7/19/14

The MOCNESS monster

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is underway. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission include the high-quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA as well as scientific goals, which will be detailed in the coming weeks and months here on this blog.

Saturday, July 12

As we close in on our crossing of the equator, we experienced our most exciting day today in all aspects of ship life. Throughout the first two weeks, we deployed two different scientific instruments daily, a Neuston net, a meter wide net that collects zooplankton from the surface of the ocean, and the hydrocast, which is a series of twelve seawater collection tubes that open at different depths. Over the past we days we have been adding a few new instruments. Early this morning we deployed our third Argo float when we crossed the 2.5° parallel. These are similar to the hydrocast, in that the measure parameters of the ocean water at different depths such as salinity and temperature. But these Argo floats part of a network of thousands of robotic floats around the world’s oceans that can raise and lower themselves in the water column, collecting and transmitting data for up to seven years.

Later this morning, after a misfire yesterday, we successfully deployed our first MOCNESS (Multiple opening and closing nets and environmental sampling system). It is similar to the Neuston net but much more advanced. The MOCNESS is a series of nets that can be opened and closed at different depths, sampling the zooplankton not just at the surface. Different organisms prefer different depths and conditions so the MOCNESS allows us not only to sample the lower depths, but also to separate out what was caught where. Once we are in PIPA, the MOCNESS will be an important part of our scientific study of the area. The MOCNESS itself would have been enough to make this a remarkable day, with everyone looking forward to its appearance with much excitement. But the MOCNESS pales in comparison to a pod of five or ten pilot whales, the first mammals we’ve seen other than ourselves in two weeks. Pilot whales are small whale with very round head, almost swollen looking. On the whale-dolphin spectrum they fall close to the dolphin side, having the general size and shape of a large dolphin. The pod followed behind our ship for close to twenty minutes, coming to the surface and swimming right alongside our ship. A ray was spotted soon after, along with five or six different bird species, making this by far our most biologically active day.

After doing our weekly thorough clean of the ship, we were surprised with a swim call from the captain. The waters were calm enough that we were able to stop the ship and all get in the ocean for a swim. It felt so refreshing to wash off and finally get in the ocean. It is pretty cool to think that below us was close to 5,000 meters of water between us and the ocean floor. Early tomorrow morning we expect to make our crossing of the equator. A few days after that we will enter PIPA finally before spending the next three weeks in its waters. Our exact plan for those three weeks is still relatively unclear, as we do not know what conditions will be like and how many landings we will be able to make. But our general plan is to go to Enderbury, Kanton, Orona, possibly a trip up to Winslow Reef, and then Nikumaroro before heading out to American Samoa. We will spend three days on and around each island doing both terrestrial and marine work. Our transit time between islands will also involve intense data collection as we try to get an idea of what the waters in PIPA are like and the connectivity between islands.

Since this is the first oceanographic research trip to PIPA that will be our primary research focus while we are there. But there are still many more miles to go before we arrive, including an equator to cross.

Luke Faust

7/14/14

SEA 2014: Approaching the equator

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is underway. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission include the high-quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA as well as scientific goals, which will be detailed in the coming weeks and months here on this blog. 

Wednesday, July 9

The past few days we have been sailing straight through the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ). Although we are still around the eighth degree latitude and not yet to the equator, we are experiencing its effects of constant cloud cover and frequent heavy squalls, especially at night.

Theoretically the ITCZ exists in a band around the equator, but because of the declination of the earth, it can move northward with the sun in some locations as the slightly more northern water becomes hotter. The squalls have not been as constant, the rain relatively light, and we have seen even a little sunlight considering what can occur in the ITCZ, so we consider ourselves lucky.


The other notable change to our surrounding has been the appearance of boobies, specifically red footed boobies and a few masked boobies. Boobies are large seabirds that plunge into the water to catch fish, with striking plumage and colorful body parts.

They don't go as far out into the open ocean as the petrels and shearwaters we had seen earlier in our voyage, so their presence indicates the presence of land nearby, which in this case in likely Palmyra Atoll to the east of us. As we continue to progress toward the Phoenix Islands, we will start to see a lot more seabirds, including some smaller groups that don't venture out as far away from their breeding grounds. 19 different species of seabirds breed on the Phoenix Islands across the eight islands in the group. For many of these species, including the endangered Phoenix petrel, the Phoenix Islands represent one of their primary breeding grounds worldwide.

These small islands house tens of thousands of breeding pairs of many seabird species, including over 600,000 breeding pairs of the sooty tern on Orona itself, one of the four islands we plan to visit.


