How Coral Bleaches

Healthy Coral

Above you can see a picture of healthy coral that has not been bleached. This picture was taken at Gab Gab Beach on Big Navy Base Guam, on April 21st, 2017.

Now then, last time I posted I talked about how coral is a living organism comprised of smaller organisms. These smaller organisms are called Polyps, and they are tiny animals. This is why you should never touch or stand on coral, because it crushes the tiny animals that it is made of.

This time, I want to talk about how coral bleaches.

First, remember that a coral is like an apartment complex. The building is made of calcium secreted by the coral, and the people who live inside are called polyps.

This is what a polyp looks like.

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As we discussed last time, a coral polyp can eat food from the water that it catches with its tentacles.

However, it is like a Venus Fly Trap: Even though a Venus Fly Trap eats flies, it still needs to absorb sunlight so that it’s chloroplasts can metabolize that light into food for the plant. Without sunlight, it would die.

The specialized chloroplast cells inside of a coral polyp are called zooxanthellae. Even though the coral is perfectly capable of catching food from the water with its tentacles, each polyp still needs its zooxanthellae to metabolize sunlight and produce a reliable food source for the polyp.

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The zooxanthellae are actually all different colors, and they are what gives coral its color. The polyps themselves are clear.

The problem is that the zooxanthellae are sensitive to temperature. If it gets too hot, the zooxanthellae will die. When they die, the polyp expels them into the water, and thus, it loses its color.

This is why coral that is bleached is not yet considered “dead.” The polyp is still alive, but it has lost its zooxanthellae.

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Rare cases have been reported where a coral bleached, but then the polyps were able to catch new algae cells and survive. However, the unfortunate truth is that once a coral bleaches, the polyps are very likely to starve to death and die.

Once the polyps die, the calcium skeleton is all that is left. This skeleton then becomes host to parasitic lifeforms that eventually break it down.

I moved to Guam is August of 2015. In the time that I have been here, I have seen the coral in Tumon Bay bleach and die, as well as the coral inside the reef at Tanguissen Beach.

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However, those are shallow reefs. I understand how they got too hot and their coral began to bleach.

On the other hand, Gab Gab Reef on the Big Navy Base is much deeper. Most of the coral sits at around 20 feet deep, depending on the tide.

And rather than being in an enclosed reef the way the coral in Tumon Bay and Tanguissen is, the coral at Gab Gab is in a very deep harbor.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

I never imagined that the coral at Gab Gab would bleach.

At least, not before I left here in September of 2018. And yet, the images that you are seeing now are from Gab Gab, and they were taken just a few months after the picture of healthy coral at the top of this post.

This is what bleached coral looks like. This is what a reef looks like when it is dying.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

The reef at Gab Gab was truly amazing. It was filled with an incredible diversity of life, and a wide variety of corals. And now, before my eyes, it is dying.

I can’t really tell you the emotional toll of watching corals die.

I know that these are structures that took generations of polyps to build. Many are hundreds of years old. Gab Gab has so many huge, ancient corals that are each home to hundreds of fish.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

It is an environment that took nature so many lifetimes to create. And yet, it is dying in the span of one Navy Man’s tour of duty on Guam. (My husband Rich.)

By the time the military sends my husband to a new port, I will have witnessed the loss of a huge percentage of the coral reefs on Guam. Just four years… and yet, I am seeing so much death.

There is no eulogy solemn enough or beautiful enough to pay tribute to the coral reefs of Guam. They were some of the most amazing things that I have ever seen, and I wish that I could express to you what a huge loss this is to every single one of us.

I am actually having trouble typing this because of the tears. And, if you were watching our oceans dry each day in real time, I have no doubt that you would feel the same.

There is no data yet on how big the 2017 world bleaching event will be. However, I would like to submit these photos to the world and to NOAA as evidence of the death in my small corner of the ocean.

Coral is Alive

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I don’t usually use this blog to educate people about science, but I am afraid that I feel it is necessary. So let’s take a moment to learn about coral, and what it is made out of.

