Boojum

Hiking up the steep, crumbly hills covered in cactii, wearing sandals may not have seemed like the best idea in hindsight, but it was all I had on this cloudy February morning. I paused to pick some cactus needles out of my sandals as I proceeded up the incline. We were following Don Manuel, a member of the Comcaac community of Desomboque, where we visited for our staff camping retreat. He was taking us on a journey to find the Boojum tree, which only grows in Baja California and this part of the mountain range in Sonora.

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The small teddybear cholla cactus along the path was positioned like a sentinel, as if to say “you shall not pass!”

This rare tree looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss novel. They have large upright trunks with small branches popping out all over like a real-life lollipop tree. They are named “Cirios” in Spanish, for they resemble the shape of church bells. At last, we encounter several of these individuals.

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The Boojum trees and I

Superstition follows that touching a Boojum tree will cause a storm, and sure enough we got rained on hiking into a valley covered with quartz. Though I collected my fair share of clear crystals, I got soaked while waiting for the boat to take us back to Kino Bay.

The main purpose of our journey was to facilitate a screening of the documentary, Patrimonio (Heritage), for the community in Desemboque. The movie tells the story of a community of fishermen who fight for the rights to their beaches against a large development firm. The director and one of the protagonists visited us in Kino the weekend prior, where they shared their experiences and discussed social justice issues. We took them on a tour of the islands around the Gulf, seeing dolphins and many blue-footed boobies flying about.

A large sea turtle lets out a deep sigh as she moves her flippers frantically about, trying to slide back off the boat into the ocean. She is caught as a part of a sea turtle monitoring program run by Grupo Tortuguero, one of the community groups here in the Gulf focused on sea turtle conservation. Our boats collide just as they take the turtle out of the large net and into the boat, where I have the chance to see her up close. Her face is covered with barnacles, of which this kind are only found on sea turtles.

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A green sea turtle, one of 600 captured and released by Grupo Tortuguero as part of a large-scale conservation effort

We take the sea turtle to the shore of Laguna la Crusz where Comcaac community youth are waiting for the demonstration. The boat captain weighs and takes measurements of the turtle and conducts an overall health assessment. Finally, she is released back into the ocean, where she quickly swims off after struggling about on land for so long.

Afterwards, we walk along the mangroves of Laguna la Cruz to a restaurant, where oysters are caught fresh from the water. I enjoy them with several other kinds of seafood in a kind of cocktail with tomatoes and cucumbers. Then we shuck cayo, a kind of clam, for a bit and I slurp down the smooth insides with hotsauce and lime. The seafood is fresh from the lagoon and the minimal pollution makes it safe to eat. As long as pollution and coastal development is minimized and oysters are harvested sustainably, these delicacies can be enjoyed long into the future.

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My first Campechana, a coctail of clams, oysters, and other seafood from Laguna la Cruz

 

My first month in Mexico

My first month in Mexico has been a whirlwind. After the long journey south, I arrive in the town of Hermosillo, surprised by how much it resembles an LA or Texas suburb (except everything was in Spanish). I had some delicious Huitlacoche empanadas and spent a fortune on groceries at Costco.

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My first meal in Mexico: Empanadas of Huitlacoche, a kind of special mushroom that grows on corn.

I spent the day sleeping mostly and getting introduced to my beautiful beachfront property. Though I sleep in a tent, there is WiFi and showers and an equipped kitchen, where fellow center workers make delicious meals!

I went on an excursion with the bird team to what seemed like an oasis in the desert, filled with saguaro and organ pipe cactii. It turns out it was an estuary right by the ocean, filled with hundreds of waterfowl.

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An organ pipe cactus and the desert oasis, an estuary by the sea.

I went with the team again on a boat to an island in the gulf of California called Alcatraz. Here, pelicans, cormorants, and blue footed boobies make their nests. While the birders whipped out their scopes, I went on an adventure up the rocky volcanic slopes, slipped a few times, and eventually had to turn around to avoid disturbing the cormorant rookery. I saw a cute little cactus wren, too!

