Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Back on Dry Land

We have safely arrived back in Honolulu after a wonderful and invigorating expedition.  While we will definitely miss the wonderful diving and camaraderie I think there are few of us who are not happy to be back on dry land.  We are in the process of unloading the ship and will then do our best to settle in to the process of data analysis before our next expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September 2008.  To keep tabs on future cruises, tune in to www.oceanben.com

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Kingman Reef

We have finished our work at Kingman Reef and are transiting back to Honolulu as we speak. The weather has been a little rough, but not too bad.  Two more days to go.
Kingman was again amazing.  The REA team had the opportunity to survey the area around a new shipwreck that appears to have occurred within the last year.  It appears to be a derelict vessel that has been floating around the Pacific for a time before grounding itself on the reef at Kingman.  Conveniently, this also allowed for us to go 'ashore'.  "Shore" in this case consisted of a spit of land that took 5 minutes to walk the length of and at its widest point was maybe 20 feet!  The island itself is fairly ephemeral and has disappeared at high tide in years past.  This year it was visible throughout the day.  Perhaps a recent storm has deposited more material.
Our last dive site was at a place called 'Clam City' which has a higher density of giant clams (up to 3 feet wide) than we have seen anywhere in the Pacific.  Giant clams are really a beautiful creature with the mantel, or soft part, coming in colors of blue, green, purple, turquoise and any number of patterns. Very beautiful. 
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Kingman, however, was ready for us to leave.  We were called back early from this dive due to boat troubles on the surface. By the end of the day, two of the small boats needed to be towed back to the ship, squalls had closed in and one last dive that was attempted had to be ended early due to high current.  Everyone made it safely back to the ship, however, so all in all it was a successful day.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Our last days at Palmyra

So I have been very delinquent in posting recently. The past several days have been terrific diving, but less than invigorating on the surface. My first post from Palmyra documented driving rain and fierce winds. In the subsequent days both abated slightly, but not enough to make it what you would call ... nice.

The diving, however, was spectacular and I personally think that many of the areas of Palmyra rival if not surpass Jarvis in sheer brilliance. In many areas coral cover was near complete and the fish life was spectacular. Missing were the clouds of yellow and purple anthias that covered the reefs of Jarvis, but n their place are clouds of fusiliers and jacks along with a multitude of sharks, napoleon wrasse and milkfish. Some of the most spectacular diving I have done so far.

On our last day at Palmyra we finished operations early and were able to take in a few hours of R&R on the island. The Nature Conservancy personnel on island were very hospitable and pointed us in various directions to a secluded beach on the north side of the island, the airstrip with the remains of a plane whose landing was less than perfect, a small path through the jungle patrolled by hermit crab sentries, and finally and idyllic swimming hole complete with a rope swing suspended from palm trees high above. The sun came out for a few hours that afternoon bringing with it welcome warmth and the lighting of spirits we all needed.





Sunday, March 30, 2008

Palmyra: Day 1

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The water at Palmyra is so warm compared to Jarvis ... the air is SOOOO cold and wet!  Today was our first day at Palmyra and, well, I can't say we actually got to SEE the island.  We were seldom more than 100 yards off shore, but most of the time the island and beaches were behind an opaque sheet of rain and miserableness.  Yes, that is a word.

Our switch-outs between dives were very fast as the water was much warmer than the air and the surface team was ready to hit the water as soon as the dive team hit the surface.  Rain came in a mix of drizzle and downpour and the wind was near constant.  This is what marine biology is all about!

All kidding aside, the dives today were excellent and would have been spectacular if for a little sun.  Oh, I hope the sun comes out tomorrow!  Our last dive of the day was exceptional even though it was so dark we could hardly see.  We heard dolphins and saw huge numbers of fish, rivaling even Jarvis in their abundance.

Tonight the rain continues unabated and it appears our ship has become a temporary refuge for a number of boobies seeking a dry place to roost for the night.  Oh I hope the morning brings the sun ...

