2015 Expedition: Mission Control

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from the expedition's co-chief scientists, Drs. Randi Rotjan and Sangeeta Mangubhai

The team has arrived, safe and sound, some jet-lagged and others bounding with energy. We have come from different directions – Fiji, Kiribati, USA and Saudi Arabia.

Beautiful day in Apia, Samoa

Our last two days are focused very much on opening boxes and making sure we have everything, and checking that nothing got broken on the journey over. We literally filled a shipping container for this trip with 45 dive tanks, a small skiff, microscopes, experimental equipment, etc.

Brian working with the Hanse Explorer crew to load all our gear on the boat

The Hanse Explorer's crane hoisting gear

Getting everything packed and to the boat is one thing; organizing everything on-board is quite another! Thanks for the crane and the many hands, the team members and crew worked together to get the job done.

Aranteiti helping to set up the zodiac

Robert preparing his chemicals

Peter reviewing what he needs to do for his iron experiments

The onboard shenanigans include zodiac set-up, last minute protocol checks, chemical mixing, compressor checks, tank filling and other important safety and logistical setups. And with the jobs completed, the people and supplies and equipment onboard, the time has finally come.

It's like being in a mission control room (think "Apollo 13").
  • Dive safety? Check. 
  • Medical safety? Check. 
  • Biosecurity? Check. 
  • All passengers onboard? Check. 
  • All equipment and supplies? Check. 
  • Everyone ready for the adventure of their lives? Check check. :-) 

Good to go. Green light. "So long, Earth - see you on the flip side".

So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

— Randi and Sangeeta


2015 Expedition: Safety First

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Liz Drenkard, PhD, who will be collecting temperature and current profile information to study connections between PIPA and other Pacific reef corals.

We're currently at port in Apia, Samoa, anticipating a timely departure for the Phoenix Islands! Both crew and scientists are making final equipment checks in preparation to get underway. For the ship's medical doctor, Craig Cook, this means testing the onboard re-compression chamber to ensure we are ready for any SCUBA-related emergencies.

SCUBA diving in PIPA on previous expedition

What is SCUBA
SCUBA stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, meaning we can bring an air supply with us to stay underwater to do our research. SCUBA diving is essential for studying PIPA's reef ecosystems, allowing us to assess everything from water chemistry and record ecosystem conditions to observing fish populations and collecting coral samples. However, there are inherent risks of breathing pressurized air underwater and diver safety is paramount.

Yashika leans how to operatte a hyperbaric chamber

Our bodies need oxygen to function. When we breath, atmospheric gases diffuse across the tissue layer in our lungs into our blood stream where it gets circulated throughout our bodies. Our cells pull out the oxygen they need that's dissolved in our blood and expel back carbon dioxide, which gets pumped back to the lungs and exhaled. This whole process is called respiration. However, a large percentage (~78%) of the air we breathe is nitrogen gas (N2), which is inert and doesn't really affect us at surface sea-level pressures.

But when we descend and breath air from our tanks, the combined pressure of the atmosphere, plus the water above us forces more N2 to be absorbed from our blood into our tissues (e.g., muscle, fat). This isn't inherently dangerous but it is critical that we come back up to the surface slowly so that our bodies have enough time to gradually "vent off" the extra N2 that was stored in our bodies while under pressure. A rapid ascent/ decrease in pressure can result in the formation of problematic N2 bubbles in the blood and tissues because that extra N2 can't stay in dissolved in the blood and tissues at the lower pressures. This condition is called 'decompression sickness' (DCS) or, more commonly, the bends, and exhibits a wide range of symptoms from minor aches and pains to more severe cases where nitrogen bubbles fatally block blood flow to the brain.

Preventing the Bends
Our first line of defense against DCS is of course avoiding it entirely by making slow and controlled ascents and incorporating safety stops into our dives, where we pause a few meters below the surface to let our bodies adjust to a pressure that's lower than it was at our maximum dive depth but higher than at the surface. If a diver is suspected of having DCS, there are two primary means of eliminating excess nitrogen from their systems: first we have them breath pure oxygen gas (O2). This creates a higher chemical gradient across the lungs (0% nitrogen breathed in vs. what's in the blood), which causes N2 to diffuse out of the body more rapidly than if one breathes regular air that is composed of mostly N2. This is sufficient to treat minor DCS cases but sometimes it is necessary to re-pressurize a diver's body to force the N2 bubbles back into solution and then very gradually return their bodies back to surface-level pressures. That's where the re-compression chamber comes into play.

