james hehre

Do not adjust your monitor

By James Hehre

Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia, the ultimate repository for knowledge in the new millennium, has this to say about the water monitor lizard:

“The Water monitor, (Varanus salvator) is a large species of monitor lizard capable of growing to 3.21 metres (10.5 ft) in length, with the average size of most adults at 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) long. Maximum weight of Varanus salvator can be over 25 kilograms (55 lb), but most are half that size. Their body is muscular with a long, powerful, laterally compressed tail. Water monitors are one of the most common monitor lizards found throughout Asia, and range from Sri Lanka, India, Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and various islands of Indonesia, living in areas close to water… Water Monitors are carnivores, and have a wide range of foods. They are known to eat fish, frogs, rodents, birds, crabs, and snakes. In the Philippines they are known as chicken lizards because of their predilection for eating domestic fowl.”

I didn’t know any of this as I lay tucked in my mosquito net on the porch of the fieldhouse where I sleep. It was dawn. I felt a tickling on my feet and awoke to a four-foot lizard tickling my mosquito repellent covered feet with its long, snake-like tongue. I’m not sure the exact thought that flashed through my still groggy brain. I think it was something like, ”Wow. That is a really big lizard. I wonder if it bites.”

This particular lizard seemed unconcerned with me, brushing past and striding purposefully (well at least as purposefully as a lizard can appear) into the fieldhouse. The situation was resolved easily enough. I roused myself and walked around the house to the kitchen area, where, taking up the housekeeper’s broom, I confronted my guest and invited him out the door. He didn’t take much convincing. Water monitors are considered tasty by many in the Philippines and he seemed to be taking no chances, choosing to leave the way he came, probably content to feast on the local chickens which coincidentally had been disappearing lately.

James Hehre/Project Seahorse

James Hehre/Project Seahorse

The monitor lizard was by no means the first animal I’ve encountered during my stay at the field house, and actually our bamboo-and-thatch base of operations also serves as home to all kinds of plants and animals, from fungus and algae to termites, centipedes, spiders, land crabs, and a host of lizards, toads, mice, shrews, bats, birds, one really big snake, and at least one really huge rat like the one that got stuck in my research assistant Gerry’s mosquito net several nights ago. I awoke to the spectacle of the two of them doing racetrack laps around the inside of the net, with Gerry occasionally lifting an edge in an attempt to let himself or the rat out, though at the time it wasn’t entirely clear which. Now was it clear who was more traumatized by the event, Gerry or his guest. Stifling my laughter, I eventually set them both free. (As Charles Shultz says, humour is when the rock falls on someone else’s head.)

The fieldhouse contains an interesting and diverse ecosystem. At its most basic definition, an ecosystem is simply all of the organisms in an area and the non-living things they interact with like sunlight, water, and soil. An ecosystem can be contained within a small puddle with only a few components or it can be as large and complicated and contain thousands of components like the coral reefs in my own study. Of course the fieldhouse could be considered an artificial ecosystem, one that doesn’t occur normally in nature because it’s based around a man-made structure.

As an ecologist I think it would be really interesting to compare the number and kinds of different animals that live in the house to the animals that lived on this particular patch of land before the house was built. It might be reasonable to expect the number to be less, since trees and shrubs that naturally provide habitat had to be removed to build the house.

But it’s also possible that building the house may have actually created more available food and shelter, so it may contain more animals than before.  The answer may lie in the condition of the land before the house was built. A fieldhouse built on a pristine tract of jungle might displace more animals than a fieldhouse built on land that had already been cleared for agriculture. (It would actually be a bit more complicated that, and would also depend on other things like the size and type of house and maybe how many other houses were nearby.)

It’s an interesting question, and not unlike the research that I’m conducting on seaweed farms on shallow coral habitat. Seaweed farms placed on pristine coral will probably have a deleterious effect because of trampling, shading, and because people remove the coral to keep it from cutting the lines which hold the seaweed in place.

