8/29/14

SEA 2014: Reflections at landfall (August 10)

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 10, 2014

We made landfall with the first light this morning, the tall green peaks of Tutuila emerging from the early morning light. After the flat coral atolls of PIPA, this lush verdant island cuts a very different figure. So do all the houses, cars, the many sizes of fishing vessels in the harbor, and the loud yellow McDonalds on the town waterfront. Ahead of us here are final project presentations and goodbyes, the crew of this amazing voyage will disembark on Monday morning. The last day’s talk has been full of
reminiscing, sharing of highlights and special memories. I’ve been thinking back to the last island we visited.

Back on Nikumaroro, I had the opportunity to walk around the entire island. At times the beaches seem endless, with tall columns of hundreds of frigatebirds soaring in thermals serving as mileposts. It is difficult to choose where to look, at the brilliant white surf breaking over the reef, at the schools of fish or a passing moray eel in the crystal clear knee deep water of the back reef, or toward the island where Black Noddies, Red-Footed Boobies and White Terns nest among the emerald foliage of the trees.

Remains of a fish aggregating device (FAD) on a beach in Nikumaroro

It is impossible, though, to ignore the refuse of the war of attrition currently being waged against the Pacific tunas. Fish Aggregating Devices, bamboo rafts lashed together with long veils of trawl nets and radio locator buoys, litter the beaches. FADs are launched into the Pacific by their tens of thousands, and as their name suggests they act as a point of interest to passing schools of fish that quite literally aggregate under them, and so provide an easier target for the purse seiners to fish around. Many of them are lost and end up all over these islands and reefs.

Pago Pago is the home of two tuna canneries and the American purse seine fleet in the South Pacific; Charlie the Tuna has a statue by the main road passing the canneries. Perhaps this harbor is fitting place to end our PIPA experience. In many ways it is a good representation of the troubled relationship we in the western world have forged with the Pacific Ocean over the past three hundred years.

The homeport of our fine ship, the Robert C. Seamans, is Woods Hole. It was only some two short decades after Wallis, Cook and Bougainville first sailed through these islands in the 1770s. Shortly thereafter, the first whaling fleets of New England followed them to the riches offered by the waters of the Equatorial Pacific. Sailing out of Woods Hole, Nantucket, New Bedford, the wealth of those voyages, some lasting two years and more, went to build many fine historic homes across Southern New England. When the whale populations collapsed and Pennsylvania crude replaced whale oil,
the accumulated wealth started the textile industry in New Bedford and other coastal towns and in a way still shapes many of these places.

What was left in the Pacific? It took only 50 years to reduce the whale populations to a small fraction of what they once were. They have yet to rebound. The natural wealth of the ocean translocated half a world away, monetized for the benefit of distant economic actors. This pattern still characterizes our relationship with this great ocean, today the various tuna species playing the part of the whales.

The Pacific Islanders — the I-Kiribati, the Samoans, and the Tahitians — forged a different relationship with their ocean. With the ocean providing sustenance in a far more immediate way, these island cultures developed early practices of conservation and stewardship of their reefs, coasts and lagoons. Living by the edge of the sea, I suppose it is just natural you develop a different relationship with it than the one that comes from a can opener, a jar of mayo and some bread with a tuna sandwich as a goal.  It
is within our power to catch the last fish of nearly all the tuna species.

Clearly, we need a different ocean ethic to guide us to a different outcome.

In late June by President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, declared PIPA closed for all commercial fishing beginning January 1st 2015.  By this remarkable act, the tiny nation of Kiribati will have created one of the largest no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the world. Now, this may sound as an abstraction, a concept somewhat difficult to get a practical handle on. If you feel that way, you are not alone. We are still trying to understand the conservation value of these large MPAs, but their true worth transcends the immediate benefit they will provide to the local ecosystems. They become focal points for conservation, places more people will visit, places of which stories are told, places that give a face to the great environmental problems facing our ocean. Places you can Google. They also become focal points for research and help inform the conversation about what we should do in the Pacific Ocean and worldwide. It has been a real privilege for us to help this process along.

