Sunday, September 18, 2011

Busy, Busy, Busy!

Several days of sunshine and calm seas have helped us accomplish a lot in the last week and kept us very busy.  We're also happy to currently number five "Coral Reefers" at Midway since Wendy and Joe joined us on September 8, so we can often divide into 2 teams on the water. 

We've been continuing bivalve surveys and reef growth, but also working on Wendy's coral restoration experiment.  All four of us have been working to find, photograph, and measure the finger coral (Porites compressa) nubbins we transplanted to Rusty Bucket patch reefs last September.  Joe and I also helped Wendy remove and process coral recruitment tiles and check the healthy Porites compressa reefs from which we removed the transplants.  Here's Wendy checking a large colony.
While we were there, I finally got a photo of me with my study organism, the black-lipped pearl oyster.  This will probably be on my family's Christmas cards this year!
At one point, Joe was on the boat while Wendy and I were in the water and a juvenile booby landed on his hand and stood there for about five minutes!  Both Wendy and I took lots of photos!  Joe was one of our Mitsubishi volunteers in 2008 and offered to come out and help us again this year for two weeks.  Although he can't dive here, he's been free-diving a lot and helping hugely in a variety of ways!
Joe also helped Don remove my cages while I checked my tiles for pearl oyster growth and survival.  We're spending a lot of time now removing experiments and installations in preparation for the end of the field season.  Joe and the FWS volunteers have been helping me remove the temperature loggers we have deployed all over the atoll.  Here's Don working on removing cages.
Life has also been exciting on the island as both the Coast Guard buoy tender Kukui and our cargo ship the Kahana have been here for a few days in the last week.  The Coast Guard ship has been repairing the navigation buoys and range markers around the atoll and ferrying people to and from Kure Atoll (60 miles away) for some construction projects happening there.  Here's a photo of the Kukui at work.
It's so unusual to have an extra 50 people (mostly young) all over the island, particularly since they had days off they spent enjoying the beautiful beaches and partying.  We also enjoyed having a cargo re-supply because we now have a big variety of beer, fresh milk, and a pinball machine!  Here Don encourages Chugach transportation worker Thawal (who has worked at Midway over 10 years) try out the new pinball machine.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Reef Growth, Rainbow, and More!

Again, we've keeping very busy as we approach our final two weeks at Midway.  Don and Kristin have been continuing bivalve surveys at sites inside the atoll, as well as measuring reef growth on the exposed reef rim at two sites on the east side of the atoll.  Here Don measures reef growth using a contour gauge suspended between three bolts permanently deployed on the reef crest.

FWS volunteers Dani and Eamon helped Kristin remove her spat collectors and buoys on Saturday and Sunday.  Kristin conducted her final check of all of the spat collectors sitting in a very pleasant shaded spot along the harbor seawall.  A manta ray came to visit several times, a rainbow appeared over the harbor, and a juvenile monk seal played nearby.

On Monday (Labor Day - no rest for these busy Coral Reefers!), Don also helped Kristin check her cages and tiles for survival and growth of pearl oysters with restricted and unrestricted predation (e.g., caging).  Don discovered a ledge and caves hosting at least 12 big lobsters at the Pinctada Patch site!

Between her continuing neck and shoulder problems and a deep cut on her hand, Anne can't go in the water at all.  Instead she's been working with Don to build a frame for and test our underwater video camera, which can be deployed overnight and uses infrared illuminators.

On a lighter note, the Coral Reefers enjoyed barbecued hamburgers, potato salad, and lots of other yummy foods at the annual Labor Day party on Saturday night.  Although the promised horseshoe and volleyball games never happened, several people (including FWS volunteers Amelia and Dani) did play Guitar Hero on the Wii!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Manta Rays, Monk Seal, and Pearl Oyster - Yay!!

Since Don arrived on Thursday, I’ve kept him very busy doing lots of forereef dives for my bivalve surveys (8 so far in 3 days).  Forereef dives are always exciting because they’re deeper, with potentially stronger currents and waves, and unprotected by the atoll rim.  Plus, they look very different and have different fishes, corals, and other organisms.  There are also a lot more bivalves than we see inside the reef!

