Portrait of a male tufted duck

I would carry on with a section about the songbirds that either stay behind or come and visit through the winter, but I think I’ve rambled on about birds long enough. I need to save some material for future posts as well, anyway. I encourage you to look for the wildlife that comes and goes with winter in your own local patch, I guarantee you’ll find more than you expect. And, of course, spring is fast approaching! I saw a bumblebee on Saturday so it’s officially on its way. Keep an eye out for emerging butterflies, queen bees looking for new nests and the return of summer birds like swallows and meadow pipits. Happy spotting!

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Award Winning Blog

So maybe you’ve been reading this blog, and thinking, “Sure, this is great and all, but it’s not exactly an award-winning blog is it? I only think things are good when someone else can reaffirm that belief for me.” Well, reaffirm this! In the last week I have won not just one, but two awards. That’s right, this is now Phytoplanktonic, double award-winning blog.

Okay, so they’re not awards in the technical sense of the word, but I think they’re better than that. It’s a little thing that gets passed around blog to blog so that you ultimately share other cool blogs with your readership and give them a little bit of the recognition they deserve.

So my first duty as award-winner is supposed to be to thank the person who gave me the award. I have two people to thank, so here goes.

First I would like to thank Sarah over at Moral Coral. Sarah is a good friend of mine, and someone I’ve known for a while. We studied our undergraduate degrees together, and after going to different places for our Masters, ended up back in the same department doing our PhD’s. Like me, she blogs about the life of a PhD student, and writes about environmental issues she cares about too. She writes very informative posts, and will often pepper them with her own lovely photographs. Her project is about coral reefs, so if you’re into tropical biology (and who isn’t?), head on over and give her a read!

Secondly, I thank the ever delightful Sandra at Island Monkeys. Again, Sandra is someone I have studied with, though the complete inverse to the way I studied with Sarah – we did our Masters together. Though it was a one year course, it was one hell of an intense year and we all became very good friends! Sandra writes about her experience as a German living in the UK, and as someone who also grew up somewhere that wasn’t Britain, it’s a very entertaining read! Her writing style is hilarious, I guarantee you’ll have a laugh, so go and visit her blog too!

So that’s that checked off the to-do list. The next thing I have to do, according to the award Sandra gave me, is reveal 7 interesting facts about myself. I worried about this, as I’m not sure there are 7 interesting things about me. I will give it my best shot though.

1. I have 3 nationalities. And I mean real, official, could-own-3-passports-if-I-was-so-inclined citizenships. They are British, Canadian and Italian.

2. I used to compete in athletics, and won a bronze medal for Suffolk in a pentathlon.

3. I very nearly did an Illustration degree at university instead of Marine Biology. I decided in the end that I’d wanted to be a marine biologist for way too long, and that it’s easier to be a biologist and an artist on the side, than it is the other way around.

4. I spent my childhood in Canada, and moved to the UK when I was 13. As a result, I say words like “sidewalk”, “parking lot” and “hydro bill”. Most people just smile politely at me and nod.

5. I really love cooking. I find it’s a lot like painting, except instead of mixing colours, you mix flavours. And you get to eat the final piece. Well, I guess you could eat an oil painting, but I don’t think it would be quite as satisfying. Or good for your health.

6. I am quite possibly the clumsiest person I know.  My boyfriend tells me he always knows where I am in the flat, even if he can’t see me, because he can constantly hear this: thud, OW, bang, AHHH, crash, OH GOD. This is why anyone who has known me for an extended period of time is concerned that I use radioactive materials in my experiments.

7. I’m left-handed. That’s not quite a weird or wonderful fact, but it’s rare enough. Also, I did say I couldn’t think of 7 interesting things about me. But there you go, I’m a lefty. It means I often have difficulty operating public computers (I have a left-handed mouse at home), scissors, can openers, university lecture hall chairs and other things that were thoughtlessly designed only for the right-handed community.

The only thing that remains is for me to pass on my virtual baton by bestowing this award on to others. This is where it gets confusing, because Sarah gave me the Liebster Blog Award, and Sandra honoured me with the “One Lovely Blog” award. So what I’ll do is just list 5 nature/science themed blogs that I follow and enjoy, and let them decide if they want to pass it on.

Elsa Naumann Photography – Another good friend from my studies, Elsa studied her BSc and Masters with me. She is a fantastic photographer, and you should check out her blog and Flickr account to see her work. Definitely one to follow, you won’t be disappointed!

