Tanner, up close and personal on the Gulf Coast


Hi, there!  My name is
Tanner, and I'm about to be a Sophomore here at Olin College.  This summer, as my friends are doing cancer
research in Scotland, working with the Mythbusters in California, casting
bronze in Boston, or working for NASA at Olin, I am at home.  In Mississippi.  It may not sound too exotic, but coming home
to family and friends of the South is just what I needed after a long, cold
year in New England!

 

I decided early in the Spring semester that I needed a break
from engineering and calculus and physics and coding.  This led me to the paid internship I have
this summer at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, a branch of the University
of Southern Mississippi, in Ocean Springs, MS. 
Here at the lab, I am a photographer for the Summer Field Program.  This program is a series of field-intensive
classes offered for undergraduate students majoring in Marine Biology or
something related.  My job is to
photo-document boat trips and field excursions for these classes.  So, four days of my 40-hr workweek are spent
on a boat or on an island, or in a marsh or on a beach, taking pictures of or
filming students researching, experimenting, catching wildlife, seining,
sifting, taking samples, etc.  Usually
one day a week, I stay in my office (oh yeah! 
They gave me an office!) to edit the photos, web-post, work with the
Public Relations department, prepare photos and video for marketing, and work
on my final summer deliverables: class slideshows, a promotional video for the
program, and a memory book for the students. 

 

My job has been a pretty incredible adventure so far!  The five classes for the First Term (which
just ended this past week) were Marine Biology, Marine Ecology, Marine Mammals,
Oceanography, and Shark Biology. 
Accompanying these classes on many of their field excursions, I've been
places I never expected when I took the job. 
I've been stuck under a draw-bridge in the brackish marshes of coastal
Mississippi,  I've barreled through
alligator-laden marshes on the Barrier Islands, 
I've watched waterspouts become tornados as they crossed the beaches of
the Mississippi Sound,  I've had dolphins
spit in my face in the Gulf of Mexico, 
I've woken up on the bow of boat to find an off-shore oil rig directly
above my face,  I've been on MSNBC (awkwardly
cornered on the back of the boat, but still!) with Jeff Corwin,  I've filmed researchers hauling in 6-ft long
sharks 2 feet away from me,  I've swum
with sting rays, and held a baby bird in my hands, and  I've stepped on a tar ball (which takes FOREVER
to clean off, by the way) on a pristine Pensacola beach. 

 

As you may have heard, we're dealing with a pretty huge
environmental crisis on the Coast. 
Fortunately for my state, after more than a month of clean waters, it's
only now starting to directly affect us. 
So, with cancelled boat trips and contaminated waters, my job may
swiftly take an entirely different path. 
My duties may switch from photography of excited students enjoying
research in cool island waters to documenting coastal clean-up efforts and
possibly doing some cleaning myself.  So,
keep our area in your prayers, as this is a major disaster that we're all
affected by, not just the scientists here at the lab.

 

Anyways, oil aside, my job has been an absolute blast!  I'm learning lots of fun facts about coastal
marine life, I'm getting paid to do my favorite hobbies (photography and
graphic design), and I'm in the middle of an historic atmosphere of
problem-solving during environmental crisis. 
Needless to say, my first job outside of the family business is going to
be one that I always remember! It's been quite a ride! 

 

I figured I'd share with you some pictures I've taken for my
job, and a few others that I remember the most.

 

 

 

Dolphins.jpg


Once, with the Marine Mammals class, we stumbled upon a pod
of 270 dolphins North of Horn Island!  It
was awesome to see them, but after spending two 8-hour trips looking at and
observing the behavior of dolphins, I'd be just fine without seeing another one
any time soon!  Did you realize their
bellies turn pink when they socialize? 
I'm learning some really interesting things about marine biology as I
work!

 

Jeff Corwin 2.jpg


Yes.  That IS Jeff
Corwin!  He accompanied us on a boat last
weekend with the Shark Biology class to catch, tag, measure, and take blood
samples from sharks in the Gulf.  This
research is important to monitoring the effects of the oil spill on shark
populations (as well as the populations of what they consume), because unlike
birds, turtles, and fish, sharks do not float. 
So, when they die, they sink to the bottom, and it is difficult to see
how much populations decline.  Jeff was a
really cool guy (that's me standing next to him with the obnoxiously winded
afro).  He told us stories about the
weirdest things he'd ever eaten, and about getting bitten by an anaconda (which
I had remembered seeing on television). It was an AWESOME trip!

 

Water Spouts 3.jpg

 

One day when we were coming in from the bayou, we had an
unexpected crossing of two ornery waterspouts. 
The captain had to stop the boat and wait as the funnels jumped around
the surface of the water and ran aground just next to the research lab.  So, I can reasonably add "storm
chaser" to my list of duties at work!

shark biology 4.jpg


I also have other tasks when I'm on campus, like taking and
editing class photos (like this one), USM ID photos, Children's Sea Camp
Photos, etc.

 

Sifting in Waves 5.JPG

 

This is a good example of what I'm actually getting paid to
do.  It's my job to take pictures of the
students that can be used for marketing purposes (like brochures, promotional
adds, banners, and other publications). 
These two girls are doing something that is done A LOT on the islands
and beaches - sifting.  Basically, sand
is dug up from the sea floor, and quickly placed in these floating sifters,
where water and waves wash out the sand but leave behind the organisms that
live in the sand (such as worms, clams, and various crustaceans).

 

TV 6.jpgThere's still some Katrina debris on the islands.  This was our favorite!

 

Tar Ball 7.JPG

 

This is the first tar ball that I encountered in Pensacola,
Florida.  Tar balls are crude oil that
waves have broken into smaller chunks. 
These chunks mix with some sand and organic matter and are washed
ashore, where I step on them. :(

 

Stormy Sky 8.jpg

One of the trips I went on was an overnight trip to the Deep
Sea Horizon (where the water gets REALLY deep), where we tied onto a natural
gas rig and did some deep-sea fishing.  I
slept at the very front of the boat, outside, on the deck, with my head stuffed
into that little triangle of handrail that you're supposed to lean over with
your hands flailing out to the sound of Celine Dion.  It may sound uncomfortable, but it was
incredible.  There's an eerie feeling
being out on the sea.  You feel
vulnerable, but not; you feel stranded, but not; you feel tiny, but not; and
you feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that from horizon to horizon you're
surrounded by emptiness, but below you is a world of critters you'll never
know.  I can't describe how it was to be
woken up by sprinkles of rain, opening my eyes to this seascape, and stand up
to a towering oil rig.  It was just
special!

 

People on the Beach 10.jpg

These are just some other pictures I've taken of the Summer
Field Program.  Some of the more common
things that students do are throwing cast nets, seining, trolling, observing,
and of course, chasing seagulls!

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