Hyperiid Amphipods, found in their thousands at the Mad Hatter Seamount

On the night of August 1, near a seamount we called the Mad Hatter (3˚26’S by 174˚ 43’W), our zooplankton tows produced something remarkable. As usual, we began the night station at 9:30pm by first deploying the rosette water sampler. By 11pm the MOCNESS, our big plankton sampler with
five nets programmed to close at different depths, was descending through the water. To the drone of the hydrowinch and in the light of the early waxing moon, we settled to the long, 3 1/2-hour tow. We recovered the MOCNESS in the wee hours, and the first cursory look at the catch under the dimmed lights of the wet lab looked to be similar to earlier stations. It was the surface Neuston net that produced the big surprise: by far the largest sample, more than three pints and almost a hundred times larger
than an average haul!  Even just as remarkable, the zooplankton we caught consisted exclusively of hundreds of thousands of just one species of an Amphipod, a type of planktonic crustacean.

Why this superabundance? Why at this place? What animals are eating them and benefitting from this largesse? Is this a feature of this one seamount ecosystem or just a big patch floating by? This is just one of the many questions this voyage has produced and there are many others. The observations we have made in the past six weeks will provide the foundation on which subsequent oceanographic expeditions will build. For our part, the Seamans will be back in PIPA in 2015 to continue the work we started.

Jan Witting,
Chief Scientist
At anchor, Pago Pago Harbor
Island of Tutuila, American Samoa

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


8/5/14

2014 SEA: The elusive reef (August 1)

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 1, 2014

Winslow Reef has come and gone and what an amazing place it was. Using CHIRP we found a steep rise starting at about 3000m and shooting up to 40m. We then found a plateau of about 50 feet and snooped around until we found a nice sandy patch to anchor in.  The winds were calm and there was a gently rolling swell.

The Seamans gently rolling in her mid-ocean anchorage,  Cam and Tane (Tweedles) with their catch
and the sunset through the rigging at 
the end of a successful search for an elusive reef.
     
Once the anchor was down and the sun was set did it sink in what we had accomplished.  We had successfully found and anchored on a reef that was first reported in the 1800s by Captain Winslow of the whaling ship Phoenix and last confirmed in the mid-1900s. All accounts of the reef had listed different coordinates, and some were off by 90 miles. Some listed breaking waves, others 11m of depth, and some warning of two brown rocks. We were anchored in the middle of the ocean, not a spec of land for 100 miles in any direction.  If it had been a cloudy or windy day, we probably couldn’t have seen the flat reef below us, and if we hadn’t had CHIRP to guide us, we probably wouldn’t have found it at all.  There we were, anchored in a spot that likely no one else has ever been anchored in, looking down on reefs that the scientific community knows nothing about.

In the morning, we ran 4 rounds of snorkel expeditions for students and crew alike to get in the water in this elusive place. We took pictures to document the reef community, oogled over the wildlife, and all got back aboard safely.
     
The WHOI scientists, who we affectionately call the Tweedles (jury is still out on which is Tweedle Dee and which is Tweedle Dum..) Went on two shark cataloging missions and on the way back from their second one, towed our fishing lines through two bait balls. They came back with two Wahoo and two tuna!

Once underway, we took the Seamans through a bait ball and caught four more fish! We released them, already overjoyed with the previous catch. These waters are SO productive and rich with life.

Today (Aug 1), we awoke to find that the wind had left us. Motor-sailing until our morning science station, we were like a painted ship upon a painted ocean, and you could see the reflections of the clouds clearly in the water. After our daily class, we were told by Captain Pamela that these conditions were ideal for a swim call!  We all got in out bathing suits and got cool and clean in the big blue.  Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Nina served us ice cream!!! Even though August first is arguably the beginning of the end of summer, it feels far away from us here.

Jimmy O’Hare
Chief Engineer
Position: 4° S, 174° 30’W
Sail plan and course: Motoring towards Nikumaroro (36 nm to go)

2014 SEA: Winslow Reef (July 31)

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.

Thursday July 31

Winslow Reef has been one of the biggest mysteries of the Phoenix Islands, with very little known about it. None of the missions to explore the Phoenix Islands related to PIPA have made it into the water up here, in the northwest corner of the area. So as we ventured up into that area, we had no idea what to expect.

