Sunday, September 13, 2009

It’s a long way to Nikumaroro

Kate Madin, Writer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The dive boat, Nai’a, made good time, and this morning (Sunday, Sept. 13) dawned with us almost at our goal, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) - - where scientists will survey the reefs for the first time since the PIPA was established. We have much calmer water than during the transit from Fiji, and a rainbow graced the horizon this morning.

The expedition’s divers are excited about today, and the first dive on the reefs. At 8:00am Phoenix Islands time (17 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time), divers began assembling their gear.

From deck we saw our first stop, Nikumaroro Island – 4° 30’ south x 172° 10’ west. The island is approximately 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, a long, oval coral atoll surrounding a large lagoon, as the aerial shot shows.

Nikmaroro has a history: Whaling ships may have visited here in the late 1800s. A large ship, the Norwich City, was wrecked here in 1918, the wreck still at the water line. The British called it Gardner Island and established a settlement here in the 1930s, later abandoning it for lack of fresh water. Many think that Amelia Earhart crashed here on her final flight, and the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has launched a handful of trips here to look.

But our science party is here to identify and count coral and fish species, and to see how healthy the corals are in this location. In 2002, waters warmed so much that a large part of Nikumaroro corals bleached, and the science team wants to learn if there has been recovery in these seven years. Chief scientist David Obura will be looking for data loggers he placed here in 2005 to record water temperature.

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After three dives today the fish researchers are happy with the numbers and kinds of fish they identified. Randi Rotjan, and David Obura worked on the reef: Randi, who studies predation on corals, now has new photographic evidence of bite marks fish make on coral - - white scars on the otherwise colored surface. David found the data loggers, right where he left them - - an invaluable record of temperature conditions the corals have experienced over the last several years. And some areas of coral show “striking recovery” from bleaching, Les Kaufman said, with new corals growing. And Larry Madin dove in blue water, and noted many colonies of radiolarians (single celled protists that form small globular colonies.). Now that we’re here in PIPA, the scientific work has begun.

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