A Typical Day of Fieldwork

15th July 2015 | by

I’m now approaching the fifth and final week of this, my third field trip to collect data on white sharks for my PhD. In this blog, I’ll take you through my typical working day and how it feels for me to be at this particular stage of a field trip.

A Typical Day of Fieldwork

Boat trip times and availability (with Marine Dynamics Shark Tours http://www.sharkwatch.sa) are dependent on the weather, tides and the number of clients. I find out the night before what time the boat trips are for the next day and, if there is a choice, pick the trip with the least number of clients booked to make the chances of there being a space for me as likely as possible. If all the trips are full, I turn up anyway as some clients cancel last minute. This can occasionally mean getting up very early only to find that I’m not on the boat! It’s certainly a risk worth taking though – every day collecting data is precious. The one-woman client booking machine (Aletta), who literally works day and night taking bookings, always does her best to ensure that we get on a trip, which is very much appreciated.

We get to our HQ, the Great White House, an hour before the trip departs, to check if we are on, grab a coffee, check emails and pour liquid nitrogen from a large vat into a small container in which we keep my colleague, Simone Rizzuto’s (www.carcharesearch.wordpress.com) fresh biopsy samples (see previous blog for details on biopsies).

At the moment, it’s winter in South Africa and it is COLD! Boat clothing includes thermal socks, jeans, a technical t-shirt, a thermal jumper, fleece, waterproof overalls, an insulated waterproof jacket, rubber boots, gloves, a thermal Buff around my neck and a regular Buff on my head to cover my ears and keep my hair out of my face. As I said, it’s COLD and I’m very much more suited to warm weather!

A few of the bits that keep me super warm on the boat - Buffs and a Rab fleece!

A few of the bits that keep me super warm on the boat – Buffs and a Rab fleece!

The night before I’ll have packed my coat pockets with a GoPro camera with a fresh battery and clean memory card, several spare batteries, a Leatherman multi-tool, a waterproof notebook and pencil and a Gripmaster hand exercise gadget – if it’s a slow period on the boat I like to use the time to strengthen my hands – helps me keep up my rock climbing fitness while I’m away! I will also have prepared more of my sample tubes to go in the biopsy kit in anticipation of collecting more tissue.

Trips usually last between two and four hours, during which time (on this trip) I’m on the upper deck taking identification photos and videos of each shark and, once I recognise a shark that know I have sufficient data already collected for, I call out its nickname every time it approaches Simone (who is stationed on the lower deck) until he manages to get a biopsy sample from it. Keeping up with which shark is which can be challenging, especially when there several at one time and/or they have no obvious markings but practice, focus and checking of photos later helps to keep things clear.

As we’re sharing the boat with clients, and allowed to do so at no charge, it is very important to be respectful to the clients at all times. The crew of Slashfin are absolutely incredible at what they do, in any sea conditions, and are very welcoming to us researchers, so I try to help out with whatever I can during trips, be it putting wetsuits on the boat, taking sick bags to the bin if I’m nearby, or helping clients if they need assistance.

When the trip is finished, it’s back to the White Shark House to drop off the samples in liquid nitrogen, check the boat times for the next day and then it’s either data entry there or back at the little flat that I share with Simone. I copy all the data from the camera and GoPro, organise all of the photographs taken into individual shark folders, and enter the shark and trip details into spreadsheets. This usually takes a few hours. If I’m not on a trip for the day I’ll spend it working on admin, funding proposals, reading new papers and a myriad of other things as well as happily giving talks and training to the Marine Dynamics/International Marine Volunteers (http://www.marinevolunteers.com). My working days are averaging out at about ten working hours a day, seven days a week. Any free time is spent working on this blog (I finished my data at 10 this evening and it’s now 11:20), items for the SharkStuff Facebook Page (http://www.facebook.com/GeorgiaSharkStuff), cooking/eating, talking to my boyfriend via the internet, having a quick skate (I brought my longboard with me this time!) or a session in the local gym to keep up fitness for surfing/rock climbing/SUPing when I get home.

The truly jawesome SharkStuff logo designed by the guys at www.edna.uk.net

The truly jawesome SharkStuff logo and now SharkStuff page profile picture designed by the guys at www.edna.uk.net The dorsal is of Frowny (see previous blog “How I Individually Identify White Sharks”).

Four weeks in and while I am getting tired, I’m feeling remarkably fresh despite having a bit of a cold! Once you settle into the routine, it becomes easier and being as there isn’t a great deal of distraction in these parts, it’s easy to remain focused. It’s really beginning to dawn on me that I only have a week left. As with the times just before a field trip (see previous blog “The Ups and Downs of Fieldwork on the World’s Most Awesome Fish) I greet this time with mixed feelings. I will miss the people here and the feeling of being part of such an awesome team. In a way I will miss the simplicity and structure of the routine and more than anything I will miss the almost daily opportunity to spend time in the presence of the most incredible animal on the planet. The sharks take my breath away on a daily basis and I will miss them greatly. BUT I can’t wait to see my boyfriend, pets, family and friends, to be back in my own home, in the summer, able to surf my home break (which isn’t great but hey, it’s surf), rock climb in the beautiful Dorset countryside, skate familiar places and paddle the various gorgeous harbours, rivers and coastlines on my paddleboard. Not to mention of course all the thrilling hours of data processing and writing up 😉

I am particularly fond of this shark, which I named Maddy after a friend who was lost far too soon.

I am particularly fond of this shark, which I named Maddy after a friend who was lost far too soon.

Field work is amazing, home is awesome, and it makes all the hard work to get to this point (see previous blog “My Journey to a Shark PhD”) utterly worthwhile. I am happy.

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