Never Enough…

1 year, we all knew it was 1 year.  Every single one of us who signed on for this 1 year Master’s program at the University of Exeter knew… it was only 1 year.  With something so short term, it makes sense not to get attached.  I guess none of us got that memo.

We’ve all been thrown in to this accelerated, compressed course and have come to rely on each other in times of stress.  Family can only do so much when they don’t know the magnitude of having 5 assessments due in a period of a week and a half, or when you’ve just had a blissful two weeks in Kenya and all of a sudden you have to hit the ground running and get back to doing literature reviews, presentations, and statistics assignments.  In times like that, the best people to lean on are those in the trenches with you.  Those friends who have spent entire nights in the MSc suite, library, or locked in their room typing away … drinking more tea and coffee than a “regular” person would deem necessary.

So while your gut would tell you not to get attached to anyone on this short course, you really can’t help it.  It’s as if we’re on an island and we have constantly relied on each other to survive.  These people who I have known for a matter of months have literally become like family to me, turning into brothers and sisters during our climb to academic greatness.  When i saw these strong bonds beginning to form in September and October I knew that July would be tough when most of us went our separate ways.  I didn’t consider that I would have to say goodbye to so many people in March…

Many of my fellow students have chosen to do their MSc projects in amazing places; Africa, Australia, France, Utila, Uganda..just to name a few. It didn’t occur to me that these people would be leaving early to carry out their respective sampling trips, and that some of them wouldn’t be coming back.  I don’t know if I can cope with that.  These people who I was just getting to know, or didn’t get to spend enough time with (is it ever enough though?) are moving on to the next stages of their life, and I didn’t prepare myself.  I figured I still had a solid 5 months to get myself mentally ready to say goodbye.

I sat in the pub last night, sipping on my pint, watching the commotion around me.  It was a nice sized group we had.  Some people were grouped up talking, others danced to the live music.  Smiles flashed everywhere, laughs were constant.  Things seems to slow down as I removed myself from all of it to watch from the outside.  I really wanted to take that moment in so I could hold it and draw from it when I wrote this. I decided in that moment how I would deal with the ephemeral nature of this moment, and of this course.

Though our group is already beginning to break up and people are beginning to move on, we will always have the memory of this course.  To quote the classic tim Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris”.  We must just take this course for what it is, a snapshot of time in our lives, something short and wonderful that we can always think back to.  The advent of Facebook and other social media outlets will make it possible for all of us to easily keep in touch (though many won’t).  This course will serve as a snapshot from our lives, just like the memory from the pub is a snapshot of last night.

If you’re ever lucky enough to realize a special moment while it’s happening (as opposed to reflecting on it afterwards), I recommend everyone do what I did last night … jump in the middle and start to dance, make the most of the moment, and hang on to it forever.

Become a part of this journey with me!
Check out my website
Follow me on Twitter: @sharkynichol

Till next time,
-M

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Kenya

I recently went on a 2 week field course to Kenya with my Conservation and Biodiversity MSc program.  The trip essentially marks the halfway point of our journey to a new degree, and it certainly comes with a lot of hype.  For the first 4+ months of the program, I kept hearing from people “Just wait until Kenya”, or “Oh man, Kenya is amazing”.  While I do think that reputations like this come with good reason, it happens far too often that experiences don’t live up to the hype, particularly when there is an inordinate amount of hype leading up to an event.

That being said,

Kenya blew my flippin’ socks off

I’ve been back for a little over 4 days and I am still riding high from the 2 weeks we spent there (it all just seems like a dream, an amazing dream).  We visited a great variety of places with different habitat types, management strategies, and difficulties;  we camped all but 2 days of the trip (much of the time in the middle of reserves, with wildlife all around us).  My plan is to use this post as a general overview of the trip, and the subsequent few posts will hone in on some specific stories or things we learned on our trip.

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Wildlife, such as these Baboons, was a common place around many of our campsites

Our staff, led by the three wisemen: Brendan Godley, Stu Bearhop, and Andy McGowan were stellar; they were informative, inspirational, and exhibited their passion for wildlife and conservation on a daily basis.  Without them, this trip would not have been nearly as special.