But in the Danajon Bank, where I am working, there is very little pristine coral remaining. Most of it has been subjected to decades of dynamite and cyanide fishing, kai kai (which is breaking the coral apart with an iron bar to get at the fish and other animals hiding inside), and coral mining for roads, piers, and fish farms. So I’m curious whether putting a seaweed farm in an area that has already been disturbed may actually create new sources of food and shelter for the fish and other animals that live on the reef.

I guess in that light, the water monitor who came into the house (probably looking to turn Gerry’s midnight guest, the rat, into dinner) was only performing his role as the top predator in our fieldhouse ecosystem. Next time I suppose I will leave him alone to do his job.

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. 

Cheapskate

By James Hehre

When I’m in the field I become obsessed with logistics — the art and science of getting myself and all of my stuff from one place to another, ideally in one piece or several large, easily fixable pieces. This is probably because logistics takes up a significant chunk of my time here in the Philippines. When I’m not moving my stuff from research site to research site, I’m usually setting my stuff up or getting permission to do things. If there’s any time left over, I get to do some actual science.

Okay, I exaggerate. (A little.)

Anyway, when I decided to trek to the southern part of Bohol to look at seaweed farming in seagrass ecosystems (which I plan to compare to seaweed farming in shallow coral ecoystems, the focus of my own study), I was confident I could do it on the cheap. I had a room booked, and the hotel even offered to send a van to pick me up in the town of Tagbilaran once I arrived.

“Pila? (How much?)” I asked.

“Only 500 peso sir.”

500 pesos! What was I, a tourist? There was no way I was going to spend 500 pesos to go a mere 15 kilometres!

To give you an idea, 500 pesos is the equivalent of about 12 dollars. The jeepney, the local equivalent of a bus (called a jeepney because they were initially constructed of jeeps left by the US army after WWII) costs about eight pesos, or $0.25 to go the same distance. I sensibly opted for the latter.

Three motorcycles, an outrigger canoe, trike and van ride later, I arrived at the public market in Tagbilaran and easily located my jeepney because it had “PANGLAO” — my destination — written on the side in large, friendly neon pink letters. I entered through the back and, since I was the first person aboard, had my choice of seats.

Seating in a jeepney requires some strategy for longer rides. Sit too far forward near the driver and you wind up having to pass fare change back and forth for everyone getting on and off. Sit too close to the rear door and everyone getting on and off climbs over you. I sat forward and on the right because a swarm of red ants had chosen to nest in the opposite seat.

By the time we had picked up all the people just off from work and every schoolkid destined for Panglao, we were carrying somewhere in the neighborhood of forty. This particular jeepney could probably seat 10 people comfortably. The passengers were squished together and sitting on each other’s laps across the benches and plastic stools placed down the middle aisle. Boys were piled on the roof with my dive bag and they clung to rails along the back and sides.

Since I was fortunate enough to be the first on, I was pinned against the wall that separated the back from the driver’s compartment. I couldn’t move my legs or arms an inch, but I had an excellent view of the driver and the road ahead. He was an amazing man, a paragon of efficiency. He could shift, smoke a cigarette, talk on the cell phone, make change, and if time permitted, actually steer — all at the same time. And as if to show off his multitasking super powers, he even yelled out to a woman who was getting off that she had forgotten to pay. How he even knew she was on the bus, let alone that she hadn’t paid, is a mystery to me. For a moment I considered taking a leave from my thesis to train as a jeepney driver. Acquiring his skills would definitely be an asset in my line of work.

As we bumped down a hot, dusty, potholed maze of dirt roads somewhere in the middle of the island, we started down a small incline and I couldn’t help but notice that the driver's right leg was suddenly pumping up and down faster and faster, the universal signal for “no brakes.”  For all his effort, it was having no appreciable effect on the bus as we careened down the hill. It was when he actually put down his cell phone and grabbed the wheel with both hands that I began to worry.

