Hitting Bottom at Palmyra

The expedition researchers wasted no time after arriving at Palmyra Atoll before getting to work. We follow the Benthic Team as they head out to the reefs with their gear to face the challenges of their first day of diving and deploying their experimental set-ups on site.


Going down, down, down to the abundant corals on the bottom at Palmyra Atoll. Photograph by Jen Smith.

By Jen Smith, head researcher on the Benthic Team

Yesterday afternoon we arrived on Palmyra with a small group of scientists and some guests of Scripps Oceanography. The flight down was quite comfortable and quick—just under four hours from Honolulu. As we approached Palmyra Atoll, the excitement began to grow as the picturesque scene of a tropical wonderland came into view, and then we saw our ship, the Hanse Explorer, docked in the lagoon, waiting for us. We landed on the coral runway and were greeted by the Nature Conservancy staff that runs the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium field station. One by one the scientists who had traveled over with the ship from Honolulu came out to greet us, as well. At this point we all began to feel that—finally!—the weeks and months of planning and coordinating were behind us. Finally it was time to start doing the science—the hard work, the exhausting days, and the research activities that we are all good at.

The scene after several man-hours of work ferrying equipment from the boat to the seabed, deploying algae cages and benthic tents, and securing everything to the reef. For more about the benthic tents and planned experiments, visit The Science page. Photograph by Jen Smith.

We spent the rest of the hours unpacking, organizing, and planning our dives for the next day. My team, the Benthic Team, stayed up late. Morning came much too quickly, but we were all excited to get going. After what seemed like hours spent loading our gear, we eventually left the dock on a boat overflowing with equipment: cages that we deploy to measure growth rates of seaweeds (algae), our large benthic tents with their numerous expensive sensors that we use to measure the productivity of the corals and algae on the reef bottom, plus miscellaneous underwater batteries, cables, and pumps. When we arrived at the site, we donned our dive gear and began the circus act of hauling much of that equipment to the bottom, assembling the contraptions, and attaching numerous things to the reef—all while being gently tossed from side to side in the surge. Nonetheless, when we got to the bottom we found a familiar and comforting scene, one where manta rays and reef sharks swim gently by and the corals are abundant and healthy.

We worked nonstop for two dives, clocking more than two hours on the bottom at about 30 ft depth, and still we did not manage to get all of our work done. This is typical for marine scientists in the field. We constantly have to adjust our plans, adapt to reality. We reworked our schedule for the next three days on Palmyra. If everything goes perfectly from here on, we will still be able to get most of what we had planned done. We all have our fingers crossed that the weather holds and that we will get more and more efficient with each dive. As we reminded ourselves, this work has not been done before. If it were easy, someone else would have done it. We are up for the challenge and are eager to see what the coming days have in store!