Tropical Field Season Part II

Tropical sunsets are the best. Shot at Tulaghi.

Tropical sunsets are the best. Shot at Tulaghi.

I apologize for the big blogging slump over the last month and a half, when I returned to Austin after a two month field season in the Solomon Islands. An extremely tight schedule, including visa appointments, a paper submission, three AGU abstracts and much progress on my Gulf of Mexico sediment cores, is to blame for this hiatus (apart from procrastination). It's been one hectic July for me! So, it is quite ironic that my subsequent blog post is from back in the Solomon Islands!

We (Fred Taylor and I) left the Solomons in the last week of June after collecting many uplifted (dead) coral samples on land (with rock hammer and chisel) that were indicative of previous uplift events (earthquakes). We also found several huge (living) coral microatolls in shallow water that hold the keys to the amounts of vertical deformation pre-earthquake and post-earthquake. However, in order to read these microatolls, we need to cut them open - which takes more than a hammer and chisel. In fact, it requires a hydraulic/gas-powered drill/saw system - in other words, a lot of equipment (it clocked in at just over one tonne). Unfortunately, as things go awry when you're in the field, our equipment did not make it here last time and we were told that the shipment would arrive only two months later (it was sitting at the Brisbane dock waiting for a ship - the Kopoko Chief came to the rescue!) This is why we are back in the Western Province, Solomon Islands - and now, we have our equipment. Corals beware, we are armed!

Jumping right into it, a week ago, we were in the Florida Islands, a short boat ride away from Honiara, and cut open a bunch of microatolls. As these islands are relatively devoid of neotectonic activity, these corals will aid us in seperating the oceanographic signal (ENSO, sea-level rise etc.) from the tectonic signal (deformation of the land, earthquakes) that we see in the corals of the Western Province. Hauling the hydraulic chain-saw around (the selected weapon of choice) was quite an ordeal but it was no match for the logistical mess that we would endure while leaving for the Western Province.

Originally, we were scheduled to head west aboard the Pelican Express 2, a slick passenger vessel that would reach Gizo, our destination in the Western Province, in a mean 12 hours. This ship was to leave the Honiara dock at 7AM sharp on Sunday. All of our equipment (including the hydraulic chainsaw/drill, gas-powered chainsaw/drill and assorted tools) was at the Solomon Islands Geology Dept., a good 3km away from the dock. We were staying at the United Church Rest House, close to the dock. So, all we needed to do was: wake up early, wait for our truck (which we had already 'booked'), head over to the dept. and haul our equipment to the dock. Simple, right? On our part, we were awake and ready to go at 4:45AM. Our driver who presumably woke up late after a long night, reached the United Rest House at 6:15AM, after much pandemonium from our side while we had already tried to flag down several passing trucks (mind you, loading a tonne of equipment on a truck and unloading it takes a lot of time). But, finally, he had arrived! Crisis averted, right? Well, on the way to the Geology Dept., the truck spluttered, hemmed and hawed and finally came to an ominous stop a good kilometer away - it had run out of diesel! We were stranded on the way up a hill without fuel and without any passing traffic. It was 6:25AM. We still had a lot of work to do and there was only 35 mins for the Pelican Express to leave!

Slabbing a huge ~8m microatoll at Olasana Lagoon, southeast Ghizo

Slabbing a huge ~8m microatoll at Olasana Lagoon, southeast Ghizo

Standing on that hill, forlorn and distraught, ultimately, we hypothesized about the worst-case scenario (not a bad thing to do when one does field work): we don't find a truck to the department in the next 15 mins, go get diesel from the nearest petrol bunk (a cool 5km away), drive to the Geology Dept., load our gear and get it to the dock, forget about the Pelican Express and look to board a later ship. And this was exactly how it played out, resulting in a loss of money and time. The Fair Glory took off from the Honiara dock at 10:00AM, giving us plenty of time to load our equipment and a long 27 hrs later, we made it to Gizo.

At Gizo, we've been staying at the PT 109 restaurant - named after JFK's destroyer boat that was wrecked not far away, 70 years ago. We've been here for four days, cutting and slabbing coral microatolls and it already seems like a month! Each day is a battle against the sun and those tough, tough corals. However, looking at a cut slab is like opening a present - you never know what you're going to get! Depending on internet availability, I'll try to periodically update the blog on the interesting geology we chance upon.

Western Solomons Field Summary

Fred and I found some pretty good-sized coral microatolls (like the one I'm standing on). This was at Mbava Island, Vella Lavella and all these corals were killed by the 2007 8.1Mw earthquake.

Fred and I found some pretty good-sized coral microatolls (like the one I'm standing on). This was at Mbava Island, Vella Lavella and all these corals were killed by the 2007 8.1Mw earthquake.

