Saturday, January 31, 2015

Genovesa and Bainbridge Crater Lakes: a data logger's death sentence

After a quick 24 hour turn around, Stephan and I headed back out to sea, traveling to Genovesa and Bainbridge crater lakes on my absolutely favorite ship.  The Pirata.  

 Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj
Piggy backing off the coral trip, we only had 3 days to get a lot done.  At each site, we set out to obtain data from the data loggers we had deployed at each lake that have been measuring local climate (temp, wind, rain, sunlight) and lake conditions (temp, salinity, lake level, etc) since 2009.  We also needed to collect sediment and water samples from throughout the water column of each lake. 

And of those 3 days, over 30 hours would be spent at sea.  

Good luck wasn't in our fortune, and we fought a current the whole way to Genovesa and lost our early morning jump on the day.  The hike to Genovesa was always brutal, long and hard and we'd need a full 12 hour day.

The "path" (very loosely speaking) is marked by rocks stuck up in Bursera trees.  With heavy, cumbersome packs, moving is slow.  Stephan used the machete to clear a path large enough for his tall pack frame piled with gear.  

Carlos makes his way through the Bursera. Photo by StephHlohowskyj 

Red footed boobies and chicks squawk at us as we awkwardly bushwack past.

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Fortunately, I couldn't have asked for a better team to help me, and  we arrived in record time to the weather station at the crater rim.

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

We dropped some of the tools for the station, and then real fun began: climbing down the couple hundred foot cliff to the lake.  A cliff made of unstable scree and boulders, my favorite kind. 

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Moving is slow and calculated.  The true masochist in me enjoys it *a little* ;)
Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

And face to face interactions with Magnificent and Great Frigates and Boobies nesting provide much needed photo op rests.
Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

But admittedly, arriving at the lake always brings relief and puts the upcoming ascent in a daunting perspective!

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Despite our poor coordination with the rowing (with an added 360 turn for every few meters rowed), we successfully gathered the samples!

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

That was however, where our good fortune ended.  We could not read out data from any of the loggers.  None. Nunca.  SIGH.  

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Exhausted, overheated, and running out of water and time, this pretty much sums up how we felt:
Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

So somewhat defeated, we had to resort to bringing them all back to the states in hopes that the company can extract the data for us.

We sailed to Bainbridge in hopes of better fortune.

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Now I might be biased (because this is my main study site), but Bainbridge is always a site for sore eyes after Genovesa.  The "hike" if you can even call it that involves an (admittedly) awkward boat landing, but then you walk 50 feet to this view:

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

And did I say flamingoes?! THERE ARE FLAMINGOES :)  And this time they were courting.  Absolutely hilarious to watch them prance back and forth (GoPro video to follow).

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

But why Flamingoes??  Well because this lake is SALTY.  And I mean salty!  Over 3 times that of seawater.  Combine that with the fact that it's shallow and mixed and you get one productive lake!!!  Mmmmmmmm....

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

When do I get to be aired on "Dirty Jobs"?

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

And where there is salt, there is rust!  So much rust that our weather station snapped in half:

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

Thankfully, I was expecting this given its condition on our last trip, and brought all new parts for the station!  But we had to chisel the instruments off the old lets just say it took a while and not everything is working as well as it should.  But it's a beaute!

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

So what I've learned is like most vehicles, loggers have very specific lifetimes after which time, everything simultaneously breaks.  Oh and hypersaline lakes make a particularly good instrument graveyard. 

In search of the Rosetta Coral

We set out for Darwin and Wolf with a goal of collecting 15 coral samples.  Long samples. Because in our field, size does matter.  The larger the coral, the longer the core, and the longer the climate history.  To capture the past couple hundred years, we were searching for a coral that could give us a 2 meter long sample.  The Rosetta Coral.

Fortunately, our lab’s mascot “Coral” traveled all the way from Tucson to cheer us on.

Photo by Gloria Jimenez

We cruised to Wolf first to get our feet wet where the conditions are typically more calm and better for diving.   We returned to the reef where we took samples back in 2010, and broke out Julie’s brand new pneumatic drill system to give it a good ole test drive and make sure everything was working properly and  efficiently.

Because if we were going to reach our goal with 5 days of diving, efficiency would be key.

Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

The drill runs off of compressed air, which can be a major logistical challenge with the strong currents and deep reefs at Darwin and Wolf.  To power this type of drill, there are only two options: power it from scuba tanks or an air compressor from the surface, or bring extra scuba tanks down to the bottom to power it.

