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Invasive Species Spotlight: African Tulip Tree

Name: Spathodea campanulata

Native Range: West Africa

Introduced Range: African tulip trees can be found in many countries throughout Central and South America, Asia, and the Caribbean. They are primarily invasive in the South Pacific. 

Introduction: Now a widespread and problematic species throughout the Pacific Islands, it was intentionally introduced in Fiji in the 1930s as a street and household ornamental tree. 

Why are they harmful?: Known for it’s bright, trumpet-shaped flowers, these fast-growing trees are considered one of the world’s top 100 most invasive species. They crowd out native species and are extremely difficult to remove as they can grow back from root fragments and its wind-dispersed seeds. They can quickly become the dominant forest tree which has detrimental impacts on the vines and animals that depend on native trees.

In Fiji, agriculture is the largest sector of the economy, but only 16% of the island is suitable for farming. Many locals will clear sections of land to make it more amenable to farming, resulting in damaged land that is ideal for colonizing trees like the African tulip. The problem in Fiji as grown over the last ten years, and now African tulip trees make up 20% of regrowth forests previously cleared for agriculture. In a survey conducted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the trees appeared on 98% of the farms surveyed. 

Methods of control: Young trees can be hand-pulled when the soil is soft, but adult trees need to be chopped down and their stumps coated with herbicide. Herbicides can either be painted, sprayed, or injected into the tree. 

African tulip trees dominate a piece of land previously cleared for farming. 

African tulip trees dominate a piece of land previously cleared for farming. 

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In Defense of Being Alone

Photo credit: Sean Sheerwood

Photo credit: Sean Sheerwood

I find that I am rarely, if ever, alone. 

I don’t say this to boast, but rather to state an observation. I’ve noticed this especially since moving to D.C. I live with four other people in a one-floor apartment, and although I adore my roommates, this means the apartment consistently hums with activity. I work in a large company with an abundance of young people, and free time is spent together at lunch, at evening happy hours, and on coffee breaks. I am also fortunate to live in the same city as many of my close college friends, meaning a weekend seldom goes by without suggestions of parties, events, or activities around the city. 

I love it. Weeks fly by in a haze of work and friendship, and I count myself incredibly lucky because of it. 

But at the moment, my situation is drastically different. I am in a foreign country where I know no one, in a city I’ve never been, living with a family I’ve never met. I’m 16 hours ahead from my friends and family in the States, making communication difficult. My days are shockingly unstructured and for the first time in a long time, my time is entirely my own. I have no responsibilities except for those I impress upon myself as I attempt to pull together a compelling narrative though my research. 

And I spend a lot of time alone. 

On a practical level, the alone time means I’m able to truly throw myself into my work, which is ultimately the reason why I’m here. But there’s another result, too: being alone means you don’t have friends and concerts and commitments to distract you from your thoughts. The emotions that can get pushed aside in the flurry of day-to-day life no longer have a place to hide. Being alone means taking a deep breath and pulling out the mirror: not the blurry, faded mirror, but the harsh, cutting, honest mirror and taking a closer look at yourself.

This closer look isn’t always pretty — and it shouldn’t be. During my quiet nights and long drives, I’ve tackled doubts about my career path, fears of traveling solo, and frustrations from missed opportunities. But I’ve also marveled at the unusual turns my life has taken since graduation, the serendipitous moments that led me to new opportunities, the inspiring group of people I’m blessed to call my friends, and the pride I feel for all of us making it this far in the “real world”.

Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s (really) lonely. But in many ways, it’s therapeutic. I feel more in touch with my goals, both personally and professionally, because I’ve have the time to really explore them. Plus, it makes you push outside of your comfort zone and meet new friends everywhere you go; between hostels and dive boats and restaurants, I’ve met enough people to couch surf in a dozen different countries.

Of course, I miss my friends and family terribly and will be thrilled to get back to my bustling life in D.C. But I hope I carry this lesson with me, and never forget the importance of taking time to reflect.

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Diving with Bull Sharks

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Diving with Bull Sharks

I never considered what I would do if I came face-to-face with a bull shark. But on Monday morning I found myself laying flat on my stomach 93 feet below the ocean, surrounded by over 50 massive bull sharks. My adrenaline was off the charts, and I had to focus on my breathing (and not making any sudden movements) so I wouldn’t blow straight through my air. 

It was a indescribable experience. The sheer grace and power of these creatures sent shivers down my spine. There was also something quite humbling about being so close to something that could kill you but chooses not to. 

