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, March 31, 2011

Big Fish at Wake

by Paula Ayotte
photos by Kara Osada

As a fish survey diver for the past six years, I’ve counted and sized lots of big fish throughout the Pacific, from sharks to jacks, rays, eels, and barracuda. All of these species are seen at Wake, but what makes this atoll unique is that there are some other big players from families that we don’t normally see in larger sizes – parrotfish and wrasses. Though parrotfish and wrasses can get relatively big, we’re more accustomed to seeing these types of fish in sizes that you could fit inside a breadbox; anywhere from 2 cm juveniles to 60 cm adults. Here, though, the Bumphead parrotfish (BOMU we call them, the code for Bolbometopon muricatum) and the Humphead wrasses (CHUD, for Cheilinus undulatus) rule the reef, reaching sizes of 130 cm to 200 cm, respectively. Both of these fish are listed on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species and are rare in most parts of the world. We see them much more frequently at Wake than at the other islands or atolls we survey. During this trip we saw at least one or two CHUDs on almost every dive, and at a few sites saw BOMUs in schools of up to 20 individuals; pretty impressive!

Big Bumpheads

In contrast, the grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) we saw here at Wake seem to be on the smaller size, anywhere from 40 cm to 100 cm. There were some larger individuals (up to 150 cm), but they seemed a bit more aloof and stayed in the distance, while the smaller guys were much more curious and would swim in quite close,  maybe for a better look. And though they may have been smaller, it’s still pretty exciting when you’ve got more than a dozen suddenly appearing and surrounding you. It’s definitely something we don’t experience around more densely populated areas such as Oahu or Guam.

A school of a dozen grey reef sharks hovers over the reef.

It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to travel to these remote places and participate in work that will hopefully help to maintain healthy populations of these amazing creatures.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Reefs at Wake

by Ben Richards
photos by Kara Osada, Ben Richards, and Edmund Coccagna

Humphead Wrasse
We have completed our operations at Wake Atoll and are now en route to Saipan, six days hence.  Our first day of operations were met with 25 knot winds and sporadic squalls and a dismal weather forecast for these conditions to continue throughout our survey period.  However, the long 12-day transit combined with Wake's reputation as a thriving coral reef environment fueled a high level of excitement to jump in the water and conduct research, easily overwhelming the bumpy, wet, and cold diving conditions.

Bumphead Parrotfish
After the first day the weather began to improve and continued to do so over our five days at the atoll. Before long we were back to warm waters, blazing sun, and light winds. Being in the middle of the tropical Pacific, the waters around Wake are incredibly clear and it is not unusual to have underwater visibility of over 100 feet. Coral cover in many areas exceeded 50 percent and we encountered big fish like Humphead wrasse and Bumphead parrotfish on many of our surveys.

The Reef at Wake
With the improved weather, each of the survey teams completed their assigned tasks with a bit of time to spare, and, courtesy of the base commander, we were treated to the brief tour of the island on the afternoon of our last day. It was nice to see that, overall, both above and below the water, the atoll seems to have been little affected by the recent tsunami.

A Threadfin butterflyfish and Giant
Clam on the Reef at Wake
As we transit to Saipan over the next few days, each of the research teams will be posting a brief overview of their time at Wake with more details about their experiences and findings. So, keep checking in ...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ready for Wake

by Paula Ayotte

Scientist Brian Hauk masters
walking on a ship in rolling seas.
After two successful rescues (three, really, if you count the EAR retrieval), we're finally back on track to Wake Atoll and are ready to get back in the water. We've learned that even with the three days we spent evacuating and transferring personnel, we won't lose any time at Wake and will be able to do five survey days as originally planned and we're all eager to get to work. Twelve days of sea transit on the ship is far more than most of us are accustomed to, and we realize we've been somewhat spoiled during the first week of our trip when we had sunny days and flat, calm seas. Now we're experiencing overcast skies and 8 - 10' swells; everyone is making sure anything loose is tied down and equipment is secured; just staying upright can be a challenge! Luckily, we took care of most of our prep work during those first tranquil days.

