A sediment core inspired road trip

US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY MENLO PARK CAMPUS
MENLO PARK, CA

As coral reefs accrete upward, their histories become buried beneath the surface. One way to unravel this history is to visit areas where the older reef has been exposed by excavations, road cuts, or storm channels. This is what we did in Bocas del Toro, Panamá and in the Dominican Republic’s Enriquillo Basin. In most places, however, living reef or mangroves grow on top of the Holocene reef. To access the underlying history, we can insert several-meter-long sediment cores into the substrate. While this technique samples a sliver of the surface area of a reef, it has the unique advantage of looking back in time. Depending on the rate of reef accretion and sedimentation, sediment cores can travel back several hundred to several thousand years with high temporal resolution. The remnants of the animals and plants captured in these cores help paint a picture of the reef in the past and how it has changed over time.

Today, I had the good fortune of sampling a gravity core extracted from Palmyra Atoll’s lagoon by a team of USGS scientists. In addition to being home to numerous sharks, Palmyra has an interesting human history despite never being settled. The atoll was originally discovered in 1802 when an American ship was blown off course in a storm. In 1862, Palmyra was claimed by the Kingdom of Hawaii, and it later became a U.S. territory following Hawaii’s annexation and subsequent statehood. At that time, it was privately owned by the Fullard-Leo family. During WWII, the U.S. Navy took over and drastically altered the atoll for use as a naval air facility. Afterwards, it was occasionally frequented by yachters despite its remote location – a nearly 1000-nautical-mile sail southwest of Hawaii. From 2000-2001 onwards, the atoll has been under the protection of the Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge, and a handful of scientists and donors visit each year.

The 3.2m-long sediment core that I sampled covers nearly 650 years of history on the atoll, capturing its pristine state prior to discovery in addition to the last 200 years of sparse human occupation. We will use the core to begin investigating whether shark baselines on the atoll are naturally dynamic and whether the abundance and diversity of sharks changed after the arrival of humans. Palmyra has been the location of many shark tagging and survey studies over the last 12 years since the creation of the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium (PARC), and it is considered to be a relatively untouched, healthy reef ecosystem. This new historical time series will help us understand whether its condition has fluctuated over time before these monitoring efforts began.

This opportunity was certainly worth the 10-hour round-trip road trip from Santa Barbara to Menlo Park, which is located about 40 minutes southeast of San Francisco. In addition to picking up the core from the sample storage refrigerator on the USGS campus, my secondary aim was to use their facilities to slice it into 64 5cm-long segments, each representing about 10 years of reef history. The core was composed of very fine, silty material, so cutting through it was not difficult with the help of some metal utensils and a meter stick. Furthermore, the challenging task of cutting the core in half through the PVC piping had already been accomplished. I carefully measured and cut each section and placed them into individual labeled plastic bags. After several hours of meticulous slicing and record keeping, I had amassed quite the pile of samples and was caked in a thin layer of dry mud.

Reminiscing Klein Curaçao

28 February 2017, 0545HRS

It was still dark out when we departed the field station. Groggily, we loaded up the truck with our dive gear and SCUBA tanks while sipping coffee to try to wake up. The clock was already ticking. We had 30 minutes to get to the dock in Caracasbaai before the ferry was scheduled to leave.

This was a risky yet critical endeavor. Our aim: collecting sediments from the reefs of Klein Curaçao, a tiny, uninhabited island located approximately 15 miles off the southeast point of Curaçao. Less visited or fished than Curaçao, the reefs there would provide a more ‘pristine’ end member with which to compare our other Caribbean samples. The orientation of the island, which was nearly perpendicular to the trade winds, meant that the leeward side would be quite sheltered despite lacking any lagoonal environments. But would the sediments be fine enough to contain shark dermal denticles? This was the gamble.

We arrived at the dock just in time and confirmed that no recreational divers were joining the group. We would therefore have the flexibility to select our dive sites and use the tour group’s dingy to lift our heavy sediment samples to the surface. We decided to board the ferry.

After a rough 1.5-hour ferry ride, the island’s barren landscape came into view. A thin strip of white sand beach intersected the cerulean sea and stormy sky. A lighthouse, accompanied only by a rusting shipwreck, rose in the distance, breaking the otherwise flat horizon. ‘Paradise,’ thought the tourists. ‘Healthy reef,’ thought our team.

