A Better Understanding of Coral Reef Ecosystems

Pelagic predators such as these barracuda, Sphyraena qenie, are part of the coral reef ecosystem in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by Kevin Lino).
A team of scientists have embarked from Hawai'i on a three-month survey of coral reef ecosystems at Johnston Atoll, the U.S. Phoenix Islands, the islands of American Samoa, and the U.S. Line Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The overarching objective is to better understand the coral reef ecosystems of these areas, many of which are seldom explored. The research expedition is part of a regular monitoring program, conducted by the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), headquartered in Honolulu, Hawai'i. The expedition is supported by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and involves extensive cooperation among NOAA scientists and research partners, including the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego State University, and the Papahānaumaokuākea Marine National Monument.

The research expedition will be carried out from February 27 to May 24, 2012 aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai. Under the leadership of Chief Scientists Dr. Jill Zamzow, Dr. Bernardo Vargas-Angél, and Jamison Gove, a diverse team of researchers will be conducting multidisciplinary coral reef ecosystem surveys, assessing the status of fishes, corals, algae, marine invertebrates, and the oceanographic conditions in which these organisms exist. The scientific data collected during the three-month research expedition will enable informed and effective implementation of ecosystem-based management and conservation strategies for coral reef ecosystems, helping to ensure their protection for generations to come.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Transit Days

This particular CRED cruise leg has the most transit days of any trip. Like good scientists, we spend most of the time working. This is a great time to write up our cruise reports and compile preliminary findings from our data. We also attempt to organize photos and plan for the next leg of our cruise.
Most of us don’t know what the date is, or what day of the week it is, but we all know when it’s 7:00 AM, 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM, because that’s when we get fed. I wouldn’t say there’s a stampede to the galley, but it’s hard to ignore the delicious smells that waft their way through the ship.

Yesterday we had a training exercise in pyrotechnics. We learned how to shoot flares and rescue lines safely, and helped the ship get rid of their expired flares. It was a welcome break from the computer screen, and everyone had all of their fingers and toes when we were done. The only thing we lost (temporarily) was a plastic rocket used for launching line, and that was recovered by conducting a man-overboard drill. With all of the drills we partake in, I believe we are the safest ship in the Pacific right now.

The small gym on the ship is usually full and rocking. We want healthy scientists, and it is a nice break from working. We have an elliptical machine, a bike, a Bowflex, and free weights. The other day we had a record of 5 people in the gym, no small feat. Another favorite past-time is ping-pong. The chart table in the dry lab is just about the same size as a ping-pong table. The only challenge is that we are on a rocking ship in the middle of the ocean. It makes for some exciting ping-pong games. The scientists have accepted the fact that they may get beamed by rogue ping-pong balls, and take it in stride. It’s a small price to pay for having happy ship-mates.

Most of us aren’t used to being dry for this long and are starting to shrivel up. At long last, Guam was spotted today, so we will be back in the water before we know it!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

One fish, two fish – the Fish Team at Wake

As Fish Team divers, we’re often asked, “Isn’t it hard to count fish when there are so many swimming all around you?” When you’re just starting out, yes, it can be a bit overwhelming ― especially when there are fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors darting back and forth in front of you or above you or trying to hide in crevices or under rock ledges ― but with practice it becomes easier and easier. Having a transect line to follow and a defined area to count within also helps. Here Kaylyn McCoy records a school of black jacks (Caranx lugubris) swimming through her transect.

We’re also asked, “What’s your favorite part of your job?” For me, it’s being in the water with big animals, and I think the other fish team members would agree. Our time at Wake was especially rewarding because of the large number of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) seen on our dives. These strange-looking fish are normally rare elsewhere in the world, and definitely not seen in Hawaii, but here were seen in schools of up to 300 individuals.

Reaching sizes up to 130cm (almost 4 1/2 feet), these are the largest of the parrotfish, and like other parrotfish, it uses its beak-like teeth to scrape off algae or coral to eat. Bolbo (our nickname for this parrot) also uses its big, bumped head to ram into coral to break off smaller pieces to ingest.