Luckily, it wasn’t a very steep hill. When we reached the bottom and began up a small incline we gradually rolled to a standstill, and then rolled backwards to the bottom again where we finally came to a gentle stop. The cabin was filled with the acrid smell of burning brakes. The people around me were quite casual, as though this happened all the time. They hopped down onto the road and disappeared into the evening.

Since I was the first on, I was also the last off.  The last remaining schoolkid slid my huge bag of dive gear down from the roof and walked off. I suddenly noticed something very odd. Except for the driver, I was alone. It was as though forty people had suddenly vanished. I looked at the driver and said, “Sa dagat?” (Which way to the ocean?) He grunted and pointed in the direction we’d been heading and returned to his burning brakes.

I slung the heavy bag of dive gear over my shoulder and began what was to amount to about a three-mile walk as the sun faded and darkness fell around me. It occurred to me as I walked alone in the quiet, muggy night, watching the arcing shapes of giant fruit bats silhouetted against the blackening sky, that 500 pesos suddenly seemed like a bargain. 

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Language lessons

By James Hehre

Lying on my back, looking up at coconut trees, I remembered reading somewhere that more people are killed annually by falling coconuts than by sharks. Doing research about the impacts of seaweed farming on coral reefs, the kind occasionally frequented by sharks, this kind of statistic would normally be comforting. But as I stared at the green fronds and large clusters of coconuts above me, I had to wonder if it was really true. At the moment it somehow seemed important.

The droning of a nearby motorbike broke my reverie. The sound brought to mind someone trying to fight off a swarm of angry bees with a chainsaw. Back in the bustling city of Cebu, I was used to holding on to the back of small motorcycles as we weaved through traffic at breakneck speed. They were loud, cheap, and great at cutting through traffic. But riding on the remote islands where I do my research was a completely different ballgame.

There are no cars on Jandayan Island, so motorbikes are the preferred form of transportation. The driver greeted me at the pier by pointing to the back of his well-used ride. Like most locals, he was used to people from Project Seahorse coming and going for various research projects over the years. He knew my destination without my saying a word.

The only road on the island is a four-foot strip of uneven concrete that winds down from the dock to a village on the far end.  We covered the first mile pretty quickly, swerving around goats, chickens, pigs and coconuts.  Along the way, the driver decided to act as a tour guide, turning completely around to face me as he pointed to something and then carefully pronouncing the word in Cebuano (the local dialect) for me to repeat. I did my best to keep the names in my head, hoping that a quick answer would give him more time to watch the road. But the combination of trying to keep my muddy feet on the pegs so I wouldn’t burn against the muffler, and wrestling the huge equipment bag that threatened to flip me off the back with every bump, pothole, and turn was making it really hard to concentrate.

 Apparently, the local custom for taking the many blind curves along the road is to honk the horn and then enter the corner at full speed, trusting that whoever, or whatever was on the other side had the good sense and speed to get out of the way.

For the most part this system seems to work fairly well for almost everyone involved. Water buffalo, however do not seem to hold on local custom. This may be due to their somewhat relaxed nature, or it may be that over time they’ve been conditioned to realize that all they really need to do is stay put and people eventually move around them. Either way, the water buffalo standing in the middle of the road as we rounded the corner at full speed did not seem particularly inclined to move one way or another and simply stood fast in the center of the road. I swear he was smiling.

In a split second, the driver veered to the right, dumping the bike and after a brief flight we landed in a heap in a muddy coconut grove, which is where I now found myself, sprawled awkwardly, tangled up with my bag, contemplating the palm fronds rustling gently above me in the morning breeze.

Arms? Check. Legs? Check. Head? Possibly but not necessarily. I'd been saved by mud, sticky, orange mud, which now covered me head to toe.  The driver popped up and with a “happens all the time” shrug, righted the droning bike. The water buffalo looked over its shoulder, curious about all of the fuss. Flashing a gapped-tooth grin the driver pointed toward the buffalo and said, "caribao" the Cebuano word for water buffalo.

“Caribao,” I repeated to him, climbing back onto the bike behind him. “Caribao. I’ll try to remember that one”.

