Sunday, May 31, 2015

Blast from the Past: Alaskan Fishing Boats

So even though Season 11 of Deadliest Catch is currently airing, Hulu only has up to Season 10 available. Last weekend, Richard and I finished up Season 10. I enjoy watching the show because the fall after graduating college, I went up to Alaska and lived/worked on fishing boats as a government observer. Maybe I'll recognize someone (yeah, never happened).

So how did it come about? It was my last semester of college and an alumni came and talked to one of our classes about their experience as an observer. Given I hate cold weather, I probably would not go to Alaska for vacation, but if I was paid to go....this just might work! At the time, observers made about $3K a month, so for a college grad that sounded awesome (come to find out a recent college grad processor on the factory boat made about $10K a month....sigh....and well we all know how much the crab fishers make)!

So I applied with Alaskan Observers, Inc. (they have job openings, check it out here!) and got the job! I would be a National Marine Fisheries' Observer. The way the system is set up I worked for AOI, they receive their funding to pay me from the fishing boats, and my data was submitted to NOAA's ground fishery program. The purpose of the 'middle man' agency helps make the data more reliable. If one was paid by the fishing boat, there is potential for coercion to skew numbers in favor of a longer fishing seasons. If one was paid by NOAA, there would be conspiracy theories of the government overestimating catches to close seasons early.

Once hired, I went to Seattle for a 3 week training. Housing was provided (AOI had several 3-bedroom apartments that had 2 sets of bunk beds in each room....hey, you are getting ready to live on a boat with even less space....). We also received a per diem like salary while in Seattle for food/bus tickets/etc. During training, we learned about random sampling and collecting data; were assigned special projects (mine was collecting and preserving 100 fish stomachs (1/2 male/female); learned about prohibited species (essentially Halibut and 4 species of crabs....aka the big money makers); marine mammal sighting documentation. We also watched a LOT of movies of what to do when 'worse case scenario' happens (boat fires, running aground, mutiny). No one in our class bailed after all of these movies with 'real footage', but it did make sure you told everyone you loved them before you left for your ship! We were issued sampling and safety gear (including a survival suit). We even practiced donning a survival suit, swimming across a retention pond, and climbing into a life raft.

Finally, we flew to Dutch Harbor via Anchorage (my training classmates and I flew out at different times based on when our assigned fishing vessel left Seattle for Dutch Harbor). The Unalaska airport has a mountain at one end and the Bering Sea at the other. There is a road that has to be closed in order to allow planes to land. The runway has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous to land at (there are even YouTube videos and flight simulations based on this runway)!

AOI had an apartment in Dutch Harbor which provided you a place to stay before your boat departed port or a place to stop by and visit with others while your boat is offloading their catch. The first fishing vessel I was on was F/V Christina Ann. The main fishery my class trained for was the pollock fishery, which the season opened mid August 1997 and lasted about a month.

Check out the size of the trawl net that had just been pulled on board, most nets were about the size of a city bus....that is a lot of fish. The boat had 4 holding tanks the fish were dumped in and held before processing. Part of my data collection involved recording estimated total catch size based on the size of the codend of the trawl net (the captain/first mate would help me with that/allow me to compare numbers).

My work station was located below the deck where the holding tanks dumped out to the processing area. Directly behind me was the heading machine, luckily during my time on the vessel, nobody cut any fingers off. It was here at my sampling station I would get average weights of the pollock. I also collected my 100 stomachs here. I would measure the fish, slice them open to determine its sex, remove the stomach, place the stomach in a little bag with a slip specifying gender and length, place the stomach in my bucket of preservative, and then drop the fish onto the conveyor belt to be processed into surimi (imitation crab). I had a random number table that told me which sets I needed to sample (I started at a point on the table and from there went in progression, sample 2 sets, off 1, sample 3 off 2, sample 2, off 2, etc). It was extra fun since the boat fished 24 hours a day, so within about 4 days time, I went from day shift to night shift back to day shift.

Every day or so, I would go up in the wheel house of the ship. There was a computer up there that had some observer software loaded on it. I would enter my data for the day and hit submit. About once a day, the computer connected via satellite and sent my data on its merry way. Based on all observers sending in their data, NOAA determined when to close the season. So if my memory serves me right (it was 18 years ago), the pollock season lasted about 3-4 weeks. I remember we off loaded one time at St. Paul's was nice in that I had no work to do for 24 hours or so, but it was a bit torturous in that boat offloaded offshore. So I could see and smell land, but I could not go on land.

As I recall, we were fishing relatively close to Russian waters, so following the closing of the season, I got back into Dutch Harbor after a lot of my classmates had already left. When I disembarked the F/V Christina Ann, I had the option to head back to Seattle or stay and do a couple more trips. I opted to stay and do some more trips. Fishing vessels that are 60-135 feet long only need an observer onboard about 1/4-1/3 of the time (I don't remember exactly), so I worked on 2 smaller vessels.

The F/V Kevleen K is a crab pot boat. It was before the start of crabbing season and it was being used to catch pot cod (aka Pacific Cod). According to the internet, F/V Kevleen K is the only green crab boat left in the Bering Sea fleet!

Look familiar? So I weighed and counted the catch and bycatch that they dumped out of the pots. When I was done with the bycatch I would throw it overboard. I have to say, halibut are big, strong, slippery, and feisty! I had a sampling station in what the fishers called the shower. It had a nice place to hang my scale but when a large swell hit the boat, it came over at that spot. I did get drenched and went sliding across the deck once, but I managed to stay on the boat, keep hold of my basket and not lose any of my fish! I was on the crab boat for 1-2 weeks.

The last ship I was on was a blue and white longliner F/V (I need to reference my photo album to figure out the name) fishing Pacific cod as well. I had two samplings stations. One right where they were landing the fish and I randomly weighed and measured the intended catch (plus they hand to land the bycatch for me also, which I then recorded data on and threw back overboard). It was a lovely location, they would bleed the fish there....and new ones would flip there fins and give me a lovely bloody misting. My other sampling location was above where they landed the fish. I watched what fish came up, on my clip board I had 4 little counters. I wrote the most common species next to them. As a fish came up, I clicked the counter and recorded it. The bycatch was then knocked off the hook and the Pacific cod was landed onto the boat. If there was a species other than my four, then I just wrote it down and made tally marks. If a shark or orca had eaten one of the fish, leaving just fish lips on the hook I had to count that as catch as well. I had a nice comfy buoy to sit on, but on rough seas I was unable to sample since my seat was spring loaded to throw me overboard (and I do have this awesome set of photos of the bow going straight down into a wave trough and then straight up at that the sky).

The last boat was super fun in that it did not have a water maker on board. So the water we left port with needed to last the whole undetermined time we were out (ie, however long it took to fill the tanks). I was the only person to shower that trip....I took 2 short (ie 3 minute) showers and we were out to sea for about 3 weeks. There was one deckhand that didn't shower before we left port...he smelled....."lovely". The first mate/engineer/chef made red beans and rice with every meal. He rotated what meat was served with the red beans and rice. Given I was vegetarian.....I ate red beans and rice for 3 weeks.....but they were delicious.....I have looked for a similar recipe but I have yet to find one that matches that taste I remember.

Between boats, I had some time to explore the island of Unalaska, where Dutch Harbor is located. There was a lovely Russian Orthodox Church.

One of the smaller boats I was on, the Captain had two trucks that needed to be moved from one dock to another. While the Captain moved the boat, a crewman drove one truck, but none of the other crewmen had a license so they asked if I would move it. On my way, I also saw my first wild Bald I stopped and took a picture.

Of course, I have to mention the marine mammals I saw. On our way out of Dutch Harbor I got a shot of a seal (sorry for the picture quality....I used to work in a photo shop and things that are off drive me nuts!). On the first day of the pollock season, I saw Sei whale spouts in the distance....too far away to get very good picture.

Dall's Porpoises are nearly impossible to photograph their bodies when they are traveling. They do a behavior when surfacing called rooster tailing. The way the surface they just make a spray of water. A Dall's porpoise looks like a miniature Orca.

Speaking of Orcas, I saw wild Orcas three times while out in the Bering Sea. One day when on the long liner boat, a mother and calf followed our boat for several hours, unfortunately by the time I finished my sampling they went on their way (but I was able to get a snapshot....given my old Pentax had a fixed 50mm was pretty close to the boat).

Following my third boat, AOI did not need anymore observers. So I headed back to Seattle for de-briefing. On the way back, I ended up with a piece of missing luggage. I can still remember the look the airline agent's face when asked to describe my missing luggage and it's contents (white paint bucket, sealed lid, contents?, 100 fish stomachs). My bucket of stomachs was delivered the next day to my apartment. I had 2 weeks in Seattle, to turn all my equipment in, I meet with some people to go over my data sheets in case they could not read/understand anything. They did mention that not many people take filing out the marine mammal sighting forms as seriously as I did (that was the best part for me; sightings of Sei whales, orcas, Dall's porpoises, and seals!)