Our ship, SSV Robert C. Seamans sits anchored at Winslow Reef

Captain Winslow, aboard his whaling ship Phoenix, charted some of this area in 1851 and another vessel made another set of depth measurements in 1944. Both of their measurements of the shallows of the reefs, areas we should be extra wary of were made using celestial measurements, not as precise a measurement as we needed for detecting the reef shallows they found so long ago. Because of this we proceeded very cautiously, constantly checking the depth by all means possible on the ship. We conducted a few stations around the outskirts of it, circling around, trying to get a sense of the reef. Seemingly by a stroke of luck we found a shallow, sandy area we could anchor at on Wednesday night. Whether it was the one mentioned in 1944 or a separate one we found is impossible to say, but either way we were all totally surprised with the outcome of being anchored in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Previously unseen bottom of Winslow Reef, approximately 30 meters from the surface.

Winslow Reef didn't seem like much at first. There is no emergent land, as was reported in 1851. We did not see an especially large number of seabirds or any fishing vessels, two changes we thought we might see in this area. But being anchored in the middle Pacific Ocean with no land in sight is a pretty cool thing. Later in the evening on Wednesday our shark researcher went out fishing to see what they could find, not really expecting much. Because the plateau of shallower water we found was a pretty small area, they stayed pretty close to the ship, giving us our best view yet of what they were up to. We saw them pull up shark after shark, mostly grey reefs, and even a large ray that they were able to put a satellite tag on. This was encouraging for what we might find below the surface of the water so we prepared to send snorkel missions out in the morning, likely the first ever in Winslow Reef.

Once we got in the water it was clear Winslow was different than the other reefs we have visited. There was not a lot of coral cover, mostly just a few heads a couple of decades old. It was all pretty flat with almost no vertical structure to the coral. Afterwards we discussed how during the last glacial maximum, Winslow Reef would have been above water, just like all the Phoenix Islands. However for some reason, the coral growth here was not able to keep up with rise in sea level over the past 14,000 years and the coral has slowly been degrading.

Despite all of this it was really cool to be part of the first group here to document what we found, see the reef and photograph what we saw. We saw lots of reef sharks and rays, a good amount of fish, including a couple huge schools of fish, an order of magnitude larger than anything I had seen at any of the other islands. More than anything it was surreal to anchor and snorkel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are entering the final stretch of our time in PIPA, heading towards Nikumaroro. We plan to arrive on the 2nd and spend three days there before leaving and heading towards American Samoa.

Luke Faust

8/4/14

SEA 2014: Orona Island (July 28)

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.

Monday July 28

If you were to have asked me to describe a remote tropical island before this trip, I would have said uninhabited, white sandy beaches, calm, perfectly blue waters, lush green vegetation going right up to the beach with a few coconut trees sprinkled in. That description fits the island of Orona pretty perfectly. It is a very beautiful island. Similarities to Kanton are obvious. Both have the same general shape of a ring of land around a large lagoon in the center connected to the ocean. Orona also has also been greatly affected by humans, but not in such an obvious way as Kanton. During parts of the 19th century there was a copra plantation on Orona. Many coconut trees were planted and still remain in very good health.

Orona Island from a future expedition

They are very clearly now the dominant plant species on Orona even though before the plantation, likely few to none of them existed here. Until twelve years ago, the coral reefs would have fit right in with the ideal description for the rest of Orona. The coral bleaching event of 2002 hit especially hard at Orona and is still not in very good shape. There are massive heads of dead coral, with lots of algal growth on them. Our landings onto the island consisted of sliding up stretches of smooth bleached coral.

It is clear that the reef here used to be magnificent. There is recovery in many places, but still a long way to go. One of the reasons Orona, like most of the Phoenix Islands, has been able to recover is the presence of deeper reefs farther offshore, which were not affected by the bleaching event in 2002 or the smaller ones since then. Having another reef close by is critical to recovery as it can be a source of larval coral and other animals important to the reef. The fact that the deeper reefs have remained unaffected by the recent bleaching events is encouraging for the long-term health of the coral reefs in the Phoenix Islands. With ocean temperature rising these bleaching events will only become more common, but hopefully the deeper reefs remain healthy and can always help in recovery and restocking.

A small black tip reef shark in the shallows at Orona.

As Michael mentioned in the last post, inside one of the channels we found a black tip reef shark nursery. Even though the water in the channel was no more than a few feet in depth, tons of these shark pups were there swimming around. Orona seems to be a hotspot for sharks, as out in the reefs on the
ocean side we saw a few four foot long black tip reef sharks and a white tip reef shark. After hearing about the sharks in the Phoenix Islands for so long, and hearing about all the sharks our shark researchers were catching, it was nice to get such a full experience here. Sea turtles were another animal many of us had been hoping to see, but up to this point very few had. It seemed like every snorkel mission would come back with tales of huge sea turtles they saw swimming through the water. Our best turtle sighting though was when we saw a pair of them mating off to the left of our ship. They were
at the surface of the water so perfect viewing conditions for something no one expected to see. It was very cool.

We only have about a week left before leaving PIPA, but still have to visit Winslow Reef and Nikumaroro. Right now we are heading up to Winslow Reef, having already passed over a trench and
seamount on our way there.

Luke Faust

7/31/14

SEA 2014: Seamounts and Winslow Reef (July 30)

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.


July 30, 2014

07:50  We’ve been sailing in a large circle overnight, waiting for the daylight to begin our approach to Winslow Reef.  The reason for this wait is that Winslow is one of those rare unmapped places of our planet, and so we have no good charts to rely on in the absence of daylight.  To fix this situation a big part of today’s mission is to use our onboard CHIRP sonar system to produce some accurate soundings of this large series of subsea peaks that may or may not pierce the surface of the sea.  With the sun
sufficiently high in the sky and the CHIRP pinging away we begin our first survey line toward a seamount some 8 nautical miles from what we think is the shallowest point of the reef.

09:20  We found the top of the seamount at 948 meters deep according to the CHIRP. Perhaps you are wondering exactly how we knew where to look for this seamount, given that no reliable charts exist.  I should clarify here that a map of sorts does indeed exist of the seafloor of PIPA, indeed the whole Pacific Ocean. This map is made using information from a very sensitive satellite capable of measuring variation in the sea surface height down to centimeter (about half an inch) resolution. The rest is down to Newtonian physics: large features on the seafloor, seamounts and such, will increase the gravitational pull exerted on waters above and produce a slight dip in the sea surface. You can measure this dip and
calculate the size and position of the subsea feature necessary to produce it. These satellite-derived seafloor topography maps are what we use to plan our mapping mission today. So how did our 948m measurement compare? Turns out the satellite map was showing 851 meter depth, so it seems to have been off by about 100 meters or a little more than 10% - pretty good accuracy for the deep ocean!

First light of morning shows Seamans at anchor in the middle of the Pacific.

11:10  We’re now creeping toward one of the two peaks that according to the satellite map might reach the surface. At depth of 700 meters, we stop and deploy the CTD rosette water sampler and tow the neuston net. This is at the same depth where we’ve conducted our other island stations, so I hope this an equivalent and comparable location. Interesting to think that if this reef was an island, it would be only mile or so distant while now we only see the unbroken horizon. The instruments on the rosette pick up clear signs of the interaction of ocean currents and the seafloor - the phytoplankton peaks both at depth and at the surface.

14:00  The station came and went, and we’ve been approaching what we thought would be the peak of this coral reef-capped undersea mountain. The CHIRP shows 450 meters and the bottom starts sharply falling away from us. Nowhere around is there breaking water or changes in the color of the sea, both telltales of shallow water—we have a lookout up the mast to watch for these signs. Oh well, when you explore I guess you never know what you’ll not find…  No matter, there is another pinnacle to the west of us, and we change our course that way.

17:15  With a setting sun behind us, we’re now west of the reported position of the shallowest part of the Winslow Reef.  In case you’re curious about the name of this reef, it dates back to the first report in
1851 by one Captain Winslow of the whaling ship Phoenix. The current British Admiralty Pilot relates that at the time the reef was reported to be “extending 1 mile in a NW/SE direction, 71/2 cables wide, with two pointed rocks awash”.  The next report dates to 1944 and mentions a minimum depth of 11 meters but no rocks awash. So we creep cautiously forward with the CHIRP pinging and I’m about to head up the foremast to act as an aloft lookout.