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A cactus wren on Alcatraz island

Though there’s been a fair share of work too. I had some amazing tacos in town to reward myself for finishing an inventory of the library—amazing fresh tortillas and carne asada!

I got the chance to explore the landscape a bit with the geomorphology class. We went on a hike up to the peak of a volcanic rock, with some interesting features along the way. Hiking through the brush and spiny plants, we made our way to a cave which had Comca’ac drawings from the indigenous people who live in this region. The cave even had bats flying around which was pretty cool.

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Any guesses what this cave drawing means?

I made my way up to the peak looking out at the cactti-dotted landscape. I slipped going back down and had to jump a few feet, scraping against the rock face. It was a gorgeous hike in a unique desert mountain landscape.

The surrounding islands are equally desert like. On a boat tour with the marine mammal monitoring group, we went far out to the midriff islands, seeing fur seals and sea lions and tons of birds like blue footed bookies, red billed tropic birds, and cormorants. Some of the islands were small and others huge, many had interesting colors of the full rainbow spectrum. On the largest island, we ran into a pod of dolphins and a sea lion jumping out of the water and playing in the surf of the speed boat.

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Alcatraz island, one of the many midriff islands in the Gulf of Mexico

It has been so much fun tagging along with the geomorphology class to learn about coastal geology. I spent an afternoon on a beautiful isolated beach to learn how it had formed from granite and basalt rock.  I also saw a sea hare in the intertidal pools formed.  An interesting way that people have changed the landscape was that the aquaculture industry produced so much sediment that it formed a sandbar, causing the waves to break sooner before getting to the shore.

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The Gulf of California.

After the lessons, wee ended by running down a sand dune which was a lot of work to hike up but so much fun sliding down the steep surface. It was almost like running through the Sahara!

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Sand dunes–and these were the “small dunes.”

La La Land

The full moon rises over the Conejo valley as the sunset glows a hot red, enhanced by the particles in the atmosphere from the fire smoke. Evacuated to a friend’s place, I watch two whole seasons of cartoons in two days. Honestly, it’s not a bad start to my life in Los Angeles.

I shovel goat and horse poo, sneeze through the Peppertrees, and feed a turquoise-blue iguana worms. Why did I give up my PhD just to work this job in LA?

Because I was misled. I was given false promises of helping on a reintroduction project, and in the end it just wasn’t possible. But, just cause I couldn’t participate in one doesn’t mean my journey ends here. I’m determined, and even have leads on a project bringing back howler monkeys in Costa Rica this winter. My time as a conservation biologist isn’t over, yet!

The same eucalyptus that was in the forest of my fieldsite outside Sydney still haunts me here. All the vegetation is different; agave, desert plants, and lots of palms grow everywhere. A monarch flutters by over the chaparral terrain; a highly flammable landscape, especially with the strong Santa Ana winds this time of year means occasional evacuations.

I climb up the hill on the campus where I work to the House of the Book, the set where the big boss from power rangers was filmed. Supposedly, lots of films were shot here, including Jurassic Park and a scene from Chuck.

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In exchange for shoveling horse poo, occasionally we get to ride across the famous campus

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I watch the sun set over the pacific as I learn wilderness safety skills, hiking through the towering redwood trees down to the beach to practice scenarios to administer first aid. On the way back from the beautiful mountain view, I wake up to catch the colors of a gorgeous sunrise. Not a bad first trip in LA!

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Not quite sunrise, but an unforgettable sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the cabin I stayed in as part of my wilderness first aid course.

Stopping by the elephant seals on the way home, I’m excited by their strange noises and awkward movements as they inch themselves forward on the sand before collapsing in a pile to cuddle and scratch themselves in the sun.

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A male elephant seal sunning himself–what a life! Check out that long snout.

