7/30/14

SEA 2014: Orona and tuna

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.

With but a few shots of chain our anchors have been securely placed and we sit in the calm waters of the lee of Orona. Many coconut palm trees forty feet tall or more sit just off our bow hiding the long silent remains of human settlement, peering at us out from the underbrush. A few teams fought the surge through the coral barrier pocketed with underwater caves that surrounds the island to make our way to the lagoon.

Orono Island photographed on a previous expedition

While the corals of Orona are still recovering from the last bleaching event there were lots of persevering coral patches interspersed with giant clams, their neon turquoise of their lips standing out against the sand and rock. One of the tidal channels that dots the island, connecting lagoon to ocean, was dotted with the small black fins of a reef shark nursery. Dozens of the pups playfully swam around amongst schools of mullets and jacks or darting away from a few intrepid explorers chasing them with Go-Pros. And although lone concrete steps stoically mark where humans have scared the area, these
things so easily seen are not the only ones of concern nor interest.

A shark along the reef of Orona from a previous Aquarium expedition


PIPA has been a very important part of the Kiribati fishery, accounting for as much as 43% of the tuna catch taken from Kiribati waters although accounting for as little as 11% of their EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) (A fact farther ingrained by the four fishing vessels we've seen in the few days that we've been within PIPA waters. (One of which was unfortunately within the no fishing zone around Kanton (Aba-Riringa)) Despite the implicit availability of adult tuna within the area there has not been much research done into PIPA as a tuna nursery nor the possible distributions or species of larval tuna that may be present in the abundant waters.

A pair of Katsuwonus pelamis (Skipjack tuna) under the microscope.

So far we have been able to identify several different species of tuna larvae within PIPA waters using a variety of nets as well as other larvae of the same sub-order of tuna (Scombrid) which has been incredibly exciting. Hopefully we will soon have an idea about some of the species of tuna spawning in PIPA as well as relative distributions as concentrations amongst the islands, as we push onwards into deeper water and the data continues to pile up.

For now however we will enjoy the palm trees, beaches, flora, fauna, and waters of Orona. While sending out the doubtless dozens of scientific missions whilst under the calm of anchor in the endeavor to learn as much and as quickly as we can about the environment we have but a moment's insight into.

After all: "Science never sleeps."

— Michael S. Heard-Snow
Northeastern University

7/25/14

SEA 2014: The birds at Birnie (July 25)

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.

Friday July 25, 2014

We have arrived at Orona after a brief two day stint at sea.

View from the porthole at sea

Along the way we did five hydrocasts and Neuston net tows, plus a few MOCNESS deployments and meter net tows. We sampled the waters just off of each island we visited plus a double station our one full night at sea, one at night and one during the morning. These are among the most important measurements we will make while at PIPA. Many of the differences we detect are small from station to station, but from a large scale view the patterns should become clear.

Deploying nets from the Robert Seamans

Another island, Birnie, lay between us Kanton and Orona only a few miles east off out of our way. Unfortunately the wind was coming directly from the east as well and sailing into the wind is very difficult and not something we were going to do. Instead we motored most of the way there, reaching Birnie early on the 24th. In many ways Birnie is very similar to Enderbury. Like Enderbury it is a small island with little vegetation and large populations of seabirds. Birnie was also part of the same rat eradication that Enderbury had in 2011. It was not successful at Enderbury so we were very interested to see what Birnie's rat status was. Although no one went onshore and we only stopped at Birnie for an hour of bird observations and a deployment station, we saw clear signs that the eradication was successful.

Christmas shearwaters roosting | Photo: Duncan Wright via Wikimedia Commons 

Close to ten different Christmas shearwaters were flying a little offshore, and since they make their nests in burrows in the ground, are especially vulnerable to rats. So their presence at Birnie is an indicator that there are no longer any rats on that island and that the eradication was successful.

Luke Faust

7/22/14

SEA 2014: Anchored off The Island of the Sun (July 22)

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.