I’ve been on over 1400 dives around 34 islands throughout the North and South Pacific and have seen some incredible underwater life, but being in the water with the bumpheads was truly an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Bolbo was certainly the main attraction at Wake, but not the only big guys we saw. The humphead wrasses (Cheilinus undulatus), which can reach sizes up to 200cm (6 ½ feet) also made frequent appearances, though not in the same numbers as the bumpheads; usually we would see only one or two shyly swimming by.

Other big animals seen at Wake were gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), which were observed either singly or in schools of up to 30. Another question commonly asked is “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” My answer would be no, I’m actually more afraid of NOT seeing sharks, because a healthy shark population means that the rest of the fish population is healthy, and thus the reef ecosystem is in balance.

At Wake we definitely saw more sharks than we normally see in the Main Hawaiian Islands, but not as many as seen in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, or in the Line Islands (Jarvis, Palmyra, and Kingman).

Regardless of how many sharks there are, seeing one always makes for a good photo opportunity.

But we don’t just count the big fish, we get all the smaller guys too, like this antenna turkeyfish (Pterois antennata), found lurking under a ledge…

…and this familiar face from Hawaii, the ornate butterflyfish (Chaetodon ornatissimus).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A little more about Wake and its history...

A brief history lesson about the Battle of Wake Island courtesy of Wikipedia:

On December 8, 1941, the same day as the Attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), at least 27 Japanese medium "Nell" bombers flown from bases on Kwajelein in the Marshall Island group attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-211 on the ground. All of the Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the aircraft.

The garrison — supplemented by civilian volunteers — repelled several Japanese landing attempts. The garrison was eventually overwhelmed by the numerically superior Japanese invasion force (on December 23rd, 1941). American casualties were 52 military personnel and approximately 70 civilians killed. Japanese losses exceeded 700 killed, in addition, the Japanese lost two destroyers, one submarine and 24 aircraft.

In the aftermath of the battle, most of the captured civilians and military personnel were sent to POW camps in Asia, while some of the civilian laborers were pressed into service by the Japanese and tasked with improving the island's defenses.

The Japanese-occupied island (called Otori-Shima or "Bird Island" for its birdlike shape) was bombed several times by American air forces. After a successful American air raid on October 5, 1943, (fearing American occupation was imminent) the Japanese garrison ordered the execution of the 98 captured American civilian forced laborers remaining on the island. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and machine-gunned. One of the prisoners escaped the massacre, carving the message 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. The unknown American was recaptured and beheaded. After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lt. Cmdr. Tachibana, were sentenced to death for this and other war crimes. The murdered civilian POWs were reburied in Honolulu Memorial, Hawaii.

On September 4, 1945, the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of the United States Marine Corps. In a brief ceremony, the handover of Wake was officially conducted.

S0, Wake Island has the distinction of being the only time defenders were able to prevent a Japanese landing during World War II. Some 1600 civilian construction workers and servicemen were on the island and attacked within minutes of the Pearl Harbor attack by Kwajalein-based bombers. On December 11, the defenders used their World War I issue 5-inch guns to successfully repel a landing force and damage three cruisers and a destroyer. By December 23rd, however, the island had been bombed and shelled for 12 days. The 2nd landing attempt simply overwhelmed the island defenders.

Now, as we travel around the Pacific to these little dots of land (just big enough to have landing strips) that were so important in WWII, the history begins to fall into place in my head. We all know about Dec. 7th and Pearl Harbor. But do we ever think about all the other places around the Pacific that were attacked by the Japanese the very same day (accounting for the date line)? Also attacked December 7/8, 1941: Midway, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, Malaya, Thailand, and Shanghai. Quite the offensive...

Guam is our next stop.

Through the eyes of a towed-diver

With a couple of transit days ahead of us, we sail on towards Guam. We are busy writing a cruise report summarizing our data… and catching up on sleep! The underwater environment at Wake was amazing to behold with vibrant corals and healthy fish populations, highlighted of course by the appropriately named Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum)! The tow team was able to survey around the whole atoll and although it was all unbelievable, our favorite portions of the island were the western and southern regions.

