Tuesday, July 17, 2012

French Frigate Shoals Continued...

July 10th

Fourth day at French Frigate shoals. Today we took our small boat to Tern Island. We would use this location as a center point for our receiver retrieval and deployments. The maritime heritage crew went onto the island to do some filming. Tern island is 56 acres in area and shaped like a runway. That’s because this island is man-made, once serving as a takeoff and landing strip for aircraft.

Side view of the landing strip which makes up the entire island. Lots of birds can be seen

The French Frigate Shoals served as seaplane landing and refueling site for Japanese reconnaissance planes during WWII. Submarines would provide the refueling service, allowing recon planes to keep a watchful eye on the US Pacific fleet. FFS was used as a strategic location for “Operation K”, a planned bombing raid on Pearl Harbor with the intention of disrupting the salvage and recovery effort months after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941. Operation K was then the longest distance bombing sortie ever planned. Two H8K type-II flying boats were to take off from the Marshall islands and refuel at French Friagte Shoals (a distance of 1,900 miles), and then from there fly to Pearl Harbor for the bombing raid. US Navy intelligence received reports of a planned attack/recon on Pearl Harbor by Navy code breakers, but these reports were ignored by superior officers. While the Japanese H8Ks were approaching Pearl Harbor, a US radar station was able to detect the approaching aircraft, prompting a P-40 warhawk and PBY Catalina to scramble to intercept the approaching aircraft. Foul weather prevented the Japanese aircraft from being spotted, luckily it also prevented the Japanese pilots from carrying out the bombing raid. The two aircraft were separated, one pilot dropped his bombs into the water, the other could not find Pearl Harbor and instead, dropped his bombs on the slopes of Tantalas Peak, 1,000 feet from Roosevelt High School in north Honolulu. The Japanese continued to use French Frigate shoals as station for reconnaissance on the US fleet, but their cover was eventually blown by US seaplane tender in May 1942. This played a crucial role on the development for the upcoming battle of Midway, a pivotal battle that I will go into great detail into when our ship arrives there. Without access to French Friagte Shoals, the Imperial Japanese Navy could no longer conduct the reconnaissance needed to know the position of the US fleet.
Japanese H8K, two of these used FFS as a refueling station before carrying out an attempted 2nd Pearl Harbor bombing

In 1942 US Navy SEABEES 5th battalion constructed the Tern Island run-way out of coral rubble, the material that makes us the bright-white beaches of the atoll. The island served as auxiliary Naval Air Station for aircraft flying between Midway and Pearl Harbor. After the war a tsunami hit in 1946 and the Navy decommissioned the site. It was later converted to a Coast Guard LORAN station, the runway was used by Coast Guard and Airforce C-130s. Like many of the islands in the NWHI, Tern Island was quickly used by a variety of sea birds as a roosting area (hence the name).  US Fish and Wildlife now operates the field station on Tern Island and Trig Island as well.

Today we got a further first-hand account of the ecological value of FFS. As many as 18 different species of birds roost on the islands in French Friagte Shoals. Such species include the Black-footed AlbatrossLaysan AlbatrossBonin PetrelBulwer's PetrelWedge-tailed ShearwaterChristmas ShearwaterTristram's Storm-petrelRed-tailed Tropic bird, Masked BoobyRed-footed BoobyBrown BoobyGreat FrigatebirdSpectacled TernSooty TernBlue-gray NoddyBrown NoddyBlack Noddy and White Tern. Many species of terns and boobies surrounded us when our boat approached Tern island, plus a few frigate birds which have a wingspan longer than my body length.

Along the shoreline of Trig island were several large Hawaiian green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. The sea turtles, called Honu in Hawaiian, use the shores here as a haul out area where they can mate, nest for their eggs, and bask in the sun. The Hawaiian green sea turtle was harvested in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for over 150 years. Their population was decimated, but strict law enforcement under the endangered species act allowed for the population to rebound. Honu use the small sandy islands in the NWHI, especially the ones in French Frigate Shoals, as breeding and nesting grounds. Several (between 500-700) nests have been found in a single breeding season on Tern Island alone. You can see in my photos the massive size of the adult turtles on the beaches here, sharing the islands several sea birds such as boobies and albatross, and monk seals.

The Hawaiian monk seal has not had the same fortune as the Honu. The Hawiian monk seal is only one of two truly native land mammals in Hawaii, the other being the Hawaiian Hoary Bat. The evolutionary backstory of the monk seal goes back to the North Atlantic, the place origin for the genus Monachus. Migrations through the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and from there across the Panama Canal to the Hawaiian archipelago, three species resulted in this distribution; the Mediterranean monk seal, the Caribbean monk seal, and the Hawaiian Monk seal. The Caribbean monk seal was officially declared extinct in 2008, and the Mediterranean monk seal has fewer than 500 individuals remaining. The Hawaiian monk seal is listed as “critically endangered”, with only about 1,100 individuals left, and that number is declining. The Hawaiian monk seal has been the center for several species-specific conservation studies.