Here’s a quick glimpse of the dive. Would you give it a try?

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Hiking in Fiji's First National Park (or, why you should listen to park rangers)

I’ve always been really bad with directions. As soon as someone begins to give me step-by-step instructions on how to get somewhere, my mind goes fuzzy. Probably because deep down I assume I’ll get lost anyway. 

And that’s what happened yesterday morning as I stood in the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park visitor center as a young guide tried to explain the park’s best hiking route. As he pointed to a series of colored lines on the map, I tried to remember if I had put an extra granola bar in my backpack or not. He seemed to be finishing up, but I couldn't tell. 

“And be sure to take a walking stick for the wild dogs”. 

Excuse me? That certainly got my attention. 

“What? Do they play fetch or something?” I asked. 

He chuckled. “No, they’re much less likely to attack you if you have a stick in your hand”. 

Well that was unexpected, I thought to myself as I gathered the map and my water bottle. I walked to the trail head, taking my time selecting a formidable-looking walking stick from the pile next to the entrance sign. Then I walked into the forest. 

There wasn’t another soul in the entire park; the early hour and a rainy morning had likely driven off other hikers. It was like all of Fiji had been presented just for me. I spent the first hour walking slowly across the hill crests, soaking in the 360 degree views of western Fiji’s forests, farmland, and coast line. 

But my appreciation for the park was a little bit tainted. Every time I looked through my camera lens I found another invasive species. The park was riddled with attractive but extremely harmful invasives, including the bright African tulip tree that’s considered one of Fiji’s peskiest invaders. On the first lookout point alone I could see three different species of invasive plants (that I know of!) in one photo. 

UGH invasives get out of here. 

UGH invasives get out of here. 

The trail continued on, leading me up a steep sand dune and down to the water’s edge. Strongly-worded signs discouraged swimming due to big waves and rough currents, stating at the end that “Your safety is our concern but your responsibility”. The morning’s storms had left the sea a foreboding shade of midnight blue, reflected in the sky by dark clouds. 

I sat on a pale piece of driftwood. The seascape was framed by the towering sand dunes behind me, leaving me feeling thrillingly and horrifyingly small. 

Yea....I wouldn't swim in that. 

Yea....I wouldn't swim in that. 

I’m not sure how long I spent by the water, but the quickening winds and light rain ultimately led me to gather my things and start walking. I realized that I had forgotten my walking stick somewhere down the beach, so I quickly grabbed a piece of bamboo from the large piles of driftwood. 

As I searched for the sign leading me back to the trail, I finally saw evidence of the wild dogs. There were a series of paw prints leading up the dune….a lot of paw prints. I snapped a few photos of the sand, thinking this would be great for the blog. But my finger froze on the shutter as I heard a growl behind me. Then another, and another, until the ground seemed to rumble with the noise. 

Had to include in the blog since this photo caused my mess anyway. 

Had to include in the blog since this photo caused my mess anyway. 

I turned slowly to see eight ragged dogs staring at me, looking pissed. My mind jumped to the advice my dad gave me when I would walk around the neighborhood alone: If a dog ever threatens you, don’t run. I stood with every muscle locked into place, one hand on my camera and the other on my walking stick. The standoff lasted for about fifteen seconds (was it only fifteen? it felt like an hour) before the largest dog turned and trotted up the dune and out of sight, quickly followed by the rest of the pack. The last straggler turned at the top of the hill and barked at me, almost as a warning to not come back on their turf. 

I didn’t need telling twice. 

Snapped this photo then hauled ass. 

Snapped this photo then hauled ass. 

The last leg of the hike was through a mahogany forest that was planted in the 1960s to stop the encroachment of the dunes onto nearby villages. It was lovely, to be sure, but I was a little preoccupied ensuring my four-legged friends were safely behind me. I emerged back at the visitor’s center twenty minutes later, sweaty but safe and clutching my walking stick like a prize. 

I told the ranger what had happened and he seemed oddly surprised. “Did you have a walking stick?” he asked. I nodded. “Well that’s why they didn’t bother you. They’ve learned to respect people with walking sticks”. 

As I walked back to the car, I promised myself that I would always, always listen to the advice of park rangers. I even promised myself I’d pay more attention to the directions too, just for good measure. 

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My Surprise Pit Crew

After a week of unrelenting dark clouds and rain, the weather gods blessed Fiji with a perfect day. My natural response, of course, was to go diving. 