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I’ve picked up new hobbies since I’ve moved to LA. I went climbing for the first time! It was exhausting hiking 7 miles in with all the equipment through thorny oak thickets and red manzanita trees lining the walk. At the top, Malibu and LA are in view as well as the Channel Islands. It was nerve wracking scaling my first cliff, called corpse wall, but the encouragement from my new friends below and support from my trusted colleagues helped me climb, hand over foot, to the top. Some crevices were easier to traverse than others, but nothing was more exhilarating than to realize I’d climbed 60 feet up a vertical rock face to the beautiful view of the Valley at the top!

I also went climbing at night, which is challenging and scary, but I made it through! I just climbed for my third time outdoors this past weekend. There are so many gorgeous spots around LA. I went on a beautiful hike through Malibu Creek—with rolling hills that look a bit like Jurassic Park (though M*A*S*H* was filmed here). I can’t wait to keep exploring all of the nature in the city.

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M*A*S*H* was filmed here to imitate the hills of Korea. Looks more like Jurassic Park to me!

Plastic Spells Trouble for Sea Turtles

Sea turtles swim throughout the open ocean, grazing on algae and other foods. Some sea turtles, such as the leatherback sea turtle, like to snack on jellyfish, and have thick skin to protect their mouths from jellyfish stingers.

However, pieces of plastic floating in the ocean can resemble jellyfish, especially from the perspective of a hungry sea turtle. Sea turtles can accidentally consume plastic debris, causing health problems and even death.

Sea turtles can become entangled in other marine debris, like plastic six pack rings and fishing lines, preventing them from being able to swim or eat. Pollution on beaches can even trap sea turtle hatchlings, stopping them in their tracks on their way to the sea.

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The endangered hawksbill sea turtle!

Plastic pollution most often comes from inland sources and is carried by rivers to the sea, where currents carry them out to remote areas of the ocean. Other wildlife are affected by ocean pollution as well, from birds to whales, which also accidentally consume plastic. Even marine invertebrates, the main food source for many other forms of marine wildlife, are harmed by consuming marine debris, affecting the whole marine ecosystem.

Plastic pollution isn’t just bad news for wildlife and oceans; it can also harm people! Plastics that are consumed by the seafood people eat can cause an array of health problems, and pollution caused by discarded fishing nets that entangle sea turtles can even have a negative impact on the economy. Helping prevent plastic pollution not only helps wildlife but also can help you and your family.

Ocean trash originates from inland areas near you, which means that it can also be reduced at the source. Here is what you can do to help reduce ocean plastic pollution and help the sea turtles:

  • try to avoid using plastic straws, which can end up in the ocean and can be responsible for causing harm to wildlife;
  • bring re-useable bags with you to grocery stores to avoid using plastic bags, which can contribute to marine debris;
  • and find out other tips here.

 

Sources:

Jervis Bay

My final destination in Australia is perhaps the most beautiful.

Arriving by happenstance at sunset, I set up camp just as the red glow reflects on the pool of Honeymoon beach, a classic Sydney destination. I watch in awe as dozens of bottle-nosed dolphins swim by as the last lights go down on Jervis Bay.

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Honeymoon beach at Jervis Bay

Climbing on the rocky outcrops to get a closer view, I enjoy a beer with my fellow PhD students. A few eastern grey kangaroos pass by the campsite, and kookaburas perch on a nearby gum tree eagerly awaiting a snack.

The next day I take my time on a nice walk down to an isolated beach, called Silicon cove, named for the silky white sand lining the coast. The fact that not one soul on the beach is hauntingly beautiful, and I quickly hike back to my friends.

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My favorite beach!

We drive out to the cliffs overlooking Jarvis Bay, and to our surprise, we glimpse humpback whales breaching! We perch on the sheer drop (which I surprisingly inch myself out to the cliff of, staring in awe as the bright blue waves crash on the rocks starkly below). I’m amazed by the climbers going straight as we welcome the whales back from their long migration across the Pacific.

We continue exploring these jaw dropping cliffs, carved in sheer limestone. White bellied sea eagles entertain from above as they swoop down over the ocean, catching fish as I stumble over the rough terrain. All sorts of beautiful song birds line the thick coastal heath trail. Cockatoos, honeyeaters, and a stunning fairy wren are among my favorites.