Coral comprised of thousands of tiny animals called polyps.

Polyps are too small to see with the naked eye, but under a microscope you can see that a piece of coral is not a single entity. Rather; it is like an apartment complex.

A cooperative colony of polyps that all live together comprises what we think of as “a coral.”

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Inside the coral polyps are something called zooxanthellae.

Zooxanthellae are specialized chloroplasts that are able to take sunlight and metabolize it into food for the coral, the same way a chloroplast in vegetation absorbs sunlight and metabolizes it into food for its its plant host.

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Some corals also have tentacles that they stick out in order to try to catch bits of food that go by. However, all coral are dependent on their zooxanthellae for long-term survival.

You can think of a carnivorous plant like a Venus fly trap: it eats flies, but it will still die without the nutrients its chloroplasts make from sunlight.

This is why you must never touch coral. When you touch it or step on it, you are smashing hundreds of tiny polyps, and this does permanent damage to a coral. In fact, certain kinds of sunscreen are poisonous to coral, so you may even kill the entire colony just by being clumsy.

The lesson? Coral is a living organism made of many smaller living organism, and it’s not okay to touch it.

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Signs on the Beaches

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On the beaches in Oahu, I couldn’t help but notice that they had these lovely signs to tell you where you were, what you might see, and what the rules were.

It occurs to me that this would be extremely useful on Guam.

I mean, I have seen tourists stand on coral. I have seen people toss trash off the side of boats. I have been in a heated argument with a woman “looking for sea turtle eggs” because she wanted to eat them. And, I have asked people not to pet or feed the endangered species more times than I can count.

 

I am getting really tired of tapping people on the shoulder and trying to educate them, because most people are really not open to suggestions from some random white girl.

So I think we need signs.

I want signs in several languages telling people what our endangered species in this area are, and why it is wrong to cook them in soup or BBQ them. I also want signs explaining that coral is alive and not to stand on it, and signs warning people that there will be a fine for littering.

I know it wouldn’t solve the problems. I get that. But it would help. We would need  English for the locals, and Japanese and Korean for the tourists. I don’t think it would cost that much. The ones in Oahu didn’t look expensive.

So get on it, Guam. Let’s try to do something about all the abuse of our oceans that I see every day.

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What I Am Reading

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I always heard that it is important for a writer to read a lot. I think that’s true, although there is only so much time in a day, and I do love outdoor activities.

Currently, I am reading a book called Gulp, by one of my very favorite authors, Mary Roach. She has written some amazing books, my favorite of which is BonkBonk (because I actually giggled out loud a bunch while reading it.) But I have loved everything she has ever written, and been following her since she had a column in Reader’s Digest called Pardon My Planet.

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I also recently re-read the Harry Potter Series for the 20th Anniversary. They were good books to bring on our recent vacation because they are engaging enough to read on a plane with screaming kids.

Some books are good, but maybe not the kind of books that you can read in a train station in Calcutta or a subway in Seoul.

My battered paperbacks of Harry Potter have served me well through all the chaos of travel, and have managed to grab my attention no matter how loud my surroundings. If you need to ignore someone else’s screaming kids, Harry Potter will never fail you.

Plus, the TSA in the US is always scary and often they are not very nice. But, I got one of them to laugh out loud when he asked: “Do you have an e-reader, tablet, laptop, or other device in your backpack?” And I replied, “No, Sir. I have a book.”

The line got quite and everyone stared at me like I had horns and a tail. It was awesome. I pulled out my copy of The Half Blood Prince and flashed it around, and I got a lot of laughs.

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Another series I was recently reading was the Sookie Stackhouse books. If you have seen the HBO series called True Blood then I am sorry, because it was pretty awful. But the books are awesome and I had read them ages ago as they came out. I recently found out that the series was finally complete, and so I bought the last two and re-read the whole thing. It was a lot of fun, and each book only takes a day or two at most. Wait in a few lines at the post office or the bank, let a few meals simmer and stir occasionally while reading, and you’re done before you know it.

