Editor’s Note: “The Richest Reef” follows members of a scientific dive team as they attempt to pinpoint the center of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem in the world. Long considered our planet’s most species-rich piece of ocean real estate, the Western Pacific’s “Coral Triangle” is a continent-sized patchwork of habitats, populations, and communities. Expedition scientists are trying to identify exactly which section of this rich mosaic is most diverse, but their effort carries with it far more meaning than a simple dot on a map would suggest. Along the way, they’ll discover dozens of new species, visit dive sites and depths no one has seen before, and gain a better understanding of the factors that promote biodiversity and the role these species-rich areas play in sustaining healthy ecosystems. See below for a list of all posts in the series.
I’ve run errands in foreign countries before, but never quite like this. Heading out along the narrow alleyways in the tiny village of Sabang on the Philippine island of Mindoro’s north coast, I’m pretty sure the items on our list are going to raise some eyebrows.
Listed neatly on our scrap of paper are such things as fine-gauge syringes, salad tongs, chopsticks and buckets—the makings of a picnic you’d just as soon not attend. Only a few days prior, shortly after a group of us landed in the Philippines, we had another list in hand as we searched for paper towels (50 rolls), twine (at least 200 meters), desk lamps, and yes, buckets. Apparently, you can never have too many buckets on a marine expedition, because I’ve just been asked to procure an additional supply—a stack that I’m told will dwarf me—later on in the trip.
The errands and lists are just a few of the many reminders that this is no ordinary trip abroad, and that I’m just one small part of a very complex whole—a highly orchestrated assemblage of bodies and gear, schedules and vehicles. This is certainly larger and more complex than any trip I’ve been a part of, and despite the few items we’ve needed to pick up on the fly, it’s possibly the smoothest-running logistical nightmare I’ve ever seen.
Planning for the trip began nearly a year ago, just as the 2014 edition of this ongoing biodiversity assessment was wrapping up. The organizers—scientists and support staff from the California Academy of Sciences and collaborating institutions—have among them more than a century’s worth of collective experience conducting research in this part of the world. They know what it takes to scale up a research project from a couple of guys jumping out of a boat to see what they can find to a highly coordinated research operation involving dozens of specialists. They’ve built solid relationships with locals, secured collecting permits, and won grants to continue the work despite an increasingly competitive funding landscape. They’ve developed databases to organize vast scientific collections and genetic information, not to mention the travel schedules and room assignments of the expedition’s participants. They’ve also compiled a pretty robust list of gear and supplies that make all of the exploration and discovery possible.
While everyone here had a laundry list of things to bring to the Philippines, the collections managers and animal husbandry specialists have us all beat. Somehow they’ve managed to carve out a field laboratory in the corner of an open-air restaurant at the Atlantis Dive Resort and equip the place with an astounding assortment of stuff that makes the place feel like a weird cross between a hospital and a hardware store. There are thousands of plastic collection bags and hundreds of vials, trays, bottles, tubs and buckets of every size; there are ballpeen hammers and chisels for prizing creatures from their hiding places inside rubble; there are forceps and scissors, hand lenses and microscopes, rulers and calipers; there are nets and digging tools of various shapes and sizes that these scientific divers take underwater with them in their search of something they haven’t seen before. There’s also a breathtaking volume of chemicals here, from menthol, which is used to “relax” some invertebrates like tunicates before processing them, to ethanol and formalin, which are used to preserve specimens and tissues for the long haul.
Keeping marine organisms alive and healthy above the ocean surface requires a whole different set of tools, including inflatable kiddie pools, an aquarium chiller to keep the water in these makeshift tanks cool, baby brine shrimp eggs to provide a food source for the team’s catch, and a fish-sized portable decompression chamber to safely bring animals up from great depths and the pressures they’re accustomed to. We’ll take a much closer look at how the team uses these and other tools and techniques to transport live animals from a Philippine coral reef to an exhibit in the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium once the expedition moves into that phase.
But first, we’re going to head underwater to see once and for all what all the commotion is about, and to better understand what scientists are doing here to unravel the mysteries at the center of marine biodiversity.
Other posts in this series: