Thursday, June 25, 2009

Busy, Busy Midway!

Boy, I'm really bad at doing 2 blog entries per week, and then the one I do is usually super long! I don't have time for that right now, but I'll try to start doing 2 short entries per week!

Lots has been happening lately. Last week, the PA'A educators' workshop (run by the Monument co-trustees) was here with 12 educators from all over the U.S. and 4 facilitators. They were able to do some amazing things - from observing biologists tagging a monk seal and actually banding albatross to helping us with our research! They had a strong Hawaiian cultural component, which was really interesting. We gave a short 20-30 minute presentation on our research projects one night and took them out snorkeling to Reef Hotel one day. They were supposed to help us with our research, but the water ended up being really cold that day, so very few people were willing to go back in the water. Oh, well! Kate and I really enjoyed interacting with all of them though! On their last night, just before going on the plane, Matt and Merissa hosted a reception for them at Midway House and they presented all of the island residents that worked with them with leis. This photo is of all of the women present at the reception - educators, researchers, and all (there were only 3 male educators, plus Greg, who took the photo with dozens of cameras!). For more info on the educators, check out their blog.

Earlier that day, on our way back into the atoll from diving, several dolphins rode our bow to the harbor. We haven't seen the spinner dolphins much this year, so I was quite excited and took lots of photos and even a video!

On Friday, several interesting people arrived on the G-1. Keoki Stender returned with his wife Yuko to run the dive program for a Conservation International group. Kate and I went on their dry run dive to a site called Angel Ledge - the most exciting part for us was definitely being in the center of a spawning aggregation of about a hundred large ulua (giant trevally), each about the size and weight of us! Unfortunately, we didn't have a camera and Keoki and Yuko had macro lenses to photograph the rare and endemic angelfish also at that site. We definitely have to return with a camera, although I doubt we'll ever see the spawning aggregation again!

Elizabeth Keenan and her partner Susy returned to continue their study on the effects of marine debris nets on corals. They have nearly 30 sites around the atoll where they have either removed or left a net and return to photograph the corals regularly. I went out with them Sunday to better understand what they're doing and to help them, which I really enjoyed. My expertise with the GPS came in handy for them! The photo at right is of Susy photographing a coral with their photo quadrapod. I was also very impressed to observe hundreds of black sea cucumbers (Holothuria atra) standing up to spawn! It was high tide near the new moon. I've seen them stand up before, but I don't think I've ever actually seen the spawn, so I took lots of photos!

Monday and Tuesday, the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai was docked at the Cargo Pier. Kate and I worked with Elizabeth, Susy, and others to pull a huge marine debris net onto our Gray Whaler (on camera for an MTV documentary on marine debris!). Then Kate and I worked with the Hi'ialakai to use their cranes to move the marine debris onto the Cargo Pier. We were wearing swimsuits, life jackets, and hard hats! They estimated that this net weighed 4000 lbs wet!

Finally, I'm spending two days entering the huge mounds of data we've accumulated, while Kate helps Keoki and Yuko train several island residents on open-water SCUBA diving. Unfortunately, winds have come up, so they've had to do all their dives at the Cargo Pier. The albatross are starting to move into the water and flap their wings around, both signs of fledging. This change also means more tiger sharks are around or will be soon, so we're trying to finish up all our work near the islands! The Conservation International group left last night, so everyone's looking forward to the island settling back into its normal routine. We're also looking forward to welcoming Coral Reefer Anne Warner, construction worker Matt Kelly, and several other long-time friends back to the island on Friday!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tiger Shark!! And More!

Boy, I'm getting really lax on posting! I have an excuse though - we've been really busy lately! Fortunately, the weather and flies have improved, after my whining in my last post! We've had off-and-on rain, but it's been warmer and calmer and the flies are orders of magnitude fewer than they were. The water's also warmed up a lot (from 21°C in early May to 25°C yesterday!), and we've been able to dive to 40 feet or so for half an hour or so without wetsuits - yay!!! The hard part lately has been getting out of the water into the wind!

Let's see - what else has been happening? We finished another round of bivalve recruitment this weekend, and the big excitement there was an 8-9 foot tiger shark cruising near our first site (187, in the southeast backreef near Eastern Island) on Friday! Needless to say, we headed to another site about 5 km away and didn't return until the next day with another person, Merissa Brown, English teacher extraordinaire and the wife of refuge manager Matt. I think we were pretty brave to get in the water at all that day and at the same site the next day! The first photo is all we saw from the surface, while the second image resulted from Kate holding her camera underwater. This was only the second time I've ever seen a tiger shark at Midway, but other people report tiger sharks are more common this time of year as the albatross chicks move into the water. This was the 3rd tiger shark report this year, as far as I know.

