Thursday, September 16, 2010

Restoring Finger Coral

We’ve been very busy lately working on our coral restoration experiment, as well as several other projects. Time to finally talk about the coral restoration experiment, since I actually have photos of what we’re doing.

Bleached Pocillopora head surrounded by dead reef
Most of the patch reefs near Sand Island have very little to no coral cover, but we can tell that the rubble and dead coral used to be primarily Porites compressa, known as finger coral in Hawaii. As recently as the 1970s, people reported seeing large Porites compressa reefs there. We’re not sure exactly why these reefs have so little live coral, but it may be related to sewage outflows or dredging in that area. Reefs farther out in the center of the atoll, however, have huge stands of finger coral. The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which manages all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, has prioritized restoring these degraded patch reefs near Sand Island.
Huge stand of of finger coral

My labmate Wendy Cover, who will be Dr. Cover within a year, designed and applied for funding and permits to conduct a coral restoration experiment which involves transplanting “fingers” of Porites compressa to these nearshore patch reefs. Wendy’s hypothesis is that Porites compressa would survive at these nearshore patch reefs, but they aren’t receiving recruitment (i.e., babies), so restoration by transplanting would be effective. 

First, we explored the nearshore patch reefs (“transplant sites”) and the patch reefs with Porites compressa (“source sites”) and selected transplant and source sites. Second, we cleared small areas of algae and labeled them with metal tags (which hopefully the fish won’t eat, unlike our plastic eartags!). Third, we collected fingers of Porites compressa at the source site, transported them in coolers to the transplant sites, and glued them down using epoxy. 

Now we’re going back to both transplant and source sites to take photos and measurements, survey for benthic cover (algae, coral, etc.) and urchins, and deploy coral recruitment tiles.

Wendy selects transplants
Wendy & Anne glue down transplants
Anne leaves today, so I'll have to make another post soon on the amazing dive we did yesterday and other things we've been observing, like coral bleaching of a few species and a spawning party of saddle wrasses!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Projects Galore!

We've been working on a variety of projects while the volunteers were here and since they left.  Here's a short snapshot of them:
  • Collecting short cores to determine what's building the reef in various places (e.g., corals, coralline algae, etc.).  We've collected 4-inch or so cores at 2 different sites using a pneumatic drill and scuba tanks.  Each tank lasts about 5 minutes, so the main effort is carrying tanks to the site and on the reef crest!  Here’s a photo of Anne and Don coring on the reef crest at Reef Hotel.
  • Sediment coring to determine how sediment production and distribution has changed through time.  Originally, we were going to use a gas-powered hydraulic pump powering a vibra-corer designed by Anne’s undergraduate mentor Dennis Hubbard, but instead we tried a pneumatic vibrator powered by scuba tanks.  Unfortunately, it’s not as powerful, so it’s difficult to use in water deeper than waist-deep and doesn’t collect cores as long as we had hoped.
  • Deploying a video camera to observe life on the reef when we’re not there.  We plan to use the video camera to answer questions such as: how much do urchins move around and how much of the day do pearl oysters spend
    Unfortunately, the video camera is very complicated, so we’ve had problems convincing it to work!
  • Deploying temperature loggers to record water temperature right next to corals every 15 minutes for a year or more.  We already had 9 deployed around the atoll and are deploying 6 more this year.  Here is a photo of Anne deploying stakes to which we attach the temperature logger.
  • Measuring depth of the sand below the Cargo and Fuel Piers to determine how the shoreline changes year-to-year.  Our volunteers for the past three years have made this time-consuming endeavor possible and provided a lot of interesting information.  At left is a photo of volunteer Seiji measuring the depth using a transect tape with a weight at the end.
  • Collecting sea urchins and sea stars to help identify their skeletal fragments in the sediment.  We collected this very cool fine-spined urchin Leptodiadema purpurem during a sediment collection dive.
Now, in addition to continuing this projects, we're putting much of our effort into an experiment studying the feasibility of coral restoration on the reefs near the main island (Sand Island), which is a high priority for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.  More on this project in the next blog post!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Farewell, Volunteers!

