Saturday, September 26, 2009

Amazing on Many Levels

Kate Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
We are headed back to Fiji, a 5+ -day trip (photo of us underway by Larry Madin). After being anchored for three days at our last stop in the Phoenix Islands, we all felt surge of recognition when we left the island of Orona’s lee and the ship motion began: here we go again…

During the trip back, the work has changed, but not stopped. Accommodating to the roll, you can get a lot done.

There’s packing: everyone’s gear and possessions need to be returned to the huge number of Pelican cases and duffel bags we came with (photo by Larry Madin)

And there’s science: Greg Stone, leader of the expedition, has called science meetings each morning, to discuss the preliminary findings and the way to proceed from this point. PIPA has been nominated as a World Heritage Site, and the day we arrive in Fiji, scientists aboard will be interviewed about what they have observed about the site.
» View NOAA News Release (World’s Largest Marine Protected Areas Sign Partnership Agreement)

Scientists are writing summaries of their work. People are discussing collaborative papers and further work on samples they are carrying back– coral samples for scientists at WHOI and other institutions and for genetic analysis in labs at Boston University and elsewhere, samples of sea cucumbers from sandy reef flats for colleagues and students at home – a long list of items colleagues requested from scientists on this expedition! The diver-photographers are going over their shots, labeling, and sharing. And National Geographic photographers Brian and Jeff are working with their photos.

I asked Larry about the plankton work, and he said, “The water column is PIPA’s largest habitat. Only 0.006% of the PIPA protected area is land. All else is open ocean over deep-sea floor – waters that make the large scale physical, chemical and biological context for the reefs, including food resources as plankton, and pelagic fishes that are part of the larger ecology of the reefs.

“Single-celled algae create food from sunlight, zooplankton eat these cells and are the link in the food chain to larger animals like fish, turtles, and whales. We had no information about the diversity or abundance of the zooplankton in PIPA waters, and that’s what I came on this expedition to begin to find out.

“We’ve made a preliminary survey of the zooplankton here. For small animals we towed a plankton net, and we’re bringing the samples home for identification – we expect to find small crustaceans, snails and worms, and we may see larval stages of invertebrates or fish. We used scuba to dive in open water and collect larger and more fragile gelatinous creatures – the ‘jelly animals’ that are my specialties, are usually too delicate to be collected in nets. This first look at the community of zooplankton here will add to our understanding of the total ecosystem of PIPA, and will provide data for the Census of Marine Zooplankton, a world-wide program to identify planktonic animals from all the world’s oceans, as part of the global Census of Marine Life.”

This trip has been an astounding opportunity for Larry and me to see a part of the ocean we hadn’t been to, to take a preliminary look at the plankton, and to see some of the most remote coral reefs in the world. We’ve spent hours talking with shipmates who study and hope to preserve the reefs – and with Tukabu and Tuake, about Kiribati’s rich ocean resources and PIPA, a great gift their nation has given the world.

Scientists aboard are entirely committed to saving reef ecosystems – in trouble all over the world. As I write, several are talking about how aquaculture might coexist with natural coastal areas in nations now using aquaculture to feed a global trade in seafood their local people cannot afford to buy. One way forward is marine protected areas such as PIPA.

A wrap-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Nai’a (photos by Larry Madin)– our 110 ft live-aboard motor-sailer diveboat, its owner Rob Barrel, who cares immensely about the reefs and sharks (photos by Jim Stringer), and its remarkable Fijian crew of divers, divemasters, and support people. Jonathan, the captain; Mo and Koroi, who drove the skiffs and helped with diving; Sam and Brigitte who dove with the group and made videos; Penni, who fed us; Suli and Wally and John who took care of the boat and us, and all who took care of dive gear, filled tanks, ran the engines, put up the sails, and sang almost every night out on deck. We won’t forget the corals, fish, the sharks, the aquamarine water or the sunsets that filled this amazing trip to the Phoenix Islands.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Three PIPA Stories

Kate Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Today’s story
Today we made an unusual dive inside Orona’s lagoon. We took the skiffs in at near-high tide, and it was still so shallow that we had to get out and walk the skiff through the entry channel. But the dive was our reward: At about 40 feet down, giant clams (Tridacna) were everywhere, each about 8”, with their mantles (lips) exposed to the sun and looking like sapphires nested in the coral. Every individual clam had a different light and dark blue pattern on its mantle. Tiny fish flocked around separate coral castles and mountains rising from white sand, going in and out of their entrance, going about their business.

