Monthly Archives: September 2014

My first summer in the field – by Gideon Butler

My first summer in the field


When I tell people that I spent six weeks on Maui this summer, nobody seems to believe that it wasn’t a vacation. I tell them that I was working from dawn to dark every day and that my body was covered in scrapes and bruises by the end, but all they hear is, “I was living in paradise and scuba diving every day, and I got a great tan!” To be honest, I can’t really blame them. The fact that coral reef ecology means scuba diving in tropical paradise is one of the primary reasons I chose the field. Even though I was utterly exhausted by the end, and each day brought new challenges, it was the most exciting and fulfilling work I’ve ever done.

The goal of my first field season was to help PhD student Levi Lewis pull out an experiment that had been on the reef for 3 years. I got to go because he needed a dive buddy and extra hand. Levi’s main experiment looked at the health of reefs by placing PVC tiles called Calcification Accretion Units (CAU) on the reef and seeing what grew on them. Half of these CAUs had plastic mesh on them to prevent herbivores from grazing on them, and the first phase of our work was cleaning and repairing these cages for the final month they would be on the reef. This is when I learned of the sacred place zip-ties have in the hearts of scientists. Over the course of the trip we used over 1000 zip ties, and using them underwater never got easier. Imagine threading a needle in a hurricane. I would almost have a tie zipped but then the surge would toss me 15 feet away across the reef. Luckily, surge works both ways and I would eventually get carried back to try again. On some really rough days I learned to just wedge myself into the reef and hope there wasn’t an eel in the hole I was sticking my hand into.


That’s me, “doing work.”  Notice the zip ties?

That’s me, “doing work.” Notice the zip ties?


We also did some really fun and totally not frightening experiments with urchins. For those who don’t know, Hawaii has a few species of urchin that have heavily toxic spines. While those guys were frightening at first, they were mostly a non-issue if you handled them carefully and kept a lookout while diving (I learned that the hard way after I accidentally drop-kicked one of our research specimens with my fin—sorry, buddy!). The really terrifying urchins are the completely harmless Tripneustes gratilla. Why are they so scary if they’re harmless? Well, these lovely little fellas have a fascinating survival strategy. T. gratilla doesn’t have toxic spines and it can’t run away, so when an individual is threatened it ensures the survival of its species by releasing sperm all over the reef (it’s possible that the mechanism is meant to gross out predators, but I’m pretty sure that only works against humans). Unfortunately for us, T. gratilla regards pretty much everything as a threat, including being transported in a cooler in our science van. We would try not to make hard stops because the lid didn’t seal too well, but after a few trips I think we were both too embarrassed to offer anyone else a ride. It’s ok though, we’re biologists, right?



The evil T. gratilla, being incubated for metabolism measurements (left). The cages we stuck them in to conduct grazing assays (right). The purpose of the assay was to see what algae each species of urchins prefers to eat, and how much. The metabolism data can give clues as to how active the urchins are (and how much food they would need). Urchins are an important player on Hawaiian reefs because they trim back algae that would otherwise smother coral.

  One of the real joys of the trip was all the practical problem solving involved. There is no Sears for science, so we had to design and build all of our experiment set ups. For marine ecologists, this means spending some quality time with PVC and (predictably) zip ties. Beyond building the tools we also had to design the experiments themselves to fall within the limitations of our equipment and still be scientifically rigorous. Of course, no matter how thorough you are in the planning phase, when go -time comes there will always be some small problem. It sounds perverse, but I came to enjoy it when these problems happened because it meant there was one more puzzle to solve. Maybe it helped that it wasn’t my PhD dissertation that hinged on these experiments; it was probably a lot more nerve-wracking for Levi.

Taking metabolism measurements

Taking metabolism measurements

A big pile of CAUs

A big pile of CAUs

In all, I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. I learned so much about science and field work, I got to see some amazing critters and sights, and I met an awesome group of people. Big thanks to Levi and the Smith Lab, as well as the Maui ohana I was lucky enough to become part of.