In their last few days at Midway, our Mitsubishi volunteers finally explored the island on a historical tour led by FWS Visitor Services Manager Tracy Ammerman.  She started with the Cable Station (at left with Crystal and Mike), 5 buildings completed in 1904 and comprising the first structures built at Midway as the connection between Honolulu and Guam for the first worldwide communications network.  She also led us to Midway's only cemetery (with graves dating back to nearly 1900), World War II bombed powerplant and seaplane hangar, gun emplacement, Ave Maria shrine, and the Midway theater.

On their last night at Midway, the volunteers (and other island people) celebrated Mike's birthday with a carrot cake kindly baked and decorated by the Clipper House staff.  Anne loved it and ate about half of it!!

Later that night, the party moved to the All Hands Club so the Mitsubishi volunteers could finish their ceiling tile for the All Hands Club, a tradition for groups and residents at Midway.  This year, the tile was a work of art with cartoons and photographs.

On Thursday, the volunteers packed, prepared to leave, and took a few last photos, including this one below with all Coral Reefers and most of the FWS staff and volunteers.  FWS manager John Klavitter and his wife Leona left on the plane with them, although they'll be back in three weeks.

We'll definitely miss the volunteers because they made huge amounts of work possible.  Anne worked with them to do lots of sediment sampling, and they helped Don do three days of coring on the reef crest.  They helped Kristin collect and re-deploy temperature loggers and check her spat collectors.  They helped Kristin and Don collect Kristin's pearl oyster growth and survival cages and tiles and looked through the tiles for coral recruits.

Now that it's just Kristin, Anne, and Don (with Wendy to join us next week), the real work begins!  Anne and Don will leave on Sept 16, while Kristin and Wendy remain until Sept 23.  We have a lot of work and projects to complete in the next few weeks!

P.S. Kristin posted a ton of photos from all these social and research activities to the Picasa web album at  Check them out!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Collecting Sediment

Labmate Kristin has finally twisted my arm into writing a blog entry on the sediment sampling and analyses that I have been doing at Midway for the past three summers.  So here goes…

In 2008 and 2009 (map at left), I collected nearly 200 sediment samples from across the atoll, leaving only a few regions that need better coverage this summer.  This past week I have enjoyed taking out Seiji and Crystal for shallow sites that can be done free-diving with snorkel gear (10 – 25 ft depths), plus 10 SCUBA dives at deeper sites in the central channel (up to 70 ft).  I hope to collect another 15 – 20 samples at deep diving sites and another 12 – 15 from shallow sites near Eastern Island and the Sand Island piers.

Sampling consists of dropping a quadrat, photographing it in all four directions, pushing a 500 ml jar into the sandy bottom to collect a mini core (pictured right and below), and observing/photographing the area (e.g., habitat, species observed, sediment characteristics, oceanographic conditions).  On land, I wash each sediment sample in fresh water and spread it out to dry on plastic wrapped trays for 3 – 4 days.  We collect six pieces of representative rubble (pictured below) at each site as well.

Once back at Santa Cruz, I sieve a portion of each sediment sample to determine the relative percentage of different grain sizes (useful for describing atoll circulation patterns and the wave/wind energy acting upon bottom sediments).  A second fraction is cast in resin and thin-sectioned for identification purposes under a petrographic microscope.  I identify sediment grains on a 1 x 1 mm grid (coral, coralline algae, Halimeda algae, echinoderm, mollusk, foram, intraclast), which allows me to relate composition to source area and oceanographic factors within the atoll.

I am putting thoughts of this more tedious labwork out of my mind while I savor my time out on the water, collecting samples.  I enjoy exploring the atoll and seeing so many different spots!!  We’ve seen lots of seagrass and big patch reefs with Porites compressa (finger coral) this year, as well as many different species of fish and even a few sharks!  Stay tuned for results from analyses later this fall.

