Monday, December 17, 2018

CSUMB Scientific Illustration Program (Part I)

I can't believe my first semester of grad school is already over!!  As you may know, I got accepted into the California State University Scientific Illustration Program this past April (a dream program of mine since I graduated from FSU), and it has been everything I'd hoped it would be<3  This first semester was a whirlwind of learning new media, refining my techniques, and exploring the avenues that scientific illustration can take, and I've made more art in the past 3 months than I have in a LONG time.  On top of all that, I've met some of the coolest, smartest, and most talented people I've ever met through this program - and they all geek out over dead stuff too!  Being surrounded by so many like-minded people here has been one of the greatest experiences of all.  Having a community to bounce ideas off and gain inspiration from is a truly awesome gift, and reconfirms even more that this is what I'm meant to do.

I can't wait to get back into the swing of things in the spring, but for now, here are some of my pieces from my first term!

Intro to Scientific Illustration (Traditional Media)
Line drawing of a Bullfrog skeleton (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Shaded graphite illustration of a ruminant skull
Four ink drawings of a Snapping Turtle skull (Chelydra serpentina) - Line, Hatching, Cross-hatching, and Stipple
12 Florida-themed Textures drawn in ink
Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) illustration done on Coquille
Stippled ink illustration of a fragment of coral, with zoomed in view of a single corallite
Ink illustration of a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) performing its signature hunting dance
Portrait of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) done in ink on Essdee scratchboard
Sperm Whale vs Giant Squid scene done on airbrushed black scratchboard

Intro to Digital Media

Digital map of sea turtle nesting ranges in Florida (featuring Loggerhead, Green, and Leatherback

Left: Digital inking of a ghost crab, using pen tool, blob tool, and mesh tool.  Right: Infograph of the molecular functions resulting in albinism

Field Sketching

Memoirs of a Turtle Girl

So... I meant to finish this a few months ago, but, life got a bit cray (which I will post about eventually)!  Where do I even begin with my entire experience as a turtle girl??  When I first started back in 2015, I was a scrawny, pale, self-conscious girl just trying to put myself out there and figure out what I was doing with my life.  I had never done real field work before, never driven an ATV, and really only knew the side of science that was sitting behind a microscope.  How did I get hired, you might be asking?  By the grace of The Lord upstairs.  But the opportunity arose, and even though I was terrified to do something so far out of my comfort zone, I did it, and it changed my life forever<3

The Beachcombing

Before I get DEEP into the sea turtle stuff, I gotta talk about the lesser known, but equally amazing parts of this job.  Working on the beach 5 days a week gave me a whole new view of the beaches I grew up on.  It took me a while to get over being star-struck by sea turtles, but when I did I finally started noticing everything else around me... like SEA SHELLS.  I only recently started beachcombing/IDing this past March, but it became an obsession I couldn't resist.  Even though I'm imagining all the shells I've missed out on for the past 3 years, having 10 miles of beach at my fingertips definitely allowed me to catch up.

fossilized shark teeth, parrotfish dental plates, drum fish teeth, crab claws, and ray teeth
From top left to bottom right: 1. Calico scallop with coral bits attached, 2. Atlantic deer cowrie, 3. Knobbed whelk eggcase,
4. Sand Tiger shark tooth, 5. Blue crab claw, 6. Checkered nerite, 7. Sea urchin case, 8. Sea fan coral, 9. Spiny lobster molt

The Birds

Another obsession I picked up much later than I should have is birding.  With so many shorebird species present in Florida, every day on the beach brought new and surprising bird buddies.  Among my favorite shorebirds I've spotted over the years are least terns, black skimmers, and one elusive Glaucous gull this spring - a bird who hadn't been spotted in our neck of the woods for the past four years!

The downside to having so many birds visit our shores, however, is strandings.  The most common birds found stranded on the beach are pelagic seabirds like shearwaters, gannets, and this year a juvenile loon.  These birds are adapted to live out at sea, and have weak legs meant for swimming, but not so great for walking on land.  Long migrations are bound to have casualties though, so we often found sick and fatigued birds on our morning surveys.  It's the sad but inevitable side of nature.

