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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Drawing to a close

By Russell Reardon,

Well, we are nearing the end of our return transit to Honolulu and are on schedule to pull into Pearl Harbor tomorrow morning.  During 15 days of in-water operations on this expedition, favorable weather allowed the scientific party to safely and comfortably conduct a total of 768 SCUBA dives, documenting the coral reef biota, habitats and oceanographic parameters of the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

We have but one more quick stop to make today at a location known as “Five Fathom Pinnacle,” approximately 25 miles west-southwest of the island of Ni`ihau, where the Oceanography Team will conduct one last dive to swap out an Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR).
An Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR) rests on the seafloor and records ambient sounds.
An EAR is an instrument that sits on the ocean floor and records ambient sounds as a way to characterize the presence and activity of sound-producing marine organisms on the coral reefs and in surrounding waters. The recorder is also well suited for monitoring human activities on the reef. The noise produced by anthropogenic sources, such as boat engines and anchor chains, is also captured along with naturally occurring sounds.  To learn more about the EAR and passive acoustic monitoring of coral reef ecosystems visit http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cred/ear.php

Over these last transit days, the scientists have been busily entering and checking their data and pulling together the bits and pieces that will comprise the official cruise report.  Equipment has been cleaned and dried, offloading and refueling arrangements have been made, and preparations for the next cruise are being finalized.

In just one week after our return to Honolulu, the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division’s next research cruise as part of the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program will begin.  The 30-day expedition will study the coral reef biota and habitats in the main Hawaiian Islands. During the brief time the ship is in port, the small boats will be serviced and necessary repairs will be made, scientific equipment will be added, the ship will be re-provisioned, and a new compliment of scientists will prepare to embark on their journey through the ‘Main 8’ (though 1/3 of the scientists currently aboard will actually be departing on the next cruise as well).

Thank you for following along with us on this mission to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and be sure to check back on this website to follow along with the next compliment of scientists as they embark on the next cruise beginning October 7, 2010.

Stepping back...

By Annette DesRochers

We’re now down to the last few days of transit, and while they have been more relaxed for some, for me, not so much.  As data manager, one of my responsibilities is to work with each of the teams to help compile all of the information that was collected into a final cruise report for the mission. We have learned the hard way that the more that we are able to complete prior to the end of the cruise, the better. As soon as we pull into port and disembark the ship, all of us will quickly be immersed into the life, work, and responsibilities that await us back home.  So the push is on. 

The first quasi-annual masquerade ball, a welcome diversion from the winding-down activities. A great morale boost in the final days of the cruise.
While working on database stuff for the report today, I kept thinking about how I would find the time to write my blog, and then debated what I would write about. For a bit I thought I might talk about the responsibilities of a data manager during a research cruise, but let’s face it. Who really cares?  I manage data. Enough said. Rather than talk about my small role in this large effort that we’ve all contributed to, instead I’d like to try and take a step back and take a look at the big picture.
Those who know me will easily concur that I can tend to be a bit of a workaholic at times. Out here it is even easier to get sucked up into the work to be done because you never get to go home and separate yourself from it. To work at such a pace can be taxing, both physically and mentally. Individual morale can be all over the map depending on how much sleep you’ve had, how many days in a row you’ve been working, what the sea conditions and weather are like, and so on. And sometimes, when all you want is a moment alone, it’s really hard to find it when there’s 40-something people on a 240-something foot ship. So your emotions are pretty much out there, exposed for all to see. But that can be a good thing too because when you’re having a moment, someone is there to laugh you right out of it. The comradery amongst the scientific staff and the crew is really incredible.
The highly-prized trophy for the winner of the masquerade ball, handmade by Chief Engineer Jesse Duncan.
As the cruise quickly winds down, there is still a long list of “to-dos” that must be accomplished. Myself and others included have spent hours on end at the computer, writing the reports and doing database things, others have been checking supplies, breaking down gear, and packing up, and some are even prepping for the next cruise which departs only one week after we return.  But despite the push, there is still the need to stop working for a bit to take time out for ourselves and to appreciate all that has been accomplished.
Paula Ayotte, forever our (my) ring leader. You can't not smile when she's around.
So I took time out tonight to watch the highlights from Ben and Cristi Richards’ trip to Mongolia, followed by a much needed 8-min abs workout and stretch with our ring leader Paula Ayotte.  Though I could have done without the workout (bazinga Paula!), it was just what I needed after a long day at the computer. We were up on the aft deck on our yoga mats stretching, and I just gazed up at the evening sky. I so wish that I could have photographed it for you all to see. A clear dark night lit only by the stars. It reminded me of why it is that we are all out here in the first place. We’ve just been to one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we came here so that we might help to protect it. We just have to remember that while we’re engrossed in our own work to accomplish that end, that it’s important to take that step back and appreciate all of it while we can.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Traditional Hawaiian Observations and Western Science

