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This morning I went out on what will probably be my last low tide of the season. We don't get any good (i.e., below 0 feet and during daylight hours) until November, so it's time to hang up the hip boots for a few months and work on other things. I had planned to go to Natural Bridges even before the shipwreck incident, and since the wreck is right next to Natural Bridges I thought it would be good to check on how much debris is washing up at a site I visit frequently.

I'm sure that most people are familiar with the phrase "flotsam and jetsam", referring to pieces of miscellaneous stuff. I had to look up the terms to remember the difference between them. Flotsam is the stuff that floats on the water and gets washed up when a ship or boat wrecks, while jetsam is the stuff that is deliberately thrown overboard to reduce weight (say, to increase speed). What I would be seeing today is flotsam.

It was so sad. I'm not naive enough to have thought there would be no debris, but I wasn't sure what to expect--big pieces? small pieces? identifiable pieces? At this point I hadn't checked on the status of the boat yet and didn't know how much of it was still grounded off Terrace Point.

The first thing I saw was something (I don't know what) that had been dragged up the beach. It looks like a piece of equipment tangled up in a big piece of fabric, maybe a t-shirt? More than one t-shirt?

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The first recognizable thing I saw was, oddly, a bulb of garlic. I don't know why it was surprising. Obviously, people who spend a lot of time on boats eat on boats, and some of the flotsam from any shipwreck is going to be food, right? Another food item that washed up was a vacuum-sealed package labeled "Emergency Ration".

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Another everyday household (boathold?) item was a tube of sunscreen. I also saw a few plastic utensils, which may or may not have been from the shipwreck. Unfortunately there's always some plastic detritus on all of our beaches these days, a legacy from decades of single-use plastics being literally thrown to the wind to end up as garbage in the oceans and elsewhere. Hard to believe that "out of sight, out of mind" used to be the universal prevailing outlook, isn't it? Here in California and elsewhere there is much greater awareness in recent years that plastic in the environment never really goes away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, which can enter the food chain at lower and lower trophic levels. That's a whole other story to talk about. Maybe some day I'll be brave enough to tackle it.

Stuff from the wreckage was strewn across all of the intertidal benches and pocket beaches at Natural Bridges. This is looking towards Terrace Point, where remnants of the boat are stuck in the ground:

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

When I was watching the crews pumping fuel off the wrecked boat yesterday, I saw two survival suits washing around in the surf, and wondered where they would end up. I saw one of them this morning, along with two life vests.

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

 

 

And a respirator:

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And an entire boat. This is the inflatable Zodiac that had been tied to the roof of the cabin of the F/V Pacific Quest.

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I don't know what Marine Compound is, but a bottle of it washed up, along with what looks like a piece of insulation:

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And of course there was styrofoam. Styrofoam is insidious stuff, because it doesn't remain intact long enough to be removed as big pieces, but instead immediately starts breaking down into small bits that will soon enough become the nurdles that are such a problem for marine life.

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Already the pieces of plastic and styrofoam were getting smaller. I don't know what the blue stuff is; another form of styrofoam, maybe?

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Not all of the flotsam has washed onto the beaches and rocks. There is still a significant amount floating in the water, to be transported to other sites near and far. There's even flotsam in the tidepools. Wood, fiberglass, and plastic are all included.

14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

After leaving the intertidal I went to the marine lab to see what things looked like from the cliff about the wreck. The entire front part of the boat is now gone, and the only part remaining is the aft end containing the two heavy engines.

Wrecked F/V Pacific Quest
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Engine of the wrecked F/V Pacific Quest, viewed from above
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the cliff you can better see how widely dispersed the flotsam is. It isn't concentrated in any particular area but is everywhere, in pieces small and large.

Debris from the wrecked F/V Pacific Quest strewn over the intertidal at Natural Bridges
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

There is some good news. All of the fuel was removed from the boat so there's no further danger of additional chemical pollution into Monterey Bay. The salvage crew did remove some of the debris from the immediate area around the wreck, and tomorrow the engine will be removed by crane up the cliff. It's going to be an impressive and LOUD undertaking, starting very early in the morning.

Taking the long view, this is one of a great many acute insults to the marine environment. The ocean is resilient to some extent, but our actions are causing changes that affect the entire biosphere. I'm having a hard time finding a silver lining in this shipwreck. I certainly never wanted to bear witness to an environmental disaster on any scale. And while in the grand scheme of things this is a small localized event, it feels pretty momentous to me.

I'll leave you with this more positive photo. Flotsam aside, it was a beautiful morning.

