The downside to Indian summer

Autumn along the California coast can be spectacular. With the cessation of northerly winds and coastal upwelling, ocean and air temperatures rise. September and October typically offer the sunniest days of the year. Summer tourists who shiver in their jackets in July might be surprised to know that in September the natives run around in shorts and flip-flops. The ocean itself tends to be calmer now, and combined with the end of the seasonal phytoplankton bloom presents some of the best conditions for SCUBA diving.

Without the onshore air flow that results from coastal upwelling, it can get quite warm here; it’s not for nothing that the marine layer is called Nature’s air-conditioning. Yesterday and today the afternoon air temperatures have been over 95°F right next to the ocean. That’s too dang hot for my tastes. I miss the fog already. For those who dislike fog and complain about being cold all summer, though, these weeks of Indian summer must be heaven.

Unfortunately, the heat of Indian summer coincides with the driest part of California’s dry season. Without a blast of cool, damp fog every week or so the landscape desiccates and fire becomes a daily threat. This year the fire season has been intense, with the Soberanes fire near Big Sur (started by an illegal campfire on 22 July 2016) having become the costliest fire to fight in U.S. history as well as other large fires scattered throughout the state. Cal Fire anticipates full containment of this fire in the next several days.

Closer to my neck of the woods, Cal Fire has another tough battle on their hands. Yesterday afternoon at about 15:40 I noticed a big plume of smoke rising straight up from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the northeast.

Smoke plume from the Loma fire at 15:41h. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 15:41.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Because there was almost no wind at ground level the smoke rose straight up quite a way before dispersing laterally. It looked like a mushroom cloud of death.

The Loma Fire, as it is now called, is burning in rural Santa Clara County along the Loma Prieta Ridge. Fortunately this are is not heavily populated. I kept an eye on the smoke yesterday and took a series of photos from roughly the same spot on my deck.

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 15:52. 26 September 2016

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 15:52.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Smoke plume from Loma Fire at 16:06. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 16:06.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 16:20. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 16:20.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

To escape the heat in the late afternoon and early evening yesterday we borrowed a friend’s boat and went for a short cruise at dinnertime. The smoke in the sky did make for a very nice sunset.

Early evening sky to the west from the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Early evening sky to the west from the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The Crow's Nest restaurant at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, with the Loma Fire burning in the background. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

The Crow’s Nest restaurant at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, with the Loma Fire burning in the background.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

When we got home after dark last night we could see flames along the entire ridge. Wildfires always seem more menacing at night. When I got up this morning I could see that smoke from the fire had been blowing out over the ocean. This is fortunate for the people living in Santa Clara County.

A smoky sunrise, courtesy of the Loma Fire. 27 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A smoky sunrise, courtesy of the Loma Fire.
27 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

As of 12:30 this afternoon, the latest update from Cal Fire reports that 1500 acres have burned and the fire is 5% contained. The weather is supposed to be cooler tomorrow, with a chance for some fog, which should help the firefighters. Indian summer may be lovely, but it comes with risks. Fire is scary stuff in the Golden State.

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A third of a year

In addition to being the autumnal equinox, today also marks the four-month anniversary of the car accident that left me with bruises, some cracked/bruised ribs, and a concussion. All of the physical injuries have healed by now, except for some residual soreness when I push on the left side of my rib cage, but the concussion continues to be a pain in the head. While the overall trajectory is up, I still have bad days when I can’t do much of anything. I feel like I have an invisible disability because I don’t look sick or injured, but I’m definitely not functioning normally. For example, I can physically walk from the far end of any parking lot to the front door of a store, but having to negotiate walking through traffic and cars looking for parking might get me killed.

Headache: The headache has gotten much better in the past couple of weeks. I never was on anything but OTC pain meds and now I’m not taking anything on a daily basis. The headache has become more localized lately, and moves around. Usually when I’m aware of the headache it feels very concentrated through the top of my head. Sometimes it’s concentrated around my temples, and sometimes it feels like a really tight band around the crown of my head. The constant dull ache has ebbed, though, and that’s a good thing.