With many tanks of air needed to take a 1-2 meter coral sample, bringing tanks down isn’t ideal, especially when they begin to float away as you use the air in them!  But the other option, though seemingly ideal, requires the boat, or a zodiac or panga, to be anchored right above you, with enough compressor hose to make it down to the depth of the coral without tension.  And if there is current or swell, that possibility goes right out the window…as the hose and boat gets tossed and yanked around like a rag doll.

And rough conditions is something these islands do well.  When we arrived, the Queen Mabel tried to anchor at the site, and before the anchor could even be set, the boat heaved and the huge steel anchor chain snapped in 2.  And the anchor was lost. The first casualty of the trip….

On top of the rough conditions, the large corals at these islands that we want to sample are unfortunately also deep.  Typically corals that we sample are in shallow water, but here the big ones are found around 50 feet.  This not only means lots of compression hosing, but it also means that lots of nitrogen buildup in our bodies.  With 3 to 4 hour long dives per day (dawn pre-breakfast dive, after breakfast dive, and 1-2 afternoon dives), we’re all pushing our decompression limits every day.

The drill. Photo by Julia Cole

So we brought a tank of air down with us on the dive to test the drill, hopeful that the drill would be strong and efficient.  We were all a bit relieved when we found that with this tank the drill cut through….a few inches of volcanic rock!   The rock is much denser and tougher to drill than corals, so we ended the dive hopeful that we’d be able to collect samples without needing too many tanks of air.  Fingers crossed…

Drilling some rock like it ain't no thing. Photo by Jennifer Suarez

Photo by Jennifer Suarez

For the remainder of the day, while the captain and crew searched for the lost anchor, we went on a search of our own to find the corals we drilled in 2010.  We wanted to photograph the health of these corals to show their recovery following the drilling.  As a marine ecologist turned paleoclimatologist who went from monitoring health of reefs to poking holes in them to study climate, I was particularly keen on seeing their recovery.

After coring, we fill the holes we create with cement plugs that prevent other organisms from coming in and killing the corals from the inside.  These plugs also provide a surface for the coral to re-grow, and many have documented the recovery of corals cored in this way.  But I was excited to see this for myself.  You know, to sleep at night…

An example of a plugged sample from this trip.  Photo by Julia Cole

But we looked and looked and looked all around the GPS coordinates of the corals sites, and could not find them.  Knowing that we that we likely swam by the corals a few times and couldn’t find any evidence of drilling, I’m happy to know that the corals must have recovered and grown over the holes.


In the wee hours of the morning we cruised the remaining 4 hours to Darwin.  I watched the sunrise as we became closer and closer to the picturesque arch off the southeast side of the island.

We cruised around the island to start in the somewhat calmer Arrecife Escondito ("Hidden Reef") to start to search for large corals to sample.

Prepping for the dive. Photo by Julia Cole

On our first pre-breakfast dawn dive we found a coral that was around 2 meters tall and started drilling.  We were off to a great start, but would soon come across a number of hurdles with the drill, slowing the coring process.  Although a frustratingly slow progress, we continued moving forward (rule number 3!!), and 5 dives and far too many tanks in, we finally got 2 cores out of this coral.  Sadly, a big part of our slow progress from this coral is that it turns out it was only an ~half meter coral head growing on top of a large rock. :(

We named this coral "heart of stone" and continued on in search of the Rosetta Coral.

"Heart of Stone" coral with the 2 coral samples plugged. Photo by Gloria Jimenez

We got one more half meter core from another core at this site, but unfortunately this core was riddled with boring clam holes.  So we aptly named this sample the $50k pencil holder.

While Julie and I did one last sweep of the reef in search of large colonies, we ended up in a scene straight from Blue Planet (or Finding Nemo!).  Suddenly, the ocean went nearly black as we were surrounded by a school of thousands of fish.  As they'd move back and forth, the sides of their bodies would temporarily glisten in the sunlight, making shapes in front of us.  No directions to the Sydney Opera house, but they were clearly being chased by something.  Something big.  My excitement quickly faded as I waited for whatever it was chasing them to come out of the darkness.  Fortunately, what appeared were HUGE mackerel.  It was feeding time!  An incredible experience!!!