July 22, 2014

Today marks our third and last day amongst the I-Kiribati of the Phoenix Islands. The morning marked a last and intensive run of shore, snorkeling and science missions upon the island as well as in its beautiful lagoon. After a morning of snorkeling amongst the reef sharks that patrol and police the fish throughout the wreck of the President Taylor steam ship and manta rays that silently guard the lagoon entrance between the dredged channel of Spam Island and quiet remains of a long forgotten hotel on the opposing shore; the crew of the Seamans was given a most fond farewell not likely to be forgotten.

The village of Aba-Riringa all dancing and singing together

An older I-Kiribati man told me of their culture's tale about the young woman who became the first coconut and how whenever someone now drinks from a coconut they are giving her a kiss.

We all sat together in the remains of an old metal building of the bygone era of Kanton's imperial occupation, one of the many that nature slowly wages her war against. Rust spirals up the walls, corroding the structures integrity while a stoic tree replaces what was once steel and stone, curving
around the structure into its roof and wounds, watching over those inside.

Singing and dancing soon followed, traditional notes woven inextricably into movement, stories told in the flutter of a wingtip. Davis, the village's policeman (and in many ways liaison between us and the
village) spoke to us about how all I-Kiribati people are taught to be able to survive for months while stranded at sea; and with what coconut trees and supplies they had that they would be able to survive for at least another three months or more but with what meager provisions we had given to them (A
fraction of what the ship had stocked for the 6 week journey) they would be able to survive at least another year waiting for the arrival of the elusive supply ship. Nonetheless they still went out of their way to slaughter one of their few pigs, and throw us a spectacular feast of fresh lobster, slow roasted pork, fish, clams, rice, and coconut. . . It seems that those in this world with the least are the ones most willing to share of what little they do have. The joining of cultures and peoples from all over of the world in food, dance, and merry-making is a truly beautiful thing.

In small ways these peoples resilience comes out: traditional lays strung with VHS tape, a young girl's palm skirt made out of strips of plastic, pieces of rubber and cable striping where seeds once were threaded. . .  The legacy of the western world exposed in the rusted abandonment of things left behind. What we would see as junk or trash repurposed and reused into something beautiful. It saddens me that those were the gifts our people left the I-Kiribati in years past, and I hope that in the future, perhaps, something more beautiful can come from those who share these beautiful islands for a time.

Upon the morrow we shall sail on, deeper into the heart of the Phoenix Islands, to see and discover what lays over the horizon, our sails full soon again.

-Camrin Braun

SEA 2014: An amazing five nights in Kanton (July 22)

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.

We have had an amazing past five nights in Kanton, experiencing fully the wildlife, history, and culture of the island. But the highlight of Kanton was spending time with the 33 villagers who live on this island, laughing, dancing, and feasting on multiple occasions with them. As we head south tomorrow, many of us will remember Kanton as our favorite part of our six weeks at sea.

Kanton Lagoon | Photo: Randi Rotjan from previous expendition

Kanton is a coral atoll, the largest of the Phoenix Islands, with a large lagoon in the center, connected to the ocean. The land itself makes a thin ring around the lagoon, with diverse vegetation and habitats in different parts of the island. For at least a hundred years, there has been a small population living on Kanton of I-Kiribati, people from the other island chains in Kiribati. At one time there were over a thousand villagers living on the island, but harsh, hot conditions and most importantly extreme isolation kept the population small. But being located in the center of the Pacific, the island played a key role in the middle of the 19th century in American military operations.

Ruins on Kanton Island | Credit D. H. Livingstone from SEA Blog

When the Americans left the island, all of their buildings, cars, and other large machinery remained. Their ruins are scattered throughout the main section of the island and give it an eerie feel. The vegetation too is very barren, besides a few groves of trees, enhancing the eeriness of the island. But all of that feeling went away when we put our heads into the water during snorkeling, walking along the beach spying on devil rays, and spending time with the local people of Kanton.

Limited coral growth on the shipwreck compared to surrounding calcium carbonate substrate

Snorkeling here was a total success. Within the lagoon there were enormous towers of platey coral, stretching all the way to the surface of the water. Amazingly colorful fish were always in view, making it very hard to see all that was there. Everyone's favorite spot though was around a huge shipwreck
located at the entrance of the lagoon more in the deeper ocean. Besides exploring the shipwreck itself, many of us were able to see manta rays, both black and white tipped reef sharks, and green sea turtles. The coral around the shipwreck has definitely been negatively affected, mostly through an extreme coral bleaching event in 2002. There is slow recovery, but new coral growth can be seen in many places. Counter intuitively there was more diversity and larger schools of fish in this area, but it is important to remember that many factors determine the abundance and diversity of fish in an area.

