Lake coring in the South Seas

Bleary eyed I walked off a plane onto Samoan soil just ahead of two of my supervisors, Prof. David Sear and Dr. Pete Langdon. It was around 6am and the first thing that hit me was a wall of humidity and the surprising lack of flies. Traversing through the airport we were welcomed by Samoans singing and playing guitars, immediately highlighting that I was in a very different place to anywhere I have been before. After David got the keys for the rental car, we drove along the coastline as the sun broke the horizon. Passing the local homesteads called Fales, we entered Apia (Samoa’s capital)and then took the main road that cut across the country. With the Sun blazing in the sky we came across our first magnificent natural wonder: a waterfall cascading into a deep ravine.

We then met Josie: our guide. She was incredibly friendly and welcoming, introducing us to the ‘boys’ who would help us over the next few days. With the assistance of Lucy and Anushka, Josie served us with a much needed breakfast on a veranda overlooking the picturesque Samoan coastline.

Beginning a little later than expected due to the never-ending rain we set off on a hike to the lake. We hiked through an overgrown grassy track, entering the jungle proper after overcoming obstacles akin to a Total Wipeout slalom. Needless to say that the boys – being ridiculously fit like most Samoans – charged off to the lake with our kit. Bright red flowers lined the track; trees soared into the sky; a bright orange mud lay beneath my feet that managed to get on virtually all of my clothes. For nearly two hours Pete, David and I hiked with Josie to the lake, finally gaining a view after fighting our way through dense vegetation. Simply, the first view of the lake was magnificent. Hidden away inside the crater of an extinct volcano all you could see was this near-perfect circle of green water. After gawking for a bit and appreciating where we were we began the work.

This started off with assembling a raft from various materials – a key component being tire inner tubes. Admittedly there were a few minor hiccups along the way: one being that an inflatable boat we had hoped to use had various holes in. The boys really proved their worth making the raft; never complaining, they really helped make what could have been an arduous task fun. Once the raft was built Pete and I rowed out, taking measurements of the lake’s depth so that we could gain an understanding of the lake’s bathymetry and determine where the deepest point was for coring the following day.

It wasn’t until the following day that we really got down to what we had come to Samoa to do: obtain lake sediment cores from Lake Lanoto’o. David, Pete and I rowed to the deepest part of the lake with all the kit – no easy task! – and worked as a team to obtain as long a core as we possibly could. After doing all of the necessary tasks to get our first core, we carefully brought up the corer to the surface. With trepidation, and much excitement, the core was extruded from the corer – we had mud! We repeated this process a few more times, eventually getting just under two metres of sediment. Sadly more couldn’t be obtained as several of the coring rods broke. I spent the following day cleaning the cores and logging their stratigraphy, taking samples at one centimetre intervals after I had done this. You would be surprised at how long it takes to do this – an entire day!

It wasn’t all work, though. On our final day in Samoa we visited Samoa’s version of a duck pond: a turtle pond. One of the most surreal moments of the trip was standing by the edge of this pond feeding the turtles a loaf of bread bought from a nearby store. I also went snorkling for the first time. Swimming along Samoa’s coral reef, admittedly fighting against a pretty strong current, I witnessed all sorts of weird and wonderful fish. The real highlight of the day, though, had to be the dinner Josie, Anushka and Lucy prepared for us on our final night. Cooked in a traditional Samoan stone oven, tuna caught that morning was wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked. I’ve honestly never tasted better tuna in my life. We were also served taro, a vegetable that is a Samoan staple, as part of the meal. If you’re ever in need of being filled up with as little food as possible then taro is your answer.

David and Pete continually said to me that it’ll probably be the best fieldwork I will ever experience; I think that I have to agree.