Words in mOcean – Apart from having the best name for a marine-themed blog, Words in mOcean offers both informative articles about science, and humorous reflections of the life and times of a marine scientist.

Naturally Curious with Mary Holland – A fantastic photographic blog about nature and wildlife, specifically the things Mary finds in her home of New England. The posts are always informative with lovely photographs to go with it! A really great read for any nature lovers.

Pipettes and Paintbrushes – A blog all about the life of a PhD student (in marine science, surprisingly!) studying at the University of East Anglia. She has a great deal of entries that really focus on the personal side of PhD life, which really hit home if you’re in the same situation. They are brilliantly written, and are quite creative!

Seasons Flow – A blog tracking the changes in wildlife (particularly bird life) with the seasons in a little corner of Ohio. Always thoughtfully written, and full of beautiful photos too. This is another good read for nature lovers, and something that always reminds me to think about how my local wildlife changes over the year.

So, there you go. That’s not an exhaustive list, of course, but I do particularly enjoy reading them, and hope you will enjoy it now too. Please note I also highly recommend Sarah and Sandra’s blog!

I guess that’s my duties as award-winner over and done with. I am currently working on a bigger blog post, one about ocean acidification with lots of illustrations, so I will be back next week hopefully. Until then, revel in the wonders of the world around you and all that.

2012: A Year of Adventure

It’s been so long since I posted anything that it’s a new year now. I got a little caught up with my work and ended up being too busy to blog for a bit. However, as it’s a new year, I thought I’d try and pump some life back into this thing.

It’s odd that we associate new resolutions with this time of year, the middle of winter. My walks to campus are stark. The trees are just bare, twisted skeletons in silhouette against a bleak sky. The spectrum of colours that comes in the form of wildflowers, butterflies, ladybugs, dragonflies, and summer birds has since faded away in favour of dull greys, greens and browns. Daylight is fleeting, and walks home are brisk. It seems counter-intuitive that we choose this time of year to make new beginnings. But winter can be a reminder of life’s incredible ability to persist. There is still life, animals that stay behind during the cold months and endure the foul weather. Just last week, I came across a patch of snow drops, beautiful little white flowers that dangle from their stems like delicate porcelain lanterns. They are among the first flowers to emerge from the ground, and after months of bare trees, they are a joyous find.

Perhaps then winter is more a time of hope. The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, but it was once a day of celebration as it meant that from there onwards, the days could only get longer. January is a month of looking ahead with anticipation – not just waiting for the sun to warm the ground and entice everything back to life, but at everything we have planned for the year. I definitely have a lot of things planned for 2012.

The two biggest events this year for me are my final two research cruises. This summer I am heading out into the Arctic Circle, getting as far north as Svalbard and finishing in Reykjavik, Iceland. The cruise is an exciting opportunity in so many ways. I am hoping to collect some interesting data, but to also see a lot of amazing wildlife. The Arctic is an incredibly productive place in the summer, so I’m expecting whales galore, and will be disappointed if I don’t see a polar bear. The next cruise is at the (literal) other end of the world, in the Southern Ocean (the ocean around Antarctica). That one involves an epic journey to the Falkland Islands, which I will probably write about closer to the time when I know more details. Once again, I’m hoping for a lot of interesting wildlife!

In between these two cruises, I will be attending my first international conference in Monterey Bay, California. I am fairly nervous about that. I have given presentations before, but not on such a grand scale. The first time I presented results from my PhD was at a departmental seminar, and I was overcome with nerves. I am a bit of a shy person who tries their very best not to attract large amounts of attention to themselves, and so the situation created by giving a presentation is one I usually try to avoid. I enjoy sharing science, but I hate having so many people paying attention to me all at once. So, I began presenting my data, and suddenly doubt crept in. A little voice started talking inside my head, parallel to the words that were coming out of my mouth. “What are you doing? Why did you just say that? Are you even paying attention to what you’re saying? Stop listening to me!!” When the presentation was over, it was opened up to the floor for questions. Someone asked me something, something that I knew the answer to. I could picture the table in the paper that I wanted to refer to. But somehow, the words that coalesced so easily into sentences in my brain got lost somewhere on their way to my mouth. But I was not so lucky as to be completely lost for words. No, silence would have been much better than what actually happened. I opened my mouth, and sound came out. “Uhhh… yeah, wuh…. I duh… ummm… I….” The little voice in my head piped up once again. “What the hell are you doing? Make a sentence. Okay, make a word at least. What… what are you doing? You know what you want to say. Oh my god, just STOP MAKING NOISE.”