A row of brown pelicans off shore
From top left to bottom right: 1. Black skimmers, 2. Least terns, 3. Semipalmated plover, 4. Glaucous gull!
From top left to bottom right: 1. Rescuing a brown pelican from fishing line, 2. A juvenile loon stranded on shore, 3. Stranded Shearwater,
4. Rescuing a royal tern with a broken wing (from my first year on the job!)

The (Horseshoe) Crabs

While I never got to see the mass wave of mating horseshoe crabs clawing up the beach (kind of glad I didn't), I did find the occasional rogue horseshoe crab flipped over on the beach during mating season.  These living fossils have existed on Earth for 450 million years.  They lived with dinosaurs, survived several mass extinctions, and yet... they can barely flip themselves over when they're on their back.  Whatever, they survived for a reason!  My heart still skips a beat when I see these creatures, as they give me a tiny glimpse into the past.

And although horseshoe crabs are more closely related to arachnids than crustaceans - I had to lump them together in here with some of my other exoskeleton-beach-buddies (I'M SORRY)

Giant Land crab retreating back into the ocean
Ghost crabs doin' it

The Strandings

Now for the not so fun, but humbling and educational part of this job - dealing with dead/dying animals.  Until I tried to save a stranded pelican in its last few moments, or saw my first dead sea turtle wash onshore, I never fully understood the brutality of nature.  After a while, I got use to finding dead things on the beach and took it as the circle of life (somehow I also ALWAYS found the most stranded turtles out of all my coworkers -_-), but it still hurts when I see propeller strikes through a turtle's shell, or fishing line wrapped around a bird's neck.  Nature is brutal, but humans have a choice.

From top left to bottom right: sea hares, tarpon, brown pelican, Northern gannet, eel jaw bone, blacktip shark, sea urchin, melon headed whale, manatee, juvenile loon, freshwater gar
A dead juvenile Hawksbill sea turtle (the second most endangered sea turtle species in the world)

The Blood, Sweat n' Tears

Working on the beach 5 days a week, 20-40hrs a weeks, is notttt always fun.  The trade off to the great office view is having to work in the elements, rain or shine.  From 95deg summer days, to torrential down pours, to freezing mornings, to swarms of noseeums, to digging in the sand until your fingers bleed, to having sand wind up in every crevice of your body, working on the beach gives you a whole new respect for these coastal habitats.  It's a tough, dirty job, but the rewards are so worth it.

Me digging a sea turtle nest that was laid under a cross-walk
The sandy, mis-matching tan-line form my body takes during turtle season
Baby me at my very first turtle nest!
Me this past season with one of my last daytime nesters, Sunny<3

But thank god we had some cute worker dogs from the Disney turtle crew help us find eggs in our times of need!  Captain Ron and Dory<333

The Crawls

And finally, the turtle part of this job<333  Every morning at dawn, we ride out on our ATV's and record all sea turtle activity on the beach - from new nests, to false crawls, to hatchings.  We get three species that nest of the East coast (Loggerheads, Greens, and Leatherbacks), and each has their own unique way of crawling and nesting.  In fact, crawl patterns are how we identify the species when we're on the beach!  Leatherbacks and Greens in particular create quite a mess, and even though I've had 4 seasons of experience locating these mamas' eggs, I was still stumped by many (not sure if that says how good they are at camouflaging, or how bad I am at finding them...)

The amount of sea turtle crawl pictures I've taken... is staggering, so it was very hard choosing just a few for this.  Even after seeing hundreds of these crawls, their patterns in the sand get to my heart every time I see one<3 (until it's the 200th crawl that day, then PLEASE STOP NESTING, thank you.)

Top: Leatherback nest/tracks, Middle: Loggerhead tracks/nest, Bottom: Green nests/tracks

Baby sea turtles also have unique tracks based on their species!  And are 1000 times cuter than adult tracks.

From left to right: Leatherback, Loggerhead, Green
Leatherback spacer eggs laid on the sand after the clutch was covered.  This species is the only one known to lay these yolkless "spacer" eggs, and it's still a mystery why they do it.