After spending a total of 52 days of field work in the Solomon Islands, Fred and I begin our long journey back to Austin, Texas tomorrow. The past ~8 weeks have been a phenomenal experience for me: from the people, their cuisine, and language, the surrounding flora and fauna to the science. The science especially has been truly wonderful. In this region, despite it being relatively devoid of technological investment in complex earthquake monitoring equipment, I’m convinced that corals hold many answers to questions pertaining to the seismic cycle and related processes. These answers could prove useful to the advancement of scientific knowledge on earthquakes as well as policy directed towards hazard management (for earthquakes and tsunamis), not only in the Western Solomon Islands but globally.

Even though our initial field plan was nothing close to what was actually executed, I would say that we have thus far been largely successful (no crocodile bites even). We have found large coral microatolls that (we believe) hold the key to intricate vertical motions of the land over a complete earthquake cycle. We have also found intact, in-situ, paleo-uplifted coral on land that will shed light on earthquake recurrence, arc segmentation and megathrust ruptures.

Geological field work in the deep tropics is tough, tough work and there are many challenges. One of the biggest hurdles aside from all the critters, bad weather and logistics is accepting that the ideal sample cannot be found! Slowly you realize that the ones you’ve already found aren’t all that bad. All in all, my Solomon Islands experience has been fantastic with all its ups and downs.

As they say in pidgin, “Solomon Islands hemi barava naice! Tenkio tumas iufala evriwan!”

Crocodile Hunting...

Here’s a story for you:

Eric Koti, the famed crocodile hunter from Nusatuva, Kolombangara

Eric Koti, the famed crocodile hunter from Nusatuva, Kolombangara

My colleague, Fred Taylor, has worked in the Pacific for a long time. For his PhD thesis he worked in Fiji and Tonga. Since then he has studied the tectonics and climate of many island arcs in the South Pacific including the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Fast forward to 2012 and he is still working in the Pacific! The other night we (Fred, Alison, Ricky, our boat driver and I) ended up in Nusatuva (which translates to Taboo Island in the local language), a small island off of the big island of Kolombangara, in search of a place to stay the night. We had worked our way up all around the west coast of New Georgia and headed over to Kolombangara looking for big coral microatolls (which to our dismay, we didn’t find very many). Luckily, the WWF Marine Protection Area Ecolodge at Nusatuva, a small lodge consisting of two double rooms under a thatched roof, had accommodation for us. Tired after a long day’s work, we freshened up and proceeded to cook some dinner (canned tuna for all except me, pumpkin, rice and ginger lentil stew made by yours truly). At this time, the caretaker (and builder) of the lodge, Eric Koti was sitting out on the jetty shooting the breeze with our friend Alison. I overheard both of them talking about crocodiles (in pidgin of course). Fred and I were sitting inside with Duncan, Eric’s son in law, who manages the place and I mentioned the crocodile talk to both of them. This was when Fred, as he often does, proceeded to narrate one of his stories.

Fred was working in Hog Harbor, Vanuatu sometime in the late 70s, when he met a Frenchmen who described himself as a ‘crocodile hunter’. Apparently, the Frenchmen had shot himself in his leg and walked with a limp. This had happened when he was out on a hunt in the Western Province, Solomon Islands and his pistol accidentally went off as he was surprised by a ~10 ft. croc in the bushes. After getting some medical attention, the Frenchman decided to sail back with his local Solomon Islander crew to Vanuatu (where he was based). The pastor at the village told the locals that they should see him off but jump off the yacht and come back to the shore after they had passed the reef because the Frenchman was more than likely to die on the journey! And this was exactly what the locals did; but amazingly, the Frenchman made it to Vanuatu in three days and begrudgingly recounted to Fred what had happened.

That was an interesting story in itself and by the time it Fred finished it, our dinner was over. Duncan, our host, asked Fred to narrate this tale to Eric, who had spent some time in Vanuatu and was married to a nee Vanuatu woman. The three of us stepped outside onto the jetty and joined Alison and Eric. Just as Fred started by saying that he had met a crocodile hunter with a bad leg in Vanuatu, old man Eric’s face immediately became animated and he breathlessly began to narrate the same story Fred told us! Lo and behold, Eric was a crocodile hunter too back in the day and he was the Frenchman’s colleague! Apparently, he was right next to the Frenchman when he shot himself. Eric went on to describe that particular crocodile and how they had to ‘be creative’ to get him. As it happened, Fred and Eric decided that they had met sometime in the mid-70s in Vanuatu after finding out that they knew the same people at the same places at the same time.

Eric told us how he hunted crocodiles and gave us some fine points on how to avoid them if we came across them. He said that on some nights, he hunted up to thirty of them! I asked him about the biggest one he had caught and he said he had never seen anything like the 9m one he caught in Vanuatu! The best part about all this, apart from some entertainment to kill a boring field night was Fred’s closing line: “See, I told you I’m not a liar!”