By Mark Manuel

‘A‘ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka halau ho‘okahi.
Not all knowledge is learned in one school.

As our voyage on the Hi‘ialakai comes to an end, there are many great moments instilled in my memory as well as an exceptional amount of ‘ike or knowledge that I’ve gained through this experience. The ‘ōlelo no‘eau or Hawaiian proverb above speaks of the ability to learn or acquire knowledge in different ways and that not all knowledge is gained from one source. It is one that I live by every day and one that I try to live by when encountering new environments or situations. To me there is never a point in which you stop learning and there is never only one place to learn from. Similarly, there is never one fixed way in doing things in life to inevitably reach the same goal or achievement. That is why I would like to compare my experiences on this cruise with the western science approach of using experimental designs, statistics and quantifiable data to the simple observations taken by my Hawaiian ancestors, both of which strive for conserving resources.
Stationary point count method
Through my experience as a fish team diver, I’ve had the opportunity of observing numerous reef fishes around the various atolls and islands that we’ve visited using a method called the stationary point count (SPC). This is a unique method that utilizes two divers working along a 30 meter transect in which each diver identifies, sizes and counts all fish within their respective 7.5 meter cylinder. These surveys are done at various depth stratums around each atoll to get a thorough quantifiable representation of fish abundance, diversity and biomass. Other teams on the cruise also utilize various methods with strong scientific background and research objectives. The oceanographic team uses an intriguing instrument called the RAS (Remote Access Sampler), which is deployed to collect water samples. The benthic team deploys ARMS (Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures), which are recruitment apparatus’. All together as a team this cruise has been filled with intense scientific data collection, which can be used to help ensure the proper management and conservation of these finite resources and help understand the coral reef ecosystem as a whole.
Fish diver Mark Manuel trying to count a large school of ‘ōmilu or Caranx melampygus
From a Hawaiian standpoint simple observations were made daily and transcribed in mele (song), oli (chant) and mo‘olelo (story). These important observations were a necessary part of their survival and utilized to conserve resources that could be limited due to the geographic isolation of the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiians viewed all living things with respect as if they were part of their ‘ohana or family. They tried to observe everything from a holistic standpoint and made connections or correlations with their observations. In many cases there was always something on land that was connected to the ocean and vice versa. This comes from the perspective that what is done on land will inevitably have some kind of influence or effect on the sea, whether good or bad. For example, this is the Hawaiian Lunar month of Hilinamā, which gets its name from the switching of weather from calm/stormy and humid/breezy conditions during this equinox time period (Kalei Nuuhiwa 2010). According to the ‘ōlelo no‘eau, Pua ke kō, kū mai ka he`e, when the sugar cane blossoms the he‘e or octopus appear, refers to this time of year in which sugar cane blooms and he‘e are abundant. Interestingly, one of the other fish divers and I have noticed that there were quite a few he‘e on a number of dives we’ve done during this trip. Some may view this traditional knowledge as coincidence; however, we must consider that this information has been passed down from generation to generation as a way of life. This is just one of many examples of the intuitive connections Hawaiians had with their surrounding environments and the conclusions that were drawn in order to conserve resources.
Day octopus or Octopus cyanea
Fortunately, through my collegiate career I’ve had the opportunity to take part in numerous research projects that have allowed me to gain valuable insight into various western science approaches, all of which inspired me to continue my affiliation in the research field. However, I’ve also been exposed to many great Hawaiian elders and practitioners that have inspired me to embrace my Hawaiian culture and learn from those who have come before me. So whether it be conducting SPC’s or just making simple observations of my surroundings, there is one saying that comes to mind, Ma ka hana ka ‘ike, knowledge is gained by doing, so we as conservationists need to get out there and make a difference. With that said, Mālama i ke kai…Aloha!
Amazing sunset following a long day of diving

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Green Island

By Hailey Ramey

It’s been exactly one year since I last stepped foot aboard the Hi`ialakai. This is my second trip to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and I feel so privileged to be here again. I am a visiting scientist who has been contracted by NOAA to count and size fishes. I can’t think of a better job or imagine a better office.  After an amazing 22 days at sea we have begun our four day transit home.  As I reflect back on the cruise I thought I would share one of the more memorable days with all you blog followers.
Green Island, a tropical paradise.

