Friday, May 18, 2012

Drill, Baby, Drill

For those of you who read the last post, you'll know that we were hoping against hope to drill 1-2 cores yesterday at great effort. Well, we woke up early and began loading up the boat. Upon seeing the rusted drill parts up close, I noticed that the actual drill barrel was *slightly* misaligned. A wave of realization washed over me:  if there was the slightest wobble in the drill, we would be cutting side-to-side as much as we were cutting down! I took apart the drill barrel and reassembled, careful to make sure everything was flush. Tightening it up, it looked a lot better, but I still was unsure exactly how much of our previous problems were caused by the minor misalignment.

It turns out that small adjustment was a complete game-changer! We drilled 3 cores in 2 long dives, the longest of which was 22", for a grand total of 52" drilled! Now that's what I call a successful day. Of course the day had its challenges. Jess earned her field name "Chucky" after a serious bout with sea-sickness during the morning's drill session. The rest of the support crew fared marginally better. The afternoon's trip was bitter cold, it was raining the entire way there (a 20 minute boat ride). [A side note:  it's been raining a ton here lately, much more than historical averages. The locals confirm it's been an incredibly rainy spring. A quick look at the latest data from the TOGA-TAO array - a network of ocean buoys stretching from South America to the West Pacific on either side of the equator - reveals that the central tropical Pacific is unusually cool now, coming off last season's La Nina event. In short, that should mean that it's raining less, not more, across the Line Islands. The cause of the mystery rains will have to wait until I return, when I have access to satellite data from the last months. I note, however, than former graduate student Intan Suci-Nurhati and I published a paper documenting a trend in a long coral record from nearby Palmyra Island that implies a significant increase in rainfall over the last 30 years. But regardless, this weird spring surely cannot be fully explained by the trend we uncovered.]

At any rate, the drilling operations continued, amid a downpour and a seriously pissed off ocean. We couldn't keep our snorkels clear while hunting for our next coral victim, washed by whitecaps every few seconds. Getting underwater was very welcome - no rain and lots less swell to deal with. Diane took the reins on the drilling, and mowed slowly but steadily down core. We had a couple bumps in the road, but by the time we surfaced we were carrying our longest core yet. We were giddy. Diane mentioned that we hadn't yet reached bottom on the coral - did we want to go back down for one last push? We had some air, but only for 10 minutes or so. Hussein measured our haul - it came up just shy of the target length - short by 4" or so. I agreed to go back down. Drilling again, we quickly punched through the base of the hole, with plenty of air to spare. While surfacing, a white glimmer on the reef flashed in the corner of my eye. It was a 4" section of coral core! We had come *this close* to leaving it to rot on the reef. I quickly grabbed it and surfaced, knowing that we now had achieved our target length. We came back exhausted but triumphant, having far exceeded our day's scientific goals.

Time for a party! We had been invited to a local get-together at the Captain Cook hotel (a 2-star accommodation on the north side of the island - I had the pleasure of staying there in previous expeditions). After paying AUS$5 each, we settled in at a table and watched local crooners and dancers alternate on the stage. We had smuggled a bottle of nice rum in, so we purchased some Coke and relaxed. There were a couple of white folk there when we entered, but soon they left and it was just us and about 100+ locals, who became very engrossed in a protracted skit (some sort of love triangle) that had everyone doubled over with laughter. Hussein was mercilessly hit on by a local guy, who identified himself to us as a police detective complete with a laminated badge that looked like it had been printed on a 1990's vintage inkjet printer, the colors now reduced to faded oranges and yellows. Our hostess here at Dive Kiribas, Anami, was dressed to kill and stayed much later than us - she had rented a room for her family at the Captain Cook. When Liz started falling asleep in her chair, I knew it was time to leave. On the way back I ran over more than 3 crabs who were scuttling across the road (Hussein swears it was 5), but I avoided at least 5, so it could have been a lot worse.

Today we're off to the far side of the island by truck (a 1980's rust-bucket with absolutely no shocks left), in search of fossil corals. We'll take water samples along the way, and try not to break down. We'll take radios as well as plenty of water and sunscreen, just in case. It looks like it won't rain today, which is a lucky break for those who will be sitting in the back of the truck all day. Although I daresay that by the end of the day, they'll be begging for a good rain to cool them off. Wish us luck as we turn our attention to the fossil realm, in search of climate signals from thousands of years ago.
[I'll post a bunch of photos later today, when I have the time to wait for the painfully long uploads to complete. Liz got some great shots of the drilling, so check back soon.]