I really enjoyed the experience. I knew I was going to be cold when I put my long underwear on to go out on the deck of the boat in late August. I survived a little over 2 months in Alaska...on fishing boats (I think I only spent 2-3 nights on land). Following my time in Alaska, I moved to California for a internship at the Cetacean Behavior Lab...much more up my alley. I had money in the bank to cover me until I found a job!

Note: I took a lot more photos with my old Pentax film camera, I just don't have any digital copies currently and my albums are in storage, so some day in the future, I may update this post with more photos.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Monday's Moment: Memorial Day Poppies

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
-Moina Michael

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Erisioni Georgian Dance Ensemble

Over the weekend, the Erisioni Georgian Dance Ensemble was performing at the Tbilisi Philharmonic Concert Hall. The CLO office reserved 2 rows of seats (I think 80 seats). I kept forgetting to go by and get tickets....when I finally made it in, I got the last me day no guilt :)

According to the website Georgia About, the folk dance troupe was established in 1885 and performs the national dances and songs. Erisioni performs all over the world (so if you ever see them in your area, go! It is so different than any thing I have seen). You can find some more info here on their Facebook page. They typically perform in Tbilisi twice a year, around the holidays and in late spring.  The show they performed on Sunday was called Georgian Treasure (ქართული საგანძური).

The show is very male centric, which should not come as a surprise given it is a patriarchal society. There was a group of male singers, all musicians were male, and large number of male dancers. The females were beautiful and for many of their dances they were gracefully floating. It is possible I noticed this more than most, since when Mason did dance at First Baptist he was the lone boy. Another thing I noticed, even though the men and women danced together, only in one dance did they ever actually touch.

The opening dance is called Davluri and it is a dance that portrays city aristocracy.

I did notice that the women wore the same shoes, but with different size heels, I guess to give them all a uniform height as they floated around. One of the guys in our group, Larry, set up a camera on stage and was able to get a good shot of their heels (check out his website for more images).

A Doli is a Georgian percussion instrument (a type of drum) and played with palms and fingers. They had a group of young boys play the drums.

This song had a great drum beat, for the dance the men that appeared to be in search of enemies. I think this type of dance is from the Imeretian region.

Check out the air the man leaping towards the left got!

Playing a drum 3 people high...impressive!

I think this dance was called Nana. It appears to be a type of wedding dance.

I think this is a Svan region dance, called Svanura perkhuli.

There was a number of songs that were sung by a group of men. Though I didn't understand any of the Georgian sung, it appears they were singing in two competing groups going back and forth. Sometimes they would seem very heated and argumentative; sometimes they would all come together at the end.

I think this is a Mtiuluri type dance, with the men performing tricks (prepare to see leaping and landing on their knees, dancing on their toes, and spinning so much you will feel dizzy). The title was Harira, Marula.

Following intermission, they began with an Abkhazian dance. The women's dresses were shorter than most of the other dances and a pretty lavender color.

This is Gandagana, to me it had a bit of a middle eastern flair (possibly from when Arabs occupied Georgia in the Early Middle Ages). The old man was just adorable, as were the kids that performed in this dance.

Playing the panduri, a Georgian 3 string guitar (Mason picked up a miniature one up on our trip).

I think this song is Mtielebi. The dancers are shepherds dressed in red or black chokhas (wool coats) and papakha (sheep's wool hat). The chokhas have been worn since the 9th century. In the dance, they compete with one other.

The next song was Simdi. I think it is an Ossetian wedding dance. In this dance, the men and women did touch, but just holding arms type touch. There was some very impressive line formations.

Near the end of the show, they did a dance called Khevsuruli. It is a mountain dance. It shows a conflict between two men and their supporters over a woman. Women enter during the dance and wave veils to stop fighting. As soon as the women leave, the men begin fighting again. I got some video of the sword fighting....and yes those are sparks flying off the swords....that is some pretty amazing choreography. 

At the end, all the dancers came out, with a variety of the different traditional dress on.

I really like the Georgian pride with the guy on top of the pyramid with the flag.

The music was very loud and I think Clarissa may have not enjoyed that (she doesn't like loud places). Given he took dance and most of the show was men dancing, I think Mason would have enjoyed it. Hopefully they will be back in town before we depart post and we will all go.

