SCUBA Grunge

Mark and I are field researchers. This means that we spend a lot of time working in the water and that the only suits we own are wet. We wear flip-flops to work and often leave them by the door. Spending the better part of the day in the water necessitates a certain lifestyle that we call SCUBA Grunge. The grunge also implies a special type of creativity, resourcefulness and state of mind. SCUBA Grunge is based on the idea that science doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive or shiny, it just has to work. Dr. Malcolm Hill, a field Marine Ecologist and our mentor, coined the term while working on his PhD in Florida. Resources are limited in the field; SCUBA gear is not only expensive but also the most important tool for biologist in our field. If your mask breaks, you cannot work. So, when the young and resourceful Malcolm broke his mask in the middle of a field season, he found a very grungy way to fix it. He glued a scrap piece of acrylic plate over the mask frame. Eureka! No water flooded the mask. Unfortunately, the acrylic sheet was too big for the frame and stuck out about 2 inches on all sides. This meant that, because of drag, turning his head in the water was like moving a ship’s rudder. It wasn’t pretty; it wasn’t perfect; but it worked. SCUBA Grunge was born.

More than personal equipment, SCUBA Grunge is about finding innovative ways to solve problems, specifically problems with science experiments in and around the ocean. Because of our research, Mark and I are frequently in remote areas, where access to specialized supplies is limited. We might also spend the day at a dive site that is a couple hours (by boat or car) from base camp, and if you need something you did not bring, you have to improvise. Moreover, if you run into a problem you did not foresee, you have to fix it on the spot or risk losing a day of work, i.e. gluing an acrylic panel to you face or sharpening a pencil with your teeth.

SCUBA Grunge reflects a fundamental part of scientific research – novelty. If there is no meter for what you want to measure – make one; if there is nothing sold as a “coral settlement substrate” – figure out a good material to use (fyi, ceramic tiles); if there is no cage to keep out predators under water – build one. This is one of my favorite parts of science. A researcher is a thinker, designer, scheduler, builder and writer. They are responsible for all aspects of testing their idea, from conception to publication. This is not to say that they are alone in their endeavors. Advisors and collaboration with colleagues are essential to getting everything done. However, I cannot think of another job (short of owning your own business) that has this sort of freedom. Mark and I have had days where we mixed and pour concrete in the morning, collect corals at midday, answered emails and wrote during lunch, took measurements in the afternoon, and isolated DNA in the evening. Depending on your project, and how you schedule yourself, you may be doing something new everyday. Indeed, maybe something no one has done before, which is exciting and frustrating in equal measure. So you have to be creative. What you make doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to keep your animals alive and happy while staying true to your experimental design. Even more important, grungy does not imply dirty or careless. A true SCUBA Grunger has the upmost respect for the environment and the organisms they study.

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Pictured: science not being so pretty. Hanging from the lattice of PVC used to hold the roof up is window screen. Layers of window screen, affectionately known as “shade cloth”, protect corals in tanks from the sun. By layering window screen and using a light meter, scientists can recreate the light environments at different depths. More layers ~ Deeper depth.

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Pictured: science being very pretty (Grunger: Miriam).

The Pink insulation sheets were not only a cheap alternative to wood or metal, but they also keep the tank reservoirs cool in the hot, Yucatan sun. Experiments necessitate temperature regulation, and this is understandably difficult in the summer. Pretty yes, grungy – absolutely.

The salt and sun of the tropics and subtropics are enemies to most artificial materials. UV degrades plastics; salt water oxidizes metals; moister hates electronics; and heavy rainfall cracks roads. All this happens every day, to say nothing of what can happen in tropical storms and hurricanes. All of these factors need to be accounted for when gunging. Since nails rust and glue is a pain, the most important tool of the grungy is the cable tie.

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Followed only by… well… Everything and anything else within reach, and usually a storage room like this:

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Using those piles of goodies as big-kid Legos, you can really get grungy….

At UNAM Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología, Puerto Morelos, grungers have found many uses for a strong, composite, yellow grating. All of the aquaria drain through this grating and back to the ocean. Additionally, I have seen this yellow gem converted into a water-proof ruler; light sensor holder; gate, boat gangway, cement block stabilizer.

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A personal favorite: IV drips can circulate water in many tanks (Unknown grunger):

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Spawning nets (Grunger: Dr. Banaszak). When placed over spaning corals, the floating spawn is directed up into the cup, which is changed periodically by divers to prevent anoxia.

spawning net

Floating cups. Keep mother corals and their planulae (babies) separate from each other so that we know from which mother the babies came (Grunger: Sandra). The cups float to keep the water temperature from rising in the sun. The floats are made of that puzzle-like foam floor they sell for kids’ playrooms.

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I designed this apparatus to catch something that the sponges were expelling. Sponges were secured window screen using a treaded piece of fishing line (they heal fast, don’t worry) and suspended over the top of a milk jug. Expelled material could be collected from the lid of the milk jug periodically.

Sponge in cup

Egg crate is as versatile as window screen. I shall never dream of all its possible uses. It is commonly used in aquaria because when you place an organism on top of it, it receives water flow from all sides. Additionally, if you silicon-glue a cover slip under one square, you can make a micro-aquarium from which it is easy to sample settling organisms. Its original use? –Protecting fluorescent lights:

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One of the unfortunate side effects of scuba grunge is that your experimental apparatuses can sometime look like… well… garbage. In that light, When I was working in Bonaire, I made this bulletin for a local dive shop so that well-meaning, aquatic philanthropist would not remove our “instruments.” (Left grunger: Brian Strehlow; Right: Holly Hillenbrand). Yes, those are loofas on the right.

What the heck was that

Sometimes, a job calls for more than grunge, such as wiring or construction of technologically advanced equipment, and for that we call in real engineers.

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For everything else we think on our feet and keep it grungy.


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