- Anne

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Saving Endangered Species!

Our volunteers arrived Thursday, and they’ve been keeping us busy every day!!  Our volunteers are: Bret, Seiji, Mike, and Crystal.  Crystal and Mike are from southern California, and Bret and Seiji live in New England.

This group is very pro-active about marine debris and entangled endangered species.  In 3 days, they’ve already rescued a sea turtle entangled in a net and removed a couple small and one very large net conglomeration from the reef that might entangle monk seals and other organisms! 

Yesterday, while Anne and I were checking spat collectors at our Hook site (western backreef), our volunteers Mike and Crystal and Thai herbicide technician Bob (AKA Kittipong) found a green turtle tangled in a net.  Anne came to help and cut the turtle free while Bob and Mike held the turtle still.  Crystal played photographer and took some amazing photos of the sequence of events.  For more photos of the events, check out our 2010 photo collection on Google’s Picasa:

The turtle was overgrown with algae and bleeding where the net cut into his “shoulder”, so we think it had been entangled for a while.  It was very lucky that it was shallow enough that it could reach the surface to breathe.  All involved were very happy to watch the turtle swim away happily afterwards. 

The very large net conglomeration was on the exposed reef crest at one of our main sites on the east side of the atoll (site 172).  Island residents on a fun snorkel last week first reported the net, and Anne and I observed it as well.  When we went there on Friday on our first reef snorkel with the volunteers, we observed two monk seals lying on the net.  One was even briefly entangled, but managed to disentangle himself.  After they left, we cut a few obvious entanglement hazards, but vowed to return and remove the whole thing. 

Today we returned and removed most of it.  We took a variety of knives and snips and towed an empty dinghy behind our boat.  All four volunteers, visiting construction inspector Todd (who is now an honorary Coral Reefer!), and Don, Anne, and I worked very hard to remove the net, get it into the dinghy, swim the full dinghy back to the boat, and tow the dinghy back to the island.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Collecting Spat

Two days without having to be rescued!! Yay! Miller seems to have fixed our boat problem, for which we are very grateful!

Yesterday and today, Anne and I worked on my pearl oyster recruitment experiment. My own Ph.D. research focuses on the population dynamics and restoration of black-lipped pearl oysters, Pinctada margaritifera, at Midway Atoll. This species is the same one that makes black pearls throughout the tropical Pacific (think Tahiti!), but in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, it was heavily harvested in the 1920s for the shell and has not recovered since then.

We’ve put a lot of effort into determining the temporal and spatial patterns of recruitment (= settling from planktonic larvae in the water column to a specific place on the seafloor). Since pearl oyster juveniles (see photo above) prefer dark crevices, I modeled my recruitment devices, or “spat collectors”, after what pearl farmers use. They’re essentially black shadecloth folded like an accordion attached to a buoy (see photo at right). We’ve deployed 10 at each of 9 sites throughout the atoll, and we measure and mark every pearl oyster juvenile on each spat collector every two weeks during our field season.

Today we went to sites 187 and 172, which are on the eastern side of the atoll. We tried to go there last week, but it was too rough to really accomplish something (the tradewinds from the east generally dominate this time of year), so we appreciated the calm today. Particularly since Anne’s stomach does NOT like measuring tiny things on a rocking boat! We got a lot done, but didn’t see anything particularly fascinating.

However, I did enjoy playing with an albatross chick that swam up to investigate us. Here’s above and below the water. We’ve learned to be careful with them in the water because they like to peck anything they can get, and the top of your head is right at their level!

We also observed a small patch reef with many solitary mushroom corals (Fungia scutaria). Each oval-shaped coral in the photo is one individual, as opposed to most corals where many individual polyps live in a colony. Corals in this family are called “mushroom corals” because they grow on a stalk or stem as juveniles and then break off, so they look like the cap of a mushroom. We often see clusters of them like this, which our coral book informs me is because a small attached stem repeatedly buds off new corals.