Current turbulent sea state. Compare to the
benign seas during EAR retrieval.
This will be my second trip to this remote atoll, and I'm looking forward to seeing the large schools of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) that are common around Wake, though rare in other parts of the world. As a member of the fish team, it's my job to count and size these amazing creatures, which can reach sizes up to 130cm (about 4 1/2 feet; I'm only slightly taller!).

The largest species of parrotfish,
Bolbometopon muricatum
Along with being on the fish team at CRED, I'm also the scientific liaison for the Pacific Remote Island Areas (PRIA), of which Wake is a part of, along with Johnston Atoll, Howland and Baker Islands, Kingman Reef, Jarvis Island, and Palmyra Island, which we visited last year (see Blog Archive 2010, January - April). The PRIA are all National Wildlife Refuges and were named in 2009 as Marine National Monuments, affording them even greater protections. As some of the most remote and pristine coral reefs in the world, these areas serve as important baselines for ecological monitoring. We can compare these relatively untouched areas to places that have human populations to try to get an idea in the of how to better manage the reefs that have suffered from human impacts. Though Wake is under the jurisdiction of U.S. Air Force, the waters from 0 to 12 nautical miles are protected as units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Not only do the waters around Wake support abundant fish populations (at least 323 species), the small amount of land provides important seabird and migratory shorebird habitat. We all feel greatly privileged to have the opportunity to study this far-flung, isolated island in the middle of the Pacific.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wake Island

by Lauren Fuqua
photos by United States Air Force and Ben Richards

An aerial view of Wake atoll
Wake Atoll (19°N, 166°E) is the northernmost atoll in the Marshal Islands and is currently part of the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Manument (PRIMNM).  Wake is oblong in shape (8.5 x 4 km) with three major islands and an internal lagoon, and is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the U.S.  The U.S. Air Force maintains jurisdiction of Wake and the Missile Defense agency is its principle occupant. Public access to Wake is restricted.

The Battle of Wake Island began simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor and ended on 23 December 1941, with the surrender of the American forces to the Empire of Japan. Of 55 Marine aviation personnel stationed at Wake, 23 were killed and 11 were wounded. During the second assult by the Japanese, on Dec. 23rd, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese. The Japanese captured all men remaining on the island, the majority of whom were civilian contractors employed with Morrison-Knudsen Company. On 5 October 1943, American naval aircraft from Yorktown raided Wake. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98 captured American civilian workers remaining on the island, kept to perform forced labor. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded, and executed by machine gun. One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped the massacre, apparently returning to the site to carve 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 Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana.

POW Rock
The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark. The murdered civilian POWs were reburied after the war in Honolulu's National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as Punchbowl Crater. The remains of Japanese fortifications during World War are still visible around the islands.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Another successful rescue and our first bit of science

by Lisa Munger
photos by Brian Hauk and Kara Osada-D'avella

Recovering the EAR
After a safe transport of personnel from Kure Atoll to Midway, we took advantage of our unexpected diversion to recover an Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR) deployed in May 2010 a few miles southeast of the atoll. The EAR is a passive listening device that records ambient underwater sounds on a programmable schedule, and stores the recordings on an internal hard drive. EARs are capable of recording for months or years, and provide long-term data on noise-producing marine animals such as snapping shrimp, fish, whales and dolphins, as well as human activities and natural events. The battery life of this EAR should have allowed it to record during the recent tsunami that arrived at Kure on March 11th, but we will not know until the EAR returns to Honolulu, where the data will be extracted.

The Kure EAR was anchored to the seafloor in a location over 100 meters deep, which prohibits retrieval by divers. Instead, the EAR was released from the bottom by sending an acoustic command (a specific series of pings at a set frequency) from a transducer aboard the ship. Within a few minutes, the EAR floated to the surface, where it was spotted by scientists watching from the bridge deck. The recovery took place from the ship, and it went incredibly smoothly thanks to the combination of excellent piloting by LTJG (sel) David Vejar, skillful gaffing by AB Carmen Greto, and the cooperation of many other crew members and scientists both on board and on land.