Jarvis: Video Retrospective

We should be arriving at Palmyra in an hour or so and I thought I'd dash off this quick blog entry before breakfast.  During the transit from Jarvis to Palmyra I had a chance to look back through some of the video we had taken and put together a few clips.
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Dolphins were regular companions  and seemed to enjoy racing the REA team to the dive site.
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Underwater clouds of tiny neon yellow and purple anthias fish covered the reef in clouds.  I cannot begin to comprehend the sheer number of these tiny fish.
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Small curious grey reef sharks were also common, checking in to see what were were up to in their watery home.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

On to Palmyra

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On our last day at Jarvis we were visited by a small pod of curious dolphins, ready to bid us a fond fair-well.  Having completed our Jarvis surveys we are now on our way north to Palmyra. While we are sad to see Jarvis slip over the horizon we are looking forward to the warmer waters of Palmyra. Jarvis is on the equator and is subjected to massive upwelling of the equatorial counter-current which slams into the western side of the island, bringing cold deep ocean water the the surface making for spectacular, but chilly diving.  While Palmyra is farther north, it experiences less upwelling and should be about 6 degrees warmer (the difference between winter and summer in diving terms).

We are all hoping to be able to go on shore at Palmyra, at least for a little bit.  I have not been to the atoll, but gather it is as spectacular above water as below.  Either way, it will be nice to see yet another new and exciting reef.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Our first tows at Jarvis

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Towboarding at Jarvis the past few days has been incredible. This is my first time to this island which is legend in our program and it has not disappointed. The water has been a little nippy, but the fish life has been incredible. We are towing through clouds of tiny brilliant orange and purple anthias so thick it is hard to see the other fish behind them. We have seen manta rays, schools of over a thousand jacks, hundreds of barracuda and seventy-three green turtles on a single survey. It is enough to boggle the mind and put a cramp in my hand.

Now I know many of you may breathe a little quicker for this part, but it is the number of sharks at Jarvis that sets it apart from the rest and what many of us were looking forward to seeing. This is very much an intact ecosystem where the apex predators have yet to be fished into oblivion. Not looking too much like fish (or surfers for that matter) the sharks have paid us little attention aside from an initial curiosity before moving on down the reef. We have seen hundreds of grey reef (who follow us around like little puppies), white-tip and black-tip reef sharks and scalloped hammerheads in magnificent formation. Rest assured we are well aware of their behavior patterns and are ready to quickly get out of the water if any start acting unusual. They really are beautiful animals.
We have one more day here before moving on to Palmyra and none of us are ready to leave.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

T-12 Hours and Counting...


Excitement and anticipation are high aboard the Hi’ialakai tonight as we are expecting our first day of dive operations at Jarvis Island to begin in less than 12 hours. Our day will begin with a 6 am breakfast, 7:30 daily operations meeting followed by launching the small boats at 7:45. And then it begins! 

We’ve spent today checking and re-checking gear in preparation for what is supposed to be the best diving that our program gets to do. You may ask, what constitutes ‘best’? My understanding is that this island has a higher number of fish and greater coral cover than any of the other islands we survey. There is also the possibility of seeing manta rays, multiple sea turtles and possibly dolphins while diving. It has been described by others that have already been there, as diving in a Wyland painting! So we are keeping our fingers crossed for clear skies and light winds. 

We were greeted this morning by a blue sky that was quickly replaced by a horizon of storm clouds. It was such an impressive sight that it warranted a trip to the bridge to watch as about 180 degrees of the horizon turned dark, rain began pelting the windshields and the rest of the sky remained a beautiful blue. Seas have been a bit higher today after passing through that short squall, but we are still hoping for some calm weather tomorrow. Either way this should be an amazing experience. Wish us luck!

