In 9 days I will be leaving for Australia to conduct field work and I am very excited about the prospect of sun, having just survived a long and grey British winter. To the uninitiated, field work seems like a glorified holiday allowing scientists to visit glamourous destinations and jot down a few notes about the local flora and fauna. If only this were the case! In reality, field work is HARD work and often takes a lot of planning.
For my current field trip, planning started about 8 months ago. And I am only away for 2 weeks! I first had to decide what experiments I wanted to run and exactly how I was going to do it. At this stage, you need to decide where your work will be carried out, who will be going, the best time of year for the particular work, and what equipment will be needed. If the experiments are part of a new project, then the next step is to apply for funding. For this trip, I applied for 3 grants and received two of them.
My field work will take place at the Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. This is a national park so permits are required before I can go. If I were collecting specimens or doing more than observing animals, I would also need a fisheries permit and ethical approval by a committee within Queensland (easier said than done when you are based in the UK).
Once that was organized, I then needed to purchase, make and test my field gear. The research station is in a remote location and there are no shops so food and equipment can only gets delivered to the island by boat every two weeks. Planning for this requires thinking of everything. If you so much as forget pencils, you will end up wasting days until some arrive. Or you can use your ingenuity and make a pencil out of random things you can find on the island but for every minute you spend trying to make things, is a minute of valuable and expensive work time you have lost. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to collect enough usable data. To ensure I pack everything needed, I not only have to have a very clear idea of what sort of work I will be doing, but I also must anticipate everything that could go wrong and come up with (several!) back up plans. At the same time, I am limited by the amount of gear I can carry or fit on a plane, so it is a balancing act.
The aim of this trip is to film Picasso triggerfish swimming within their home range and describe their navigational behaviour. I want to know how far they travel, if they follow the same routes, and if any environmental factors cause them to change their behaviour. I will be using 16 underwater cameras to film the fish and I will write a program to track their movements. To make the computer program work, objects of a known size and appearance must be in view of the cameras. None of this equipment can be bought at a normal store and so must be custom designed and built.
While all the preparation can take a lot of time, it is the collection of data that is really the hardest and riskiest part of field work. Working outside in wild environments is physically demanding work. Even on a warm and beautiful tropical island, swimming all day in the sun is tiring and leads to a lot of sunburns. Add in the unpredictability of weather, sharks, crocodiles, jellyfish, venomous starfish (my personal nemesis), etc., and a lot of things can go wrong. After a few weeks of field work, I am always covered in a million cuts and bruises! All these factors can also make it hard to collect data. Weather is a particularly common issue. You may travel all the way to your field site, only to have a dangerous storm hit, making work impossible. Or sometimes animals just don’t cooperate and you can’t even find them! I was once on a trip searching for nudibranchs (colourful sea slugs) and it took hours to find only a handful. The very next trip, when I wasn’t looking for nudibranchs, they were literally floating everywhere and hitting me in the face as I swam. You just never know what is going to happen in the field…
Despite all of the inherent difficulties of field work, it still presents an amazing, and scientifically important, opportunity to observe animals and collect data that is often more natural than what can be collected in the laboratory. And of course, it is a lot of fun!