Updates from Day 24 on the R/V Alucia: Dinner and a conference in Havana

Hey everyone,

Today is our final full day on the R/V Alucia! We are currently steaming towards Florida on our way back from a brief visit to Havana, Cuba.

We arrived in Havana on the afternoon of the 22nd, cleared customs, and then went to shore (Havana Vieja – old Havana) for mojitos and dinner on a rooftop. It was neat to approach Havana with the Cuban scientists, many of whom had never had the experience of seeing their city from the water. We also met Fredy, Victor, Mayelin, and Viky for dinner and had a wonderful time reminiscing about our cruise while eating tostones, empanadillas, and ceviche! After dinner, we came back to the Alucia for the night. We laughed the entire boat ride from the customs back to the Alucia about a terrifying, yet hilarious event that took place earlier in the evening.

On Nov. 23rd/ American Thanksgiving, we went back to Havana Vieja in the morning to visit the permanent artisanal craft fair, to eat lunch, and to attend a small scientific conference in the afternoon. We wandered the lively and busy craft market and purchased a few gifts and momentos to remember our trip. Lunch was enjoyed outside, in the company of two street cats who decided to sit underneath our chairs. Andrew, Ashlee, and I ordered the Ropa vieja – a classic and delicious cuban dish.

After lunch, we headed to the conference venue.  The purpose of this conference was to share and review the scientific work that each of us conducted on the cruise and to teach other students within the masters and graduate programs in Cuba about our methods and techniques. We all enjoyed this experience and were happy to participate despite the lingering exhaustion from the past few weeks of busy field work! After the conclusion of the conference, we were forced to say goodbye to our Cuban family. I will truly miss living alongside of, dancing with, sharing meals with, singing with, working with, and diving with these fascinating and inspirational people. I hope to see them soon!

After the conference, we took the pilot boat back to the Alucia and then departed, leaving the glowing, mysterious, and romantic city of Havana in the distance. We also enjoyed the Alucia version of a Thanksgiving dinner (complete with homemade Pumpkin pie and whipped cream -thanks Mitch!) while watching a few movies in the crew mess.

Thanks for reading!


Updates from Day 23 on the R/V Alucia: Top 10 favorite moments of the cruise

Hey everyone,

As our cruise slowly draws to a close, I thought I would share my top 10 favorite moments with you. There were many more moments and feelings, but this list should give you a good idea!

  1. Learning from and working with brilliant, enthusiastic, and hardworking scientists.
  2. Standing off the side of the Northwind at sunset and speeding back to the Alucia.
  3. Salsa dancing lessons from Fredy, Lake, Mayelin, and Rolando.
  4. Dancing and singing with Amy in the lab during filtering.
  5. The ~35 hours that I spent underwater during this trip (including the priceless moments that I had with a shark and several grouper).
  6. Snorkeling through Acropora palmata fields.
  7. Baking chocolate chip cookies with Mitch in the Alucia kitchen.
  8. Watching birds from the bow of the ship with Tyler.
  9. Standing on the sun deck (top deck) and watching the sunrises and sunsets.
  10. Dancing in the moonlight and under the stars with new friends.

Thanks for reading!

Updates from Day 22 on the R/V Alucia: What happens when you’re clumsy at sea

Hey everyone,

We finished up our last day of “science” yesterday! We dove and conducted benthic surveys at two different reef sites and collected water samples. Colleen “DISCO’ed” (the best time yet) and Andrew assisted. Ashlee managed to conduct a 5 minute drift – it was supposed to be much longer, but due to a miscommunication with the ship, they had to cut it shorter.

Amy and I processed the samples after lunch, I entered data, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset at the bow of the Alucia as we started heading west on our way back to Havana, Cuba and then to the states.

We will spend the next two days transiting back to Havana. I foresee a lot of packing and organizing in my future.

Okay- enough general updates. I wanted to discuss my general clumsiness at sea!

During this trip, I have managed to 1) slide/fall down the “Hell” stairs (the second time that I went down them FYI), 2) trip up the main stairwell ~5x that leads up to our rooms, 3) fall out of my bed (from the top bunk) and sprain my ankle (thank goodness this happened on the last day of the cruise), 4) struggle to get on the zodiac (small inflatable diving boat) from the water (see accompanying facebook/instagram picture), and 5) step into the depressions on the aft deck that are used to strap down equipment.

