Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Scientist

A question like, "What do you do?" would be easily answered by most. But as a scientist it's often difficult to put into words all the things that one might "do" during a regular day, let alone a day in the field. So I'll take you on tour of our last few days aboard the Seadragon, to give you a better (and hopefully more interesting) story than the 10-second elevator speech you'd normally get.

As the sun streams through the porthole windows above our bunks, we awaken to the smell of breakfast being prepared in the galley (that's ship-speak for kitchen). We huddle around the saloon and begin to organize ourselves for the day's work as we eat. Checking weather conditions, we ensure that the plan we agreed upon the previous night can still be carried out.

Today, we're going to scope out one, hopefully two, new locations to see if we can find corals big enough to drill. We finish up our breakfast—some delicious scrambled eggs—and under clear skies and a lovely breeze, we quickly gather the necessary gear for the morning's trip: wetsuits, snorkel gear, dive gear, and, of course, our precious drills. Then we set off from the Seadragaon and head to Hans Lolik, a small Island near St. Thomas. Arriving on location, we jump right in, the four of us spread out in search of massive corals.

Below us lays a vast expanse of vibrant coral, sea fans, and, unfortunately, many dead coral. The Caribbean has suffered several widespread losses of corals over the last few decades. For instance, Acropora palamata, which used to be the major species in the Caribbean, was nearly driven to extinction by white-band disease, an infection that spread quickly through the entire region. During our dives we've seen the remains of many of these Acropora palmata colonies. Though they retain their characteristic shape they mostly look like weathered rocks, and are often covered in algae or, more promisingly, by tiny juvenile corals that have chosen the coral rubble as their new home.

After several minutes of swimming, I spot what we're looking for—a large colony of Diploria strigosa, commonly called brain coral due to its windy, rugged appearance and growth pattern. "Jackpot!" I yell out to my colleagues and the boat tender, who brings over our dinghy with supplies. We swap our snorkel for scuba tanks and begin to drill. While two of us work on getting the core, the other two continue scouting coral. Before, lunch we've successfully drilled two cores and are feeling pretty accomplished.

Tom and Pat deploying the "big gun" hydraulic drill.
Photo by Alice Alpert
We head back aboard Seadragon for a quick recharge, both of our scuba tanks and our growling stomachs, and prepare to head to the second new site of the day: Fish Bay, near St. John. Because this is a new site we again begin our exploration by snorkel to avoid unnecessary hassle with our gear until we're sure we need it. This time our search takes no time at all, as we're surrounded by gigantic boulders of coral.

Up to now we had been using our smaller pneumatic drills, which run off scuba tanks. These colonies merit a little more, so we're going to need our large hydraulic drill. We prepare the big guns and get positioned to drill our core. It all begins smoothly enough, our first near-meter-long piece comes out quickly and the second follows suit. The third proves more difficult, but with the day drawing to an end, we'll have to head back to our home-away-from-home and finish the job tomorrow.

Our ride back to Seadragon rewards us with a stunning sunset, and as we gather around the dinner table we again begin to plan our next day. Once that's done, the nighttime is reserved for stargazing and blog writing.

Tomorrow a whole new adventure awaits.

-Hanny Rivera

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