Now that I don’t always have the headache I’ve been paying closer attention to what triggers it. This helps me avoid situations that I know will be headache-producing. Unfortunately, not all of the triggers can be avoided, or at least avoided without major inconvenience. For example:

  • Noise. Background noise remains extremely problematic for me. Any restaurant with a “lively” atmosphere or acoustically reflective surfaces will be hell. A social gathering in which multiple conversations are going on at the same time makes my head hurt. I don’t think my brain is currently capable of distinguishing between background noise and sound that I’m supposed to pay attention to. It all gets overwhelming very quickly, and once my brain can’t manage my head hurts.
  • Light. Light itself is not a headache trigger, but rapid shifts between light and dark definitely are. Strobe lights would be awful, and riding in a car at night is bad, too. The lights of cars, traffic signal lights, and lighted buildings on the side of the road–my head can’t tolerate any of them. Even riding as a passenger with my eyes closed I can’t keep from seeing the flashes between light and dark from behind my eyelids. Wearing dark sunglasses at night helps a bit but doesn’t eliminate the problem. A similar thing happens in daylight when I’m riding in a car through alternating strips of sun and shade, as in a forest.
  • Mental activity. Having to concentrate for more than about 10 minutes at a time starts my head throbbing. This means not much work is getting done. No real science, either. I have started spending a couple of hours at the marine lab two or three days a week, just to get back into the swing of things. This week I’ve been cleaning things tanks, tables, and the little dishes I keep some of my animals in. In the process I’ve gotten nice and dirty, which makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.

Cognitive deficits: In my nonconcussed state I have a pretty good sense of cardinal direction and elapsed time. These are still scrambled. From anywhere in the area I should be able to point to the ocean without thinking, but now I can’t. I can navigate to places I know well, but getting any place new to me is a crap shoot. The same thing has happened with my sense of time, although that does seem to be improving a bit. I still have to use timers and clocks more frequently than I used to.

I still feel extremely slow and stupid. In writing and in speaking I often can’t find the words that I know are there, and I can’t explain things very well. I’ve asked friends–people who are used to conversing with me–if I seem slow to them when we’re talking and they’ve all answered ‘no,’ so my own perception of how long it takes me to find words must be warped by my messed up sense of time. Or maybe they’re just being kind to me.

The neurologist has told me that I shouldn’t try to learn anything new while my brain recovers. To pass the time I’ve been knitting and listening to audiobooks. It would be nice to say that I’ve been doing housework while I can’t do much else, but that would be a lie.

I’ve come to appreciate exactly how much concentration it takes to drive, and exactly how little attention most drivers pay to what’s going on around them. There’s a lot to keep track of–the general flow of traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, and distracted drivers in other cars. It drives me crazy to see drivers fiddling with radios or phones, or simply not paying attention. Any time a car makes an unexpected movement my heart jumps. I don’t trust anybody on the road these days. The guy who hit us wasn’t driving distracted, so far as we know, but now I know how little time it takes to get into a really bad accident even when you’re not doing anything wrong. I no longer listen to anything while I’m driving, and I’m not driving any distance at all these days.

Executive function: Making decisions is incredibly difficult and painful. I can answer ‘yes or no’ questions better now than I could a month ago, which is a welcome improvement. I deal with the complexities of a dinner menu by ordering the first thing that catches my eye. If I put much more effort than that into the decision my head starts hurting. I’ve been telling people not to give me options other than ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and it actually does help me cope.

In a similar fashion, prioritizing and multi-tasking are also difficult. I can just about manage a short string of consecutive activities if I tackle them one at a time. I’ve also gotten worse at knowing how long a given task will take, even if I’ve done it many times before. That’s probably the wonked-out sense of time at work.

Psychological effects: These have improved, except for the stress of driving or even riding as a passenger in a car. I have minor panic attacks when something unexpected happens. It’s much easier for me, psychologically and mentally, to ride with my eyes closed. I think this is a minor case of PTSD. For the most part I don’t feel depressed but sometimes I think I’m not making much progress and that’s a bummer. Patience is not one of my virtues, but I am trying to be patient with myself. On the days that I feel good I can get things accomplished, which makes it easy to overtax my brain and bring on the headache. I’m having to learn how to pace myself and not do too much at once. My brain seems to allow one excursion a day, and I’m honoring that restriction as much as I can.

So, I’m getting better but slowly. I still have a long way to go.

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What the muck?