I would say that I have pretty good sea legs, but for some reason, I have been rather clumsy on this cruise. I guess I should be grateful that nothing worse has happened and that I sprained my ankle on the last “science” day.

A special shout out to all the members of the crew who have 1) physically pulled me out of the water and onto the zodiac and have helped me board and get off of the Northwind and back onto the deck of the Alucia.

Thanks for reading!


Updates from Day 19 on the R/V Alucia: A big thank you to the Alucia crew!

Hey everyone,

We had a low key and relaxing day that was much needed after a steady stream of full “science-ing.”

We went snorkeling and saw stands of Acropora palmata, the beautiful Elkhorn coral. This coral was once widespread throughout the Caribbean, but is now rare to see because it was decimated by disease in the 1970s and has not really come back in most areas.

This afternoon, Amy, Maickel, Ashlee, and I dove to recover Ashlee’s hydrophones that she had deployed on one of our reef sites.

Ashlee suggested that I write a blog post to highlight all of the cryptic/ “unseen” help and support from the crew that we have had while working and living on the Alucia. If you think about it, the crew keeps the Alucia running like all of the cryptic and unseen chemicals, microbes, and sounds that we think contribute to the health and processes that occur on coral reefs.

The crew is comprised of two chefs, stewardesses and ship managers, engineers, deck hands, the bosun, diving safety officers, an IT/technical officer, navigation and safety officers, and a captain.

When I first boarded the Alucia, I had no idea that it took so many people (20) to keep a ship like this running. Each of their contributions to the cruise is unique and important: the chefs  cook and provide food for the 40 people on board at every single meal and do so even though we haven’t been able to replenish the food supply after the first two weeks of the cruise. And they cook delicious, nutritious, and satisfying food.

The stewardesses and ship managers assist guests and other crew members with keeping the births and common living spaces clean, delegating tasks, completing paperwork for the ship, and keeping everything organized.

The engineers keep the power on and the ship moving (in addition to many other things that I am unaware of), but they also fix plumbing and lighting problems. They spend most of their time

The deck hands take care of superficial ship maintenance, drive the diving boats, help carry and pass equipment, assist during diving operations, and even dive with us as safety divers when they are needed.

The bosun is an officer of the ship who is in charge of equipment, overseeing the other deckhands, and coordinating operations on deck.

The diving safety officers oversee all diving-related operations, help inspect and fix diving equipment, and enforce diving safety before, during, and after dives.

The IT/technical officer oversees internet usage on the boat and makes sure that the satellites and wifi are working so we can communicate with the outside world.

The navigation and safety officers are in charge of getting the ship to the correct locations, enforcing on-board ship safety, and keeping the boat in a safe position (especially in shallower areas close to the shelf and the coast).

The captain oversees all operations that take place on the ship and nothing happens without his approval.

I have enjoyed getting to know and work with these amazing and talented people over the course of this cruise. They have allowed us to conduct our science and access our reef sites. They have kept us safe, taught us about life on a ship, and made us laugh. A big thank you to the amazing crew of the R/V Alucia!

Thanks for reading!





Updates from Day 18 on the R/V Alucia

Hey everyone,

Yesterday, Nov. 17, was another jam-packed day!

Amy, Maickel, Amanda (coral diversity expert), and I dove twice in the morning and Amy and I collected water samples with the help of Suzelle, Vickie, and Mitch just before lunch.

After lunch, another group of scientists (including me) went on an expedition to the beautiful mangrove system to collect more water samples, test out the DISCO, and to snorkel. We had a great time navigating through the hauntingly beautiful and ethereally gloomy underwater mangrove environment. We saw a few birds, some jellyfish and anemones (that were classified as “creepy” by some of the people on the boat), small barracuda, cool sponges, and two spotted eagle rays! Andrew enjoyed stirring up the sediment and telling us about the hydrogen sulfide that was escaping from the anoxic (no oxygen) mud and Ashlee enjoyed watching bubbles form on the outside of seagrass underwater. No one enjoyed the smell of anoxic microbial metabolism.

