8/14/14

SEA 2014: Life on land (August 9)

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is nearing completion. 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.

This is a cross post from the SEA Expedition Blog.

August 9, 2014

It is nine o'clock in the morning and we are just making our approach toward the green and verdant hills of American Samoa. How strange it is to see such vibrant colors after days and days of blue. It consistently amazes me how tenacious life can be. Any little rock or bit of sand that sticks above
the surface of the ocean will be covered in green living things so long as it receives sufficient fresh water.

White tern checking out the progress of science in the mixed coconut forest of Nikumaroro.

Like so many other things in the oceans, islands are bridges between the freshwater realm of the atmosphere and the salt water below. When precipitation falls on islands it gets trapped within the rocks and sediments that make up the islands and retains for a little while its fresh atmospheric character. Without the island to trap and store this fresh water the profusion of green life would not be possible, and indeed where the islands become too small or the rainfall too infrequent, plant life gradually disappears. Over time which plants stay and which go depends on how tolerant they are to drought and how good they are at extracting fresh water from the salt. With temperature increases, sea level rise and increasingly prolonged periods of drought predicted with climate change, the plant communities and the fragile fresh water lenses that sustains them are headed into an uncertain future throughout many of the Pacific low island nations.

This trip for me has been a chance to try and better understand this complex and interesting interplay between plants, water, islands and the sea. In addition to being a scientist for SEA I am also working on a PhD at the University of Idaho and on this trip I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to collect physical and geophysical samples from the unique and beautiful islands within the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

These islands are in some ways an ideal laboratory for studying the climate and plant communities because they fall along a precipitation gradient, with the islands in the north receiving less rain than islands in the south. The vegetative communities are very different, though all of the islands where we sampled have introduced coconut trees. Known as the "tree of life" by many Polynesian people, the coconut is central to the livelihood and survival of millions of humans around the globe. Part of their appeal is that coconuts can survive under a wide range of environmental conditions, including in high salinity environments and during prolonged drought periods. Given their close association with humans, how well these trees do under variable environmental conditions may be an indicator of the suitability of each island community for supporting human populations.

My ultimate goals with this research are to better understand how plant communities impact the availability of freshwater on these islands and to say something about what plant communities and freshwater availability in these regions might look like as the climate continues to change.  For now, getting some actual time on the islands is enough to get me excited.

Mary Engels,
2nd scientist signing off from the green green harbor of Pago Pago.

8/13/14

SEA 2014: Science by the numbers (August 8)

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is nearing completion. 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.

This is a cross post from the SEA Expedition Blog.

August 8, 2014

Hyperiid amphipods galore from one of our neuston nets! | Photo: Matt Hirsch

Well here we are motor sailing along on a port tack as the full moon is off our port beam and we are making our final days’ approach to American Samoa. It’s been a full 5 and a half weeks of sailing and there has been much accomplished on this voyage thus far, and still much more to come even in these last few days!

Today we did one of my favorite deployments to conclude our sampling schedule on S254: the styrocast. For those who are not familiar with a styrocast, it is when each person has the opportunity to decorate a Styrofoam cup with markers, which then gets sent down with our free CTD
(conductivity-temperature-depth sensor) to a great depth at which it gets crushed by the pressure of thousands of meters of water into a wee-sized cup. Today’s styrocast had a grand total of 2014 meters of wire out on our hydrowinch, which got me thinking about some of the other science-by-the-numbers this trip.

We have done 51 stations that included wire time for our hydrocast, MOCNESS and meter nets. For all of that wire time, we paid out a total of 44,483 meters of wire, or 24 nautical miles for you deck folk out there! When we hauled all of that wire back and took a look at the critters we caught in the nets, all told we counted 8871 individual organisms in our zooplankton 100-counts. From the neuston tows, we counted 1962 copepods, 453 ostracods, 188 hyperiid amphipods (100 of those from a single tow!), and 1 zoea, or crab larva. The MOCNESS nets yielded 2727 copepods and 874 ostracods by comparison, and the meter nets 391 copepods. Our open ocean depths per the CHIRP bottom sounder ranged from our deepest depth of about 6170 meters, to our shallowest around 30 meters when we were anchored on Winslow Reef.

