Phoenix and Orona

This entry is written by Les Kaufman, Professor of Biology at Boston University.
Yesterday we were moored just south of Rawaki, aka the namesake Phoenix Island, having arrived early morning. The morning dive was a truly sweet and interesting affair. Before breakfast, a landing party made way for the island to check out the birds, me on it. "Landing" is a euphemism for packing everything in watertight containers, jumping off the skiff with mask, fins and snorkel, then dragging all your stuff backwards up into the surf and (hopefully) out of the water onto the island.

NAI'A near Rawaki Island (Photo: Greg Stone)

I felt fully prepared with my special wetpack backpack purchased by John Tschirky for MMAS in a moment of inspiration. Once I'd changed into my jungle gear (oddly appropriate on this sun-scorched rubble pile) I stumbled about, trying hard to neither fall in petrel burrows or end life for some poor embryo. It was a magical hour.

Phoenix Petrel pair (Photo: Greg Stone)

I'd always wanted to see grey noddy terns close up. How about hovering two feet in front of your face? Bridled tern were everywhere. Brown noddies held siege to the upper edges of a broad bowl that sloped down into the island's central guano lake. In what passed for trees (a small bushy mallow about 35 cm high), black noddy, or what I thought were black noddy, I am still a bit puzzled by them since they weren't in trees.

Then, in turn, masked boobies, brown boobies, Phoenix petrel, another, darker petrel as yet unidentified (and quite possibly imagined), and I think grey-backed turn though I didn't see any of them on the ground. Then came fairy tern, lesser frigatebirds, and bristle-thighed curlew. Along the way, a red-tailed tropicbird. This would be just ten (if that many) of a reported 19 bird species breeding on this tiny island. I felt like I hadn't done my homework, not knowing exactly what birds to expect, and their importance. One thing was clear--no evidence of rats or their depredations, or other vermin and lots--lots of birds.

Gray Noddy on Rawaki Island (Photo: Greg Stone)

The first dive brought the expected--but it was lovely to see anyway: vast, majestic, healthy coral reef. It presented as great bommies on sparkling white sand, each reef mound falling away beneath nearly total live coral cover, into the abyss down the island slope. The fishes were interesting enough and there was an impressive biomass of large predators, such as big snapper, but very few sharks. The next dive was much the same. Afterwards, a lovely hour on the top deck watching the birds stream home, as Brian and Jeff explore the photographic options on the island. Then dinner, and away to Orona, with Jaws playing on the flatscreen!

Schooling barracuda (Photo: Greg Stone)

Last night we journeyed to our final island, Orona. The first and second dives were over rubble dotted by large Porites lobata mounds (a big, rounded, mushroom-shaped massive coral). After fish counts on the second dive, we went as we often do into shallower water to get a more representative sense of the fish species diversity. This time, it was an object lesson in extreme fish abundance and mass! In one view, seven large Napoleon wrasse, four huge buphead parrotfish, about 200 lined tangs, at least 150 giant yellowfin tangs, eight enormous black snapper, and the reef and rubble crawling with other large fishes. The scenes and situations differ on every island that we have visited in the Phoenix group, but the abundance of fishes and regenerating coral have been the persistent themes.

While I feel that I've just barely begun to get a sense of what it's like in this archipelago and what might be driving the biological patterns here, a small part of me is relieved that there is only one more dive day remaining. My left ear has felt on the verge of an infection, nursed back to full diveability each day by antibiotic ear drops, Sudafed, rehydration, and rest. My feet are now very painful all during the dive day due to abrasion on skin made agonizingly sensitive by chronic graft-versus-host disease from a bone marrow transplant just over three years ago.

The support of the crew, the grub, and good company are all highly rejuvenating. Diving straight 32% nitrox helps a lot, too (the extra oxygen helps alleviate fatigue, and affords an extra safety edge against decompression sickness, or the bends). Food is great, especially the deserts, which I need like a hole in the head (e.g. last night's ice-cream-stuffed and besyruped chocolate crepes). Actually at times I prefer the crew food, which has lots of cassava, stews, and curries. One more dive today, then rest for my weary feet! While in the water, though--pure heaven--even with the routine tasks unfolding like my transect line, meter after meter, fish after fish.

-Les Kaufman

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