After our last day of diving at Kure Atoll I was fortunate enough to be one of the few scientists who actually got to go ashore on Green Island, the atoll’s largest and only habitable land mass. We were asked by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to assist with the transport of water samples back to Honolulu.  The samples were collected from a fresh water seep in the island’s interior by Cynthia Vanderlip, the manager of the State of Hawai`i’s Kure Atoll Wildlife Sanctuary. She has been doing work on Kure for the last decade. She and three other people are currently stationed on Green Island for half the year working on the eradication of the terrestrial-based plant Verbesina encelioides (aka Golden Crownbeard).  It is an invasive species that is rapidly overtaking and outcompeting native plants for precious and limited space. The Green Island crew also plant several native species of ground cover in an effort to stabilize the fragile dune structure of the eroding atoll. A fifth and recently arrived team member is responsible for observing monk seal behavior and in particular mother and pup interactions.
Scientists Zoe Dagan, Hailey Ramey, Erin Looney, and Kaylyn McCoy dressed in Kure garb.
We were greeted at the shore line and given shoes and a sarong to wear. There are strict rules in place to ensure the island remains isolated and free from foreign contaminants, and visitors are not allowed to wear clothes that haven’t been previously frozen.  The freezing kills any foreign seeds that might be stuck to clothes. The shoes that were provided to us were to protect our feet from the thorny balls of the native ground cover.  We got a quick tour of the Green Island camp which consisted of tents, a couple small buildings, and a picnic table. It is evident that birds are the dominant life form on the tiny, one mile long island.  I couldn’t imagine living for an extended amount of time in such small, secluded quarters.  I was thrilled to get the opportunity to experience it but after a half hour my curiosity was satisfied and I was ready, if not eager, to get off the sun drenched island and get back to the ship and all its amenities.
Booby birds keep watch from a tree near the camp.
As we loaded up the boat to depart I spent a few minutes beach combing for alien marine debris that the people living on Green Island regularly pile up for removal from the island. I found a glass bottle that must have drifted thousands of miles to wash up on these shores. I couldn’t help wondering how long that journey must have taken and what cool things it might have encountered along the way.  How many tiger sharks had it unknowingly floated by?  I kept that bottle as a memento because what most people view as trash or marine debris will always remind me of this remote paradise. Kure Atoll, with its stark white beaches and crystal clear water, is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Glass bottles washed ashore on Green Island.

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…    

Corals, the most beautiful part of the reef

By Erin Looney

What is the most beautiful part of a reef?  Some would say it is the fishes, some would argue it’s the algae (only the rare and highly-prized phycologists would dare), yet others, like myself, would say it’s definitely the coral.  I mean, it’s called a CORAL reef, right?  Not a fish reef or an algae reef.  I would even venture to say that coral is what makes the reef-world go round.  Without it, where would the all fish hide, or more importantly, where would they go to reproduce?  Also, without coral, what would people pay lots of money to see when visiting areas that depend on tourism?  Coral reefs support not only one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, but also one of the most beautiful. 
Arc-eyed hawkfish hiding out in a healthy Pocillopora meandrina colony at French Frigate Shoals.
Corals serve many purposes, and it is this reason that we try to understand the communities that make up reefs in order to better protect them.  My dive buddy, Jason Heyler, and I spend our days looking at coral.  We each have segments in which we document and measure every coral present.  We can get an idea of what species are there, in what abundance, and in what size-class.  Along with this information, we are also interested in the health of corals, so we’re on the watch for coral diseases and bleaching.  

