2015 Expedition: Talking turtle tagging with SPREP

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Sangeeta Mangubhai, the chief scientist on board the expedition.

With only five days to go before we head off on the Hanse Explorer for the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati, there is no time to sit around and pontificate. The days before an expedition starts are chaotic, as we double check, and then triple check that we have everything we need. Once we pull up anchor and leave port, there is no turning back as we head to one of the most remote marine protected areas on this planet.

Chief scientist Sangeeta Mangubhai and Catherine Siota 

My main task for today was to meet with turtle expert, Catherine Siota at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). Originally from Solomon Islands, Catherine trains Pacific Islanders on turtle monitoring and tagging, and helps Pacific Island governments develop management strategies for protected marine species. Today was my training day!

Tags and their applicator

This year SPREP have generously provided the expedition with titanium and inconel tags to clip onto the tail edge of the flippers of turtles. Each tag has a unique number that is entered in the regional turtle database. When a turtle with a tag is caught or spotted, people are encouraged to take note of the number and then report it to SPREP and their respective government. This way, we can find out how many different national jurisdictions a turtle may cross.

Catherine Siota demonstrates how to install a flipper tag

Catherine gave me a crash course this morning on tagging and what data I need to meticulously record on each turtle, a task that Julie Cavin, a vet from the New England Aquarium and myself, will be responsible for. We have strict protocols in place to make sure we cause the absolute minimum amount of stress to these animals.

Catherine showing me the right place to install a flipper tag

Tagging is best done on nesting females, though if we cannot find any, we will tag turtles foraging around on the reefs. The data collected will contribute a large regional analysis Catherine and I are doing to understand movement patterns of turtles in the Pacific.

So far, very few turtles have been tagged in Kiribati. We know from previous expeditions that there are lots of green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Phoenix Islands, and this species is at least 20 times more abundant than hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). We have seen these two species of turtles on countless dives in the water and documented evidence of turtle nesting on at least even of the eight atolls and islands.

A silly errant thought slips past me. If I was a turtle nesting in the centre of the Pacific with vast ocean all around me, I wonder which way would I go? Perhaps our work will help solve this little mystery!


2015 Expedition: Global ship-ing

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from the expedition's chief scientist, Dr. Randi Rotjan.

In a world where one click can deliver goods to your doorstep in 24 hours (with rush shipping), it is almost impossible to contemplate global shipping with a 2-month+ timeline. But, when headed to the middle of the Pacific, there is no 24-hour rush option. 

Expedition gear hoisted into a truck to begin the long journey to the Phoenix Islands

Starting in just a few days,  the 2015 Phoenix Islands Protected Area Expedition will kick-off, representing years-worth of preparation and months worth of shipping. This venture is led by the New England Aquarium, in partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and all I can say is: wow -- the planning has been a long time coming. 

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Sarah Driscoll and Bess Edwards sort gear for the trip to the remote islands.

Organizing 16 scientists, over a dozen projects, a half dozen permit applications, 48 SCUBA tanks, 4 skiffs, 2 compressors, 4 medical-grade oxygen bottles, 1 hyperbaric chamber, countless pieces of equipment and supplies and the funding to support all of the above, has been a monumental task shared by many. 

In addition to the giant shipping container currently en route to Apia filled with gear, supplies, and equipment, there is the intellectual organization of the scientific purpose of this trip. The goals are multi-fold, but center around a few themes. First and foremost, the Pacific ocean is H-O-T right now, especially in the Phoenix Islands, which are centered over a warm pool of water related to the growing El NiƱo along the equator. These high ocean temperatures have put PIPA at risk of coral bleaching, which in previous events wreaked ecosystem-wide havoc in 2002-03 and again in 2010. 

SCUBA divers in PIPA during a previous expedition

To study climate change in real time in remote places is very challenging -- no one was on-site to witness the past two bleaching events. This expedition has a chance of being there at the right time (well, wrong time if you're a coral), which is interesting and offers tremendous opportunity to look at bleaching dynamics. In addition to bleaching, the team will be conducting regular monitoring surveys to inform the PIPA Management Committee and other PIPA reporting functions, which is critical to MPA maintenance. 

Reef dwellers in PIPA | Photo: K. Ellenbogen

Other scientific objectives include examining the population genetics of various organisms to understand how PIPA links in to populations elsewhere in the Pacific, to characterize the cryptic invertebrates within PIPA, to examine ocean acidification and carbonate chemistry, as well as the paleoecology of the area, and to explore the health and dynamics of large predators (mainly sharks), which are overfished elsewhere but remain in abundance in protected PIPA waters. 

As the month unfolds, this blog will be the primary home for the stories relating to this expedition. I will fill you in on all of the gory details. 

But, as the pieces are now beginning to mobilize (staff are flying out to meet the boat in Apia, shortly!), I will make you a promise: I will give you information in less time than it took for the gear to ship across the globe. 

I hope you'll join me for the ride... this is rush-shipping in the most literal sense. Adventure... on a ship...   

— Randi


SEA Expedition 2015: Good news and a magnificent sight

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is underway. This is the second year of an 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 to better document and understand the ever-changing reefs in this area.

This is a cross post from the SEA Expedition Blog written by Jan Witting, Chief Scientist at SEA.

As we sailed from Honolulu, we knew we were headed into a Pacific in the midst of an El Nino episode. During these episodes that occur every three to four years some unusual winds allow warm water from the extreme Western Pacific manages to flow toward the Americas.  We are now in the middle of this pool of much warmer than usual water that, acting in conjunction with the atmosphere, rules our daily weather.  Unfortunate for a sailing vessel, these conditions leave our waters empty of the usual trade winds, the normally reliable source of power for us.  We still have to make progress though, so motor sailing has been the theme of the trip.

The silver lining to this particular cloud is that the conditions we’ve encountered on our island stops have been settled and benign. Orona in particular, lacking a deep entrance to the lagoon, has us anchoring on the narrow shoulder of the reef where some channels of sand intersect the living coral.  Hanging on in this anchorage requires settled conditions and moderate winds and we’ve been treated to both.  So for two glorious days we were able to snorkel the coral reefs and explore the land of this beautiful small coral atoll.  There were many exciting sightings, from above the water and below.  Many turtles were spotted during snorkeling, as were Blacktip and Grey Reef Sharks, and the fish were found to be curious and unafraid of us.  Some giant Maori Wrasses sized us up as we swam along the reef.  For many of the students on board, these are their first tropical snorkeling experiences, and even to the novices it was clear how special this place was.

Almost as good as what we saw was what we didn’t see. Coral bleaching associated with these warm water episodes seems absent, and save some very few isolated colonies in the lagoon of Kanton Atoll, we have seen little evidence of any bleaching.  This is good news, as these reefs are still recovering from a severe El Nino-related bleaching event in 2002 when much of the reef died.

Sperm whales photographed with aerial drone | Photo: Jan Witting

Most of the imagery we see about these tropical oceans feature coral reefs. It is natural, given the dazzling array of colors, the sheer abundance of marine life.  At 2:30pm, some thirty nautical miles from Orona, we were reminded of the importance of the rest, the deep ocean waters as we encountered a large pod of sperm whales. This was a magnificent sight, six, seven spouts of their exhale to be seen at any given moment all around us, the closest within 200 feet of the ship. The total number of the whales we’ll never know, but it must have been some dozens.  We woke everyone up for this spectacle, and watched in awe as the pod slowly passed us by on both sides of the ship. 

Looking back, I realize that by this equatorial crossing, my 18th, I had given up hope being able to see such a sight, and assumed that it was confined to the pages of accounts American whaling voyages here in the 19th century. These voyages decimated the whale populations.  A prominent historical landmark in the Woods Hole village, the home port of our fine ship Robert C. Seamans, is a tan-colored stone building called the Candle House.  It was so called as this is where the whale oil from the Pacific (and elsewhere) was rendered into candlesticks that would light the houses and mills of New England. 

The whaling sailors on those voyages would have been delighted by the sight as well, their delight very different in nature in form of a prospect of a profitable voyage.  It is uplifting to think about this evolution in attitudes, in appreciation and in priorities.  Although on the ship we shared the sense to a person, this transformation is far from universal of course.  I do hope that in the broader society we will in time extend this sense of delight and awe to the other sights of the ocean that we’ve been lucky enough to see on this voyage -  the thrashing school of feeding,
leaping tuna making the surface waters boil, the wheeling masses of seabirds diving into the sea.

- Jan 

Learn more: Read how Aquarium researchers are using historical whaling logbooks to better understand the whale populations around PIPA.