All of this science is coming to an exciting conclusion as students are working hard at crunching these numbers, and others, to create their final reports. Others are working on management plans to help inform policy decisions about PIPA and other Marine Protected Areas like it. The atmosphere on board is busy, but all are keeping high spirits and doing well both in science and on deck as Junior Watch Officers. The professional crew—scientists and others alike—are looking forward to hearing reports on
student projects in the coming days to see how all of the hard work has paid off. I for one am excited for the final days’ activities—be it reports, final swizzle, or even just going aloft that one last time- before we set our sights on American Samoa.

With that, I’ll leave you with a daily joke, as is tradition aboard the Robert C Seamans:

Q: What did the Pacific Ocean say to the Atlantic Ocean?
A: Nothing, it just waved.

Good night everyone back on land! We will all be in touch with you shortly to tell you about all of our amazing adventures!

Signing off,
Chrissy Dykeman, A Watch Scientist and Bad Joke Enthusiast
Position: 11° 16.0’S x 170° 53.4’W

SEA 2014: Camaraderie at sea (August 7)

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.

This is a cross post from the SEA Expedition Blog.

The Junior Watch Officer, or JWO, stage of the trip is now in full force. Each student must take the ‘con’ and apply everything we’ve learned throughout the trip to run the ship for a full watch. As this stage is extremely effective in realizing what were capable of, it also serves as a reminder that our epic exploration of PIPA is nearing its end. As our first full day outside PIPA concludes, and we make way for American Samoa, I can’t help but look back on the amazing environment we had the opportunity to explore. After our adventure through this pristine wilderness, we are representatives of the oceans, responsible for spreading the knowledge that we’ve gained to show the significance of protecting our oceans.

Winslow Reef, Phoenix Islands | Photo: Camrin Braun

I thought I would take this opportunity to shed light and hopefully embarrass one of the notorious Tweedles. While at anchor at various islands throughout our adventure, the Tweedles (Camrin Braun and Tane Sinclair-Taylor) were seldom found on board. From dawn until dusk on most days they were off sampling sharks and mantas for isotopic analysis, spearing targeted fish, or reeling in delicious yellow-fin and wahoo. On the passages between the islands however, we all had the opportunity to ask them questions and get to know them a bit. Among other things, Tane and Cam single handedly kept moral extremely high throughout the trip, with their constant ‘married couple’ banter over who’s making the coffee, or general meal-time shenanigans that everyone desperately needs after a long watch.

For those of you who don’t know Tane, he is a jolly Aussie who’s eyes light up and tone changes when you get him talking about sharks. He is currently a marine field technician for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Saudi Arabia. [Aquarium researcher Randi Rotjan also spent time at KAUST.] Tane and I like to give each other a hard time on a pretty much daily basis, so one can imagine the agony it took to get him to sit down for a ‘serious’ interview. After practically pulling teeth I was able to get him to answer some questions…

Me:     How did you get into doing what you do?
Tane:   After I did my honors in marine biology and ecology at Queensland University in Australia, I guess I wasn’t quite ready to do a Ph.D and preferred field work instead, so I pursued that and got on as many trips as I could. Working for James Cook University, Australia Museum, and eventually got longer and longer contracts.

Me: How did you meet Cam (WHOI/MIT Ph.D student)?
Tane:   Cam was a student in our lab in Saudi, he did his master there, and he stayed with me and a friend, and ever since then we’ve been working together on all sorts of projects. His supervisor at WHOI is one of our main collaborators.

Me:     Is Cam your best friend?
Tane:    No. He’s one of my nemeses, you’re the other one, Pete!

Me:     What has been the craziest moment of the trip so far?
Tane:   When you had the con, Pete. Ha! A lot of things were happening, double reefed the main – it was absolutely terrifying.

Me:     Or most memorable?
Tane:   Probably Winslow Reef, because we didn’t really expect to go there at all, and when we got there we were able to anchor [In the middle of the Pacific, about 180nm from any other land mass!], there were plenty of sharks for us to sample, and lots of good fishing.

Me:     How many sharks did you see there?
Tane:   In one field of view I think I counted 36 gray reefs and black tips and we caught two wahoo and two yellow-fin

Me:     If you could be any type of shark what would you be?
Tane:   I’d be a tiger shark. You know, tropical waters mostly, pretty big—around 6–7 meters. I don’t really like the cold so great whites… not for me.


