Two Weeks On Carrie Bow

I’m just wrapping up the annual MarineGEO monitoring and experimental campaign in Belize, and what a couple of weeks it’s been! This year, like previous years, we did Reef Life Survey (RLS) fish and invertebrate surveys in fore reef, patch reef, seagrass, mangrove, and sand habitats, but we also beefed up our Squidpop and Weedpop deployments with the added element of GoPros. We also had a communications expert on-island from Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal to help us spread the word about our field efforts and orchestrate a Facebook live event that gave viewers a tour of the island we work on, Carrie Bow Cay.

Carrie Bow Cay (pronounced ‘key’) is a <1 acre island 12 miles off the coast of Belize on the southern end of the Yucatan Peninsula perched atop the world’s second-largest barrier reef (you may have heard of it’s big sister, the GREAT Barrier Reef.) It’s been used as a Smithsonian research station for over 40 years has played a key role in teaching us about reef ecosystems. This year, to better understand how predation and herbivory by fishes shapes marine habitats on reefs and adjacent habitats, we filmed our Squidpop and Weedpop assays with ten GoPro cameras for one hour each. The cameras were attached to dive weights and watched as various fishes nibbled and pecked at the squid and algal offerings we laid out for them.

We also took our communications game to a new level this year by holding our annual ‘Science Cafe’ community outreach event at the Pelican Resort in Dangriga, Belize, and streaming a Facebook Live event from Carrie Bow itself. You can see an archived version of that streaming tour on the Ocean Portals Facebook page.

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An ARMS Load Of Critters

It’s the last week of MarineGEO-Hakai joint operations, and the creature tally is through the roof (1000+ at last count). Teams from the Smithsonian, Hakai Institute, and countless universities and field stations have gathered at Calvert Island on the British Columbia Central Coast to do something that’s never been done here before: identify as many marine species as they possibly can in three weeks. It’s called a ‘BioBlitz’, and it’s filling in all the missing gaps on our species lists from the tiniest amphipod to the largest ling cod (check out Hakai’s BioBlitz great “pump up” video here.)

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The Hakai Institute is located about 400km (250mi) north of Vancouver, BC on the central coast of British Columbia. Half-way between the continental US and Alaska, it sits right at the coastal edge of Canada’s beautiful Great Bear Rainforest.

I’m here for two reasons: to conduct visual fish surveys using the Reef Life Survey method, which has been used on a global scale to quantify fish abundance and diversity; and to help process the ARMS. What are ARMS? Well, ‘ARMS’ stands for Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures, and they’re basically like a layered-cake of PVC plates that we deploy in rock or coral reef environments. We let them soak for a year or two, then collect them to identify and count all the critters that have colonized its surface. This includes things like bryozoans (a kind of underwater “moss-animal”), tunicates (sea squirts), and barnacles, that use the ARMS as a substrate to settle and attach to. It also includes all the tiny mobile organisms that use the spaces between the plates of the ARMS for shelter like tiny crabs, sea spiders, and worms. It’s a great method for getting a snapshot of community diversity in a standardized way.

The ARMS here at Hakai were deployed in three types of habitats: bull kelp forest, giant kelp forest, and bare rock (also called ‘urchin barrens’ because all the seaweed has been eaten by voracious grazing sea urchins.) They’ve been soaking for just about a year, and the results are truly spectacular. I had my doubts that we would see very much on the plates because typically one year isn’t considered enough time to really get a good diversity of critters, particularly in cold-water environments like British Columbia. Luckily, I was grossly mistaken. A strong Spring-pulse of settlement this year brought an amazing abundance of organisms to the plates and each retrieval reveals a treasure trove of marine diversity. The ARMS processing team should finish with all 12 of the retrieved ARMS later this week (four replicates of each habitat type.) After that it’s just a matter of collating all the data and waiting for the taxonomists to identify some of the more unusual specimens. Already we’ve seen hundreds of species from dozens of phyla, perhaps we’ll even have some undescribed species in the mix! For a great pictorial overview of some of the creatures we’ve been collecting, you can find a smattering of pictures by searching #MarineGEOBC on Twitter.