Approach to tidepools at Natural Bridges
14 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

1

Very early in the morning of Sunday 12 August 2018, the F/V Pacific Quest ran aground near Long Marine Lab. I found out about it because the lab facilities manager sent out a global e-mail telling us that a boat had wrecked and telling us that the seawater pumps had been turned off just in case the boat leaked any fuel or oil. The e-mail came through at about 06:00h. By the time I got to the lab at 10:30 the pumps had been turned back on. After I made sure all of my animals were okay, I moseyed over to the cliff to see what I could see.

The tide was coming in, to a high of 5 feet at 12:42h. The captain had dropped an anchor before leaving the boat after it got stuck on the reef ledge, which kept it from drifting away and becoming a hazard to other vessels on the water. The rising tide had lifted the boat from the ledge to land between the ledge and a small rock island. The swells picked up the boat, but the hull had been damaged and she was taking on water. The captain was the only person on the boat, so there was no loss of human life in this incident.

The F/V Pacific Quest, shipwrecked at Long Marine Lab
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
The F/V Pacific Quest, shipwrecked at Long Marine Lab
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The swells were continually breaking over the bow, flooding the cabin and washing flotsam off into the ocean.

The F/V Pacific Quest, shipwrecked at Long Marine Lab
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

A Vessel Assist boat was there when I arrived and was stationed just inside the kelp bed. They put two guys into the water, who swam to the Pacific Quest and attempted to attach a tow line.

12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Ultimately, however, they decided that conditions were too dangerous for the Vessel Assist boat to tow away the Pacific Quest. The hull had been breached and the boat had taken on a lot of water, making her too heavy to be towed safely. Besides, the Pacific Quest is a 65-foot fishing boat, making her about twice as long as the small Vessel Assist boat. The two guys swam back out to the rescue boat and they drove away.

Meanwhile the tide continued to rise, and the Pacific Quest was clearly floating, albeit listing to port and heavy in the bow. I think that if she hadn't been anchored to the shore she would have floated away. Could she have been safely towed away at this point? I don't know. I do know that no other actions were taken to try to remove her.

I returned in the late afternoon for the high low tide, and it was clear that the boat was resting on the sand between the ledge and the small island. The continued bashing against the rock had put a big dent in the starboard side, no doubt worsening the hull breach.

The F/V Pacific Quest, shipwrecked at Long Marine Lab
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

With the boat stationary on sand, a salvage crew finally started taking action. They removed the remaining debris from the deck, including the fuel tank from the inflatable zodiac, and attached some lines.

Salvage crew aboard the shipwrecked F/V Pacific Quest
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Salvage crew aboard the shipwrecked F/V Pacific Quest
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Someone had determined that although the hull had been breached the fuel tanks were undamaged and were unlikely to release any diesel fuel or other oil into Monterey Bay. At the end of the day yesterday the plan was for the salvage crew to tie the boat down and keep her from drifting away after the evening high tide, and start pumping off the fuel at low tide this morning. Then the salvagers could work on removing the boat itself. I couldn't figure out exactly how they would remove the boat, but hey, I'm only a marine biologist, not a marine salvager. As long as the fuel tanks didn't rupture, things would be juuuuust fine.

So much for plans. The caretakers reported smelling diesel fumes at 21:30h last night, and shut down the seawater intake pipes. Turns out the boat had broken up during the rising tide, with at least one fuel tank ruptured. Fortunately, if that's a word that can be used in this situation, the shipwreck is downstream from the seawater intake. The pumps were shut down for a few hours this morning and we're on short rations, but there doesn't seem to be a significant amount of diesel in the seawater system.

I was working the low tide this morning and had an appointment afterward, so I didn't get to the lab until about noon. The boat was well and truly broken up by then, into two large pieces and a great many smaller ones. The pieces of wood, plastic, and fiberglass were already dispersing with the currents.

Flotsam from the shipwrecked F/V Pacific Quest
13 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong
The F/V Pacific Quest, broken on the beach at Long Marine Lab
13 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The good news is that the salvage crew had finally started pumping off the fuel remaining on the boat. As of 17:17 today the crew reports that they should be able to offload all of the fuel before the next high tide tonight. With any luck, they'll be able to finish the job and we can carry on as usual without anymore seawater interruptions. At this point I don't know what plans, if any, are in place to remove the boat parts on the beach. The various organizations at the marine lab are parties of interest, but none have the responsibility of cleaning up this mess. We just have to live and work with it.

Life preserver from the shipwrecked F/V Pacific Quest
12 August 2018
© Allison J. Gong

UPDATE: As of 19:00h on Monday 13 August 2018 all fuel has been pumped out of the Pacific Quest. The major risk of chemical pollution into Monterey Bay has been abated. The next stage of recovery is the retrieval of debris from the beach and ocean.