Nearly every reserve we visited began with an introductory talk by one of the “higher ups”, usually either a high ranking security member or someone involved in the management of the park.  We were given an overview of the specific area including the history of how it came to be what it is today, the issues they face, and the ways then engage the communities (not all of them do); we also had excellent Q&A sessions with the speakers (all of which handled the questions very well).  Kenya has a very interesting dynamic of conservation; the fact that they are a developing country has a major impact on how the people view the animals and conservation.  Much different to what I have seen in the states and so far in the UK, people in Kenya generally don’t seem to see the point in conserving something unless it puts money in their pockets.  I can’t really say I blame them considering that many families cannot manage to provide 3 meals per day.  WIll conservation in Kenya never work until they fix the financial situations of their general public?

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Lilian from KWS gave us a fantastic introductory talk about Meru. (Thanks to Brendan Godley for the pic)

Conservation issues exist in a big way, and I plan to dedicate entire posts to it, but now it’s time to move on to the “sexy” part: the animals.  We were able to walk through a few areas (Lake Naivasha, Crater Lake, Hell’s gate, Mount Kenya) and had to game drive through the rest (Lake Nakuru, Solio Ranch, Ol Pejeta, Meru, Samburu).  The amount of biodiversity we saw was insane!  Each bus (our group was divided into smaller bus groups of 5 or 6 for the purposes of small group activities and game drives) was responsible for compiling a list of species they encountered during the trip (actual names, not “white and black bird with a red ass”).  By the end of the trip, my bus had identified over 450 species, I couldn’t believe it!  It must also be said, birds are badass.  By the end of the trip not only did I consider myself a legitimate birder (as far as having an interest, not being the best birder ever…. yet), but I also started to say and believe that: “You come to Kenya for the big mammals, but stay for the birds”.  We were able to see amazing things like lions, cheetah, hyaenas, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and Zebra (even the rare Grevy’s Zebra); however, it was the birds that constantly amazed us.  The elegance of an African Fish Eagle sitting in its nest on Lake Naivasha, the wise looking Verreaux’s Eagle Owl perched in Lake Nakuru, and the massive Secretary Bird sitting on the top of a tree in Samburu are encounters that i did not expect to take my breath away… but totally did.

ImageAfrican Fish Eagles

ImageVerreaux’s Eagle Owl

That being said, the animals that you would expect to marvel at … were amazing…Image

Two Lion cubs explore after having a drink (above) and a Hyaena takes its breakfast (a Dik-Dik) to go (below)

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Our class gelled really well and we became very close (dancing nights in Naro Moru and shower beers helped us bond).  We all went crazy when we found out that our last two nights would not be spent camping in Samburu, instead we were staying at an AMAZING lodge in the middle of the reserve (fully equipped with a pool… and beds!).  We definitely missed our camp cooks (who cooked all of our amazing campsite meals), but we totally enjoyed the lavish comforts of the lodge.

ImagePool time in Samburu was a no-brainer (Thanks again to Brendan for this pic)

All in all, this trip was one for the ages, and something I will never forget.  The faces and places we experienced are forever engrained in my memory.  I am in the process of making a video of our trip (check out the teaser HERE) which will make it’s world premiere at our photo party Feb 13th (and will be on youtube for the world to see after that!).

Check out my website for the full trip photo album (it’ll be up there soon) and other cool stuff!

ImageYou could usually fine me fully equipped: Buff, GoPro, Nikon, and binoculars!

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The shark cull in Western Australia

Initially, I was going to stay quiet about this ordeal in Australia, thinking that it would probably not last for very long pr the plan might never get implemented because they came to their senses.

I was wrong.

For those that don’t know, Western Australia, in response to the whopping 1.1 shark attacks per year (on average) will be catching and killing Great White sharks on “high profile” beaches in order to make them “safer”.  They will place baited drumlines 1km offshore from these beaches; any  white, tiger, or bull shark over 3m (9.8 ft) will be killed.  

Oh boy, where do I begin??

Let’s start with the notion that this will make beaches safer.  By removing all large sharks from these areas you do reduce the possibility of a human-shark interaction.  The reality is however, that by baiting, you are potentially drawing in sharks from remote areas.  It is well known that sharks have an extremely keen sense of smell, and with their inquisitive nature they will go to investigate these smells.  So while you are killing the large sharks swimming near these beaches, you are also likely drawing in sharks from remote areas, so the beaches might not end up as “safe” as they think. 

So, these stats are way overused …. but I believe this is so because they make sense:

There are an average of 5 … yes, 5 … shark-related fatalities each year. 

