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You are here: /main/research expeditions/CReefs 2006/interviews/irizarry

Interview with Emmanuel Irizarry aboard the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette on the Census of Coral Reefs expedition to French Frigate Shoals

Emmanuel Irizarry1. What is your name, and affiliation (i.e., Government, university, other), and where are you from?

My name is Emmanuel Irizarry. I come from Puerto Rico, and I work in the University of Puerto Rico, West Campus, Department of Marine Science. I work there as a research assistant with a lot of projects that involve coral reef monitoring and assessment. I just finished my masterís degree in June.

2. How did you become interested in your particular field/profession?

First of all I think that my inspiration came because I was always in touch with the sea. My parents always took us to the sea. And one time I grabbed a mask and opened my eyes underwater, and it impressed me a lot, and I got a very emotional attachment to the whole ecosystem, marine ecosystem, and as I grew older I kept in touch with that feeling. At the age of 12 I decided that I would like to be a marine scientist, so since then I pursued the dream, and I completed my masters degree. I think that trying to understand how animals in the marine environment behave, especially corals, and the whole system kept me going and going till I reached my fulfillment as a new marine scientist.

Puerto Rico has great reefs, and I know most of them in the East and South part of the island. In the 1990s I got myself certified as a diver, and I got closer to the system. And I thought always in terms of knowing the system in order to preserve and conserve the resources so everybody can share them, especially my sons. So that kept me going. Puerto Rico is an island of very deep traditions and culture and I think one of the most important things is the connection that exists within some of us to nature. We try to keep that torch burning as an island of beautiful resources.

3. Have you worked in the Hawaiian Archipelago before? Or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?

No, this is my first time here, in the Pacific and in the Hawaiian Archipelago. So for me it is a great experience. I have a very deep emotion, because as a human I would like to see the other part of the world. And as a scientist it is a great opportunity to compare the ecosystem in its natural state vs. what the coral reef has become in the Caribbean, in terms of degradation. For example I heard from my friend on the ship that there are still monk seals in Hawaii, and in the Caribbean monk seals have been extinct for more that 100 years.

So for me this will be a great opportunity as a scientist to gather that observation and try to get a better picture of what a coral reef is compared to what we have in the Caribbean. And from that I think I can contribute more to the recovery or conservation of our reef in the Caribbean.

4. Have you worked on a ship at sea before, such as this one?

I worked before on smaller ships, maybe 20 feet, not on ones like this. Since my work is diving and gathering data both, it is an interesting thing. In the Dept. of Marine Sciences we do have a larger ship, called the Chapman, and the ship was from NOAA. She was sold to the University and they bought it to conduct Oceanographic studies, physical, chemical and geological oceanography. So I know all the crewmembers of the ship, and sometimes they invite me to go on trips, usually very short trips, like 15 miles away from the shore and come back. Itís an experience. So the answer is yes and no. Yes because I have been out on short trips, no because this is a bigger ship, and itís a long distance. I feel very comfortable being here, and I will try to work hard and feel a part of this expedition.

5. What are your areas of interest or your expertise?

My specialty here on the ship is very different from what I studied. On the ship I am working with microbes, marine microbes, something very new to me. I have some basic knowledge in microbiology, but not in this aspect, so for me this is a new window of opportunity to learn something more about the whole marine ecosystem, not only the coral reef but the whole marine ecosystem, and microbes are everywhere (laughs). They are on the thin layer of the surface, in the sediments, on the deep slopes and they are very important. Most of them photosynthesize and produce what we call primary productivity. And from what I have been reading it will be very interesting to learn more about the diversity and abundance of these organisms in the sea. And itís very peculiar because at the beginning of the formation of life on Earth these organisms were the precursors of the atmosphere that we enjoy today. These organisms were the ones that changed, little by little, the conditions of the Earth. They were capable of producing offspring through several cycles and actually were the key factor in developing an atmosphere capable of supporting living organisms, and we can see this type of activity in microbes today.

This is very different from what I have done in Puerto Rico, and the opportunity came to me, I was not expecting that. I was working in Panama on a coral spawning program when I got the call. They needed a student to go to Hawaii, and asked if I was interested. Of course, yes, I was interested. Well, they never told me I was going to be working with microbes. I said ďmicrobes?Ē And they said, yes, microbes, you are going to sample what I am studying. I said ďit sounds very interesting. Put me in.Ē Of course I had to consult with my wife, and she said, yes, go ahead, itís your life. She agreed, I agreed, and now Iím here.

