Vicarious Exploration Opportunity: Spirulina Farm

Ever heard of this stuff?  If you travel in my circles, I’m guessing you have.  Little green algae, about as low as you can get on the food chain, packed full of vitamins and minerals and other sorts of stuff that’s good for you.  Every time you eat seafood, you’re probably eating Spirulina or one of its cousins indirectly.  If you’ve ever wondered where it comes from, here’s a little look.

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A volcanic lake formed in a caldera about 30km north of Monywa, conveniently on our way to the Indian border.

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Well, kind of on the way.  We did have to take a 15km dirt road detour, and then take it again on the way back.   Three of us went to the facility while the other three hunkered down at a tea shop and watched our bags while snacking on samosas and sweets for a few hours.

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When we got there, the staff didn’t understand that we wanted to see the little green guys and sent us instead on a walk along the nature trail running around the lake.

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Pleasant and all, but we want to know what secrets lie behind these fences.

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Back to the admin building….

“Could we have a tour of the factory?”  No response.

“We’d like to see where you make the Spirulina?”  No response.

“I heard there are vats where you can look at the Spirulina.”  No answer.

Do my best pantomime of looking through a microscope.

“Ohhhh, laboratory!  Follow me.”

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Nobody spoke enough English to give us detailed info, so your guess is kind of as good as mine.  Some of the pools were lying fallow/stagnant, some were nice and frothy.

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Some were getting some aeration action.

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Some were murky with little critters.

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A bona fide lab, full of stuff I don’t understand.

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Including some sort of mysterious setup that nobody could explain to me.

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Different flavor?  Different product?  Some sort of experiment?  Quality Control?

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Chris attempting to use the microscope as an extension of his own camera lens.

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(Photo by Chris Buchman)

Which wasn’t strictly necessary, since they had a USB microscope connected to their computer.  Super cool!  I felt like I was in 7th grade again.

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This is what they look like!  And they are indeed alive, wandering around in the water, bumping into one another, scrunching up, stretching out, living their little spiral lives until they get eaten by something.  Or someone.  Hope they don’t mind if it’s me.

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Buddha watches over the facility and gives his consent.

The facility was pretty mellow, with a few lady workers napping in the shade of a building we didn’t get to go into and a few dudes sitting around chewing betel nut.  Maybe it was because we were there just after lunch (prime naptime), or maybe it was because the managers of whatever German consortium that had set up the plant weren’t there to whip everyone into shape, or maybe everything just runs itself just fine without much manpower.  In any case, we weren’t able to see much more, like how they get the Spirulina out of the water solutions and into pill form (sieves?  drying racks?).  Still, we did walk away with a few goodies:

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Spirulina-based multivitamins (right), of course, and an unexpectedly awesome bottle of mouthwash/toothpaste powder made from Spirulina and salt, which works (but doesn’t taste) much better than it sounds.  Here’s to a month or two of good health and proper oral hygiene.

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