While diving, we’ve observed lots of bivalves, nudibranches, crown-of-thorns sea stars (which, in large numbers, cause problems in other places, but haven’t caused a problem yet in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), sharks, giant trevallies (uluas), Potter’s angelfishes, Hawaiian morwongs, and much more.   Here's Don collecting a sediment sample behind an endemic (and relatively rare) Hawaiian morwong.

While outside the reef on the boat, we watched 2 big manta rays just outside the channel and several brown boobies sitting on the reef or on buoys.  The manta rays were particularly cool because we don’t see them very often and these stayed on the surface close to us long enough to get good photos!

I let Don take a land day on Sunday while I took the new FWS volunteers Dani, Eamon, and Anthony out to collect coral reproductive samples.  It’s a good project to take others out for, because they get to see at least three totally different habitats and they can just snorkel around for fun while I work.  They were very excited when a monk seal followed us around for a while and we saw a shark. 

I was very excited that they helped me find the first live adult pearl oyster I’ve seen for most of the summer!!

While Don and I have been diving, Anne’s been finishing measuring the piers and analyzing that data, preparing and testing our underwater video camera, and much more.

I posted a lot more photos today at

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gasping for Breath . . .

In our last few days before our advisor Don Potts arrives, we've been trying to get everything done that we possibly can free-diving and snorkeling, so we can maximize our scuba diving time when I finally have a dive buddy.  So I've been free-diving for bivalve surveys to 10 ft, which is okay if the habitat is just sand, but much harder when I have to turn over lots of pieces of rubble to look for bivalves.  Free-diving so much, even to a shallow depth, is exhausting!  Ray helped me do that on Saturday and I was very excited to find one pearl oyster on a piece of rubble.  We also saw a shark, a big orange hermit crab, and a few collector urchins.  Ray and I also retrieved a large net, one of several I've helped remove this summer.

Here's me searching for bivalves in a rubble/sand habitat and the one pearl oyster I found there.

I also had to free-dive to check my tiles, which was not the plan since they're at 7-15 ft deep.  However it worked, at least until this turtle suddenly appeared right in front of me and scared the hell out of me just after I'd seen a shark!  He circled around me several times, so I have lots of great photos of him!

I also checked my spat collectors for bivalve recruitment (or rather I retrieved them and Anne checked through them while I checked my tiles in the water).  They're singularly uninteresting right now because we moved nearly all of the pearl oysters to tiles and we're receiving very little recruitment so far this year.  I even looked for two pearl oysters that Don and our field assistant Kate had found in the harbor two years ago, but found no pearl oysters - there was some cool calcified green algae Halimeda and lots of juvenile fish and Spondylus cliff oysters though.  

The last two days, despite beautiful weather, we've stayed on land because we don't have much more work to do on the water without being able to scuba dive.  We've done paperwork, mailed off a sample of pressed algae from the bloom we saw last week, and power-washed the boat today, which was exhausting and very, very hot in the sun!!

We're looking forward to having Don here tomorrow because we can scuba dive and we'll have someone new to work with!  However, we'll miss lots of people leaving tomorrow, including FWS permit coordinator Ray Born who came out on the boat with me several times, Leanne Woodward who was here to facilitate a study of how the tsunami affected the Bulky Waste Dump on the south side of the island but tells hilarious stories at meals, and refuge biologist Pete Leary who's going on vacation but won't be back before we leave.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Turtles & Algae Blooms

