In just over a month, I’ll be boarding a plane and heading to Tarawa, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati. I’ll be staying in Tarawa and the nearby Abaiang Atoll for about a month to conduct the first stage of my Ph.D. fieldwork. It’s been a long, dark, rainy winter in Vancouver and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to getting to spend some time in the tropics, although I expect that my lack of exposure to light means I will be especially susceptible to sunburn.
Tarawa is far away — about 8,000 kilometers — and it takes quite a bit of travel to get there. My advisor, a fellow graduate student, Heather, and I will all fly from Vancouver to Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji and from there, finally, to Tarawa. While I’ve spent some time in other places in the Pacific (specifically Yap, FSM and the Marshall Islands), this will be my first time in the southern hemisphere. I guess I will finally have the opportunity to test whether the toilet flushes in the opposite direction on the other side of the equator!
I’ll be doing similar work to what I was doing in the Marshall Islands for my MSc (which I finally finished in August 2017!). Tarawa, like Majuro, is more developed and has a large population, while Abaiang is more similar to Arno and is less populated. We will use the data we collect to test the hypothesis that past sea surface temperatures may influence how likely corals are to bleach when temperatures are high. In the Gilbert Islands, the reefs experience a lot of temperature variability because of El Niño and La Niña events, so corals there may have had a chance to adapt to temperature fluctuations. Corals in other places with more stable sea surface temperatures, like the Marshalls, could be more likely to bleach when temperatures are warm because they haven’t been exposed before. I’m also going to be using a fancy contraption called a diving PAM (a pulse-amplitude modulated fluorometer that can be used underwater) to measure photosynthetic rates of corals, which is a way to get an idea of how healthy the corals are at different sites. (This is not the same one that we have, but it will give you an idea of what it does and what it looks like.) Meanwhile, Heather, a MSc student in my lab, will be doing a really cool project to map the complexity of the reefs.
Preparing for this trip looks very much like my prep two years ago for my trip to the Marshalls, except I am leaving immediately after the semester ends so time is a bit more limited. I am in the process of renewing my Dive Accident Network first-aid and oxygen administration training, as well as doing check-out dives with UBC’s Dive Safety Officer (we have to do all of this, plus the full dive physical, every two years). I also need to get my dive gear serviced and do a bit of shopping to get appropriate clothing — in Kiribati, women generally keep their shoulders and their legs above the knees covered. Because there isn’t a lot of soil on low-lying atolls like Tarawa, fresh fruit and vegetables are limited, so we also need to bring things like dried fruits and electrolyte powders to supplement our meals. And, my advisor got dengue fever on a previous trip to Kiribati, so we will need to be extra careful to avoid mosquito bites as much as possible (I, unfortunately, am usually a mosquito magnet), which means buying a mosquito net and lots and lots of bug spray.
I’m also doing coursework at the moment and am working as a teaching assistant for two undergrad geography classes. In addition to finishing my assignments and the piles of marking I have to do before I go, probably the largest thing on my to-do list is to get comfortable with the diving PAM and to make sure I know exactly what we need to bring with us to use it. We think we will likely take small coral samples from each site and will then conduct measurements on shore, so we’ll need to bring whatever we need to collect samples and to keep them alive in a hot boat that’s sitting in the equatorial sun all day (although fortunately, the boat is partially covered so we will have some shade). This means a fair amount of research on my end as all of this is new to me — I’ve never collected samples of live corals or used a diving PAM before. I’ll be doing some practice with the PAM here in Vancouver to make sure I’m comfortable taking measurements with it, but of course I won’t be able to test this with corals until we’re in the field, where we likely won’t have access to a lot of materials.
I will be keeping the blog up-to-date during our fieldwork, so stay tuned for updates once we make it to Kiribati in April!