Fieldwork at the fish farms

I am at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) on the west coast of Saudi Arabia getting my M.S. in marine science, which means that I have this amazing laboratory called the Red Sea at my doorstep. My thesis project looks at the impacts of offshore aquaculture on the water quality of the Red Sea, and I have been going every few months to the fishing town of Al Lith on the southwest coast of Saudi to sample water around a fish farm.

fish cages_1

The Saudi Arabian fish farms that I am surveying for my project.

Grad school and fieldwork are always an adventure, and my time doing marine science research in Saudi Arabia has been an exciting experience so far. The Red Sea is an amazing place full of beautiful corals, crystal clear waters, curious divers, and tiny fishing boats. I have conducted a few field trips on the Red Sea, and each time I go out I encounter something that I never have before: Manta rays swooping underneath us as we snorkel along the edge of a reef; unfazed cuttle fish hover next to us as we collect samples from coral reefs; worried fishermen contacting the coast guard to call in our oceanographic equipment as a bomb threat…Every day on the Red Sea offers something new to this lucky little Californian who stumbled upon the opportunity to do cool science in a cool part of the world.


Taking water samples from the area around one of the fish farms in the Red Sea.

This month, I went back to the field for another round of sampling for my thesis. My big question is this: How does aquaculture affect the water quality of the Red Sea? Saudi Arabia wants to invest more money in aquaculture (it’s part of their big economic and social development plan called Vision 2030) so our group wants to look into how that might affect an enclosed tropical sea like the Red Sea. I am taking lots of water samples in the ocean around one offshore fish farm in the southern-central Red Sea to figure out whether the farms are emitting organic matter into the surrounding water. This farm is also close to a coral reef, so I am measuring sedimentation on the reef to see if this organic matter from the fish farm is reaching the reef. In practical terms, this means hauling a lot of water out of the ocean for tests in the lab, and a few dives on the reefs to collect samples from where the corals live.


Processing water samples on the boat during one of my field trips, aka rocking the pipette-and-fanny-pack look.

My field work also includes a lot of equipment. Since I am trying to measure a lot of things in the water/reefs, from organic carbon to ocean currents to chlorophyll, I need different tools and equipment for all of these tests and collection methods in the field. Every time I go out on a field trip, I need to fill a pickup truck or SUV with everything from liquid nitrogen to GPS units to water filtration devices to collection bottles. Β And of course, because of the country in which I am doing fieldwork, there is one small issue…I can’t drive!

Or rather, I’m not allowed to drive. It is a bit frustrating when you and a group of 5 other females who all know how to drive and just wanna do fieldwork are faced with the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are not legally allowed to drive a car. This is set to change in June 2018 (whoo hoo!), but in the mean time, we are stuck relying on other men in our research center who are kind enough to join our field trips and act as drivers/field assistants. Thankfully, our university is full of very helpful lads who have been willing to take us out to our field site and generally make the trips possible (thanks boys!)


Packing up the truck with my excessive amount of field equipment.


Trunk full of sampling gear, ready for anything from bacteria samples to ammonium measurements!

After getting past the legal driving hurdle, we were ready to get out into the field. I spent about a week on boats with a lovely bunch of other grad students from KAUST, some of whom are pictured below. We spent our days diving, pulling up water, setting out surface current drifters, and working on our tans. One of my favorite things about doing fieldwork since coming to grad school has been the team efforts that everyone is keen to contribute to. My research center at KAUST is full of really motivated students and scientists who are always up for helping me with my research. It takes a lot of people to do my project, a lot of hands are required to find mussels burrowed into corals, fill bottles of water on the sea, and deploy surface-current drifters. Something that I really like about being in this research environment is that most of the people around you are willing and happy to lend a hand with your research, and you get the chance to help them with their work as well. It’s been nice getting to learn about other peoples’ projects by chipping in on their lab and field work, and having others do the same in return.

drifter and girls

Quick group shot with part of our field team right before we deployed a surface drifter, which measures the ocean currents around my field site.

Now that I’ve collected all of my samples for this round of fieldwork (I go out into the field every 3 months or so), I need to measure everything in the lab back at KAUST and start analyzing the data. That’s the satisfying part, when I can start seeing the results and patterns that I went out to measure. I get to do a nice mix of field, lab, and computer work for my research, each of which are fun, frustrating, and challenging in different ways. I’m already seeing some cool results from my previous trips out to the field, let’s see what this most recent bout of jumping off boats and hauling up water has to say!


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