Kiribati Ocean Exploration

Latest update July 18, 2018 Started on April 17, 2018

Many nations have deep-sea and mesophotic environments within their maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), yet only a small portion have a way to explore them. Lesser economically developed countries have restricted access to their mesophotic and deep oceans despite their occupying substantial parts of their EEZs. This dearth of technological capability and knowledge leads to a lack of exploration, inappropriate or inadequate management decisions, and unaware populations. Our goal is to empower countries around the world to explore their own ocean backyards using accessible technology, while building lasting in-country capacity.

April 17, 2018
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In The Field

Even when the deep sea is in your "backyard", accessing the deep sea is inherently hard. Whether just a few kilometers away from land, or thousands of miles from shore, when you are in the deep sea, you are almost always out in the open ocean, which make the weather a much bigger factor than in coastal waters. The weather can blow up quickly, raising the seas and the winds mercilessly. Then there is the pressure: for every 10 meters down, add another atmosphere of pressure (14.7 psi or 1 bar). So, at 1000 meters below the surface, you have a pressure of 1,470 psi or 100 bar. Electronics and other equipment need to be built to withstand this crushing pressure, or else they will implode. One of the best tests of this is the styrofoam cup test (there is a trending twitter hashtag where marine biologists the world over are posting their favorite shrunken cups - check it out: #shrunkencupoff). When you lower a styrofoam cup below 500-600m, there is enough pressure to remove all of the air bubbles and the cup shrinks. We did this in Kiribati with our i-Kiribati colleagues as a demonstration, and all found as much joy in shrunken cups as we did. :-)

Back to business though. In addition to the challenges of location and pressure, you have the added challenge of controlling equipment over deep distances. In the case of the ReelCam we are using, we have no real-time feedback from the camera. So, we don't know what the camera is seeing or exactly where it is (what depth). Once the light and camera are turned on and the pressure housings are closed, we don’t have any additional control or feedback. Nada. Just crossed fingers and trust in math and engineering. Our ReelCam was designed and built by Brennan Phillips (URI), who is a former ROV pilot and a heckuva engineer, so we knew we were in good hands. Still, it's unnerving when the only thing we can control during a dive is the amount of line we let out. The camera just hangs on a fishing line that is mounted to a powered fishing reel. And, to make things even more complicated, the amount of line out does not directly translate to the depth of the camera. If you have only worked in calm water, you might think that knowing when the camera is on the bottom would be easy. As soon as the tension on the line goes away you are on the bottom right? Well, when working in open ocean from a boat that is drifting, it is not so easy, because the camera is falling while the boat is drifting with the surface winds and currents. If the conditions are strong enough, the line will never completely lose tension even when the camera is sitting on the bottom. Hmmmm. So, you have to make a judgement call on when you think the camera is on the bottom. The first couple deployments of the ReelCam, we guessed wrong and were extremely disappointed once we downloaded the video and realized that we were not patient enough: we never reached the bottom. Grrrrr.

As deep sea equipment goes, our ReelCam is fairly simple, but given the complications of operating in deep water it still took us several attempts to get the system dialed in. First, we lost the camera and it sank to the bottom. Yikes. Thankfully, we had the good sense to try our first deployment in shallow water, so we retrieved it (yes, there is an earlier post detailing that failure). Then, we failed to get to the bottom because we guessed wrong about how much tension was on the line (ahem, we were impatient). Then, we had two problems with the fishing line on the winch getting tangled because we didn’t have enough tension on the line, which forced us to abort the dive, so we reeled in overly cautiously, and voila: hundreds of feet of tangled fishing line. And unfortunately, that happened twice. After re-rolling the line (again, twice!) and thinking through everything about a million times, we decided it was time to try again. After all, if you don't use the ReelCam to explore the deep, it just becomes a very expensive paperweight or doorstop. Not okay!!

On our last afternoon on the boat, just as the sun was setting, we finally got our procedures and settings correct. With our Kiribati colleagues (Tooreka! Nabuti! Betarim! Eriatera! And so many others!!), we did four deep-sea drops, marking the very first deep-sea dives in the entire archipelago. We were so excited. We carefully brought up the camera. Fingers and toes all crossed, we retrieved the camera onboard. And then.... we impatiently waited, since we didn't want to open the camera at sea to retrieve the SD card. That was the longest ride... the anticipation was hard to bear (yeah, I'm not great with delayed gratification...).