Liz gives perspective on the actual size the portable recompression chamber

Treating the Bends at Sea
Chambers come in all shapes and sizes but the basic idea is that it's an enclosed space that can be pressurized much like an airplane cabin. Most times, coastal divers can reach re-compression facilities on land but when traveling to remote locations such as PIPA we have to bring a portable chamber with us on board the ship. When fully inflated, our chamber is a red cylinder, just long enough for a person to lie down in—sort of like a human sushi roll. A person in need of recompression wiggles into the chamber and gets outfitted with an O2 mask, and a microphone and headphones so they can communicate with folks on the outside. The ends of the chamber are then sealed off with the person inside and the pressure of the chamber is increased and dropped back to sea-level pressure over the course of several hours.

Given our divers' extensive safety training and experience, it's unlikely the chamber will make a repeat appearance on this trip, but the equipment check was a great opportunity for us to learn how to set it up and for Dr. Craig to ensure we have a safe and functional chamber for this epic adventure!

— Liz

Liz Drenkard, PhD, studies the response of ocean dynamics, ocean biogeochemistry and living marine resources to CO2-induced climate change with implications for conservation. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University working with Dr. Enrique Curchitser and the Environmental Systems Modeling group to use high resolution ocean models to understand reef ecosystem vulnerabilities or resilience to climate variability. During this expedition, she will be collecting temperature and current profile information to validate the model we will use to study the connectivity between PIPA and other Pacific reef corals. Her graduate research, which focused on the role of nutrition in coral calcification response to acidification and the implications for reefs in the equatorial Pacific, was conducted at WHOI under the mentorship of Drs. Anne Cohen, Dan McCorkle and Kris Karnauskas. Her outreach efforts include serving as a science liaison for the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation; In the past, she worked as an assistant aquarist at the New England Aquarium and is currently a volunteer for The Raptor Trust: a wild avian rehabilitation center in NJ.


2015 Expedition: Back to the Future!

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from the expedition's chief scientist, Dr. Randi Rotjan.

Before sailing off to the middle of nowhere, it is wise and prudent to check that all gear has arrived as expected. In doing so, our team discovered a few missing items, which are near impossible to source or replace in Apia. In moments like these, we all wish for time travel: "If only I could go back a few days and get the part and bring it with me". "If only I could stop time so that someone could fly the part here from home". Typical wishful thinking!

In our case, we noticed that the oxygen analyzer was missing. An oxygen analyzer is a critical part of a hyperbaric chamber (yes, we are bringing a hyperbaric chamber onboard with us... a must, when the nearest chamber is over 5 days away!!). The analyzer determines O2 levels in the chamber, to make sure that an injured diver receives as much O2 as possible without hitting toxic levels. This is especially important, since O2 concentration is a moving target - each person has a different physiology that is constantly changing. O2 content is related to flow, breathing rate, absorption rate... quite a lot of factors. So, without an O2 analyzer, there is no way to effectively monitor oxygen levels.

 Sangeeta and Craig inspecting the hyperbaric chamber (Photo: Yashika Nand)

Long story short, however, there was some scrambling, some crazy moments, but after a lot of dedicated effort, miracles happened, and we found an analyzer!! Only 20 miles away! 

No big deal! 20 miles, pfft! Easy peasy! Unless.... 20 miles is in another country and across the dateline. Yep, a few years ago the international dateline was moved so that now Samoa and American Samoa are a whole day away. Luckily, we have a resourceful team member who made the time travel leap and flew into yesterday, to retrieve the oxygen analyzer to bring it back into tomorrow. Talk about back to the future! 

Take a look at the dateline in the central Pacific. For those who dream of time travel, this is the best spot on the globe to play with the concept.

Map depicting the change in the International Date Line for Samoa. — Picture courtesy of www.samoa.travel
Map depicting the international dateline. Courtesy of www.samoa.travel

But most importantly, all of that time travel has enabled what is going to happen TODAY: The ship will set sail, north, to PIPA. But en route, the ship will likely cross the dateline a few times.  First, into yesterday. Then, back into tomorrow. Then, back into yesterday. Of course, all the while staying today for those onboard.

Liz Drenkard testing that the hyperbaric chamber is now working, once missing parts have crossed the dateline and made it to the ship. (Photo: Yashika Nand)

Forward to PIPA! No turning back! :-)



2015 Expedition: Talking turtle tagging with SPREP

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Sangeeta Mangubhai, the chief scientist on board the expedition.

With only five days to go before we head off on the Hanse Explorer for the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati, there is no time to sit around and pontificate. The days before an expedition starts are chaotic, as we double check, and then triple check that we have everything we need. Once we pull up anchor and leave port, there is no turning back as we head to one of the most remote marine protected areas on this planet.

