Gump Station, Research Heaven

So in Moorea, there is only one road. And it circles the entire island. It didn’t take too long to get to the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station.

Once we got to the station, we were greeted with wagging tails by the station dogs, Chicken and Guinness. After getting settled into our rooms at the dorm, we were also met by the station cats, Mau’ U and Mo’ O (who I call kitty). Mau’U means shark in Tahitian and Mo’ O means yellow lizard. Kitty is my favorite and so adorable. You’ll see, I’ll post many pictures of him.

So Gump Station is a fully functional research facility, with wet labs and water tables for experiments and holding organisms, as well as more controlled areas that can monitor and control temperature, pH, and other water quality parameters, important considerations for different types of experiments. Across the street is the Gump library, with a classroom for teaching and outreach as well as offices for researchers, graduate students, and assistants to work on data work-up and analysis. There are also more laboratories designed for different research groups working at Gump Station. While the MCR-LTER is a big research program here, it’s not the only one. Scientists come from all over to utilize the Moorea research station to conduct their work. People from California State University at Northridge, University of California Berkeley, University of Florida, and even Harvard come to Moorea to conduct research on topics ranging from coral physiology and morphology, to fish foraging and predation behaviors, to ocean acidification, and even more I haven’t even learned about yet. The guys from Harvard are the only terrestrial ecologists studying ferns on the island (they call themselves the land lovers).

Already, I love the atmosphere and the people that I’ve met here. Everybody is motivated, passionate, and dedicated about their research. Many of them started off in Moorea as undergraduates from one place or another, which gives me hope that I might be lucky enough to get back here one day and do my own research!

So on Friday once we were settled in, we did a nice intro dive to get everyone back in the water. At 78 degrees, it’s a walk in the park compared to my Santa Barbara diving (~50-60 degrees), although I did get some warm dive days in SB (max maybe 65 degrees).  We jumped into the water right from the dock and swam around what they call Gump Reef.  Fish, corals, and algae were abundant, but my eyes were searching for my favorites – nudibranchs and octopus. Both a kind of mollusk, nudibranchs are small sea slugs but come in the most beautiful array of vibrant colors, which serve to warn predators that their skin is filled with toxins that will make whoever tries to eat them very uncomfortable and sick. Even more incredible, some types of nudibranchs, called aeolids, have protrusions along their back that are actually filled with stinging cells, called nematocysts, that they get from the food they eat! Nudibranchs eat cnidarians such as hydroids that contain nematocysts (the same stinging cells that jellyfish have that sting people).  When something (or someone) comes in contact with a nematocyst, it fires, releasing a harpoon-like structure into the object that touched it, oftentimes injecting venom, hence the stinging sensation you get if you come in contact with a jellyfish. All cnidarians have nematocysts, these include jellyfish, corals, and hydroids. When nudibranchs eat the hydroids, they are actually able to keep the stinging cells intact, and then move the stinging cells into their own bodies to use for their own defense! Seriously, that’s just amazing.

Octopuses belong to another group of mollusks known as cephalopods. They are often considered the most intelligent invertebrates (animals without a backbone), and studies have shown octopus are able to learn, remember, and recall information based on experience as well as by observation of other octopuses. These are traits considered to be characteristic of higher intelligence (like us people).  They have even been described as having distinct personalities and in aquaria can recognize their individual handlers. They’re also the ultimate masters of camouflage. Octopus, as well as their related cousins, squid and cuttlefish, have special cells in their skin called chromatophores that contain pigments, which can expand or contract through muscular and neural control. The octopus can control both the color AND texture of its skin to match its surroundings in order to hide from prey, or even mimic other animals that might deter a dangerous predator.  Roger Hanlon, Ph.D., is one of the foremost scientists studying cephalopod camouflage, and has a video that exemplifies this incredible adaptation. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSq8nghQZqA)

Okay so that was a lot about cephalopods and nudibranchs, but they are so interesting to me and once I start, apparently I just feel the need to keep going.

Anyway, so the dive was really nice and it felt great to be back in the water.  After that, there was no hesitation in getting us straight to work.  We scrubbed, cleaned, built things, and then helped with any other work that Keith and Jessica (our superiors) gave to us.  We got lunch at a little snack place down the road, and learned that island life is very different from what we’re used to back home. Shops here open and close whenever they want, and when the owners go on vacation, their store is just closed for the next couple weeks. Also, when food runs out for the day, the stores just close up and that’s that. Luckily we got there before the food ran out! : )

After dinner, everyone – including the five of us that came from UCSB, the dogs, and kitty, just passed out. Tahitian time was probably around 6:30pm, but we were exhausted and called it a day. Needless to say, it was a very good first day.

Since I’m catching up and tired right now, I’ll make the next couple days brief. Saturday we got some boating lessons from Keith on getting comfortable in the aluminum boats we’ll be using this summer. Although the people we’re working with will usually be the captains, we all need to be comfortable driving the boats in case of an emergency. A couple loops in Cooks Bay and we all got the feel of it. Then, it was back to more cleaning and scrubbing. We also started building cages, which will be used for Russ and Sally’s experiments over the summer.

On Sunday, Evan and I, a fellow undergraduate, went out with Keith to learn more boating skills using the bigger boat that Keith and Jess use most often. Since some of the diving is really deep (over 100 feet!), Keith and Jessica are the only ones with the scientific depth certification to perform research at those depths, so they need someone who can “live boat,” drive the boat while they’re under water. The bigger boats are also aluminum, so they’re very, very, light and equipped with powerful engines. Evan and I got the chance to drive the boats and get used to how they feel moving through the water.

After that, we took a couple boats out to a site called MRB, a shallow reef in the lagoon, and… got to scrub the boats! However, just as we were jumping in, we noticed some dolphins in the bay! I dove right into the water, hoping to see them, or at least hear them underwater, but unfortunately they were already too far away. Hopefully they’ll be a next time!

We also did some dive rescue training to make sure everyone knew how to get someone else out of the water and into the boat in case of an emergency. It’s all about being prepared. Hopefully I won’t have to use the emergency skills I’ve acquired over the years (oxygen first aid, CPR, first responder, rescue diving, and divemaster), but it’s always good to have that knowledge and keep it fresh if a situation ever did arise.

Then Monday was filled with cage making.  Cages on cages on cages.

TODAY!

Finally caught up to today! Although I’m sure I won’t be able to do a day-by-day recap once the rest of the P.I.’s (principal investigators), Russ and Sally get here, along with other scientists and graduate students. So far it’s been pretty relaxed as we’ve been getting boats and equipment cleaned and ready for the summer. Today we transplanted thirty-two anemones from a site that was covered with anemone fields on the south side of the island to Gump Reef, which lies on the north side.Looking out from the south side of the island across the lagoon, we could see massive waves breaking on the barrier reef.  The energy of the waves breaking along the reef is the same energy generated from storms in Antarctica, which travels through the south Pacific Ocean until it hits the first thing it reaches – the island of Moorea. No piece of land from here to Antarctica, and no piece of land from here to the Gulf of Alaska. We’re right in the middle, in the heart, of the South Pacific.

The anemones were transplanted to Gump Reef in order to continue the MCR-LTER study on daily settlement of Dascyllus trimaculatus, a damselfish that lives on anemones. Since larval fish that find the anemone will remain there until they are adults, the anemone provides a great way to study population dynamics. Each morning, someone will jump in the water to count and size each fish on every anemone, providing data on recruitment of fish and death by predation each day over summer.

Taoto maitai!

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