So rather than talking about the science more right now, I thought I'd try and give an impression of what staying on Palmyra is actually like - at least, as a scientist. The staff probably have a completely different experience (and if any of them ever read this... you're awesome!!)
Outside the lagoon: the Zenobia.
As I mentioned earlier, Palmyra is an atoll: that means it's the remnant of an ancient volcano sinking into the sea, or if you like it's a preview of what will eventually happen to Kauai and the other Hawaiian islands. So it's made up of a bunch of different islands, and in between sits the lagoon, where water has filled up the caldera of the volcano. Inside the lagoon the water is incredibly still and quiet, and to get to the open ocean you need to take a decently long boat ride through the channel on the western side of the lagoon.
Right now there is only one boat on Palmyra capable of dealing with open-ocean conditions on a regular basis, and that's the Zenobia. She's named after an ancient queen of Palmyra, Syria (see what they did there?) and is the base of operations for most of the scientific diving that happens on the atoll. So for a lot of the time we were on Palmyra, we spent most of our days on Zenobia motoring around to the various dive sites we needed to find. Conditions varied a lot - but much of the time it was really sunny and calm, and we had some visitors come join us on the ride: 'melon-headed whales', which are technically in the dolphin family I believe and have more rounded faces than the bottlenose dolphins you picture from Seaworld. The pod we saw must have had dozens of whales, and we were able to hop in for a quick snorkel with them one day! Floating in the blue water with nothing around but our team, the Zenobia, and the whales was pretty amazing.
The other thing the Zenobia often does is fishing. There's plenty of fish around Palmyra obviously, and although there are pretty strict limits on how many can be caught, the Zenobia goes out sometimes and gets a fish for the galley. We did this a couple of times, and ended up catching a 22-pound ono (wahoo) on our last day out. I don't have pictures right now but the sashimi the galley staff made from it was definitely "ono"!
The amazing thing to me about fishing on Palmyra was how QUICK you have to be. We put out long lines off the back of the boat that get dragged behind as we go, then if a fish bites the line has to get pulled in right away... because otherwise the fish on the line will get eaten by a shark! The first day of fishing, Dave hooked an ulua and did a really good job hauling in the line. It took maybe 30-45 seconds or so from first bite to pulling the fish close to the boat... but by then we could already see a shark popping up from the deep. The staff showed us videos later of other fishing expeditions where dozens and dozens of reef sharks were gathered around Zenobia trying to join in the fun - so I guess we didn't even get the full experience.
Boating on the lagoon.
"Palmyra, Palmyra, this is Lagoon Boat 2. We have two people on board and are headed to Home Island..."
When you're working on a remote atoll and the nearest hospital is a thousand miles and an emergency charter flight away, you have to be pretty careful. So whenever anyone leaves the camp (and by "leaves" I mean "even walks more than 15 minutes or so away") they bring a radio, and check in with the field station manager before they go and when they come back. That includes people who work on other islands - we didn't need to for our project, but there was a group on Palmyra studying the ecology of how seabirds, geckos, and spiders interact on all the different islands around the atoll and they would take out the smaller "lagoon boats" every day to go and do their work.
Crazy Corals, Palmyra: this doesn't even do it justice! More photos hopefully coming soon.
Life around camp.
The camp itself is pretty interesting too - staying there feels a bit like the summer camp you might have gone to as a kid, except of course in the middle of the ocean and full of adults. Also probably not as much archery practice.
Everyone stays in rustic cabins
with electricity but no running water or air conditioning or anything: they're pretty comfortable but can get overrun with ants and other bugs. I think I came back looking like my legs had caught chicken pox. worth it!
Most of the time we were there, the population of the entire atoll was 15:
so we saw a lot of each other. Like living on a ship (or at summer camp) all the meals are served at certain times and everyone eats all together. We were lucky (again) in that the "science season" is ending on the atoll and the "donor season" is starting. That means they bring in the big guns to make insanely fancy meals to impress all the rich people coming in for fundraising trips... and that chef had just gotten there when we arrived. So we got all sorts of treats: chocolate souffle, French pastries, Thai noodles, pasta, polenta, a Thanksgiving dinner at one point... I'm just not going to get on a scale for a little while!
The camp is nice, but it's really small and there are no outdoor lights. That means it gets DARK at night. So you have to carry around your headlamp with you. It's not actually that hard to walk around in the dark since there really aren't that many ways to get lost - but if you don't have a light, you run the risk of smushing all the crabs wandering around! There are something like 11 or 13 different kinds of crabs on Palmyra, including the coconut crab:
named for its ability to CUT OPEN COCONUTS. These things can get to be just enormous; the ones I saw weren't so big, but were definitely weird-looking. But none of the crabs have any interest in pinching you, they run away pretty fast into the bushes.
The places people mostly hang out after dark are at the "Yacht Club" (actually made by people coming to Palmyra in private yachts in the 70s) and by the "manta light". The Yacht Club is where all the party shenanigans happen - safely of course - and the manta light is literally a big light you turn on right next to the dock and then wait for manta rays to show up. It usually works pretty well:
(photo credit: David Slater)
And of course, I wouldn't be doing my job describing Palmyra life if I didn't mention the swimming hole. That's right, by the end of the runway there is a postcard-worthy spot fringed by palm trees where the bottom drops off steeply... so clearly the thing to do was to hang up a climbing rope and a rope swing.
All in all, despite all the hard work Palmyra really is a paradisiacal place and I'm incredibly glad that I got the chance to experience life there.