Chief scientist Sangeeta Mangubhai and Catherine Siota 

My main task for today was to meet with turtle expert, Catherine Siota at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). Originally from Solomon Islands, Catherine trains Pacific Islanders on turtle monitoring and tagging, and helps Pacific Island governments develop management strategies for protected marine species. Today was my training day!

Tags and their applicator

This year SPREP have generously provided the expedition with titanium and inconel tags to clip onto the tail edge of the flippers of turtles. Each tag has a unique number that is entered in the regional turtle database. When a turtle with a tag is caught or spotted, people are encouraged to take note of the number and then report it to SPREP and their respective government. This way, we can find out how many different national jurisdictions a turtle may cross.

Catherine Siota demonstrates how to install a flipper tag

Catherine gave me a crash course this morning on tagging and what data I need to meticulously record on each turtle, a task that Julie Cavin, a vet from the New England Aquarium and myself, will be responsible for. We have strict protocols in place to make sure we cause the absolute minimum amount of stress to these animals.

Catherine showing me the right place to install a flipper tag

Tagging is best done on nesting females, though if we cannot find any, we will tag turtles foraging around on the reefs. The data collected will contribute a large regional analysis Catherine and I are doing to understand movement patterns of turtles in the Pacific.

So far, very few turtles have been tagged in Kiribati. We know from previous expeditions that there are lots of green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Phoenix Islands, and this species is at least 20 times more abundant than hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). We have seen these two species of turtles on countless dives in the water and documented evidence of turtle nesting on at least even of the eight atolls and islands.

A silly errant thought slips past me. If I was a turtle nesting in the centre of the Pacific with vast ocean all around me, I wonder which way would I go? Perhaps our work will help solve this little mystery!


2015 Expedition: Global ship-ing

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from the expedition's chief scientist, Dr. Randi Rotjan.

In a world where one click can deliver goods to your doorstep in 24 hours (with rush shipping), it is almost impossible to contemplate global shipping with a 2-month+ timeline. But, when headed to the middle of the Pacific, there is no 24-hour rush option. 

Expedition gear hoisted into a truck to begin the long journey to the Phoenix Islands

Starting in just a few days,  the 2015 Phoenix Islands Protected Area Expedition will kick-off, representing years-worth of preparation and months worth of shipping. This venture is led by the New England Aquarium, in partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and all I can say is: wow -- the planning has been a long time coming. 

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Sarah Driscoll and Bess Edwards sort gear for the trip to the remote islands.

Organizing 16 scientists, over a dozen projects, a half dozen permit applications, 48 SCUBA tanks, 4 skiffs, 2 compressors, 4 medical-grade oxygen bottles, 1 hyperbaric chamber, countless pieces of equipment and supplies and the funding to support all of the above, has been a monumental task shared by many. 

In addition to the giant shipping container currently en route to Apia filled with gear, supplies, and equipment, there is the intellectual organization of the scientific purpose of this trip. The goals are multi-fold, but center around a few themes. First and foremost, the Pacific ocean is H-O-T right now, especially in the Phoenix Islands, which are centered over a warm pool of water related to the growing El NiƱo along the equator. These high ocean temperatures have put PIPA at risk of coral bleaching, which in previous events wreaked ecosystem-wide havoc in 2002-03 and again in 2010. 

SCUBA divers in PIPA during a previous expedition

To study climate change in real time in remote places is very challenging -- no one was on-site to witness the past two bleaching events. This expedition has a chance of being there at the right time (well, wrong time if you're a coral), which is interesting and offers tremendous opportunity to look at bleaching dynamics. In addition to bleaching, the team will be conducting regular monitoring surveys to inform the PIPA Management Committee and other PIPA reporting functions, which is critical to MPA maintenance. 

Reef dwellers in PIPA | Photo: K. Ellenbogen

Other scientific objectives include examining the population genetics of various organisms to understand how PIPA links in to populations elsewhere in the Pacific, to characterize the cryptic invertebrates within PIPA, to examine ocean acidification and carbonate chemistry, as well as the paleoecology of the area, and to explore the health and dynamics of large predators (mainly sharks), which are overfished elsewhere but remain in abundance in protected PIPA waters. 

As the month unfolds, this blog will be the primary home for the stories relating to this expedition. I will fill you in on all of the gory details. 

But, as the pieces are now beginning to mobilize (staff are flying out to meet the boat in Apia, shortly!), I will make you a promise: I will give you information in less time than it took for the gear to ship across the globe. 

I hope you'll join me for the ride... this is rush-shipping in the most literal sense. Adventure... on a ship...   

— Randi