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.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Have You Ever Felt Like Shark Bait? - A Towboarder’s Point of View

By Marie Ferguson

It’s another typical day on the towboard boat along the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. My tow partner, Edmund, and I are getting geared up to enter the water for our second dive of the day. The other two tow team members, Ben and Jeff, are coxswaining the boat and act as the look-out for any problems with the tow lines, divers, etc. Our job…to assess relatively large areas of reef habitats by quantifying and qualifying larger fish populations (>50 cm length) and benthic biota. We complete a total of six dives a day, 50 minutes in length each, covering close to 2 kilometers of reef per dive. Edmund is the benthic tow boarder extraordinaire and I’m the fish tow boarder.
“You guys ready to get in?”, blurts our coxswain as he maneuvers the small boat upwind and into proper position to splash divers. My partner and I look at each other, glance for a buddy gear check and nod at the driver. “Alright, engines in neutral. Ready when you are.” We fall back in the water with tow boards in hand. ‘Should be a pleasant and mellow dive’ I think to myself as I swim away from the boat and look around me with 100 ft. plus visibility. An ulua appears to greet us as we position ourselves and wait for the 60 meters of tow line to feed out. Shortly after, a few small Galapagos sharks show up. Edmund and I motion the ‘start survey’ signal to each other and I send up the ‘start survey’ signal to the boat via our beeper, similar to that of a morse-code signaler. ‘Start survey’, two short beeps followed by one long.
For about the first 20 minutes of our dive all is well. Visibility is still incredible and we’re not experiencing any strong current head on or large swell which can make a tow boarders’ dive that much harder and physically taxing. There aren’t many large fish to count on this dive but that is normal at some sites. I glance at my buddy for a buddy check and look around me. Those Galapagos sharks and the ulua are following behind and have decided to come along for the ride…something that is also not unusual on a tow board dive. ‘Cool’, I think to myself as it excites me to see sharks along these reefs. Sharks have historically gotten a bad rep but they are essential in an ecosystem as they are at the top of the food chain and control fish populations lower on the food chain. Sharks are a keystone predator in the marine environment and a sustaining, balanced population is indicative of a healthy functioning ecosystem.
Thirty minutes into the dive and my mind wanders for a second as I can’t help but notice the beautiful spur and groove habitat around me. I imagine how time has shaped these reefs and atolls as the continental plates have shifted over hot spots which created the entire Hawaiian Archipelago. I can’t help but think how nature is truly amazing and how we are capturing a moment in time as creation continues to take place. Towboarding is a truly unique method of surveying a reef as our tows collectively circumnavigate an entire atoll or island. On one dive you can pass through several types of reefs and ultimately have experienced the various marine ecosystems a place provides. I imagine the various reefs throughout the Pacific which our research group visits and how my tow experience has greatly varied at each one. Sharks and large fish galore at Kingman, Jarvis and Palmyra; extreme underwater geological reef features in American Samoa; fields of Acropora coral, hammerhead sharks, ripping current and 100 foot vertical walls at Howland, Baker and Johnston Atoll; and schools of ulua, galapagos and grey reef sharks as well as some of the most beautiful coral reefs along the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain. Life is good.
A sudden movement from my peripheral jolts me back to the dive. ‘What the?!?’. I look at Edmund then around me. It’s those eight Galapagos sharks still following us. A couple are right on top of Edmund’s tag line. Ok, not a problem. They’re just curious, nothing new here. Oddly enough, we see this often and have become somewhat ‘normalized’ to it. Commence fish surveys. Seconds later something brushes against my fin blades. I look behind me. A galapagos shark swimming in between my fins. ‘Whoa. That was a little too close, buddy’, I think as I attempt to get a visual on all the sharks around me. A couple more pass quickly within a foot underneath me. ‘Okay. These guys are coming in a lot closer now’. As I look towards my tow partner I notice a shark brush through his fins while another makes a twitching and arching motion as it bumps the end of his tag line. Researchers believe that these types of movements (arching their backs and throwing back their head as well as twitching and posturing) are indicative of a shark becoming aggressive prior to an attack. Not good. I glance towards Edmund and give him the look. ‘Did you just see that?!’. He reads the expression on my face. He smirks and shrugs his shoulders.
For the remainder of the dive these sharks continue to bump our tag lines and fin tips, brush within a couple of feet of us and posture. I’m not going to lie. I was a bit worried. But there are no records of Galapagos sharks attacking humans so why the seemingly aggressive behavior? Maybe it’s a sort of territorial gesture letting us know that this is their turf. No one can say for sure. Our timer beeps indicating the end of our dive. I send up an ‘end survey’ signal and we begin our 3-minute safety stop with all sharks still on our tails. Another few minutes…3-2-1…safety stop done, ‘stop’ signal has been sent to the boat and I am swimming as fast as possible back to the boat. Michael Phelps’ got nothin’ on me. Glad I invested in a nice new pair of longblade, freediving fins before this trip! I clench my towboard close to me as a sort of ‘shield’…you know, just in case. I reach the boat in 15 seconds and grab on to the side as I catch my breath. Ben, who’s been topside, takes my board. “How was the dive”, he asks not seeing the bit of frantic still in me. “Those sharks are crazy!”, I shriek as my bulging eyes are scanning below for the sharks. Ok, I’m good, I’m good. Just breath, baby, just breath. I’m safely alongside our Safeboat so I take a few more minutes in the water to catch my breath, stare at the world beneath me and ponder what just happened. Man, what a wild ride. That was pretty awesome. A smile comes to my face. Now that is what I live for. That is why I do this. I can’t imagine a better job than getting to towboard and dive in some of the most beautiful places in the world and experiencing moments like I just did. It really is the wild west out there. Not something that you see every day or, for some, ever. So is it the raw beauty that keeps me coming back for more or the adrenaline running through you as a shark brushes just beneath you? And does it get any better than this? I’m not really sure. All I know is, I dig it and I’ll see you next cruise…    


  1. Marie! What a terrific post. You have captured the essence of towboarding and the beautiful creatures that keeps each of us coming back for more.

  2. Nice Marie!
    Let me guess, Neva Shoals?

  3. Tat! When did I raise you to be Shark Bait????
    You had my heart pounding a bit too hard while reading this one! But what a beautiful picture you paint for those of us stuck on land at a desk.
    love ya!

  4. this pictures are some kind of scary... though they are amazing too
    I'm planning to do some Galapagos islands tours in 2 weeks... any recommendations for me?

  5. Aloha Jessica!
    Thanks for reading our blogs and keeping up to date with our missions.
    Yes, these photos are both a bit intimidating but amazing at the same time. The sharks we saw and dove with during this cruise were generally pretty curious so they followed close by.
    As for your trip to the Galapagos, that sounds like it will be an incredible experience! I have not been but have heard it is a unique place to dive in. You'll probably be seeing lots of neat things!
    I don't have personal experience in the Galapagos so I can't give you recommendations of the area but I am sure your tour guides will be well versed and experienced with the area. If you have any concerns about shark encounters, I recommend you talk to your guides about what types of sharks you will be seeing and what to expect. Sharks, unfortunately, generally get a bad rep and are feared by humans. Sharks don't usually target humans as prey and this is a common misconception. If you are in the water with certain species of sharks and they start to exhibit threatening behavior (as we experienced on this dive), you should probably exit the water. It also depends on your comfort level. Again, talk to your guides and get tips and info from them as they will know the critters and area the best.
    Hope this info helps you on your ventures to the Galapagos. Have fun on your trip and let us know if you have any more questions!