Ahh! Real Science!

We did some of that today. Real science, I mean.


Labwork is so exciting!

This exciting labwork was made possible by the fieldwork we did the last two days. We found a site we liked and began to set it up yesterday:

“Right here looks good”


We actually chose this site specifically for its beautiful view of Opunohu Bay


hi ho, hi ho


its off to work I go, attaching a coral cage to the bottom


et voila! (that’s French for “and voila!”)

What we’ve done is fragment a single coral colony into a number of pieces that will be either caged and left alone, like this one, or caged and placed in the proximity of a diffusing bag of fertilizer. The cages are just a way to minimize complications such as corallivory, and the important part is the difference in the corals exposed to extra nutrients. After the experiment is finished, we will look at the microbes in the coral tissue and in the surrounding water; we expect that extra nutrients will cause the microbial community to be different between these treatments. Such differences could be related to disease.

We set these cages up while freediving and hammering nails into rocks. Since all the fringing reefs we’ve found have been at less than ten feet of depth, we thought snorkeling would be easy enough.

Turns out, shallow water construction is not in fact easy

After a few hours of somewhat successful construction efforts, we packed it in and decided to come back in the morning. As we were leaving, a friendly local gave us papaya and grapefruits, and asked if we were aware of the excessive numbers of stonefish at the site. We replied that we had no idea that we had been walking around in shallows that were known to be infested with poison-spine bearing fish. We then promptly decided that in the morning, we would be taking a boat and diving. No more of those snorkeling from shore shenanigans.

Thus today, we headed out for our first boating and diving experience in Mo’orea:

I’m on a boat!


Christina wishes she was on a boat


Much better than stonefish

We finished up the construction quickly and then took some water samples. Back at CRIOBE, we’ve spent the rest of the day processing the samples with filters and bottles and centrifuges, oh my! But we did find some time to snap a couple of sunset pictures:


That mountain is asking to be climbed


more flowers!

And tomorrow: water transects! If we’re lucky, a trip to the outer reef!

New skills

The great thing about this job is that I’m always learning. New corals, new techniques, new science… New life skills! For instance, you can fix an expensive and essential piece of diving equipment with zip ties:


And the other day, we learned how to start CRIOBE’s charismatic little car, which basically involves hotwiring it:

The innards of Gerald, the geriatric car

Fellow North American researcher Sarah Davies has named this charming contraption Gerald after coaxing it around the island one day. We took him to a potential experiment site yesterday, and think it fits. Gerald has lost the movement of his windows and is missing two of his mirrors. He is also not fond of second or fourth gear, and loudly complains when we force him to drive either too slowly or too quickly. This state of affairs made us feel slightly out-of-place when we visited the Hotel Intercontinental – for science!

Another potential site for our experiment – the Hotel Intercontinental. Conveniently located near a dolphin enclosure and landscaped paths to over-water bungalows. Ah, and its an easily accessible site with lots of monitoring by hotel staff to ensure the experiment’s not bothered.

Gerald makes a young new friend

Gerald makes a young new friend

On our return from the hotel, I gained another life skill. Leech removal! Not sure where I picked the little guy up, but pulling him off with fingers didn’t work, nor did trying to shave him off with a knife. Luckily, Jerome’s girlfriend Christina, who is with us for the trip on a semi-vacation, was experienced with leech removal since a trip to Malaysia. Sure enough, a couple pinches of salt coaxed it to simply let go.


We’ve been at the French research station CRIOBE for two nights now, and we’ve been enjoying our stay. Since we arrived on a Friday afternoon, the station has been quiet and we’ve been taking it easy. But plenty has already happened!

