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New England Aquarium's marine ecologist explores coral reefs

By Cindy Atoji Keene

In the decade that she has been studying marine ecology, Randi Rotjan has seen major changes in coral reefs, including reef loss due to a boom in coastal development,; an increase in invasive species such as lionfish, and other changes in the ocean. As a New England Aquarium scientist, she has been collecting real-time data on warming oceans and reef loss in her research as she explores the tropical waters near places like Belize, Saudi Arabia, and the Bahamas. “It’s amazing to dive into the oceans and get a glimpse of the way it should have been before people started interfering,” said Rotjan, 35, of her studies at the far-flung Phoenix Islands in the Central Pacific Ocean, so remote that they are a five-and-a-half day boat trip away from Fiji. “But even in such a remote locale”, Rotjan says, “human-induced change is evident”.

Q: Why the interest in Phoenix Islands as a research site?
A: It is one of the most spectacularly far-off locations you can image, almost 1,000 miles away from any other land mass. Their remoteness has protected them from local human activities that stress coral reefs in other parts of the world. They are a barometer, a bellweather for understanding global changes.

Q: How do you do data collection and sampling in the field?
A: We mostly work underwater, on SCUBA, doing work with our own two hands. The interesting thing about working in water is that it is 3-dimensional: I am working on not just a horizontal plane but vertically as well, which I use to my advantage. W do studies that require counting the number and status of fish and corals along a given distance. To make these measurements, I take a camera, clipboard with underwater paper and pencil, and take notes while swimming along. Sometimes I’ll bring a hammer, chisel or drills to put samples into tubes.

Q: How do you prepare for an expedition to the middle of nowhere?
A: It’s a giant undertaking that requires several years of planning and fund-raising to make it happen. For the Phoenix Islands, we don’t see another human being for a month except for the people on the boat, so we need to bring fresh water, food and medical supplies, and all of our scientific and personal equipment. This can include underwater photography and video equipment, small robotson a tether, measuring tapes, tags, and temperature loggers.

Q: How did you become interested in coral reefs in particular?
A: This was totally by accident. While an undergraduate at Cornell, I focused on honeybees, insects that live in colonies. Later, I spent time on plant genetics. With this background in biology and ecology, I found myself drawn to marine systems, and I eventually focused on coral colonies, which are both colonial (like honeybees) and depend on sunlight (like plants).

Q: How do you cope with seasickness?
A: I do get very seasick and there’s no good remedy for it. The term I use for it is ‘feeding the fishes.’ You just need to work through it and eventually find your sea legs.

Q: What’s your must-have treat that you pack to get you through expeditions?
A: It’s herbal tea. I bring it with me everywhere. A good cup of tea, something decadent like ginger chamomile, is ultimately calming, no matter what environment you’re in.

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