Key Largo, Florida | 25.0865° N, 80.4473° W | February 7, 2019
After driving nearly 900 miles, stepping out of the car and into the warm evening air of southern Florida feels especially sweet. We have just arrived in Homestead, a small town located a few dozen miles north of the Florida Keys. Within five minutes, we pull a few bags out of the car, take a quick look around our AirBnB, then head straight to the back yard. While Kate strums a melody on her ukulele, I stretch and stare at the day’s final rays of sun peeking through giant palm leaves. It almost feels like a vacation. Almost.
When Kate finishes playing, I tell her she has a beautiful voice.
“Thanks!” she says in the slightly sardonic tone that tells me she’s not being serious. “I don’t play to impress—it’s just to de-stress.”
“What are you stressed about?”
“I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to go wrong.”
Kate isn’t trying to be dramatic—just realistic. Perhaps the most definitive characteristic of field work is that something will certainly not go as planned. Despite countless hours of planning, organization, and tedious attention to detail, bad weather, bad timing, or simply bad luck could strike at any time. Before even getting in the water, Kate has already dealt with bureaucratic adversity—she almost didn’t obtain her dive permits due to the government shutdown.
“Whatever goes wrong—that doesn’t matter.” I say. “What matters is how you react to it.”
I first met Kate Gould on a scuba diving trip at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences back in 2016. We talked about live music, science tattoos, and ocean research. I distinctly remember thinking this chick is awesome, but it wasn’t until August of 2018 that we reconnected through our mutual friend, Bryan Reatini (a rock star biologist currently living the dream in the Galápagos).
In December, Kate reached out to me about documenting her PhD research. Since she was still in Bermuda at the time, we chatted over Skype, discussing plans for a week of field work dedicated to collecting, tagging, and transplanting corals.
“Sounds pretty similar to what I did with Justin and Colleen in Belize,” I told her.
“Yeah, definitely.” Kate said. “So are you in?”
Two months (and two days of driving) later, we arrive at the southern edge of Florida, joined by Janelle Reynolds-Fleming, a marine biologist and expert scuba diver fresh from a re-breather training. Over the next week, Kate and Janelle will collect, tag, transplant, measure, photograph, and analyze the metabolic performance of 64 coral fragments. I will do my best to document (and support) the process.
In the pre-dawn light of Monday morning, we load everything—dive gear, tools, coolers and my camera equipment—into Kate’s small hatchback. Our first stop is the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) in Key Largo.
Orbicella annularis, one of the most abundant species of reef-building coral in the Caribbean, is the subject of Kate’s research. CRF has agreed to donate 64 fragments of this particular coral for Kate to divide into groups, and transplant to four different locations in the Florida Keys.
Transplanting corals, in theory, sounds simple enough—grow some corals in a controlled environment, then move them to a reef in need. But corals, like people, are complicated. Temperature, salinity and other environmental factors play a big role in how effective coral transplantation turns out to be. So before investing time, energy and resources into transplanting a bunch of coral, it’s helpful to know the transplantation will be viable—and that’s what Kate is here to figure out.
To measure the metabolic health of her coral samples, Kate uses CISME (pronounced “kiss me”) , a cutting-edge technology developed by Dr. Alina Szmant and Dr. Rob Whitehead, professors of marine biology UNC-Wilmington. According to its creators, the name of instrument reflects its gentle interaction with the coral.
Before CISME, most measurements of coral metabolism involved breaking off pieces of coral and transporting them to a laboratory. After being severed, coral fragments then had to heal their broken edges while scientists artificially recreated the environment in which corals had been living. CISME was developed to avoid this disturbance and provide a means of making these measurements within the organism's natural habitat without causing damage. CISME is small and light-weight so that divers can carry it around and attach it onto sections of smooth coral.
Each CISME measurement takes seven minutes. While she waits on the readings, Kate blows bubble rings towards my camera. After photographing the CISME instrumentation from every angle, I turn my camera towards the abundant fish.
Working underwater is a unique experience, but it’s still work. Some things, like negotiating dozens of zip ties, can feel a bit tedious and awkward, while other aspects, like the involuntary shivering that comes from sitting still in cold water, can be downright painful. But for Kate and Janelle, this is just another day at the office. They approach their tasks systematically. They never complain. They get the job done.
After two days of collecting and tagging, we are right on schedule and Kate seems happy with how things are going. We drive south from Key Largo to the Keys Marine Lab to process and prepare the corals for transplantation. Shortly after arriving at the lab, Kate gets a phone a call with some bad news—the CRF boat won’t be able to take us to both dive sites tomorrow.
Instead of panicking, Kate methodically finishes processing her coral samples, then she calls every dive shop still open. As Kate and Janelle negotiate phone calls and logistics, I cook dinner for us and smile—this is what field work is all about. Find a way to make it work, no matter what.
After two stressful hours, and half a dozen phone calls, Kate has come up with an alternative plan for getting to both dive sites tomorrow. If all goes well, we’ll stay on schedule.
Between a few competent boat captains, perfect weather, and Kate’s sheer tenacity, she and Janelle finish the installation of the coral tables earlier than expected. By 3pm two days later, we return to the dock at the Keys Marine Lab, in slight disbelief that this initial phase of the project is already complete.
Over the next year, Kate will return to the Keys every three months to check on her tables, and measure how the corals are doing in their new home. But for now, her work here is done.
Working side-by-side for the past week has given me an acute appreciation of Kate, as both a scientist and a person. I admire her determined work ethic, and I relate to her fundamental love of the ocean. As 30-year-old, single, and strongly opinionated women, we have a lot in common, from our professional experiences: working in remote places, working in unpredictable conditions, working in male dominated environments, as well as priorities in our personal lives: music, traveling, strong friendships, and long-term goals. After our paths briefly crossed for the first time two years ago, I feel lucky that Kate has re-entered my life as a steadfast colleague and a dear friend.
After rinsing our dive gear and beginning the arduous process of packing, we decide to take a break to enjoy the sunset. Sitting on a slab of concrete at the edge of the Keys Marine Lab, Kate strums her ukulele, and I take photos. In the golden light next to the water, Kate seems to glow with satisfaction and relief.
“I can’t believe it all worked!” she yells into the wind.
To support Kate Gould’s research and reef restoration efforts in the Florida Keys, check out her GoFundMe page: Restoring Florida’s Corals