Human influences are thought to be directly or indirectly linked to most disease and bleaching, whether we’re talking about reefs that are close to human impact (pollution, run-off, over-fishing) like those off the Main Hawaiian Islands, or those that are much more isolated, like the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Coral disease has been a threat to reefs for some time, but the incidence and severity of disease seem to be growing steadily.  In few cases, the cause of disease is known, but mostly, we’re only left to speculate what factors lead to disease outbreaks.  Coral bleaching, while not a disease, is another threat to corals and has been linked to elevated sea surface temperatures.  Bleaching happens when corals are stressed and their symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) are released, thereby losing their pigmentation and appearing white, or bleached.  Bleaching can lead to mass fatality because, with even just a little pollution, the exposed skeleton is easily overgrown by algae or it is broken down by storms and waves and all that is left is a coral graveyard.  Because sea surface temperatures around the islands we’ve surveyed on this cruise are higher than normal, there was a prediction of mass coral bleaching, but luckily we’ve only seen background levels.   
Bleached and half-dead colony of Pocillopora meandrina at Kure Atoll.
Porites colony with signs of Porites trematodiasis.
We strive to learn all we can about these fragile organisms and the reefs they build so that we can have a hand in protecting them.  With corals having so much importance and yet so much disturbance, often times it’s frustrating for me to look at the big picture and wonder what in the world I can do to solve a problem so large.  But that’s when I remember there is also a smaller picture, one in which we all have the power to make decisions with these ecosystems in mind.  And when we’re diving on these reefs and are witnesses to the beauty (yes, this even includes the algae and fish), I know it’s all worth it.
Beautiful Acropora at French Frigate Shoals.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

We’re out of coffee?

By Frank Mancini

Howzit blog followers?! I struggled with what to write about for more than a few days. Truthfully, I attempted to avoid blogging all together. Playing dead, running away (but the ship is only 224 feet long) and acting like I didn’t speak English all failed. Finally some increasingly less friendly reminders from my coworkers and a single blank spot on the blog calendar for over a week forced me to cave and jot down my name.

Last week an announcement was made at our morning meeting that at our current consumption rate of one bag of coffee per day, we were 5 days away from being completely tapped out and more than two weeks from getting back home. For some, this was no big deal. For me and my fellow coffee junkies, this was like a kick to…yeah.
This is what happens when oceanography team member Frank Mancini, goes without his cup of joe.
My initial reactions were: What am I going to do to wake up in the morning? Do I give in and switch to tea? Not likely. Do I go cold turkey and suck it up? Probably a bad idea seeing that I am arguably one of the grumpiest morning people presently on this ship. Ask any of my friends, family members or coworkers. They’ll all agree. There is a visiting scientist on this cruise that is seriously challenging my crown though. I tip my hat to you and welcome the competition.
Divers Erin Looney and Hailey Ramey enjoy the last few minutes of breakfast in the aft mess chatting with Chief Cook Lydell Reed and Doc Joe Harris before heading out for another day of diving at Lisianski.
Anyway it got me thinking, as I savored one of the last hot cups of joe that would cross my lips for weeks to come, that this is one of those situations that is unique to the kind of work we do. Sure we have run out of fruits and vegetables plenty of times…no problem, I’ll go to the farmer’s market when I get home. I’ve seen the ice cream bin empty one week into a 2 month cruise, whatever, no need. But coffee? Come on! Even prisoners get coffee!!

Maybe your favorite neighborhood coffee shop is closed for renovations for a few days and you are forced to go to the mega-chain on every corner for your morning fix. Ok. One cup hopefully won’t kill the rainforest. Your caffeine need is satiated and you are off to continue your day. Aboard a ship 1000+ miles from the nearest city, alternate options like that don’t exist.
Just another day at the office!
I know when you read our blogs and see our photos, our work looks and sounds pretty incredible (and I have to admit, a lot of times it is), but running out of coffee is just one example (obviously a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things) of shipboard life that might not come to mind when you see what we do.
Frank Mancini, hard at work deploying a subsurface temperature recorder.

Thankfully a few days later another case of coffee was found in the stores and the potential mutiny was squashed. I cannot say that I am getting any less grumpy in morning, but at least my mug is full and my hand is warm while I watch the sun rise out of the ocean each morning with one bleary eye open.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why do fish school?