What a wonderful trip to conclude my time in Australia!

Flight from the Thailand Coronation

Bangkok

The taxi driver was frantically explaining how the police were setting up blockades as we negotiated a ride to the airport. It was time for the king’s coronation, and we just barely escaped as the city was shutting down for the most momentous day in Thailand.

I was so scared about eating food due to my peanut allergy, but in my first night in Bangkok all I had to do was to motion to leave peanuts off–and I had my first delicious pad thai as a welcome to the country! I even tried a scorpion head, which was distinctly crunchy. I also had to fend off lady-boys grabbing me in the streets; I didn’t feel super safe in Khao San Road.

However, I had a great time touring the temples of Bangkok during the day. The grand palace was aptly named; the incredible decor, fascinating murals on the walls detailing history, and the ornate temples gave meaning to a place where the new king was soon to be crowned.

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At the Grand Temple palace, the site of the King’s coronation

We visited a huge reclining buddha statue with some of the best decorated feet I’ve seen in my life. We also stopped by a floating market, tasting some delicious rice pudding out of a coconut. My friends insisted on a river boat tour to see Wat Rong Khun, and we saw a water monitor and people coming up to us in boats to sell trinkets.

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Water taxi tour of the Bangkok temples, avoiding the traffic from the King’s coronation

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A very large reclining statue of buddha. The feet had very ornate drawings!

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Wat Rong Khun

I was in awe at sharp white spires of the final temple on our tour.

Ao Nang

I was immediately struck by the pandora-esque landscapes before me, with large green hils erupting suddenly along the roadside. I later learned the karst limestone cliffs formed from volcanic cones bubbling to the surface, then eroding over the millenia into the wonderous shapes (my favorite of which was shaped like a hand).

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Even the hostel sat at the base of the wondrous cliffs. Not far from the beach, we watched the sunset over the bay, dubbed “ugly beach” as it seemed in comparison to the others we saw the next day.

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Though I was sick from a green tea milkshake smoothie we had our first day, I could still appreciate the cerulean waters and fish that came to greet us. It was like seeing old friends: parrotfish and moorish idols swimming around my feet and several new kinds of coral that only exist in the world famous “coral triangle”–stretching from Indonesia to Australia to the pacific ocean.

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I almost fainted from the heat on what was probably the most beautiful beach in the world, second only to Railay beach where I took shelter in the shade of the karst caves where a fertility shrine was built.

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The fertility shrine offered shade and a wonderful view of Railay beach!

The next day, my strength returned and we hiked over 1200 steps to the tiger temple in the midday sun. It was very hard and hot but the views of the rolling hills from the top were worth it. The buddha statue at the top was also very impressive, and the wind kept the space cool.

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Amazing karst limestone landscapes! The “Tiger Temple” has the best view in town

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The temple was named for the tiger print left in the rock at the base of the temple. It was interesting seeing people bring offerings and gifts to the monks as we rested in the shade after the arduous hike.

Personally, I enjoyed playing with the long tailed macaques at the bottom, who were not as aggressive as the ones in Angkor Wat. They were keeping cool by the waterfall, eating fruit and occasionally investigating the tourists for food.

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A long tailed macaque enjoying a piece of pineapple.

We ended the trip with one delicious passion/dragon fruit smoothie-worth the traveler’s diarrhea I got from it.

We watched what was probably the most beautiful sunset over the “ugly beach” celebrating two years since graduating from Rice with my best friends from Martel college.

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A collared kingfisher enjoying the sunset view with us at Ao Nang

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Reunited with my college roommate in Krabi, Thailand!

Singapore: SciArt, Foodie’s Paradise & The Future

I stand in awe at the top of Marina Bay Sands watching the skyline of Singapore come to life as it turns from gray to blue to purple and white. The rooftop bar turns into a club at night with the best view in town, where I can see the light-show from the Gardens by the Bay. These electronic trees are mesmerizing as I watch from the skybridge to the tunes of “staying alive” and other hits from the ’80s.

