Two Welcomes to Palmyra

The first expedition hours are especially exhilarating when most everything is a first: first trip to the Line Islands, first visit to Palmyra Atoll, first dive on a spectacular healthy reef. It’s all new for Jill Harris, a graduate student in the Smith Lab at Scripps Oceanography. She shares her thoughts upon arrival at Palmyra aboard the Hanse Explorer and her first underwater view of the reef.

by Jill Harris, member of the Benthic Team

As a first-time visitor to Palmyra, I hope that my first impressions of this place can help our blog readers understand just how phenomenal it is to be here. We are on a tiny speck of land in the middle—the middle!—of the vast Pacific ocean.

Mantas rays eerily gliding past over the reef at Palmyra. Photograph by Jen Smith.

Day 1: We arrive at Palmyra mid-morning, and I marvel at how smoothly the captain of the Hanse Explorer maneuvers his ship up to the packed-earth dock at the field station. Gangway down, we quickly spring into action to unload our scientific equipment. For these few days, we can use the ample lab space at the research station here—a treat compared to onboard the ship, where everything needs to be packed up and secured to the deck each night.

In the afternoon, we are officially welcomed to the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. We learn about daily life on Palmyra (where to sleep and eat), important safety procedures, and, perhaps most importantly, we are reminded about the guiding mission of this place: wildlife first. We are, after all, but temporary visitors to a very remote, thriving wilderness.
Day 2: Today is the first time we will be using our scientific equipment, so the morning is spent in final preparations. After the instruments are calibrated, the zip ties are secured, and the batteries are charged, we pile into a dive boat and head out for our first dive of the trip. Outside the protection of the reef the sea swell is just high enough to remind me that yes, we are way out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I clip my scientific gear onto my scuba vest and slip into the ocean. Immediately, the many months of planning, the late nights in the lab, and the exhausting hours of packing and loading the ship are all worth it. The water is warm, the visibility is more than 20 meters, and the coral life below is unbelievable. And, as if to truly welcome me to Palmyra, a manta ray swims past before I have even descended to the sea floor. Although she only stays within my range of vision for a moment, she is the first manta I have ever seen, and I already know that this is going to be a really, really good expedition.