A monk seal pup plays alongside it's mother, while she gives attention to her pup and also maintains constant vigilance for predators

Trig Island, very small, but a important isle of refuge for many seafaring species

When we were retrieving our receiver mooring lines around Trig and Tern Islands, we were very cautious to the where-abouts of monk seals, especially mother-pup pairs. This was for our safety and for the monk seals well-being. Like many animals, a mother monk seal is very protective of her pup, and she can inflict considerable damage or worse to a diver who unknowingly gets too close. The aggregation of turtles, monk seals and sea birds brings a lot of shark activity to these islands. Our receivers detect tiger sharks, Galapagose sharks and Ulua in large numbers very frequently around these locations. 

Our mooring line with a receiver (black object) just after deployment. T

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

French Frigate Shoals

July 7th
We Arrived at French Frigate Shoals at 1300, earlier than expected so we went ahead and did our first dive operation. FFS is the midpoint of the entire Hawaiian archipeligo. You wouldn’t think our ship was inside the shoal just by looking out over the water. With persistent winds creating white caps all over the surface, all you can see in either direction is just the water’s surface, save for one rock that sticks out. The rock is the island of La Pérouse, a 1-acre rock made of dense lava, and the only remainder of what was once a volcanic island like the main Hawaiian Islands. There are three low level, vegetated islands and a few blinding-white bare sand islands that make up the land portion of FFS.
Source: PBS, a satellite view of French Frigate Shoals. White specks of sandy islands and  coral reefs can be seen
Our first dive was at a location called rapture reef. We had to swap out a VR2W receiver and an EAR. Christian and Carl make the receiver swap, an issue came up with my dive buddy so we played the proper safe route and called off the dive, leaving the EAR swap for tomorrow. Though just at the surface I was already surrounded by a school of giant Ulua, and could see two Galapagose sharks 15ft below our boat.
On the second day we swap out the EAR, which turned out to be a agrivating process because our tin snips were not working so we had to manually unscrew each hose clap. We had enough time to install the new one and explore the reef around the area. It was an oasis of biodiversity at this site. Giant Ulua, Galapagose sharks, whitetip reef sharks, Uku (green jobfish, very hard to find at all in the main islands), and a huge abundance and diversity of reef fish that I had never seen before. Many of the reef fish here do not occur in shallow depths (above 100 feet) the main islands, and many of these fish can’t be found in other areas of the world. As a photographer it was overwhelming, there was so much to take photos of, and not nearly enough time for it.
Acropora coral and the EAR (cylindrical instrument). The EAR is recording a wide range of acoustics at this reef and in surrounding areas. Reefs are noisy habitats, different fish and invertebrates create unique sounds and signals for a variety of purposes and behaviors.

Underneath every ledge of acropora (table top shaped coral) were over a dozen reef fish. Coral in this shape provides space and refuge for reef fish, contributing to the high biodiversity and abundance at this reef

Galapagose shark that was circling us on our safety stop, approched us in a very curious manner

July 8th
Second day of work at FFS. We swapped out two more receivers and the ear at Rapture reef. Our second site was inside of the lagoon at FFS so the visibility was somewhat murky. Carl was eager to analyze the data from both sites right away. At the site inside the lagoon we are seeing a seasonal pattern in the aggregations of Ulua and Galapagose sharks in that area. More info on this will be explained later as it comes to light.

Swapping out the EAR
Uku, green jobfish. A popular menu item on the main islands,  extremely rare to see swimming around on the main islands too.

It was also an exciting day for the Maritime hertitage team. Artifacts from a whaling vessel were recovered, including a ceramic bowl, a harpoon tip, a lance, carpentry nails and a fine piece of 18th century glass that was a part of the ship’s barometer.
Artifacts from a whaling vessel

Another team was collecting samples from the water column around coral heads. Here, invertebrates that were sampled from coral heads are examined under a dissecting microscope. This is for a study that examines the bioeroding process of coral from invertebrate communities. Bioerrosion is a process that occurs on coral reefs where the calcium carbonite skeletons of coral are broken down by other marine organisms feeding or burrowing. This project under the lead of Nyssa Silbinger, a graduate student in the Donahue lab at HIMB. You can see what other projects the Donahue lab conducts on coral reef ecology on their website: http://www.donahuelab.com/projects/

July 9th
Christian keeping an eye on a curious Galapagose shark.
They will come very close to you if you take your eye off them
Third day of work at FFS. Swaped out 4 recievers and an EAR. We came really close to a lot of the islands today, including La Perouse. The beaches are blinding white. At every location we spotted at least one Galapagose shark and Ulua. At our safety stop at the second site we had a Galapagose shark circling around us, occasionaly swimming away out of view and then showing up right behind us seconds later when we took our eye off of it. Several Hawaiian monk seals could be seen on every sandy beach. East Island is one of the location we did a receiver swap. This is the infamous island where tiger sharks hunt in very shallow water, preying on fledgling albatross. The young albatross have difficulty learning to fly for the first time; take offs and landing are made difficult with an extremely long wingspan. Failure to pass flight school can mean certain death for these birds. By the time we arrived the fledgling albatross had already gone, only adults could be seen on the island. When we looked at the data from that receiver though, it turns out that there was a 14ft tiger shark in that exact area one hour before we got in the water there.East Island once served as a float plane station for the US Navy before and during WWII. It was then converted to a LORAN station. 