6. What excites you about working with these organisms?

Well, it sounds very funny but, I like to work with fish and sea urchins. Within the coral reef environment, besides corals, those two important groups are the ones that grab my attention. Why? Because those two groups have been key factors in whether there will be a recovery of the reef, or reef degradation. So I think those two groups complement each other in maintaining a healthy coral reef environment. Itís funny, but I like them and their interaction more than other reef organisms. For example herbivory and grazing, and how this makes substrate available for larvae to settle. Those two main groups are the ones that I target every time I am on the reef, I try to observe what they are doing, besides, obviously, the corals.

7. Any favorite stories about a particularly unique organism from your field of interest, such as a unique story of working with them, their ecology or unique adaptation the organism may have?

There is one time I was with my research partner who studies algae, and we were on the shallow reef taking pictures, and some samples, and he took a picture of diadema (sea urchins) that had grazed all the space around them. We put the picture in a PowerPoint presentation, and we were looking at the picture, and he was saying look at the algae, look at the red algae, look at this, look at that. And then I looked at a place under the diadema, there was this tiny yellow spot, and what I thought was that it was a coral recruit, and I did my thesis on coral recruitment. So, he was looking at the algae, I was looking at the recruit, and the sea urchin was there. What we can deduce from this observation is that the sea urchin was able to graze all the microalgae, leave the corraline algae, and leave the recruit alone. This is another example of how important this group of urchins is in cleaning substrate for coral recruitment. This was one of the best observations I have made, and with my research partner at the same time. Two brains seeing the same picture, looking for different things, and yet assembling a complete picture. And we looked at each other and said, now we understand this.

Another interesting example is coral spawning. Thatís one of the most interesting observations that anyone can make. To see the very beginning of the process, to see how the process takes place, and then to see how all these bundles just come out of the coral polyps, thousands. To see how the whole colony fills with these bundles, and you see the polyps all exposed. It is something amazing. And you keep thinking from one egg, one larvae, and one larvae that survives all this produces, in terms of geologic time, a reef. That is amazing. How can that be? It is a very exciting underwater experience. Observing coral spawning is one of my most grateful moments.

8. Why were you interested in coming on this expedition?

This is the first Census of Marine Life expedition that I am working on. In Puerto Rico we have this program called CRES (Coral Reef Ecosystem Study). Itís not like a census but it incorporates a lot of groups studying the coral reef Ė the fish lab, the octocorals, the coral reef lab, the algae lab. They all come together and gather data. Then you have the physical oceanographers to describe the currents around the coral reef and they all try to put this data together to broaden the understanding of the reef. The why and how a coral reef functions with all these important groups. So I think that project is somehow similar to CoML. It is also similar to this expedition since they have an invertebrate person, a coral person, etc., but CoML is more complex since it is looking at more areas and at a higher resolution.

When you put all the pieces together, it is like many pieces of a big puzzle to understand the coral reefs, and when you add the education part then it is great because more people get to see what we are doing. That part is very important because of the social aspect, and society knows what is going on and why we are doing it. Next time when another project comes up, people will understand why we want to do the scientific work. You need this connection with the public, because this gives you more support. Also, the children will be looking at it, and they will also learn.

9. What do you think you might find at French Frigate Shoals?

You know what, I tried over the last few days to imagine what is there, but I cannot. I cannot imagine what I will find. This has made the trip more interesting for me. It is a mystery for me. I have in mind the coral reef that I see and the system that I work in, what I know from the Pacific is only from what I have read. The Pacific is very different compared to the Atlantic. The Pacific is the worldís oldest ocean. And the Pacific is where all the coral reef biodiversity comes from, something like 600-700 species of corals, and who knows how many of fish and invertebrates. What I have in my mind for French Frigates Shoals is a healthy coral reef where there is no space, all the space is being occupied by organisms, and hopefully some coral recruits. I imagine a place which has a lot of fish, and top predators, like sharks. I have been diving since the 1990s in the Caribbean and only once have I seen a shark, and it was swimming away. Also the turtles that I see in the Caribbean see me and swim away, but a few days ago I was snorkeling on the North Shore of Oíahu, and I saw this turtle coming, and it just swam towards me and then past. This is so much different than turtle behavior in Puerto Rico.

10. What do you think is the benefit of this work to conservation in the NWHI, or to CoML, or marine science more broadly?

I think that the most important contribution that this cruise will make for science and management is that 1) if we go there and follow the permit by the book, others may have an opportunity to come and do research; 2) we will expand knowledge of the Hawaiian islands.

From what I have read there have been little human impacts at French Frigate Shoals and this expedition could help to understand what the impacts are upon coral reefs by comparison of this healthy reef with others that have human impacts. We should try to maintain or manage the system in terms of allowing people to come and being very strict in order to protect these reefs from anthropogenic impacts. And I think I am right in thinking along the same lines as the other researchers on this subject.


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