The Nesters

Since sea turtles nest at night, we typically don't get the chance to see them during our surveys.  But every now-and-then, a rouge turtle would decide to do it during the day and grace us with her presence!  Seeing these massive 300-1000lb reptiles instinctively crawl out of the ocean and use their flippers like hands is something straight out of science fiction, and every time I see an adult I feel like I'm looking at a unicorn.  How were you the 1 in 1000 that survived??  Pure magic.

Daytime nesting Loggerhead
Daytime nesting Green turtle
Daytime nesting Leatherback (photo taken by Kimberly Hellman)

The picture above is a little deceiving, because to this day, I have not seen a daytime nesting Leatherback :'(  BUT, this past season I went out of my way to do some night surveys (thank you Chelsey<3), and after the fourth all-nighter of not seeing one... I SAW THREE!!!  Isla, Musca, and Luz.  If I didn't see one before I left Florida, I would never be able to die happy.  Now I can.

The Babes

And now for the show-stoppers - the babies!  I mean, what can you say about the most perfect creature on the planet?  They're feisty, resilient, charismatic, cute as hell, and given all the obstacles they have to face in their first moments of life, they keep their head up and push through.  Now when I'm having a bad day I just think "at least everything around me isn't trying to eat me" and I feel much better.

Loggerhead hatchlings
From top to bottom: Loggerhead, Leatherback, and Green hatchling
Left: Leatherback, Right: Green
So many greens!
From left to right: Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead (The Trifecta!)
I could never choose a favorite sea turtle species, but... the green turtle hatchling was just too cute not to get a tatt of it

The Hurricanes

Before this job, I only experienced hurricanes from a personal view (very sweaty), but during turtle surveys I got to see just how dramatically they affect our coasts.  Seeing the shores recede 20 feet, slopes turn into giant cliffs, and cross-overs be ripped apart over night, makes you feel like you're on a whole other planet after the storm.  It's a pretty powerful reminder that mother nature should not be trifled with.

Beachcomber Lane - before (top) and after (bottom) hurricane Matthew
Rocks placed during beach renourishments exposed after a storm
Layers of sand washed away revealing streaks of tar below
There's always interesting beach finds after a storm, from these "sea beans" that washed up from the Caribbean/South America, to a mannequin leg (they say it's never a mannequin, but this time it was)

And in the life of a sea turtle, hurricanes are equally not fun.  Along with the sand, they wipe out dozens of unhatched nests from our beaches.  Luckily though, sea turtles have evolved to deal with these pesky storms, and by laying multiple nests in a season they raise their chances of having surviving offspring.  On top of that, some nests still manage to pull through after utter annihilation of the beach!  Sea turtles just won't go down without a fight. 

One of our marked-off nests that survived (and hatched) within inches of being eroded away on the side of a scarp!
Sometimes nests are exposed entirely on the side of a scarp, leaving these babies a little turned upside down when they finally hatched

Beach Beauty

Finally, I have to end with the amazing office views<3  Sleeping is one of my favorite pastimes, and if it weren't for this job, I probably would have never forced myself to wake up and see the incredible sunrises Florida's east coast has to offer.  From foggy mornings, to bright purple and orange clouds, to terrifying storms just off shore, our coasts are an ever-changing landscape that is just asking to be awed at.

Cormorant taking flight on a foggy morning
The progression of a sunrise


Lastly, I couldn't finish this post without talking about the importance of conservation.  In a time where it feels like every step forward is being met with resistance, it might seem useless to fight back.  But our planet needs us now more than ever.  I saw things every day in the field that proved the peril our coasts are in, especially the dangers of plastic pollution.  But even through all my bouts of cynicism, the thing that always gave me hope was seeing peoples' eyes light up at the sight of a sea turtle.  Sea turtles are just a fraction of our marine ecosystem, but they have an incredible ability to make people fall in love with the ocean.  Conservation is not just about protecting our endangered species - it's about connecting society with nature.  Because when you experience something firsthand, you care about it, and when you care about it, you protect it.  In being the mascots of our oceans, these endangered creatures deserve our utmost protection<3

The cutest reaction I've ever seen to a sea turtle hatchling<3 - photo taken during a Coastal Connections "Turtle Dig"

**Disclaimer: All pictures/interactions with sea turtles here were done through FWC permit MTP-010.  Please do not touch or interfere with endangered species unless under permit guidance.