When I told friends and colleagues that I was going to Bermuda for some time to do research there, most of them responded by giving me searching looks or incredulous smiles. Bermuda shorts and the Bermuda Triangle are, of course, the things people immediately associate with the name, and most tend to think that all you can do on this group of islands is lie on the beach in shorts or disappear under mysterious circumstances. That, however, is not the reality of it, thank goodness, and I was not lost in any sense of that term either. After earning my doctoral degree, I wanted to confront new professional challenges and gather experience in the international world of science. In this context, the Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship was exactly what I needed as it enabled me to conduct my own research project at a renowned research institution, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS). I got into contact with the Institute through its former director, Wolfgang Sterrer, an Austrian marine biologist who has been living and doing research on these islands for more than forty years. BIOS itself is a research facility that focuses primarily on long-term studies in oceanography and climatology, but also has teams working on coral reef ecology. As I am not active in any of these areas, my decision to conduct my research at this institution came as an even greater surprise to my colleagues.
Dweller of two worlds
As an evolutionary biologist I am interested in the emergence of new species, and ever since Darwin spent time on the Galapagos Islands we have known that such isolated islands foster this biological process. This explains my choice to go to Bermuda. My work involves small and usually unloved organisms, namely mites. I specifically focus on harmless mites that live in the intertidal zone and feed on algae. They have a lot of fascination for me, because they are typical terrestrial organisms that have gone back to the marine sphere in a secondary process and now live in two worlds at the same time. During low tide they live in the air, like any other terrestrial animal, and during high tide they are submerged like marine animals. They survive their time under water by gathering the air they need for breathing in a tiny air film on their body, comparable to a diver carrying an oxygen bottle. Meanwhile I have been able to identify six new species on Bermuda and collect new and surprising insights on the biology and speciation of these animals. In addition, the contact with international scientists and other disciplines at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences has broadened my horizon and opened new perspectives for my own work.
Whither the fates carry us
Bermuda is a subtropical archipelago, i.e. a chain of islands, in the Atlantic Ocean located about 1,000 kilometres off the east coast of North America. As the oldest British colony, Bermuda is still part of the British Commonwealth. There is not that much left, however, of British idiosyncrasies. Cars drive on the left, there is some cricket, and old fortresses recall the strategically important location of the island during the American War of Independence. The Bermudians themselves are a mix of many ethnic origins with a very relaxed outlook on life. The motto of Bermuda is Quo fata ferunt, which translates into “whither the fates carry us”, and the preponderant lifestyle is correspondingly nonchalant, taking each day as it comes. Although working hours can be longer than in Europe, particularly at BIOS, there is never any of the stress that has become so omnipresent for us Europeans. After a short time I, too, started to feel this serenity, which had a positive impact on my work since I was able to conduct my research with a clear head and without any sense of being driven and frenzied. Perhaps it is the usually sunny climate that facilitates this relaxed way of life. Even in winter the temperatures will hardly ever go below 15°C. From August to October, Bermuda suffers from the same scourge as the Caribbean, not meaning Johnny Depp aka Jack Sparrow, but instead the hurricane season. The last time that Bermuda was directly hit by a hurricane was in 2003, and by now the country is well prepared for such a disaster. The prospect of hurricanes notwithstanding, the beauty of this archipelago attracts a great number of cruise ship travellers every year, whose presence is felt quite strongly due to the small surface area of the island (ca. 53 sq. km). Despite this volume of tourism you will never find the beaches as thronged as they are in some Italian holiday resorts. The most important factor of income in Bermuda is not tourism, but rather the absence here of income and value-added taxes which has attracted many banks and investment firms.
Parrotfish, barracudas, sea turtles
In my leisure time I discovered my passion for diving and the submarine world of Bermuda. Around the archipelago one finds more than a hundred shipwrecks in shallow water and the reefs are the northernmost coral reefs in the world. Parrotfish, barracudas and sea turtles are quite often seen here, and every encounter has been a great experience. Apart from the colourful magic of this underwater world, it also served to greatly enhance my knowledge of marine biology. Even if, in view of all of the above, there was a danger that I might not return from the Bermuda Triangle, I did come back to Austria after more than a year and have now embarked on the return phase of my fellowship. My work on Bermuda was truly successful, and that means I am going to spend some time evaluating the data and publishing my results. The return phase offers me the ideal opportunity to do this and to share my newly acquired know-how with my colleagues. The stay abroad has given me a sharper scientific profile and has rewarded me with a wealth of new experience. Although I am carrying on with my research on Bermudian mites, my Bermuda shorts will have to wait until next summer for their next outing.