Me: Whats your favorite board game, Tane?
Tane:   You’ve got to be joking, Pete. I don’t have a favorite board game, I don’t have time for board games.

Me: Zero fun sir!
Tane: I hate games.

Me: You don’t like games? You mean you don’t like fun?
Tane: You shouldn’t have time to play games; you should be working, or so tired from working that you’re sleeping. That’s right, none of this Scrabble business.

Me: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Tane: This question?! Why does everybody—At this time?!

Me: Just be creative, anywhere in the world.
Tane: I’d be in a little cottage in the mountains of New Zealand, with a workshop out the back, and it definitely doesn’t include board games, I’ll tell you that!

Me: So did you two deploy any tags on this trip?
Tane:   We did but they didn’t work. Due to a manufacturing error they were
unsuccessful.

Me: Not an operator error?
Tane: No Pete, definitely not an operator error, I mind you of that.

Me: What happened then?
Tane: They basically broke, the attachment that is, when we tried to tag the mantas.  The guillotine swivel on the tip of the tag basically snapped under the initial force of installation. So after that happened a few times, we stopped attempting to tag. But we did biopsy all of the mantas.

Me: Who has the better shot with the spear gun? You or Cam?
Tane:   Me.

Me: Hands down? Not even gonna give him a little credit?
Tane: No, no credit given.

Me: Would you trust him to shoot an apple off of your head.
Tane: Not even, I would be dead, straight away.

Me: Have you ever had any close calls with the guns in the water?
Tane: Yeah, sharks trying to steal the fish from me off of the tip of the spear.

Me: What’s next for you, after this trip?
Tane : After this I’m headed straight to the Azores, to hopefully tag a few whale sharks, then back to the University in Saudi.


As we throttle back on science deployments now that we are outside PIPA and continue on our last 400nm to Pago Pago, one can only admire the well-oiled machine that we, as a crew, have become over the last 5 weeks. We are an extremely diverse group, from all over the world, interesting and weird in the best way possible. Though the wilderness of the Phoenix Islands was spectacular and much can be learned from an environment so divorced from human interaction, for me, it was truly the people on board that made this trip so special. In a matter of days we will all scatter back to our various lives, but I know I will never forget my experience aboard the Seamans.

-Peter Willauer, C Watch
Colby College
August 7, 2014
Position: 8°43.37’S x 172°37.48’W

8/12/14

SEA 2014: Blossoming shipmates (August 6)

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.

This is a cross post from the SEA Expedition Blog.

August 6, 2014

Hello, World. This is Laura Page, the C watch deckhand here to write your blog post for the day. Our biggest news of the day has to be the leaving of the Phoenix Island Protected Area waters. After three straight weeks of sailing and sampling here it is hard to believe we are in truly open ocean with only a
week left of program. Our goal for this trip was to explore and discover unexposed aspects of these Kiribati islands.

Another day in paradise, the sunsets here are too beautiful for words

I waited until now to write a post so that I could share with you a truly unique experience I have witnessed while sailing with class S-254. I first noticed the phenomenon of which I speak about a week ago during our afternoon class time on the quarterdeck. Captain Pamela announced that after sailing with a single reefed mains'l (where only part of the sail is ever set for easier control) we were going to take the first few minutes and set the FULL mains'l.

Now as a quick side note the students had spent the last few weeks anchored and exploring islands, working on the PIPA program but not specifically focusing on nautical science skills. When the captain's call was made to perform this new task for the first time I was quite surprised to see each and every student leap up and get ready on the appropriate lines to complete the order. These guys had enough confidence in themselves as a group that they were ready to tackle a new challenge without fear. They knew without thinking that the knowledge to complete the task was spread throughout the entire student body and they as a group would accomplish this new task. And when it was completed they all sat down as if nothing special had occurred.

Every day and every watch since that occurrence the responsibility I have seen these students take upon themselves is astronomical. With the start of the JWO phase of the program they have taken full ownership of their knowledge and skills, but more importantly they have learned how to take advantage of the best resources around them: their fellow students. They have set and struck sails, performed highly technical scientific deployments, determined how to manipulate the wind to get the ship where it
needs to go (not always where it may want to go) and all of these are just a few steps that get them towards their ultimate goals of oceanographic research and policy study.  They have taken all these responsibilities with grace, a little stress, fun, but mostly a sense of ownership that shows they really know how to operate this ship.