The western forereef of Wake is characterized by fabulous coral cover and a steep slope vanishing into the crystal blue depths. We towed this area first thing in the morning and with the sun low in the sky, the lighting underwater was remarkable. Despite seeing some small sharks and other larger fish like the impressive Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) we found ourselves repeatedly glancing into the shallows and watching HUGE schools of Bumphead parrotfish, chomping on the reef!

Following our tows on the west side we headed south where the reef changed from continuous stretches of hard bottom to beautiful patch reefs separated by rubble flats and sand channels. Again, the visibility was incredible and we could almost make out the SAFEBOAT which was about 180 feet in front of us.

The southern forereef is littered with wreckage from WWII. Anchors, chains, parts of ships, and what looked like parts of an old BOMB! A huge school of Bigeye Jacks, Caranx sexfasciatus, paid us a visit at the end of one of our tows and they were still around when the next team of divers got in the water which made for some great photos before the survey got underway!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The corals of Wake

The coral reefs around Wake Island differ slightly from reefs surrounding the Hawai'ian Islands. The forereef and patch reef habitats typical around Oahu are on a wide shallow shelf which extends from shore.
Although the reef structures around Wake Island are also forereef and patch reefs (plus a large lagoon in the middle of the island), the shelf is more narrow and quickly drops to form very steep walls. Spur and groove formations and large coral bommies are typical on the south shore where there is less wave energy.
Coral diversity is also a little different between Wake Island and Oahu. In 2008, CRED found only 8 genera of corals during surveys in the waters of Oahu where three genera dominate: Porites (lobe coral), Montipora (rice coral), and Pocillopora (cauliflower coral).

Montipora colonies typically have either an encrusting or mounding morphology. It is often called rice coral because colonies often have prominent verrucae (thin calcium carbonate projections) giving the surface a bumpy appearance.

Members of the genus Pocillopora are usually branching forms with a yellow to brown color (above), but may also be bright purple (below).

The genus, Sinularia (cabbage leather coral; below), is one of the most common soft corals (also known as octocorals) found in Hawai'i and at Wake Island.

This past week, scientists found 24 genera of corals at Wake Island!  Colonies of Montipora and Pocillopora were common (as they are in Oahu), but we also encountered Favia (moon, pineapple, star, brain coral), a genus not common on Oahu.

There are other interesting genera present in Wake including:

Goniastrea (Honeycomb coral)

Acanthastrea (cup coral)

Astreopora (starflower coral)
(Photos courtesy of K. Grimshaw and S. Schopmeyer)

Small boat launch and recovery

The most dangerous part of the daily operations while at sea is probably the deployment and recovery of small boats from the ship, although the Hi'ialakai crew make it seem easy.

The day starts with each team putting their gear in a designated loading zone. After breakfast and morning muster, boats are lowered by a crane or a davit arm to the side of the ship. During our work days we use five small boats; the Steel toe, SAFE boat, HI1, HI2 and the Avon.

Steel toe in cradle attached to crane.

Steel toe being lowered by crane.

Crew handling lines to prevent boat from swinging.

Jason Kehn securing lines before gear loading.

As the small boats are moved from their cradles to the side of the ship they are handled with lines by four crew, to prevent them from swinging. The boat is brought along one of the cutouts of the ship and is secured by lines for loading of gear and people.

The crane slowly lowers the small boat into the water. By then, the small boat is connected by a painter (front) line and an aft (back) line. Once in the water, the crane is disconnected and motor is started. When the small boat is running the aft line is released, the coxswain (boat driver) then accelerates to be at the same speed as the ship and the painter line is released. The coxswain drives away from the ship towards the first dive site.

At the end of operations, upon returning to the ship, it is all done again but in reverse order.

The Tow team with Painter line attached getting ready to attach crane.

The SAFE boat being hoisted out of the water.

SAFE boat being moved aft of the Hi'ialakai after getting gear and people removed from it.

