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Marine lab mania

Flashback to June 2012 —

I have just finished my wonderful week as a snail apprentice in Stockholm and I am feeling greatly inspired and ready for my next adventure, which is rapidly approaching. I am off to a marine station in the south of France for 10 days with my German mentor and colleague, Gerhard Haszprunar. When I booked my flight from Stockholm to Munich for June 17th with the knowledge that the trip to France started on the 18th, I thought, “oh, an afternoon and one night’s rest will be plenty before the drive down.” But wait — the 18th is actually when the course Dr. Haszprunar is teaching STARTS…IN FRANCE…so in actuality I had approximately 4 hours between landing in Munich, and getting to the museum to hop in a van for the 15 hour drive down to Banyuls-sur-Mer, France, right on the border of France and Spain, Mediterranean side.  Anyway, it all worked out, but it goes to show how important getting your details straight before booking flights really is and maybe I should give myself more of a buffer for future trips.

Ok, so although the drive was exhausting (even though I just had to take shifts being an attentive co-pilot since I couldn’t drive the van), we arrived in Banyuls about an hour before sunrise and man oh man was it worth it to see that!

Banyuls-sur-Mer at sunrise, the marine lab is the big white building on the right.

Banyuls-sur-Mer at sunrise, the marine lab is the big white building on the right.

Alright, so what were we doing down here anyway? Well, Dr. Haszprunar teaches a field course in marine biodiversity every two years here for a group of Masters students who are part of a program that brings them from everywhere, I think we had around 20 countries represented and only around 30 students! I had the lucky coincidence of having planned my research in Munich with Dr. Haszprunar on a limpet that comes from Banyuls for the same season he would be going there for the course, thus allowing me an opportunity to try and get some fresh specimens and have a great experience at this oldest of marine labs. Did I say, “oldest of marine labs?” well, yes! the Laboratoire Arago was founded in 1880 by the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie and is one of the first marine labs of its kind (I don’t know if it is THE oldest, if you do please let me know in the comments). It allowed scientists to study marine life in it’s natural environment and also keep it alive for study in the lab with sea water readily accessible, rather than preserving it and trekking it back to the university or museum in Paris. You can learn a lot more from animals and plants that are still alive rather than preserved, but if you’ve read my other posts you know I can still get lots of valuable information out of preserved museum specimens! Regardless, the institution of marine labs was a huge step forward for marine biology and these kinds of institutions continue to support valuable marine research, courses at all levels, and public outreach and education (eg. the aquarium in Banyuls is free!). Many similar venues for marine science sprang up around the same time including the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, USA, which was founded in 1888. I’ve also had the pleasure of spending a summer there as an undergraduate course assistant and my experiences there solidified my desire to pursue graduate studies in marine biology and actually led to meeting my current PhD. advisor, David Lindberg (through the course director, Nipam Patel, who is Berkeley faculty and encouraged me to apply to Berkeley to work with Dr. Lindberg). So basically, only good things can come from taking opportunities to visit marine labs!

the view from the lab

the view from the lab

the lab

the lab

Historical interludes aside, the 10 days I spent in Banyuls were some of the most relaxing yet productive days I have ever spent. The morning would start with cafe au lait and pain au chocolat (coffee and chocolate croissants) before donning snorkel gear and getting in the water for the students to collect critters to practice identifying and preserving marine life to bring back to the museum in Munich. I was off the hook since the limpets I was looking for live at around 100m, so we would be trawling for them later in the week. So, I could stare at algae waiting for small vibrant nudibranches and other small beasts to appear to my heart’s content! After snorkeling, we’d get all the collected material back to the lab and in water tables or under microscopes for a closer look. Then it was time for lunch and a siesta in true Catalonian form before heading back to the lab to work in the afternoon. Generally while the students worked on their projects (I had no responsibilities regarding the course), I worked on the manuscript for the work I did the months prior in Munich. With this picturesque setting, big chunks of time with nothing else to do, and access to Dr. Haszprunar (who is incredibly busy when in Munich, so 10 days of solid time was a treat!), I was able to write up basically the whole paper (coming soon, I promise! things always take longer than you think they will…).

