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.