Lots of rainy weather has been keeping us from getting much done, but we've worked on the reef a few days and seen some interesting things!
The NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette came by for a few hours on 8/12 to drop off several invasive plant, monk seal, and turtle researchers from French Frigate Shoals and Kure.  I was impressed to learn that the turtle researchers observed over 800 nesting green turtles this year, which is a record!  They were here for several days before the next plane on 8/18, so they volunteered with FWS and were a great infusion of young (mostly female) people to the island!
The albatross fledglings are almost gone - I think I've only seen a couple in the last few days, so the island's pretty empty during the day.  However, at sunset, thousands of Bonin petrels fly in to rest in their burrows.  They're very disoriented by light, so they make walking, biking, and driving at night dangerous and often fly into lit windows.  
In the few days we've been able to work on the reef in the last week or so, we've observed the first confirmed observation of a hawksbill sea turtle in many years (we're not sure when the last one was!) and documented a small algae bloom.  Since the first monotypic (1 species) algae bloom documented at Midway was in 2008 (my first scientific publication in a journal!), this is very interesting and we'll be watching it closely.  It's particularly interesting because this seems to be a different species that is known for being invasive, although it is native, and smothering coral and other algae in seasonal blooms off Maui.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Well, you may have noticed that I have the opposite problem this week.  So much has been happening that I haven’t had time to post a blog entry for 10 days! 

First, since Anne’s been feeling better, we spent the last week drilling holes and installing cages for my pearl oyster survival, growth, and predation experiment.  We’re almost done and will deploy the actual pearl oysters today.  It wasn’t super exciting, but we did see a shark and a turtle while we were doing it.  We’re very excited to finally start the experiment!!!

Second, the Hi’ialakai was here Friday to Sunday, which made for some fun evenings including a bonfire their final night.  They had 50 crew members and scientists who were working on coral reef research of a variety of types – coral & fish disease, acoustic (sound) monitoring, etc. 

Sunday, Pete the refuge biologist offered to drive the boat for a fun snorkeling trip.  We ended up heading to our coring and reef growth location on the SE side of the atoll, which hosts a great diversity of corals and fishes as well as high coral cover.  Pete was very impressed, took lots of photos, and wanted the GPS point in order to return!  He posted several amazing photos from our snorkel trip on his blog on Sunday:   I was able to check our coring sites on the reef crest and make sure that our concrete fill worked.  Construction worker Derek and I also picked up several small marine debris nets.

Also, here's an interesting article from the National Wildlife Federation on what it was like to experience the tsunami and its aftermath at Midway:

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Not a whole lot to say about our work because Anne has been ill, it's been rainy and windy, and we’ve been on land nearly all week.  The number of albatrosses is rapidly declining, so people are starting to leave the "gooney fences" around buildings open and it's much easier to drive on the roads.  The island will feel very empty without them, but we're glad to see them fledge!  However, we've been seeing lots of Laysan duck broods (photo left) - the ducklings are adorable!!

I was able to convince the FWS volunteers Amelia and Eryn to come out with me Wednesday to collect coral reproductive samples at three different sites across the atoll.  They didn’t have an amazing time because they had a hard time getting into our small boat without a ladder, Eryn’s underwater camera flooded, and the waves and currents were pretty rough.  They survived and were tough though!  The highlight for me was, besides getting some work done finally, spotting two banded coral shrimp (photo right) clinging upside down in a small cave.

Tuesday morning, I accompanied a coastal engineer snorkeling along the southeast seawall.  He’s checking the condition of the seawall that protects the runway, but we were both unpleasantly surprised by the amount of metal debris there (photo left).  I enjoyed the diversity of fishes and saw a few species I don’t see very often.

Anne is well on her way to recovery now, so we spent the past few days measuring the depth of the Fuel and Cargo Piers (photo right) in order to determine how the beach changes year to year and preparing to deploy cages for my pearl oyster growth, survival, and predation experiment next week.  We’re looking forward to getting back in the water!!