Doing the a’a dance.  Lava rock hurts!

Doing the a’a dance. Lava rock hurts!

The crew: Levi, me, and Susan Kram, a fellow Smith Lab member.

The crew: Levi, me, and Susan Kram, a fellow Smith Lab member.



We got to dive in the shark tank at Maui Ocean Center.  Yes, that’s a tiger shark.

We got to dive in the shark tank at Maui Ocean Center. Yes, that’s a tiger shark.

Surfer / Scientists enter NatGeo contest to image the world’s best surf spots

Clinton Edwards and Clifford Kapono from the Scripps Instituition of Oceanography and UCSD, are proposing a 1 year project to visually map (think Google-Earth) the health of the coral reefs under the world’s most famous waves. This project was sent to the National Geographic and their video submission, “Through the Surface” competed with over 700 other projects before being chosen as one of the Top 10 finalists for the Expedition Granted contest!

It is now up to the public, whose votes will determine if they will get the funds and resources to make this expedition happen!

In their short video they propose an expedition to travel to Pipeline, Teahupo’o, P-Pass, Cloudbreak, and an unmarked reef to create massive images (think Google-Earth) that will allow the public see what is really going on under these great surf breaks and educate, engage and raise awareness about the importance of these reefs.

Voting is underway and continues until Sept. 29th. They are hoping that you’ll consider casting your vote and sharing this through social media, your contacts and as many people as you know! Each person can vote once from any device they own, every day, by going to:
Please keep reading below to learn more about their project!!

Coral reefs around the world are in dramatic decline and there is urgent need to raise public awareness and participation to support conservation activities against rising threats such as coastal development, overfishing and climate change. Few activities draw as much attention to reefs as surfing and the allure of surfing and the appreciation for the beauty of breaking waves stretches well beyond the surf community. Despite this attention, the structure and health status of the reefs that create these waves are seldom studied by scientists. Surfers and the general public are largely oblivious to changes in reef ecosystems because they simply aren’t able to spend the necessary time studying and exploring to understand the chemical and visual signs of reef health. The vast majority of surfers have never actually seen the reefs they surf over. Further, good waves do not necessarily equate to healthy reefs. As a result, the surf community is under involved in conversations of coral reef conservation. Yet, the health of these reefs directly influence the communities that depend on them. Without a healthy and growing coral ecosystem, the reef will eventually erode and the life it supports will disappear. Given their intimate contact with these reefs, the global surf community is ready to be a powerful advocate if it can be motivated to act. To do this we first need to inspire and educate.

We will use new and groundbreaking large scale (think Google-Earth) underwater photo-mosaic technology to image the reefs at some of the world’s most famous waves including Pipeline, Teahupoo, Cloudbreak and Palikur Pass. Each of these waves are located in areas in critical need of conservation, and we will also visit nearby locations to document both healthy reefs and those in decline. Travelling to these areas will also allow us the opportunity to access nearby locations and compare these well-known waves and reefs to unexploited ones. In turn, informing both scientific and public perspectives of what relatively “pristine” reefs looks like. The products we produce are highly detailed, continuous images of the reef floor and will spark the interest of the surfers who would ride these waves as well as millions of other people around the world who will also be inspired by the images of these reefs. By making these images and information publically available, we will educate surfers and non-surfers alike. We believe that this project will dramatically increase engagement and inspire support for coral reef conservation.

We strongly believe that we can motivate the surf community to become an active and important partner in coral reef conservation. The high resolution photo-mosaic images and chemical profiles of the reefs under world’s most famous surf spots will provide the surfer and non-surfer communities an exciting interactive interface to explore the reefs under their favorite waves. The National Geographic Expedition Granted Award will allow us to see our project successfully exhibited on the world stage and provide the public with impactful and relevant coral reef conservation data. By educating the public through hard science and inspiring imagery we will raise awareness and change the way the people view and ultimately interact with these reefs and inspire change.


scripps oceanography uc san diego