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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pacific Lake

By Edmund Coccagna

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands must geographically lie in one of the most consistent wind belts on earth. This statement may or may not be a meteorological fact (I’m actually sure that it is not), but is based purely on observation for this account. That being said, I feel it is a pretty legitimate observation having spent at least nine months of my life here and day in and day out having been blasted by the wind and its creation, waves. Wind chop on the water and passing squalls on the horizon are an everyday scene up here with the frigate birds flying high on the winds created by the fronts and the spinner dolphins riding the wind swell with ease. That’s just the way it is. A day like today, however, is an atmospheric anomaly. Calm. Still, actually. No wind. No waves. We might as well as rename it, the Pacific Lake.

Scientists who have frequented the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands over the past several years say that they've never seen the seas as calm as they were today. Much aloha to the weather gods for their continued mercy on us.

A flat day on the water in a small boat is a good day. It is particularly a blessing for the tow team as we often find ourselves surveying the windward sides of islands. It is standard business to get beat up and bounced around, used and abused to utter exhaustion, but that is one reason the Towed Diver survey method exists and works well. The windward sides of these islands often make stationary surveys, such as the Line Point Intercept or Coral Belt surveys conducted by the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) team, impossible because of currents, surge, and various other oceanographic conditions. For towed divers, all we have to do is hold on to our tow boards as we’re literally towed behind a small boat. It sounds difficult, but we’ve got it down to a science.

Towed diver Marie Ferguson conducting a fish towed-diver survey at Pearl and Hermes Reef (note the sharks in the background).

We expected nothing but smooth sailing when we saw the conditions today; however, the calm conditions actually made surveying our intended sites difficult! The funny thing is that we planned to survey a couple backreef sites, where the water is almost always calm and pleasant. We look forward to the break that backreef tows provide, yet today was a different scenario. The water was too calm! When the water is in this state in combination with a sunny day, the surface of the water acts like a mirror and makes it impossible to see what lies beneath. This is a hazard to navigation on the backreef, as we target very shallow water and can’t afford to run aground in the SafeBoat, our vessel of choice. Due to this problem, we were forced to restructure our daily survey plan and head back out to the forereef where the water is deep and allows some flexibility when you encounter a mirrored ocean.

The towed-diver team, Edmund Coccagna, Benjamin Richards, Marie Ferguson and Jeff Anderson, heading out for the day onboard the SafeBoat.

On the forereef, conditions were splendid and we were able to complete our 6 tows despite the minor navigational setbacks and brutal work conditions. I mention the word “brutal” only because the lack of wind provided for a very intense heat which really does take a lot out of you. Imagine baking yourself in an oven for 8 hours straight. Sounds great, right? It only makes jumping in the water that much more enjoyable, especially when you get to witness a truly chilling experience, an underwater “snow” storm.

Close-up of the towed-diver's equipment, the towboard, which is equipped with a SeaBird to capture temperature and depth, a timer, and either a still or video camera to document the habitat and fish presence.

As my dive partner, Marie, and I descended to the bottom, we dropped through a cloud of plankton. Typically this is an upsetting occurrence for a diver because it reduces visibility and everyone would prefer to see what’s coming from a long ways away when diving in a predator-dominated ecosystem. Our attitudes quickly changed though when our towlines grew tight and we began our flight through the water and it’s abundance of plankton. When being towed through this setting, it feels just as though you are in the middle of a snow storm, minus the chilling temperatures and misery. Life is good at Pearl and Hermes. The water is a toasty 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun is shining, the weather is sweet, and we can only hope that the weather holds for tomorrow.

Click the picture below to view the "It's snowing" video clip.

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