MarineGEO-Hakai Bioblitz

A sampling of the diversity we are finding at Hakai.

But ARMS are only a part of what’s happening at Hakai. We are also doing direct SCUBA collections of critters in the field to target particular groups of animals, and I have been conducting Reef Life Survey’s (RLS) with my dive buddy Dr. Aaron Galloway. We are pairing the RLS surveys with sites that have ARMS to get a sense of what the fish communities look like (ARMS don’t capture the large fish that school in the water column, though they do catch the occasional small goby or sculpin.) Over the past week we have surveyed eight sites and identified about 84 fish and mobile invertebrate species along our transects. It’s been a great chance to expand the species lists of RLS to include many of the common organisms that we find in the Northeast Pacific. But besides just counting the fish and inverts, we try to take pictures of every species we see to create ‘photo vouchers’ that can help us confirm our ID’s as well as identify species that are more cryptic (difficult to identify.) I’ve been using the new MarineGEO underwater camera setup and it’s really paying off.

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Once the BioBlitz is over, the data that we collect via RLS will be joined with the biodiversity data from the ARMS and dive collections, and made widely available to anyone who wants it. It’s our hope that this effort will provide a new baseline of marine species diversity for the region that can be used as a starting place to ask important questions about how species diversity is modulated by climate change.

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The collection team (l-r): Derek VanMaanen, Andy Lamb, Aaron Galloway, Ross Whippo, Angeleen Olson, Gustav Paulay. (photo: Margot Hessing-Lewis)

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Gut Punch My Writing

Holding hands eating snakeskin sandwiches in front of an obelisk in the rain! OK, now that I’ve set the emotional tone…

Earlier this month I stepped out of my warm blanket/secret laptop/encrypted file comfort zone and took a few hesitant steps into the bigger world, the brighter world, the terrifying world…of aspiring writers. Participating in a Clarion West one-day workshop with Helen Marshall, it was my first experience in “coming out of the closet” as a writer to anyone but my boyfriend (hashtag bless his patience and encouragement…), and the hopeful beginning of a new chapter (har, har) in my on-again, off-again relationship with artistic expression.

Here’s what happened.

We started with name tags. Actually, with folded pieces of paper that we set in front of us like Microsoft employees at a team-building weekend. I folded my in half, name on one side, and set it way too close to the center of the table. As such, it flipped and flopped throughout the entire workshop and I’m not sure anyone but the person sitting directly across from me even saw my name. The guy to my right had the brilliant idea of folding his into thirds, setting it upright like a tower, and writing his name on all three faces at the top like Sauron’s Dark Tower, only friendlier. I was really jealous of his tower but wasn’t assertive enough to knock down my own drooping name tent and build another in its image. Pro-tip for next time.

So we knew each other’s names, and the person sitting directly across from me knew mine. Now we did introductions. Name (again), why we write, what we write, and where we’ve been published. Wait, what? I wasn’t sure if Twitter counted as being published so I said “Hi, my name is Ross [gestures to flaccid tent] and I write because I’m used to work in theatre and now I’m a scientist and I need a creative outlet and I ‘write’ [air quotes] speculative fiction and short stories and stuff and iveneverbeenpublished.” I sank several inches in my chair and waited patiently as a few dozen published flash fiction authors and again as many published novelists told tales of their forthcoming omnibusses (omnibi?)* to rival the worlds of Tolkien and Whedon. After introductions were complete we dug into the workshop.

I won’t go over the gory details here, but suffice it to say the atmosphere was mostly collegial (except for that awkward moment when one participant engaged in major eye-rolling because they thought their exercise partner was taking too long to write a prompt), and consisted of readings, discussion, and the aforementioned exercises designed to evoke emotional resonance (the “Gut Punch”) in our writing. I even followed through on a secret promise I made to myself the night before that if we were called upon to read something we’d written, I would definitely volunteer. Of course it was a secret promise because I didn’t want anyone to know if I chickened out at the last minute, because Helen and the other writers were mean and nasty and witchy and I didn’t dare share my writing because they would record it and pass it around in emails to feed their darkened souls that grew fat on the misfortune of others. Luckily, Helen was delightfully nerdy, knowledgeable, and kind, and instilled in me the confidence to share my paragraph like the seasoned pro that she is.