We also did get to spend a day out trawling, and although we did pull up several worm tubes of the kind the limpet I was looking for likes to live on, unfortunately the worms inside the tubes were mostly still alive, and of the four or so empty tubes I only found one limpet living inside one of them, so not a great day for catching limpets (sneaky devils) but a nice day out on the boat nonetheless.

Dr. Haszprunar enjoying the time at sea

Dr. Haszprunar enjoying the time at sea



why you should sweat the small stuff

Stockholm at sunset, which lasts forever in the summer.

Stockholm at sunset, which lasts forever in the summer.


the infamous binders – these are filled with photos of snails and radulae and other information and I believe have traveled the world with Anders as valuable references on research cruises (now luckily he has a laptop).


Maybe it’s weird that I look photos of Anders’ office, but the workstation really is impressive, a tool for every task.


Welcome to the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet!


Anders and I at the banquet of the World Congress of Malacology this summer, wonderful conference, more on that later!



Well for one, when it comes to benthic marine samples, animals smaller than 2.5 mm make up most of the catch according to Anders Warén, and coming from a man who’s been on countless research cruises and participated in over a thousand dredge hauls, I’m inclined to take what he says quite seriously.  The sad thing is that most researchers throw out this precious (and almost always partially unknown) diversity with their salty bathwater after picking out the specimens you can see with the naked eye. As someone who chose to work on a small sized group of animals for my dissertation because of the fascinating way in which they have adapted to live their lives, I already appreciated them to some degree. But even after only a few days of sorting through samples in the company of one of the world’s experts on small molluscs, my appreciation has grown immensely for the care, attention to detail, and love of the natural world’s tiny curiosities that is required to learn all that we can from these little beasts.

side note: the above was written last June (yes June 2012, over a year ago…) while I was visiting Anders Warén at the natural history museum in Stockholm for a week. That week I had the privilege of being a snail apprentice and learning just a fraction of the techniques that are best for studying tiny shelly things and we had wonderful conversations about snail teeth (radulae) and how to image them among other things like our cats (I hadn’t seen mine for 3 months at this point so it was also nice to talk to a fellow cat and snail person).  I also have to say that I think Stockholm is the most beautiful of the european cities I’ve visited, maybe it has something to do with all the water and the fact that it looked like sunset from when I left the museum until it actually got dark around 11pm.

Anyway, I never thought I would end up being very excited over tiny limpets, but here I am getting excited by good images of snail teeth (I started grad school excited about the deep sea of course, but as far as taxa I was more into fish and didn’t know a thing about molluscs). But really I find that with most things, if you look a little closer and dig a little deeper, things that once seemed boring or uninteresting will have more meaning and become fascinating once you understand them a little more.  This is also why I often like to just stay in one spot and look closely for awhile when I’m diving especially, but even if I’m just outside somewhere. For example, recently I was in the Azores for a conference (more on this in a later post) and after wards I was exploring the island with a couple friends and I noticed the moss on a rock and decided to take some pictures of it for some of the bryologists (people who study moss) back home. Since I was focusing on the tiny plants, I actually ended up seeing a tiny slug, which then led to a slug photo shoot (on my iphone, so no macro lens, but still) . Anyway, the point is, that since I slowed down to pay attention to the small things I ended up seeing a cool animal I probably never would have seen otherwise! The thing is though, if I hadn’t already been shown by several mentors in different situations what you can see by looking closer, I don’t know if I would have the same level of curiosity that leads to look closer on my own. So, I hope that next time you are out and about, even if it’s just your walk to the bus stop, that you stop and observe the small parts of nature. It’s probably easier to find where most of us live than big things like bears or something anyway, but that’s kind of the point, the small stuff is cool too, not to mention more diverse!



That awkward moment…

…when you get an email from wordpress telling you to moderate a comment (a spam comment, but still) and reminding you of the existence of your blog. I then logged in for the first time in probably a year and out of curiosity looked at my stats and was completely shocked to see that people have actually looked at this thing, then shock turned to embarrassment…I realized I have a backlog of post ideas in my head and it’s time to finally end this hiatus and get ‘em out there. Thus, by writing this first post I am telling you (but mostly myself) that I am going to look back and post the things I should have posted months ago. Bear with me if the posts to come are old news (it’s definitely old news), but I need to catch up before I can keep moving forward, right? Or am I screwed already since you never get anywhere even if you run as fast as you can and I already stopped running? We’ll go with the first scenario just because I like to pretend to be an optimist.