So far, we've only seen a few albatross chicks in the water, but this blackfoot chick is right on the seawall and definitely thinking about it!

We also found a big marine debris net near a bivalve recruitment site in the eastern backreef (Site 172). We try to collect any marine debris we find, especially entanglement hazards to monk seals, turtles, and other marine wildlife. We've been collecting lots of buoys lately too.

Monday, we had a large monk seal check out our boat right after we anchored at the Hook (southwest backreef). We can't get into the water until they leave, so we were glad he hung out long enough for photos but left by the time we were ready to get in the water.

We also gave a presentation Monday to the "Papahānaumokuākea ‘Ahahui Alaka‘i" (Hawaiian for Monument society of ambassadors or leaders), an educators' workshop run by the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. They will help us with our research tomorrow by doing benthic and urchin surveys and sediment sampling, so we discussed briefly our research projects, the projects with which they'll be helping us, and the main corals and urchins here at Midway. There are about 12 educators from all over the country, although with the expected concentration in Hawaii - mostly teachers at various levels. They've been learning all about the history and wildlife out here and getting to do some amazing things - watch biologists tag a monk seal, observe petrels and shearwaters at night, and help us with coral reef research!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Rain, Wind, and Flies - Go Away!!

As the title says, we're getting really tired of rainy and windy days and millions of flies. We can at least work through rain, although being on the boat in the rain can be miserable and driving fast means the rain feels like needles on your skin. However, wind makes the water choppy with high swells, which makes anchoring the boat, if not driving it, dangerous. Big waves also mean I collide more often with the bottom while trying to work, so I have scratches and bruises everywhere! The rain and wind also are making everyone else on land unhappy and cold. The huge puddles make the roads even more of an obstacle course than the albatross chicks already do!

The Laysan ducks seem to like splashing around in the puddles everywhere, and the adult albatross use the wind to fly, so they appreciate it. The albatross chicks appreciate some rain because then they don't overheat and dehydrate, but they're looking pretty miserable in this much rain. You can really tell in rainy weather which ones are doing well, because they have the energy to preen and groom themselves and keep themselves waterproof. Kate's been so cold out on the water (22-23 deg C = 71-73 deg F :(!!!) that she's rigged up a hot tub at the boathouse!

No one, however, appreciates the millions of flies everywhere. We're having to vacuum our rooms nearly every day so we don't have to step on fly corpses, keep all our windows closed, not stand around talking outside, make sure all food is securely packaged, etc. Everyone says the flies are much worse right now than they should be this time of year. It's only early June - the chicks aren't even out on the beaches yet. July is the height of "fly-or-die" or "dead bird" season around here, although our landscaper Sittisak is already acting as undertaker - he rides around the island on an ATV pulling a cart full of albatross chick carcasses and carrying a pitchfork! Being out on the water is a relief because there are rarely flies that far from land!

Anyway, the weather has been good enough to get lots of work done, even if not warm or calm enough to really enjoy it. We finished our second round of bivalve recruitment checks early last week and have been continuing bivalve distribution surveys. We're finding very few bivalves, but we're seeing many locations I've never seen before. We've now completed 32 surveys, mostly throughout the backreef, patches, and sand of the inside of the atoll. We still need to do nearly all of the forereef and northwestern and deep portions of the stoll, which is where I expect to find the most bivalves. The photo of me above to the left is just after finishing a survey on the southeast backreef, which was mostly sand! Both photos below were taken on the eastern backreef of the atoll. The photo on the left is of a large Porites evermanni bommie - we don't see large bommies like this often, but we've seen several at a few sites now! The photo on the right is of Pocillopora meandrina heads with Hawaiian Dascyllus (Dascyllus albisella) juveniles.

Last week, Midway hosted the board meeting of the Friends of Midway Atoll organization, which runs the souvenir store on the island, finds funding, and lobbies for Midway in Washington, D.C. I really enjoyed hearing of their previous experiences at Midway long before I came to Midway and meeting all of them. Unfortunately, they weren't able to go out snorkeling on the reef, but they did go over to pull Verbesina (an abundant invasive plant) at Eastern Island twice. On their last night, the refuge manager Matt Brown and his wife Merissa hosted a reception for them at Midway House and the Thai band performed at the All Hands Club. They continued the tradition of decorating a ceiling tile for All Hands Club, as in the photo to the right with Hawaii state biologist Dr. Fern Duvall acting as primary artist.