For several years now I've been lusting for a good compound microscope. I wanted one that I could call my very own, and thus justify allowing people to use it only after they have been trained by ME in how to use it correctly, and I wanted it to have certain features that the old lab scope I'd been using didn't have. Or maybe had but didn't work that well. I never wanted anything especially fancy or high-tech--no USB capability or polarizing light necessary. I knew I wanted a non-standard set of objective lenses (10x, 20x, 40x) so would probably not be able to buy a microscope off the shelf, so to speak. I also wanted to take really good photographs through the scope, using my DSLR. The iPhone-through-the-eyepiece does surprisingly well, but it felt like it was time to grow up and use a real camera to take photomicrographs.

These were the must-have features:

  • A 20x objective! Most compound scopes have 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x objectives. That jump between 10x and 40x is huge, and I got spoiled because the old lab scope has a 20x objective that provides the perfect magnification for my needs. Seriously, that 20x is the Goldilocks of objective lenses!
  • Brightfield, darkfield, and phase-contrast lighting
  • A trinocular head so I can attach my DSLR and still have two eyepieces to look through while the camera is mounted

Fortunately, microscopes are not like cars, and it is quite possible to mix and match features to build the exact instrument to suit one's needs. I did some research, decided for real that I DID NOT require either polarizing or differential interference contrast (DIC) lighting, each of which would have raised the cost by quite a bit, and bit the bullet, placing the order in early April. Some of the parts were on backorder, delaying delivery for a few weeks, and the microscope arrived last week.

It's here!

I didn't have time to do more than open the boxes and see what was inside.

 

 

 

 

 

After this quick peek I had to wait over a busy weekend before diving into the boxes yesterday. I didn't want to try to assemble the microscope after a day of teaching, when my brain would be tired. I'm already not the most mechanically inclined person in the world, and knew I needed a fresh brain to tackle this oh-so-crucial job. Monday was the first day that I didn't have stuff scheduled in the morning, so I could devote a few hours to it.

Step 1: Remove plastic wrapping from the body and remove pieces of tape in the order mandated by the directions.

Step 2: Attach the trinocular head.

Step 3: Screw in the objective lenses. As the self-nominated Queen of Cross-threaded Fittings I was especially careful to get these right. One of the things I like about this microscope is that it comes with space for five objective lenses, so if I decide in the future to add a 100x objective or upgrade one of the others, I'll have space to do so.

The microscope went together pretty easily. It feels solid and well built.

Step 4: Find something microscopic to look at!

I picked up a piece of red filamentous alga which I thought would be Antithamnion defectum, made a wet mount, and slid it under the lens. And oh my word, the image is beautiful!

Antithamnion defectum, viewed with brightfield lighting
7 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Switched to phase-contrast and was just as impressed:

Antithamnion defectum, viewed with phase-contrast lighting
7 May 2018
Allison J. Gong

See how much more definition you get with phase-contrast lighting? One of the reasons I really wanted phase-contrast is that it makes transparent organisms, which white light just passes through, visible.

And the pièce de résistance, a different piece of the same alga viewed in darkfield:

Antithamnion defectum, viewed with darkfield lighting
7 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I am going to love playing with this new toy! Tomorrow I'll collect a plankton sample and do some real photomicrography. Stay tuned.

Remember that gull we rescued last week? After my husband took it to Native Animal Rescue here in Santa Cruz it was transferred up to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay Area center in Fairfield. I e-mailed and asked how the gull was doing and whether I'd be able to witness its release back to the ocean. Yesterday I received this response:

Hi Allison,

This is Cheryl Reynolds, the Volunteer Coordinator for Bird Rescue. Thank you so much for rescuing the juvenile Western Gull and getting him into care at Native Animal Rescue. Hooks and fishing line can cause severe injuries but fortunately this guy is doing okay at this time. He/she had surgery yesterday to repair some of the damage the line caused to his leg and is being treated with antibiotics. He's not totally out of the woods yet but luckily gulls are pretty tough! I'm giving you his case number here at Bird Rescue #17-1887 but I will be happy to follow up with you on his progress. 
To answer your other questions.. We don't have a timeline yet on release, it depends on how he progresses. We don't usually send the birds back to Santa Cruz, we have so many young gulls we like to release as a group and in an appropriate location locally. 
If you would like to contribute to this birds care please go to our website at https://www.bird-rescue.org/. You can also sign up to receive our Photo of the Week and patient updates and also find us on Facebook. 
Thanks again for caring for this birds welfare. 
Kind regards,
Cheryl
We hadn't realized that the fishing line wrapped around the bird's leg had caused damage that would require surgery. This makes me doubly glad that we were able to rescue it from the surface of Monterey Bay before the injuries became more severe. It sounds like the prognosis is good for this juvenile western gull, and I hope it and several of its cohort can be returned to the skies and sea very soon.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is currently hosting a satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Back in the fall, about 350 UC Santa Cruz students and community volunteers began crocheting creatures real and fanciful with yarn and other materials. Satellite reefs have been built all around the world, in this project that unites mathematics, marine biology, conservation, and a love of working with yarn.