Then came the final dive of the expedition, at noon on Orona’s windward side. Larry took a video camera down, but seas were rough. I stayed on Nai’a this time. Now comes the time to pack up, stow gear, and talk over the memories and meaning of this expedition, as we steam back to Fiji.

The reef fish story
Everywhere we have visited, divers saw abundant large and small fish populating the reefs, making the scientists think there has been little fishing here recently. Stuart Sandin said, “These reefs have the signal of an unfished reef – the fish are all there, doing their jobs.”

The Phoenix Islands corals have definitely taken a serious hit from that 2002 unprecedented temperature spike. “This place has been hammered by heating”, said Stuart. “The temperature recorders David Obura retrieved show the most extreme heating seen anywhere on the planet – elevated temperatures for longer times than measured on any other reef system.”

“The message is one of hope,” Les Kaufman added, “If you don’t fish, the fish are there, and the corals are benefitting from fish eating the fleshy algae that overgrows dead coral. The importance of the fish as a bridge or shield, to carry the ecosystem over and keep algae cleared off until the corals re-grow, cannot be overstated.”

The shark story
But some fish were scarce: divers saw fewer, much smaller sharks than were here in years past.

Sharks are the targets worldwide of a lucrative trade in shark fins for the Asian market, and in many places there are almost no sharks left.

Fish biologist Greg Stone said, “We’re seeing the result of shark fishing that happened before PIPA was protected. We know that commercial long-lining fishing vessels came through in 2001 and 2005, and we saw some of this fishing happening at the time, but the Phoenix Islands were not a protected area until 2006.”

The problem is that sharks reproduce slowly and don’t grow quickly, so there are only young, small sharks on the reef. “The success,” said Greg, “is that there are many young sharks, and the Kiribati government has great surveillance systems in place to protect them and the reefs.”

Tukabu told our group, “Kiiribati has signed an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard in Hawai’I to allow Kiribati officers on USCG ships, and they are authorized to arrest fishing boats here illegally – they have surveillance on the area, and inform our security system if boats are here illegally. The Kiribati government has recently fined two illegal shark fishing vessels five million dollars.” The scientists hope that this action will send a strong message: stay out of PIPA, and let the reefs be. Like the Phoenix, they will rise.

The photos of the gray reef shark are by Jim Stringer; the photo of clams on the reef is by Randi Rotjan; the photo of schooling silver jacks is by Greg Stone; the red snapper sillhouetted against other fish on the reef is by Larry Madin.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Three-part Day: Green Island, Blue Desert, Reef Oasis

Kate Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Today we are at Orona Island, a large atoll lush with coconut palms and other greenery. It was a busy day, with blue water and reef dives, plus a shore visit to an abandoned village.

People from Kiribati have occupied Orona three times, said Tukabu — most recently by islanders harvesting copra (coconut meat) and fishing, until about 2003. Several scientists and crew on Nai’a have fond memories of dancing and feasting with the villagers, when visiting here during the 2002 expedition to the Phoenix Islands. But the people left when the village couldn’t sustain itself any longer. Buildings being reclaimed by jungle, paths disappearing, and the island is left to land crabs, birds, and jungle. We also saw low stone walls that Tukabu said were built by Polynesian settlers, hundreds of years ago, who also did not stay.

Randi Rotjan and Jim Stringer joined Larry and me on a blue water dive this morning. The dive was eventful because a 6-ft. shark came around and looked us over a couple of times, but the large plankton animals were very sparse. Some salps – the transparent 2-inch animals Larry is interested in – drifted by us in the blue expanse, but we didn’t see much else in the upper ocean waters.

“Dives in the surface water of the tropical ocean are very different from some dives I’ve made in the North Atlantic,” Larry said, “where sometimes we’ve seen salps and jellyfish in swarms of thousands. The reason is that the ocean here has only low levels of the nutrients that plankton need, such as nitrogen. Without it, phytoplankton (microscopic plants) can’t grow, and there’s little food for bigger plankton. It’s almost an ocean ‘desert’.”