By Jamie Gove

The swirling black mass from above was hard to miss, particularly given the flurry of activity of squawking birds dive bombing the ocean surface, only to emerge seconds later with a flopping small fish in their beaks. As an amazing of a spectacle as it was from above the surface, I wasn’t prepared for what was happening below. Jumping in off the side of the boat, it took my eyes a few seconds to focus and my mind even longer to comprehend the scene unfolding before me. A school of thousands of tiny bait fish were swirling in a large tornado-like vortex, while just beneath, a large group of mackerel were rising from below and striking the ball of fish with lightening speed. Also in the mix, albeit on the periphery, were a small group of rainbow runner and few grey reef sharks. Basically, we had just entered nothing short of a total feeding frenzy, with the school of bait fish at the center of it all….
A 3-shot sequence showing mackerel coming from below, striking the school of bait fish.

Fish congregate together in schools for a variety of reasons, ultimately to enhance an individual fish’s chance of survival in a competitive and dangerous fish-eat-fish world.

First and foremost, fish school as a “safety in numbers” strategy; the more fish there are in a group, the less likely a predator will be able to eat any single fish. Generally speaking, it’s much easier for a larger predatory fish to track down and eat a solitary smaller fish, whereas schooling fish can distract and disorient a predator, making it more difficult to snatch a fish from the group.

Danny Merritt goes for an up-close view of the bait ball.

Fish will also school to increase the chances of finding food. Essentially, the more fish there are in a group, the greater an area those fish can cover when searching for prey, or, detecting an area in the ocean which may be more suitable for finding prey. The downside of this strategy is rather obvious; an individual fish must share whatever food they find with the rest of the school. When I write these fish “share”, it’s not as if a fish will offer half of their dinner to another, more that they must compete within the school for the food they do find, making it highly possible for a number of fish to miss out on a meal when the rest have eaten more than their fair share.
A swirling blur of fish.

It is also thought that fish will school for a hydrodynamic advantage. Similar to how professional bicycle riders will draft behind other riders so as to reduce wind resistance and friction, fish swim in schools, following behind one another for the same reasons; to reduce friction in the water thereby conserving energy.

Not all fish school, but many do, particularly those which live in the open ocean which is devoid of hiding places or any form of protection from predators. In general, it is all about trading costs for benefits, and for certain fish, it just makes sense to come together to eat, and to hopefully avoid being eaten.

Microbial Mondays

By Zoe Dagan

Imagine a coral reef ecosystem in all its complexity. This turquoise sea hosts impressive coral gardens, aggregations of colorful fishes, hidden invertebrates, sleek sharks and giant turtles. When we close our eyes and envision such a tropical scene, we rarely, if ever, consider the microbial communities of a coral reef.

Microbes are a fundamental aspect of all marine ecosystems. Microbial agents (bacterium, fungus, viruses and protists) are also associated with reef-building corals. The abundance and function of the microbial community on reefs may also play an important role in coral health.

Coral health worldwide has declined in the last 20 years. Reasons for compromised coral health are numerous, and many are linked to humans and the way we affect our marine ecosystems. Examples of human induced impacts on oceans include marine pollution, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification. When coral health is compromised, microbes can infect corals and cause disease. Infectious coral diseases have increased in frequency and distribution since the 1970’s. These diseases continue to increase exponentially and have resulted in a significant loss of coral cover.

The global decline in coral cover has caused great concern. Coral diseases play a significant role in this decline. Researchers from around the world are devoting time and expertise to the study of coral disease. I am aboard the Hi’ialakai collecting and processing water samples for one of these researchers.
Hi’ialakai’s wetlab

Each day while diving I use 4 Niskin bottles to collect 2-liter reefwater samples. The shipboard processing of these samples takes about two hours. At the end of this Northwestern Hawaiian Islands research cruise, the processed water samples will be shipped to San Diego State University for further analysis. While the work is not glamorous, it is important. And the view isn’t too shabby either.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Are certain algae getting bad press? When is a lot of algae too much algae??

