Deep Frying in a Tank Top

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

This past summer, a research team consisting of members of Steve Palumbi’s lab at Hopkins Marine Station and Stanford undergraduates set out to study resilience of Palau’s corals to rising ocean temperatures. When people ask me to describe my time in Palau, it’s difficult to find fitting words. As a team member and undergrad, it’s hard to communicate the experience: the long days of troubleshooting, the unforgettable beauty of thriving reefs, the way the people on our team collectively formed a well-oiled machine. Instead, I like to sum up my experience in Palau through the lessons I learned. Here are ten:

One. Plan ahead, but stay flexible.

The first day we arrived in Palau, we went straight out to sample corals on a reef. Though we planned to eventually sample five reefs per collection day, this one was supposed to be a learning experience–and learn we did. It took us five hours to sample that one reef! We cut through storm swell back to the lab, where we were met with unexpected problems. First, the small corals had been so disturbed by the bumpy ride through choppy water that they were nearly dead, thus rendering them useless for the experiment. Second, we had taken five hours to sample just one reef! A longer-term concern emerged: how were we ever supposed to do five reefs per day, as planned? Third, we had technical difficulties with our computers, which run the experiments and are essential to the entire operation.  

We busted out our best troubleshooting skills. By day four, we had fixed the problems and were ready to sample again, but Mother Nature had different ideas. We awoke that morning to the sound of rushing wind and heavy pellets of rain. A faraway typhoon was brushing past Palau on its way to Taiwan. It whipped up waves that prevented us from sampling for the next two days.

By day six, I was concerned. It was difficult to imagine that we could still finish the work we set out to do. Yet, somehow, we did. By the time we were able to sample again, on day seven, we were ready. The computers were working, we were becoming more efficient at sampling, and Steve had discovered a more effective way to transport the coral (bubble wrap… who would’ve thought?). We sampled three reefs that day, and we only got more efficient as time went on. Soon, we were sampling five reefs a day with time to spare. We ended up sampling from every reef we originally planned to visit in thirty-five days exactly. The ten extra buffer days we built into our field season turned out to be necessary for finishing all of our work. In field work, I quickly learned, you have to be ready for things to go wrong — which they inevitably will.

Victor Nestor, Colin Hyatt, and I tagging a coral colony (shown after four weeks of practice)

Two. Don’t eat mayo in the hot and humid tropics. Just don’t. Ask Steve.

Three. Know your nuts. A “coconut” is a ripe coconut with hard, thick white meat and a smaller volume of water. A “mengur” (pronounced muhng-oor) is a young coconut with soft meat and a larger amount of refreshing water. Both are delicious, but they serve different purposes. Need coconut shavings for taro pudding? A coconut is what you’re looking for. Thirsty after a long field day? Try a mengur!

Four. Know your tides. The depths of the corals we sampled ranged from less than one foot to dozens of feet. Timing was everything, because many reefs were impossible to collect coral samples from at high or low tide.   

Five. Take a look around. This is foremost a safety precaution. The reef can be a dangerous place, with hazards ranging from stinging fire coral to biting Moray eels and sharks. Though I had been taught how to avoid fire coral several times, I was a slow learner. The first time I was stung, I grabbed onto a patch of fire coral thinking it would be a good handhold in the strong current. A second time, I was sampling when I felt a burning on my arm and looked down to discover that the entire area was covered in fire coral. After two encounters with this silent, neon-green foe, I realized I could identify and avoid it just by taking a look around me before diving down. Once I was aware of my surroundings, I was safe from fire coral. That goes for sharks, eels, and rays too.

Neon-green fire coral grows in patches and stings when touched

But also, taking a look around helps you appreciate the reef. We worked hard, but I never let myself forget where I was. On one collection day, we found ourselves in poor visibility. On a dive to the reef floor, I saw a blurry, moving shape in the distance. As I approached, the shape became more clear, and I recognized the distinctive lumpy head, massive size, and lumbering movements of a bumphead parrotfish. What a find! These giants clean the reef of algae, munch on live coral, and are just a pleasure to see. Swimming closer, more and more shapes appeared around the parrotfish. Closer still, and I could see that they too were bumphead parrotfish. The school of fifteen behemoths turned from me and glided across the reef, and I headed up for air, astounded. Seeing one bumphead parrotfish was a delight. But chancing upon a school of that size was amazing, and I would’ve had no chance of seeing them with tunnel vision. Keep your eyes peeled!

A large school of bumphead parrotfish. Source:
A crown of thorns starfish. These starfish prey on coral and give a nasty sting when touched.
We were fascinated by this jellyfish we found while sampling

Six. Nonverbal communication is key. We couldn’t talk underwater, so communication with our partners was done using a specialized system of sign language.

Pulling hands apart with index fingers pinched to the thumbs meant, “Hand me the measuring tape.”

Holding an imaginary camera and pushing an index finger down meant “Hand me the camera.”

Moving a closed fist forward was, “Hand me the scraper.”

Opening and closing a fist meant, “Hand me the clippers.”

Open hand with thumb and index finger together both asked and answered the question, “Okay?”

Seven. Some things just never dry in the tropics. And sometimes they smell weird.

Eight. Use proper equipment. This one took me the longest time to learn.

I made several careless mistakes, from dreadful sunburns to minor electric shocks to small frying pan mishaps–all caused by my own failures to use the proper equipment. Simply wearing a rash guard prevents sunburn, and wearing rubber boots when handling wires in outside rainy environments is a must. As for deep frying while wearing a tank top… Well, that one was so bad that Steve recommended it as a title for a blog post. A smart fry cook wears long sleeves.

This is what happens when you don’t wear sunscreen for a day…

Nine. Know how to cook a few meals really well. They’ll come in handy. I cooked a time-intensive squid ink pasta from scratch and a quick Chinese chicken salad while we were in Palau. A good meal lifts everyone’s spirits and wins you affection and adoration!

Ten. Be grateful. Everyone worked hard in Palau, and I wouldn’t trade my experience this past summer for anything. I was thankful every day for the opportunity to spend five weeks with a motivated, exciting team in a beautiful field site like Palau. Most of all, I am grateful to have been a part of research that helps us better understand and preserve an ecosystem that I love and people depend on.

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.