Part of the Watson year/fellowship/experience is this thing called “Watson magic”. It’s not exclusive to the Watson, but it does neatly sum up the rather unwieldy: “wait..how did I end up here? With such good fortune? Experiencing something so incredible, I’d have laughed if you told me a year ago that it would happen.” The latter is not quite as succinct.
It has popped up throughout my year, sometimes directly in-line with my project, sometimes completely unrelated. One time, I’d just gotten off a week-long boat trip, smelly, sunburned, exhausted, confused, in a small town in Indonesia, my entire life in my backpack, with absolutely no idea what exactly my next step was, when it started pouring rain. At that moment, Watson magic came in the form of a money-exchange guy who could tell how completely disoriented I was and let me just sit down in his shop, let me use his wi-fi, gave me some coffee, wait until the rain stopped.
A few months ago I was on a boat in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds, a land/seascape that remains unsurpassed in my travels, talking with a coastal scientist intermittently about aquaculture and whatever else popped up.
For one of the rare days I was in New Zealand, the weather was absolutely perfect. Out of the many people I’ve talked to, I’d had the opportunity to spend the entire day on the water with one of the most engaging and interesting. Naturally, a pod of dolphins also made an appearance.
I could probably argue that the whole year has had a touch of magic to it; many days would have been laughably outlandish, impossibly optimistic for me to imagine a year ago. And somehow, the year continues to give. This past weekend, a visiting post-doc at Cargill and I went to the island of Chiloé, which is only a few hours by car and ferry from Puerto Varas. Two days wasn’t nearly enough to fully enjoy the island, but I was able to get a little taste of the island’s atmosphere. The ocean is an essential piece of the landscape. And with it, fishing and aquaculture.
We were never far from the coast, where we were constantly greeted with numerous fishing boats sitting on the muddy seafloor at low-tide.
From one of the island’s higher vantage points, I saw rows upon rows of cultured mussels, and the most immense collection of salmon farms I’ve yet to see during this year.
I also got a sliver of understanding of how these two worlds collide in Chiloé. One day we stopped for lunch in a small town and ended up eating at a small inn where we sat and ate with the owners. When we told them that we were working at a salmon feed company, the 10- year old son said “So all the red tides are YOUR fault!”. One of the biggest controversies surrounding salmon farming in Chile has been the sheer density of salmon that are cultivated in any given space. At high numbers, large amounts of nitrogen-containing animal waste can spark “red tides” a phenomenon where background algal populations suddenly explode and quickly die off. As the algae decomposes, it chokes the water by extracting all the dissolved oxygen and often kills off much of the marine biomass. Understandably, they don’t go over well with many in coastal communities. Even less so for fishermen who also rely on those waters. We both laughed (perhaps a bit nervously), explaining that the company we’re at is working to make better fish feeds, that reduce nitrogenous waste, that try to promote a more sustainable industry.
As if to make the whole situation a bit more comically awkward, the family’s older son walked in and began talking about his work on a fishing boat that morning. The topic changed pretty quickly, so this is more impressionistic than concrete, but its pretty significant to me that red tides and salmon farming are so familiar in the region that children can corner you on your connections to it all.
The magic of it all is that I couldn’t have predicted the good weather, the stunning scenery, the aquaculture, or this “aquacultureshock” lunch. This weekend had simply been a chance to explore more of my surroundings and enjoy the dwindling clear days as Chile enters fall/winter. And while I’d be hard pressed to fit this experience into a discrete category of my project, it gave me a sense of Chilean aquaculture that I couldn’t have found elsewhere.