By Rodney Withall

The effects of algal blooms seem to frequently make news headlines. Whether we all pay attention to it or not, most of us have seen images of algal blooms from around the world and the problems that are associated with them. These can range from toxin production that contaminates our food supply, the formation or massive unsightly and inconvenient masses, or effects on the ecosystem community such as coral reefs.
Australian sailors training on a bed of algae at the Olympic sailing venue at Qingdao in China. (Photo: AFP)

An algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of a particular (or multiple) species of algae. In recent years we’ve read about the effects of blooms; including toxin producing microscopic algae in the Atlantic that have closed the shellfish industry from Maine to Long Island, NY. In 2008, over 10,000 workers and 1000 boats were tasked with removing algae off the coast of Qingdao, China after a huge algal bloom formed at the sailing venue prior to the Beijing Olympics. At the same time, the first macroalgal blooms at Midway and Kure Atolls (the two northern-most atolls in the Papahānamokuākea Marine National Monument) were being reported by CRED divers. On this occasion, Boodlea composita, a bright green branched filamentous alga that forms dense spongy mats, was rapidly increasing and covering the shallow water reef lagoon habitats of these two atolls.
Boodlea composita surrounding a colony of Pocillopora meandrina at Kure atoll in 2009.
To most people, Boodlea blooms are viewed in negative light as they are thought to over-grow live coral colonies and block light penetration, however, even though this may be true in some cases, reports indicate that, in 2008, blooming Boodlea grew mostly over sand and rubble substrata. It should also be noted that some positive observations associated with Boodlea blooms can lead to a confounding situation and confusing assessment as to the real impacts and net outcome these blooms can have. Some of the positive observations include a larger abundance of juvenile fish being reported around dense Boodlea cover and Hawaiian Monk seals being observed resting on thick mats of Boodlea that wash ashore.

Since the initial observation of Boodlea blooms at Kure and Midway Atolls, scientists from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and other programs have been monitoring the increase or decline of Boodlea populations. I was fortunate enough to sail aboard the Hi`ialakai to both Kure and Midway atolls in September 2009 as part of a RAMP (Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program) cruise with the Papahānamokuākea Marine National Monument. We observed Boodlea distributions and densities that were not dissimilar to those reported the year prior in 2008, and visiting the Northwestern Hawaii Islands again this year is an opportunity to note distributional patterns for 2010.
A dense mat of Boodlea at a lagoon site in 2009.
A few days ago we observed and reported that Boodlea is also now blooming at the lagoon sites we surveyed at Pearl and Hermes, an atoll 81 nautical miles to the southeast of Midway. The density and distribution seemed considerable, however, the benthic team surveyed too few sites in the lagoon to map the extent of the distribution. These observations may represent the first scientific documentation of Boodlea blooming at Pearl and Hermes and may be further evidence that blooms are spreading throughout the archipelago.

Today was our second day of diving at Kure with sites from the forereef, backreef, and lagoon surveyed on each day. Although we have another day of reef assessment left at this atoll, our preliminary data and qualitative observations that we make while transiting from one site to another in the lagoon suggest that the severity of the Boodlea has declined at Kure. In witnessing this decline, I also noted evidence of Boodlea induced changes in the reef that were of particular interest to me.

Since Boodlea has the ability to over-grow or out-compete many coral species due to its more rapid growth rate, this species can quickly create a shading or light blocking effect, particularly surrounding or between the living portions of the coral Porites compressa. During Line Point Intercept surveys at one of our fairly shallow long-term lagoon monitoring sites yesterday, I noticed recently dead calcified red algae that normally thrive in light spectrums that are characteristic of dark shaded areas, under over-hangs or in much deeper water. All that remained of these delicate calcium depositing algae were their bleached-out white calcium carbonate crusts. I began to wonder if dense Boodlea mats once covered these portions of reef and were in fact creating conditions favorable for calcified red algal growth. Gently removing masses of spongy green algae soon answered my question. Yes!, I found healthy, thriving delicate calcified red algae underneath each piece of Boodlea that I removed. Considering that most calcified algae grow at and can deposit calcium carbonate more rapidly than most stony corals, I began to wonder if Boodlea blooms were actually helping a sinking atoll grow by creating more suitable habitat for coralline algal growth. Despite its bad reputation for over-growing coral in some places, it’s quite possible that there are great benefits that we don’t see upon initial superficial inspections.
Calcified red algae that typically grow in deep or dark shaded water were observed growing at shallow depths under dense sections of Boodlea at Kure in 2010.
Perhaps this served as a reminder to me that a good scientist has an objective mind rather than a judgmental one whom draws quick conclusions. It will be some time before we completely understand the net effect of Boodlea blooms at these atolls, but as for the blooming algae at the Olympic venue in Qingdao, well, I think I’ll plan to attend the London 2012 Olympics just in case their sailing venue has an algal bloom of comparable proportions.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Giant Trevallys