Since this isn't my brainchild I'm not going to go into the background and philosophy of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Instead, I'm just going to show you some photos of the Santa Cruz satellite reef, and encourage you to come see it for yourself. If you happen not to be in the Santa Cruz area, you can click here to find other satellite reefs around the world. You may even want to start your own reef! Note that many satellite reefs are located quite far inland--Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota--so don't let your lack of a nearby ocean keep you from organizing and building your own reef.

Satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Some of the creatures on the reef are made of garbage or plastic, to remind viewers that the world's oceans continue to pay the price for human excesses. This jelly, below, has oral arms made from plastic grocery bags.

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And see what familiar object was used for this crab's eyes?

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

There are multiple species of octopus on this particular reef!

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The reef will be on display through October 2017. If you're in the area before then, swing by and check it out!

I have now been concussed for six months. It has been a long half-year. My brain has done a fair bit of recovering, and at least the constant headache is gone. It still hurts when I overexert my brain and I'm still easily overwhelmed by visual and auditory stimuli but overall I feel that I'm getting better.

Over the past week I went through three days of comprehensive neuropsychological testing. The goal of the testing is to determine objectively how well my brain functions in various ways: memory, reasoning, sensory perception. Some of the tests were easy, while others were designed to be difficult or impossible even for people who aren't suffering from a traumatic brain injury.

First day of testing. The test itself began with a simple interview: What hand do I use to throw a ball? open a door? use scissors or a hammer? operate a computer mouse? The technician timed first how long it took to write my name with my dominant hand, and then with my non-dominant hand. The upshot of all this is that I'm mostly right-handed, with some tendencies towards ambidexterity. This didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

There were several different memory tests, all of which I found extremely difficult. For the first test I was shown ~15 word pairs on a computer screen. The computer then showed a series of words and I had to record whether or not they were on the original list. Then I would be shown one of the words from the original 15 pairs and had to choose which word from a list was its pair. These word pairs returned to haunt me several times during the morning. As I worked through the other tests I was interrupted after a 20 minute interval to ask how many of the words I could remember; I was also given a second set of words and told to keep them separate from the first. Then I picked up where I had left off and worked for another 30 minutes before being quizzed on the word list. I was given a word and asked if it was on the first list, the second list, or neither. Yikes!

The tests all started easy and then got progressively more difficult. One of the first tests was shape recognition and matching. I was given a set of identical blocks, each with two solid white faces, two solid red faces, and two half-white and half-red faces divided along the diagonal. Then I had to look at red and white shapes in a notebook and recreate what I saw using the blocks. That was fun.

A slightly different test involved looking at patterns (say, a red triangle within a blue square within a red circle) with a chunk missing and choosing the piece that completes the image. The tricky thing about this test was that the options to choose from were all rotated out of position, so I had to be able to flip them around in my brain to see if they would fit. At first the missing chunks were easy to find, and then the images themselves and the missing pieces got more complicated. I had to guess on many of them.

One of the hardest parts of the day started out pretty innocuously. I was asked to repeat series of numbers (integers from 1-9) after having them read to me. Two numbers, three, four, five, it wasn't too difficult even when the string was ten digits long. Then the test started over, only with me having to repeat the sequences in reverse order. That was easy until the string was about six digits long, then it got exponentially more difficult. I'd repeat the sequence in my head as I heard it (5, 8, 2, 5, 9, 7, 4, 4, 2, 6, for example) but when I had to start from the end and work backwards I'd have no idea what the first numbers (8 and 5) were. For the last part of this test I had to take strings of numbers and recite them back in numerical order. This also started easily but got increasingly more difficult. The really strange thing about all of this was the manner in which my brain failed. The missing numbers simply weren't there. I'd remember the first several digits, then there would be nothing. I could have made up something but it would have been a random guess.

After 20 minutes of this I had to go back to the original memory test and list as many of the words as I could.

There was a section of verbal math problems. You know the type: "Jenny has 14 apples and gives two to each of her three younger brothers. How many apples does she have left?" And: "An item's original price in October is $150.00. In November the store discounts the price on the item by 10%. In December the store adds another discount of 25%. How much does the item cost on December 31?" I had to solve these entirely in my head, without writing anything down. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? And it would have been, if my brain were working properly.

