Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kanton Lagoon

Kate Madin, Writer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
We are steaming from island to island in the Phoenix Islands chain so the expedition researchers will be able to do the broadest survey of PIPA reefs possible in the very limited time we have here.

About 3 pm local time, we saw Kanton grow on the horizon and Tukabu and Greg stood in the bow, watching our approach. The sky is pale and towering clouds are everywhere, but no rain has fallen yet. The air is very humid, with a non-stop breeze.

Last night we left tiny McKean Island, 3 degrees 35 minutes 84 seconds S; 174 degrees 7 minutes 68 seconds W, and are now at Kanton Island, an atoll where coral grew around an island rim, eventually reaching the sea surface as the island subsided, leaving a ring. Kanton is the only inhabited island in the entire PIPA, with a village of 40 or so people who monitor the reserve. Kanton also has a school, which some of us will visit during our three days there.

Nai'a's crew lowered the skiffs, and the skiff drivers guided Nai'a in through the narrow opening and channel into Kanton's very large central lagoon, where they dropped the anchor. We have to clear customs here, but an eager group of divers splash into the lagoon channel for a look around, even before that happens.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After the dive, I interviewed some of the coral scientists . The verdict? Disappointing at first, they said, with quite a bit of dead coral and rubble. This is the result of the massive bleaching that happened when water temperature in the equatorial Pacific rose several degrees in winter 2002, a powerful El NiƱo event that caused the first bleaching ever recorded in this region.

But on closer look, coral is recovering: small coral heads are growing on top of larger dead heads, new branches are forming, and there are still large aggregations of lovely fish here. Divers are going back in the water in early morning, and hope to witness a remarkable sight—the parrotfish may spawn, which Greg Stone says has happened here before—they tend to spawn on the new moon, and an outgoing tide from the lagoon.

And tomorrow, more blue-water diving for plankton!