My first Kilo ʻĀina

Hello, my name is Jacob William Roy and I am currently studying plant biology and tropical agriculture at Leeward Community College. Outside of school I work as a conservationist, producing films and television programs to help the public understand how all of Earth’s systems interconnect and interact with us humans in our everyday lives.

For most people, the interesting parts of the ocean are the big things: sharks as big as buses, whales the size of buildings. Oceanographers on the other hand, are excited by the little bits: algae, plankton, organic molecules. The tiny things are of highest concern to us as a species because they form the base of the ocean ecosystem and when they go, everything collapses. The massive blue whales couldn’t care less about 400 pound tuna, but they’ll riot if they lose their plankton. Acclaimed oceanographer Sylvia Earle often says that “two out of every three breaths we take, come from the ocean”; most of those two breaths, come from phytoplankton. I believe that plankton will be key in any near-future attempts to mitigate climate change and thus I am highly motivated to learn all I can about them.

So with this on my mind, when I heard a rumor that there was a group of researchers at Leeward called Kilo ʻĀina, who wanted to study the plankton of Pu’uloa, or Pearl Harbor, as it is also known, they had me, hook, line, sinker. And when I had also heard that there was no published literature on the subject I was even more intrigued. I am attracted to mysteries.

I got acquainted with zoologist Dr. Anuschka Faucci, and biogeochemist Dr. Donn Viviani who would both prove to be invaluable mentors, walking us through laboratory and field collection procedures and teaching us to identify several genera of diatoms as well as zooplankton in both their adult and nauplii life stages. I found myself working alongside two other students, Melissa Martella and Manuel Diaz, whom I think are 24-karat gold. Morale remained high throughout our collaboration, even on tough days when we were exhausted from lack of sleep, or under pressure from conflicting personal obligations.

We were assigned to collect and analyze samples from Blaisdell Park, where the Waimalu stream meets Pu’uloa. Despite the U.S. military occupation of the area, the ecosystem doesn’t appear to have collapsed yet. The military in the U.S. is notoriously messy. Ammunition and fuel are highly toxic. Responsible storage and disposal often conflicts with mission objectives. The World War II shipwrecks at the bottom of Pu’uloa are still leaking toxic fuel into the water and even during peace time, live fire exercises and improper chemical storage introduce harmful contaminants into the eco-system. People fish from the park, but it’s strictly catch and release. They’re afraid to eat anything that comes from this place.

Once upon a time the fish here were so abundant and edible that they were exported over the Ko’olau mountains to La’ie, which is about as far from Pu’uloa as one can get, without swimming. Considering that this was done in a time before big rigs and climate controlled shipping containers, that means a lot.

Given this background, I was expecting doomsday when we collected our first samples.
Maybe we would see jellyfish, the cockroach of the sea. I was pleasantly surprised to look down the microscope and find that the plankton of Pu’uloa aren’t just three men on a fishing trip, they’re a whole damn town! We encountered such a diversity of life in the water that I would be stuck in the lab for hours, trying to tally up the numbers of each type: chaetoceros, skeletonema, noctiluca, copepods,
polychaetes, ciliates, barnacles, dinoflagellates etc. etc. etc. I felt relieved. I thought this project was going to be a murder mystery, but instead it turns out that Pu’uloa is still very much alive, at least in this small area we sampled at the mouth of the stream.

If Pu’uloa is an iceberg, then we’ve made some shallow scratches at the surface, which I consider a great success. We are improving our quantitative data collection methods and creating instructional guides for future researchers. We are quickly approaching a point where we can begin to form testable hypotheses about how the plankton interact with the local environment. I feel happy about being here on the edge of science, knowing that our work will save future oceanographers some duplication of effort and inform future inquiries into Pu’uloa.

We plan to commemorate this experience with matching tattoos.

– Jacob


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