Nobody Rushes the Concrete Artist of Ofu
Coral reefs are dying off around the world. To further his work on the issue, Dr. Stephen Palumbi, director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, and OWOO Science Advisor is in American Samoa and the Cook Islands in search of the corals most likely to survive. This is the third in a series of special reports from the field that will continue throughout his team’s three-week expedition.
By Stephen Palumbi, PhD.
We arrived on Ofu 36 hours ago and already we have learned three things. First, the corals we mapped and tagged last November are thriving, and the electronic meters we left on them have been doing their jobs. Their batteries lasted until just a few days ago, so we now have a record of the heat and acidity these individual corals have seen in their natural environment.
Second, we learned corals that normally see higher temperatures can deal with our experimental coral stress tanks better than corals that usually see lower temperatures. I did the very first run of the stress tank yesterday, right after landing on Ofu’s tiny airstrip, delivered by veteran pilot Joe Faiai thanks to the American Samoa government plane.
We have gotten to know these corals on this reef. Some have been tagged, numbered and mapped for seven years. Coral AH09 is the biggest of our species, a tabletop coral that sits like a dowager Queen at the entrance to a channel in just 4 feet of water. Almost 7 feet across now, she grows exuberantly between every visit. Then there is the much more humble coral AH06: perched at the edge of a sand channel, barely 2 ft across, it hardly grows except to crankily replace whatever small branch we take when we sample it.
My favorite are the 100s – AH100, 101, and 102 – not for their size or color, but for their placement, right behind the reef crest in a washing machine of waves and currents. Finding them is always a fabulous challenge of frantic swimming in 12 inches of water in 4 foot waves, being swept at breakneck pace along a pavement of reef by curling breakers. And once found, the challenge is to stay there for the minute it might take to place a buoy on them or take a sample, or take a picture. Most of the pictures I have of them are blurry because I am usually being washed away at the time!
Third, I will have a difficult time getting off Ofu. We landed amidst a surprising collection of construction equipment – and as soon as the engines of the plane faded in the distance as Joe left the island, the jack-hammers started. “Sure, see you then,” said Joe when I asked about our return flight on Saturday, “But talk to Randall.”
Randall it turned out, has other plans. He runs the construction crew that is busily ripping up Ofu’s only runway to replace it with fresh, beautiful concrete (Randall is a concrete artist). The concrete will not be strong enough to land a plane on until Sunday. Randall seems willing to try to get all the concrete poured tomorrow – if the sun shines. But nobody rushes the concrete artist of Ofu, and I am casting around for other plans.