Anyway, I’m back!



“no stress” chocolate snail in a shop in Zurich, clearly a city that knows snails are super chill

During my travels this spring and summer I’ve met a lot of people, and inevitably they want to know what I do. Usually I start off pretty vague, not knowing if they really care that much about the details of my research and if they ask enough followup questions I eventually get to “I study the evolutionary history of a group of small deep-sea snails that live on strange substrates like wood, bones, worm tubes, etc etc” and some people respond with something like “wow! that sounds really interesting!” and I am glad they think so since their tax dollars are paying for it, but others say something like “snails? that sounds boring*”  or ask in what way they are helping humans like “can you eat them?” or “oh, are you hoping to use them

cool enough to be Berlin street art ;)

for medicine?” which tends to make me feel like I have to defend my research and explain why studying the natural world is important generally, not just for direct benefit of the human species.

For one, as the number one threat to Earth’s diversity, I think humans have a certain responsibility to understand it and how it evolved, this may even

help us preserve what’s left of it, which in the end actually helps the human species, so people who study diversity are really doing the rest of y’all a favor ;)

For two, snails aren’t “just snails” they are a tool I am using to understand evolution in poorly understood environments, which yes, are NOT directly relevant to humans, but are a piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding how we get diversity in habitats that are difficult for most animals to live in.  By the way, if I were studying the exact same question in some brightly

I will make you appreciate the natural world! I will! (street art in Berlin)

colored vertebrate group, like birds of paradise, African cichlid fishes, or even lizards, I doubt I would get the “that sounds boring” response.

I could go on about the reasons to study the world we live in, but I have a feeling most of you (people who are reading this) are already supporters of basic research and have your own reasons why you think it is important, or maybe you have arguments for why it is less valuable than cancer research. Either way, I would love to hear from you in the comments. This is a topic that often has quite variable views depending on your perspective and experience, and I find that fascinating.

By the way, if you have the impression I don’t enjoy meeting those people that don’t appreciate basic research, I actually really do! I try to see every encounter in a beer garden, on the chair lift, at a party, or basically any situation where someone ends up actually asking about my research (I don’t just go around talking about how cool snails are, I don’t think I would have any friends or convince anyone that they are…I would just be crazy snail girl…maybe I am….meh…I digress), to show them that snails aren’t as dull as they seem, and not all marine biologists study dolphins, and you don’t have to be curing cancer for your research to be important ;)

*one of these interactions was at a beer garden in Munich (I love the atmosphere at beer gardens, so relaxed) and this response was from a couple of engineers who couldn’t tell me what was so interesting about what they did (I do appreciate that engineering is important though, nothing against engineers, to each their own) and then proceeded to ask me more questions about my boring snails, guess they aren’t so boring once you get to know them! This is the lesson though, you’ve got to give the little things a chance before you will see that they are amazing! Or simply appreciate that there are many interesting things in this world and different people that find them interesting, it would be pretty boring if we all had the same interests and did the same things no matter what it was.

Painting my way to a 3D limpet

I’ve been in Munich for the last 3 months, three months to turn histological limpet sections into a 3D anatomical masterpiece (and enjoy living in charming Bavaria).  I’ve been so busy enjoying my work, the people, and my general surroundings that this is the first chance I’ve had to try to summarize what it is I came to Munich to accomplish.

View of Munich from the top of Alte Peter Tower

Alright, so last summer I was in Japan reconstructing a limpet in 2D with the oh so modern tool, a box of crayons. This spring I graduated to using a program (AMIRA) that is quite reminiscent of the computer program “Paint” to make a 3D anatomical model of one of the tiny snails I study.

Basically this is how it works:

1. Put your specimen in a block of plastic

2. Slice that block of plastic very thinly and put the slices on a glass slide

3. Stain those slices so you can see the bits inside (these were ready for me beforehand, by about 10 years)

4. Take photos of every other slice or so keeping the magnification constant

5. Align those photos to make a stack, kind of like an MRI

Two overlapping slices in contrasting colors so you can check to make sure they are all lined up right

6. Now you can scroll through the image stack and identify organs and follow them through the specimen

7. Paint over each organ using different colors, you can skip a bunch of slices and the computer fills in the gaps for you to make nice smooth links

each organ is labelled with a different color following it all the way through the animal

8. Once all the organs are labelled through all the slices, you can isolate each one and make it look smooth and pretty and then put them back together again to show all the parts together or as separate organ systems.

looking at the reproductive system from the right side of the animal

9. Voila! Now you have a 3D model of your tiny animal that once had very difficult anatomy to visualize and the use of so many cool tools to measure volume, surface area, shape, and generally just have a better understanding of it’s morphology and ways to actually quantify that morphology.

ta da!

Although this was quite a time-consuming process, tools like AMIRA and other 3D reconstruction software allow us to quantify and compare morphology more precisely . More and more, evolutionary biologists are relying on molecular tools (which are great too!), frequently alone, to infer evolutionary patterns. However, it is morphology that will tell me how a snail’s digestive tract has changed and whether that might have something to do with the substrate it’s living on, whether it’s teeth are acting like saws or are so reduced that they are essentially non-functional, or any number of other morphological characters that are directly relevant to how the animal interacts with it’s environment and other organisms in it’s vicinity be they predators, competitors, symbionts, or parasites. Of course, molecular tools are needed to further elucidate many of these relationships, but how will you know there is something to elucidate unless you are first able to observe it? Some things you would never even recognize without actually “seeing” them!

setting off on the Western Flyer for an epic adventure!

What kind of stuff you might ask? Plants! Basically, many deep-sea beasts have specialized to live on woody substrates and I wanted to test whether the kind of plant matters to the beasts that colonize it by sinking several different plant species in deep water. Please see my previous post on why land plants are important to deep-sea critters for an explanation of why I wanted to put woody stuff in the ocean and how I prepped it for sea. One thing I forgot to mention is how I actually tracked down the wood I wanted to sink. I basically emailed or called every tree service in Berkeley and got in touch with the local botanical gardens and the city.  The most difficult thing to find though was tree fern and I was lucky that there is a tree fern enthusiast right here in the east bay who has a website called Ferntastic! and happened to have a chunk of dead tree fern I could sink. Amazing wood resources aside, I was able to get material from ten different plant species, get them prepped for sea and down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute where I would be setting sail with Jim Barry et al and Craig McClain (Dr. M) on the Western Flyer.

Gumby suit! standard newbie procedure…

There were several objectives for our 6 day voyage including doing transects and collecting animals from varying depths for projects in the Barry Lab, resetting the FOCE experiment, retrieving logs that had been sunk by Dr. M 5 years previously, and sinking the plant material I had collected. In Dr. M’s excellent post on Deep-Sea News, you can read all about the whole process of wood community formation, from how the wood gets to the bottom of the ocean in the first place to the community that colonizes it and the holey remains those critters leave behind.

I’ll give you a sense of what the cruise was like and the ups and downs that are inevitable when doing deep-sea research:

Wood deployment was slotted for the second day, so while others were retrieving experiments and setting up sea urchin races (FOCE is like a racetrack with lanes and hurdles  for sea urchins with tasty kelp at the other end and different concentrations of CO2), Dr. M, David Honig (a graduate student at Duke working with Dr. M on the wood we would pull up), and I tied polypropylene rope to the wood bundles to help the ROV pilots grab the bundles with the ROV arm and loaded it up into the elevator.  One lesson I learned is that you can never bring enough zip ties on a cruise, we used them to secure knots in the rope, attach rope to the mesh to prevent slipping and then secure the bundles to the sides of the elevator, which you’ll see was a key foresight by Dr. M given the next morning’s events.

Prepping the bundles for deployment, thanks guys!

zip tying bundles to prevent jostling (and escape!)

6am the next morning: The crew is on the back of the ship getting the elevator set to sink and the ROV Doc Ricketts is being deployed to go find the elevator on the bottom. I watch as the crane lifts the elevator with all my wood bundles off the back of the ship and down into the water. Now, the surface is the roughest part of the journey, and the latch holding the bundles in came loose! Good thing we zip tied all those bundles to the sides of the box! Only bundle number 20 escaped, and I thought we would lose it, but miraculously it got caught on one of the elevator’s screws and came back up safely onto the deck.  After re-securing the latch, the crew was able to deploy the elevator with no further incident, and it would be 2 hours before the ROV completed its 3200m journey to the bottom, so breakfast time! One thing about research cruises is that there is no chance you will go hungry, Patrick, the ship’s steward, prepared three delicious meals a day and then there were plenty of things (including a dedicated ice cream freezer) for your snacking pleasure.

