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Corraling coral in the Pacific

The trials and tribulations of an oceanography mission lead to undersea treasures

As my plane began its steep descent to Christmas Island, 2’N, 157’W, middle of nowhere, I was reminded that the islands I was to visit are some of the most remote pieces of land in the world. I thought about the adventure of a lifetime I was beginning: meeting the sailing yacht Seadragon for a month-long expedition to study coral on three remote atolls in the central Pacific.

What brought me flying over the Pacific? I am a graduate student at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where, advised by Anne Cohen and Delia Oppo, I study coral in the central Pacific. Along with Liz Drenkard, a fourth year graduate student, Pat Lohmann, a scientist emeritus (and on a good day a dead ringer for Harrison Ford), and Chip Young, a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was using the 72-foot Seadragon as a platform to study coral in the central Pacific. We hoped that the coral samples we took would enhance our understanding of coral health in this area.

When we arrived, we found out that an outboard motor we needed for a small dinghy wouldn’t be arriving for four days, and our carefully planned schedule that was months in the making went out the window. So what to do? First, we reminded ourselves that without a challenge like this, it wouldn’t be exciting fieldwork in a remote location. Then, we tried to make the most of our extra time by taking water samples that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take otherwise.

The first water samples we collected reminded us that Seadragon is a sailboat, and about one fourth the size of the 200 to 300 foot oceanographic vessels that we are used to working from. We were faced with challenges like trying to stay in one spot to sample water while the wind was blowing and the converted racing boat wanted to follow the wind. The swell threatened to bounce us off the bow as we leaned over to grab the sample bottle. But with everyone working as a team, we figured out how to accomplish our goals. Although there are challenges involved with working from a sailboat, it has a very long range for such a small boat, and it consumes much less fuel than an engine powered vessel. So as we study the earth system, we are also powered by it, and hopefully we aren’t contributing too much to its problems.

After four days, we finally collected the motor and headed off to Jarvis, the “jewel of jewels” of the Pacific. This island is a mere quarter mile long and except for visits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers every few years, no one is allowed to visit the island. It is one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the world. We planned on scuba diving to collect coral samples. As I learned to dive specifically for this expedition, Jarvis was my first diving location. I hoped that this study site wouldn’t be so spectacular that it would ruin the possibility of me ever being impressed by a coral reef again.

Minutes after I drop into the water, a manta ray with a 10-foot wingspan glides right over my head, flapping gracefully. Then high-pitched whistling reaches my ears and a pod of dolphins wheels into view, pumping their tails and turning on a dime, bubbles streaming like smoke trails as they dolphins jump out of the water. Hundreds of them surround Seadragon and the dinghies that we dive from, excited about the novelty of a boat. And there are lots of fish: Bohar snapper, barracuda, black jack, bluefin trevally, spotted eagle ray, fusilier fish, and many large parrotfish. They aren’t afraid of people and approach us out of curiosity, turning only when they are an arm’s length away.

On one side of the island, the underwater slope is very steep. Coral cascades down the slope in scalloped shelves and small fish take shelter in the crevices below. Brightly colored corals and fish make a rainbow around us. Small anthea fish hang like a curtain, flashing with every movement in a mesmerizing display. Moray eels pop out from holes in the corals we sample. Sharks approach from the blue abyss and sea turtles flap by. It is truly a wonderland and I am almost disappointed when we finish collecting our samples from the island because it means we have to leave. But Jarvis definitely did not ruin diving for me. I became hopelessly hooked and couldn’t wait for our next location, Howland Island.

It was on our way to the last island, Maiana, in the Gilbert Islands that we felt the real power of the wind. Or precisely, the lack of it: we were in a “hole,” a region of high pressure without a breath of wind. We competed as to who could catch the wind meter at its lowest — 3.2 knots? I can beat that, I saw it at 2.1! In a region that usually gets a steady 15 knots of tradewinds, this spelled trouble. Luckily, Seadragon has a motor so we weren’t reduced to carving scrimshaw while waiting for a puff of wind as we would have done 150 years ago.

The going was slow, and the heat built up. It wasn’t too bad to start the 6 a.m. watch, but after a couple of hours the equatorial sun was roasting the boat. It was a tough call between staying below deck, out of the sun but without a breeze, and above where the air was fresher but exposed to the life-sucking rays. We became listless and torpid. Food became less and less appealing, largely from the knowledge that turning on the stove would make the heat worse, and using the oven was pretty much unthinkable. In fact, one day an ominous electrical, burning smell filled the air. We traced the source to a piece of wiring melting from the heat.

It was so calm that we appeared to be crawling across a new body of water: the great Pacific Lake. The surface was glassy and the whole dome of the sky was still. Once Pat called out, “I see ripples! But now they’re gone.” I suppose the experience of being becalmed in the tropics is a time-honored one, but we were glad when we sputtered into the Gilbert Islands on our last few liters of diesel.

After a quick stop in Tarawa to refuel, we recovered beautiful coral cores from the Maiana atoll. Then our work was done and we bid a sad farewell to the central Pacific. Our fieldwork was extremely successful and we gathered all the coral samples that we had planned to, which was more than I could have hoped for. The scientists and the Seadragon crew worked together as a team for an unprecedented study of the central equatorial Pacific. Being in the ocean, feeling the swell beneath the boat, becoming familiar with the corals, and even tasting the water (unintentionally), made me even more invested and passionate about my research. Having seen these islands, I want to learn more about the corals that live on them. Now I have the means to answer some of those questions, and I am already thinking of reasons to go back.