If the blue water seems like a desert, the reefs are an oasis, but a damaged one. Orona’s reefs, like at all the islands, are mixed – some are healthy, and some are recovering slowly after the bleaching in 2002. But many kinds of fish thrive here still, especially the ones that feed on algae that grows over dead coral.

In the late afternoon, Greg put the small ROV (remotely operated vehicle) into the water right near the boat, to have a look at the deeper water, too deep for scuba divers. The coral extends down to the bottom, nearly 200 feet down. The water here is so clear that sunlight penetrates that far, allowing the corals to grow.

Watching the video transmitted by the ROV, Les Kaufman identified fish near the bottom, calling out “white tailed surgeon fish”, “yellow bellied snapper”, “goatfish”… and a school of “unicorn surgeon fish” – fish that eat the salps that drift in over the reef from blue water –one more sign of how connected are the reefs to the open ocean.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Eyes to the Skies: Phoenix Birds

Kate Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Steaming overnight from Enderbury Island, we arrived at 6am at Rawaki Island— in English called Phoenix Island, the namesake of the chain. As as we arrived we could see, hear, and smell the thousands of seabirds that nest here, since a layer of guano covers the coral rubble that makes up the island. These islands are resting and nesting places for many seabirds. Greg tells me that Rawaki is the most important island in the world for one highly endangered species, the Phoenix petrel.

The deep, navy blue of the open ocean grades into a clear blue over the reefs and a milky aquamarine in the shallows at water’s edge. On our arrival, groups went diving to check the reef, and ashore to survey the island.

The island is low and treeless, covered by grass and shrubs, about 1 mile long, with an extremely salty, ammonia-filled (from the guano) central lake. Rabbits introduced here in the past were a problem at the time of the last expedition here, overrunning the island and devouring vegetation. Kiribati began an eradication program, and the shore party wanted to find out if it was successful.

The shore party’s verdict: no rabbits and no rats — the eradication worked, and thousands of birds are the beneficiaries: boobies, frigate birds, terns, petrel, curlews, and more. Randi Rotjan captured an image of a fairy tern with a fish, and Greg Stone took these shots of a pair of Phoenix petrels, and an unlikely couple – a tropic bird and a young frigate bird, sharing a coral shelter.

The dive party’s view? Larry said, “It’s a beautiful reef, with long tongues of white sand bottom separating ridges of healthy coral with by colorful reef fish – but no big fish (such as trevally shown here) like we saw at other islands, and we saw no sharks.”

The good news is that there are larger live coral heads here than at other islands – large enough that coral biologist David Obura, aided by Larry and the ship captain Jonathan, was able to take a cylindrical core sample from one, brain coral, from the surface of the coral, down into skeleton it laid down in the past – for WHOI scientist Anne Cohen. The image, taken byLarry, shows David drilling the core.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Enderbury Island

Kate Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Every reef has been different, but this was the prettiest so far.

Arriving at Enderbury Island this morning, divers went in early in the morning. This is the kind of reef they hoped to find here. There are some sharks here also, though fewer than the ecologists expected. We saw overlapping plates of coral, beautiful fish, and lots of “giant clams” – small ones less than a foot long, with lovely blue “lips” of tissue showing (clam photo here by Craig Cook). For part of the day Greg recorded video with a small ROV (remotely operated vehicle) on a deeper part of the reef, 230 feet down – seeing growing coral even at that depth.

We made a blue water dive, and the dive team (Greg, Larry, and I) saw some interesting large plankton, including salps – transparent connected tubular animals that filter food from the ocean while swimming (see the salps in a wheel from today’s dive, photo taken by Larry). Large plankton so far have not been abundant, but the sparseness is typical, Larry said, of the tropical oceans of the world.

It’s rare to be able to visit this remote and unusual part of the world, and scientific trips are even more rare. WHOI Director of Research Larry Madin shares his thoughts about this trip, below:

A collaborative cruise
Mounting an expedition to someplace as remote as the Phoenix Islands is a logistical and financial challenge – even more so than a normal science cruise. They are far off the beaten track for any research ships, so the cost of bringing a fully equipped research ship here is very high. The only practical way to get here is on a live-aboard dive ship, like the Nai’a, operating out of Fiji. Most live-aboards cater to tourist divers, and it’s unusual that one will take on such a long, science-oriented expedition. But we are lucky that Nai’a and its owner Rob Barrel were part of the very first expedition here, and he has a strong interest in the whole PIPA effort.