Meanwhile Stephan and Gloria went to set a temperature logger by the first coral, and in doing so, Gloria got bit by an angry eel :(   Fortunately, she didn't lose her thumb and it didn't hit a major artery, but she is left with a bad wound and will likely need surgery to fix a tendon.  But let me tell you, she is one tough chick!!


After a satellite phone call to the islands for advice on Gloria's thumb, we decided to move on to try to find the rosetta coral on the other side of the island at Arrecife Antigua ("Ancient Reef").  On our first dive, I found two nice, large corals...the second was easily 2 meters or more.  I was so excited when I found it that chasing Julie down to show her against the current suddenly didn't feel so hard (thank, you adrenaline!).  I felt a little little like a little kid at Christmas! "Mommy, mommy, look what I got"!!! jaja :)

We marked the corals with diving safety sausages so we could return and start drilling them after breakfast.

Tagging the first drilling target at Aricife Antigua: a ~1.5 meter, but solid head
After breakfast we set out to anchor the panga and start drilling the largest coral.  But our excitement quickly turned to doubt as it became unclear whether we'd even be able to drill.  The current had picked up dramatically, and conditions were now dangerous and bordering on impossible with all of the drilling equipment.  

Once the panga was anchored, Julie and Stephan rolled out of the zodiac upcurrent of the anchored panga, and were quickly swept down current to the panga.  Grabbing on, the idea was that Roby would pass them the drilling gear and they would safely descend down the anchor line to the coral.  But with the drilling tools, which easily weigh around 50 lbs, they could not even fight the current to the anchor line.  Stephan was being dangerously pulled in two directions, tools in one hand and anchor line in the other.  Impossible. 

Admitting that he's never felt so close to drowning, we clearly had to rethink the logistics for this site and decide whether we would even be able to drill.  The next dive, we decided to forget the tools for now, and just go to the bottom with the drill and one tank to see if it would even be possible to drill.  

We went up-current of the coral and tried again.  This time with Stephan hugging the tank and regulator for the drill and Julie holding the drill and tubing.  Rolling off, they tried to swim straight to the bottom and to the coral to avoid getting swept away to sea by the strong surface current. Fortunately, they made it, and found relatively calm conditions (comparatively) at the bottom and were able to start drilling.

But unable to get the tools down safely by the dive team, we had to drop them from the surface, guiding them as much as possible by rope.  Talk about unideal conditions, but it worked!

So from here we started a new rotating drilling team.  Each new person in the water would craddle a scuba tank, roll in, and plummet to the bottom as quickly as they could, replenishing the air for drill and relieving the drill team (who were also running out of air).  

And we'd bring the empty tanks with us up as we surfaced. Well, that is until one dive when I went to change the regulator to a new tank, and the empty tank slipped out from the reef and floated to the surface.  Fortunately, the zodiac saw it and grabbed it.  It worked so well in fact, that we started doing that for the other tanks.  Well, that is, until one went missing... :/

Loading the scuba tanks for our dawn dive.  Photo by Gloria Jimenez

Stephan and Roby break a piece of sample out of the coral head. Photo by Julia Cole

This system worked very well and we fell into a groove, repeating this strategy dive after dive for the next 2.5 days.  We fought an endless battle with the drills seizing (despite our endless efforts to oil them after every dive).  Seawater and drills don't play well together.  Fortunately, we had an extra drill and at one point while I was fighting the drill, a new, powerful drill was quite literally sent to me from above.  A gift from...well the drilling gods I suppose.

On the last dive, Jennifer and I wrapped up the drilling and packed up the gear.  We had decided as a group on the surface that it would be best just to fill the haul bag with air and let it ascend to the surface.  After 20 minutes, they'd be on the lookout for it at the surface. 

But getting the tools together took the last remaining energy we had, and by the time they were finally ready to go, I was running out of air.  I headed to the surface with the last tank in my hand and watched as the haul bag, carrying all of the tools, plummeted to the surface, breached, leaked, and came plummeting back down. I had to dodge the 50+ lb bag from my safety stop.  Take 2.  This time the zodiac was on it.  As soon as the yellow bag hit the surface, I hear the zodiac speed above me and see a hand reach down and grab it.  Phew. 

It was absolutely exhausting, but we got 3 cores out of this of which was 2.5 meters long!!  We did it!!!  

2 meters here we come!  Photo by: Gloria Jimenez

And we named this coral "Rosie", short for Rosetta of course.