We also searched for crocodiles the whole time, but sadly didn’t encounter any (although I am sure my mom is fine with this!). We had to keep telling Mitch that we were looking for crocodiles, not alligators, but after the 20th time, we compromised with him and decided to call these reptiles “crocogators”.

When we got back to the Alucia, I processed water samples for three hours, had dinner, and then played a few rounds of Tiki-toss (also known as ring toss) and corn hole out on the aft deck. We had fun and I definitely improved as time progressed!

No pictures today – I was informed by the IT officer on board that I have been uploading too many photos and sucking away all of the bandwidth from other people. You will just have to wait in suspense until I get back to the States so I can share all of the cool videos and pictures I have taken while on this cruise!

Thanks for reading!

Updates from Day 17 on the R/V Alucia: Popular cruise catch phrases

Hey everyone,

Checking in with you again from somewhere south of Cuba! I realize I haven’t quite filled you in on what we have been doing the past two days! Recently, our days have involved lots of diving, surveying, and water sampling (Surprise/ bet you didn’t see that coming!?!). We are trying to make the most of the last few working “Science” days (count: 3) that we have until we turn around and head back to the US.

Today, I wanted to record a couple of phrases, sayings, and cruise mottos that have become important, motivational, and funny to the science team and the crew of the Alucia over the past few weeks.

“This science ain’t gonna science itself!” – Phrase coined by Mitch (of the Alucia crew). Usually said as we are loading up the Northwind and/or zodiac with all of our diving and science gear or as we are preparing to jump into the water before a dive.

“The pool is open!” – Scuba Steve’s (Alucia diving officer) way to inform the divers that they can jump into the water and begin the dive.

“DIIISSSCCCCOOO!” – What I say whenever I see the instrument. Also what I say whenever I am carrying the instrument and anyone is in my way (what I really mean is “This thing is heavy and I need you to move!”).

“Where’s your passport, Tyler?” – Tyler Tamasi and I have this running joke of making each other search frantically for our passports at random moments in time. We are both terrified of losing them!

“I want it that way.” – Amy and I belted out this phrase (and sang it within the Backstreet Boys song it belongs to) and danced to it during lab work one day. We will never be the same. A true bonding moment between advisor and graduate student!

“You owe me a beer.” – Crew members say this to Science members when they find something wrong with a scientist’s dive gear set-up or when he/she forgets some piece of equipment on the Alucia and we have to turn back around.

“Where’s Avalon?” – Avalon is the local dive guide group. They have been diving with us frequently, but they have the tendency to be late so we are always wondering where they are!

“What time is the transfer boat coming?”- Wondering when the boats that are bringing people back and forth from Cuba to our boat will get to the Alucia.

“How’s it going?”- Favorite phrase of a few select individuals on this boat.

“Is the internet working?” – Said with frequently with terror  by everyone on the boat.

Thanks for reading!

The pool is open!
Tyler, Kalina, and Ashlee loading up the Northwind!



Updates from Day 15 on the R/V Alucia: A-Z Alucia!

Hey everyone,

Here’s an A-Z list describing this cruise (and life on the Alucia) so far!

A: (Dr.) Andrew Babbin (Nitrogen expert and logo creator extraordinaire) (Dr.) Amy Apprill (my advisor, co-chief scientist on this cruise, Coral-microbe aficionado), Dr. Ashlee Lillis (reef whisperer)

B: Bubby (dive master on the Alucia crew)

C: (Dr.) Colleen Hansel (DISCO designer, superoxide advocate), Cuba, Coral

D: DISCO, Delicious food, Dark N’ Stormy

E: Elegant sunrises and sunsets

F: Filtering seawater, Flow cytometry (used to count the number of microbial cells within a sample)

G: Goliath Groupers

A goliath grouper goes for my sampling bags; PC: Amy Apprill

H: Helipad (location of nitrogen incubation experiments via Tyler and Andrew), Hydrophones (used to measure sound production on Reefs)

I: Ichthyology (study of fish)

J: Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen)

K: Kalina (MIT-WHOI PhD student, DISCO queen)

L: Leonardo Espinosa (fish survey expert and champion scuba diver), Living the Life aquatic

