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Tech Troubles in the Field

Justine Jackson-Ricketts is an National Geographic Young Explorer studying a rare and elusive species of dolphin called the Irrawaddy dolphin. By taking a closer look at their diet, Justine can help determine whether or not Irrawaddy dolphins eat the same types of fish, squid, and crustaceans caught by fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand. This will help determine how vulnerable they are to the effects of overfishing. 

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Our first day of field work dawned uncharacteristically crisp. This would be the least of our issues over the next five days and probably made them more bearable.

We planned to spend the field season surveying an unfamiliar area. Our regular field site ran along the coast of three Trat Province villages in the eastern Gulf: Laem Klat, Mairood, and Khlong Yai. Last year, we explored waters around the islands off of the eastern Gulf coast: Koh Chang, Koh Mak, and Koh Kood. This year, we would shift our focus to a stretch of coast farther north and west than our usual area, along Chanthaburi Province.

Our three study sites. (Google Earth map with additions by Justine Jackson-Ricketts)
Our three study sites. (Google Earth map with additions by Justine Jackson-Ricketts)

We brought along our not so trusty environmental probe, a machine perhaps best described as a $10,000 constant headache. Its finicky connector ports and specific order of operations had lost us days’ worth of data the previous year, so we had sent it back to the company for repairs. We set out this year fully confident that things would be better.

With scenery like this, how could we not be optimistic? Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
With scenery like this, how could we not be optimistic? Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts

How wrong we were. On the first day, it refused to connect to the field PDA that we use to save the data it records, rendering the whole setup completely useless. That evening, the PI, Dr. Ellen Hines, emailed the company and we devised a back-up plan. Having discovered that the probe would connect to a laptop, we decided to risk the elements and take Ellen’s laptop onto the boat. This worked, and thankfully, we managed to collect some data on our second day. We heard from the company (they had reversed the order of operations for connecting all the pieces, thus the communication problem), got the probe playing nicely with the PDA, and things were looking up.

However, the weather wasn’t cooperating and we weren’t seeing any dolphins. We had many windy days and the captain, being from a different part of the Gulf, was unfamiliar with the tide patterns. He stopped some passing fishermen to ask about the best way to reach our hotel without running aground.

A helpful fisherman from Chanthaburi Province. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
A helpful fisherman from Chanthaburi Province. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts

The days were so boring that the cry of “Jellyfish!” or “Swimming crab!” caused a rush to the sides to get a glimpse of a bit of life.

A jellyfish that we got far too excited about. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
A jellyfish that we got far too excited about. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts

I did manage to get good photographs of Brahminy kites, ospreys, and a species of leaping fish we see regularly, goals I had had since I began working in Thailand.

Brahminy kite in flight. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
Brahminy kite in flight. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
This Brahminy kite had an itchy head. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
This Brahminy kite had an itchy head. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
And this Brahminy kite was enjoying a mid-air snack. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
And this Brahminy kite was enjoying a mid-air snack. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
An Osprey taking off from a bamboo pole. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
An Osprey taking off from a bamboo pole. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
We call these guys freak-out fish because they often wiggle away from our boat in a panicky sort of way as we pass. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts
We call these guys freak-out fish because they often wiggle away from our boat in a panicky sort of way as we pass. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts

Finally, on what would be our last day in the new area (due to the scarcity of dolphins), the call went up: “Sighting!” Everyone instantly went into action, calling out our waypoint (a GPS point marking exactly where we were), the time, distance to the dolphin(s), and at what angle they had been sighted. Unfortunately, the probe was being fussy. I was at the back of the boat trying to coax it into behaving, having already missed the first few data points of the day for both environment and human use, which I also collect as part of my dissertation research. I stopped coaxing and began pleading, trying anything that had the remotest chance of working. There was no way we weren’t getting environment on a sighting. I finally managed to get it working and asked, “Where’s the dolphin now?” The reply was perhaps predictable. “Oh, it was a false sighting.”

NEXT: A Week of Wanderings in Thailand