"Rosie" Photo by Gloria Jimenez

We did two last dives to look for more potential corals (for future trips).  On the last dive, we headed to "deep" water to collect a sample of the cold water coming up from the deep around this site.  And at only 80 feet, for the second time in my life I felt nitrogen narcosis.  Suddenly the world started moving a bit slower and I felt drunk. I immediately looked at Stephan and signaled that I was going to move shallower. The repeated dives had finally caught up with my body and I was DUN.   Until next time, Darwin!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Boobies, boobies, boobies!

Stephan and I leave here shortly to embark on the Pirata for a 3-day cruise to Genovesa and Bainbridge.  I've run out of time to finish updates on our Darwin and Wolf trip, so I'll update more when we return. But, in the mean time, I want to share my favorite wildlife interactions thus far.

And of course, here in the Galapagos, boobies provide endless entertainment.  Darwin and Wolf are no exception, with easily thousands of Nazca and Red Footed Boobies taking residence on their near vertical cliffs and circling overhead.

This trip, we had the added entertainment of watching the young juvenile boobies do what preteens do best. 
Hours of endless entertainment watching them wrestle for the primo resting spots on the boat.  Landing on each other's backs and falling over themselves trying to push another off.  

They also were very confused by our bubbles coming from our regulators and drilling equipment.  Because, after all, typically bubbles means dolphins or whales are corralling fish down below.  But they were slow to learn that we were in fact, not Orcas, and would dive over and over again above us in the water.  

And as we surfaced, they'd check us out repeatedly underwater as we hung out at our safety stop.  This interaction is one of my favorite moments from our dive:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

La cuarentena: a story of biodiversity, conservation, and chonies

The Galapagos islands are a hotspot for endemic species, meaning that many of the plants and animals you can see on the islands are only found here.  To try to conserve and protect the rich biodiversity of the islands, the Galapagos National Park has a number of rules in place for visitors:

1) National Park visitors must be accompanied by a guide at all times
2) Never stray from marked trails
3) Do not disturb, feed, or touch wildlife
4) Never transport live organisms (insects, seeds) between islands
5) Never remove natural objects (including rocks and shells) from the islands
6) Never smoke on the islands

These rules may seem straightforward, but there’s one catch: it is easy for us to transport insects and seeds between islands without even knowing it.  Seeds may be stuck in the soles of our shoes and insects may burrow in our luggage.  To combat this, as you fly into the Galapagos, the flight crew walk through the cabin and spray every overhead bin with insecticide.  And for the seeds, without most visitors even realizing it, every shoe passes over a mat covered in herbicide on the way into the small terminal.

As scientists, we apply months and months in advance for a permit for expeditions to go to remote areas of the Galapagos to collect samples, work with wildlife, etc.  Because this often means that scientists go outside the designated areas, it is even more critical that no seeds or insects are transported between study sites.  To address this, the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station have developed a rigorous quarantine process for scientific equipment and personal gear brought on each island.

When I say rigorous, I  mean rigorous!  I’ll never forget the moment when on one of our first field expeditions, meeting some of my colleagues for the first time, my underwear was held up to be inspected in front of everyone.  MY CHONIES.  I don’t embarrass easily, but I can only imagine how red I must have been.  Note to self: bring nicer chonies next time!

For each island, a complete separate set of  clean field gear is necessary.   This means different clothes, different shoes, and different chonies.  So if you’re one of those proud owners of the no-stink chonies that can be worn multiple days in the field, you’re out of luck here!

And for the lake sampling work we do this also means lots and lots of gear.  Multiple large, heavy inflatable rafts, sediment coring gear, etc.  Now you can easily see how we ended up with 12 bags for our initial field season!!

So what happens to all the gear in quarantine?  Like my chonies, each item is meticulously checked to make sure it is clean and free of insects or seeds, particularly big culprits like the inserts in our hiking boots (who knew so much stuff can get stuck under there-- how does it get there?!).

Then all items are bagged by island, and sprayed down with powerful insecticide and left for at least 24 hours before bringing it directly to the boat.  All bags remain sealed until we reach the island.  Chonies and all.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Why Galapagos?

We just returned from our 10 day expedition to collect coral samples from Islas Wolf and Darwin.  The journey to these northern islands is ~24 hours there, and as much as 40 hours back on our vessel the “Queen Mabel.”  Long stretches of nothing but blue on the horizon emphasize the vast expanse of ocean and the extremely remote nature of this field expedition.  