Another group was out here last week to photograph and video-record Midway for a variety of art projects.  Among other projects, Chris Jordan’s group is creating a documentary about Midway and focusing the amount of plastic albatross chicks ingest (photo left), which exacerbates dehydration and starvation problems and probably increases death.  Chris Jordan’s work will be featured in the new Open Oceans exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  For more information on them, check out and
Photo Credit: Chris Jordan

Several contractors are coming out here next week to examine and bid on “rehabilitating” the Seaplane Hangar (photo below), which was heavily bombed both on Dec 7 1941 (Pearl Harbor Day) and during the Battle of Midway (June 4-6 1942).  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and was used for repairing PBY Catalina seaplanes that were essential to the war effort.  FWS has committed many millions of dollars to repairing the deteriorating structure that is now used for storage of heavy equipment.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Coring, Boluses, and Wind

Jack and I spent three days drilling on the southeast reef rim to collect short cores.  Back in Santa Cruz, Don and others will use isotopic, x-ray, and other techniques to determine which organisms are creating the reef and the rate at which it is growing or eroding.  We used three half days and three fills of 8 tanks to collect three 10 cm vertical cores.  Jack also engineered a way to fill the holes with concrete, which was great because Anne and I would have had no idea how to combine cement and sand and our permit says we’re supposed to do that.  Coring is an important project to Don, but Anne and I have very little experience using the drill, so we were really glad Jack could figure it all out and explain it to us and help us do it!

Jack and I also spent about 20 hours discussing our SCWIBLES ideas and modules.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that SCWIBLES is a UCSC-Watsonville High School program in which science grad students work with high school teachers to create and use science inquiry modules.  It’s funded by the National Science Foundation GK-12 program.  I have a fellowship for the next year and am really looking forward to starting work at Watsonville High in the fall. 

We decided to create an inquiry module using the albatross boluses (regurgitated undigested material like owl pellets) to teach Jack’s Integrated Science students about food chains and how plastics impact the ocean’s inhabitants.  I’m really excited about this project because, even though it doesn’t use my own research, it uses my experiences and photos from Midway and my observations of a very important species at Midway.

Things have slowed down now because Jack headed back to California, Anne has been having neck problems and her heavy medications are making her ill and unable to go on the boat or in the water, and it’s been very windy and rough.  I’ve had lots of time to clean and organize and plan and relax.  I’m looking forward to getting back to work and back in the water! 

The albatross fledglings are very excited about the wind because it makes it easier to fly and their parents have been coming back to feed much more in the last few days.  However, the island is now nearly empty of albatrosses.  There are probably still hundreds, but there used to be tens of thousands!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Currents, Coring, and More

We’ve been keeping Jack very busy lately with lots of work, but he’s also given us an excuse to do some fun stuff that we don’t do very often.  We’ve wanted to make sure Jack had the opportunity to enjoy and take lots of photos in diverse areas of the reef, so we’ve been doing that too, which we don’t take the time to do very often.  It reminds us how lucky we are to live and work in such a beautiful and amazing place for a few months, even though we do work very hard.  Jack was greeted by a gray reef shark on his first day in the water and by a pod of spinner dolphins swimming with us on his second day (no photos unfortunately!). 

We’ve also gone on a tour of Sand Island and accompanied the FWS biologist, Pete Leary, to Eastern Island the other day.  We were happy to help Pete check salinity of the three Laysan duck seeps over there, and he showed us the Battle of Midway Monument, thousands (or more) Sooty Terns and their eggs and chicks, and several Red-Footed Boobies with chicks.  A trip to Eastern Island is the one day all summer for which I bring and wear closed-toe shoes because Eastern has lots of puncture vine that can go right through sandals and hurt your feet a lot (I have previous experience!).  

Jack and I also helped the FWS volunteers monitor the beach for marine debris, monitor banded black-foot albatrosses (almost gone for the summer!), and check seeps for sick Laysan ducks.

As for work, Jack helped us drill cores of the hard substrate (dead coral), collect and examine spat collectors to study pearl oyster recruitment, conduct bivalve surveys, collect coral reproductive samples to determine spawning schedules of Midway corals, and more.  His expertise with tools and boats has been very helpful to us several times, and he’s always willing to help in whatever way he can.  

Jack has developed his own “current meter” using a buoy, some metal weights, a compass, a timer, and a line to measure currents everywhere we stop, which will help us to get a picture of how the currents work here and how coral, pearl oyster, and other larvae may be moving around.  

