Saturday | August 6, 2005
Scientists have a reputation for being crazy and absent minded. The truth is yes and no. Yes, we are a little crazy; and no, we are not as absent minded as we are portrayed in movies. Let me show you by describing a normal day in our life at sea.
If you are a scientist in this expedition, you wake up at 6:30 am and have breakfast between 7:00 and 7:30 am. After breakfast, you slip into a wet diving suit and jump on a skiff loaded with diving and scientific gear, gas tanks, safety equipment and, of course, several other scientists as crazy as you.
If you are a microbiologist, that is, if you study the smallest living organisms such as viruses and bacteria, you dive in the morning with several 10-liter plastic bottles, large syringes, hammer and chisel. You collect seawater near the bottom using specialized syringes, more water at different depths, and small pieces of live and dead corals. You come back to the surface loaded like a giant Christmas tree, and sail back to the White Holly. Once on board the ship, you eat a quick lunch and lock yourself with your colleagues in a very small, windowless room that was initially a storage room and has now been converted to a high-tech lab. The lab is nothing but a sauna, despite the laudable efforts of a small air-conditioning unit. For eight hours you filter the water you collected, take some measures of the water chemistry, and study the corals under a microscope. After the claustrophobic work you come out from your dungeon for dinner, where you meet with the other scientists who do not fail to ask you how hot it was in the lab.
If you are a coral expert, you dive twice a day, spending a total of three hours underwater. You dive with measuring tape, clipboards, never-tear paper, pencils, and a digital camera in an underwater housing. Once on the bottom, generally between 10 and 15 meters depth, you lay down a 50-m measuring tape, count and measure all corals you find along the tape, and take photos of all the different species of corals you see. Back in the White Holly, you spend several hours entering your observations in a computer database for posterior analysis. In addition, you spend a few more hours in front of a laptop computer, downloading and cataloguing all the photos you took diving. At 7:00 pm there is an excited call for dinner, when you meet your colleagues and invite them to look at the photos you took as though they were a family photo album.
If you study coral disease, you also dive twice a day and search for sick corals along a standardised surface, collecting pieces of coral at the same time. Back in the ship, you spend hours looking at the symptoms of disease, taking photos, and preserving samples in small vials. At 7:00 pm you join the rest of the group and speak in a thick Australian accent.
If you are a seaweed expert, you start your work day by moving around the deck with a large and cumbersome apparatus made with PVC tubes that allow you to take digital pictures of exactly one square meter surfaces. This is happening while everybody else complains about how large the sampling device is. Once in the water, you take many pictures of the bottom along the transect line set up by the coral experts. You come back to the boat, try to fix the flooding in your camera, and look at your books to identify the algae you have seen during your dives. You also wish you did not have to spend weeks in your lab, back in your home institution, analysing the photos. At 7:00 pm you rush to the galley and do not mention anything about your sampling device.
If you study all the other reef creatures save the fish, you dive twice a day and wish you had gills so that you could spend many more hours underwater. Your underwater job consists of identifying and counting all the medium-sized and large animals moving near the transect line, such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and lobsters. In addition, you collect one small piece of live coral, one of dead coral, a bunch of algae, and seal them in plastic bags for later analysis. On the way back to the ship, you cannot stop telling everybody how wonderful these animals are.
In the ship, you start working under a tarp on the upper deck of the White Holly, sorting all the animals that were in the samples you collected, using a combination of tools from hammer to fine pincers. You then take a photo of every single animal, and preserve them in individual little plastic vials. Although all the samples you collected fit in a large coffee cup, you can find up to 50 different animals belonging to an unknown number of species, ranging from milimeters to a few centimeters in length. So the sorting takes you six hours. At 7:00 pm you come down for dinner and remind your friends of how beautiful the little animals are. And you are right, because the crabs and shrimps and other creatures are extremely delicate and colorful. After dinner, you set up your lab in the galley and continue taking photos of minuscule anemone shrimp until midnight.
If you study fishes, you dive three times a day, armed with diving reels, slates, never-tear paper and pencils. More Christmas trees going underwater. During your dives you unreel your lines and identify, count and estimate the size of all the fishes you see within a transect four meters wide, that is, two meters to the right and two meters to the left. This includes every fish from small toadfish to sharks. To swim the length of a soccer field and count all the fishes takes more than an hour, which you spend writing down frantically, trying not to loose your concentration. In one dive you may see more than 100 species of fish of all different colors, sizes and shapes, some of which change sex and color during life, and some of which mimic the color of other species. You then wish you were counting sheep. After the dive you compare notes with your dive partner, and make sure you did not forget any species. Back in the ship, and armed with several guides to the fishes of the Pacific, you spent many a minute discussing whether that little fish in the big coral head was species X or species Y. At 7:00 pm you remove your books from the table so everybody else can eat, and agree with your colleagues about how wonderful the little shrimp are. After dinner you enter your data in your laptop computer.
Yes, we are a little crazy, but crazy about life. It is this passion for life that drives us and make us do what we do. We can only hope that our scientific findings will help us understand the magnitude of our footprint and to obtain a blueprint for the future.
Note: There are other people in our team, including the diving officer, the photographer and the cinematographer, who also are interesting characters. They deserve full attention in future dispatches.