Afterwards I climbed into my rental car and headed west to a hostel outside of Sigatoka, a small town that is close to my interview locations for the next four days. The sun was shining, my windows were down, my hair was salty, and Pearl Jam was on the radio. It was bliss. 

Seriously, it was gorgeous. 

Seriously, it was gorgeous. 

An imposing honk snapped me from my trance. A tractor trailer was tailgating me hard. Stubbornly, I stuck to my pace, determined not to satisfy the driver. Thirty seconds later he sped up to pass me, despite the fact there was a double yellow line. Are you serious? I grumbled to myself. 

But he didn’t pass me. He pulled up right beside me on the opposite side of the road and gestured furiously to my back tire. 

I don’t care where you are, that is never, ever a good sign. 

I quickly pulled off by a nearby village, the tractor trailer on my tail. In fifteen seconds my perfect day took a drastic turn when I realized that yes, my tire was indeed very flat. My stomach dropped: I was at least twenty miles from the next town, and I had absolutely no cell service. 

The three men from the tractor trailer came up to me. They didn’t speak much English, but the tire pretty much spoke for itself. 

Before I could even begin to come up with a plan, they launched into action. One went into my trunk to grab the spare, one went back to the truck to get his tools, and one searched under the passenger seat of my car for the jack. They moved as if they were responsible for getting me on the track to finish the last leg of the Indy 500, and I just stood there, gaping. 

You hate to see that.

You hate to see that.

By this time we had amassed quite an audience. No less than a dozen kids from the local village had emerged to scope out the scene, some asking me about my travels and some just giggling quietly behind the car. One of the truckers kindly suggested I lock my car as a curious (nosey?) youth began poking around inside my dive bag. 

Everyone who walked by stopped to look. At one point there were four men huddled around my tire, until one of the truckers barked at them and they scattered. Kids peered into my windows and climbed into my trunk and watched the proceedings with earnest. I tried to talk to the truckers but the language barrier prevented us from getting too far, so I just smiled and said “vinaka, vinaka” or “thank you thank you” over and over. 

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

In ten minutes it was over. The truck driver pointed to the tire then pointed to me and just said “Slow”. Ok, I can drive slow, I said. I ran to my backpack and pulled out a $50FJD bill (about $23  USD) and tried to give it to him. He looked down at me without saying a word and walked back to the truck. 

I stood stunned on the side of the road, truly worried that I had offended him. But thankfully he appeared a minute later, clutching a $20FJD bill to give me as change. 

“For Fiji Bitters!” he said. That I understood — Fiji Bitters was the locally brewed beer (there were signs absolutely everywhere), and $30FJD was enough to buy each of them a round or two. I smiled and thanked him again.

I made it safely to my hostel and arranged with the rental company to have the car fixed tomorrow. Unexpected hiccups like these come with the travel territory, but it makes all the difference to have folks on your side. Even (or especially) when they’re strangers.

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Encounters on the Rugby Field

Every day when I drive home from town, I pass a rugby field. 

I actually pass half a dozen rugby fields, but this one in particular always catches my eye. Twice I’ve been honked at for slowing down to watch the players scurry around the field. Fijians are nothing short of obsessed with rugby, and I seem to have gotten the bug. Perhaps it’s something in the water. 

Today I finally decided to stop and watch. I parked my car alongside the massive green, grabbed my camera, then inched up to the side of the field. I felt a little self-conscious—between my big camera and my car stamped with a large “RENTAL” sticker, I was certainly out of place. But I always get a little braver from behind the lens, and within a few minutes I was right on the sidelines, furiously snapping away. 

There must have been six different teams sprawled across the field, ranging from an excitable group of preteens to office intramural teams. There was also very fit group of college students that threw themselves into the muddy ground with such vigor that I was shocked all their limbs were still attached. 

They THROW PEOPLE IN THE AIR in this sport.

They THROW PEOPLE IN THE AIR in this sport.

The guy in the San Diego jersey was an absolute champ. 

The guy in the San Diego jersey was an absolute champ. 

Most of the players on the field were so engrossed in their practice that they didn’t notice I was there, but there was one older gentleman who kept looking over at me. He seemed more curious than threatening, but still I was wary. When the group took a break to grab some water, he made a beeline to where I was standing. 

“You must be the American girl who is taking pictures all over town”. 

I was startled. I did seem to fit that description. 

“Uh, yes, hi! I’m Erin”, I stammered. 

“You took my brother’s picture last week”. 

