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

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