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

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