The other math problems were more fun. I got to dust off my old arithmetic and algebra skills and see if they still worked. How long has it been since you did long division by hand, or divided fractions, or solved problems such as: (x+2)(3x-14)=6? Or multiplied 6932.35 by 217.08? I mean, we can all do that, right? It just takes a little practice to remember how to do it. And I got to use pencil and paper, which helped a lot.

There was a standard vocabulary and spelling test. I think I nailed that part. There was also a list of common knowledge questions:

  • Who was the President of the U.S. during the Civil War?
  • On which continent would you find the Sahara Desert?
  • What is the capital of Italy?
  • Who was Catherine the Great?
  • At what temperature does water boil?
  • What is water made of?

and so on.

The most difficult part of the test was the last bit. This section evaluated my reasoning skills. I was given a keypad with the numbers 1 through 4 and told that I would be shown an image on the computer screen that would hint at one of the numbers. If I keyed in the right answer I'd hear a nice 'ping' and if I got it wrong I'd get a nasty 'blat'. There were seven subtests, each consisting of a series of images. The same reasoning worked for an entire subtest but not necessarily for any subsequent subtests. In other words, once I worked out the reasoning for subset #2, I couldn't automatically assume that it would work for subset #3. And there's no going back, so I didn't get to try multiple reasonings on any of the images I got wrong.

As usual the first subtests were pretty easy. I'd figure out the reasoning for one subtest and apply it for the first entry of the following subtest. If it didn't work I'd have to figure out something else to try. By the last two subtests I was randomly guessing. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was going on with any of the images. Occasionally I'd get one right, but every time I tried to use the same reasoning on the next image it was wrong. It was extremely frustrating and made my head hurt. A lot. The psychologist told me he knew I was getting frustrated but reassured me that my failures were giving him useful information. I sure hope so.

Second day of testing. This was much easier and less taxing, although I don't know how well I did. Once again we started with a memory test. This time I was shown a drawing and asked to copy it on a separate sheet of paper, about the same size as the original. Then the original was taken away and I had to draw the thing from memory. This was much harder than it sounds. As in the memory test on the first day I had to try to draw the diagram from memory at 20 and 30-minute intervals.

There were several sensory perception tests on the second day. I was tested for bilateral sensitivity to touch on the backs of my hands: With my eyes closed I had to say whether or not I felt a touch on my left hand, my right, or both. There was a similar hearing test.

The most fun was a test to see whether or not I could tell if two rhythms were the same or different. I thought this was very interesting, because I realized that if two rhythmic patterns have the same beginning it's not easy to tell if they're different at the end. For example:

| | | ||| | | |

sounds more similar to | | | ||| | ||

than it does to || | ||| | | |

I had to stick my hand into a curtained box, and the tester put a wooden block into it. I had to determine what shape the block was, then use my other hand to point to the correct shape on a card. I did this with both hands.

A related test for shape recognition ended up being a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was blindfolded and a vertical wall was placed in front of me. There were shapes carved into the wall (I couldn't see them, of course) into which wooden blocks would fit. I was given a "tour" of the board with my right hand, and then told to find the blocks on the table in front of me and put each block into its correct shape using only that hand. The shapes I remember are square, circle, oval, star, triangle, large parallelogram, small parallelogram, half-moon, and trapezoid (I think, not sure about that one). I'd be interested to know how other people worked this puzzle. I did it by picking up a block and holding it in my hand, then using my fingers to find the shape on the board. I think some people might determine a shape on the board and then go hunting for the right block. I can't say that my way was the best, but I did eventually get all the blocks matched up correctly. It went faster with my left hand because I already had some familiarity with how the board was laid out. But I thought it would be a cake-walk when I got to use both hands, and it totally wasn't. Maybe it was too much sensory input at one time for my brain to make sense of.

After the board was put away I was allowed to remove the blindfold. Then I had to draw the board, including the shapes in their respective places. I don't think I did very well on this part.

The last test of the day was one of those T/F personality tests. I was instructed to answer the questions as they applied in the last month or so. There were several questions about drugs: Have I ever lost track of time due to drug use? Has my personality changed since I started using drugs? Have I used illicit or illegal drugs in the last six months? Has my drug use affected my relationships with friends and family? It wasn't hard to figure out what those questions were angling for.

Third day of testing. Today was the last day of the neuropsychological workup, and it was the easiest. It started with a casual interview, to provide a description of the accident and my early injuries. Then I took a long version of the T/F personality test. I had to answer only 360 of the 500+ questions, which was good because many of them were very unclear. I was finding it difficult to make sense of statements such as "I always regret never having done such-and-such when someone told me not to." Uhhhh. . .