Descending along the reef slope, I was astonished by the vibrant reef and number and size of the fish. Large parrotfish swam by in a swirl of colors and movement, and I had a standoff with a toothy barracuda within minutes of entering the water. This reef was obviously full of life. While the staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) had likely died off in the 1980s like in many other places in the Caribbean, many other coral species abounded.

The fine sand on the beach was a good sign. Feeling the sediment along the reef substrate, we found that the gamble had paid off. There were patches of fine, silty carbonate sediments! I let out a sigh of relief through my regulator and signaled ‘okay’ to my dive buddy. We collected eight bulk samples in spots where sediments had accumulated on ledges or patches between corals. Here, the sand grains were often held in place by an interlocking matrix of dead staghorn coral, limiting mixing.

The day, however, was far from over. Upon arriving back at the dock on Curaçao, we loaded the samples and gear into the truck and began what should have been a 20-minute drive home. Except that it was Shrove Tuesday of Carnival and half of Willemstad was blocked off for the big parade. After desperately searching for a clear route, we stopped to get directions from a police officer, who gave us the disheartening news that we would have to drive around half of the island to get home. An hour and a half later, we finally reached the station, exhausted yet victorious. What a roller coaster of a day and a fitting end to the expedition.

Fetching the pallet

Today, I got a very good workout. Our 604kg (~1300 lbs) pallet could only be delivered as far as Los Angeles, so I had to go pick it up myself. After a 354km (220 mile) road trip, a fortunately uneventful visit to the US Customs Office, and nearly 1.5 hours of unloading the crates from the truck, the samples are finally safe and sound in the lab at UC Santa Barbara.

What’s in a sample?

Monday was a good day. We met our boat exactly where and when planned (a first!) and motered south to Caracasbaai, past the colorful buildings of Willemstad, a towering cruise ship, and a fleet of tiny sailboats that looked remarkably like the schools—flocks? — of flying fish that also skimmed the waves. Erin easily located a potential denticle site in a short snorkel foray, and the dive team quickly got to work filling the sample bags. While they worked, the boat captain tossed in a fishing line baited with what he’d caught on the trip down. By the time Felix and I were winching the samples up to the surface, more fresh fish sizzled on the boat’s tiny stove. It is immensely satisfying to snack on fresh fish and simultaneously admire a pile of fresh samples. Like I said, it was a good day. We traveled back to Piscadera with tired bodies, satisfied stomachs and 20 bags full of denticles.

…Well, not quite. The sample bags are filled with fine-grained reef sediment, which may or may not contain denticles. So, why are we collecting bags and bags of sand anyway? It may seem like a strange way to determine the relative health of a coral reef ecosystem, much less shark abundance. However, hidden within the reef sediment is a time-averaged sample of some components of the reef ecosystem. It’s similar to a school’s lost-and-found: over time, the accumulated detritus preserves a sampling of the year’s fashion trends and fads. Grabbing a sample of the lost-and-found might better represent the school’s generalized clothing choices than an hour’s observation during gym. Similarly, observing a reef during the day (when humans are most active) may not accurately represent the diversity of the reef’s inhabitants, or provide a good way to compare a declining reef to a “pristine” reef less impacted by, or familiar to, human presence. The reef sediment is analogous to the lost-and-found: the denticles, shells, teeth, bones, and other hard parts are the cumulative signal of the reef’s inhabitants. While not every part of the reef is preserved, what is preserved can be compared between sites and across time to assess key differences in reef diversity. The sediment is a way to look at several years’ worth of diversity rather than assessing the reef based on a couple days of highly-variable observation.

At present, it appears that sharks are uncommon in the waters surrounding Curacao. We haven’t seen any in our time here. In contrast, anecdotal evidence suggests that sharks were very common in the past. The samples collected on this trip will hopefully address this disparity. Furthermore, other members of the O’Dea lab will look at otoliths (fish ear bones that preserve growth history much like tree rings do), molluscs, bryozoans and other components of the sediments, trying to piece together a broader picture of the reef’s health. Hopefully, the sediment collected in this field trip will show how the reef we see today—the reef which supported the delicious, though small, fish we snacked on—compares to the reef’s recent years, and how that compares the reef before humans arrived. Just as the bulk sample bags preserve a time-averaged history of the reef’s inhabitants, they also preserve the time-averaged impacts of industry, tourism and fishing on the reef’s health. That’s pretty good for a bag of sand!