the World's Oceans
Scripps Researchers Travel World to Study Reefs,
Fish and Corals
By Ioana Patringenaru | October 9, 2006
They examined coral in Tahiti while the warm waters
of the Pacific Ocean gently lapped at their feet.
They caught fish on an atoll located 1,000 miles south
of Hawaii. They dove off Christmas Island.
It might sound like a vacation to you. But researchers
from UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography
actually spent their summer trying to make sure that
the rest of us will be able to enjoy the world’s
oceans for many years to come.
|Stuart Sandin and another
scientist work under water.
| Click here
to view photo gallery.
They wanted to understand how humans impact the oceans.
They also were looking for ways to preserve diversity
in the oceans and help restore coral reefs to their
To hear researchers tell it, the world’s oceans
are in crisis. About 90 percent of top predators,
including sharks and snappers, are gone. Early findings
show that fish stocks are dwindling and live corals
are shrinking. Meanwhile, pollution has allowed algae
to prosper and overrun corals.
“We have the potential to turn crystal-clear
coral reefs into a microbial soup,” said Enric
Sala, a professor of marine ecology at Scripps.
He and other scientists fanned out across the globe
this summer to better understand what has been going
on beneath the surface of the seas and what can be
done about it.
The Line Islands
|A group shot of the team
that worked on Palmyra. Walsh is third
from the left, with Sala to her right. Sandin
is last on the right.
| Click here
to learn more about Sala and
Sandin's trip to the Line Islands last summer.
A group of researchers visited the Line Islands in
the summer of 2005. That trip lead them to question
existing data about coral reefs before humans significantly
altered them.“The problem is that we began to
do the science after humans had done away with top
predators in most places,” Scripps researcher
Stuart Sandin said. “So our baseline is wrong.”
As a result, existing strategies to manage fish stocks
and preserve reefs also are wrong because they’re
based on flawed assumptions, Sandin said. Scientists
are now trying to answer several questions. What is
humanity’s real impact on the world’s
oceans? Are we making marine ecosystems less sustainable?
And how does that impact economic development on land?
The Scripps scientists speculated that a healthy
– and protected -- reef could produce
more fish. “It looks like in the ocean you can
have your cake and eat it too,” graduate student
Sheila Walsh said. “This is perhaps the only
good news sharks have had in a long time,” Sandin
To find out whether they were right, Sandin, Walsh
and about 20 other researchers, including Sala, headed
out again to the Line Islands. They picked the island
chain 1,000 miles south of Hawaii for further study
because of its great diversity. For example, Christmas
Island is home to 10,000 residents. The Republic of
Kiribati, to which it belongs, wants to double the
island’s population in the next decade. By contrast,
Palmyra Atoll is a National Wildlife Refuge, where
only four researchers live permanently. A little further
north, Kingman Reef is virtually pristine. Reefs around
undisturbed islands are more beautiful, with more
fish and more predators at the top of the food chain.
Down the line, in the worst case scenario, algae took
over the reefs and the corals are gone.
In coming years, researchers plan to work their way
down the island chain, following a trail of human
disturbance. They’ll try to puzzle out which
conditions lead to more productive reefs. Scientists
hope to build a growth chart for these reefs, much
like the charts that track a child’s growth
over the years, Sandin said.
Sandin and Walsh spent months planning this summer’s
expedition to Palmyra and Christmas Island. They booked
cargo flights and shipments on barges and scheduled
boat time for dives. They secured hazardous materials
permits to ship ethanol and formol to preserve samples.
“This whole effort is phenomenal,”
Sandin summed up.
Walsh, who was in charge of Christmas Island leg
of the trip, said she worried about her last shipment.
It was scheduled around the same time as the Independence
Day celebrations on the island and had to compete
with huge amounts of food and alcohol. “Here
I am hoping that we won’t get bumped off by
food – or beer,” she said.
Finally, in August, researchers flew to Honolulu
and from there took a small aircraft and landed on
a WWII strip on Palmyra. The atoll is covered in lush
forests and is home to one of the few coral reefs
almost free of human contact, Sala said. “It
looks like a rain forest in the middle of the ocean,”
|A sign at the Palmyra
Atoll research station.
Palmyra turned out to be quite comfortable, Sandin
said. Researchers stayed in two-person bungalows that
faced the lagoon. They could sometimes see baby sharks
swimming by, Walsh remembered. Every morning, the
cooks, or “galley goddesses” as the scientists
called them, cooked up a hearty breakfast. Some researchers
then loaded their boats with equipment and diving
gear and headed out to sea for four to five hours.
Others stayed behind and collected fish with micro
spears and nets as well as the good, old-fashioned
way: by fishing with a hook and line. After a restorative
lunch, scientists headed to the lab around 2 p.m.
They ran close to 20 tests on each fish, which took
30 minutes to an hour to process. Most researchers
could be found in the lab until midnight or 1 a.m.,
|Researchers work in the
lab at Palmyra.
They caught more than 350 fish on Palmyra, including
surgeon fish, snappers, two species of damsel fish,
hawk fish and wrasse. They collected tissue samples
for DNA analysis. They checked the animals’
condition, including body fat. They looked at what
the fish ate. They even came back with scores of fish
stomachs in vials. They also looked at whether the
fish were healthy and whether they could reproduce.
One researcher exclusively looked for parasites. Scientists
also managed to do some exploratory dives.
Since the researchers’ trip to Palmyra last
year, fish had become much more curious and bolder,
Sandin said. One day, he was trying to catch a snapper
with a hook and a line, when he felt some resistance
— then nothing. He pulled on his line and up
came half a fish with a perfect half-moon bite mark
on its body. It wasn’t an isolated incident.