FINALLY. The SD cards were extracted, downloaded, and it was time to examine our first ever look at the deep seafloor of the Gilbert Islands. And what did we see? Benthic Ctenophores! SO NEAT! We have worked in the deep sea all over the Pacific and Atlantic and have never seen so many benthic ctenophores in the same place living on the bottom. Once we get back to shore, we will have to do a thorough search to get a better understanding of the types of communities and densities benthic ctenophores are normally found in, and if there are other places where they are seen like this. But for now, we can say for sure that this is the first time they have ever been documented in these depths in the Gilbert Islands. What an awesome moment to share with our Kiribati colleagues and friends.

One of the great things about this project is while we are soon headed back to the US, the ReelCam is staying with the Kiribati Fisheries Department, so our colleagues can continue to explore their waters and learn more about these unexplored ecosystems. We are jealously awaiting news of their next discovery!!

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One of the great things about conducting deep water exploration around Tarawa: the commute is short! Our project "My Deep Sea, My Backyard" is aptly named. The seafloor drops off very quickly as you get further away from shore, just a couple kilometers from the beach you are floating above over five hundred plus meters of water. When testing and using new equipment like our deep sea ReelCam, these short runs out to deep water can be major time saver. If something goes wrong and you need extra tools or a stable platform to work on the equipment, you don’t necessarily lose an entire day of operations by returning to shore to make the required repairs.

The reason you find deep water so close to atolls can be explained pretty easily if you know a little something about how atolls form. Atolls are what is left of ancient volcanic islands that have subsided and eroded over millions of years. For example, millions of year ago what we now call Tarawa was a volcanic seamount growing from the deepsea towards the surface. Once it reached just below the surface, coral reefs started to grow, and once the seamounts broke the ocean’s surface and became an island, the surrounding coral reef continued to develop as fringing reef. Then over the course of geologic history, the islands was eroded away and subsided. So, as the island sank back beneath the waves, the living coral reefs continued to grow and stay near the surface even long after the tall volcanic islands has disappeared. In other words, the reef that started out as fringing reef is now all that is left of the island and gives the atolls it characteristic shape. Since the original seamount that created the island is still sinking, the water depth drops off very quickly make atolls an ideal place for quick access to deep water.

All of this was first postulated by Darwin (yes really!) and is really striking to view from the air. From the ground, as you look out from the azure lagoon, you can recognize the deeper water by watching the change in ocean color. The darker the blue, the deeper the sea.

In the vast Pacific, the majority of the ocean is deep (200m or deeper), and most of the ocean covers seamounts or abyssal plain, thousands of meters deep. We know more about the moon than we know about the deep sea. Even with all of the recent advances in ocean exploration, there is still so much to discover. And that is the point of this trip - to excite others about deep ocean discovery, and enable them to do it. :-)

-Brian & Randi-

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One of my favorite things about being a professor is having the honor and opportunity to teach and train the next generation. Here in Tarawa, we don't have time to run a full course or degree program, but we gave a seminar at the University of the South Pacific in Tarawa, and have been running hands-on workshops on deep-sea biology, bathymetry, and deep-sea technology. It's been a ton of fun, and we've made a lot of wonderful friends during this workshop!

However, the education has definitely been in both directions. For example, Brian and I got the chance to try out some new potential deep-sea platforms, the classic Pacific outrigger canoe (yes, think "Moana"). It was awesome, but definitely takes some finesse to maneuver! We have also had to try our hand at pronouncing many deep sea species in Kiribati language, which is not so easy. Languages are definitely not my strong point, I'm sorry to say. Additionally, we have quickly learned that our Kiribati colleagues are awesome at tying knots, and have quite a lot to teach us about reading the waves, and navigating at sea.