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Gardens By the Bay. The artificial trees put on a show as we danced along the skybridge, and my friend taught me West Coast swing.

 

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Marina Bay Sands Hotel

The architecture of the buildings is incredibly aesthetic, and many are designed with the environment in mind, including green roofs for insulation. My favorite was the cloud forest dome, an art exhibit covered with flora from the cloud forest, my favorite biome. The gorgeous wall of greenery and stunning lighting displays at night highlighted the best these ecosystems have to offer. Unfortunately, because they are so sensitive to change by climate change, will this be the last remnants of these forests?

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The cloud forest dome, featuring the flora of one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems

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A long-tailed macaque, following us along the trail of Bukit Timah nature reserve.

I was impressed to see how much nature was still intact in Singapore. I woke up at dawn to see monkeys in Bukit Timah reserve along the MacRitchie water catchment, where I spotted a water monitor, a plantain squirrel, and plenty of long-tailed macaques. Hiking to the canopy walk, which was closed, we came back the next day only to get caught in a rainstorm. Still the lush rainforest was gorgeous, and even the botanical garden had a small patch with sunbirds and butterflies flitting around the orchids. My favorite orchid genus, Aranda, had a whole section!

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A water monitor cruising through MacRitchie Water Catchment

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A plantain squirrel. If you look closely, you can see the skin flaps under the arms that allow her to glide through the canopy!

Science fuses with art all around the city, which springs to life at night with an almost magical aura. I watch with my friend, a mechanical engineer, as she explains to me how her company, ARUP, built the tower with their sleek design team. They also designed the “DNA Bridge” connecting Marina Bay Sands to the fun wharves, like Clark Quay across the way where I got a Turkish delight ice cream surprise in the upbeat neighborhood. I originally had an oolong tea ice cream that I tossed out in exchange from this charismatic Turkish ice cream scooper. He made eye contact with me, motioned for me to toss out my cone, and he played a trick where he gave me a new scoop of thick, creamy vanilla which I didn’t mind one bit!

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The “DNA” bridge, also designed by ARUP, and the Science and Art Museum

We dined on some of the most unique and delicious food I’ve had in my life. It was like being in one huge Chinatown: walking down the street grabbing Durian ice cream, having soup dumplings, then eating some Michelin star “Chicken & Rice,” approved by the famous TV food guru.  I could’ve sat and ate all day long (and we did!) going to the Hawker-style food courts, enjoying braised duck with noodles and soursop and ice for dessert, all for less than $5! There were these rosewater milkshakes called milo dinosaurs (Milo being an Aussie chocolate powder drink sprinkled on top of a fruity delight).

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The Michelin star restaurant found at a Hawker’s market

My favorite dish was the black carrot cake. A bit of a misnomer, this dish is egg based and has a “melt-in-your-mouth” texture reminiscent of flan . However it is very chewy, smooth consistency, and absolutely paired well with a light dinner after a long walk along the marina bay sands’s most touristy hawkers market. I remember gawking at the “overpriced” $4 cake!

Walking through Chinatown, it was clear to see the influence of the Chinese immigrants that built the community. I even had the chance to take a stroll through the Hindu temples in Little India, the community built by the Indian immigrants. The shops were lined with spices and I even picked up an umbrella to keep dry from the pouring rain. Touring further along the easily accessibly train line, Chinese temples adorned the streets and gave a teaser of what was to come in Bangkok. I really enjoyed learning about the buddhist customs and traditions, and monks and religious patrons were lighting incense in honor of a holiday at one of the temples.

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The Jewel: This shopping complex made me feel like I was in the future!

On my return layover, I never even had to leave Changxi airport. From exploring The Jewel to the butterfly garden, I was in awe of how futuristic the place was.

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The butterfly garden in ChangXi Airport

There was a sad aspect as well, as everything was automated, I ordered food from machines and went the whole day without speaking to another soul. Is this the future–machine run and nature existing only behind closed domes?