Mercifully, the guy tried rephrasing the question, and I used the opportunity to reorganise my brain and actually form something coherent. Once he was done buying me some time, the words just fell from my mouth in a thankfully somewhat intelligent fashion. Then the whole thing was over and I was allowed to slip back into the audience, and anonymity. Now, this whole ordeal is fine in front of 30 or so people that you know (“fine” used very loosely here). Picture me doing this in front of several hundred people, many of which are leading experts in my field. That is the fear that paralyses me when I start thinking of the abstract to submit. 2012 is going to be about breaking through that. And possibly embarrassing myself on an international scale.

This time next year I will just be finishing the Antarctic cruise, and will begin the arduous home stretch that is thesis writing. The ability to write up relies on the data I can get out of my field trips and intervening lab work during the next 12 months. I just terrified myself with that thought. So, yup, 2012 is going to be an important year for me.

I would also like to use my blog to communicate science more this year, perhaps starting with an explanation of ocean acidification or phytoplankton. If anyone has any suggestions for an blog topic, then do leave them in the comments!

So, I guess this isn’t really an insightful blog entry, more just me saying “I will start blogging again now!” Watch this space.

I leave you with a baby seal for no particular reason.

The Secret World of Sea Ice

With the premier of the BBC’s new documentary series Frozen Planet having aired earlier this week, I wanted to hijack some of the buzz around the polar regions of our planet to make a blog post I’ve been planning on writing for a while now.

This all starts with my boyfriend’s subscription to The Economist. In one of the magazines he was sent a few weeks ago, there was an article about melting sea ice in the Arctic that he pointed out to me. If you would like to read it, you can find it online here. The gist of the article is that sea ice is melting a lot faster than models have predicted, and it puts forward a few reasons for this. While that is interesting and important in tackling the overall issue, that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

The photo used in The Economist's article "Beating a Retreat". The polar bear has become the poster child for climate change.

The picture they’ve used, and what has really become the emblem for global climate change, is a polar bear. These animals are quite vulnerable when it comes to a warming planet as they need sea ice to hunt. The thing about the Arctic is that underneath the ice, there isn’t actually any land there. It is just a giant piece of ice floating on top of the planet. So if there is less sea ice, there is less territory for the polar bears to hunt over winter. This probably goes a long way to explaining why more polar bears have been reported near built up areas in the tundras of Canada, they’ve been pushed south because they just can’t go north any more.

So you might think that on the other end of the Earth, in the Antarctic, melting sea ice is less of a problem because there is a land mass underneath the ice. Well, out there sea ice still extends out over the water, and while there are no polar bears there, other animals still live on and under it. However, the melting of it has much more dire consequences to the food webs and ecosystems of the poles than most people realise. Sea ice supports a much more crucial group of organisms, one that would cause the whole system to collapse if it disappeared. I’ll give you one guess as to what that is. There’s a hint in the title of this blog. Yes, of course, it’s phytoplankton!

The bottom of Antarctic sea ice, stained green from the algae living inside it. Photo by Chris Fritsen, retrieved from The Antarctic Sun (antarcticsun.usap.gov)

If you watched the first episode of The Frozen Planet, you may have noticed that in the shots where they are diving under the ice, everything has a green tinge to it. The reason for this is plankton. Polar phytoplankton are unique in that they spend a part of their life cycle living inside the ice. This is made possible through the weird and unique properties of sea ice. The water molecules in seawater freeze and form ice crystals and leave empty pockets, where the salt accumulates and forms what are called brine channels. These form tiny networks of tunnels that allow phytoplankton, zooplankton and bacteria to live inside it during the winter months and form their own microscopic ecosystem within it.

Sea ice food web

The microbial food web hidden away inside sea ice. Phytoplankton photosynthesise, and are eaten by zooplankton. Bacteria decompose both groups, and provide nutrients algae need to carry on photosynthesising.