Our other mission when visiting Kanton was talking to and learning about the people who live here. Our interactions with the people here exceeded all expectations. As we would walk through the village, they would beckon us over to sit with them in the shade and share food and drinks. We joked around with them and learned a little about their lifestyle here on the island. I expected this to be the extent of our interactions, but later in our visit we feasted with them twice. The entire village came onto our ship on Sunday for delicious food, exchange of gifts, and hearing traditional dancing and songs. For the past few weeks they have been living off of rice, coconuts, and any fish they can catch. The supply ship is scheduled to come in a few weeks, but its timing is not always exact.

One of the many dances during our feast on Kanton. This one was performed
by the young men on the island in their traditional garb.

They were extremely grateful and in return shared all of their traditional dancing and songs, and invited us to a feast on Kanton. Having just returned from four hour long celebrations, I can safely say for all of us it was a once in a lifetime experience. They spent all night catching lobster and moray eel, and even slaughtered one of the few pigs on the island for the feast. The food was amazing, but mostly it was just about seeing what their culture is like through all sorts of games and dances, and showing them a little of our culture. Although many of the people on Kanton are just stationed there for a few years at a time, they have developed their own songs and community.

Tomorrow morning we sadly leave Kanton for Orona, with a potential quick stop at the small island of Birnie.

7/20/14

SEA 2014: Kanton is gorgeous (July 20)

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 crosspost from the SEA PIPA Expedition blogs.

20 July 2014 — Kanton Island, Kiribati

Kanton is gorgeous. Today was characterized by the buzzing flurry of small boats continually buzzing to and from our ship, taxiing people to shore and taking scientists out on sea missions.  Everyone was roused good and early so that we could all make the most the day. A and B watch left in the morning to explore the island.

Old metallic structures groan in the sea winds like the magnificent, curmudgeonly behemoths they are. They stand out against the natural beauty in the island, but are lovely in their own right. And they have important histories.

Kanton itself is an astounding convergence of beautiful plants, birds, waters and invertebrates all cast against a shroud of haunting, gorgeous ruins.  The recent history of Kanton is plagued by foreign powers, primarily the English and America, exerting stress on the atoll.  Their presence reverberates strongly across the entire halo of land.  Rusted trucks, tractors, generators, cement structures, and radio towers pepper the rather flat, thin island.  They quietly growl and creak as the salty sea air continues to slowly rust and degrade them.  They persist long past their due dates—the military presence is long gone, the guano rush a distant memory, and the hotel never really took off, to say the least.

The only American structure in relatively good shape is the air strip. The air strip is quite a walk from the lagoon where our shore parties make landfall, and is quite long itself. Many of the morning exploration crew went to go check out the air strip, but others went to the village to hang out with the I-Kiribati who live there.  The village is not large, since the population of Kanton roughly the same as our ship's complement-just over thirty. We got to hang out with the people who work in the village.

Some of our crew tried toddy (though I am not sure of the spelling, it is a sweet nectar drawn from coconut trees), chatted with the medical officer, the meteorologist, the policeman, or went to school and hung out with the kids on the island. In the afternoon, there were several snorkel missions, and students got to spy on sea slugs, sea turtles, fish and reef sharks.  Everyone was well ready for dinner when the time rolled around, and it was good that everyone was hungry because we had ourselves a bloody great feast, I tell you.  We had the whole island population come aboard and tour our ship.  They brought coconuts and brought pulled pork and other bbq staples. We all bonded, laughed, told jokes and they sang for us.  It was an amazing evening. The people who live on Kanton are just tops.  They're really fun, and super nice.

We have a few more days anchored here in this incredible lagoon on this unbelievable island.  Which is simply grand.  The I-Kiribati tell us they'll host us for dinner soon on their island in return.  I am very excited, because they catch lots of amazing fish and have put out some eel traps.

Sweet.

David H. Livingstone.  B Watch.  University of Chicago-Environmental
Science/Environmental Studies.