Historically, the Phoenix Islands are home to a limited variety of terrestrial animals: these 19 species of seabird, a few migratory shorebirds, hermit crabs, and some lizards. The absence of mammals was crucial for the success of the seabird rookeries, as many of them have low-lying nests, burrows in the ground, or nest on the ground. Without mammalian predators they thrived on these islands. However over the past few centuries, with increased sea travel and exploration, rabbits, rats, and cats have all been introduced to the islands.

They prey on seabird chicks and eggs and compete for the limited habitat available on the islands. Seabird numbers plummeted as a result, with the ground nesting species especially hurt, with some of them only breeding on a few tiny spots of land in lagoons in some of the islands where the mammals couldn't reach. So while the current numbers of breeding pairs of birds seems high in the Phoenix Islands today, it is an order of magnitude or two lower than historical numbers. Efforts have been made to get rid of these invasive species and help the seabirds recover from their impact. In 2006, rabbits were removed from Rawaki, and Asian rats from McKean, leaving these island completely free of invasives.

A more extensive project was done in 2011 to remove Pacific rats from Birnie and Enderbury. Reports from Rawaki and McKean showed a huge success in the quick increase in breeding pairs on these islands, especially in the most sensitive species. One of our main projects in the Phoenix Islands will be checking in on the results from Enderbury and hopefully will see an increase throughout the whole PIPA area as the spread out.

Luke Faust

7/7/14

SEA 2014: Did you have a "sleep of kings" last night?

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) is en route from Honolulu to the Phoenix Islands. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and of course, the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission include the high-quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA as well as scientific goals, which will be detailed in the coming weeks and months here on this blog. 

This post is from Sunday July 6, 2014 by Aquarium research intern Luke Faust.

Today we passed the 500 mile mark since we left Honolulu on the 2nd, well on our way to the Phoenix Islands. Fully immersed in life at sea, it is hard to keep track of time. Time is marked by what watch is currently being stood. For four to six hours, one watch team controls the ship, steering, looking out, making sure everything is running smoothly, and working in the lab. Because there are five watch timeslots in a day, and three watch groups, the time each group stands watch changes each day, rotating on a three day schedule. Today I was on watch from 0700 to 1300, and will go on again from 2300 to 0300. This allows us to experience the different parts of the day, seeing sunrises, sunsets, clear night skies, and hot sunny days. Sleeping occurs whenever possible, at different times every day, with no more than four or five straight hours of sleep at a time. However every third day you get a 'sleep of kings', where you can have an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep.

Soaring sea birds

On watch my two favorite duties are lookout from the bow, and doing the hourly seabird observations. Just looking out into the ocean is very relaxing and allows you to appreciate all that is going on. Constantly checking for squalls or obstacles in the water, you have to be attuned to any changes that are going on around you. This means that every school of flying fish that jumps out of the water, every petrel soaring in and out of the ocean swells.... all are noticed. Other than our 32 other shipmates, these open ocean inhabitants are the only other life we have seen since leaving Hawaii.

A diving bird photographed on a previous expedition

Of course we cannot forget about abundant zooplankton and phytoplankton existing in huge quantities in the ocean all around us. Every night we deploy a Neuston net, which we drag along the surface of the water while we sail by. Mostly we catch copepods and a few cephalopods in our net, but as we traverse south, we expect to see a change in composition of our net tows. Throughout our voyage we will making similar measurements, as well as daily carousel deployments, where we sample water at preprogrammed depths, characterizing depth profiles of temperature, salinity, chlorophyll a, and a
few others.

As we approach the intertropical convergence zone, these measurements will change. This is the area where Hadley cells on either side of the equator converge and air rises, leading to pretty much constant cloud cover. There is also continuous upwelling of cold, nutrient rich deep water to the surface, as the surface water is driven northward. Because the cold deep water goes to the surface (bringing with it an abundance of nutrients from the deep), these depth profiles change significantly. One of the big questions we are trying to address in the Phoenix Islands is how its waters are affected by the intertropical convergence zone. It sits right on the edge of the equator so it is unclear how the productivity of the waters of PIPA compares to surrounding waters. But we will soon find out.

Until then, I'll be standing watch, and waiting for my next sleep of kings.

Luke Faust

7/3/14

SEA 2014: They're off!

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) is en route from Honolulu to the Phoenix Islands. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and of course: the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission include the high-quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA as well as scientific goals , which will be detailed in the coming weeks and months here on this blog. 

This post is from the SEA Chief Scientist on-board, Dr. Jan Witting.

We are on our way to the Phoenix Islands! The island of Oahu and the lights of Honolulu are fast receding in our wake as we are heading into the night and toward Enderbury Island (our next landfall) in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). Still some 1500 nautical miles to go and an equator to cross before we get there, but we are on our way.