This is vital for so many reasons. First of all, it means that when the annual sea ice melt occurs in spring, it causes a huge phytoplankton bloom as they are all released back into the open water. In turn, that causes a subsequent zooplankton bloom, which then goes on to feed animals like fish and squid, which in turn feed whales, seals, birds…. you can see where I’m going with this. The problem is that with warmer temperatures, the sea ice receeds further back every summer, and less ice is formed at winter. Less sea ice means less algae packed away in it, and therefore a much smaller bloom in the springtime.

In the Antarctic, this has sever implications for what is arguably the keystone species of the Southern Ocean, Euphausia superba: Antarctic krill. I’m sure most people have at least some idea as to what krill is, but in case you don’t, they are tiny shrimp-like animals, which are quite famous for being the sole item on the menu for the world’s biggest animal, the blue whale. In Antarctica, they support most of the food web by allowing the transfer of energy between the primary producers locked away in the ice (the photosynthesising phytoplankton) and the the higher animals living out in the open water. The key fact here is that krill and their offspring spend the winter months under the sea ice that projects out from the land, and they do so in huge swarms. There is only one way they can survive the winter, and that is by munching on the sea ice algae. They literally scrape the underside of the ice with specialised appendages and dine on the microscopic plankton. Once the sea ice melts, the krill move back out into open waters and support most of the Southern Ocean foodweb.

A simplified diagram of the Antarctic food web, showing the importance of krill

Some published studies have shown that in years when the extent of the sea ice (i.e. how far it extends from the land out into the sea) has been quite low, krill stocks have suffered.  Not only do they have a smaller refuge for the winter and less food to keep them going, but there is a smaller plankton bloom, as mentioned. Krill get out-competed when food is scarce by another kind of invertebrate, the salps. Salps are pretty much just tubes of jelly that float through the water filtering out any plankton they can get, and are very good at getting lots of food when there is little of it around. Krill by comparison are quite picky, and feed by sort of plucking things out of the water column, so are less effective when food is scarce. Salps are also very good at growing, much faster than pretty much any multi-cellular animal because they can reproduce asexually (basically clone themselves). They can form huge colonies by doing this, ensuring they filter as much food out of the sea as possible. Because the formation of sea ice over the winter months has been dropping in the last 50-100 years, salps have gradually been taking over from krill as the dominant grazers in the Southern Ocean.

Salpa thompsoni, a kind of salp found in the Southern Ocean. Usually, many of these individuals join together to form a colony. Photo by Laurence Madin, retrieved from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute website (whoi.edu)

So, this is good news for salps, but bad news for pretty much everything else. As far as nutrition goes, salps are kind of nothing. As I said, they are not much more than gelatinous tubes and have little nutritional value to most things. Nothing really eats them, so if they succeed in taking over krill as the main grazer in the Southern Ocean, the food web is likely to collapse. Many of the species we find only in Antarctica might vanish, and other migratory species would desperately need to find new grounds. Southern humpback whales, for example, return to the Antarctic after breeding in the unproductive waters of the equator to start feeding again and pile on their fat reserves. If there is no krill to support the fish they eat, they will have to rapidly find another option. Krill themselves are of commercial importance to humans too, fished in hudreds of thousands of tonnes each year for use as food in aquaculture.

There is, however, a flip side to this. Salps produce very heavy faecal pellets that sink to the depths quite rapidly, and when the animal itself becomes clogged up with plankton, it sinks too. This means salps export a lot of carbon to the deep ocean, a carbon sink, which prevents excess CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. So there is potentially a feedback system there, and salps could actually help to slow down warming a little and restore the formation of sea ice. The only problem is it could well come at the cost of the incredible diversity of Antarctica.

So there you have it, that’s why sea ice is important. Not only do animals need it to live on, but they rely on the growth of the organisms that live in it. I’m very hopeful that The Frozen Planet will introduce people to the beauty of our polar regions and show them just how much it’s worth saving. I feel I must also mention that the polar regions are the areas most vulnerable to ocean acidification at the moment, and will probably start to become “acidified” as soon as the year 2030. This is something that will happen in our lifetimes. We really do need to do something about this now, while the damage is still relatively reversible. If we delay, we could witness the disappearance of a unique and beautiful ecosystem before we’ve really even had the chance to fully understand it.

Vitae GRADschool: The Journey to Lake Windermere

Yesterday, me and my friend Sarah made the long journey from a sunny Essex to the more remote Lake Windermere in the Lake District. This involved getting a train to Liverpool Street Station in London, hopping on two underground trains to make our way to Euston Station, whizzing off on an express train to a very rainy Preston, and from there heading out to Oxenholme (where ever that is) and, finally, to Windermere. We left at about 2:30pm, and didn’t make it to Windermere Station until gone 8pm. Needless to say, we were pretty tired by the time we got to our hotel.