One of the coolest things we noticed while offshore was the reflection of the turquoise blue lagoon in the clouds above... we don't have a photo that does it justice, so you'll just have to imagine it. Once you see it, you can't unsee it - it's very striking. Ancient pacific voyagers used cloud color as one of their many tricks to detect islands, and now we can understand why!

It's pretty amazing to be out here, in the equatorial Pacific, trading ocean knowledge with our i-Kiribati friends. For a country that created the worlds first deepwater MPA (the Phoenix Islands Protected Area), this moment feels especially sweet, and exactly where we want to be.

Randi and Brian

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SCUBA divers are generally limited to about 30-40 meters (~100-135 feet) below the surface due to a host of reasons, and at those deeper depths you can only stay on the bottom for a few minutes. Sure, there are ways to go deeper and stay longer through technical diving, but that requires a lot of additional training and a significant amount of support equipment that is not readily available in most locations. So. How does one explore deeper than SCUBA depths without all the specialized gear?

The answer is the small observation class ROV like OpenROV’s new Trident vehicle. This is a zippy little ROV that is rated to 100 m (~330feet) and can easily explore the depths that are hard for SCUBA divers to reach, and are shallower than you would want to mobilize a big science class ROV like Deep Discoverer or Hercules to work in. With a streamed-lined design, a great camera, and really good battery life, the trident make a great lightweight exploration platform. All you need is the Trident, the tether and a tablet and you are good to explore! And better yet, everything fits in one small box.

During our entire time in Kiribati, we have been teaching the I-Kiribati to use the Trident to explore their deep reefs. During our training efforts, we likely recorded some of the first images of mesophotic reef communities ever documented in the Gilbert Islands. In addition to the benthic communities, we saw numerous fish, many of which seemed very interested in the Trident and may have followed the ROV at times.

One of the best things about the Trident is that it enables instant gratification. We spent an afternoon on a small skiff and some village Chiefs from North Tarawa. We had nothing but the Trident and a small UV-shielding umbrella so we could see the Tablet screen. We were all huddled around the screen (all the Chiefs included!) oohing and aahing - it was a definite turning point. Prior to that moment, robots and deeper seas and exploration were abstract concepts - but in that moment, the intimate and urgent thrill of discovery was electric - everyone wanted to see more! And more!

Thanks to the generous support of OpeanROV, we were able to leave the Trident with the Kiribati Department of Fisheries so they can continue to explorer for a long time after we have headed back to the US.

The only problem is: we're jealous. Now Kiribati has cooler tech than we do. OpenROV, we need a Trident for the lab! :-) But we're grateful that another one is onboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans en route to the Phoenix Islands, where our collaborators at SEA will use it to try to capture photoquadrats to help MPA monitoring, and to try to explore the mesophotic on some of the PIPA reefs.

Brian and Randi

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For a country with a maximum elevation of 3m, it is sometimes hard to describe technology that will enable imagery down past 1500m. For some, it might be truly unimaginable. 1500 metres = 1640 yards = 820 fathoms. So what? For those of you who are mountain climbers or hikers, it might be easy to contextualize depth by thinking of "The Ultras", which (according to Wikipedia): "are mountains worldwide that have a topographic prominence of at least 1,500 metres (4,921 ft), regardless of location, absolute height or other merit". But for an atoll nation? It's flat here!

So, describing 1500 depth (or height) is a challenge and describing the creatures that live at these depths is unfathomable (pun intended). So, part of "My Deep Sea, My Backyard" is to inspire the next generation to think about ocean exploration and the deep sea. A picture is worth 1500m worth of words, so we've been going around with our laptops and projectors and imagery and trying to share the wonders of the deep.

This trip, we will communicate with workshop participants, 650 high school students, an elementary school, several villages and community groups, the University of the South Pacific Tarawa campus all in person, plus 6 Canadian schools via satellite. So, while we are continuing to do workshop trainings and troubleshoot tech, we thought we'd share the outreach part of this trip, which honestly is as inspiring as the deep sea work itself.

We are fixing the dropcam and will deploy it again tomorrow, but today, we are taking the time to do some outreach. To all of the students who are giving us their time and imagination, ko rabwa.