Then we got the What It All Means debrief. Since I don't have the full written report yet I can't give you the long version, but the take-home message is that: (1) my verbal skills are still really good; (2) my incidental and working memory functions are average, probably less good than they should be; (3) I don't have any major deficits at this point but the ones I do have seem to result from injury to the left side of my brain.

One result I found interesting was this timed finger tapping test I did last week. I had to tap a digital counter with my index finger as many times as possible in 10 seconds. With my right hand I got 57 taps in 10 seconds, and with my left hand I did the same. Apparently right-handed people should be able to tap faster with their right hand. So either I'm sort of ambidextrous and my right hand isn't as dominant as it is in other right-handed people, or my right hand is somewhat impaired and should have tapped more than 57 times in 10 seconds. On the other hand, 57 taps in 10 seconds is pretty high for anybody with either hand. Given other indications of minor injury to the left side of my brain, a minor impairment on the right side of my body makes sense.

In terms of how to assist my brain in its recovery, the psychologist suggested continuing to do what I can, as long as it doesn't cause my head to hurt, then to respect my brain's limits. At this point overdoing it could set me back. In a nutshell, I continue to rest and not overexert myself.

With the analytical part of my left brain not quite up to speed, this afternoon I decided to exercise the artistic right side and made a little drawing:

Persimmon

 

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.

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.

3

Some friends have asked what it's like to have a concussion, and how my recovery is going. I think it's hard for them to understand why, almost six weeks after the accident, I'm still having so many problems. Since this is my first concussion I don't really know what to expect, but having consulted with a neurologist last week I feel assured that my recovery is on the right track. As a reminder, on Saturday 21 May 2016 I was in a head-on collision; two days later I was diagnosed with a concussion. The CT scan showed no brain swelling or bleeding.

I decided to address the "What is it like?" questions by listing the common symptoms of concussion and describing how I am experiencing them.

Symptom 1 -- Loss of consciousness. I did not lose consciousness at any time after the accident. I remember quite a lot of the accident itself, the arrival of the EMTs and ambulances, getting my vitals checked in the ambulance, and getting ourselves to the ER.

Symptom 2 -- Headache. After the accident the worst pain I had was around my ribcage. Actually, everything hurt. I didn't notice the headache as a separate pain until Sunday when I tried to grade my final exams. Since then the headache has been a more or less constant companion. It gets a lot worse when my brain has been overtaxed or overstimulated (more on that below). The headache doesn't feel like a tension headache and it isn't localized. It's a dull diffuse pain that feels like my entire head is being squeezed under the skin. The best thing to do when the headache gets bad is to lie down and close my eyes. Looking at computer screens is very taxing on the brain, which is why it is taking me three days to write this post.

Symptom 3 -- Amnesia, confusion. I didn't have any amnesia right after the accident, and I passed all of the cognitive evaluation questions the EMTs asked me ("What day is it?" "Who is the President of the U.S.?" "How old are you?" etc.). I knew where I was and how I had gotten there.

Symptom 4 -- Dizziness, vertigo, nausea. This has been strange. On Monday, two days after the accident, I started experiencing a bit of vertigo. I would move my head and it felt like the world was taking a while to catch up. Also, I could read printed words on paper, but when I tried to read my students' hand-written answers on their final exams the words swam around on the page. I gave that up as a lost cause and went back to the ER. This general wooziness resulted in some mild nausea.

There was a very early morning almost four weeks after the accident when I woke up feeling seasick. I took an anti-nausea pill and went back to sleep, and when I woke up for real a few hours later I felt no seasickness at all.

Symptom 5 -- Cognitive deficits. I have these in spades, although I don't know if anybody else can tell. For the first couple of weeks after the accident my head felt very foggy and it was difficult to process information. I'd walk around with a nectarine in my hand wondering what I was supposed to do with it. Oh yeah, those want to be eaten. I couldn't really type, either. I could, but letters would come out in strange orders, as though my typing were dyslexic. That has gotten better recently.

I'm still having trouble carrying on detailed conversations. I can think of the words I want to say but they don't make it to my mouth. And it feels like it takes me a very long time to process an answer when somebody asks me a question. What do I want to eat for dinner? Um. . . .

And yet, occasionally I can act with my usual decisiveness. Sometimes I feel as though I have my act together, and at other times. . . I don't even know what my act is supposed to be.

My internal clock, which normally does a pretty good job of keeping track of elapsed time, is all out of whack. As is my ability to judge how long it will take to do a given task. This is rather a drag, as I'm used to my brain acting as a clock I don't have to look at to tell the time. I suppose part of this deficit is due to the fact that I'm not spending as much time outdoors as I normally would in the summer, so I'm missing time cues that I should be catching.

