Microbes in Paradise (Round 2)

Last month Zoë and I were lucky enough to return to Mo’orea, French Polynesia as a follow-up to Casey and Zoë’s trip last year. Last year’s exploratory trip sparked a larger and improved version of the project: investigating the microbial communities of 3 different color morphs of the coral Porites rus from two different locations on the reef (the fringing reef and the back reef). We spent two weeks collecting countless samples, completing 180 DNA extractions, and setting up a reciprocal transplant experiment. The time spent on extractions in the overly air conditioned lab made our fieldwork and free time even more rewarding. Anticipating a potential blog post, I decided to keep track of some of our notable events from the trip!

On May 18th, we arrived in the beautiful and pleasantly humid Tahiti as the sun was rising after an 8-hour flight. It took me at least an hour to truly understand that I would be in paradise for the next 2 weeks. Our first day was a tired blur of unpacking, assisting fellow CSUN graduate students, and taking far too many pictures of the same stunning scenery.

Our accommodations, a water-front bungalow, far surpassed my expectations.  With a quaint outdoor kitchen, a 5-step walk into the Pacific Ocean, and a stunning view of Cook’s Bay, Zoë and I often asked, “How could you ever be unhappy here?” The birds would wake me up early, but it gave me time to enjoy my coffee while watching the sunrise. Who wouldn’t want to wake up like that? At sunset, we would sit at the kitchen table eagerly watching the water for sharks and rays. One night I saw a blacktip reef shark and a nurse shark, along with several large rays during our stay. At night we often walked in the shallow water in front of our bungalow with our headlamps on observing the various fishes and crabs, that is until we saw a not-so welcomed visitor. This eel-like fish (seen in the slideshow) would swim stealthily along the shoreline every night, and its eerie, glowing, eyes were enough to keep us out of the water at night. 

Although our quiet bungalow was the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine after a long day, there were some interesting moments. One night I was washing the dishes from our surprisingly delicious lasagna, when a black, hairy object fell out of the window right in front of me, running away in a panicked scuttle just as I did. At first I thought it was a bat, but we quickly realized that there was a rat nest above the kitchen sink, the rat running across the beam above tipped us off. It must have been the night of falling objects, as my mosquito net also fell on me right after I tucked myself into it, and this was promptly followed by the startling bang of a coconut falling on our metal roof, just in time to wake us as we were finally drifting to sleep.

The best memories from our trip were certainly made in the field. We were in the water almost every day, and despite the hard work that we were doing, I made it a priority to take in my surroundings. Life’s beauty can often pass you by if you don’t focus on the small things, such as curious gobies in the sand or the playful sounds of nearby spinner dolphins. For all of the great experiences we had in the field, we also had several stress inducing ones. For example, I never realized how much corals could stress me out until I was in charge of directing Zoë around bommies (stand-alone coral structures) as she drove the boat.

For our reciprocal transplant experiment, we used Z-Spar to adhere coral nubbins to cinder blocks, which would either stay at their home reef (fringing or back) or be transplanted to the other reef. These were very long days, as they required both collecting and adhering the corals to the blocks. In the excitement of completing all of the gluing, we tucked our coral nubbins in between two bommies for the night and went for a relaxing swim, took some pictures, and drove back to the station…thinking we could easily find our blocks in the large expanse of the back reef. Hah. We searched for 2 days, and a total of 6 hours via snorkel and the boat, and even looked at the pictures we had taken both underwater and above (seen in the slideshow) for clues as to where we left them. We almost gave up, until, thanks to a diligent search pattern, Zoë spotted the blocks on our way back to the station. We jumped up and down, danced, and could not stop shaking our heads in disbelief. And of course, we promptly took GPS coordinates of the blocks so that this never happens again. Neither of us will ever forget a GPS, that’s for sure. This was, hands down, our happiest moment of the trip. We completed the transplant that afternoon, and could now relax for the remainder of our trip.

We took full advantage of our free time by kayaking, tagging along on collection trips with other students, and enjoying paradise. We swam with countless rays and blacktip sharks. We moved our hands through the water, and watched the surface light up with bioluminescence.  We watched a spotted eagle ray, one of the most stunning and graceful animals on earth in my opinion, off of the station dock. We went out for crepes with our friends at the station. We stargazed in silence, in disbelief that the Milky Way could be so bright. And, of course, we went to happy hour to celebrate our accomplishments. No wonder it was so hard to say goodbye.

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