The Queen Mabel anchored at our destination.  Photo credit: Stephan Hlohowskyj

This remote, the rules of field work are particularly critical.  “Adventure” after “adventure” was continually thrown at us, and we continued moving forward (albeit sometimes very slowly), and with no whining.  Even when it was, in fact, justified.  Because unfortunately, one of Darwin’s many angry moray eels decided to break our amended rule #5 (no maiming, no death).  And poor Gloria is left with a very bad wound on her thumb and is undergoing hyperbaric chamber treatment in town over the next few days.

But I’ll let her tell that story.  Over the next few days, as Stephan and I get back on a boat, this time heading to Genovesa and Bainbridge for lake work, I will post a series of blogs recounting our adventures at Darwin and Wolf. 


But first if you’ve gotten past the jealousy, you might be wondering why on earth I keep going back to the Galapagos for work.  What exactly is it that we’re doing here?   And why so many trips, and can I take you with me next time?

The Galapagos are a hotspot for year-to-year changes in climate.  Normally within the tropical Pacific Ocean, strong trade winds blowing from the east drive strong upwelling in the eastern Pacific, bringing cold, nutrient rich water to the surface around the Galapagos Islands.  We can thank these nutrient rich waters for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.  

But every few years, these trade winds weaken, and less deep water is brought to the surface in the eastern Pacific and local fisheries crash.  Because this phenomenon happens around Christmas time, locals dubbed it “El Nino” (the boy).  The Galapagos is located pretty much smack dab in the center of most El Nino events.

These El Nino events not only drive warm, nutrient depleted conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean around the Galapagos, but they also change climate patterns globally.  For instance, much of California and the western US experiences extremely high rainfall and flooding during El Nino events.  Other areas, like much of the Australian continent, experience severe droughts during El Ninos.

Because of their global influence on climate, it is critical that we understand how the strength and frequency of these events may change in the future as the world warms.  Unfortunately, we have very limited historical ocean observations in the vast tropical Pacific, and climate models disagree regarding changes in El Nino into the future.  So we still do not have a very good understanding of how this extremely important climate phenomenon may change in the future. 

That’s where we (my colleagues and I) come in.  As paleoclimatologists, we study past climate changes to improve our understanding of the range of potential climate scenarios we may see into the future.  To do this, we use natural archives of climate as windows into the past.  For example, the rings of trees may tell a story of past changes in rainfall at a particular site, while bubbles trapped in ice sheets show how the composition of our atmosphere has changed through time. 

To study past changes in El Nino, we capitalize on two of Galapagos treasures: it’s coral reefs, and it’s crater lakes.

Corals, like trees, grow in annual layers.  Much like the rings of trees tell a story of past rainfall changes, the chemistry of layers of the coral’s skeleton paint a picture of past ocean conditions.  Their skeletons tell us about the temperature, salinity, upwelling strength and even wind at the time the coral grew.  From this, we can learn about the strength and frequency of El Nino events that happened before historical records were made.

Drilling a coral sample from Wolf Island in 2010

But unfortunately for us (and the coral, of course), most corals only live to be a couple hundred years old.  So even the largest, oldest corals we take samples show us a glimpse into the past few hundred years.  Corals that long since died, either submerged or tossed up onto the beach, can give us windows into the distant past, but many such corals are needed to try to piece together the history of climate changes.

But that’s where the Galapagos crater lakes come in: volcanic craters that are filled with very very saline water (2-3 x the salinity of the ocean!).  Sediments accumulating at the bottom of these lakes also tell a story of past El Nino, this time through their impact on local rainfall.  During El Nino events, the Galapagos experiences heavy rainfall, which washes in material from the crater walls and changes the chemistry of the lake.  These changes are recorded in the sediments accumulating at the bottom of the lake. 

Sarah Truebe and I at Genovesa Crater Lake

Together, these corals and lake sediments tell us a story about the history of El Ninos.  From this story, we gain a better understanding of how the strength and frequency of these important events has changed as the Earth’s climate has changed in the past (as a result of changes in input from the sun and the number of volcanic eruptions, for example).

The primary goals of this trip are twofold: 

1) Collect additional coral samples from the northern islands
2) Maintenance and redeploy instruments recording the local climate at our lake sites

I’ll update the blog with our successes, and of course “adventures” along the way.