This past weekend I was trying to manage some concussion headache issues and stayed away from the marine lab for four days. Usually that’s not a big deal. Since I’ve been absent so much of the summer due to the head injury, the lab assistants whose job it is to make sure that everybody has air and water and food have been told to check my stuff and change water daily. They’ve been keeping things alive when my headache wouldn’t tolerate my being at the lab, and I’ve gone in when I could (usually on weekends) to take care of the big chores. And so far, under normal conditions at the lab, this has worked.

But every so often conditions stray from the norm, and we are in one of those situations now. It isn’t uncommon at this time of year for us to experience an algal bloom in Monterey Bay. This isn’t the sort of spring phytoplankton bloom we get in the upwelling season, but a massive population explosion of a single species, usually a dinoflagellate. This kind of algal bloom is referred to as a “red tide,” even though the organism that causes it isn’t so much red as golden.

Red tide in water off Terrace Point. 15 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Red tide in water off Terrace Point.
15 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I went to San Francisco yesterday afternoon, and the water was brownish like this all the way up the coast. The bloom wasn’t evenly distributed; there were large patches of brown water interspersed with areas of clear blue water. At Scott Creek and Waddell Creek the breaking waves were distinctly tea-colored, which did not keep the kite surfers out of the water.

It might be easier to see the discoloration when the water is moving:

The seawater intake for the entire marine lab is straight off the point here in the surf zone, so this mucky water is the exact same stuff that’s trickling through our labs. When I returned to the lab on Monday after a 4-day absence the first thing I noticed when I opened the door was the smell, which I recognized the odor immediately because we get red tides like this every year or so. It’s not really a horrible smell, like the smell of dead sea things, but it gets classified in my mind as bad because of what it connotes. And it can get really bad, if the gunk accumulates and begins to rot.

When the cell concentration is this high, filter apparatuses get clogged up fast. This applies to both mechanical and biological filters. Unlike, say, small sediment particles that get suspended in water but act more or less independently of each other, the cells of these blooming dinoflagellates are sticky. They glom together in stringy mucilaginous masses, and tend to settle out in little eddies and areas with less water movement. When this muck settles on animals’ bodies, it can clog up gills or other respiratory surfaces, making gas exchange difficult or impossible. So while the red tide persists we siphon out tanks and flush tables at least once daily.

Accumulation of dinoflagellates on the bottom of a sea water table. 15 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Accumulation of dinoflagellates on the bottom of a sea water table.
15 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I guess when you see the color of these masses of cells, it makes sense to call this phenomenon a red tide. Under the microscope, however, the cells are golden. Based on the guilty party of the last big red tide event we had and some sampling data from Santa Cruz and Monterey dated 7 September, I’m pretty sure the cells are Akashiwo sanguinea. The cells are fairly large by dinoflagellate standards, ~100 µm long, and have the usual pair of flagella (1 wrapped around the middle and the other trailing free) that propel the cells through the water.

 

Living cells of the dinoflagellate Akashiwo sanguinea. 15 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Living cells of the dinoflagellate Akashiwo sanguinea.
15 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The groove around the middle of the cell is called the cingulum; one of the cell’s flagella sits in this groove like a belt going around your waist. The other indentation that runs from the cingulum to the posterior end is the sulcus, and houses the other flagellum that trails free like a very skinny tail. The beating of this pair of flagella causes the cell to swim in a spiral fashion:

People always want to know if a red tide is toxic, and if they need to stay out of the water. Akashiwo sanguinea, as far as anybody knows, does not produce toxins like some other dinoflagellates do. However, it does secrete surfactants that produce foam in agitated water, and a report from 2007 correlates a mass stranding of seabirds in Monterey Bay with a large bloom of A. sanguinea. The authors hypothesize that the foam from the surfactants of A. sanguinea coated the feathers of seabirds and hindered their ability to thermoregulate.

This afternoon I am heading out to the intertidal. One of the things I’ll be looking for is signs of the bloom. I do want to take some pictures in the tidepools, so I hope the discoloration isn’t too bad. Fingers crossed!