My students in Korea used to be aghast that I would walk while reading. They thought it was perfectly scandalous. But like any avid reader, I have read while doing pretty much everything, even showering (holding the book out of the spray, of course.)

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Sometime else I took a second look at recently was the Anne of Green Gables books. I hadn’t read them since 8th grade, and I forgot how… let’s say “dated” they are. But, I loved them dearly.

I actually cried reading them because it was so intense to read something that I had been reading back when I was an awkward pre-teen in a loveless home full of abuse. During some parts, I remembered my biological mother screaming at me so clearly that it was almost like she was in the room. It was always in such stark contrast to the books, where Marilla and Matthew love Anne and think of her as the light of their life.

Point is: If you never read Anne of Green Gables, they are charming and worth a look.

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I know a lot of people are re-reading American Gods because of the TV show. I thought about it. But American Gods is another one of those really engaging books, and so it used to be my go-to book on long plane rides. I think I can actually quote nearly the whole thing from memory by now, so I decided not to jump on that boat.

I do have the new Mary Roach book, Grunt, on the way. I am looking forward to that. But if you have any other recommendations, please get in touch and let me know. I always need book recommendations. I don’t have enough friends that read now, and I find that extremely depressing.

Mainland Goodness

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Living overseas can be really cool. I see all kinds of new and different things, and that’s always neat. How many people get to go to a Buddha’s Birthday parade in Seoul or swim with a sea turtle? I know that I am lucky.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that you just can’t get in other places in the world.

Fun Fact: Did you know that cocktails were invented in the United States? Some claim it was in New Orleans, and some claim that it was in New York, but no one disputes that they are a uniquely American invention.

This means that it is also pretty uniquely American to find a wide variety of alcohol and things to mix with it. (For non-US friends, I am talking about things you mix with alcohol like bitters, grenadine, and vermouth.) So, it is cool to see things like that on the shelves.

Then there are produce options!

In South Korea there is a poisonous berry that grows wild. It looks a lot like a raspberry. As a result, they do not think raspberries are food and do not import or grow them. This is a shame, as they are my very favorite fruit.

In Guam we mostly don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything has to go through costumes in Hawaii (as per US law,) so by the time it gets here it is rotten. And unlike Hawaii, we are not a volcanic island where it is easy to grow things. We are a coral island, which means that the soil is harsh and infertile.

So it’s apples and oranges, and broccoli. That’s what can make it here, so that is what we eat.

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I also miss things that are hard to explain. For example, we do have Chinese food here. However, we are very close to China and so we have Chinese Chinese food here. As it turns out, I don’t really like Chinese Chinese food. I like American Chinese food.

Fun Fact: Fortune cookies are American.

Another thing I really miss is good tortilla soup and carnitas. The people of Guam have some Spanish influence in their culture, but it’s just not the same.

I went all through High School and College in Arizona, and every now and then I am just dying to have some really good Mexican Food.

Thankfully, I can get good Korean and Thai food on Guam, so at least there is that.

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I guess the hardest part for me living overseas is shoes. Even in the US, I have absolutely broken down crying while looking for shoes.

See, I wear a size 12 in women’s. Yes, that’s right, a size 12.

Don’t bother leaving all the jokes in the comments. I have heard every single one. Yes, if I am in a hurricane I won’t blow over. I don’t need skis to go skiing. I am probably related to big foot. Ha. Ha. Ha.

All I really want to cute shoes like girls wear on TV. I want sexy pumps and cute boots and adorable sandals.

However, no one makes those things in size 12.

In Asia I can’t buy shoes at all. These just aren’t any. I tried ordering online, but so many places have sizes that “run small” and they don’t tell you. I ordered a pair from Chinese Laundry because I was so excited to see a size 12 on their site. I don’t know whose idea of a size 12 it was, but I could have cut off all my toes and still not fit my foot into it. So, I have to buy shoes in person.