Symptom 6 -- Sensitivity to light and sound. As of now, six weeks post-accident, this is the most severe of my symptoms. It takes surprisingly little visual or aural stimulus to completely overwhelm my brain. Crowds, movement, the clinking of silverware on plates in a crowded restaurant, loud music, children playing (I think it's their high-pitched voices that do it)--all are hell to me right now. There is no such thing as background noise to a concussed brain. Every sound pushes to front and center, demanding attention and energy that my brain simply cannot give. My brain reacts by hurting and trying to withdraw my consciousness from my surroundings. I can cope in the short-term by closing my eyes to shut out all visual stimuli, but I can't close my ears and there are some sounds that dig their way into my brain. A massive headache ensues.

Right now there are two major construction projects going on at the marine lab, which makes the lab a very unhealthy place for me to be during the week. Fortunately there's no construction work on weekends, so I can retreat down there for an hour of peaceful time with my critters. But even the running water through the seawater system makes a lot of noise; I'd never paid much attention to it before, except to notice when it was suspiciously quiet in the wet labs, but now it can get to me. I find that I need to minimize my time at the marine lab, period.

Driving remains extremely difficult for me. I can drive myself to and from the marine lab, but that's about it. And even doing that little amount of driving causes a headache and wipes me out for the rest of the day. I'm not having flashbacks any more (more about that below) but my heart jumps every time a white car unexpectedly catches my eye. Driving takes so much concentration that my brain just isn't up to it. I'm also fairly certain that my brain function is compromised enough to have slowed my reaction time. All in all, I don't feel anywhere near competent to get behind the wheel of a car and drive any longer than 10 minutes.

Symptom 7 -- Sleep disturbances. Dealing with these has been very strange. I've been sleeping a lot. At the beginning of my recovery I was taking 3-5 short naps every day, as lying down and closing my eyes was the only way to rest my brain. As the recovery continues I'm now a teensy bit more able to deal with sight and sound, and am down to 1-2 naps a day. But I also sleep late in the morning, which is extremely unusual for me. The past few mornings I have been sleeping past 07:00; usually in mid-summer I'm up at first light, or earlier if there's a low tide to be had. I assume all this sleep is what my brain needs to heal.

Every night since the accident I have had crazy, vivid dreams. Some of them are borderline lucid dreams, in which I know I'm dreaming. And then things get sort of meta, when I think "This is a really strange dream I'm having right now."

Symptom 8 -- Changes in appetite. I am constantly hungry. All the time.

Symptom 9 -- Psychological difficulties. I am definitely more irritable than I was before the accident. The niceties of polite conversation feel like such a chore that they just don't seem worthwhile. I never was good at making small talk; now I find that having to do so really taxes my brain and gives me a headache. In this particular regard it seems that my natural introversion has been augmented by the concussion.

I've also noticed that my language filter has deteriorated quite badly. It is much easier these days for f-bombs to escape before I can hold them back. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with the concussion but is because I've been watching "Game of Thrones" and "Orange is the New Black." Those shows will definitely increase one's tolerance for f-bombs and c-bombs.

For about a week after the accident I had flashbacks that occurred randomly throughout the day. I'd feel my body tense up for no apparent reason, then expect to hear the sounds of the collision and explosion of the air bags. I still get that momentary tensing when a white car suddenly appears out of the left side of my field of vision (the car that hit us was a white Honda sedan). And I really don't like being in a car. The flashbacks aren't happening nearly as frequently now, though, and that's a good thing.

Symptom 10 -- Hallucinations. I don't have either visual or auditory hallucinations, per se, but there is almost constantly a snippet of music running through my head. This isn't all that unusual for me; I seem to be very susceptible to infection by earworms. Since the accident one piece that my subconsciousness is obsessed with is Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Why? Who knows. It happens to be the first piece of classical music that I remember from childhood, and maybe that's significant. Other random bits of music running through my head at any given moment are Christmas carols ("Good King Wenceslas"; "Il est né, le divin enfant"; "In dulci jubilo"), old folk tunes ("My darlin' Clementine"), the "Et in terra pax" movement from Vivaldi's Gloria, and lately the opening riff from The Fixx's "Saved by Zero." Is there rhyme or reason to any of this? Not that I can see.


One interesting thing that the neurologist told me was that with concussions, the severity of the symptoms doesn't typically correlate with the prognosis for full recovery or the time it takes to reach full recovery. Very often, he said, patients who report very mild symptoms either take a long time to heal or don't reach 100% recovery. Of course, this led me to ask whether my symptoms would be considered mild, moderate, or severe. He smiled and said that my symptoms are congruent with a full recovery, then warned that it will be a slow process. I shouldn't be surprised if it takes several months or a year not to have any symptoms.