2 hours later I step into the ROV control room, think mission control, three pilot chairs face a wall of monitors tracking the topology with radar, the position of the ship and ROV, changes in water temperature and chemistry, and several different camera views. Two of these chairs are occupied by ROV pilots who fly the ROV and use all the manipulative features like arms and suction hoses to do the bidding of the scientists (muah hahaha). The third chair is for someone to control the HD camera and make sure it’s focused where the ROV pilots need it (I got to sit in this chair a bunch, which was really exciting!). Behind those chairs are four airline chairs for spectators and people taking notes or directing what they’d like the ROV pilots to do.

The ROV control room, feels like you’re down there with the ROV!

The ROV is at the bottom tracking the elevator with a beacon and the radar (the elevator isn’t that big, but it’s so flat down there it shows up pretty strong on radar). The pilots have found the elevator and all the bundles are still nestled safely inside, phew!  Now to get those babies out on the sea floor to start being colonized. Basically, the pilots used one of the mechanical arms to unlatch the lid and then put about 10 bundles in the drawer of the ROV, then they dropped them in a line about 3m apart from eachother as if it was a paper route, just dropping them a little above the seafloor and letting them lie. We nabbed a picture of each one and then went back and did this two more times to get the rest out.

Okay, so every time I’ve told someone about this project the first question I get is, “how are you going to anchor the logs?” or something similar, but here’s the thing, the pressure increases by 1 atmosphere (ambient pressure is 1 atmosphere) for every meter of water, so by around 100m deep all the gas in the logs that would cause them to float is pushed out and replaced by water, at 3200m this is no problem. Also, the currents are so slow that we are not too worried about the bundles being swept away. So with the new bundles successfully deployed, we could use the rest of the dive to retrieve Dr. M’s logs that he had sunk 5 years ago and see what goodies they contain. Based on the cliffhanger at the end of his post I think we all have something exciting to look forward to!

Dr. M breaking open the wood to find the goodies inside

Before I sign off, I have to tell you about one other unexpected hiccup that happened at sea. You remember the problems we had with the latch on the basket of the benthic elevator? Well, it was still a problem when it came back to the surface with Dr. M’s logs in it and by the time the ship made it over to the elevator, three logs had been lost and sunk back to the bottom. We thought we would never see them again…but after doing some work at another site the next day we took a reaaalllly long transect back towards the “Deadwood” site, and guess what?, the ROV pilots found all three logs! Isn’t that amazing? Thinking back to last October, I’m still amazed they found them, and Dr. M was so happy after being so upset over the loss of data.  So all in all, a great first research cruise for me and I hope to be getting back out there in  a year and a half or so to retrieve the wood that is sitting on the bottom…hopefully attracting many interesting beasts.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you chucked a bunch of logs into the deep sea?

Well, I do wonder about this, and several other people before me have wondered about this as well. In fact, this fascination goes back to Pliny the Elder when he alluded to shipworms (clams that bore into wood) when he wrote, “a large-headed teredo (or shipworm) which gnaws with teeth and lives in the sea.” But these creatures that live on wood in the ocean did not gain much of a following until the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977 and cold seeps in 1984, and the realization that there are many similarities between the critters that live in all these strange places and even single species that live in all of them (eg. Idas washingtonia, a mussel clam). So, it has not been until very recently that much attention has been payed to sunken wood communities. Researchers examine wood that gets pulled up in trawls or they sink wood to see what colonizes it. One person who has done quite a bit of research on deep-sea wood fall communities is Dr. Janet Voight at the University of Field Museum at Chicago, and you can watch this great video of her explaining her research and showing footage of these amazing communities.

It turns out that lots of critters just love a good piece of wood that sinks into the ocean. Boring clams (not the yawn kind of boring), squat lobsters, crabs, worms, and of course limpets can take advantage of this woody nutritional resource from the surface.  Some of them consume the wood and digest it with help from microbes in the gut (kind of like termites), while others graze on the bacteria growing on the wood, and predators are also drawn to these rich environments with a higher concentration of potential prey.