Even with the right ship available, putting together the science party and the funding takes persistence and a strong sense of cooperation. The 2009 PIPA expedition is primarily supported by the New England Aquarium and Conservation International, with additional funding from foundations and private donors.

The scientists aboard come from several organizations – New England Aquarium, Boston University, Scripps and WHOI, and non-governmental organizations, accompanied by free-lance and National Geographic photographers. WHOI’s participation includes the zooplankton studies by Larry and Kate Madin, and sample collections from the coral reefs on behalf of Anne Cohen and Konrad Hughen, two of WHOI’s coral scientists.

WHOI’s collaboration on this trip is a result of the Memorandum of Understanding between New England Aquarium and WHOI, established three years ago to encourage joint efforts in research, education and outreach.

This resulting expedition to PIPA is something that none of the participating groups could have done on its own, but working together, with multiple funding sources we have all been able to come to the Phoenix Islands on the most comprehensive survey expedition here so far.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reef Diving

Kate Madin, Writer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Today held no blue water plankton dive. Instead, it was a reef diving day. Both Nai’a’s skiffs and drivers were busy carrying the fish and coral scientists to their work sites, and picking divers up afterwards.

Divers went in the early morning to find spawning fish. Then there was breakfast, and a couple of hours later a dive to a study site outside the lagoon at “satellite beach” – near where a satellite transmission tower once operated – to count fish and count and sample coral species. In the photo, taken by Stuart Sandin, David Obura is collecting coral samples to bring back.

Larry and I went along – not to count, but to observe and enjoy the wonderful variety of reef fish. We saw fish of every color, sea turtles resting on the bottom and swimming beside us, and lots of new coral growing in this area that had suffered bleaching a few years ago. Reef and fish ecologist Stuart Sandin photographed this grouper under a coral head, and even had a visitor during his dive – a dolphin swam near him for a while.

After lunch, yet another fish and coral dive. Some divers (including Larry) made a drift dive on the inward tide into the lagoon. Then one more dive before dinner, to retrieve data loggers placed on the reef two years ago to record water temperatures. Coral ecologist Randi Rotjan, called the daily schedule “dive, eat, dive.”

In the late afternoon, Kanton residents – all 31 people currently on the island – came over to our boat for a ceremonial leave-taking. Rob Barrel gave them a tour of Nai’a; there were speeches, thanks, and gifts exchanged; and the island’s policeman performed traditional Kiribati dance and song. Since we arrived the islanders had been making shell necklaces, and they gave one to every person on Nai’a. Larry photographed the event, and the visitors watched video taken of their school and the reefs and fish.

As they left in the skiffs for their home, all of us felt grateful for the chance to be here and meet the Kiribati people here on Kanton, to enjoy a taste of their culture, and see these coral reefs. Then Nai’a headed out of Kanton lagoon toward the next stop, Endurbury Island.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Visit to Kanton Atoll

Kate Madin, Writer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Images from our visit to the Kanton School
Today began with a dive for the reef scientists, who are re-visiting survey sites that were marked on the last expedition here in 2005. There are usually four dives a day to cover the island’s reefs.

For others of us, the day started with a hot, two-and-a-half mile walk (each way) along the atoll’s only road, to visit the Kanton school. There, Greg gave the ten students and two teachers educational material brought from New England Aquarium and a sister school in Weston, and Larry contributed magazines and children’s books from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Woods Hole Sea Grant – and also candy, to break the ice!

The school is a building within a building – schoolrooms built inside a large corrugated metal building with a cool, smooth cement floor that’s a remnant of when Kanton was a much larger community.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Kanton held American and British bases, an airstrip where Pan American Airlines flights stopped to refuel, and a hotel – a few thousand people lived here at one time. The current small village of 40, caretakers for PIPA, rotate off after a period.

Images from the drift dive
After the school visit, Larry examined plankton caught in the plankton net towed behind the skiff, and photographing and taking notes on the box jellyfish he captured on yesterday’s dive. Cubomedusae are the most venomous of jellyfish, and since he didn’t know how toxic this one is, he made sure to use caution transferring it from jar to microscope dish to photographic tank.

In the afternoon, some of the divers did a drift dive, riding the several-knot incoming tidal current inward from just outside the lagoon entrance– a high-speed look at the atoll’s opening.