Take care and best wishes.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Transit to Jarvis

Aloha to All! Over the next few weeks, you may hear a somewhat different voice on this blog from time to time. Cristi has flown down to Pago Pago, American Samoa and joined the NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai, from which Ben has been making these posts. This is a completely new experience for me and while Ben is a seasoned sea-goer, I am still taking time to get my sea legs and explore life on a ship, including being able to work with a constant slow rolling of the floor.

The ship is currently transiting to Jarvis Island, a small uninhabited island just south of the equator. This will be the first research site of the ship’s return leg to Honolulu and will be followed shortly afterward by Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef. The transit from American Samoa to Jarvis will take a total of 4 days, which will hopefully provide enough time to adjust to the conditions of living aboard a ship. My first few days have been spent trying to master walking down the hallway without bumping into too many of the walls and learning not to be nauseous while doing minor chores (showers, working on the computer, eating, etc). It is surprising how much extra time needs to be alotted for even minor tasks, given the movement of the ship and the naps that are required by the gentle rocking motion.

Today was spent preparing for dive operations on Wednesday and conducting more safety drills. The drills of the day included a simulated Man Over Board event and Pyrotechnics training :-) We all mustered to the top deck of the ship while the crew launched a small resuce boat and recovered a life buoy and smoke canister (used for marking the site of the buoy). It was impressive how quickly all of this could be accomplished and the 200+ foot ship could be maneavured back to the ‘man over board’. The pyrotechnics training involved an explanation of flares and smoke canisters which are included in our life rafts and can be used to signal another ship in the case of an emergency. Cristi, Ben and several other of the science and ship’s crew were able to "test" out a few of the flares. The fireworks were not quite as spectacular as those in Waikiki on Friday evenings, but much more fun for being so interactive!

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Governor's Ball

We were invited to a soirĂ©e at the Governor's Mansion the day after we arrived in Pago Pago.  The mansion was originally built for the naval governor in 1902 and was recently restored to the exact specifications of the original design.  It is a spectacular residence sitting atop the hill with a panoramic view of the harbor entrance.  We were treated to a wonderful tour of the property by the Governor and First Lady who explained the history and significance of many of the pieces that have been amassed over the past 100 years of Samoan history.

After the tour we were invited to an outdoor Fale (a structure similar to but much larger than a gazebo with roof but no walls) where a sumptuous feast awaited.  Meat roasted on a slowly turning spit as several men in native dress prepared a traditional appetizer.  Several roasted breadfruits were mashed to a pulp using a large wooden bowl and a green papaya as mortar and pestle.  As the breadfruit became the constancy of mashed potatoes, coconut milk was added to a depression in the center of the mash.  Hot rocks were brought from a nearby fire and, while they were held over the breadfruit using wooden tongs, raw sugar was poured over them.  As the sugar hit the smoldering rocks it caramelized and dripped into the breadfruit and coconut milk.
After the demonstration we all sat down to the feast with more dishes than I can describe filled with delicious preparations of meat, fish, taro, breadfruit, and more.  It was some of the most delicious food I have had in a long, long time.

As dinner drew to a close the Governor took to the stage and made several heart-felt and genuine speeches thanking us for the work we have been doing and for the many hours that go into producing the data that go into the monitoring reports and other publications they use to make various management decisions.  Governor Tulafono has lead the way in this regard, using much of the data collected over the past five years to support a variety of management decisions including the suspension of fishing for all large-bodied reef fishes in American Samoan waters.  Decisions like these will go a long way to insure that the children of American Samoa will be able to enjoy the same reefs and waters we see here today.  We thanked Governor Tulafono for his generous hospitality and the time he spent with us on the Hi'ialakai.  And with that ... the dancing began.
(In all of these pictures the gentleman in the green and yellow short-sleeve shirt is Togiola Tulafono, Governor of American Samoa.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Swains Island

Swains Island, one of my favorite places in the world!  Our last day at Swains was spectacular.  I dropped the oceanography team off on the beach early to begin their water sampling routine in the small brackish water lagoon in the center of the island and spent the rest of the day poking around the margins of the fringing reef surrounding the island.  I shuttled tanks to and from the ship for some of the other teams and did a little coxswain training for one of the ship's crew members.  I had been hoping to get to go ashore on the island as I had two years ago and, as luck would have it, we happened to have a few extra minutes at the end of the day.