Sperm whales off our bow
One of the marine mammal species likely to be recorded on the Kure EAR is the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). We enjoyed the opportunity to observe sperm whales first-hand in this area a couple of days ago, when we spotted a pod of approximately 14 females resting at the surface. Several more distant sperm whales were sighted today by L. Munger from the bridge. Sperm whales produce distinctive clicks when they are underwater; these clicks are used for communication with each other and for hunting squid, their primary prey. These air-breathing mammals can dive to depths greater than 3000 meters (almost 2 miles) and hold their breath for up to 90 minutes! Throughout the cruise we will be recording marine mammal sightings such as these and will taking ID photographs for the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) cetacean research program.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

From Midway to Wake ... or Maybe Kure?

by Ben Richards
photos by Lisa Munger
HI-2 heads in to Midway Atoll
We arrived at Midway atoll early this morning and, despite wet and windy conditions, successfully deposited our Laysan Island refugees in good hands with the US Fish and Wildlife Service personnel on island. At present, it looks as if they will remain on Midway for a week or so, before being flown to Honolulu aboard a US Coast Guard C130 that will be conducting overflights of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to evaluate damage from the recent tsunami.

After recovering HI-2, we began our transit to the southwest and to Wake. We had not been on our way more than an hour when we received the call that we were needed again. Five NOAA and US Fish and Wildlife Service personnel stationed on Kure Atoll were in need of evacuation. While risks still remain fairly remote, the threat of radiation contamination from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi power station remains. Were we not to evacuate these personnel, it would take a minimum of five days for another ship to transit from Honolulu to Kure Atoll if the current situation worsens. Add in the complications of a potential government shutdown, and it was deemed prudent to evacuate all personnel while the Hi'ialakai is in the area.

HI-2 returns to the Hi'ialakai
So, we are back in rescue mode. Thankfully the large swell of the past few days has dropped substantially and Kure has both an easily navigable channel and a small boat dock that will make the evacuation of personnel much more straightforward that it was at Laysan. Our plan is to take the people aboard this afternoon and take them back to Midway atoll, from where they will be flown to Honolulu along with the personnel from Laysan. Once this operation is complete, we hope to be able to continue to Wake to begin our original operations. As always, we'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Evacuation of Laysan

by Ben Richards

Our Captain stands by
the radio, monitoring
the operation
The Hi'ialakai arrived at Laysan Island at first light and as the sun rose it was clear that the 12 foot swell we had expected was in reality more like 15-18 feet.  We watched in amazement as the breakers crashed on the reef sending up towers of spray thirty feet into the air.  As we found the landmarks for the western passage through the reef, it was clear there was no way we would be able to get a boat into shore to retrieve the shore party. Slowly we made our way south along the west side of Laysan, hoping for a break in the surf.  As we rounded the southern tip of the island it seemed luck, and the conditions, were on our side. Jutting out from the beach was a shallow bench of reef that appeared to be breaking up much of the surf.  As we watched, we saw a few small waves crashing here and there, but nothing that would prevent a rescue effort.  As we made ready the boats, the rescue swimmers and coxswains had their final safety briefing and laid final plans for the recovery.

The AVON, with coxswain Gaetano
Maurizzio and rescue swimmer
Jamie Gove head in to shore
We would send in two boats.  The larger SAFEBoat would wait just offshore of the surf zone while the smaller, and more agile, AVON would make its way as close to shore as possible before deploying the two rescue swimmers. After making their way through the small surf to the beach, the swimmers would then bring the shore party out to the AVON, one-by-one. After reaching the AVON, the members of the shore party would then be transferred to the SAFEBoat for transit back to the Hi'ialakai.