M: (Dr.) Maickel Armenteros (team leader, Meiofauna Master), Metabolomes, Moonlight

N: Natalie (talented chef on the Alucia), Nitrogen, Northwind (smaller dive boat)

The Northwind

O: Octocorals (prevalent on reefs in Jardines de la Reina)

P: Poker with skittles

Q: Quadrat (survey tool used to describe the distribution of plants and animals in the environment. Maickel uses a Quadrat to complete his surveys)

R: Reefs

S: Scuba diving, Salsa-dancing lessons, Stars, Superoxide production

T:Tyler Tamasi (MIT-WHOI Joint Program student; CRIB expert),  Taco Tuesday, Tiburones, Tiki-Toss game, Trichodesmium, Teamwork

U: Underwater

V: Very epic cruise, Vacuum pump (used for SPE)

W: Women in science

X: Xenial relationship between the American and Cuban scientists, the Alucia crew, and the media

Y: Yellowtail snapper

Z: Zooxanthellae (microalgae that live inside corals)

Thanks for reading!

Updates from Day 14 on the R/V Alucia: What is SPE?

Hey everyone,

In my last post, I explained the underwater surveys and briefly mentioned collecting a reef-depth water sample. In this post, I am going to talk about the method that I am using to extract the very small molecules from the reef seawater, a method called solid phase extraction (or SPE for short). All living things produce and release molecules into the environment. Microbes- like bacteria and archaea- produce, uptake, transform, and even communicate with these molecules. I am interested in how microbial communities influence the chemical composition of reef water and if we can use the chemical diversity and composition on reefs to understand the roles of these microbial communities on reefs.

I collect reef-depth water with a Niskin bottle at the end of my dive and I bring this water back to the Alucia so I can “process the water sample”.

Diving with the Niskin bottle, PC: Amy Apprill

When I use this phrase,  I am referring to two major separation steps. First, I separate the microbial cells (bacteria, archaea, and single-celled eukaryotes; “the biomass”) from the seawater by pumping the seawater through a filter with a very small pore size (0.22 micrometers) and I collect this seawater (I call this filtered seawater “filtrate”).

Second, I separate the small molecules that are present in this filtrate by passing it through a special material, called a SPE cartridge. The material in this cartridge has special chemical properties that allow it to bind to chemicals present in the seawater. This binding process removes chemicals from the seawater and retains them on the cartridge. You can also think of this cartridge as a chemical trap. I use vacuum filtration to pull the seawater filtrate through these cartridges. The seawater that has passed through this cartridge should be stripped of most of the chemicals in the seawater and I collect this seawater in a vacuum carboy.

Getting ready for SPE! In this picture, there is a vacuum pump, a glass SPE manifold, SPE cartridges, and tubing that leads into the cartridges (to move water from the bottle to the cartridges).

After I have passed all of the seawater through each cartridge (1 seawater sample per cartridge), I freeze each cartridge to prevent the molecules from degrading. I will finish processing these samples when I get back to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; I need a some special equipment to complete the final steps of this method!

Special thanks to the people of the Kujawinski Molecular Environmental Science Laboratory at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Dr. Liz Kujawinski, Dr.  Krista Longnecker, Dr. Melissa Soule, and Gretchen Swarr) and Dr. Cara Fiore for teaching me how to use this technique to understand the chemical composition of reef seawater

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have questions!



Updates from Day 13 on the R/V Alucia: All about our diving!

Hey everyone,

Greetings from the R/V Alucia! We just celebrated another birthday on board the R/V Alucia. Carlos, one of the ship engineers, just turned 75 years old today! This morning, the crew mess was decorated with balloons and birthday messages! After dinner, we sang Happy Birthday to him and enjoyed some delicious cake.ou

As you probably know, diving has been a major component of our work during this cruise. So far, I have gone on 16 separate dives to help complete surveys, collect samples, and assist my colleagues with instrument deployment.

By now, we have gotten into a general diving routine (although this can daily depending on other needs, boat availability etc . . .) so I thought I would share a play-by-play about my roles and tasks underwater.