After ruminating on the lessons of the day for the past few weeks, I’m left with the following tidbits:

  1. Twitter does not count as being published
  2. The purpose of writing is to evoke a feeling of empathy in the reader (this is obvious in hindsight but boy-howdy did it rock my writing boat).
  3. Exploring emotional dissonance (unexpected juxtapositions of emotional action and reaction) is fertile ground for stories.
  4. Readers often enjoy accessing ‘taboo’ emotions in characters.
  5. Emotional resolution of a story usually trumps resolution of action.

And of course I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least include a tiny tidbit of what I wrote for one of our exercises. Tried but true, the prompt was to ‘describe a building from the perspective of a man whose son has just died in war, without mentioning either of those things.’

The exposed girders of the unfinished office building reached up into the sky, like ribs of some enormous beast, until they disappeared into the thin, low hanging clouds. Garish caution tape was draped across the sidewalk and cheap plywood protected the valuable reams of copper pipe that sat untouched on the other side. Scaffolding crisscrossed the first several floors and shredded visqueen flapped in the breeze like ghosts waving pedestrians away. “Don’t come any closer, there’s nothing left for you to see here.” A loud clang rang out from the higher floors, but there were no workers to be seen. The echo seemed to linger for an unnaturally long time, bouncing off the smooth faces of the buildings that crowded on either side. Eventually, it faded, the light breeze slackened, and the building seemed to hunker down and wait.

Done and dusted. Now it’s time to start practicing my emotional evocation and name-tower-folding in anticipation for the next workshop.

*I looked it up, 4 out of 5 random online sources prefer ‘omnibusses’

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A Day In The Life: Searching For Species

The first week of the MarineGEO Ola I ke kai biodiversity survey is complete, and what a week it’s been! All the various teams have come together: macro- and micro-invertebrates, fish collections, visual SCUBA surveys, algae, Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), and microbes, to accomplish something truly exciting — as of this writing, our teams have identified at least three new species, and found a rare basal metazoan that is considered a “missing link” between unicellular and multicellular organisms. My team (visual survey) also identified 95 species of fish in Kāneʻohe Bay as well as several invertebrates.

So how did we do it? Well, as a member of the visual fish survey team, my typical day looked something like this…

5:30AM: Awaken in the Lanai Suites at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology on the island of Moku o Lo’e to the sun just cresting over the Pacific Ocean, and the sound of the island’s many birds singing just outside my window. My habit of rising early on this trip might also be a symptom of lingering jet lag. Wander around the island for a bit to shake off the cobwebs.

6:15AM: Trek down to the kitchen and drink gallons of coffee, grab a bagel, and pack any snacks I’ll need for the day ahead. Watch sea cucumbers in the pond while I eat my breakfast.

7:00AM: Head up to the lab to check emails and peruse the fantastic diversity of organisms sitting in collections dishes brought up by yesterday’s efforts.

7:45AM: Get my SCUBA gear together and bring it to the dock, along with datasheets, transect tapes, and my underwater camera rig.

8:00AM: Jump on a boat (small whaler) with my dive buddy Zach and our HIMB driver, and motor out to one of the patch reefs that fill Kāneʻohe Bay. The bay has over 54 patch reefs, with the furthest being a 25 minute drive to the north from the HIMB.