Note: Since the program was mostly in Georgian, I attempted to figure out the stories behind the dances by accessing the power of I apologize for any misinterpretations I have made. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tbilisi Tips: Gardenia

So there is a cute garden shop just outside of downtown Tbilisi towards the Tbilisi Sea.

View from the street:

It is part garden and part nursery. When you enter, you walk into a garden of planted beds of flowers. It gives you a good idea as to what plants look good together.

There is a little cafe on site, where you can enjoy a drink,

relax at a table, and

sit back and enjoy the view.

There is a decent sized green house towards the front of the nursery section, that you can walk through a select plants from.

Both springs here, I have purchased strawberry plants here. Last year's plants produced fruit, as well as, sent out runners and grew all summer. They have already bloomed and begun growing fruit this year. I bought some more to fill the bed I have them in.

In the back, there is a lot of ground cover plants, shrubs, and roses. If you notice in the background, there are more greenhouses in the back of the property as well. I have never ventured that far back to check them out.

They have a remnant Soviet Era monument in back.

To summarize, a whole lot of pretty flowers and good prices. I spent about $25 USD and got 5 strawberry plants, a basil plant, 3 snapdragon plants, 3 purple flowering plants, and 4 pink flowering plants. They also sell nutrient rich top soil, fertilizer, and flower pots. If I was going to live here a long time, I would go nuts and buy a ton of flowers/plants to landscape with. Instead, I just bought a few pretty flowers that will hopefully survive the summer heat while we are Stateside.

Details: Gardenia

Street: Nikoloz Khudadovi St

Coordinates: N41°43.856’ E44°49.872’

Phone Number: +995 599 18 16 34

Facebook Page:

Closed on Mondays, Open 9am - 7pm according to sign (FB says open 11am -7pm)

They do accept credit cards as well as cash.

A journal article about Gardenia can be found here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Adventures in Vatican City State

So when in must visit the smallest country in the world, so off to the Vatican we went (it helped that the hotel shuttle dropped us off right outside the walls). Given we were on vacation mode, we didn't get as early of a start as we would have liked...oh well. The shuttle dropped us off and we walked along the mostly brick wall to St. Peter's Square. There was this stretch that look liked some books on a shelf (possibly a gate of some sort).

The night before, we had pre-purchased our tickets online for the Vatican Museum and we had an entry time of 2pm. We arrived to the square around 11, the line to get in to St. Peter's Basilica was super long (as in wrapped all the way around the perimeter of the square) we opted to piddle around the square and grab some lunch before heading the museum.

St. Peter's Basilica...the largest church in the world.

Cuddling with the kids.

Daddy's turn (I think the kids are tired of photos)....

Statue of St. Peter (he is holding the key to heaven).

Around the top of St. Peter's Square are 140 life-size statues of different saints.

I have tried to find to a map/guide of the identify of the individual statues. I think this might be St. Francis of Assisi (I went to the elementary school of his 'sister' saint....St. Clare of Assisi, I did not find her).

In the center of the square is the Egyptian Obelisk. There are four lions at the base of the obelisk (copper colored). According the wikipedia, the obelisk was built in around 2400 BC and has been moved three times. It was moved from Egypt to Rome in 37AD.

We got to watch the changing of the guard at one of the entrances. The guards are called the Pontifical Swiss Guards.

Their uniforms are.....interesting....and quite colorful.

After lunch we headed to the Vatican Museum. Pre-purchasing our tickets online was the best decision. We got to by-pass the insanely long line as well as avoid the aggressive tour guide of both worlds. We started off in Pigna Courtyard. The Sphere Within Sphere sculpture by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro is in the center of the courtyard.

A tour guide from a group stepped over the chain around the outside and walked up to the sphere and pushed it. The sphere will then rotate. Pretty interesting.

There were a number of statues and sculptures around the perimeter of the courtyard as well.

Caesar Augustus Statue.

Egyptian Lion Statue.

I am not sure of the exact name of this fountain (searches on the internet calls it the 'face fountain in Vatican'). You can see this image kid free here.

Above the face fountain is the Fontana della Pigna, this statue originally stood in the Pantheon and water used to spout out the top (it was moved to the Vatican in 1608). The fountain was made of bronze in the 1st or 2nd century and is 4 meters tall (according to the Vatican webpage).