Jack and I have also been discussing how to incorporate inquiry-based learning into his classroom.  He and I have to develop a module to use in his classroom by September.  So far, we’ve just discussed what he’s teaching in his classes and tossed around a few ideas.  We’ve talked about maybe doing an “Ecosystem in a Jar” project or some kind of population dynamics project with systems around the school.  We've also collected lots of albatross boluses (the chicks regurgitate all un-digested material in their stomaches just before they fledge - usually lots of squid beaks and plastic) for his students to dissect to learn about albatrosses and the plastic in the ocean.

By the way, don't forget that every time I post to this blog, I also post these photos and many more (including captions) to  Enjoy!

Friday, July 08, 2011

Sharks, Feathers, Batfish and Jack

Not too much exciting happening lately.  The weather’s been better the last few days, so we’ve gotten a lot of bivalve surveys done.  One survey was a little stimulating because two gray reef sharks hung around watching us.  They were pretty small, but it’s a bit unnerving to be concentrating on searching for tiny things on the bottom when you know sharks are swimming around you!  I also posted several photos of Anne and I doing the surveys and a few of the other interesting things we’ve seen (octopus, nudibranches, dolphins, etc.).

Five visitors to Midway in the last week have been collecting breast feathers from dead albatross chicks in order to restore and create native Hawaiian kahilis (royal Hawaiian staffs that are covered in feathers).  Their knowledge of Hawaiian culture and contemporary politics was fascinating.  They performed an oli (chant) that one of them had written in honor of Midway and created a small kahili to show us why they were collecting these feathers. 

One of them was a photographer and videographer (actually law student) to whom I gave a tour of the island and took snorkeling at the Cargo Pier.  I was very excited to find there a species that has only been reported a few times in Hawaii (only under this Cargo Pier in 1980 and 2009) – Boer’s Spadefish (Platax boersii), which I know from Australia as "batfish".  We also saw one shark and lots of jacks.  This was the first time I’ve snorkeled there this year, and it’s always very different from the reef because it’s dark, deep, and murky – always a bit scary!

My SCWIBLES teacher partner, Jack Horner, who teaches biology and integrated science at Watsonville High School, arrived last night, so we spent the day getting him oriented and touring Sand Island.  We saw many of the historical landmarks that I rarely have reason to see (Pillbox, Cemetery, Power Plant, Sea Plane Warehouse, Cable Houses, etc.), as well as lots of chicks of various species and native and invasive plants.  His [one-sided] conversations with the albatross chicks are very entertaining – urging them to fly, move out of the way, or move into the shade!

Also, a sailboat with a couple heading for British Columbia arrived today.  They were struck by lightning yesterday and came here to do some repairs.  Also, a plane is coming in late tonight for fuel on the way from Maui to Japan. 

Hmm . . . maybe there actually has been lots of excitement lately!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

Midway always celebrates holidays in style!  Our MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) committee, a military base tradition, decorated our Captain Brooks Tavern beautifully and organized several games that lasted nearly all day on Saturday to celebrate America’s Independence Day.  Here’s a photo of me, Midway’s deputy refuge manager John Klavitter, his wife Leona Laniawe, and our hotel manager Toy in our 4th of July splendor.  Games included volleyball, horseshoes, and a tug-of-war – so much fun!

Our head cook, Pong, organized a delicious feast, which included a roasted pig he’s carving in this photo, as well as watermelon, ambrosia, burgers, cookies, and much, much more!

I took a break from the festivities to wander parts of Sand Island I hadn’t seen yet this year.  I found the first albino albatross (photo right) reported this year, which has now been nicknamed Whitey and is being closely observed by the construction crew working near it.  I also photographed white tern, tropic bird, and albatross chicks at various stages.  White tern chicks (photo below) are always adorable!!

Unfortunately, heavy rain and thunderstorms have been reducing our number of work-days lately, but I still have lots of computer work to do, so I’ve been keeping busy!  We can work in rain (after all, we’re wet anyway!), but thunderstorms and strong winds keep us off the water.  June frequently has a lot of rain and bad weather, so it’s easier to work in August and September.  Oh, well, we love Midway anyway!