8:45AM: Anchor at our site and conduct our first Reef Life Survey (RLS) of the day. The surveys have typically been at a depth of about 3 meters (so shallow!), but the patch reefs quickly give way to rubble so we have stay closer to the surface to remain within the primary coral habitat. We run a 50 meter long transect, counting every fish we see and assigning it to a size class while swimming one direction, then turning around at the end and count small fishes that hide in cracks and crevices closer to the transect, as well as any large mobile invertebrates we see like shrimps, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. All the while we try to take as many photos as we can so we can create an inventory of species with photo “vouchers”. Sometimes other researchers join us, often snorkeling above us as we work. The director of MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy (my boss), came out with us one day to deploy Squidpops and take GoPro video of the fish community. He’s hoping to relate the video he captured to the diversity that we observe on the RLS transects. At the end of every dive Zach and I take time to go on a fish photo safari at the surface. This is where many fish congregate and we’re hoping for that perfect shot that best showcases the characters of particular fish. To do that we need: a) good lighting, b) cooperative fish, and c) luck. We’ve had a little of “a”, a bit of “c”, and almost none of “b”. We’ve observed that the fish in Kāneʻohe Bay are rather skittish and shy of divers, particularly compared to many of the fish we encounter in the Caribbean that will swim right up to us. This makes photographing them a real challenge, but we’ve had a few success (with a little post-processing help from GIMP…)

10:00AM: Haul anchor and move to the next reef on our hit-list. We tried to locate our dives where other work has been done previously, so we can compare and relate our data to existing or forthcoming datasets. Specifically, we did RLS on every reef that had ARMS deployed on it, as well as reefs where the CRAMP fish survey method has been done in the past for a total of ten reefs. Dr. Ku’ulei Rodgers has been spearheading the CRAMP surveys for many years and she was kind enough to let us tag along to show us her methods, and directly compare RLS to CRAMP. We’re hoping to use this method-calibration to relate the historic CRAMP surveys with other RLS surveys across the bay and beyond.

10:30AM: Conduct our second RLS survey and take lots of photos.

12:00PM: Return to Moku o Lo’e for lunch (sandwiches!) and catch up with the other researchers. The teams that are collecting organisms typically go out in the morning and afternoon to sample sediments and reef organisms. They use a range of techniques including: underwater vacuums to suck up small critters, collecting dead coral and breaking it open to find out what is hiding inside (lots of things), taking handfuls of algae and shaking the animals out of it, SCUBA collections, snorkel collections, plankton tows, and everything in between.

1:30PM: Get back on the boat to survey our final site of the day.

2:00PM: Last verse same as the first…conduct another RLS survey!

3:30PM: Return to Moku o Lo’e to rinse gear and grab another shot of coffee.

4:00PM: Begin the data entry and photo curation process. This is actually the most time-consuming part of visual surveys. We have to take our data sheets and enter them in a spreadsheet that will be brought together into the final database. We typically sit in the lab, surrounded by fish books, looking at the fuzzy photos (and one clear one) of the critters we saw, asking each other, “Hey, did you see that weird wrasse?” and “What the heck was that stripey fish?” We also gather together our photos and add one of each species to the photo library. As the week goes on, we replace subpar pictures of particular fish with better ones we captured that day. Our goal is to have at least one reasonably clear photo of each species that we saw. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t… All the while, other teams are swirling around us in the lab, handing specimens back and forth, looking at creepy-crawlies under the many microscopes, and jumping up and down when they find something new. When the computer screen starts to make my eyes water, I’ll take another walk between the tables to peek over the shoulders of the taxonomists. Crabs, fish, sponges, algae, seastars, and all manner of bizarre phyla sit in dishes, covering every bit of real estate on the tables.

6:30PM: Break for dinner! We’ve had great catering this entire trip and everyone looks forward to the delicious meals that are served each night. We all gather together to eat, and assertively discuss and negotiate the use of boats for the following day. Limitations imposed by the numbers of boats, numbers of captains, and numbers of people wanting to go out are always a challenge, but we usually find collegial solutions to limited resources.

7:30PM: Back to the lab to sweat over fish photos for a few more hours (at least I hope it’s only for a few more hours).

10:00PM: Go back to my room and fall asleep before my head even hits the pillow. Rinse. Repeat.

Now multiply that by six days and you have the beginning of an epic biodiversity inventory. The visual survey team has finished it’s job and we are leaving the island, but other teams will be going for another week to finish off their collections. After their data curation is complete, a process that can sometimes take months, everything they find will be uploaded to an open-access database. Our goal is to share everything we learn with anyone who wants to know.