By Kaylyn McCoy

My favorite part about visiting the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is being able to see the giant trevallys, also known as uluas, or Caranx ignobilis. Luckily, I’m a member of the fish team, so it’s my job to watch these guys swim around. Living on Oahu, I don’t see too many big fish, but out here is a different story. These atolls are so remote that these fish thrive.
A school of Caranx ignobilis in the shallows at French Frigate Shoals.

These uluas, also known as jacks (family Carangidae) are very curious, and usually come very close. It’s quite impressive to see a meter plus long fish swim directly up to you and stare you down while it swims around you. These species are the largest of the genus Caranx, and can grow up to 1.7 meters and weigh over 60 kilograms; that’s a lot of fish!
A curious fish comes in for a closer look.

The juveniles spend most of their time in estuaries or lagoons, while the adults can be found on the forereefs. They are usually silver in color, but the older adults can be mostly black. Giant trevallys are apex predators, and eat smaller fish and a variety of crustaceans. They use a varitey of hunting techniques, and have been known to follow sharks to ambush their prey.
It seems this ulua got a little too close to a shark.

Part of the equipment we carry with us on our fish dives is a monopod, or a meter long stick that we use to position a camera for benthic photos. Yesterday, I had a fiesty Caranx ignobilis, or CAIG (fish team short-hand: first two letters of the genus name, first two letters of the species name) actually bite the monopod while I was taking photos!
Paula Ayotte takes pictures using the monopod while several giant trevally circle her.

These fish are usually attracted to shiny objects, thinking that the shiny object is a small delicious fish. I’ve seen one nip the top of my buddy’s head as it went for a shiny sticker on his snorkel. These fish tend to follow us around on a dive, as we swim from one transect to the other, and they even hang out with us on our safety stop.
Several giant trevallys circle a shiny reel as it bobs at our safety stop.

Rumor has it that the brave/crazy ones will actually try to bite the propellers on the small boats…while they are spinning! It’s never a boring dive with these guys around!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Kure Atoll, the Darwin Point

By Jamison Gove

We finished work at Pearl and Hermes Atoll today, and are now en route to Kure Atoll.

Kure Atoll lies at the northwest tip of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at 28.50° N, 178.50° W and marks the end of a long string of islands and atolls originating 2400 kilometers away at the island of Hawaii. Kure was formed roughly 35 million years ago when the sea floor beneath it was located over the same volcanic hotspot on which the Big Island is currently situated. In fact, Kure Atoll is the vestige of what was once a volcanic island, probably not too different than Lana’i, with an expansive fringing coral reef encircling the island. Through time, Kure has gradually moved to the northwest due to plate tectonics and has slowly subsided due to the weight and higher density of the volcanic island compared to the sea floor. The coral reef surrounding the island continued to grow upward staying near the sea surface, keeping pace with the island sinking. Eventually, the volcanic island was enveloped by the sea, leaving behind a large, circular lagoon surrounded by a ribbon of coral reef.

A Landsat satellite image of Kure Atoll

In addition to being located at the northern end of the Hawaiian Archipelago, Kure Atoll is the northernmost coral atoll in the world and also lies on the Darwin Point; the point marking the geographic extent in which coral reefs are able to exist. Corals require warm and clear tropical waters to photosynthesize, grow, and maintain their hard calcium-carbonate structures. In general, ocean water temperature decreases moving away (north or south) from the equator, reaching a point where temperatures are too cold for coral reefs to grow. This is the Darwin Point, named after Charles Darwin who devised a number of theories related to coral reefs in the 1800’s. Presently, the corals at Kure Atoll are growing slightly faster than the atoll is subsiding; however, as the Pacific Plate continues to move to the northwest, Kure will slowly move beyond the Darwin Point, sink below the ocean surface and no longer be the thriving coral reef ecosystem that we know today.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hidden Diversity