I was excited to do this while stateside.

I went all the places that folks had suggested to me, like Nordstrom’s Rack and DSW. And I have to tell you: I have nothing nice to say about those places or the people who work there. Same for Target, Walmart, Journeys, and every other shoe store besides Payless.

Not only is Payless literally the only store in the United States that still carries shoes in my size, but the lady there was nice. I have no idea why shoe salesmen in other stores have to be nasty, act shocked, or ask if I am transsexual (I am not.) However, there are some mean and really rotten shoe salespeople, and I think I talked to all of them.

So at long last, I got two new pairs of shoes. With one more year in Guam, and likely another Asian posting in our future, I sure hope these two pairs last me a long time.

Anyway, I think a lot of times people look at my blog and they think that it’s really glamorous living overseas. And yeah, sometimes it has its moments. But I do live a life without raspberries and shoes, so maybe keep that in mind before you think my life is “perfect.”

Shoes that do not come in my size, sold by a very nasty person who thinks women with size 12 feet are subhuman. Thanks DSW.

Halloween Overseas

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I think a lot about the fact that the United States of America is a huge melting pot. It is full of different cultures and different types of people, and sometimes it seems like we don’t have much in common.

However, living overseas for most of the last decade has made me realize that we have more in common than we think.

One of those things is Halloween.

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People from the US ask me “What is Halloween like in other places?” and I have to laugh a little. Most Americans don’t seem to realize that the tradition of Halloween comes from the good old US of A.

Yes, there were some traditions from Europe that we borrowed to integrate into the holiday. However, pretty much every part of Halloween is uniquely American.

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Carving Pumpkins: a pumpkin is a native American plant. It used to make me so sad when I was living in Korea and my friends would say “Are you going to carve pumpkins?” After all, how could I? They don’t sell pumpkins in Korea. Why would they?

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Trick-Or-Treating: This tradition was started by candy companies in the 1950’s. When I used to tell kids in other countries about it, they flat-out called me a liar. It is unheard of in other countries that a child could go up to a stranger’s door, say “Trick or Treat,” and get candy.

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Costumes: Okay, sometimes people in other countries dress up. British people sometimes dress up for bachelor parties, for example. However, it is nothing like it is in America. I remember the other teachers back at Avalon English being aghast at the thought of grown-ass adults dressing up as unicorns and stuff. I just laughed. Of course we do! And it’s awesome!

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Guam doesn’t really do Halloween any more than Korea did. They are technically a US territory, but the holidays are different. This is a shame, and I lament it every year.

See, Halloween isn’t just one of the coolest uniquely American things; it is also my favorite holiday.

I know, that’s weird for an adult. But the thing is, Halloween is for everyone. You might say: “All holidays are for everyone.” If you have a family, it makes sense that you think that way. However, some of us know that it’s not true.

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Example: Christmas. 

I hate Christmas. Let me tell you why:

If you don’t have a family, at first, you might try to go to other people’s family gatherings.

Then they do presents, and no one got you anything, and it’s awkward.

You realize that you are intruding. They invited you, but they don’t really want you there. You feel like shit, and you learn to never do that again.

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So then the next year, you do a Christmas “for people who don’t have families.”

You get a whole bunch of lonely orphans together, and you can just imagine how cheerless that ends up being. You all sit around and think about your family being dead, or on drugs, or estranged. And big surprise, it sucks.

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So after a few years you just spend it alone. You try not to cry, but at some point you know you will.

Maybe you go to a bar and get drunk. Maybe you microwave a dinner and sit there alone eating it. But it sucks. It is just devastatingly painful.

I spent nearly 20 years alone until I was adopted by the Layman family. You simply can’t imagine the pain of 20 years alone on Christmas. It hurts so much that even after being adopted, I still can’t stand Christmas.

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I know that people with families won’t understand this. They will argue that they really do want you to come be with their family, or that you should go volunteer or be with friends. They don’t understand that it’s not just being psychically alone. It’s having attention drawn to the fact that you are alone in the world. That is just a horrible feeling.

