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, April 8, 2011

The Northern Marianas leg begins aboard the Hi’ialakai

Blog and photos by Steve McKagan

As warm tropical waters of the Marianas roll along the bow of the Hi’ialakai the island of Saipan can be seen outlined by the dawning sun as one looks east.  The rocking of the ship and the hum of the engines belie the bustle and activity that mark the start of the day’s operations.  Operations which start early for the galley crew as they prepare the days breakfast and pack lunches, NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps who run the ship, deck crews who prepare, launch and pilot the small boats and for the researchers who will be performing field operations and diving to collect data for the next nineteen days.  This leg of the cruise started in Saipan three days ago and stops by making landfall again in Saipan at the end of April.  These field activities mark the culmination of months of planning and preparation.

Chief Boatswain Mark O'Connor readies one of the small boats to launch.
For the researchers this includes satisfying all the necessary diving, medical and technical requirements, studying and calibrating to be sure field activities run smoothly and a very busy night before prepping tanks and gear, packing data sheets, slates, GPS units, cameras and personal effects.  Hat, glasses and sunscreen are a must, but you also need to include storm weather, because the weather and current can turn quickly in the tropics and it can even get cold in a 3mm wetsuit when the wind and rain come.

During regular cruise operations the team leads meet the night before to frame out the next day’s activities including which divers and small boats will be in operations and what locations they will try to cover around the current island.  When the ocean conditions become rough, as occurred today (it even made the local paper!) the team leads scramble into action to find new locations, rearrange divers and maximize as much of the day as possible.  Today, for example, we are heading into the somewhat protected shadow of Tinian to avoid the 11-foot swells coming out of the Northeast.  We are also keeping a watchful eye on our emails and the news regarding the Friday midnight shutdown in  Washington D.C., which will be 2pm our time on Saturday, to find out if we will have to recall our dive teams and head for port only three days into the current leg of the cruise.
Members of the benthic and fish survey teams also prepare to depart for the first day of operations at Tinian.
The weather and the looming potential shutdown have made this one of the more uncertain cruises in recent memory according to several of the scientists aboard who have been participating in contingency planning. 
After speedy contingency planning to move operations from Saipan to Tinian, Jill Zamzow and the rest of the fish team launch into the somewhat calmer seas at Tinian.
It is currently 10:00 am and science teams are launching in the hopes that our representatives in DC can find a solution to the shutdown, the seas remain relatively calm here and the Hi’ialakai can continue north tomorrow with more certainty.

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