Palmyra Atoll is paradise. Offshore of Palmyra, wave crests break violently over the coral reef surrounding the island. These corals protect Palmyra’s serene inner lagoon by dissipating the furious energies of ocean waves and tides. This outer coral reef separates the unforgiving cobalt sea from the tranquil turquoise waters welcoming those entering the lagoon. Tall coconut trees loom out of the dense forest and cast dancing flowery shadows over white sand. Entering Palmyra Atoll was truly unforgettable.
Now what? It turns out that science must press on and maintaining the ship doesn’t stop when the anchor hits the sea floor. We are still organized in watch squads that collectively are responsible for ship duties 24 hours of every day. Even in paradise we remain “eternally vigilant” as Captain Pamela Coughlin constantly urges us to do. We conduct half-hourly radar and anchor checks to make sure we remain in a fixed location and we strive to keep the boat in top condition. As assistant scientist Mitch Schrimpf says,”On the ship, cleanliness IS godliness”. The crew of the boat stays busy repairing the boat, updating and organizing nautical charts, and unloading the huge load of supplies we brought to the Palmyra station (this makes me think our voyage is a glorified UPS service). Our scientists toil away at the delicate chemistry involved in processing phosphate and nitrate samples gathered from our hydrocasts. As students, we are responsible for assisting our scientists and crew with these tasks on top of helping our wonderful cook Sayzie in the galley with preparing food.
When not occupied with watch though, we have some truly awesome opportunities to explore Palmyra. Our crew operates small craft that take us on outings to land or snorkeling spots each morning and afternoon. Some of us help out with other student projects in the reef environment and some of us just go out for recreation. People have told tales of the awesome megafauna spotted in the reef including blacktip sharks, manta rays, and huge snappers (that if caught on rod and reel would be all-tackle world records according to our resident IGFA representative Martini. However The Nature Conservancy owns and protects Palmyra so no sport or commercial fishing is allowed). Land expeditions have also been thrilling and full of discovery. I went on one land expedition that witnessed one of the most bizarre animal interactions I have ever seen.
Eels occupy nooks in the shallow reef environment and are generally ambush predators. Eels have small fins on a flexible undulating body, which aerodynamically and physiologically limits their proficiency at hunting in open water. Instead, eels coil up and blend in with the sand and coral and wait to devour unsuspecting prey swimming by. Or so we thought.
The north shore of Palmyra is as ideal as a postcard and is only marred by ruins left by the U.S. naval base from World War II over which hordes of crabs now scuttle frantically. Our land expedition was passing one of these old navy bunkers when Nicole suddenly yelped and pointed at a 3-foot spotted moray eel slithering out of the water and onto the beach snaking its way directly for her. However the eel paid no mind to Nicole and instead lunged for an oblivious ghost crab catching some sun and seized it between its jaws. The eel proceeded to tie itself in a half hitch and used the torque to audibly crack the crab’s shell, sealing its fate. The eel then widened its jaws and swallowed the crab whole all on the white sand under the hot tropical sun. It then casually slithered back over the sand into the shallows without even glancing at the four of us documenting this remarkable event. Holy shit that was cool.