The reason for all this running around the country on trains goes back a few months, when I received an email from NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), the funding body of my PhD, informing us of this course that was being run in October by Vitae called GRADschool, which aims to help PhD students make the most of their doctorate and become better researchers. Me and Sarah signed up and got accepted, and off we went yesterday in the hopes we would come back with new insight on our doctorates.

So far, I’ve already realised one thing: I absolutely love my PhD. Some people I’ve spoken to are very dejected about their research, and actually don’t even find their subject area interesting. Not only do I love my subject, but I like where my research is heading and I have big events coming up that I am looking forward to. I feel that my area of research is making a difference and is an incredibly important thing for the future of our oceans and our world. There is nothing else in the world I would rather do. That in itself is incredibly reaffirming, and actually even made me say, “I really really love plankton.”

So, for now I have to leave it at this. I have an early start tomorrow and want to be in the best shape possible. I will write another entry at the end of the course, and will include some photos! For now though, I’m just hoping I can get even more out of this course than I have already in less than 24 hours.

Keeping motivated on a PhD

I’ve been a bit lax with my blogging of late, though I’m fairly certain that since my readership consists of a handful of friends, one or two very nice random people and my dad, news of this has probably not yet reached major media outlets.  Truth be told, I’ve been a bit lax with a lot of aspects of my life in the last month or two, including my PhD.  I’ve suffered with something we were warned about at the start of my endeavour; a serious and chronic lack of motivation.  We were briefed beforehand that there will be moments when you feel lonely or fed up with work, and I just nodded along and thought, “Yeah, I’ve been doing this university thing for 4 years now, I think I know how to cope with this.” Oh, poor, naïve little me…

You see, I’ve come to realise (and what they didn’t tell us at the start) is that a PhD is a very selfish creature that enjoys being the centre of attention.  It demands all your time, all your attention, and makes you feel guilty for socialising, or enjoying yourself instead of catering to its every unreasonable whim.  It wakes you up in the middle of the night to gnaw on your brain and fill you with an anxiousness that isn’t directed at anything in particular, but just never goes away.  It constantly makes you question yourself, and wonder if you’re really good enough to be doing this.  Whenever you decide to have time away from work, you can still feel it there in the room, sitting in the dark corner behind you, silently staring at you.  Then it whispers, “Why aren’t you working?”

This kind of constant pressure can eventually lead you to resent your PhD, and you end up not caring about it anymore and just neglect it.  And just like that little house plant you bought at the start of the year and inevitably ended up forgetting to water, your enthusiasm starts to wither.  All the data you were working on goes untouched for a week, that literature review stalls and you end up just trying to rewrite one sentence over and over again.  The PhD has successfully drained you of all your motivation.

This makes the PhD a pretty poor parasite, since any parasite worth its weight in tape worms knows you need to keep your host alive in order to survive.  So to prevent the PhD itself from going belly up, you need to get back to work… but you can’t, since to get yourself back on course requires some amount of motivation, which, if you recall, you have been sucked dry of.  This makes you feel even worse, and takes away any scrap of enthusiasm or focus you may have reclaimed, and even less work gets done.  It’s a vicious, deadly circle.

It was at this point that I found out what the most valuable resources are when embarking on a PhD.  Forget textbooks, page dividers, post-it notes or any other kind of stationery that I’m sad to say makes me excited these days; the most important thing you need for surviving your PhD are people.  And I’m talking the kind of people you can always talk to, the kind who will always welcome your silly little problems, and go the distance with the bigger ones.  I have found these people to be the key to me getting back into working properly.

First there is my boyfriend.  My poor, poor boyfriend.  He has endured my stress-induced rages for a while now, but since starting the PhD, he also has to put up with regular “I don’t want to do this anymoooooore!” crying fits and my “I am not going to do any work ever again, I just can’t” bouts of lethargy (which can be worse than any amount of rage or crying).  He is always there to offer a hug and some comforting words, and most of all, will often just say, “Tell me everything.  Tell me everything that’s bothering you.”  And I’ll have a rant about someone stealing my filters, or how much I hate diatoms right now and hope they all die, or that I don’t feel like I’m good enough to be doing this PhD.  Usually, once I blow off whatever steam has built up, I feel a lot better.  If I’m upset because of confidence issues, he usually reassures me and makes me feel better about myself.  In all honesty, I have no idea why he’s still with me, apart from the fact that I cook food.  But I am so very glad he’s there, and don’t know what I’d do without him.