It’s been a wild ride, I can’t wait to see how many more new species the MarineGEO teams find!

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The many critters of Kāneʻohe Bay

It’s day three of Ola I ke kai (aka: MarineGEO Biodiversity Survey) and the roll call of organisms we’ve identified is increasing at a breakneck speed. The participants have split up into six groups that either target specific groups of critters, or use a specific method to inventory biodiversity. These include: the “macro” invertebrates group, algae (Team Limu), “micro” invertebrates group (meiofauna), Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (Team ARMS), fishes group, and visual survey group.


MarineGEO diver Zach enjoys the view from his new office.

I’m part of the visual survey team, and we have been conducting fish and invertebrate SCUBA surveys all around the bay. We’ve been using the Reef Life Survey protocol, which has been implemented all over the world to created an enormous database of fish and mobile invertebrates. The data we collect here will be added to the MarineGEO Hawaii database as well as that of RLS, both open-access for anyone who might be interested.

Of course the real stars are the critters. Here are some of the cool fishes I’ve seen so far:

I’m looking forward to ID-ing even more of these creatures. Check back in for updates!

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Ola I ke kai

For the next two weeks MarineGEO is kicking off its newest site at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) in Kāneʻohe Bay with a massive biodiversity inventory effort called Ola I ke kai (Life Emanates from the Sea). Over 90 researchers from  a dozen organizations including: University of Hawai’i, The Nature Conservancy, The US Forest Service, and several research units of the Smithsonian, are converging to conduct comprehensive surveys of fish, invertebrates, and algae in the bay.

Kāneʻohe Bay has supported agriculture and aquaculture for the last thousand years, and as such, it presents a unique opportunity to study the impact of long-term human activity on biodiversity. In addition, the recent designation of a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERRS) to the area has created a unique opportunity for the local community to implement indigenous management practices to restore the vitality and resilience of the ecosystem. MarineGEO will contribute to this effort by measuring a baseline of biodiversity in the bay, and track it through time as the traditional management practices are implemented.

I’ll be posting from the event as it happens here and on Twitter. Participants will be posting with the tag #MarineGEOHI.

We are looking forward to a productive and exciting week. Stay tuned!

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There is a monster dozing under my bed. He’s big, furry, and a little bit squishy. I first noticed him about a year and a half ago, snoring lightly when I was trying to sleep in on the weekends; not every weekend, just those when I didn’t have much going on.

So I started sleeping with earplugs.

It wasn’t long before I was tripping over his enormous claws, which were sticking out from under the bedskirt when I woke up. So I set my alarm to go off earlier and tried to sneak out before he had stretched his limbs too far.

He started stretching before the sun rose.

Eventually he crawled out from under the bed and began following me around. He’d lean over my shoulder and breathe down my neck while I made my morning coffee, or wait patiently on the toilet flipping through an Alert Diver magazine until I finished my shower.

I briefly considered giving up coffee and bathing. Briefly.

In the end he was hiding himself in my trunk, hitching a ride with me to work. He would wait until I went out for lunch and scurry through the halls to my office where he would stuff himself into the coat closet. When I got back to my desk I knew he was there–he always managed to shut his fur in the door–but I pretended I didn’t.

Ignoring him isn’t working. He’s sitting on my chest right now, tapping the side of my head with the chewed-end of his curved claw. I think he’s trying to tell me something.

I tried locking him out, locking him in, tying him down, tying him up. I tried secular meditation and spiritual exorcism, I took advice from friends and advice from enemies. I woke up in the middle of the night and shook the bed yelling ‘KOOK-A-LEE-KOO!” to scare him away, but nothing seemed to work.

And then I started telling him a story.

His eyes went misty and a purple tear rolled down his furry cheek. When I had finished he walked over to me and planted a furry kiss on the top of my head. I didn’t see him for the rest of the week.

So here I am, exorcising him the only way I know how. With words.

In a way I suppose I’m glad that he hasn’t given up on me, even if he is a royal pain, I know he’s only trying to help. And I never want to exorcise him until he’s gone, just until he’s tired enough to crawl back under the bed for a little nap.