Our mission on this six-week voyage is to make the first comprehensive oceanographic survey of PIPA, a vast marine protected area about the size of the state of California. Over the next few weeks you’ll be learning much more about PIPA, one of the world's largest and most remote protected areas located in the middle of the Pacific just South of the Equator and East of the International Date Line.

Reefs and wildlife in PIPA 

There are many remarkable things about the Phoenix Islands and the Protected Area. PIPA is a part of the remote island nation of Kiribati, and makes up over 11 percent of the ocean surface controlled by this country. It represents a huge commitment toward ocean conservation on part of this small nation with few resources. The eight islands comprising this archipelago feature pristine coral reefs with rich fauna of corals, other invertebrates and fish. It is a place where one can see glimpses of what the Pacific looked like before we humans started having an impact on an ocean-wide scale.  And as it stands, we know very little about it!

Favorable winds and gentle seas; The sails are set and we are on our way to PIPA!

Ours is a collaborative mission between SEA, New England Aquarium, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Agency, Kiribati. This voyage of discovery brings together a diverse group of people from across the globe. Our ship carries a community of 33 students, ocean scientists, mariners and conservation managers from the US, Kiribati, Tahiti, India, Australia and Europe.

As diverse as we are as a group, we have a strong unity of purpose. Starting on our arrival in PIPA in some 12 days' time, we’ll be working hard over the following three weeks to create a map of the ocean currents, temperature, planktonic life and the nutrients that support it, and much more.

Researchers survey reefs of PIPA on a previous expedition

We are the first to do this, and there is much to do, more than I can describe in this post. So in the coming weeks I hope you come back to this blog to hear more from all aboard about our work and unfolding discoveries, about PIPA, about sailing and our ship, about the ocean and our efforts to conserve and protect it.

On board the Robert C. Seamans,
Jan Witting, Chief Scientist

7/2/14

SEA 2014: To sea! With SEA!

Every once in a while, the stars align and something truly great happens. PIPA has been lucky of late - lots of exciting news!

His Excellency President Anote Tong recently announced to the world that the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) will be closed to commercial fishing as of Jan 1, 2015 at the Our Oceans conference, hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. State Department, Washington, DC.

His Excellency President Anote Tong at the Our Oceans 2014 conference

This is especially exciting because it means that the previous posts on this blog (about tuna) are now out of date. Very soon, tuna fishing will not be allowed anywhere within PIPA waters. The only fishing that will be allowed will be around Kanton Island, which currently is (and will remain) a sustainable use zone, to allow the caretaker population (roughly 35 people) to fish for protein. This is absolutely necessary, since supply ships to PIPA are irregular and rare.

Simultaneously, we were lucky enough to be welcoming two Kiribati colleagues (Tekeua Auatabu—from Christmas Island, and Iannang Teaioro—from Tarawa) to the U.S. to begin a 2-week course at the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Falmouth, MA, along with 13 students. Of course, they also visited the New England Aquarium, where we have several mentions of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area on exhibit! (Here's one of them....).

Tekeua and Iannang from Kiribati visit the PIPA exhibits at the New England Aquarium

Two weeks on Cape Cod may sound fairly idyllic, but everyone was working really hard to get up to speed on their upcoming adventure. All-day, every-day coursework, lectures, guest-lectures, and sail training (with only a 1-day break)... and on the last day, everyone was still smiling!

All smiles!

Within a day, the whole class will set sail from Honolulu, where they will spend 6 weeks at sea en route to the Phoenix Islands. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and of course: the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission are multi-fold and many, but include first and foremost the high quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA and related regions. The scientific goals of the sea portion will be detailed in the coming weeks and months, and will be chronicled here on this blog. 

But already, the adventure had begun. For example, a PVC hand-off in Beacon Hill (Boston, MA) between Cam Braun (WHOI), Randi Rotjan (New England Aquarium, not shown), Tekeua and Iannang. 

The PVC hand-off on the historic streets of Beacon Hill

Why the PVC? Excellent question! The answer: there are no hardware stores in the Phoenix Islands. :-) But more specifically, the PVC pieces are cut to a very specific length so that we can take photos of the reef floor from a fixed distance (photoquadrats) that will be analyzed later for species diversity, composition, density, cover, and health status. Given that we are headed towards an El Nino year, it is important to get as much documentation of PIPA reefs before, during, and after any potential ocean warming (and perhaps bleaching).

Until then, the students, scientists, and crew are all gathering in Honolulu, getting oriented on-board, and double checking that all necessary supplies are in place.

If the stars aligned, and I think they are, then: to sea! With SEA! To see!

Stay tuned...

Randi