Project Seahorse team member and PhD student James Hehre is studying the impact of seaweed farming on reef ecosystems in the Danajon Bank, Philippines. 

A fresh start in the Philippines

By James Hehre

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Sitting on the bow of the outrigger canoe I can feel the staccato thump of the engine through the hull as it skims across the water toward a small island in the distance. From here you can only see a thin green line of mangroves on the horizon. It’s a perfect day, warm and cloudless.

Long ago these islands in the central Philippines must have been paradise. I wonder what they would have looked like to the very first people who settled here. At first glance from a distance everything looks so pristine, but that’s an illusion. To really understand what is going on you have to look under the water, and that’s why I’m here.

I should start by saying that to the best of my knowledge there is no history of mental illness in my family. I say this because my decision to quit my job at the age of 40 and move myself, my wife, and brand new baby to another country to pursue a PhD in Conservation Biology has been characterized by some within my circle of friends and family as less than sane. 

After more than a decade in the ecotourism business, I wanted to DO something. Something that would make a difference. Something, ideally, that would illuminate how one small piece of the world works and help people to protect the environment.

The project I chose involves trying to figure out whether seaweed farming has an impact on the coral ecosystems that form an important part of coastal marine habitats. If it does, can the impact of seaweed farming be measured? I want to know whether seaweed farming creates new habitat for fish, and can therefore help the environment, or whether it damages the environment by killing corals. 

Seaweed farming is a major global industry that is growing incredibly fast. Yet most people are unaware that seaweed is even farmed at all.  Seaweed is used in too many consumer products to count: everything from food and diet soda, to make-up and toothpaste, to industrial lubricants and medicine. The list goes on and on.

Seaweed farming a big deal in the Philippines, where my project is based. The shallow coral reefs that surround the hundreds of islands in the Central Visayas are ideal for growing just the right type of seaweed for export, which is why this region is one of the biggest producers on the world. As fish and other sealife have begun to disappear, thanks to overfishing and pollution, more and more families rely on seaweed farms to earn a living. The problem is that nobody really knows what all of this farming will do to the reef ecosystems. Over the next few years that’s exactly what I’m going to try to figure out.

So here I am, sitting in the prow of a canoe, halfway around the world from home, wondering how I’m going to pull this off. I’m feeling some pressure to succeed, for the sake of my wife and baby, for my advisor who believed me when I said that I could do this, and for my own sake. I’ve done my homework and I have a plan.  Yet a part of me can’t help but think that maybe I am a little crazy.

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. You can follow his ongoing adventures in the Philippines on this blog.

Making connections

By James Hehre

The first three days here at the IMCC have been absolutely crazy. My time has been divided between volunteering at the conference, helping out at our Project Seahorse booth, and dashing between a variety of different focus groups and lectures. Like most delegates, I took the time to find the talks related to my own research.

Yet it seems the best connections I’ve made here have come from random introductions and talks I hadn’t planned to attend. For instance, yesterday evening I dropped in to a discussions about plant species that have invaded Hawaii’s coral reefs. What at first seemed unrelated to my own work was in fact relevant in unexpected ways. Researchers from the Nature Conservancy are investigating how plant-eating fish can be used to manage invasive algae that are threatening to consume a reef off the coast of Maui. 

My project looks at how seaweed farming in the Philippines may actually be subsidizing the diet of rabbitfish, an algae-eating reef fish. I plan to use stable isotopes to find out if the fish are eating farmed seaweed and if so, how much. It sounds complicated but it’s actually relatively straightforward: certain types of elements called isotopes are distributed differently throughout the environment and by measuring them in the muscles of the fish, we can tell whether they have been eating the seaweed. The isotopes act like a natural dye marker.

And then I find myself in a room with scientists who are working investigating seaweed, seaweed-eating fish, and are using stable isotopes. The acquaintances I’ve made here will probably be very important to my project.

It’s these surprising, unexpected connections that make conferences such as the IMCC so worthwhile.

James Hehre is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse.