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.

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