NOAA ship Hi'ialakai with loaded boats, port (left) side view.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Coral and Giant Clams

photos: Stephanie Schopmeyer and Kerry Grimshaw

The past few days at Wake have been spectacular. The coral cover has been outstanding with many species we do not see back in Hawaii. The Bumphead parrotfish have been our constant companions. Diving has been fun but busy with the identification and counting of corals, algae, fish, and invertebrates.
The diving on the north side of the island was challenging but conditions improved along the east and south coasts which was nice as we didn't have to spend quite so much of the dive simply keeping our transect lines from getting tangled. Couple that with counting, measuring, assessing, keeping track of gauges and tank pressure and it's sometimes enough to make one's head spin. But ... we wouldn't trade it for anything.
It's sometimes nice to crawl into your bunk at the end of a full day of diving, knowing that no matter how much the ship might roll, you will have no trouble falling asleep almost before your head hits the pillow.
And every once-in-a-while you are rewarded with calm days, light currents and the chance to just hang in the water column on your safety stop for a while, marveling at all the wonders around you. Oh, and the giant clams certainly don't detract from that experience ...
We have another day or so here at Wake before we start our 6 day transit to Guam where we will have a few days of rest, will conduct some calibration dives, and will switch out some of the science party.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Land Ho! We arrive at Wake

After 9 long days at sea, late in the afternoon, we see it! Land Ho! Wake Atoll. Like most coral atolls, Wake is very low lying. The highest "hills" are sand dunes only 20 feet or so above sea level. That makes it hard to see from far away; we were only about five miles away when we could just make it out on the horizon. This is why coral atolls claimed so many sailing ships before such small islands and reefs were charted.

It was right around sunset when we pulled in the lee of the Atoll and the ship finally stopped rolling for the fist time since we left Hawaii. All the scientists aboard are looking forward to getting to work tomorrow morning, and getting down to where the real exiting stuff goes on: under the water.

Where are we anyway??

contributed by Cristi Richards

You might be wondering, after 9 days at sea and not hearing anything about diving, where exactly in the world are we. Well, a good guess would in the Pacific but if you would like to know more specifics, we are ~ 2200 miles west of Honolulu. We have about 100 more miles to go before we arrive at Wake sometime tonight and begin our dive operations tomorrow morning. If the weather holds, we will be spending the next 5 days at Wake before transiting 1500 miles southwest to Guam. There we will get a few days on land and a change of the science crew before starting our dive surveys around Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. We are excited to get in the water tomorrow and are hoping that it will be calm enough to launch small boats in the morning. So far the forecast is for a 15 foot swell but we'll see what tomorrow brings. Wish us luck and good dive sites.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Interview with Mrs. Parker and the Chief

Cookin' up a banana cream storm

T: How did your career as a chef unfold?
Chief: Growing up in Tallahassee, Florida my father had a catering business in addition to his day job. That was his “hustle”. He would often barbeque at parties and since I was the oldest (9 years), he would bring me along to help out. Later on I got my degree in Food and Nutrition but didn’t like working in hospitals. To qualify for grad school I needed to cook for at least 65 people, so I went out on a ship for the first time. Once I got the salt in my blood I was hooked and have been cooking onboard ever since.

T: So what is the biggest challenge to being a ships cook?
Chief: That’s obvious. Being able to stand up and keep food on the counter when the ship is rocking.

T: What’s your favorite kitchen gadget?
Chief: My chief cook (Mrs. Parker). It doesn’t get any better than that.

Mrs. Parker knows there is a secret ingredient to everything.

T: How did you wind up as a chef?
Mrs. Parker: In high school I was a cook for the military, then I worked for juvenile correction, then NOAA. I really enjoy working on a ship.

T: What is your favorite cookbook?
Mrs. Parker: Well there’s Betty Crocker and Better Homes & Gardens. I use a variety of different ones for different things.

Chicken noodle soup, homestyle.

T: What are some important skills that help all chefs succeed?

Chief: Be true to your trade, in a sense that means being patient and open-minded, be prepared to work long and weird hours, and have fun. If you are not having fun, you won’t do it good.

T: And finally, what is the secret ingredient in your pork ‘n beans?

Chief: LOVE!!

T: I thought you would say that.

Herb, ready to roll