Monday, January 26, 2015

Reflecting on the past three weeks

While driving out to the transect on our last day of water sampling, I looked west and rain showered from an ominous cloud covering the sky. It seemed as though we would be spending the day drenched in a combination of fresh and saltwater. As we moved further from land and closer to the northwest barrier reef that surrounds the lagoon, the gray cloud began to dissipate, the ocean glassed over with silky blue perfection and I was reminded of how unpredictable the weather could be in Palau. The reflection of the sky on the ocean surface was so clear that the boundary between water and sky was indiscernible. This was not the first time during my trip that the beauty of Palau had rendered me speechless and I found myself reflecting on the past three weeks.
When Katie invited me to help with her research in Palau, I was ecstatic! Katie’s recent publication (Shamberger et al. 2014) was the first to report visually healthy and diverse coral communities in a naturally acidified system and had thus gained much interest, both in the media and scientific community. As oceanographers we ask ourselves, “How are these corals seemingly able to thrive at low pH and aragonite saturation levels and what does this mean for future corals in an ocean acidification (OA) world?” I was excited for the opportunity to assist in this timely and crucial research and over the next few weeks saw the amount of planning and work that goes into tackling such difficult questions. It took perseverance and dedication to spend long hours on the boat, often in harsh conditions, in order to collect the samples that would hopefully lead to answers about the health of these reefs.
In addition to conducting OA work, I had a chance to observe the interactions between Palauans and their environment. As a native Hawaiian, I am acutely aware of the intricate link between ecosystem and cultural health and the parallels between our cultures fascinated me. I observed many similarities between fishing methods, traditional uses for plants, and navigation techniques. Our coxswain, Gary, was a native to Palau and I was in awe of his intuition related to navigation and the weather. It was not unusual for Katie and I to be fiddling with the GPS, completely unaware that Gary had already placed us at our sampling site. I also depended on Gary for the daily weather forecast, as he was much more reliable than the forecast conditions provided by professional meteorological websites. All he seemed to do was take a quick look at the movement of the clouds and direction of the swell. On one particular day, a storm came through that covered the entire sky with clouds. For a minute Gary seemed disoriented, for he had clearly been using coral heads and landmarks from the distant islands to locate our instruments. Our GPS couldn’t detect a signal but thankfully Gary was able to position us once he had identified his rocks. This experience reminded me about the importance of integrating traditional and western science, for one compliments the other.
Near the end of our trip, I had a chance to visit Jellyfish Lake, a marine lake formed by the rise and fall of sea level over geologic history. The lake contains millions of jellyfish that have adapted to the new conditions and essentially lost the severity of their nematocysts (stinging cells). As we swam toward the middle of the lake, we were engulfed by a swarm of jellyfish so thick that we had to gently brush them aside. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. At one point, Tom and I broke into hysterical fits of laughter. Not only had I realized the absurdity of floating amongst thousands of jellyfish, but in that moment a hopeful thought had crept into my mind; if these jellyfish could find a way to adapt and thrive to the current conditions of the lake, perhaps coral reefs of the world could find a way to maintain under the harsh conditions presented by global climate change. Biology is a miraculous wonder. One thing is for sure, with the dedication and knowledge of the Cohen lab, I have hope that the beautiful coral reefs of Palau will still be around for our future generations to enjoy. 

- Andrea Kealoha

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