Randi and Brian

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There is an old saying is deep sea science that goes something like “Don’t put equipment over the side of the ship if you can’t live without it.” We say that as a reminder to ourselves that no matter how much money a piece of science equipment costs, how badly you need the data, or how many years you can spent designing and building the equipment as soon as you put over the ship of the ship or boat, it may not come back. Which is exactly what happened on our first deployment of our new deep sea drop cam in Kiribati. Luckily, we had the good sense to try our first drop in only 10 meters of water and that we have some amazing local partners here in Tarawa. So (spoiler alert) we were able to recover the drop cam from the sea floor.

We are still trying to figure out what happened but we do have a working hypothesis that we will need to test before we try another deployment. I assume all of you have heard the saying “if you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot?” Well that is my philosophy anyways. I was pretty nervous about our first deployment so I tied 3 or 4 different types of knot in the line to secure the drop cam to the line of the winch. Then I had the genius idea of take my handy dandy multi-tool off my belt to grab the line and give the knot one last good tug. Well in retrospect that was likely a bad idea. We are guessing that the sharp metal edges of the pliers must have partially cut the line so as soon as we put it under load the line snapped.

Whenever something like this happens on a project there are rarely shouts or screams or cries initially there is just stunned silence as everyone stares at the ocean blinking, asking themselves: "did that really just happen?". Then the reality sets in and it is time to get to work figuring out how to recover the gear again or find a new way to collect the data.

Luckily for us, given the water depth we were working in, we were trying to figure out how to recover the lost equipment and not trying to figure out how to live without it. We were able to work with our partners at the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Implementation Office to contact the chief of the Kiribati Maritime Police who is a member of the PIPA Management Committee. He was able to call a member of his family who runs one of the islands' only dive operations and just an hour later we very happily watched the green floats on the camera return to the surface. Thank you, Michael!

But that is not the end of the story. Now we have to test to see if we can figure out exactly what happened. While we have a hypothesis, that is not good enough. Now we need to test a couple different ways to connect the line to the drop cam and see if we can reproduce the failure on dry land and make sure that it was just me partially cutting the line with my pliers, so that when we throw the equipment in water when the bottom is over a mile beneath us, we are more confident that we will not have a repeat of our first deployment.


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Mauri from Tarawa!

We are here and have been busy since the first moment. We arrived (gear and all) and immediately started meeting colleagues and friends to set up our itinerary, which is a fabulous whirlwind of meetings, workshops, deep-sea deployments, and outreach.

Tarawa is a large atoll, with one main road accessing most of it (although to get to North Tarawa, we will take a boat later in the week). It is such a beautiful place - blue azure water visible in every direction. The lagoon on one side, ocean-side reef on the other. The villages and towns flank the road and the sea, with not too much distance between them. There are coconut and pandanas trees everywhere, and there must have been decent rain recently because many flowers are in bloom. Everywhere, there is movement - fairy terns and egrets are flying overhead, dogs and chicken and pigs and cats are moving among people. There is a decent breeze today - so there is also constant movement of the trees, which I love to watch. It just feels like the whole island is dancing with it's own rhythm and hum.

This morning started off with an early AM (for us) international outreach event with "Exploring by The Seat of Your Pants". We spoke to 6 classrooms in Canada and explained our expedition aims and goals, answered questions, and showed them a little bit of Tarawa. Thanks to Katy Croff Bell and Joe Grabowsky for helping us to set that up - it was great fun.

Also, this morning was our first field test of the Trident! A success! We flew it in the Tarawa lagoon behind the Fisheries offices. We still haven't gone deep yet, but it was a chance to let our colleagues (Tooreka, the co-Chief scientist of PIPA, and Betarim Rimon, the PIPA Outreach Coordinator) learn the tech and practice using it. We imaged some lagoonal fish and a sea cumber. Our internet isn't good enough to upload pictures or videos, but check back soon - we will post when we can!

This afternoon, we will be assembling and test deploying the deep-sea drop cam (rod and reel style) on the Betio pier with our workshop participants, and we will link up with the Kates (we are also participating in a film called "Ecology of Home") with Kate Furby and Katie Sullivan and Kateteke Mettai. And yes, that is 3 Kates. Triplicates. Triplikates.

Stay tuned....


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Bula from Nadi, Fiji!

After 20 hours in the air, Brian and I have both arrived, complete with all of our gear. We have one day to decompress, try to get over jetlag (neither of us sleep on planes), and finish preparing for an exciting week in Tarawa, which starts tomorrow.

Needless to say, the jetlag is outrageous, but at least for me, a solid cup of coffee will go a long way.

Our Dropcam testing on the Charles already seems like (and is!) a world away, but we are thinking of the whole team and looking forward to a great week. Posting a partial team photo below.


Randi & Brian


Sometimes, even for the most experienced of travelers, there comes a time to call it quits and give up. There sometimes are just too many problems to solve. But I'm pleased to report that today is NOT that day....Here's the story!

This project was born from a unique event called "Here Be Dragons", which was an Open Exploration Forum held at the MIT Media Labs, and co-hosted by National Geographic. At that event, we had one day to form teams, come up with a novel idea, pitch it, and compete for funds. And we were one of the lucky teams selected.

Now, this was not a premeditated group of people. Indeed, most of us had never met (or had only just recently met), though there were some old friends. But we were united by the concept of bringing the ability to explore the deep sea to people and places who have deep ocean in their literal backyard, but have no means to explore it. That was in April.

Fast forward 2 short months, and we had projects in place in Kiribati and in Trinidad & Tobago (the sister blog to this expedition). We had technology. We had plans. We had participants. And then... one of our most valuable team members fell ill. Don't worry, he'll be fine eventually, but it definitely set some chaos into motion. We tried to postpone the trip, but we had made promises to our colleagues in Kiribati and too many things were in motion. When our team member fell ill, our ability to debut his awesome tech got quagmired. So, what to do?

We hemmed and hawed. We changed flights a million times. We made plans a,b,c,d,l,m,n...z. We were about to give up. And then, a mere 72 hours ago, we made the decision to try to build a deep sea drop cam. On a tight budget. With a group of people that hadn't really worked together before.

Well, Brennan Phillips (URI) had a brilliant plan to build a Dropcam. We put our faith in Brennan.... and.... he did it! He built one! In 48 hours! So we (Katy Croff Bell, Brian Kennedy, Brennan Phillips, and myself) gathered at my lab at Boston University to assemble the drop cam, and then headed over to the MIT Sailing Pavilion to test it. And voila! Success!

Less than 24 hours later, (and only a mere 2 hours ago), we were at the airport checking in. We have complicated flight itineraries, so Brian and I are on different airlines. I get to the counter (alone), and - whammo. My ticket isn't actually booked. I have 4 bags to check, but the airline will only accept 2. My carry-on items are non-compliant (I have weird gear). I knew my bags were overweight, but they were so overweight that they exceeded the overweight limit. Uh-oh. No amount of money was going to buy me out of this one. I was about to give up. But just yesterday, I was discussing "The Martian" with Brian, and recalled the line at the end that said something like: "you just have to start solving problems. One by one. And if you solve enough of them, you get to go home".

An hour later (and a scant 20 minutes before my flight was closed), I squeaked through security with tickets, 4 checked bags, compliant carry-on luggage, and got on the plane.

So! It's really happening. #Mydeepseabackyard is en route, gear and all. We have thousands of miles to go, but if we run into more problems, we'll just solve them. One by one. Until we explore the deep ocean with our Kiribati colleagues and friends.

We are so excited.

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Getting ready!

Our Atlantic Ocean field tests did not happen because we have been totally distracted with getting packed, getting our other tech all sorted out, and spending hours on the phone with Fiji Airways booking and re-booking flights due to some last minute changes. But you know, that's field work....

Once we are on the plane on Friday, all of that will be done, and we will be able to focus on the mission at hand. But until then, as the boxes start to pile up, I have come to the realization that I need more stickers on my Pelican cases. I have some, to be sure, but a well-stickered Pelican case is high-fashion luggage in the science world.

Taking any and all sticker suggestions... !!

Back to packing,



How about some Open Explorer stickers? We’ll send you some!

That would be great!! Thanks Madeleine!!!

