There are so many things to love about fieldwork. As scientists, it’s an opportunity to finally get our hands dirty (so to speak) and interact with the systems we’re studying. It’s also invaluable to get to know the communities and people who live in the places we work (scientists commonly treat people as separate from our environments, but that’s never the case) … and what is the point of our research if it doesn’t serve local communities?
The work I’m doing here in Kiribati (and that my advisor, Simon Donner, has been doing for over a decade) will hopefully provide information that will help communities make informed decisions about how best to protect their marine resources and coastlines. We are working closely with the Kiribati Department of Fisheries and have been fortunate to have their divers join us on the boat. We also are collecting data about the coral reefs here that we can compare to other places to get an idea of how past ocean temperature may affect susceptibility to bleaching events. On this trip, I’m comparing the photosynthetic rates of corals collected from each of our sites, which I hope will give us an idea of how productive various sites are, and how the productivity of individual types of corals changes across sites.
While our work has serious implications, it’s great that we can have some fun doing it. We get to dive some of the most beautiful reefs in the world (although we also dive some of the most degraded reefs). I mentioned in my last post that people in Kiribati love to laugh, which makes every day on the boat a joy, even when we’re diving in rough conditions. It definitely helps the days go by faster, too — we’re usually on the boat for around 10 hours a day, and then we come back to our hotel room to do data entry and do coral measurements before we go straight to bed, so having fun while working is imperative.
Collecting coral samples is fun but challenging. I lost two sets of sample bags in the first few days because they are buoyant and will float away if you’re not careful, so I’ve had to come up with a system to weigh them down. Some of the corals are really difficult to break, so I dive with a hammer and a chisel for the bigger corals and a rongeur (which is usually used for cutting bone during surgery) for the smaller, branching corals. I have to wear a full wetsuit (even though the water is around 30 degrees Celsius) to protect my skin because I’ve gotten slammed into the corals by big ocean swells. But the most challenging part of sampling corals is also probably the most surprising: they smell horrible!
I have to dispose of the coral samples each night after measuring them with the PAM (pictured above), and we very quickly learned not to empty the water from the cooler (where we keep the samples) in the bathroom because it smelled so bad that we could barely stand to use it. I’m learning that some corals smell worse than others, too — I hate sampling Pocillopora, for example, because it stinks so badly, and the massive Porites emit a stinky mucous that looks like snot. The smell was so bad while we did the measurements earlier tonight that I had to hold my breath to keep from throwing up, and we were so desperate that we sprayed half a bottle of sunscreen in the room just to try to cover up the stench afterward. It turns out that corals are really gross when you take them out of the water!
By far my favorite part of fieldwork is getting to know the communities we’re working with. My colleague Heather, a masters student in Simon’s lab, is doing some really interesting work looking at reef complexity and erosion, and as a part of her work, we are taking a few days to do some on-shore measurements. We usually get a lot of attention from curious onlookers when we’re doing measurements on the beach. Children here are not shy and it’s so much fun to engage their curiosity. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes children will come running from all directions to see what we’re up to! It’s a great opportunity to get them involved and to talk about the importance of coral reefs.
Fieldwork isn’t for everyone and there are certainly a number of challenges, but it’s my favorite part of my work and what keeps me motivated to keep going. I feel incredibly lucky to be here in Kiribati. We’ll be heading to Abaiang, an outer island atoll, tomorrow and will be offline until Tuesday night (late Monday in North America). Tomorrow is also my 33rd birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate!