The search for pristine coral reefs, butterflyfish, and environmental DNA in Okinawa
July 7, 2016:
I arrive in Naha, Okinawa under the wind shadow of the foreboding Super Typhoon Nepartak, which by all accounts is set to steamroll over the heavily populated Taiwan. I am hoping it will veer south and west of course, and dissolve out at sea. Its far reaching effects can be seen from the window of my plane as we taxi on the tarmac to our assigned gate. Deep grey clouds unfurl on the horizon and unleash an army of rain bands that restrict our visibility to tens of meters. No doubt a menacing outlook of things to come.
unconventional and uncomplicated. For this trip I have packed minimal gear, I have a clear scientific mandate to fulfil (sampling of environmental DNA, more details to come), and I will be working from the respected home base of the University of the Ryukyus, which is rife with amenities and provides ideal sleeping arrangements. I will not be wanting for food or comforts from home. The only confusion that I encounter is upon exiting the airport; apparently I am not Chinese. It appears that the car company I enlisted is shocked that I cannot read or speak Cantonese, which is understandable given that 99% of the passengers on my Dragonair flight are prospective holidaymakers from Hong Kong. The remote rental car office is similarly perplexed, and struggles to find the attendant reserved for English speaking clients. In these situations tact, understanding, and patience are requisite virtues.
A rental car is not a luxury in Okinawa as I will need one to regularly stock up on supplies off campus, and transport people and tanks to prospective dive sites in the coming days. The GPS that I am provided with is less than ideal though, the voice prompt is in English but the touch screen interface is not; Japanese is instead a perplexing mix of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Okinawa, it seems, is also not known for their logical road system. Two hours into what should be a thirty minute journey I arrive on campus, and only because I have been here once before. The winding inland highway and narrow laneways, peppered with everything from barber poles to yuru-chara (Japanese mascots) heralding car dealerships, were at last familiar leading up to my destination.
The sign posted on my guesthouse door is confronting but not entirely unexpected. It warns of the “habu”, a highly venomous (but not so uncommon) pit viper species complex (Trimeresurus and Ovophis spp.) that enjoys hiding amongst the tall grasses that envelop this sprawling, verdant campus. An irate snake was spotted here last week, and although bites are rarely fatal, an extended stay in the local hospital to receive anti-venom treatment is far from ideal.
An hour later and I am greeted by my gregarious host, Associate Professor James Reimer (a fellow Canadian), who picks me up for dinner and treats me to a sushi train. Reimer-sensei has been based in Okinawa for nine years, and is one of the foremost experts in this region (if not the entire tropics) on “Molecular Invertebrate Systematics and Ecology”. Over the years he has hosted an army of students, postdocs, and interns (30 current members at last count) to help maintain a highly productive and interactive lab environment despite operating on a tight budget. His research group collectively pumps out taxonomic publications at a frenzied pace on all that is marine and invertebrate. His local knowledge, benthic survey data, and genetic voucher sequences for everything from corals to cucumbers (of the animal variety) will serve as an excellent point of calibration for our novel approach to sampling biodiversity. As James drops me off at my guesthouse for the evening I am buzzed by a pair of Ryukyu flying foxes (Pteropus dasymallus), whom, now threatened on the island, are surely in search of sweet treats (fruits and flowers). This close encounter heralds in the fact that I am now firmly planted in the tropics.