18:20  Twelve hundred meters… Eleven hundred meters…  Thousand meters… Matt in the lab calls out CHIRP depths over the radio. Up aloft I see large flocks of birds feeding on schools of jumping fish that are trying to escape their aquatic predators, the pursuing tuna leaping high out of the water in chase of their prey and turning the sea white with splashes. A young masked booby circles the ship and I can hear the sound of its wings beating in the gentle evening breeze as it accelerates past my post in the
foretopmast. Gradually a line in the water, ripples of waves and current emerge to show the outline of the reef ahead. We send our small boat out to verify what the CHIRP has indicated and lower our anchor in 49’ of water onto a bed of coral sand and rubble. We are anchored on Winslow
Reef!  Tomorrow morning we’ll go explore a little, and expect to have the first pictures of this reef that, as far as we know, has never been visited by anyone before us!

Cam, Tane and a grey reef shark. The shark is on the left…

21:20  The small boat is splashing at the end of its painter behind the ship. Illuminated by the beam of the aft life raft floodlight Cam and Tane are busy sampling sharks again, making the best of this unexpected opportunity. The first catch, a small grouper, is used for bait, the smaller fish traded for bigger ones.  Four grey reef sharks are caught and sampled with a curious audience at the taffrail getting their first close look at the details of the Tweedle’s work. The water in the beam of light teems with fish; a small but ambitious flying fish leaps out of the water for the brief safety of its flight but is caught short as it collides with Tane’s face. To the laughter of the onlookers, Tane collects the fish
from the bottom of the boat, kisses it and throws it back into the dark sea. Looking away from the light I see the reflection of the Milky Way off the water on the dark side of the boat, reminding me to look up at the brilliant night sky.  We are so very lucky to be here tonight, lucky to have this gentle, settled weather.  Lucky for this unique, unforgettable anchorage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with nothing but the horizon in sight!

Jan Witting
Chief Scientist
In the vicinity of Winslow Reef, 1˚30’S by 175˚ 0’ W
Winds Force 2-3 from ENE
Motorsailing under main, staysails and the jib.

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

7/29/14

SEA 2014: All in a day's work (July 29)

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.

July 29, 2014

28 days and 3 island sites into our Phoenix Islands Expedition finds the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) fish team with 278 fish sampled, including 57 blacktip and grey reef sharks and 4 manta rays. The rest of the Seamans’ crew has taken to calling the WHOI fish team “the Tweedles”, but it remains unclear who is ‘dee and who is ‘dumb. Despite the confusion about our names, the smell of fish while visiting an island site is unmistakable and is a telltale sign of our current location.

Camrin Braun cradles a whitetip reef shark before its release | Photo by Tane Sinclair-Taylor

Our typical day starts around 04:30 by fishing a longline from the stern of the Seamans. As the day begins to break, we haul our hooks in and take to the skiff for some fishing closer to the reef. We spend the next several hours maintaining longlines for sharks and spearfishing for our reef fish samples. In-water sampling part 1 ends around 13:00, and the real work begins. We extract fish ear bones and collect muscle and tissue samples from the morning’s samples. As the heat of midday gives away to evening, we make a second trip on the skiff to repeat our earlier sampling and search for the inevitable hard-to-find fish species.

All this hard work and foul odor isn’t without reward, though, as we’ve so far managed to fulfill nearly all of our sampling goals. We are collecting these samples from a representative group of coral reef species to better understand how energy moves through a reef from its primary producers like corals up to top predators such as sharks. If we can constrain the energy sources supporting a coral reef foodweb, we can better understand reef function and resilience to change. What a great opportunity we’ve had thus far with more to come in the last few weeks of our trip!

We’re now on to day 28 since watching the lights of Honolulu fade in the distance and are currently < 5 nautical miles from Winslow Reef. We (as a ship and as a society) know very little about Winslow including what kind of land emerges from among the waves, if any. Excitement aboard the Seamans remains high as we ride some light winds and creep toward our next stop, eager to be among the few people in the world to have ever laid eyes on yet another amazing reef of the Phoenix Islands.

Camrin Braun
PhD Student
MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography

Tane Sinclair-Taylor
Reef Ecology Field Technician
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

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.