So screw Christmas and all the other family holidays. They are mostly foreign holidays anyway.

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Halloween is not like that. Halloween is for everyone! And it’s American!

Ergo, even though I am on Guam where no one celebrates, I will be dressing up and celebrating just like I did in Korea. People can stare and think I am nuts. That’s fine.

This is the best holiday in the whole world. It’s better than the Color Festival, Buddha’s Birthday, and any other holiday that has been dreamed up elsewhere in the world. I never feel more patriotic than I do on Halloween.
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It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a family or not.

You can buy a big bowl of candy and hand it out to the kids. You can go to a Halloween concert or party. You can throw a party. It’s an excuse to see friends, dress up, and buy dry ice. What more could you want out of a holiday?

Besides, visually, it’s just so pretty. Some people don’t like the aesthetics of a holiday that confronts death. However, as someone who has seen a lot of death in my life, I find it more comforting than anything.

So to all of my fabulous readers: Happy Halloween!!!

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College Reunion

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I recently went on a long trip.  One of the things I did was go to my unofficial college reunion in Arizona.

My best friends in college were two lovely women named Sidra and Clarice. Both of them are doing well now, and it was a lot of fun to catch up. I am really glad that I took the time and spent the money to make it possible.

The reunion brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings for me. Most of them are sort of private, but I did want to share a few things that might help others.

1. Keep in touch with snail mail.

I am always surprised at how much it means to people to get post cards and seasonal greeting cards. I guess this is because mail is always exciting. You can hold it in your hand, and put it on your refrigerator. It is a way to display that someone thought of you. Most people just get bills and junk mail, so getting things you didn’t expect that make you happy can be very special.

I have been sending post cards and holiday greeting cards for about 20 years, and I think this is part of what makes people feel like they are still connected to me, even after years apart. I had not seen Sidra and Clarice in 10 years due to all of us being in different countries, but we still felt connected and like we were good friends.

Though it might seem silly, I will also add that I never got a label maker, nor do I run envelopes through my printer. I hand address each envelope, write a personal message referencing things in the person’s life, and include a Holiday Letter talking about my year. People bring up these personal touches when they see me, and thank me for them. That is how I know that they matter.

2. Make connections in college.

We all know that nepotism is how people get the really good jobs. The narrative is that anyone can do anything if they go to college, but the reality is that without connections, your degree is meaningless.

In college, I was so busy working to support myself, studying, and looking after my wayward aerospace engineer boyfriend that I missed a lot of chances to connect. I should have gone to my professor’s office hours and “kissed ass,” as they say. I should have tried to make more friends on campus. (And, probably richer more powerful friends.) I should have seen the scholarship breakfasts I had to go to as an opportunity instead of a burden.

The truth is; I was so busy surviving that I forgot to live. I wish that I had put more effort into climbing ladders instead of just working hard and thinking that would be enough to succeed. I bought the lie. I regret that.

3. Take chances.

I still regret winning a scholarship to study in Costa Rica in college, but then deciding not to take it. I was afraid that my boyfriend would get kick out of school while I was away (since he had so much trouble getting up in the morning.) I was worried that my boss would replace me at work. I was worried about where to store my stuff…

The truth is, I still regret not going.

If you get the chance to have a new or different experience, just take it! Even if you have to find a new job when you get back and put your stuff in storage. Just do it!

It’s true what they say: You only regret the chances you don’t take.

Over the years I have done a lot of wild things, like running away with the Renaissance Festival and then taking off to teach in South Korea. I don’t regret any of those things. But I still regret not doing that semester abroad.

I am hardly an oracle of brilliant advice. I am just a person who has been wandering around the world for awhile now, and I would like to think that those three pieces of advice are pretty solid.

I guess it also goes without saying that you should never lose touch with your friends. I am so glad I kept in touch with Clarice and Sid all these years!