A Day in the Life of My Summer in Palau

This is the first of a three-post series written by undergraduate students who completed summer research in Palau with the Palumbi lab.

It’s 6 AM in Palau, a country east of the Philippines, and we’re 16 hours ahead of the rest of the Palumbi lab in California. I have been living here for a few weeks, and the sound of Brendan coming into the kitchen, which is also my bedroom, to start brewing his morning coffee no longer startles me. Today is a field day; therefore the boat will be leaving at 8 AM to take us to our coral reefs for field work. A quick look out the window and a “how’s the weather report looking Brendan?” leaves me happy and excited, because it is a beautiful morning and the field day is still on!

View of the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) and the Palau Aquarium from my bedroom window.

Brendan is not just my roommate; he is a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Steve Palumbi’s lab and in charge of our project in Palau. We are part of a large team working to see how corals in Palau respond to hot temperatures and to find strong corals that do not bleach (lose their color). This is important because those who do bleach during heat stress are less likely to survive. With climate change continuing to heat our oceans, corals will have to withstand warmer and warmer waters. Many animals depend on the reefs that corals build for shelter, food, and their own survival. By identifying the genes that allow corals to handle higher temperatures, our hopes are that eventually we can grow and transplant these corals to other reefs.

At this point in the trip, Brendan and I are a well-oiled machine when it comes to breakfast — he scrambles the eggs and I toast the cinnamon bread. After our nutritious meal, I retrieve my bathing suit and rash guard off the shower curtain where it has been drying. I throw on the still-damp clothes accompanied by a thick layer of sunscreen. We grab the snacks and water jugs, lock the door, and make our way down to the lab to meet the others.

The outdoor lab space at PICRC

The lab is where a large part of our project is taking place. Here we put our coral nubbins, collected from various sites around Palau, into experimental tanks with elevated water temperatures to test how individual corals respond to heat stress.  In comparison, we also have nubbins placed in control tanks at ambient temperature. Every day, we photograph all our nubbins and give them each a bleaching score, which signifies how well it has survived. As the other members of the Palumbi lab–primarily a mix of graduate and undergraduate Stanford students– divide tasks, including checking on experiments and making the day’s sandwiches, it is my job to get all the field gear organized and moved out to the dock. I head over to unlock the dive locker and collect everyone’s fins, masks and booties. By this point in the trip I know what everyone’s gear looks like and can confirm everything is accounted for. I then make sure that the four field kit bags are each fully loaded with a camera, GPS, tape measure, scraper, clippers, extra zip ties and Ziploc bags to hold newly collected coral nubbins. This is all we need to find previously tagged coral colonies, measure their diameter, and take more samples for heat stress experiments. After checking the field bags, I bring all the gear out to the dock. The sandwiches are made, the corals are scored, and we are now ready to go.

As the boat arrives we say hi to Marse, a local Palauan and our boat driver for the day, and everyone helps load all the gear into the boat. Today we are going to Ulong. Ulong is a fore reef and an area we have been excited to explore since arriving in Palau. As a result of bad weather and rough ocean conditions, we had been unsuccessful in our previous attempts to get to this fore reef. Because Ulong is in the state of Koror, we will need to stop by Koror’s Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement to pick up Casper, a local Palauan ranger, to accompany us for the day. We double check to make sure we have everything, and we are on our way. With a push off the dock, off we go! Since Ulong is to the southwest of PICRC, we get the amazing opportunity to boat through the Rock Islands, a UNESCO world heritage site made up of hundreds of limestone islands. This area is one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen! As we weave through the mushroom shaped islands paired with numerous shades of blue seawater, I reflect on how amazing this place is and how lucky I am to be able to experience it.

Videos from the boat driving through the Rock Islands.

From the Right: Victor Nestor (local Palauan and lab technician for the Palau NSF project), Nia Walker, Katrina Hounchell (both Stanford PhD students in the Palumbi lab), Brendan Cornwell (Palumbi lab postdoc), and Mehr Kumar (Stanford undergrad).
Boat ride through the rock islands

After about 30 minutes, we are passing Ulong Island and our time in the calm waters within the Rock Islands has come to an end. Ulong Island is the last island and we have now reached more unprotected waters. As we bounce and splash our way towards the fore reef, Victor, a PICRC researcher involved in the Palumbi lab’s project here, and Marse rely on the boat’s GPS to direct us to our first field site.