Things that kill more people annually than sharks: toasters, dogs, and VENDING MACHINES (it’s a very long list, but these were my favorite)

Beyond probably not being as effective as they would want, shark culling is ecologically irresponsible, and I have no idea how such a ludicrous idea has been approved.  Sharks have an important role in the ecosystem, they help keep everything in check.  They are what we call a “keystone species” (This post is sounding eerily similar to one that I wrote a couple months ago).  Without sharks, their environments would go through dramatic shifts, and there would be complete havoc in the oceans for a while, causing many species to go extinct along the way.  We don’t know very much about white shark reproduction.  However, we do not need to know details to know that removing sharks over 3m in length means removing individuals who are reproductively active (or close to it).  They take a relatively long time to reach maturity, have a lengthy gestation period, and do not give birth to large numbers of offspring (this is not all fact, some is theoretical based on knowledge of related species).  Adding all of this together, it is pretty clear that removing individuals from the breeding population is a BAD idea.  

This isn’t just some “we love sharks, please don’t kill them” campaign … there are reasons why knowledgable sharks scientists have spoken out against this.  

Doing this gives people the wrong idea.  It makes the general public think that killing sharks is acceptable.  Do yourself a favor and read “Wildlife Wars” by Richard Leakey, while it is primarily about Elephants, the ideas of wildlife management are still applicable.  The killing of sharks, for food, sport, or fear is a major issue worldwide.  There are an estimated 100 million sharks killed annually (yes, reread that and let it sink in).  By giving the approval to kill sharks in this instance, others will believe they can justify doing the same thing in other areas.   How do you tell people “No” after this?  How do you keep the floodgates from opening?  This practice is already being done in 3 other locations, all of which should also be stopped.

 “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by Callum Roberts (a book that talks about the history of overfishing, and is extremely eye opening) gives an insight to how plentiful fish used to be in our oceans.  Populations are shells of their former selves due to our overexploitation, and this cull will not help as we desperately try to restore balance to the ocean.

Another example we frequently use is the “man and a lion”.  If a man is walking through a savannah and gets mauled by a lion, we say “Well he probably shouldn’t have been walking through the savannah”.  We do not say “Hey guys, let’s go kill that lion, and we’ll get a few more just to be sure”.  This is the mentality we take when someone gets attacked by a shark, and I can’t figure out why.  Whether you agree or not, that water is their territory, we are not built for life in the ocean.  Each time you step foot in the ocean, you step into a different world, accepting the metaphorical terms and conditions of the sea.  A prominent feature of those conditions reads something like this “I hereby accept the fact that there are things living here that could scratch,bite, or sting me”.

I have been fortunate enough to have seen and interacted with white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks.  They are beautiful creatures that, beyond their ecological importance, are stunning to watch and are marvels of evolution.  They deserve our respect and admiration, and a shark cull goes against everything we conservationists are aiming for.  

There is no such thing as a “responsible” shark cull … because the act of culling is irresponsible in and of itself.  

Here is the contact page for the man largely behind this: Colin Barnett  I urge people to email (politely!) 

It is also sad to see that there has been a Facebook group created in support of this act: click here to see it … again, I stress that any objections should be polite and respectful.

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This Christmas…

I will not be able to be with my family back home… Damn

Two years ago, I also missed out on Christmas with my family when I was in South Africa.  I’m not sure why (maybe the difference between 24 and 26 years old is larger than I thought) but it didn’t hit me too badly back then.  I missed my family, sure, but I wasn’t overly sad.  This time however, I miss my family more than ever.  I miss switching the lights on every night, watching our house explode with luminance. I miss hearing Dad yell at my brother and I for tangling the string of lights as we follow behind him as he puts them on the tree (this is as much of a tradition as eating Christmas dinner in my house).  I will miss waking up Christmas morning feeling like I’m still 10 years old, looking forward to a huge breakfast with my family and opening up gifts together.  I think the thing that will hurt the most about missing Christmas with my family isn’t actually not experiencing it, but knowing that it goes on without me.

While that first paragraph makes it seem like it’s going to be a pretty ho-hum day, it surely won’t be.  I’m super stoked to be able to spend another Christmas in a new place, Falmouth.  Eating, drinking whiskey, and spending time with fantastic people … and seeing how Christmas is celebrated on a different continent.  I have always felt that the best way to immerse yourself in a  new and different culture is to spend holidays with them.  I’ll even get to experience “boxing day” (which seems to be another family-oriented eating and drinking day, like I’d say no to that!).  I am definitely in a privileged position to be able to experience the holidays in a  foreign place; I don’t want people to think that this post is just me bitching about missing my family!

To all of my family and friends all over the world … I love you all!  I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, my heart is with all of you.  To my Mom, Dad, and brother … i love you and will be thinking of you guys all day!

Travel safe everyone… shit gets crazy with all of the people driving throughout eh holiday madness.

Enjoy each other, if you are going to pick one day to set all of the “bullshit” aside and just get along … make it Christmas.  Eat, drink, and be merry.  Don’t take the people around you for granted … let Christmas be the day where you cherish your family and friends the most.  Forget the materialistic presents, the real gift is the people who love you and spend this special day with you!Image

Merry Christmas from the UK!!!!

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Top 10 favorite movies

This week for my “Tuesday Top 10” I decided to go with my 10 favorite movies.  By no means are these the 10 best movies I have ever seen … but more so the 10 movies that impact the most, either because I think they’re just that good, or because they have an emotional tie.  After the first 2, the order could be flip-flopped a lot, and probably changes on a day to day basis.

  1. The Departed
    An all-star cast, a great story, excellent acting… and what an ending!  My favorite movie, hands down.
  2. Inception
    Dreams have always intrigued me, and this movie just builds on that.  Beyond the dreaming aspect, it also delves into problems with letting go of lost loved ones… if you could hold on to a lost family member, even if in your dreams, would you?  Would you let go the rest of the “real” world for it?
  3. Jaws
    For all of the bad it did for sharks, this is the movie that really made being a marine biologist seem “cool”.  I totally wanted to grow up to be like Matt Hooper, and now I kind of have (except I’m not trying to kill any sharks, I save them instead!)
  4. The Dark Knight
    Heath Ledger … Do you really need to say anything else?  As good as this movie is as a whole, his performance alone put it in the upper echelon of movies
  5. Jurassic Park
    Another movie, like Jaws, that really made me want to be a scientist.  Alan Grant was the man!  I had a thing for dinosaurs when I was a kid, so this movie was just the best thing ever to me!
  6. Gladiator
    “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius….”  This movie is chocked full of quotes that I just can’t get enough of.  Adding to that the great fight sequences and the sadistic nature of Joaquin Phoenix‘s character… Wow!  I also remember seeing this in the theaters with my Mom and little brother, there was an old guy sleeping and snoring the next row over, Mom thought it was my little brother and told him to stop … hilarious!
  7. Rounders
    Matt Damon and Ed Norton were the cool poker players, and this was a time when I played A LOT of poker.  This one, again, is full of memorable quotes: “He beat me, straight up… pay him, pay that man his money” (Thanks John Malkovich)
  8. For Love of the Game
    Kevin Costner played the aging pitcher on his way out of the big leagues after an illustrious baseball career.  This movie had just enough sports in it to make me appreciate the “ooey gooey”  love story.  But come on, a guy can live with the sappy love story when the main character gets to hook up with his masseuse!
  9. Warrior
    Two estranged brothers are on a collision course in a winner-take-all MMA tournament.  Joel Edgerton is the guy you want to root for, but Tom Hardy is just a badass.  Totally underrated in my opinion, I loved the story.  Maybe it’s because I have a brother and, even though we weren’t brought up with as poor of a situation as they were in the movie, I can understand the feelings they both have by imagining myself in that situation (maybe not fully understand, but you know what I mean).
  10. The Land Before Time
    Like I said, this is definitely not “the top 10 movies ever made”.  I love this movie, even though it is a kid’s movie it can still make me tear up.  At a young age, (I was a year old when this was made) this movie gave me a new appreciation for having a loving mother always be their for me.  Yes, I have a loving father too, but there were no Daddy issues in this movie.

Honorable Mentions:  The Professional, Black Swan

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What did i do to deserve this beautiful life?

I knew that I wanted this next blog post to be about how lucky I feel to be in the situation I am in, and how special this time has been for me.  Literally as i was clicking off of my Facebook and going to wordpress, I noticed this status from Dane Cook:

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It totally fit the theme of what I knew I was going to blog about, almost serendipitously.

After the dust settled from the metaphorical “explosion” of work that has been my life recently (5 assignments due in the span of a week and a half) I have taken the last two days to reflect on my first term of grad school… which is also my first 4-ish months living in England, and meeting tons of new people.  I really don’t know what the hell I did to deserve this … how did I get so lucky?

I have made a ridiculous amount of friends these last 4 months.  This group of 80 or so students that I am lucky to be a part of is so close and tightly knit.  We really are like a little family (no shortage of drama either!).  I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if every year of students is like this, or are we different possibly, could we just be lucky enough to be a group who really gets along well?