After retrieving the O-team, they dropped me off just outside the reef where I could swim to shore through a small cut in the reef. As I entered the small lagoon inside the reef the water turned clear as gin and must have been near 90 degrees.  I waded through the shallow water and finally made it to the snow white beach and the cool shade of the palm trees, still laid out in neat rows from the plantation days.  Edmund, one of the members of the Tow team had joined me on shore and we quickly met up with one of the families that live on the island.  

The two children couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 years old and were completely fascinated with the small digital camera I had brought with me and we spent quite some time taking pictures of each other, marveling over the results on the camera's small screen.  Before long it was time to leave to begin our transit back to Pago Pago where we would change out eight of the scientists, a few of the crew and make the ship ready for the next leg of the expedition: Jarvis, Palmyra, and Kingman.  These are three of the places I have yet to visit and I must admit, I am very excited.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Memoriam

Monday was a hard day for us here on the Hi'ialakai. We ended the day's operations at Swains with a Safety Stand-down as we learned of the death of one of our fellow NOAA divers in Florida. Rusty Mason was a veteran diver and one of the finest members of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Mooring Buoy Team which installs and maintains the a multitude of buoys in the FKNMS which protect the fragile reefs from damage caused by vessel anchors. Rusty could always be counted on to show up with a smile and keep up everyone's spirits no matter how bad the weather got. An accomplished instructor, Rusty was often chosen to be the FKNMS diver assigned to the various VIPs visiting the Sanctuary, diving with them and keeping them safe. He will be dearly missed.

At this point we are all waiting to hear the final verdicts on the cause of the accident. At this point it appears to be medical in nature which is some small comfort. Conditions that day were perfect and it is pleasant to think that when Rusty's time came it was while he was doing what he loved best in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, a place he dearly loved. As a child, Rusty loved the television program Sea Hunt and was known to strap a pillow to his back to perform backward roll entries off the back of the couch as if it were a dive boat. Conditions were close to perfect on Monday with over 100' of visibility, clear skies, and calm seas ... he must have been so happy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Back to the Blog

Sorry to all that I have been a little lax in posting recently. I have gotten a few little nasty-grams and "where are you"s :-)

I have been feeling a little off, just a little head cold but it has been making me a little more tired than normal and bed has looked much better than the keyboard.

Yesterday was spectacular. We are now at Swains Island, one of my favorite in the places we visit (Maug in the Marianas is a close second). As I have described to many before, Swains is one of those idyllic south pacific islands. A donut ring of an island, Swains is encircled by a snow-white beach with the pink crests of its coral reef breaking the surface 50 yards off shore. Once used as a coconut plantation, hundreds of palm tree still arch out over the beach. The whole island is a rough circle not half a mile in diameter.

The oceanography team spend the morning deploying some instruments on the west side of the island and then had time of a spectacular drift dive in the afternoon. Swains has some of the clearest water I have ever experienced with visibility of 200 ft not unheard of. It is like diving in a hugh aquarium with new fish swimming by every second. When we returned to the ship our team that when on shore had already returned and were greeted with fresh coconuts, cracked and ready for drinking.

You couldn't ask of a more idyllic place.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rose Atoll Rock-n-Roll

I've just come up from the dive locker where the Hi'ialakai band is cutting their latest hit. There really isn't much missing on this ship ...

Today was another terrific day at Rose Atoll. We spent most of our day in the lagoon collecting water sample and making CTD casts to measure temperature and salinity in the lagoon. There was more of a breeze blowing today which kept things a little cooler than usual under the southern summer sun.