Snapper and sharks often stole fish that scientists
were trying to catch. The sharks were about 4 feet
long, Sandin recalls. “They wouldn’t eat
you, but they could hurt you,” he said. So researchers
made sure they spilled as little blood as possible.
They soon gave up on collecting blood-rich groupers,
which would need to be brought back to the surface
while bleeding profusely.
Meanwhile, Walsh and three other researchers broke
away to spend two weeks on Christmas Island. Sandin
said he was concerned about that leg of the trip because
researchers would have less control over their working
conditions and would need to rely on residents for
assistance. Walsh had talked on the phone with officials
in the capital of the Republic of Kiribati, but they
were about 2,000 miles east of the island where she
and the other researchers would land. She also had
exchanged some e-mails with a few local people. But
once on the ground, she was pleasantly surprised,
she said. Their research, she found out, was very
relevant to Christmas Island residents. “It’s
not just their livelihood,” she said. “It’s
|Walsh works in the researchers'
makeshift lab on Christmas Island.
Still, the four scientists were roughing it when
compared to the crew left on Palmyra. Walsh and her
colleagues stayed at a private home that had been
turned into a hotel. They joined local residents on
their early morning stroll. Researchers then picked
up their supplies and diving gear. They loaded it
onto large canoes and went out to sea. They often
ate SPAM sandwiches for lunch. Then they went back
out to dive or spent the rest of the afternoon in
a makeshift laboratory on the hotel’s patio.
They relied on local fishermen for fish samples. Dinner
was more inspiring, with local lobster, tuna and other
fish on the menu. Researchers also went out at sunset,
when many locals would be out fishing on the reef.
Walsh recalls stumbling upon a shark’s carcass,
with its fins missing, on the beach. That really brought
the consequences of overfishing home to her, she said.
The crisis facing the oceans’ top predators
also became clear when scientists compared diving
conditions on Palmyra and Christmas. “When you
dive on Christmas, you feel alone,” Walsh said.
Sharks and snappers were rare. But after a while,
you start noticing smaller fish, which hover further
up on the reef. By contrast, top predators abound
in Palmyra, overwhelming the diver’s senses.
Divers can see up to 100 to 150 feet in Palmyra, while
on Christmas Island a day with 100 feet of visibility
would be exceptional, Sandin said. Waters in Christmas
carry 20 times more bacteria than in Palmyra. The
good news is that on Christmas’ uninhabited
side, the reef looked a little more like Palmyra.
Big schools of snappers were swimming about and corals
looked healthier, Walsh said.
to read more about Scripps researchers traveling
around the globe in @UCSD, the
magazine of the UC San Diego Alumni Association.
On the way home, researchers had to deal with an
unexpected hitch. Liquids and flammables had recently
been banned from airplane cabins after British authorities
foiled a terrorist plot to blow up airliners with
liquid explosives disguised as carry-on items. But
scientists needed to preserve their samples with ethanol
and formol. “We were bringing back liquid samples
with flammable or carcinogenic proprieties,”
Sandin said. It took a while but he was able to convince
the airline to let his cargo through. Luckily, he
had all the permits required.
On Christmas Island, Walsh and her colleagues put
all their samples in a cooler with ice they made in
the hotel’s fridge. In Honolulu, they got dry
ice and shoveled it into the cooler.
The samples are now sitting in deep freezers at Scripps.
They will be analyzed in labs at Scripps, UC Santa
Barbara and in Boston. So do healthy and protected
reefs actually produce more fish? Walsh and Sandin
said they still believe that’s true. But they
now have to wait and see what their data will reveal.
Findings should trickle through the academic year,
Laetitia Plaisance, a French post-doc, is still working
her way through 1000 samples that Scripps researcher
Nancy Knowlton brought back from Palmyra last summer.
|Plaisance, center, with
the team manning the research station in
Plaisance is taking part in a research project looking
at the biodiversity of coral reefs in Panama, Hawaii
and Tahiti. She spent two weeks on the small island
of Moorea, a few miles from Tahiti’s main island.
She was working at a field station manned by UC Berkeley,
UC Santa Barbara and University of Florida researchers.
She also served as a mentor to a Tahitian student
who was gearing up to study for a masters at a French
She started work around 8 a.m. in the lab while her
colleagues headed out to dive on the reef. They brought
back heads of corals, which Plaisance would examine.
She cut the corals’ branches into small pieces
and looked at the different organisms hidden inside,
including mollusks, crustaceans, sponges and algae.
She sorted them out by species and took pictures.
She went through eight heads of coral during her two-week
trip, which yielded around 1000 samples.
“What lives inside these heads is really amazing,”
Plaisance said. She found small octopus and all kinds
of other creatures. Now back in San Diego, she plans
to analyze her samples’ DNA to find out how
many separate species she actually brought back.
|Boats at the Moorea research
“I’m very happy about it,”
Plaisance said. “I think two weeks is too short
but it was really good and really interesting.”
It was nice to work outside, with her feet in the
water of the lagoon all day, she added.
Later this year, Plaisance plans to fly out to Hawaii
or Panama to collect more samples. Walsh plans to
look at the links between economic development and
preservation. She will go around 10 islands and conduct
a survey of household incomes and expenditures. Sandin
already is thinking about next year’s trip to
the Line Islands, which will include Palmyra and Kingman
Reef. This summer’s experience left him in awe,
he said. Some of the islands lie just 6 feet above
sea level and could disappear in a couple of generations
as global warming causes water levels rise. “The
thought of having a whole island I worked on go extinct
is amazing,” Sandin said.