How could you possibly know that, I wanted to ask. But instead I said, “How did you recognize me?” 

“You’re blonde and seemed like an American”. 

I laughed. Although I always try to play the local everywhere I travel, it was true I didn’t exactly fit in. Between my light hair, blue eyes, pale skin, imposing camera, lack of traditional dress, and bright backpack, I stuck out like a sore thumb. And being from the United States immediately draws attention—although American tourists are common in the resorts, amongst the towns and villages we are few and far between. I haven’t met another American traveler in the two weeks I’ve been here. 

The rugby player asked the normal range of questions: Where are you from, how old are you, are you alone, what are you doing here, etc. Anywhere else these questions might seem odd (or downright creepy), but here they’re completely harmless. I talked to him about rugby, my grant with National Geographic (“Is that the one with the yellow box”?), and my upcoming travel plans to other islands around Fiji. He asked me multiple times how I liked it here: Is your host family nice? Are you excited to see Taveuni? Do you like Suva?. It was as if he was responsible for making sure the country put their best foot forward for me. 

He and I chatted for about ten minutes, long after his comrades had started playing again. Eventually he turned and said “Well Erin, nice to meet you. Perhaps I will see you around Suva”. I thanked him for coming up to say hello, and he smiled. 

“That’s what we do when we see new faces in town”. 

He ran off to rejoin the team, leaving me once again pleasantly surprised at the kindness of the strangers.

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"The chief is ready for you": One night in a Fijian village

“The chief is ready for you”, Jone whispered. “Remember, don’t stand up once you sit down. And mind you sulu when you cross your legs”. 

I hurriedly tightened my sarong-like sulu around my waist, bowed my head, and followed Jone into the house. 

The chief sat solemnly in the center of the room, illuminated by a single fluorescent light. Along the left wall, three villagers sat silently, their faces partly in shadow. The four of us entered single-file and took our places on the right side of the room. Our two guides, Jone and a local villager who we knew as James Bond sat in front of the chief. James Bond began to speak. 

It was Saturday night in the village of Denimanu, an outpost on the remote island of Yadua. Our group, composed of representatives from the IUCN and Fiji’s National Trust, had spent the day on neighboring Yadua Taba, a small spit of land home to 95% of the world’s population of Fiji crested iguanas. We came to the island to observe this critically endangered species and learn more about the successful efforts to return the island to its natural state. This conversation, like many regarding conservation on Fiji, could not be complete without talking about the engagement of the local community. 

The Fijian crested iguana turns dark when it's angry. This one isn't too pleased with me, but he makes for a great photo. 

The Fijian crested iguana turns dark when it's angry. This one isn't too pleased with me, but he makes for a great photo. 

Fiji is nothing if not deeply rooted in tradition. It permeates every facet of life here, from appropriate dress to land ownership to social encounters. Understanding and respect of the complex web of Fiji’s social structure is imperative to accomplishing anything. 

Which is why I found myself cross-legged on a woven matt, head bowed as I listened to James Bond softly speak to the chief. He spoke in the local language of bau, his voice almost purring as he rolled over soft l’s and k’s, the chief saying nothing but an occasional “vinaka” or “thank you”. After a few minutes Jone pulled out two wrapped packages. One was a yaqona, or kava root, which the chief inspected briefly before handing it to another villager to his right. Then Jone presented a much smaller package, which the chief unwrapped and studied very closely. It was a tabua, or whale’s tooth, a rare gift that is the ultimate sign of respect and gratitude. The chief looked at each of us in turn before saying a soft “vinaka”. 

It was the chief’s turn to speak. He continued in bau, rarely glancing at us but rather focusing on Jone and James Bond. I was prepared for this part of the ceremony: this was when the chief decides whether or not to bless us with his permission and allow us to stay the night in the village. Typically, we would have sought the chief’s permission before venturing to Yadua Taba, but the strong wind and waves had prevented us from completing this courtesy. But the National Trust has a long established relationship with Denimanu, and our whale’s tooth was representative of our respect for the village. 

Whale's teeth are hard to come by, making them a rare and significant gift to a village chief. 

Whale's teeth are hard to come by, making them a rare and significant gift to a village chief. 

The chief finished speaking and the atmosphere in the room shifted significantly. Suddenly, everyone was much more relaxed, and a few of the villagers even began to talk amongst themselves. The chief had given us his blessing. 