Towards the end of the day I was able to get into the water for a quick snorkel as the oceanography team completed their final casts in the one pass that connects the inner lagoon to the outside ocean. As the tide changes the current rips through this pass making for one wide ride for the lone snorkeling running the rapids (ok ripples). The trip through the pass was pretty quick and once I got to the outside the water turned crystal clear and I was greeted by schools of jacks, parrotfish and a single old barracuda patrolling his territory.

After my brief dip and tour around the reef it was time to get back in the boat and head back to the ship where the rest of my compatriots were waiting. You see, today was my birthday and, as such, I was treated to my ceremonial birthday shower. This time in the form of about 70 gallons of ice mixed with sea-water cast from buckets, coolers, and trash cans from the upper decks as I may my approach to the rail. The cold was biting, but brief.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Diving at Rose

My first day of diving at Rose Atoll and I was not disappointed.  On my first dive, the Oceanography team we replaced a wave and tide recorder on the north side of the Atoll.  After finishing the replacement we dropped down thewall and continued around the reef finding a nice school of Heller's Barracuda.  A little later in the day we replaced several bottom temperature recorders and spent the next hours or so working our way down the reef at about 20 feet and it was like diving in an aquarium.  Clouds of fish and water so clear you could almost imagine it was air.  Near the surface, the reef on this side of the atoll has many fingers separated by narrow canyons and crevices perfect for exploring.

During our dives, several other members of the expedition went onshore at Rose island to repair a monument placed there by the first governor of Samoa almost 80 years ago.  In the intervening years the monument had fallen into disrepair but was successfully repaired by our team.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rose Atoll


Today was our first day at Rose Atoll and it was breathtaking.  The weather was perfect.  Blue sky, puffy white clouds, and a sea as calm as glass.  I was serving as coxswain (driving the boat) with the Oceanography team deploying instruments to measure conditions at the Atoll over the next two years.  At the same time we recovered a variety of other instruments which have been measuring the water temperature, currents and tides during the two years since our last visit.

New this year we are conducting some experiments looking at the residence time of the water within the Rose Atoll lagoon. To do this we have deployed an acoustic doppler current profiler which will measure the speed of the water flowing into and out of the pass at the northwest corner of the atoll. This will be combined with other data including that from a temperature pressure meter measuring the change in depth of the water in the lagoon to create a model showing scientists how quickly the lagoon is flushed with open ocean water. Understanding this is important for studies of ocean water chemistry because water that has stayed in the lagoon for longer periods of time will be more affected by the biological activity within the lagoon itself.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Leaving Pago Pago

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After getting settled in last night and saying hi to everyone on board, I headed to bed for some much needed sleep. This morning we awoke to another one of chief's sumptuous breakfasts. It just doesn't get much better than that. Eggs to order, pancakes, fruit ... almost whatever you can imagine.

After breakfast we made the ship ready for a visit from the Governor of American Samoa, his cabinet, and various members of the American Samoan Department of Commerce and other agencies. Basically bringing them up to speed on everything we are doing while we are. The presentations seemed to be well received and everyone was excited and I think slightly amazed by the amount of data we are collecting and synthesizing.

Now we are casting off lines and heading out to sea, bound for Rose Atoll which will be our first stop on this leg of the voyage. We start operations tomorrow morning.

48 Hours and Here I Am

Well, it has been 48 hours since I found out I was coming to Samoa and I am now sitting aboard the NOAA Ship HI'IALAKAI sitting gently at the dock in Pago Pago on the Island of Tutuila in American Samoa. This is a change of pace. After a bit of running around picking up a few last minute things I was on the plane.  The flight was uneventful and, happily, I was picked up at the airport by several of my fellow scientists.  Pago Pago is very humid, even at eleven o'clock at night. We are in the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere after all.  It appears we are to have a VIP visit from the Governor and Cabinet tomorrow, so all hands on deck early to make things ready.