Tara Pacific Expedition Enters its Final Year

Tara Pacific 2016-2018

The Tara Expeditions group is made up of scientists from across the globe with a common goal: to preserve the beauty, diversity, and health of the world’s oceans. Constructed in 1989 for the explorer Jean-Louis Etienne, the 118-ft schooner Tara (originally named “Antarctica,” and later, “Seamaster”) was designed to sail through the frigid Arctic and Antarctic. Since its acquisition by the French designer agnès b. and her son Etienne Bourgois in 2003, Tara has sailed more than 300,000 kilometers and completed 10 expeditions. The four largest expeditions, Tara Arctic (2006-2008), Tara Oceans (2009-2012), Tara Oceans Polar Circle (2013), and Tara Mediterranean (2014) produced some of the most influential marine science journal articles of the past decade. A special issue of Science was released in May 2015 dedicated to the prodigious data from Tara Oceans: this expedition led to the discovery of more than 500,000 microorganisms from 27,000 samples.

Map of the course of the Tara Expedition until its conclusion in September 2018. Click for high res. version.

On May 28, 2016, Tara began a two-year voyage of nearly 100,000 km around the Pacific Ocean. This expedition, Tara Pacific, is specifically focused on how the diversity and evolution of coral reefs has been influenced by climate change and humankind and, conversely, the implications of changing reefs on our lives. Although every expedition is motivated by the desire to explore and characterize the effects of the changing planet in remote locations, this is the first mission dedicated to the problems facing tropical regions. This expedition will be one of the most comprehensive assessments of coral reef health and biodiversity ever conducted, with sites spanning the Pacific Ocean from 35°N to 34°S. Due to the wide-reaching nature of this expedition, the project will be able to explore both remote reefs that have avoided human disturbance and reefs that have managed to survive despite tourism and pollution.

Tara Pacific is comprised of marine biologists and oceanographers from around the world who study the response of coral reefs to human influences by surveying biodiversity, including measures of coral diversity, fish genetics, water quality, and marine plankton. Becky oversees the analysis of the coral microbiome and virome, and our lab’s role in this project has offered us an amazing opportunity to travel the world, meet international leaders in coral science, and conduct independent research projects. Ryan McMinds, the most senior student in the Vega Thurber lab, joined Tara in Panama, July-August 2016. Becky made her debut on the boat in September, traveling from Easter Island to Moorea (see her previous blog posts for more details!).

Ryan snapped this photo this week on Tara! They are currently sailing off the coast of Australia, and have spotted dolphins and humpback whales while cruising.

My project on Tara

I will board the boat this fall as the youngest scientist on board yet. From October 15-November 25, 2017, I will be conducting research in Papua New Guinea to assess the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs. For my contribution to Tara, I am studying a natural carbon dioxide seep that has acidified the surrounding water and altered reef composition in hopes of understanding how reefs might adapt to global ocean acidification (spoiler alert: there are winners and losers!). Using GoPro footage collected on SCUBA, I will generate 3D models of the surrounding reef to correlate coral cover and colony size with the diversity of bacteria living on each colony. Check out this cool paper on how the program I will use works: Cost and time-effective method for multi-scale measures of rugosity, fractal dimension, and vector dispersion from coral reef 3D models.

The red box shows the regions of the Coral Sea I will be sailing through.

After sailing from the Solomon Islands to Milne Bay, PNG, our team will spend early November sampling and comparing corals across a gradient from the seep region (pH <7.9) moving toward a site with normal pH (~8.1). This is an excellent proxy for global decrease in ocean pH from ~8.1 to 7.8 – the change expected if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 increase to 750 ppm, as many models predict will occur by the end of the century as a result of burning fossil fuels. My video transects will allow us to measure changes in coral individual size and abundance and correlate this with changes in microbiome composition. We expect to see dramatic increases in microbial and coral host diversity and abundance moving away from the seeps as pH normalizes.

CO2 seeps in Milne Bay, PNG. PC: Dr. Katharina Fabricius, Great Barrier Reef Foundation

A sailor’s life is the life for me

Living on the boat for more than a month will be a unique experience for me for a lot of reasons. Conducting science on a boat poses new problems ranging from seasickness to risk of sample contamination, and although I’ve been diving recreationally for a few years, performing 3 dives a day in the potentially rough seas of the rainy season will be a challenge. In addition to our scientific obligations, we will also help out the crew and take shifts for night watch. I’m not worried about staying awake (I’m hoping to spot bioluminescence and have plenty of audiobooks to listen to), and Ryan assures me that if something goes wrong, you just wake up someone who knows how to help. Maybe I’ve just watched too many scary boat movies…

My French is still very shaky so I hope I’ll be able to understand what everyone’s talking about and be more help than hindrance. Luckily, Becky is joining me on this trip, as will Emilie Boisson, who was Becky’s dive buddy on her Tara trip. Hopefully, Emilie will take pity on us and help us with our French! Ryan says that everyone who is on board with him now is very friendly, and a good chunk of the crew will be the same when I’m onboard. I’m also worried about how easy it is to get banged up on the boat — Cnidae Gritty devotees will remember Becky’s colorful bruise from a slip and fall onboard — and my clumsy nature is definitely not going to help me there. A few bruises never stopped me, though!

Becky conducting transects during her stint on Tara in September 2016.

There is much more, though, to look forward to than there is to worry about. Living and breathing science all day, every day on a research vessel (find a 3D tour of the boat HERE) is going to teach me a lot about myself and help me become a better scientist and communicator. Papua New Guinea is beautiful and the Coral Triangle, where PNG lies, hosts 76% of all known coral species and the highest diversity of reef fishes in the world. I’m so excited to conduct my own field research project after spending most of this year taking classes and beginning computational analysis of the existing Tara dataset.

It will be great to leave the dark, rainy Oregon fall behind and spend some time in the sun. I was starting to turn into somewhat of a vampire by spending so much time in the office. I’m feeling pretty prepared to start collecting samples, too. By October, I’ll have just returned from 3 weeks in Moorea helping out with some of our other projects, and I’ll have had lots of practice drilling and snipping off coral fragments and performing DNA extractions. We spent this spring taking an intense scientific diving class that helped us fine-tune our diving skills as well as practice taking photos/videos and measurements underwater, which will be especially useful for me with such a visual project.

All in all, I can’t wait for it to be October so I can get on the boat! Expect to hear from me again from onboard Tara!

— Grace Klinges, first year Ph.D. student in the Vega Thurber lab

Other cool Tara links:

More info on Tara Pacific

Scientific objectives for Tara Pacific

Interactive map of Tara’s course so far