Will the creatures living on decomposing plants care how old they are in evolutionary time?

So, we know there’s high potential for plant material in the ocean to support a diversity of specialized creatures, but beyond that, we still know very little of the ecology of these systems and how these communities have evolved through time.  One question that I’m interested in is whether the kind of wood matters to the critters that are living on it.  Do the physical composition of the wood? Is there a link between older groups of plants and older lineages of animals, which would suggest the animals in the ocean have responded evolutionarily to the evolutionary succession of plants on land? For instance, critters living on Ginkgo (a gymnosperm) would be older lineages than those living on Oak (an angiosperm).

Luckily, I have a chance to try and test these ideas, since that’s what we do in science, test ideas and explore possible explanations! So, to do this, I have acquired plant material from nine different species and I have three pieces of each (and one lonely chunk of tree fern).

I had either 3 logs or three bundles like these for each plant species, depending on the nature of the plant.

Weighing and measuring a chunk of Ginkgo

I have sewn them into mesh laundry bags, labelled them with yellow cattle tags (so I can round up and ID the lil’ doggies when I come back for them), and taken their measurements.  I took them all down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute two weeks ago, and everything is all set and ready to go! In fact, I embark tomorrow on a six day research cruise, on which half of a day will be spent deploying my woody packets into 3200m of water.  The other days will be spent at other sites on other projects and it promises to be a very interesting and exciting trip out to sea, my first multi-day aquatic voyage! I’ll write a post following up on the cruise when I’m back, but feel free to tell me what you think of this project and ask any questions in the comments section! I will have intermittent internet access, so I may be even able to answer questions and post some updates from sea!

Logs and bundles are tagged and ready to go!

Ikimasho! That means, “Let’s go!” in Japanese ;)

Goodbye Japan… Hello California

So, the summer’s over, the semester has already begun here at Berkeley and life is moving fast! However, I do want to wrap up my summer in Japan before I dive into telling you what I’m working on now that I’m back on the eastern side of the Pacific.

My last night! My labmates gave me a yukata! So sweet of them!

My time in Japan was a lot of things to me: a research experience, a cultural experience, and a personal growth experience.  I progressed in learning new science skills, and I forged relationships with Japanese colleagues that I think will last my entire career. I came to Japan having little knowledge or understanding of its culture, but left with at least an appreciation for its complexity and awesomeness.  I hope I’ll have the chance to return to Japan sometime soon to further explore and continue to build ties with the scientific community here.  Although, this fancy technology called the internet makes keeping ties between colleagues in

I learned so much from Takenori and will miss him!

different countries very feasible. In fact, one of my Japanese colleagues said he is in email contact about 10 times per day with a colleague in Sweden!

So, although I will of course be in virtual contact with my Japanese colleagues and friends, I hope I will have opportunities to return to Japan and that they will also come visit me in California, one them is likely to come visit this year!

Temple hopping in Kyoto

The bamboo forest at Arashiyama, near Tenryu-ji

Kinkaku-ji (aka. Golden Pavilion) is a Zen Buddhist temple, definitely the most stunning of the buildings and the surroundings were of course complimentary

After tearing myself away from my gorgeous surroundings on Zamami Island, I headed for Kyoto to soak up some of the great traditions and history that Japan is known for.  The city is pretty much chock full of gorgeous shrines and temples interspersed with  immaculate gardens and quaint streets lined with small shops and restaurants.  Given only two days to take in this wealth of culture, I think I did a pretty good job of seeing the highlights while enjoying my surroundings. I’ve heard it’s easy to get burnt out on temples in Kyoto and I believe it, but I think my visit was pretty well balanced, especially since it’s the setting most of the temples were placed in that I enjoyed most.

Kiyomizudera Temple nestled into the hills west of the city

The city of Kyoto has a unique position in that it is at a pretty low elevation but it surrounded on all sides by mountains, and it is at the edges of the city where the most well-known and beautiful temples lie.  This doesn’t surprise me considering if I were a Buddhist monk looking for a place to chill out and meditate, the edges of the city where the land slopes upward and the greenness of the forest envelopes you would seem the perfect place to do so.  A couple of the Zen temples were actually converted from palaces, so I guess royalty picked a few of these locations first, but really, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this?