Robin Yarrow, one of my fellow travelers, asked to speak. Although Robin is of Australian descent, he was raised in Fiji and has lived here all his life and dedicated his career to civil service. He is currently chair of the Board of National Trust of Fiji, and organization committed to protecting Fiji’s natural and cultural heritage, and the group responsible for maintaining the iguana sanctuary on Yadua Taba. 

“It is truly an honor to be here and to have visited the iguanas today”, he said. “This sanctuary is something all of Fiji can be proud of”. He continued, “This would not be possible without the support of your people. Thank for your continued support, and we hope to keep this relationship for years to come”. 

He wasn’t exaggerating: the island is leased from the locals to use as a sanctuary, and the villagers provide the manpower to remove the invasive weeds that destroy the iguana’s habitat. Without their support, the sanctuary wouldn’t exist and the iguanas would be on the fast track to extinction. 

As Robin spoke, the chief smiled and thanked him. You could tell he was proud. 

And therein lies the key to the success of the sanctuary. The local villagers not only participate in conservation efforts, they are proud to do so. The iguanas are a large part of their identity, and they feel the drive and the responsibility to protect them. This is largely due to the National Trust directly engaging the locals in management and respecting their local traditions, a model that should be emulated through the rest of the country and throughout the world. 

The chief spoke to Jone, who then turned to us. “He has invited us to stay for kava”, he said. Of course we accepted and thanked him profusely. Because when a chief offers you something, you don’t say no. 

Some younger villagers took our kava root outside, and soon you could hear a distinct boom clink, boom clink as they ground the root into powder. Another villager brought in a large wooden bowl and rested it on the floor in front of the chief while more and more men filed in, each taking their seat around the perimeter of the room. 

Younger members of the village prepare the kava as the chief sits on the far right. 

Younger members of the village prepare the kava as the chief sits on the far right. 

For the next twenty minutes, I observed quietly as the young men filtered the power into the bowl, speaking softly and occasionally clapping at appropriate moments throughout the ritual, a deep booming clap that seemed to shake the ground. The chief took the first drink of kava, then offered it to Jone, then to Robin, then to me. I clapped, took the coconut shell filled with muddy-looking water, and swallowed it in one gulp. It tasted exactly like it looked (like muddy water), but I kept a straight face and thanked him. Immediately its anesthetic properties started to take effect and my tongue turned numb, followed by my lips and the rest of my mouth. By the third round, I simply felt peaceful and content. 

We were interrupted (saved?) from the continuing rounds of kava by an announcement that dinner was ready. I stood (careful that my sulu was still secure) and turned to thank the chief, bowing my head in gratitude. I left the room feeling thankful that I was able to witness this sacred piece of Fijian ritual and inspired by the dedication of the villagers to the iguanas of Yadua Taba. 

If we could all interact with each other and the environment with as much respect and gratitude as these Fijian villagers do, the world would be a much better place. 

A young boy walks between houses in the Denimanu village on Yadua. 

A young boy walks between houses in the Denimanu village on Yadua. 

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Invasive Species Spotlight: Common myna

A common myna in Suva, Fiji. Not pictured: Me crawling around in a parking lot trying to get this photo. 

A common myna in Suva, Fiji. Not pictured: Me crawling around in a parking lot trying to get this photo. 

Name: Acridotheres tristis

Native Range: Asia

Introduced Range: South Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, United States (Florida), and more. 

Introduction: Myna birds were intentionally introduced to Fiji in the late 1800s to control pests on sugar cane crops. Now, have become one of the worst invasive species in Fiji, and are one of only three birds mentioned on the world’s 100 most invasive species list.  

Why are they harmful?: In India, myna birds are called the “Farmer’s friend” because they eat insects that destroy crops. In their invaded range, however, they damage bananas, pawpaws, chilis, and other crops that are a necessary source of income for rural farmers. They are also simply annoying: they steal food from kitchens, pollute drinking water with droppings, and congregate on building roofs in large numbers, resulting in a bad smell. And they are LOUD.

Most disturbingly, Mynas are fiercely territorial and have been observed destroying the eggs of other birds native to Fiji. Although they only use one nest during breeding season, they create many nests simply to reduce the available nesting space for other birds. They also harass other native birds by pushing hatchlings from their nests and chasing birds away from food sources, sometimes just for fun.   