As luck would have it, there was a strong rip current pulling off the beach and out to sea, which meant that the rescue swimmers had a hard swim in, but everyone had a fairly easy swim out to the boats. After recovering all personnel, the two swimmers went back in to the beach to recover the few belongings our new guests would need until they returned to Honolulu.

The rescue mission was a resounding success. A few cuts and scrapes, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The SafeBoat returning from Laysan

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reports from Laysan Island

by Ben Richards

We will arrive at Laysan tomorrow at first light. If conditions are safe, we will launch one of our 19 foot SAFE Boats to retrieve the 5 personnel (3 from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and 2 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service) from the island, and will then begin our transit to Midway Atoll. From Midway, the 5 personnel will be flown back to Honolulu. A large swell generated by a storm in the north Pacific is forecast to arrive at Laysan tomorrow, which could potentially cut off the primary access point into Laysan. If this is the case, and the boat channel is impassible, we will transit to the east side, where we'll launch both our Avon and the SAFE Boat, and assess conditions for an alternate beach retrieval point.

Although the Laysan personnel are used to inclement weather and adverse conditions, being hit by a tsunami was understandably traumatic. The field team completed their first inspection of the island yesterday. They reported extensive damage to the island, with the wave line extending well into the vegetation. In places, reef fish were found in the short trees that ring the island. Most of their food buckets and water jugs were washed away, and they were still seeing buckets and jugs being washed back to shore. The kitchen tent was destroyed and they are cooking and eating at the USFWS camp.The USFWS camp has 32 six gallon jugs of water, which should be enough to sustain the Laysan personnel for the remainder of their time on island. Fortunately no injuries have ben reported and their office tent was spared and most of their electronics and communication equipment were not damaged.

Once aboard the Hi'ialakai, the Laysan field team will be evaluated by the ship's medical officer. Several of the scientists have offered their bunk space and the ship's stewards will be putting together linens and anything else they may require for their short stay aboard the ship.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tsunami update: Headed to Laysan Island

by Ben Richards

We receive BBC world service aboard the Hi'ialakai and watched in awe and sadness as the news of the Sendai earthquake started to come over the airwaves. Being far out to sea and in deep water, we are safe from the effects of a tsunami, but many aboard have family and friends in Japan, Hawaii, and elsewhere around the Pacific. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all those who have been devastated by these recent events.

Monk Seal camp at Laysan Island
At present we have been diverted from our course to Wake Atoll to assist with the evacuation of NOAA and US Fish and Wildlife Service personnel currently on Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  All of the researchers on Laysan are accounted for; however, their camp was inundated with water stemming from the tsunami, causing their supplies of food and fresh water to be compromised. We should arrive at Laysan on March 14 to begin the evacuation and transportation of the field scientists to Midway Atoll, from there they will return to Honolulu. If all goes well, we will then continue to Wake Island to conduct a somewhat abbreviated set of surveys.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Headed Out

by Ben Richards

Aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln
across from us at the fuel pier
After a nearly on-time departure from Ford island, we made our way to the fuel pier where we spent the next few hours taking on the fuel we would need for the next few months at sea. As we approached the pier, our 240 foot ship started to feel smaller and smaller as we pulled in next to (and almost under) the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, which was docked just on the other side of the pier. I was on the top deck of our ship, looking directly across at the Lincoln's anchor. It was at least another 30 feet up to her flight deck, where the jet fighters were packed wingtip to wingtip. We watched in amazement for the next few hours as the 5600 sailors and airmen started to disembark and, presumably, head into Waikiki.

With our tanks full, we slowly pulled away and headed out of the mouth of Pearl Harbor, and turned to the west into the open seas. After a few minor engineering hiccups (the ship has been beside the pier for the last four months) we cleared Ka'ena point and the western end of Oahu and were on our way. We have nine days of transit before we reach Wake Island and the science party is taking some much needed rest after the whirlwind of pre-departure preparations. We will spend the next few days conducting emergency drills, making ready the scientific equipment, and planning out our upcoming operational days.