Our Mitsubishi volunteers arrive Thursday (2 days!), so probably no more posts until then. We’re looking forward to showing this wonderful place and our work to Bret, Crystal, Michael, and Seiji.

If you’re interested in learning more about Midway, a FWS volunteer, Barb Mayer, has been documenting her time here at Midway. She has a lot of great information about the land organisms and even fun activities. However, Barb leaves on the plane this Thursday, so I imagine it will be ending soon. It’s at:

Saturday, August 07, 2010

We’re back!!!

After thankfully uneventful flights to Hawaii and Midway, we’re very happy to see spinner dolphins, the last few albatrosses, turtles, sooty terns, monk seals, red-tailed tropic birds, and all the other residents of Midway.

I think they were happy to see us too – we saw three groups of dolphins and a school of flying fish on our first day on the water yesterday! One of the dolphin groups was the largest pod I’ve ever seen – probably at least 50 dolphins relatively close to the boat, but not remotely interested in us.

We also observed a stripebellied puffer fish at a cleaner wrasse station (in Anne's photograph at left).

Of course, it’s been good to see the people too – big hugs for Pong (our head chef), Leona (wife and partner of acting refuge manager John Klavitter), and many other familiar faces. There are also a lot of people we don’t know – most of the construction crew, all the firefighters, many Thais. That’s not very surprising, since we arrived almost exactly a year after we left last year.

We’re sorry to report that Kate will not be joining us at Midway, even for the short week she was planning, because her flights were delayed and she didn’t reach Honolulu before the plane for Midway departed. We were all looking forward to hearing about her time in Antarctica, but I suppose we’ll have to catch up another time.

We’re still missing permits for most of our projects, but we’re doing what we can and preparing for the rest. Bad news: We visited some of the sites of our experiments that we deployed last year and discovered that winter storms played havoc with our cages, buoys, and spat collectors (Cage frame at left is one of very few cages left intact!). Good news: We’ve received our two new permits for sediment coring and coral restoration.

The big excitement for us is that we’ve had to be “rescued” at sea two days in a row! I’m not sure I’ve ever had to call the island for help before, but it was definitely good to know that John Klavitter, Miller (FWS boat mechanic, who’s a real character!), and others are listening on the radio and will come to help us when we need it. We think the problem's solved and relatively easy to fix, but we were glad it waited for the end of the day!

At right, Anne enjoys her first dive at Midway after finishing her scientific diving course at UC Santa Cruz this spring. Diving without a wetsuit is new to her, since all of her dives recently have been in California or Washington (Brr!!).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Returning to Midway!

Don, Anne, and I are finally heading to Midway on Thursday, August 5!!! We’re still working on finalizing our 2010 Monument permits, but we hope they’ll be complete by the time or soon after we reach Midway. Until then, we’ll work on the one permit we still have active (my juvenile pearl oyster growth and survival cages) and preparing for our various projects. We look forward to seeing our friends at Midway again and resuming our work there.

Our 2010 Mitsubishi volunteers will join us a week later on Thursday, August 12. They’ll be lucky enough to fly into Midway during the day, so they’ll see Midway from the air. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to see more than a few, if any, albatrosses, since all the juveniles have fledged and the adults won’t return until October or November.

We know that Midway will be the same in some ways and very different in other ways. For example, FWS refuge manager Matt Brown has moved to another position on Maui and former refuge biologist John Klavitter is now acting refuge manager. We’ll miss Matt, but we’re also very happy for John. FWS has also added other staff, and I’m sure the Chugach staff has changed. The albatrosses will be almost completely gone, which is partly sad because we love seeing them and partly good because we’ll be able to arrive during the day and we won’t have to worry about tiger sharks cruising inside the lagoon to eat fledglings.

Since my last post in March, we’ve all been very busy.