We typically leave the Alucia around 7:30-8 am with our prepared dive gear, sampling equipment (many coolers filled with different bottles for water sampling, mesh catch bags for holding samples that we collect underwater, and a Niskin bottle), additional cylinders for a second dive, divers, and a few crew members.

We arrive at the reef site and Amy or Maickel will jump into the water to inspect the reef location. If they deem it suitable, the boat is either attached to a mooring or anchored and all the divers get ready to dive! This involves fastening clip-boards, dive slates, transect tapes, cameras, and mesh bags to our BCs (the vest-like things that we wear that we can inflate or deflate underwater to change our buoyancy), making sure our air is “on”, de-fogging our masks (to keep them from fogging up underwater), finding our fins,  and making sure we have our weight belts/integrated weights on. We jump into the water in buddy groups (Amy is usually my buddy) and descend close the mooring/anchor so we can orient ourselves to wear the boat is in relation to the reef that we are diving on (this is important to do, especially on days when the water is more turbid and when it is harder to see).

Amy and I each decide on a general location to begin laying out our transects so we can begin collecting benthic coverage data. I hook one end of the transect tape around a piece of rubble (dead reef) and then I swim the transect tape 10 m across the top of the reef. When I get to the end of the tape, I hover over the line and estimate the coverage (using cm) of each substrate type (either living or non-living; coral, sponge, sand, rock, algae) that intersects with the transect tape. I do this for each meter along the line and when I finish, I reel in the line, swim over to another reef area, and complete the survey again. It usually takes me 30 minutes to complete 5 transects. Amy completes 5 transects as well.

After we complete these transects, Amy and I scope out coral colonies to sample. Amy uses a hammer and a chisel to separate off little pieces of different colonies and I hover beside her, record the samples that she is collecting, and hand her collection bags. We usually spend 15-20 minutes collecting these samples and by that time, it is time for us to complete the dive.

Our second dive of the day is almost identical, but with one sample collection addition – I collect reef-depth water with a Niskin bottle and I use this sample to understand the chemical composition of reef-depth water.

Thanks for reading!

Scuba gear
Amy (my advisor) and I on our way out to a dive site!


Updates from Day 12 on the R/V Alucia: Hasta luego y te veo de nuevo pronto!

Hey everyone,

Greetings from the R/V Alucia! We had another active day of diving, sample collection, and sample processing!

Early this morning, we also parted ways with two MIT-WHOI Joint PhD program students (Kalina and Tyler) and four of our Cuban science colleagues (Victor, Fredy, Mayelin, and Lake). Over the past week, I have had the privilege to work alongside with, learn with, dive with, eat with, dance with, and live with these excellent people.

Field work is the ultimate bonding experience: on the first day of this cruise, we were all strangers, but by day 12, we are all scientific colleagues and, more importantly, friends. Needless to say, I already miss having them on board the R/V Alucia and I wish them safe travels back home!

I compiled a list to remember all of the fun memories that we now share (this is not a comprehensive list by the way):

  1. Kalina and Tyler streaming their course lectures in the submarine mission control room on deck. They were so determined to keep up with their classes while they were on this cruise. Amy, Ashlee, and I were quite impressed! They even had to take an exam during the first couple days!
  2. Kalina and her excitement for the Disco/ sitting on the floor/ lugging the beast around the back deck and the labs.
  3. The fact that Tyler has made me laugh in every single conversation I’ve ever had with him. Seriously.
  4. Mayelin (donned in a lab coat) and Lake spontaneously salsa dancing in our tiny dry lab.
  5. Dancing under the stars on the top deck (twice!).
  6. Kalina’s birthday celebrations.
  7. Group workout/ photo-shoot session on the top deck at sunset.
  8. Soy de Cienfuegos!!!
  9. Where’s your passport, Tyler?
  10. Fredy’s dancing lessons.
  11. Celebrating Halloween (and mostly marveling at Ashlee’s amazing costume).

Colleen and Andrew, Kalina and Tyler’s advisors, just joined us to finish up the cruise and I am excited to work with and learn from them! I am sure we will make some new amazing memories together!

Thanks for reading!

Fredy, Ashlee, Victor, and Tyler
Tyler, Ashlee, and Kalina right before Ashlee and Kalina departed the Alucia to do a night dive with the DISCO