Methods of control: Some have used chemical control (poisons), but this method is quite expensive and kills household birds and pets if accidentally consumed. A cheaper and more humane method is a Pee Gee (PG) trap that lures mynas in with food. This trap is environmentally friendly and catches the birds live, meaning that non-targeted animals and birds can easily be released, unharmed. A study conducted in rural Fijian villages found that a PG trap collect about 30% of resident mynas, although these traps need to be monitored frequently as they are sometimes disturbed by village kids of predators like cats and dogs. Another method is removing myna nests, although in urban areas nests can be difficult to reach, as they are often on building roofs. 

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Photos: Into the Rainforest

This week I took a trip to Colo-I-Suva Forest Park, a gorgeous patch of low-altitude rainforest just north of Suva. Native Fiji wildlife packs the trails between a series of waterfalls. Check out some of the photos from the hike! 

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Ignore the Signs and Go Diving

By 7:30 a.m., the universe had already given me a half a dozen reasons to give up and go to bed.

The weather was cold and rainy as I loaded my dive gear into the car, blundering blindly in the pre-dawn darkness. Within 15 minutes of leaving the house, I got hopelessly lost thanks to Fiji’s frustrating habit of only labeling about 25% of its roadways. The drive took me about two hours, as I gravely miscalculated the distance from the resort to the nearest town. Once I finally found the turn off, my car got stuck twice in the muddy roadway (I fortunately remembered my Dad’s advice when he used getting stuck in the snow as a teaching opportunity — thanks Dad).  

The rain stopped for ten minutes on my marathon drive, and it was gorgeous. 

The rain stopped for ten minutes on my marathon drive, and it was gorgeous. 

My next sign came as I was filling out my dive paperwork. One by one, each of the other five divers that signed up for the morning’s outing backed out, citing watered-down excuses like “My back hurts”, “I’m tired”, and “I want to hang out with my friends”. When it came time to board the boat, I was the only diver remaining. When I pressed my divemaster, Ilse, for information about my missing comrades, she replied casually, “It’s probably because the conditions have been so lousy. Almost everyone got sick on the boat yesterday”. 

Ouch. 

I had just a moment of hesitation before my stubbornness and overwhelming desire to dive took hold. And so curled up in a sweatshirt, cap low on my brow to protect from the blowing rain, we embarked on the 45 minute boat ride out to the site. 

They weren’t kidding about the poor conditions. The boat rhythmically lurched above the waves and landed with a resounding thud that sent shocks straight through my spine. Anything on the boat that wasn't secured chaotically flung around the deck, leading Ilse and I on an uncoordinated (at least on my part) mission to collect the items. I was certain there was about a 68% chance of me either throwing up and/or dying before we reached the site. 

Thankfully, I was saved by the instant bond of divers: I settled into a deep conversation with Ilse about our experiences as divemasters, each of us braced precariously between metal poles on each side of the boat so we wouldn't be flung off the side. It was a miraculous distraction. Even though I’ve felt seasick in waves a quarter of that size, I never once felt queasy, and the travel time passed quickly. 

By the time we reached the dive site, I was nervous. Not for the physical act of diving, but rather for what was waiting below the surface. All of my diving up to this point had been in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean, where most of the conversation revolved around the damaged nature of the reefs. I was worried this Pacific reef would be just as worn. 

It took me about 30 seconds underwater to realize what I was looking at. Stretched before me in every direction was piles of the most spectacular coral I’ve ever seen: branching Staghorn stacked five feet high, flat Tables that were actually the size of my dining room table, and colorful soft corals tucked in every nook of the rock formation. I was giddy. 

A wreck near the reef is covered with sea life. 

A wreck near the reef is covered with sea life. 

There’s something rejuvenating about immersing yourself in a healthy reef. Every square inch is teeming with life, from minuscule neon nudibranchs to swaying anemones and beyond. And the color: fish of all sizes splashed in glowing yellows, blues, reds, and purples. It’s comforting to know that no matter what happens elsewhere in the world, this place exists, with each plant and animal interacting in turn to create a spectacular ecosystem. 

Ilse and I drifted slowly along the reef, occasionally grabbing the other to point out some small crab or flatworm. We were visited by both a green sea turtle and a whitetip shark, each eyeing us lazily. After 50 minutes were emerged on the surface, freezing and thrilled. 

The stressors of the morning were long forgotten. It didn’t matter how tired, cold, hungry, or sore I was, that dive was a reminder that every minute I get to spend alongside a coral reef is truly a gift. It was also a reminder of the importance of protecting our oceans; everyone should have the opportunity to experience the beauty of these coral reef ecosystems.

Lastly, it was a reminder that sometimes you should ignore signs from the universe. Especially when those signs conflict with diving.

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