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Tassie is terrific

Well, the MarineGEO team made it to Tasmania and back! As part of our ongoing monitoring of global coastal biodiversity we teamed up with researchers from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) to conduct fish surveys, deploy food-web assays, and map rocky reef, seagrass, and sand habitats.

Our first stop was Rocky Cape in the north of Tasmania. Unfortunately, unfavorable winds kept us off the water most of the week and we were only able to pick on a single dive. Luckily, weather was better in the south, so we headed down to Tinderbox Bay and Dennes Point around Hobart and managed to get our first assay deployments and fish surveys. We did the MarineGEO standard Squidpop assay, Reef Life Survey fish and invert surveys, and an urchin tethering feeding experiment developed by our collaborator Scott Ling. We deployed both inside and outside marine reserves to see if we could get a signal of differential consumption among sites based on their conservation status.

Next we were off to gorgeous Maria Island, north of Hobart. Maria was once envisioned as an ‘ark’ for Australian species (in fact, the now extinct(?) Thylacine was supposed to be one of it’s first transplants), so many denizens of the Land Down Under can be found there including kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, tasmanian devils, and wombats (my favorite!) We managed to get in more deployments of our assays and conduct fish and invert surveys around the island. We even had a little time for some sight-seeing and saw the Fossil Cliffs, an ancient seabed chock-full of invertebrate fossils just a short walk from our cabin. The hillside was literally jam packed with preserved shells from millions of years ago. Quite a sight!

But our time finally came to an end and we left Maria to catch our flights home, a 30+ hour travel time from Tasmania to the East Coast of the US. Fortunately, that gave me time to whip up some rough graphs of Squidpop consumption and throw together a quick reel of video footage (scroll down to the bottom) from our travels. I’m definitely looking forward to going back Tassie. It’s terrific!


The fasted Squidpop consumption (as proportion of bait missing) was to be found in Tasmania’s seagrass meadows.

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Squidpops For Everyone

Following on the heels of my previous post about Squidpops, I thought I’d  post an update.

Have you ever craved a squid lollipop? Me neither, but the Smithsonian’s MarineGEO project is hoping that they may be the key to unlocking marine community structure worldwide. We may not think a squid lollipop (or ‘squidpop’ as it is called) would be any good, but apparently lots of coastal fishes, strong drivers of community structure, do.

As part of the MarineGEO program’s ongoing mission to develop and support long-term and open access research of our world’s coasts, we have recently launched the Ocean Bitemap initiative. The goal of this initiative is to “map top-down processes in coastal ecosystems.” To do this we are asking scientists and aspiring-scientists alike to deploy squidpops in their local waters. We even made a handy how-to video:

The Ocean Bitemap Blog is regularly updated with the most recent incoming data and news. In addition, you can submit your data to MarineGEO for inclusion in the data set.

Ocean Bitemap has already seen participation from dozens of partners in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Even a middle schooler from Florida won his school science fair by using Squidpops as a scientific tool! The hope is to include data from every major coastal region in the world. The website has everything you need to participate including detailed protocols and other resources. Even if you can’t accomplish the additional fish-survey component, a Squidpop deployment on its own in any sort of marine habitat is another useful data point.

Posted in marine biology, MarineGEO, research, science, Underwater Whippo Blog | 2 Comments

SCUBA Research On Smithsonian Magazine

This week an article written by the Smithsonian’s SCUBA-Queen Laurie Penland (not her official job title) was published in Smithsonian Magazine featuring work being done by MarineGEO. The project is part of an ongoing study looking at the biodiversity of our oceans.

All the action in the article is from a field trip to Carrie Bow Station on the barrier reef of Belize (second largest in the world.) I managed to snap a few pictures while I was there. You can walk around the island in five minutes and it looks like a cartoonist’s vision of a tropical desert isle.


Seriously, this place is ridiculous.


This is a remora. They are evil and will eat your soul…OK, not really, but they are super annoying.


Holy crap, baby turtles! We were saving them from the ravenous hermit crabs. (photo: Laurie Penland)


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