Flame of the Sea

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

The indigo of the open ocean reflects the bright baby blue sky, forming an azure world only broken by the green palm trees of distant islands. I inhale air, saturated with salt, as some swell cradles our small boat on the sea. Flocks of seabirds glide gracefully above the edge of the reef, their calls only heard after the crash of a toppled wave. “Looks like these are the coordinates,” Nia shouts from the boat’s bow. She is one of three Palumbi lab graduate students with us in Palau.

“The water looks deep here, where’s the reef?” asks Callan, a fellow Stanford undergrad.

“That’s a fore reef for you. They’re miles off of the island and form a wall of coral that quickly slopes down into the open ocean. The boat will stay here, but we are collecting corals in the shallow water just before the wave break,” explains Professor Stephen Palumbi, head of the lab. “Ok great,” he adds, “let’s get in the water.”

From left to right, Beth Sheets (biologist and research staff in the Palumbi Lab), Katrina Hounchell (Stanford PhD student in the Palumbi Lab), Callan Hoskins and Colin Hyatt (Stanford undergraduates), Cheyenne Payne (Stanford PhD student in the Palumbi Lab), Julien Ueda (Stanford undergraduate), Nia Walker (Stanford PhD student in the Palumbi Lab), Brendan Cornwell (Post-Doctoral fellow in the Palumbi Lab), Mehr Kumar (Stanford undergraduate).

The organized scramble begins. Callan and I, along with the other undergraduates, Mehr and Colin, frantically pull ten sets of fins out from underneath the bench as Cheyenne and Katrina, the other two graduate students, collect every GPS that has somehow hid itself behind a dry bag. Postdoctoral researcher, Brendan, shouts, “have you seen field kit three?”

“I put it in the bucket with the extra zip ties,” Mehr replies while grabbing group two’s slate.

“Who has corals 42, 47, and 50?” Katrina shouts.

“That’s us,” Colin confirms as Katrina passes him three numbered tags and a temperature logger wrapped in bright yellow electrical tape.

“I’m missing my pair of clippers,” Mehr inquires.

“Here, I used them to cut numbered tags on the last reef,” I reply— SPLASH—Colin jumps off the side of the boat. I grab my mask, spit into it, and dip it into the ocean to defog it. “Do you have the field kit and GPS Nia?” I ask and glance over to my left. After receiving a quick nod, I grab the slate, dig through a pile of fins, don my mask, and sit off the side of the boat. As the tip of my fins skim the sapphire sea, I secure my mask and push off with two other teams.

SPLASH— countless silver bubbles encircle my view as the tropical water envelops my face. Weightless, I watch the sun’s rays flicker across the vivid seascape below. Corals of every color form cobalt scrolls, peach staghorns and magenta plates from the wave break until the slope fades into the deep sea—SMACK. Through my flooded mask, I watch bubbles flee from the set of beating fins that kicked my mask off. As I surface and readjust my mask, Nia jumps in the water and swims over.

“Here’s the coral identification card and the GPS, where to?” Nia asks. Through a thick dry bag and two Ziploc bags coated with fog, I discern the coordinates on the GPS, compare it to those written for coral 41, recall that Ulong is east of us, and point north east.

As we scan the reef for the remnants of a zip tied tag, we pass anemones composed of countless green tentacles waving in the current. Two tentacles, however, move unlike the rest as a vibrant orange clownfish momentarily leaves its home only to flit back to safety. Twenty meters below on the reef, a startling shape emerges from the drop off. With the languid movements of its tail, a five foot long white-tip reef shark patrols the edge of the fore reef. Now mere feet from us, Nia and I respect the calm creature as it continues to cruise through the currents.

As we continue to scour the reef for our colony, a shifting shape sits among the coral. Tired of pecking algae off the rocks, a green sea turtle kicks off of the reef and rises into the water column. Checkered hexagons layered across its shell ripple in the light of the sun before the royal creature dives below the drop off. “There!” I shout through my snorkel as I notice an algae coated zip tie rising from the reef edge.

Nia free dives twenty feet to scrape the encrusting coralline algae off of the old tag and confirms that this is coral 41 when she returns to the surface. I pull out the slate and jot some notes about the coral and its environment: bright red plating, 2 distinct whirls on top of projection, 5 m from drop off. Between two sand bottom channels near large mounding Porites coral and giant clam!!! After Nia secures the new zip tie and temperature logger, I write new tag and temperature logger 1 m north of coral next to cauliflower like coral. Logger collected. When she surfaces, she passes me the camera, takes the slate, and watches me from the surface. I take one deep breath, exhale, remove my snorkel and kick to the coral. After equalizing, I measure the colony, take a picture of the tag, coral, logger, and finally the incredible giant clam. Larger than a chair, the clam squinted its cerulean mottled mantle when I disturbed its slumber with my shadow. After removing 5 small fragments from the colony, Nia and I track, measure, and sample our two other colonies before our trek back to the boat.

On our way, Nia taps my shoulder and points ecstatically into the open ocean. At first I simply see the sea, but out of the haze a flat figure floats into view. A majestic eagle ray glides over the reef mere meters from our face, but it is not alone. Four others rise from the drop off with wing spans longer than my entire body and form a spotted squadron as they fly across the fore reef.

With the boat a fin kick away, I notice a flash of red across the sandy seafloor. Curious, I dive twenty feet to miraculously discover my favorite creature on the reef. A firefish no larger than a minnow emerges from a lone rock’s crevice. Its mellow tan body ignites into a burning crimson tail as its trailing dorsal fin flickers with excitement. While the firefish may not share the same fame as the other outstanding creatures of the reef, it holds more than that to me.

Four years ago, rows of turquoise tanks blinded customers as the drone of aquarium pumps and smooth jazz filled the humid air. Two years of dedicated research and arduous construction led up to this moment. At fourteen years old, my dad drove me to a local aquarium store to buy the first fish to introduce to my new saltwater reef aquarium. I immediately approach the manager, who smiles and greets me, “mornin’ Julien, right this way.” I followed him through rooms stocked with a dazzling array of reef fish until he led me downstairs. He pointed toward a holding tank a couple feet off the ground and confirmed, “we received three captive bred individuals this morning. Since you called ahead, you get first pick.”

“Thanks, Dave,” I smiled. “Can you throw a little food in there?”

“Of course,” he replied before sprinkling a pellet into the tank. Immediately, three scarlet tails emerged from the rockwork, but only one grabbed the prize.

“I’ll take that one please,” I request as he filled the bag with seawater, netted the distracted firefish, and filled the rest of the bag with air. After purchasing the fish, I exited the store and stepped into the frigid Minnesota winter. With my shoes covered in ice, I smile at the little flickering flame before walking to my warm car.

So now, twenty feet under the beautiful waters of Palau finding my favorite fish in the ocean, I smile at my little flame of the sea and return to the surface.

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.