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Not-so-happy anniversary

Seeing as today is the third anniversary of the first blog post I wrote about sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS), I thought it would be appropriate to take inventory of my remaining stars and see how they’re doing. Right now I have custody of ~10 bat stars (Patiria miniata), 7 ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus–collected last year for the juvenile survival experiment I did with Scott), and 1 Mediaster aequalis. For whatever reason the M. aequalis hasn’t been affected by SSWS so I’m going to disregard it for now. Of the 10 or so bat stars, four live in one of my seawater tables, roaming free-range in quite a large volume of water. The other half-dozen or so live in a tank in a different building. The Pisasters live in 1s and 2s in tanks distributed in two rooms in the same lab.

After the initial horror and shock of the spectacular onset of SSWS, in which we watched stars rip themselves into pieces right before our eyes, what we’ve seen has followed the standard epidemiology pattern. Any time a novel pathogen enters a population, the individuals that have no immunity or resistance are the first to die. The disease spreads rapidly through the population, wiping out all of these weaker individuals. However, not everyone dies. Even during the Black Death of the 14th century, the very fact that 1/3-1/2 of the human population died of bubonic plague means that 1/2-2/3 survived. Those survivors presumably had some degree of resistance to the disease.

At the same time three years ago that all of my forcipulate stars died, divers were noticing similar phenomena happening subtidally. It didn’t take long for us to realize that Something Big was going on, which was eventually dubbed SSWS. Fast-forward three years and now I’m seeing healthy, hand-sized P. ochraceus in the intertidal again. These individuals are certainly survivors from the SSWS outbreak; they were likely small juveniles during the plague, and were able to come out of hiding and expand into open niches after so many of the adults died. Whether or not natural populations will recover completely remains to be seen, but as of right now things look promising.

About a year ago, having gone two years without showing any signs of being sick, one of my bat stars developed lesions on its aboral surface. It’s the red star in the middle of that blog post. This star is one of the four that live in my shallow table. It has now been sick for a year. See how it has changed since then:

Patiria miniata (bat star) with small lesion. 4 September 2015 © Allison J. Gong

Patiria miniata (bat star) with small lesion.
4 September 2015
© Allison J. Gong

and

Patiria miniata with aboral lesions. 7 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Patiria miniata with aboral lesions.
7 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The lesions have all gotten worse–the largest is about 2 cm long now–and the body margin has some ripples that it didn’t have before, but the star is still alive. For a while it wasn’t eating, as far as I could tell, but two days ago I watched it eat a piece of fish. Perhaps the return of cooler water is helping this animal survive.

One of its tablemates, however, hasn’t been so lucky. I first noticed apparent SSWS damage in a second star several months ago. Today was the first chance I had to look closely at it.

Aboral view of Patiria miniata with damage to body wall. 7 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Aboral view of Patiria miniata with damage to body wall.
7 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Oral view of Patiria miniata with damage to body wall. 7 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Oral view of Patiria miniata with damage to body wall.
7 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The most noticeable injury to this star is that big interradial divot. It looks like someone took a bite out of the body at that spot. The margins of the wound are white and fluffy, similar in appearance to the lesions caused by SSWS.

For years now this star has had an abnormal spot on its aboral surface. I’ve been calling it a bubble, for lack of a better word. The bubble may be an over-inflated papulla (skin gill) and it didn’t seem to be causing any problems for the star. I’d touch it and it would deflate, then re-inflate almost immediately. When I touched it today, it shrank back a little but didn’t really deflate.

Strange "bubble" on aboral surface of P. miniata. 7 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Strange “bubble” on aboral surface of P. miniata.
7 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If you look really closely at the above photo, you can make out clusters of small, clear, clublike projections. These are papullae, extensions of the internal body lining that project through the skeletal ossicles to the outside and act as gas exchange surfaces. The bubble is many times larger than the normal papullae. Because it has been there for so long, years before the divot in the interradial margin, I don’t think the bubble is due to SSWS. I don’t even know if it’s a wound, or merely an overinflated papulla. The largest star in this table has also had a bubble for many years, but no lesions or wounds indicating SSWS or other disease.

So. Three years after the outbreak of SSWS I still have stars that are sick. They’ve been sick for a long time and aren’t getting worse very quickly, from which I conclude they may eventually recover. At the very least they must have some resistance to the SSWS pathogen because they’ve managed to survive so far. One more thing. Way back in 2013 when all of the forcipulates were tearing themselves into pieces and melting into piles of goo, these bat stars were among them, scavenging on the dead and decaying tissue. For a while I feared that eating contaminated tissue might cause the disease, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, as these two didn’t get sick until two years after the initial exposure.

I hope these two stars make it. Cooler water temperatures should help. When they’re really sick they stop eating (they haven’t eaten much in the past year) but if they’re going to eat now I’ll keep feeding them. Fingers crossed!

Posted in Marine biology, Marine invertebrates | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Camera test-drive: Nikon D7200

For the past several years now I’ve been using various iterations of an Olympus point-and-shoot camera, mostly for field and lab work. My current version, which I’ve had for over a year now, is the TG-4, in which the ‘T’ stands for Tough. This camera really stands up to its name. I routinely clamber over slippery rocks in the intertidal with the camera dangling from my wrist, and it is pretty banged up already. Not a problem! It is also completely waterproof so in addition to knowing that it will take fantastic photos underwater, I don’t have to dry my hands before using it! Plus, it fits easily into a side pocket of my daypack for hiking, although I usually just leave it looped around my wrist. This little camera also has a microscope setting that takes great macro shots, which I love. The one thing it doesn’t do very well is line up with either of my real microscopes, but I have a gadget that aligns the camera on my phone with the microscope objective lenses so even that contingency is covered.

Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s time to graduate up to a real grown-up camera, one that has interchangeable lenses for more versatility. I particularly want a camera that will take photos of the birds and other wildlife that my TG-4 doesn’t allow me to get close enough for, as well as one for general use, travel, etc. I asked my Facebook friends for DSLR recommendations and the consensus is that Canon and Nikon have the best selection for photo quality, build quality, and lens options. I started digging through online reviews and quickly became overwhelmed with technical specs and jargon. Given that image quality is comparable for cameras in the same price range I decided that the most useful bits of information are (1) whether or not I can figure out how to make the dang thing do what I want it to do; and (2) will I want to carry it around so I can use it.

In early August I was up at Lake Tahoe for an extended weekend with family. A friend had suggested renting a camera at lensrentals.com, which was a great idea. I rented a Nikon D7200, the new addition to their advanced hobbyist line, and an 18-140mm lens for the weekend. I took a lot of pictures, trying the camera in different outdoor lighting conditions. I gotta say, the images coming out of this camera are really nice. I didn’t alter anything about them, except to decrease the overall file size so the photos load more quickly.

First test: Photos of outdoor scenery. The atmosphere was hazy due to smoke from various wildfires in the greater area, so I had to go up to Carson Pass to get some blue sky.

View from area near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

View from area near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Red Lake, near Carson Summit. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Red Lake, near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Tree with scars from chains used to pull wagons up the slope, at Red Lake near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Tree with scars from chains used to pull wagons up the slope, at Red Lake near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Pile of rocks near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Pile of rocks near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Meadow at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Meadow at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Aspen trees at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Aspen trees at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Mt. Tallac 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Mt. Tallac
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Taylor Creek 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Taylor Creek
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Taylor Creek 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Taylor Creek
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Second test: Macro. I borrowed a macro lens from a friend who owns the Nikon D7100, just to fool around and see what happens. I took some macro shots of tree bark. Of course, any time you shoot macro you lose depth of field, which can look sort of cool in itself.

DSC_1057 DSC_1054

Test 3: Wildlife photography. I learned that for wildlife photography, the quality of the camera and lens has a HUGE effect on how the pictures look. I found that this Nikon was pretty responsive, which is important when the subject of the photo is active.

I have no idea if these rodents are squirrels or chipmunks.

DSC_1208 DSC_1202

At Taylor Creek I took pictures of birds!

Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And using the digital zoom that the image quality allows, I get this:

Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

But the best wildlife photo was taken at nightfall. We had gone out to Taylor Creek one evening to look for birds. It was almost full dark and we were about to leave when we saw a large grayish blob in a tree. Looking through binoculars we could see that it was clearly a creature of some kind, but we couldn’t tell what. A large owl, getting ready to go out hunting? A roosting raptor?

Surprise! It was a mother porcupine nursing a baby.

Common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) nursing her baby in a tree at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) nursing her baby in a tree at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This photo was the most impressive shot I got from this camera. Its performance in low light conditions was phenomenal. It was almost completely dark when I took this shot, but the exposure looks like it was taken during the day. Color me very impressed!

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