Another important person is my dad.  My dad has always been the kind of parent who really pushed me to challenge myself, and encouraged me to be ambitious (as opposed to forcing your child to be ambitious, a key distinction).  I’m pretty certain he’s the reason I got this far.  So if I ever doubt myself, or feel I can’t do this PhD thing, I know I can turn to dad for the world’s greatest pep talk.  He will remind me that, actually, I am pretty smart, and they wouldn’t have even offered me the PhD if they didn’t think that.  He will remind me that ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist, and that he was always impressed with how self-motivated and focused I was.  He will remind me that I’m doing the thing that is perfect for me, and that I can do this, and most importantly, that I know I can do it.  The great thing about dads is that they have to be your dad, forever.  It’s non-negotiable.  So I can cry and shout all I want and not wonder why he still wants to be my dad.  He is bound by a genetic contract.  Sorry, dad.  Sucka!

However, I think there was one crucial part of my getting back into a working habit.  One of the wonderful things to come from my PhD are my many and varied friends.  We have lunch together, and sometimes meet up when we don’t feel too guilty about not working.  You become close very quickly, which I think is some kind of survival technique that is triggered by the immense pressure you’re all under.  While I have friends I have known longer, and can of course talk to about a lot of things, your PhD friends are the ones that will understand your work-related stresses.  Everyone copes with it in different ways, and while it may seem that everyone else is just carrying on and apparently unfazed by the PhD, if you actually talk to them about it, you’ll find everyone feels the way you do.  In fact, you realise that everyone else thought they were the only ones having trouble as well because it looked like you were just getting on with it too.  It helps to put yourself into perspective, to see that you were just focussing on all the negatives without realising that you were actually doing a lot of work.  Most of all, you can help each other to stay motivated, even if it’s just a friendly, encouraging text in the morning.  Your PhD friends are invaluable, and a lifeline in terms of surviving the experience.  They are there to complain about lab work with, to moan about annual reports with, and to help you think of more expletives when using Excel.  They are also there to encourage you when you feel inadequate, make sure you don’t forget how to have a sense of humour, and help capitalise on any occasion to celebrate and have a few hours away from the PhD beast.  Without a doubt, my friends are what make sure I don’t just completely lose my sanity and throw my laptop out the window.

A PhD is incredibly overwhelming.  When I started, I had this constant feeling that I was moving into the deep end, but that when I got there, the pool just opened up into the ocean.  Nothing will prepare you for it fully.  But nothing will prepare you for the friendships that will come out of it, either.  Surrounding yourself with people you can trust and lean on in a time of need is by far the biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone considering starting their own PhD.  Be prepared for a bumpy emotional ride.  That parasite will always be feeding on your motivation, but your friends can make sure you always have some there.

Reflections on my first research cruise

Well, I quite successfully managed to forget to update you on the rest of my cruise. It got very hectic and busy, and I grew increasingly sleep deprived. As such, I had little time to write anything that wasn’t related to my work! It was a shame, for sure, but I can at least do a “reflections” entry now.

We made it to Liverpool on Saturday (9h July), a little ahead of schedule. After that, all that remained was to get off the boat, grab a taxi and get to the train station. Since then, I’ve been catching up on sleep, and with the friends and family I hadn’t seen for 5 weeks. I had an amazing experience, both personally and professionally. I was able to see things that not many people get to see. So, here is my list of things I will never forget, what I’m missing about life at sea, and what I missed the most while I was out there.

