Getting It at Kingman Reef

A gray reef shark glides in for a closer look. Photograph by Levi Lewis.

By Levi Lewis, a Ph.D. student in the Smith Lab, SIO

“Okay, I get it.” Dr. Sandin (head researcher on the Fish Team) was asking what I thought of my first dive on Kingman Reef, one of the most remote and pristine coral reef ecosystems in the world. As a new PhD student in the coral reef lab at SIO, being on the Hanse Explorer was an exciting opportunity for me to witness all that I’d heard and read regarding intact reef ecosystems.

A school of jacks swarms around divers on Kingman Reef. Photograph by Levi Lewis.

My first dive of the trip was in the Kingman lagoon. I rolled off the port side of our inflatable, splashing into a foreign world few humans have ever seen. As I surveyed the landscape dotted with massive, yellow, mushroom-like mounds of lobe corals, I spotted the first natives arriving to greet me—three grey reef sharks. They examined me as I would imagine Native Americans to have examined European explorers upon their arrival to the New World. We could not communicate, though it was clear they wanted to know a few things: Who are you? What are you? What are your intentions? What is that shiny thing you‘re pointing at us? My only response was to continue aiming the camera at them, partially in excitement to get my first sharks on film, but also to put something hard between myself and their concealed weaponry. It seemed in part a standoff, in part a warm welcome. Regardless, I was happy to see them.

Stacked corals form tropical totems, reaching toward the sunlight. Photograph by Levi Lewis.

After three days of diving, I could write about these reefs ad infinitum: the schools of crimson, fang-toothed bohar snappers with their piercing yellow eyes; species-rich coral spires stacked high towards the sea’s surface; the chaotic vortex of metallic jacks that swallowed me alive; an open-water plankton bloom that fueled countless salps, ctenophores, and barrel-rolling mantas; the infinite schools of convict tangs that coated the reefs, grazing frantically on the scarce fleshy algae that seemed to be distinctly lacking on this reef.

We had traveled the 4,000 miles to get here for a reason: it is the only way we could really get it, “it” being an understanding of how coral reef ecosystems should look and function, how they do look and function in the absence of local human impacts. Though I already understood much of this in my head, seeing the reef helped me truly get it in my core. Through our science and outreach, we hope society, too, will begin to get it.