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You are here: /main/research expeditions/ 2005 RAMP/9_17_05 Not for the weak

9/17/05 - Not for the weak
by David Nichols, State of Hawaii, DLNR, HIHWNMS

Yannis goes overboard
Yannis Papastamatiou enters the water off Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals.

The 224 foot NOAA Ship Hi`ialakai has hosted many scientific and educational missions since its commissioning in September 2004. Now it is engaged as support for a Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER), National Ocean Service (NOS), NOAA project until October 6, 2005. This Rapid Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP) will assess and monitor marine life at numerous locations throughout the archipelago. Annual monitoring at fixed locations in the NWHI began in 2003. Returning to the same sites helps in understanding the abundance and distribution of fishes, algae, corals, and other reef invertebrates. The scientists onboard bring a diverse expertise. There are scientists from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER), State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), University of Hawaii (UH), and the Bernice P. Bishop Museum (BPBM).

This particular RAMP cruise began on August 8, however, a small fire in the engine room forced an early return to Honolulu just three days into the expedition. The very dedicated engineering staff repaired the problem and the crew and science teams were quickly back underway to complete the mission.

After a two-day transit from Honolulu we finally arrived at our first stop along the Northwestern Hawaiian Island (NWHI) chain. French Frigate Shoals is an open atoll consisting of a large, crescent-shaped reef surrounding numerous small, sandy islets. There isn’t much to see above the water here. The land area is only ¼ square kilometer (67 acres). Much of the excitement is beneath the surface. The total coral reef area of the shoals is over 938 square kilometers (232,000 acres).

Checking air pressure

Iliana Baums checks the air pressure in scuba tanks on board
the NOAA Ship Hi`ialakai.


The day starts with several teams of Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) divers and collecting and tagging scientists deploying on smaller vessels to get to the revisit sites within the reef. I manage to work my way onto the small boat HI-2 which carries the collecting and tagging team of Randy Kosaki, Matt Craig, Yannis Papastamatiou, and Carl Meyer. Their goal today is to Recover, download, and redeploy (tomorrow) receivers placed during the May-June 2005 cruise. These receivers have been detecting previously tagged fish (apex predators including sharks and ulua) since their deployment. This data helps document their space utilization patterns within and between reefs. The team will also be making a couple of dives to collect specimens of reef fishes for stable carbon isotope analyses. This will help estimate the proportions of benthic (bottom) and planktonic (drifting) primary productivity that support apex predator (sharks and large jacks) dominated ecosystems.

Once we are lowered onto the water and set free our driver aims the HI-2 toward a steep-sided basalt pinnacle that juts out of the water in the center of the atoll. This unique rock formation is the last remnant of the original volcano. The pinnacle was named "La Pérouse Pinnacle" after Compte de La Pérouse, who visited the atoll in 1786. In the moonlight the pinnacle so resembled a full-rigged sailing ship that it lured more than one vessel to her doom on the shoals as Captains investigated the unidentified companion.

The water is extremely sloppy and as we transit to the pinnacle and our first receiver pick-up it seems that there is just as much water coming across the bow into our faces as there is passing beneath the boat. I struggle to take a breath and even take a serious look around to see if there is an available scuba regulator and tank that I can start breathing from. As I feel consciousness slipping the HI-2 launches off the top of a large wave. During the brief moment that we are airborne I am able to take a few quick breaths of the gaseous oxygen that my body was craving. Euphoria sets in but only briefly because I must prepare for that inevitable gut-wrenching jolt as the boat slams back onto the water surface. After what seemed like hours of drowning and pounding we finally arrive at the site. After retrieving receivers from here, East Island, Trig Island and Tern Island our team then makes two separate dives to collect reef fish specimens before returning to the Hi`ialakai.

I now realize why the scientists on this expedition are such youthful and fit individuals and not the chubby, elderly, lethargic type that was prevalent during my college years. Science in the NWHI is not for the weak, the timid, or those without passion and dedication to protecting this fragile ecosystem.

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