It is midnight. The warm tradewind wafts onto the bamboo balcony as the gentle surf of the Philippine Sea splashes against the breakwall. The stars rotate on their steady cartwheel across the sky and the palm trees rustle their refrain. It is a lovely, romantic melody and it goes unheard by our team.
On Day 5 of the California Academy of Science’s 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, we completed a night dive observing and collecting specimens on what is affectionately known as a “muck dive.” We aren’t talking a colorful coral reef resplendent with fish and other marine life. It’s a silty shallow site near a pier with rubble and the occasional plastic bag. But in this habitat are undescribed worms, new species of nudibranchs and other invertebrates.
The tired divers have disembarked the Bangkha, disengaged from their dive gear, scarfed down a meal of rice and chicken and trooped to their microscopes, petri dishes, bags, jars and journals. Upstairs the scientists are counting worm segments, sorting sponges and writing the last of the day’s logs, as we download footage, make edits, charge batteries and repair gear before the morning’s dive. Science is hard work, and so is field documentation. We are sore, sunburned and exhausted, yet there is a real sense of satisfaction that what we are doing is important. If we don’t understand what is in nature, how will we know how to protect it, or why should we even care?
What makes us care about wildlife so much that we dedicate years of study, a hundred hours a week of time for little pay or even recognition? Why work so hard to understand, to describe the plants and animals of remote reefs? Even in this relatively untouched corner of the world, there are huge impacts on the world ocean. In the ever-growing battle against overfishing, habitat loss and over exploitation, we occasionally wonder why we do what we do.
Why not just get a regular job, sleep in a bed, forget the travel and insects and diseases? Forget the overwhelming sense of despair that even as we try to describe and explain and protect marine habitats like coral reefs we are losing the race to extinction, overfishing and declining coral reef habitat? To most of the expedition team it is not even a question; it is an imprinted devotion that has gone unasked for decades. There is no other thing a person can do but study, describe and try to share that knowledge in the interest that other people will grasp that love of knowledge and ultimately love that crusty barnacle, slithery sea slug or wandering worm. It’s about love of nature, the desire to explore and understand, to communicate and inculcate that same love to others.
For me the answer to the question is as simple as ABC: Adventure, Biology and Conservation. The excitement of exploration and entering the unknown underwater world is indescribable. Learning the details and then communicating the larger picture is the challenge. Appreciating and protecting the ocean is my mission.
The diversity of ocean life is just too important to let vanish. Forget the scientific explanations of interdependence, the benefit to humans through healthy fisheries, new medicines, our air and climate. To reduce it down to basics, the ocean is beautiful. And perhaps coral reefs like this system on the Verde Island Passage half an earth away from San Francisco is among the most beautiful and biodiverse. Like a complex tapestry, the threads combine into a larger more breathtaking work and we humans are just one of those threads. The Academy Team is working hard to understand how to keep the whole thing from unraveling.
In five hours it will be time to get up. The specimens are put away, my camera is ready, the batteries are charging, video is rendering, and the dive gear is prepared for the first dive at 8 AM. It’s time to sleep and recharge my own batteries. But as I listen to the sound of the waves, the symphony of the reef serenades me. The fish and the corals and the sea snakes are calling. I can’t wait to get to work!
To learn more about the expedition,follow my posts on QUEST and read more on the project’s website at the California Academy of Sciences.