By Scott Godwin

I have had the privilege of participating in expeditions to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands every year since 1999. My participation has always involved documenting and collecting the hidden animals that make up a majority of the diversity on coral reefs. I am a marine invertebrate zoologist but I do not focus on corals. I instead look at the variety of invertebrate organisms evolved to use coral reefs as a home. Since these animals hide or are camouflaged, most people do not have many chances to see them while diving on coral reefs. While my colleagues are counting fish and documenting corals I usually am looking under rocks or have my head stuck in a hole. Most everyone is familiar with crabs, snails and sponges but do not realize the important role they play in the existence of coral reefs and that some of them represent our closest relatives in the ocean. Furthermore the beauty that these organisms possess can rarely be seen since they are able to hide so well.
A set of ARMS underwater at French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Photo by Scott Godwin

It is always a challenge to document and collect these hidden organisms with the short time allowed underwater on SCUBA. I was asked to participate on a project on this research cruise, which is being run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED). The CRED is partnering with the Census of Marine Life (CoML), Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) scientists in the development of Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) to provide a systematic, consistent, and comparable method to monitor these hidden organisms. These ARMS mimic the complex habitat present on a coral reef that is used by a variety of crabs, worms, sponges and other organisms. The ARMS are discrete structures composed of a series of stacked plates that can be placed on the seafloor, left for a certain time and then retrieved. This allows the collection and documentation of many different species that take up residence in the ARMS without damage to coral reef habitat. These organisms will be identified and documented through a combination of taxonomy and genetic methods. I am assisting CRED scientific staff in the retrieval and deployment of ARMS, as well as taxonomic documentation of specific coral reef organisms that are collected by the structures.
An ARMS plate with colonial sea squirts and bivalve mollusks. Photo by Kerry Grimshaw

I have spent many years identifying crabs in coral reef habitats throughout the tropical Pacific. We are attempting to use the variety of crab species documented from ARMS as an indicator of diversity in various coral reef habitats here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Crabs are some of my favorite species to work with and I get to see species that are normally hard to collect under usual circumstances. I identify crab species collected everyday and help process all the other material. Crabs are one of the most diverse marine invertebrate groups found on coral reefs. They range from large carnivores that prowl the reef to small species that live within the arms of coral colonies.
The sponge Leucetta on natural reef habitat. Photo by Scott Godwin

There are a great number of other species that take up permanent residence on the ARMS but never move again; also known as sessile species. The most common species are tunicates, or sea squirts. These can exist as solitary species or multiple individuals that form a colony. Colonial tunicates are brightly colored and appear as a thin slimy layer on the ARMS plates. Sea squirts are in the Phylum Chordata, which also includes humans. These species along with sponges, clams and other sessile fauna consume food from the water column and are prey for other coral reef residents. Species like sea slugs, marine worms and hermit crabs consume sessile fauna as they move across surfaces. Sea slugs can be found on ARMS since they are attracted to the food provided by the sponges and colonial sea squirts. Other species like sea cucumbers and sea stars are found with the ARMS because ARMS provide a place of refuge. Since the ARMS are meant to mimic reef habitat a variety of mobile and sessile organism take up residence.
The crab Trapezia tigrina living within the branches of a coral. Photo by Scott Godwin

The ARMS team leader, Kerry Grimshaw, oversees the entire process to make sure we stick to set protocols and provide concise data. A typical day for the CRED ARMS team begins by diving on a site and retrieving three ARMS and replacing them with new ones. The ARMS are returned to the lab on the Hi`ialakai for processing. They must be dismantled and all the plates photographed before we begin removing target species. Everything is preserved in jars of ethanol at the end so that further analysis can be done by genetic researchers at a later date. This process begins in the early morning and takes all day. Many of the CRED researchers from other projects come by to help out when they return from diving. We see cool stuff every day and this helps make the long hours in the lab much easier.
The sea slug Chromodoris tinctoria. Photo by Scott Godwin

The species being documented by the CRED ARMS project represent the hidden diversity of a coral reef. The variety of animals mentioned above can be considered to be maintenance engineers for the coral reef. They consume excess organic material, provide food for many species, and integrate and recycle minerals important to reef structural integrity. The diversity and abundance of these hidden organisms can be considered a gauge of the condition of a coral reef. This is the reason behind the interest of the CRED in these organisms and the development of the ARMS program.

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.