Last night was our X-mas party for the department (Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences) and it was fantastically amazing. Professors and postgrads alike chatting, dancing, and just having a wonderful time. It was the release everyone needed after a tense term full of work, and everybody too advantage of it, and had a great time.  It was so nice to see these professors, who are often deified in the eyes of students, mingle and dance and enjoy this occasion with us…. pretty much as equals.

That’s one thing that I’ve learned about grad school, I don’t know if it’s everywhere, or just here… but they really treat us like equals, which is so empowering!

After shaking off the haze of last night’s drinking bonanza, a large group of us ended up at the Gylly Beach cafe having coffees, cakes, and hot chocolates while chatting about everything under the sun.  It was interesting to step back and look at the last two days of my life: one day was a massive party, full of rambunctious antics.  Today, on the other hand, was relaxed, calm, and most importantly… sober.  I could not have scripted a better way to end the term, after all of us put such hard work and intense hours into finishing everything, these last two days were the perfect cap.

It’s sad to think, but with quite a few people doing their research abroad next term, I really don’t know if there will be many opportunities left for that large of a group of us to get together and enjoy each other like that.  It’s really sad to face that possibility, but it just means that I’ll be sure to hang onto these past couple days in my memory forever (minus the bits that i can’t remember!).

This past few months has taught me so much about life and family.  I miss my family and friends back home so much, but the people I have been so lucky to meet have now become a new extension of my family. They are all an integral part of me and have in some way shaped the person that I am and will be forever.  I only hope that I have had the same impacts on them that they’ve had on me.

Traveling brings things into your life that you can’t get ANY OTHER WAY.  I have been so fortunate to go to so many different places so far during my life, and with each new place I have met tons of people… to the point now that I literally can say that I have family all over the world.  It’s something so unique and special to meet someone in a far away country and bond with them to the point that they become family… not “like family” … real family.  We should appreciate it year round, but this is the time of year where people think about it the most (or they should at least).

So I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this beautiful life … but I definitely am lucky as hell.

This post seems like a major ramble as I scan over it … but I’m okay with that.

Enjoy your families everybody 🙂

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Top Ten Tuesday!

Top 10 Tuesday

Top Ten Things I’ve learned since I came to England

  1. I could get fat off of pasties
    A nice flaky crust filled with meat, potato, and chard, I could eat them every day.  Even though it’s committing  serious carb-icide!
  2. Old Rosie is dangerous
    This is maybe the tastiest cider ever.  The caveat, it’s 7% alcohol (but tastes like juice).  Have more than a couple of these and before you know it you’re crawling home.
  3. Never walk Jacob’s Ladder drunk
    #2 often leads to #3.  Walking this massive staircase (which is the way to get to/from the pub of the same name) is not an advisable decision when inebriated
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  4. England can turn anyone into a tea drinker
    I never drink tea in the states, but since coming here I started… now I drink about 3 cups a day!
  5. Scientists really do drink the most coffee.
    Dunkin Donuts and Career Builder conducted a study to see what profession drinks the most coffee… scientists and lab techs were number 1.  I drink an average of 4-5 cups per day, its just how we do!
  6. You can convince an Englishman to have a pint with you pretty much anytime
    One thing that makes it so hard to stay focused sometimes is how keen people are to go “have a cheeky pint”.  While it can be tough because you’ll drink a lot… you’ll never drink alone!
  7. Mulled wine and mulled cider will change your life
    A description of these two heavenly creations won’t do them justice … just imagine a spiced, warm, tasty goodness that will undoubtedly keep you warm on a cold night … while also giving you a nice buzz!
  8. In Falmouth, if you’re not working, you’re probably having a pint
    As the previous two might suggest, opportunities to go grab a drink are not infrequent.  Combining the facts that this is 1) a small town, 2) a large portion of the town is made up of students and 3) there are a seemingly ENDLESS amount of places to get a pint… you pretty much gets  recipe for disaster (and a damn good night!)
  9. Sitting on a cold toilet seat is a horrible experience
    Every freakin’ morning, maybe it’s cause I’m from Florida, where everything is warm, but there is something about sitting on a cold toilet seat that sends a shock through my entire body.  Keep in mind though, if you get a warm one here it’s probably because someone just got off of it … pretty much a lose-lose.
  10. Girls here are TOTALLY different to flirt with
    I feel like I talk to friends about this daily, girls here are so much different!  I usually compare it to cooking:  If you’re an Italian chef, but go to work in an Asian restaurant… you had better learn to cook some Asian food, otherwise your restaurant won’t be very busy!!  It’s a good thing I love to flirt, and a good challenge!
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