We then entered the museum. There was a hall of real old ancient Roman statues (my lack of love of history is about to There were lots of statues with penises.....that made Mr. Tween I liked to point them out even more....muwhahahaha.....

A lot of the museum was only lit by natural light coming in through windows, it was also very we did a lot of 'looking at old stuff while trying to not get separated'. Tour groups were especially annoying in shoving and cutting you off to stay with their guide.....I'm sorry my sick child is sleeping in her stroller and in your way, but please don't step on her. We did take a few flash-free pictures of the ceilings along the way.

Some sort of Octagonal Ceiling painting.

The colors were surprisingly bright and vivid. When we finally made it to the Sistine Chapel I was amazed at how bright the colors were.

Ceiling in the gallery of maps.

In the gallery of maps, we found a map of Italy with mermaids in the Mediterranean Sea!

Another ceiling (thought of my bestie who loves the little cherub angels).

When we made it to the Sistine Chapel, no photography (or videography) is allowed. We constantly got shushed and told to put phones and cameras away. Clarissa woke up and admired the work. Mason was excited to see the 'creation of Adam' portion. He had recognized the image.

Afterwards we went out and wandered the gardens a bit. We refilled our water bottles at this lovely lady's fountain.

After hitting the gift shop (must get a rosary for the kids to be blessed by Pope), we headed to check the line to get into the Basilica...lucky for us, the line was relatively short now. Richard went and got some snacks while the kids and I creeped up in the line. We made it past the security and had to check the stroller before heading into St. Peter's Basilica.

Michelangelo's sculpture of Mary holding Jesus.

Pope John Paul II's grave.

Richard's favorite piece of artwork in Rome. St. Peter's Baldachin, a large bronze canopy said to mark the location of St. Peter's tomb below it. It was designed by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini and completed in 1634.

One of the domes in St. Peter's.

You really can't get a feel of just how ginormous the Church is, but trust me it is huge! We also only saw a fraction of it. In Clarissa's not feeling wellness, Richard and I took turns carrying her and 35 lbs gets heavy after a while. After leaving the basilica, we headed back to the hotel.

Our walk to the shuttle every evening, along the Tevere River.

On Sunday before we flew out, we headed back to St. Peter's Square. When the Pope is in town, he will open his apartment window and do a blessing to all who come. We got to the square a little after 10. It did not really start to get crowded until around 11. We found a decent spot and set up camp while we waited for the Pope. He was conducting Mass in the Basilica and it was projected on some large screens inside the square. So while I didn't understand anything we could see Pope Francis.

Here's a little video clip of the mass. He was talking about the Armenia Genocide of WWI.

It was a bright and sunny day we were waiting, but given it was barely spring it was not unbearable hot or a pretty good day to wait.

No, we didn't break down and buy a selfie stick from one of the hundreds of vendors. So two bottles of water and one can of Pringles later (I don't see how the kids could eat sour cream and onion chips that early in the day), the Pope emerged in his window.

Where you ask? Just to the left of Mason's finger.....

Here, I'll zoom in as Pope Francis does his 'rock star' wave to the crowd. 

It really felt like we were at a concert. Thousands of people cheering. It was pretty cool, after his blessing Pope Francis did little shout outs to large groups with in the crowd (those with banners or flags in particular). While I didn't understand any of the Italian he spoke, you would hear the group he recognized all cheer afterwards.

Here's a shot of the crowd projected on the screen (sorry for the head in the shot, but it was crowded).

The Pope read the Regina Coeli as oppose to the normal blessing (since it was after Easter but before Pentecost). We brought Mason & Clarissa's new rosaries to be blessed and a couple of our loyal readers may end up receiving a blessed trinket when we are stateside this summer. Those all nicely fit into our backpack. We were quite impressed by the group that brought a giant (as in at least 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide) painting of Jesus to be blessed!

So afterwards, we returned to the hotel to check out (total perk of being an IHG platinum member....2 pm check out!), grabbed a snack and then headed to the airport to fly home. Vatican City houses so many ancient and religious artifacts and I really don't feel we were able to take them all in. Maybe sometime if we are posted in western Europe, we can plan a trip back to Rome/Vatican and really take our time and learn about what we are seeing (maybe during the slow season). If the kids are older, I would probably opt to get the audio guide because there were a lot of times I couldn't read the sign and didn't know what I was looking at. All in all it was a great trip, Mason greatly appreciated the availability of pasta and pizza and had both everyday we were there!