While Jerome and I were packing for our trip, we left nothing to chance. We’ve both been to some remote research stations, and they tend to be outfitted with the necessities – but not much else. Our work is relatively equipment intensive, so our baggage looked like this:

the gear

That doesn’t include our personal checked bags or any carry-on. Needless to say, getting this all to the station was quite fun. Even without the massive numbers of bags, traveling with science gear makes airport security even more wonderful. There’s nothing quite like holding up a hundred anxious people while I prepare for the x-ray by taking three computers, a microscope, and multiple cameras out of my ‘personal item’. Or like watching them all go right by me on the other side while I get a special pat down and I explain to TSA exactly why my stuff triggers the explosives detector. Of course, such a conversation is always incredibly enlightening:

“What’s this big black metal object?” (referring to the microscope’s fluorescent light source)

“It… makes light?”

“Oh… Ok. Move along”

Meanwhile, our checked baggage apparently needed a little extra explanation as well. We imagine this is why one of our boxes did not make the trip with us. It apparently caught the next flight, however, and appeared at the station even before we made it ourselves!

Waiting for our ride to CRIOBE at the ferry terminal


We spent one night in Tahiti before traveling to Mo’orea

Since our arrival on Mo’orea, we’ve gotten a few different tours of the station, and have been wowed each time. CRIOBE is very well equipped. So well equipped, in fact, that we will be able to complete many analyses that we previously had planned to put off until our return to Oregon. This is very exciting because we will be able to process our samples to a point where they are much more stable for the flight home.

Our accommodations at CRIOBE

We’ve taken advantage of the slow weekend to explore the island a little. We’re looking for a site to set up our experiment: it needs to be flat, accessible, and not prone to disturbance by random other people.

Here’s one potential site:


This one isn’t as flat as we’d like it to be and could be a little too close to a boat ramp. The search continues!


A Tahitian man we met on the beach near this site told us that this part of the island was called the ‘head of the lizard’. He also recommended that we try the local beer


The island is covered in Hibiscus

All in all, we’re in pretty good spirits, and it’s not hard to see why!

Introduction (Expedition Mo’orea)

The sandy shores are beckoning and the warm waters are calling. The waves are crashing and the sun is shining. Surrounding the tropical island of Mo’orea, a vibrant shallow-water ecosystem is bubbling with colorful life. And in less than a week, there will be additions to the underwater community: a scientific duo composed of Dr. Jerome Payet and yours truly. We can’t wait to join the beautiful fish and gorgeous corals. For now, though, we are still in the wonderful little town of Corvallis, Oregon, and we’re rushing to finish some projects while packing for our trip.

Jerome and I work in the microbiology lab of Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber at Oregon State University. Among other things, we study the microbes associated with corals. Of the many reasons we find our work interesting, these are my favorites:

1) We live in a world ruled by microbes. Although most people don’t think about them much, the fact is that viruses, bacteria, and other microbes affect our lives (and the lives of all organisms) in ways we’ve only just begun to understand. Because all organisms evolved in the presence of microbes, they are often dependent on them for things like basic nutrition or even developmental cues. And microbes fight and compete with each other just like larger organisms – good guys often help us fight off bad microbes that cause disease. Studying the ecology of microbes helps us to understand general conditions that encourage or discourage cooperation between microbial communities and larger host organisms like us.

2) Coral reefs are globally important ecosystems which are in rapid decline worldwide. There are many indirect reasons for their decline, but two important coral-killers contribute significantly to the trend: infectious disease and ‘bleaching’. Both are caused by disruption of the normal interactions between corals and microbes. We want to know what we can do to prevent this.

3) You can’t beat the fieldwork!

During our stay on Mo’orea, Jerome and I will be performing an experiment aiming to assess how nutrient pollution affects the viral communities associated with corals. To do so, we’ll be diving on some of the island’s natural reefs and working at the French research station CRIOBE. In addition to the science-y work we’ll be doing, both of us are fond of (but new to) photography. Although we’re not exactly professionals, we think it’ll be pretty hard to avoid taking some nice shots of the island and reefs. Pretty soon, I should be able to start posting pictures and updates that are a little less ‘dry’!