The front of Tenryu-ji, but the real treasures lie behind

Whether it was the natural wildness of the hillside that surrounded the temple, perfectly manicured gardens, zen rock gardens, or a bamboo forest that made up the various surroundings for each of the temples I visited, I found them all quite calming.  I especially liked Tenryu-ji, which has an immaculate zen garden with precisely arranged plant, water, and stone components, in true zen style.  Enclosing the temple and the garden is an enchanting mature bamboo forest that makes you feel like you’ve walked into another world.

One of the many Zen gardens at Nanzen-ji

Why Zamami Island rocked my world

I don’t know if it’s the clear blue water, the white sand beaches, the incredible weather, the lush green islands, or the amazing diversity of the coral reefs that make up the Kerama Islands, but they definitely made an impression on me and showed me a side of Japan that I think is missed by most visitors.

view from the highest point on Zamami Island looking southward

Since I made the journey all the way to Japan this summer to do research and I don’t know when I’ll be back, I decided I should take some time to travel and experience the diverse culture, scenery, and wildlife Japan has to offer.  To kick things off I started with a trip to Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan.  I spent one night in Naha, but the highlight of the trip was 2 and a half days on the gorgeous island of Zamami aka paradise.  I lived by this guide if you are interested in visiting too!

you can see the reef through the clear blue water, there was also lots of life to see on the rocks and in the sand

While I was there, I spent the first day soaking up the sun (my back says I did a little too much of this since I fell asleep!) and snorkeling on Furuzamami Beach.  The second day was diving day! I did 3 dives with an awesome dive leader, Momo, through the dive shop Heartland (Japanese link, English info on the guide), I recommend her highly to anyone who wants to dive these gorgeous islands. I saw an incredible diversity of coral, fish, and invertebrates including some gorgeous nudibranches (sea slugs), a sea cucumber that was actually grazing! (not just sitting like a lump), beautiful giant clams, cleaner shrimp, and anemones.  Actually one of my favorite things was seeing so many different kinds of anemones with many different species of anemone-fish (clownfish are a kind of anemone-fish, think Nemo) living in them! We saw fish guarding eggs and even some babies!  Momo was great at pointing these out and telling us what everything was on her dive slate.

Dive site #1 was right of the right tip of the right-most island

Now, on an island with a population of 700, with one bar in town, it was easy to decide where to go after dinner.  Upon entering the bar we were greeted by everyone inside the small establishment and served up Orion beer (the brand most common to Okinawa and the only one they serve here). Almost immediately after enjoying the first few sips, the old man sitting nearest to us starts talking to us in a mix of English and Japanese and then he asks us whether we know about the dog named Shiro and he indicates several posters on the wall of a fluffy white dog.  We say no, so then he tells us that we have to watch this movie, and we’re like “ok, where is this going, what did we get ourselves into by coming in here?”  But as he tells us more and we see more of the movie, he tells us that the white dog was his dog and they made this movie about him and his dog (at least this is what I got out of the conversation, he’d been drinking awamori (basically a super strong Okinawan version of sake) and there was the language barrier too).

Movie cover showing Shiro swimming

So, why is this dog so special? Apparently, this dog would swim from Zamami Island to Aka Island, about 3km, just to visit a different dog (a brown one that was also in the pictures on the walls) and they say it was because these dogs were in love. When the dogs died they made statues of them on their respective islands that you can see today, and a movie was made about it in 1988, called “Maririn ni aitai” (“I want to see Marilyn” Marilyn is the brown dog).  In the movie the owners of the dogs fall in love too, but I’m not sure if that is part of the true story or not. After chatting and semi-watching the movie and understanding more of what he was telling us, he disappeared for a few minutes and then returned with a stack of CD’s which he handed out to all the foreigners in the bar. By this point we realized he owned the bar and the CD’s had a song about Zamami on them.  I kind of wonder how often he tells that story and plays the movie on the bar TV, it seemed not to phase his wife or the locals, so I’m guessing it happens a lot, and why not if he really is the guy they based the only movie ever made about Zamami Island on, right?



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