One good sign is that my condition has improved quite a bit since the accident. Now that it's July I need to start working on my class for the fall semester. I'm going to be taking things very slowly and resting/napping as necessary. I will continue to minimize my social activities and very gradually re-enter the world as my brain allows. Although I miss the field activities I had planned to do this summer, I'm learning how to do nothing, which can be sort of rewarding in its own way.

1

Saturday, 21 May 2016 -- We had spent two hours tootling around the bay on Murray's boat and had a late (and for me, second) breakfast at Aldo's at about 11:00. We came out of the upper harbor and turned right onto 7th Avenue. Murray was driving his car, I was in the front passenger seat, and Alex was in the back seat behind me.

We crossed Brommer Street and continued south on 7th Avenue, going maybe 25 mph. I saw a white blur out of the corner of my left eye, a split-second before a car swerved out of the opposing lane and plowed into the front left corner of Murray's car. I heard two distinct bangs: one was the impact itself, which you've heard if you've ever been in or witnessed a fender-bender, and the other was the explosion of the air bags. There was no squeal of brakes and there were no skid marks on either side of the street. Air bags deployed, car got pushed into the curb. Car filled with smoke and dust. A few seconds after the air bags deployed there was a third crash into the windshield directly in front of me. I couldn't see what caused it because of the air bags and smoke, and thought the car was going to blow up with us inside it. The sense of disorientation after a car accident is pretty fierce. What with the loud noises, a car full of smoke and propellant, and air bags blocking the view out, it is really hard to understand what happened.

Fortunately there were several witnesses and passersby who helped us out. The guy in the car behind us was an off-duty out-of-town cop visiting for the weekend with his wife and kids. The passersby got us out of the car and called 911. The guy who hit us was sitting on the sidewalk and the off-duty cop asked him questions. From what I overheard the guy said he was on medication for schizophrenia and thought he was going to the beach; after the collision he had gotten out of the car and run over Murray's car, stumbling or falling onto the windshield which explained how the windshield had gotten broken. He didn't get far before collapsing on the sidewalk, I think. I could see that he was bleeding.

We were in Murray's car, the orange Honda Fit on the left.
We were in Murray's car, the orange Honda Fit on the left. See the inflated air bags and smashed windshield? The white powder is absorbent material that one of the fire fighters poured on the street to soak up all the fluids (mostly radiator fluid, I think) leaking out of the busted cars.

Emergency vehicles--2 fire trucks, 2 ambulances, 2 CHP officers on motorcycles--arrived on the scene after about 10 minutes and had the street blocked almost immediately. EMTs decided that the other guy needed help most; the lead EMT told one of the ambulance drivers that he would be a flyer (which we later learned meant he needed to be airlifted to a trauma center). The three of us were checked out by the EMTs (my blood pressure was 180/110, when it normally is in the 110/60 range--amazing what adrenaline will do) on the street and we decided to go to the ER on our own. The CHP officers asked us what happened and took our statements. One of them gave Murray a case number so he can follow up with his insurance company. Rogan came to pick us up. There wasn't enough room in his car for all of us plus the stuff from Murray's car so he and Alex took the stuff to Murray's house while Murray and I waited for the tow trucks. Tow trucks arrived, smashed cars were hauled away, and Rogan came back to take us all to the ER.

Murray's car being loaded onto the tow truck.
Murray's car being loaded onto the tow truck. Nice view of the side-curtain air bags.

What I don't have a picture of is the passenger side of the car. The rear right wheel, which took the brunt of the force from colliding with the curb, was partially folded underneath the car.

Bottom line: We're all okay, just bruised and battered. Alex and Murray both have nasty contusions from their seat belts. I have a stiff neck, muscle soreness around my ribs, a small abrasion/bruise on my right cheek, a bruised left knee, minor abrasions on my hip bones from the lap belt, and bruises on my right leg from knee to ankle (I think from hitting the dashboard?). The top of my head is starting to feel a bit abraded, nothing serious. We've been told to take it easy and that tomorrow we'll feel worse than we do today. Ibuprofen + ice is the formula for the next several days. No strenuous exercise, either.

All the safety equipment in Murray's car worked exactly as it was supposed to. Air bags kept us from being much more severely injured, and given that the other guy smashed into the windshield exactly where my head would have been, I'm feeling very grateful.

I was able to drive home, but confess to being leery driving on Mission Street. Passing within a few feet of cars going the opposite direction gave me the heebie-jeebies.

So, no working the tides this weekend for me. I'm glad it's not one of the spring's better low tide series.

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