We are approaching our reef. I start to get excited because today is finally a fore reef day! Fore reefs are found on the seaward side of a reef system. They are known to have more sharks and other animals that tend to be bigger than those inside the protected lagoon area of the Rock Islands. With hopes of seeing sharks, turtles and rays (and of course the excitement of finding and sampling our corals!) we begin to get suited up. Today we have four field teams made up of two or three people each. I am lucky to be a part of probably the most efficient and best team, Team Beth. Beth, a research technician in the Palumbi lab, and I find our Morikawa card, which is a cheat sheet with pictures, descriptions, GPS coordinates of the coral colonies we are trying to find and a beautiful piece of art made by Callan, a Stanford undergrad on the team, and me. Beth and I grab our field bag and slate and check to see which particular corals we will be sampling on this reef. “Three again!” exclaims Mehr, a fellow Stanford undergrad. Beth reads me our numbers and I find the corresponding tags and temperature loggers to bring with us to our sites. Putting the coordinates of our first coral into our GPS, I call out to my group, “it says 72 meters that way,” as I head towards the back of the boat. Now comes the most important part: the entry. Most people might think that entering the water from a boat is easy and simple, but there are endless ways to enter the water from a boat and I am determined to practice all of them. Today I decide on a cannonball, gear in hand. After my perfect execution, Beth and I are in the water and ready to go! With all our gear in tow and the GPS directing us, we begin our quest to find and sample our first coral of the day!

Swimming along the water’s surface towards our coral, I make sure to admire the beauty that is a coral reef. Snorkeling among the many different fish species and over the various types of coral species, I spot a greenish/brownish shape about 15 feet down among the coral. As we get closer the shape becomes clearer, I realize it’s a green sea turtle! I pop my head above water and call to Beth. With great admiration, we swim with and appreciate this amazing creature. A little while later, Beth, who has now continued her search for our coral, yells back, “Alright Colin let’s get back to work.” I say goodbye to the turtle and we continue our search.

Videos of the green sea turtle Beth Sheets (Palumbi lab technician) and I saw.

Our GPS now saws that we are within 10 meters of our coral. We are closing in on our coral and we begin to scan the area for a tag. With the tags being only a little bit bigger than a quarter, Sometimes it is the zip tie, used to secure the tag, that we actually end up spotting. Since these number identification tags were put on many months ago, algae and other organisms have grown over the tag, making it hard to spot. The GPS says that we are 5 meters from our coral, so Beth and I pull out a Morikawa card and look at the photo. With the photo in mind, we survey the area for our coral. I spot a thin, brown stick-like object protruding from a coral and flowing with the current. This must be it! “Beth, I found it, it’s over here.” I pull out the scraper from our field bag and dive down to clear the algae off the tag. After a couple scrapes the number on the tag starts to become visible. “Yep this is it,” I say as I surface. Knowing that we have found the right coral, Beth and I get ready to sample.

There are a few different things that need to happen in order to sample a coral. The first step is to find the tag and confirm it is your coral. If you are working on an odd numbered coral, a temperature logger was deployed during the previous field season and you will have to retrieve it. These temperature loggers are important because they will tell us what temperatures this particular coral was exposed to and the duration of time it spent at each particular temp. Next you will need to attach a new tag and logger in a secure spot somewhere near the coral. After successfully tagging the coral you need to take its picture, making sure to try and get the tag in the photo, and measure the longest diameter. While doing this, the person who is not tagging should be taking notes of the surrounding area and where the tag was placed. After all of this, the final step is to dive down with the clippers and remove the five small pieces of the coral that will be brought back to the lab and put in the heat stress tanks. These pieces are put in a labeled ziploc bag and brought back to the boat where they will be wrapped in bubble wrap and stored in a cooler until we can get them back to PICRIC. You have now successfully sampled your coral and can move on to the next one.

Video of Victor Nestor, Callan Hoskins, and me tagging a shallow coral (video Credit: Callan Hoskins)

With a successful first sampling under our belts, Beth and I enter the new coordinates into the GPS and are on our way to coral number two. Beth and I are the first group to finish sampling our corals at this site (as I said earlier most efficient and best team). After checking whether the other groups need help, I now have some free time to snorkel around the reef. This is my favorite part of the day because I am able to really take in the beauty of the reef. I decide to head out to the drop-off and just stay still and observe everything that swims by. The drop-off is the edge of the reef that opens up into the open ocean. While floating here I observe some amazing things. To name a few, I see humphead wrasse, triggerfish and even a few white tip and black tip reef sharks. But the coolest thing I see today is an eagle ray!

What I Saw!

The eagle ray
white tip reef shark
Humphead Wrasse
Clown Triggerfish

By this time all of the other groups have finished and it’s time to head back to the boat. Every group has successfully sampled their corals and we are ready to move on to the next reef. We will continue to sample the next four sites at Ulong, before the day is done.

…..Many hours later, we are finishing up our fifth reef of the day. After a day spent on the water and in the sun, Everyone is happy and tired, but fulfilled by the amazing underwater world that we spent the day in. Talk about who is cooking dinner tonight and what they will be cooking starts to go around. “Today’s a field day, we are going out tonight!” exclaims Callan. Everyone smiles because it’s close to dinner time and we are all hungry.  With all our corals sampled and ready to be brought back to the lab, we open up the victory Oreos and head back to PICRC.

One of the amazing sunsets we got to experience at the end of a long day.

The Palumbi Lab’s work in Palau is funded by the USA National Science Foundation, Stanford University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and donors to Stanford University.