  • I finished teaching Ecology of Reefs, Mangroves, and Seagrasses (including giving a final exam and final grades!!), went to Maui for a week for an education workshop, and completed the steps to advance to candidacy (which include a public seminar which was the the occasion for the photo above).
  • Don returned from Australia, worked very hard on completing our permits, and went to Germany for two weeks to analyze the cores collected in Australia.
Anne completed her first year at UCSC with some very intense classes and her scientific diving certification, spent a few weeks exploring Seattle and the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound, and looks forward to resuming fieldwork at Midway. As you can see in the photo to the left, she also went skydiving!!
  • Helen and Rachel both completed their comprehensive exams and are getting started on their own research.Helen just returned from an intense 5 weeks on Palmyra working on coral recruitment tiles with Dan Brumbaugh, a UCSC affiliate that is a scientist for the American Museum of Natural History.
  • Kate returned from Antarctica and will be joining us on the G-1 plane for a short visit to friends at Midway. We all look forward to seeing her again and hearing about Antarctica!!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What are we up to now?

Don is spending winter quarter 2010 on an International Ocean Drilling Program cruise to the Great Barrier Reef, where he is working to collect, preserve, and examine reef cores. He's been sending back some great photos of sea snakes, jellyfish, drilling equipment, sunrises, and himself in a hard hat! The ship departed from Townsville in early February and he won't be back to Santa Cruz until mid-April. And even that date depends on how much they are delayed by bad weather from Cyclones Ului and Tomas that are east of Australia, but heading west! The drilling equipment of the ship is very sensitive to bad weather and is easily broken - they've already had a delay because their dynamic GPS couldn't keep the ship directly over the drilling spot!

Since his cruise was delayed until this quarter, I am teaching his class "Ecology of Reefs, Mangroves, and Seagrasses". I did enjoy being called "Professor McCully" for the first week or so until all my students understood that calling me "Kristin" was fine! I'm enjoying teaching a lot, but putting a huge amount of work into lecturing and preparing and grading exams, quizzes, presentations, paper discussions, and labs. It's making me appreciate Don, and every other professor I've ever had, a lot more! Fortunately, it's only quite this much work the first time you teach a class! My mom was very impressed to see me lecturing and took this photo below of me (center) with Wendy (right), Anne (bottom), and our friend Ben Hawks (left) at a dinner party at my house during her visit.

Wendy (who didn't make it to Midway in 2009) is working hard to analyze her data and write up her results so she can present her Ph.D. dissertation in the spring. She's applied for funding and a permit to do some postdoctoral work on coral restoration at Midway. She gave a full guest lecture to my class a few weeks ago on her research at Midway.

Anne (our 1st year grad student currently with purple hair) is working on the steps towards her scientific diving certification, which has required huge amounts of time diving both in the pool and in the ocean, as well as taking several classes and working as teaching assistant for the first time. She's successfully bribing her students (and mine!) by bringing in octopus-shaped carrotcake, pineapple-shaped (and colored) cake, shortbread, chocolate shells, and fish and turtle sugar cookies! Most of that was for a guest lecture she gave in my class on analyzing sediment and her research at Midway.

Don, Wendy, Anne and I are also working hard to finalize our report to the Monument on our work the last 2 years, apply for new permits, and figure out what we're doing this summer! We haven't figured out our schedule yet.

Helen O'Brien, one of our 2nd year graduate students, is working hard to begin her research on manta rays in the Gulf of California and working as TA for my class. She only came to Midway for 3 weeks in 2008, but may return this summer!

But the big news is Kate Schoenrock (left and below), who has moved on from working as our field assistant at Midway to doing her own graduate work at University of Alabama, Birmingham. Her research is on endophytic algae (algae living inside other algae) in Antarctica, and she arrived at Palmer Station in February for 4 months in Antarctica! You should all check out the blog and photos she and her colleagues are posting about their adventures driving Zodiacs, diving in dry suits, etc. ( Funny to see Kate in a survival suit and a drysuit! Talk about different from Midway!