It has been my pleasure now to have stood watch with each and every one of the students on board.  I have seen them grow and blossom (cheesy as that sounds) into shipmates, a title that carries innumerable complexities. I am proud to have them as my shipmates and honored that I can stand as one of their own.

Many thanks,
LP
Sailing just south of the PIPA zone

8/8/14

SEA 2014: Nikumaroro (August 5)

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.

This post comes from research intern Luke Faust.

Tuesday, August 5

Late last night we sailed away from the last island that we will visit during our stay in PIPA, Nikumaroro. After leaving Winslow on the 31st, it took us almost two whole days to reach Nikumaroro, one of the southernmost islands in the group. Spatially Nikumaroro looks almost identical to Kanton, just a little bit smaller. They both have the same tear drop shape, oriented in the exact same direction, with a central lagoon in the middle that is connected to the ocean by one central channel. The similarities end there though. The two degree difference in latitude between the two islands is enough to change rainfall patterns such that Nikumaroro has lush green vegetation with a thriving palm tree population, very similar to Orona.

 Beautiful beaches with coconut trees and coral rocks lined the shore on Nikumaroro.

While we were at Nikumaroro, there were squalls every night, something we hadn't really experienced at all since arriving in PIPA three weeks ago. Getting onto the island at first seemed quite challenging. There is a continuous shallow reef shelf that encircles the island, making landing near impossible. However, during a British colonization effort here in the early part of the 20th century, they blasted a landing strip through the coral all the way to the beach. While we would never think about doing something like that today, we had no problem taking advantage of the passage they made.

Other signs of past human history were not as obvious on the island. Other than a shipwreck that sits prominently at the entrance to the lagoon, we only saw what looked like the foundation to an old building and an old irrigation system. Coconuts of course have a large presence on the island as well though. Walking through the forest consisted of alternating stepping on old coral pieces and dried coconuts.

Coconut crab | File photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of the highlights of Nikumaroro was seeing coconut crabs, which are quite abundant on this island. Coconut crabs are crabs that specialize in eating coconuts. As you can imagine they are quite huge, close to a foot wide, with large pincers that can take your finger off. Rats are another lasting impact of humans on Nikumaroro. Unlike other islands we visited, there were so many rats that it was easy to see
them in the daylight. As expected, seabird numbers have remained low since the last survey here with ground nesters suffering especially. However we were able to see masked boobies nesting on the ground with a few chicks, the first time many of us had seen nesting birds on this trip. Masked boobies
appear to be too large for the rats to have much of an effect on, so they are thriving on Nikumaroro.

While Nikumaroro was one of the prettiest islands we've visited, the reefs there were in pretty bad shape. The ocean side was pretty similar to a lot of the other islands in the area. Evidence from earlier bleaching events are still obvious. Recovery is very slow, but is happening. Again there was also a lot of shark activity in the waters around Nikumaroro. Pretty much the entire time we were anchored at Nikumaroro there were three or four large black tip reef sharks that circled our ship. They were really cool to watch and by far the best viewing we had of adult sharks in our time in PIPA.

Sharks at Nikumaroro on a previous expedition

Inside the lagoon was where things really didn't look good here. The water was warm, murky, and discolored, kind of a yellowy red in some places. There appeared to still be lots of fish and sharks there, but the waters were not very inviting. Iannang Teatoro, one of our two representatives from Kiribati onboard, visited Nikumaroro in 1996 as part of a government survey of the island for future habitation. He said these lagoon conditions were totally new since then, and that before it had been like other lagoons in the Phoenix Islands. He specifically mentioned that there used to be lots of colorful giant clams on the edges of the lagoon, which are no longer present.

Although Nikumaroro seems to be one of the islands most affected by recent bleaching events, many people said that this was their favorite island. With lots of sharks, a coconut forest, archaeological sites, coconut crabs and beautiful beaches there is still a lot to like about this island.

We are now making our way out of PIPA and towards American Samoa. It will be a busy stretch of project work, intense sailing, and finalizing any last things on the ship.

— Luke Faust