Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't rock the boat baby

by Diane Thompson (U. Arizona)
Taking the reins of the coral drilling operations for the remainder of the trip from Kim, I had some pretty big shoes to fill.  And still feeling pretty under the weather from some unknown traveler’s sickness that had me ill for the past few days, I was unsure of how today would go.  We had a pretty ambitious agenda that involved taking the boat all the way to its southern limit to scout for fossil corals along the shores and to drill a couple more coral heads. 

Drilling a small lobey Porites for comparison with the other cores.  Note: I'm not *trying* to look like a cool kid, but rather holding on to the dead underside of the colony to keep stable.
The sky ahead looked ominous, making it clear that we were once again in for a very wet, cold day on the boat.  We all thanked Jess for her effective rain dance, which seems to work all too well on boat days and not well enough on the long hot days on land.  Despite the rain (and a minor distraction caused by a pod of dolphins swimming by), we spotted a number of great rubble fields of fossil corals on the shores that would be great to sample on future trips.  That is, assuming Kim gets very creative on how to get there, since much of the south side of the island is inaccessible by either truck or boat.  Maybe she could use this as justification to purchase a lab helicopter?  Seems totally reasonable to me (I’m sure NOAA will think so too)!

Arriving at the southern side of the island, it was immediately clear why this was the furthest limit of the small boat operated by Dive Kiribati—the conditions were quite rough.  Surviving the huge swells like a true sailor, Jess officially earned the rights to change her field nickname from “Chucky”.   We decided to drill a large head here, in hopes of getting another core around 2 feet in length, and quickly found out the conditions in the water were just as exciting.  Jess and Liz had to fight the surface current and waves to help shuttle air to us for powering the drill.  And underwater, the surge was quite powerful and made the drilling operations quite “interesting".  Especially considering the drill gods decided to continue frowning upon us. 
After the drill had died (again) while drilling a fossil coral in town yesterday, we had decided to move up the modern coral drilling trip previously planned for later in the week.  We just couldn’t risk both drills failing before getting the modern coral cores we had set out for.   Kim had arranged for two more drills to come on today’s flight, but we weren’t sure if they would make it, so we had to push on with what we had. 
I had hardly broken the surface of the coral before the drill stopped turning.  I tried again, and nothing.  So we changed over to the back-up drill quickly underwater, and were relieved when it seemed to be working fine.  Then suddenly, a ways into the core, the drill literally fell apart and the washer holding the two pieces together went tumbling to the bottom of the reef.  The joint that had been operated on earlier in the week had come loose.  Luckily, we were able to recover the washer and put it all back together.  However, in the process of trying to do this underwater in the strong surge, I managed to somehow bump my incredible assistant, Boata, in the head with the drill bit.  Yikes.  Taking a deep breath, I proceeded to drill down core reminding myself of my favorite saying from my Dad: “If it were easy, any darn fool could do it.”   Thankfully, the drill decided to cooperate, and the drilling went very smoothly from here on out.  We were able to get 30 inches of core, not only meeting our goal, but also giving us the longest core of the expedition thus far! Unfortunately, only 23 inches was a Porites.  The bottom 7 inches was of another coral, which based on the growth rate of the Porites, probably died in the strong 1982/1983 El Niño event!  That in itself is very interesting and tells us a lot about the climate and state of the reef after that large event.

On the way back we took another short core and filled some of our previous drill holes with cement plugs to allow the coral to grow over the hole.  All in all, it was a very fun and successful day.  For the next two days, we’re off to the southern limit of the road via truck to hunt for more fossil corals.  But first, Jess and I need a lesson on stick.  Oh, and we’ll get to learn while driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the truck.  This should be interesting….tune in for an action packed blog when we return in a couple of days!

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