What I will miss:

  • Waking up somewhere new everyday. It was really cool to go to bed in the middle of the North Sea and wake up to find Norway outside the window.
  • Not having to cook. I didn’t have high expectations for the food, but the two chefs on board are amazing. And they put out quite the spread, you could have three cooked meals everyday if you wanted. I’ve actually had to forego some meals because there’s just been way too much. As the main cook at home, it’s been nice to have my meals already made for me everyday!
  • Warning signs everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I guess working on a ship comes with fairly high risk factor, so to diminish that, or at least tick some box on a health and safety form somewhere, they have put warning signs everywhere. Some of them are sensible, telling you areas you shouldn’t go in without a hard hat, for example. But others make me chuckle everytime I see them. My personal favourites are “Please do not leave the toaster unattended” and “To avoid scalding in the shower, please check temperature beforehand.” I’ll miss the laughter they bring to my day.
  • The beautiful scenery. Truly the British Isles are a stunning set of islands! To watch the sunrise over the Irish coast, or see the Shetland Islands through a haze of mist was an incredible opportunity. We saw interesting cliffs at Lulworth, where sedimentary rock had jutted out of the Earth at odd angles. And the sea in general can take on so many forms. Sometimes it was a brilliant oceanic blue with white frothy crests, or it could be bottle green. Sometimes it was steely grey, and off the Norwegian coast it was almost black. When we passed through a big coccolithophore bloom, it was turquoise. It always seemed to mesmerise me, when it was eerily flat as glass, or when the swell caused huge mountains of water to form. And the sunsets weren’t too bad either!
  • My feathered friends. We saw so many seabirds! Many of them are rarities from land, and truly sea-faring birds. Sometimes we only had a few, other times we had a whole flock of them, but always we had birds following us. The most incredible bird-related incident was off the Shetland Islands. We were up at 4am, and the water was as still as glass. Surrounding the boat were literally hundreds of birds, all sitting on the water, and in the background, through a haze of mist, was Foula island. It was surreal.

What I was missing the most:

  • Being able to talk to my friends and family. Five weeks is a long time to be cut off from the people you know and love! I very rarely had phone signal, and the internet connection can be very patchy sometimes. At times, I felt very lonely, purely because I wanted to talk to one of my friends, or my dad. I live with my boyfriend, so I’m used to seeing him, being in his company every day. It was tough because I missed his birthday, and our 3 year anniversary. I missed the first wedding in my group of friends from high school too. Yes, I think being out of contact with my friends and family was probably the hardest part, and they are what I miss the most!
  • Being able to run/ride my bike/walk more than about 10 meters. Five weeks is also a long time to be confined to one small area! Okay, the ship wasn’t exactly tiny, it’s 90m long, but compared to, you know, the world in general, it’s a pretty confined area. I just wanted to stretch my legs, run for more than 10m, go for a bike ride… Thankfully I’ve done all those things now! But that was something I missed quite a lot.
  • Seeing new/different faces. Everyone on the boat was very nice, and we all got along. But what I didn’t realise is quite how much your brain likes to see new and different faces. It’s an odd feeling, I don’t know if I can describe it. I mean, whenever a ferry passed by us, I’d get excited because of the thought that there were lots of people on it. Even the thought of going to Tesco seemed exciting because there are new people there, different people. The world seems like a pretty big place after being on that boat for so long!
  • Silence. Seriously. There was not a silent spot on the boat. In my own little cabin, I could hear winches whirring, engines humming, the walls creaking… there is always some kind of machinery going, or a fan is blowing, or the wind is howling. You get used to it after a while, but I was so looking forward to just lying in my room and hearing… nothing.
  • My own bed. Standard travel woe I think! The beds were fairly uncomfortable, mainly because they were small. I mean, I’m only 5ft 5in, and when I stretched out fully on my bed there was only another inch or two before my feet hit the wall. I can’t imagine how some of the taller people on the ship got to sleep. I guess I was also used to sleeping in a double bed with a very nice mattress under me. In fact, the reason we got the nicer mattress is because our old crappy one was giving me back problems, which came back for a brief period of time on the ship!
  • Not being up before the sun is. Apart from a few precious days, the latest I got up was 4am, and some days we had to be up at 2am. That was tough both physically and mentally, and after a while of sustaining that, I felt so ground down. My co-ordination, or what little co-ordination I have, left me, I became increasingly unable to focus on something, and I was always so sleepy! Needless to say, I have been sleeping in every day this week and it feels amazing. Even my normal 7am wake up time when I get back to work seems like a breeze compared to the hours I was doing on the boat.

That’s about it, really. I will have a photo entry soon, and an art entry as I drew quite a bit as well. I really feel like I should have more to say, but I think I’m still exhausted from the whole thing. It’s probably why I lost momentum on keeping the blog updated during the cruise.

I should wrap this up, so all that remains is for me to say I will be back soon with photos and drawings!