Meet our new Trident underwater drone from OpenROV. This cool robot will soon be headed to the equatorial Pacific, to the Republic of Kiribati, to help explore the shallow and mesophotic reef ecosystems of remote Pacific Islands.

But right now, she’s in Boston, getting pool- and field- tested for her upcoming expedition to her new home in Tarawa. We are proud to report the following field-test success stories:

1 - The robot survived the Boston University pool! She successfully was able to navigate from underwater pool ring to underwater pool ring (a brilliant navigation / obstacle course plan set in motion by Rotjan Lab member, Chloe Brown).

2 - The Trident survived the Lazy River! Boston University has a fairly high current, snorkel-snake section of pool. Rotjan Lab member Emma Martin piloted The Trident against the current and around the bend, which was really awesome! We haven’t yet measured the current, but it was pretty strong, and so we are thrilled to see that the Trident could handle it.

3 - The Trident survived the Charles River! Seaweed in her propellers and all, she zipped and zoomed along the banks, noticing river rocks, algae, a few river plants, and thankfully, no dead bodies. Whew. We were a bit nervous on that one. The Charles River surprisingly looks like… well, like a river. :-)

We are excited to explore with this Trident in some really cool parts of the world in just a few short weeks. We arrive in Tarawa June 25.

But for now - back to field-testing. Tomorrow’s test… the Atlantic Ocean. Until soon!

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Expedition Background

Our pilot project is designed to provide ocean access and increased technological capacity in Kiribati, a least developed nation. This approach will have two aims:

1) Access to emerging ocean technology that can be used from any platform

2) Training for an in-country scientist, student, and communicator to enable use and dissemination of findings from that technology

This approach will build long-term in-country capacity for ocean exploration, detailed below:

Aim 1:

Technology: We will utilize innovative technology developed by OpenROV, National Geographic, and others. The tech can be used in a multitude of ways, including to determine species presence, check bathymetry accuracy, revisit sites over time, explore new locales, or image sites of interest (e.g. shipwrecks). Data collected may necessitate knowledge of species, habitats, image analysis and statistics.

Aim 2:

(a) In-country technology training: We propose that an engineer and another team member travel to Tarawa (in Kiribati) to deliver the OpenROV Tridents, National Geographic Drop Cameras, and other technology to train a group of scientists, engineers, students, and communicators in their use. Technology will then be left in-country with plans to deploy them at least ten times before (b).  

(b) In-USA analysis and media-products training: Following (a), we propose that three representatives from Kiribati (a scientist, a student, and a communicator to be identified during (a)) travel to the USA for further training in data analysis and creating outreach materials. We envision that the scientist and student will collaborate to analyse the captured imagery, whereas the communicator will generate media products to disseminate information in-country, in whatever format they deem culturally-appropriate. Outreach and artistic materials will be created at the MIT Media Lab. This trip will coincide with the National Ocean Exploration Forum, so it is expected that partners will share their experiences and results there.

Aim 3:

Masters-level training: The OpenROV Trident will remain in Kiribati, so that local scientists and students can continue to explore their own backyards, however, the interpretation and use of data will require higher capacity. For example, how will a country know if a new species has been discovered without taxonomic or ecological expertise? To enable lasting scientific capacity, we hope to (eventually) have a student matriculate in a masters program at Boston University, which will enable students to engage more fully in the global community of benthic marine experts. MSc-level training will ensure that Kiribati has the necessary tools to put their exploratory findings into the relevant scientific context.

We plan to visit Tarawa in late June 2018 to start this journey.

Project collaborators: Randi Rotjan, Diva Amon, Brian Kennedy, Brennan Phillips, Alan Turchik, Katy Croff Bell, Rafael Anta, Kristina Gjerde, Gil Montague, Kate Furby, Alexis Hope

Kiribati collaborators: Betarim Rimon, Tooreka Teemari, Tekateteke Mettai, Erietera Aram, Nabuti Mwemwenikarawa, and others - coming soon!

This project has a twin pilot in Trinidad & Tobago - you can follow along here: Trinidad & Tobago Ocean Exploration

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Randi, this looks like a great project! Can't wait to learn more

Love this Randi! Excited to be following along here.

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