Field station on East Island, also the site of a tiger shark gourge fest when the albatross fail flight school

This is all that remains of what was once a island the size of the main Hawaiian islands. It is now reduced to a 1-acre stub sticking out of the water
There is a lot going on with all of the science teams and with the ship, I will expand on these more in the future, but for now it’s late and there is a lot of work for us to do on the ship when we are not doing dive operations, so check back alter for more updates.

Ending the day talking about our previous tiger shark work on Oahu

Monday, July 9, 2012

Drills work and More Drills

July 6th
Drills, work and more drills. After breakfast we had a timed abandon ship drill where we had to get to our assigned life boat and don our survival suite. Now was a good time to realize the suit didn’t fit me. Looked a little ridiculous in my huge, very very thick neoprene suite but it would certainly do it job in preventing hypothermia. Our life boats are inflatable and stored inside barrel-sized canisters that look like depth charges. We also receive an orientation to the dive locker and given a runthrough of how the loading and launching process will go for each small craft. Each science team is assigned to a particular boat, and for each boat everyone has to be familiar with the staging area for gear, and how to load tanks and equipment in a quick, efficient and safe manner.
For the unconscious diver, possible neck injury diver drill, I decided to make things interesting by by volunteering to play the victim, which means other crew members had to get my body on the flatboard, strap me down in some really strong Velcro so that I couldn’t move the slightest bit, and then get picked up and carried around.


July 5th 2012
USS Utah
Our ship is underway at 0915. We can see the rusted hull or what remains of the USS Utah sticking out of the water. Utah was a casualty from the attack on Pearl Harbor, suffering a loss 3 officers and 52 enlisted men by capsizing after a torpedo strike. The ship remains near the shore at Ford Island, and a memorial sits adjacent to site.

As soon as our ship leaves the harbor and heads out for open water, taking a course through the channel between Kawaui and Oahu, our ship goes through some rolling seas. Time for everyone to start building up their sea legs. We set sail for our first destination, French Frigate Shoals; the midpoint of the Hawaiian archipelago and the first atoll you come across in the Hawaiian islands. We are scheduled to arrive there by 1300 on the third day, giving us two and a half days at sea. Along the way we were going through 25 knot winds and heavy swells. The scene is beautiful with clear skies and bright blue water littered with white caps.

Sailing away from Oahu

Christian Clark and I rigging the mooring lines 
Carl is quick to put us to work and remind us that while amongst the pleasant scenery and pleasantries of going out to sea, we still have a lot of work to do between each location and each dive.  We start by constructing the mooring lines that we will use to deploy our acoustic receivers. We also prep the receivers by initializing them (setting the time, date, and location for deployment) and coating them in electrical tape. This makes it easier to clean the receivers when we retrieve them because after a full year of sitting in the water, our instruments collect a lot of encrusting algae and other biofouling organisms. Peeling the tape off along with the biofouling is an easier process than chiseling off all of the calcareous encrusting algae.
We hold our first meeting in the dry lab, which also serves as a chart room for the scientists to make plans for each day of operations. The scientists, crew and NOAA officers are all introduced to one another. We learn the operations and the regimented conduct of the ship.

I am thoroughly impressed with the mess deck of this ship. The stewards do an amazing job preparing amazing meals for everyone on board. Good food does wonders for the moral of a ship, I am looking to every meal I will be having onboard. Meals at very specifc times and end on the hour. Tough luck if you miss it. Tomorrow will be day of more prep work, rescue dive training and ship drills. 

Each scientist stakes out a workspace in the drylab. I was lucky enough to get a spot right in front of the ship's library. There is a small but impressive collection of books on maritime history, whaling ships, seamanship, Hawaii natural history, marine life and reports from past NOAA cruises. There is even a copy of Steel's Elements of Mastmaking Sailing and Rigging
Chart table in the dry lab
Carl at the ship store, buying some fruity fragrant shampoo

Sunday, July 8, 2012


July 3rd 2012

I met with Polly-Ann Fisherpool, a student of Dr. Marc Lammers from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, UH Manoa Dept. of Biology. Dr. Lammers is also co-founder of the Oceanwide Science Institute (http://oceanwidescience.org/index.htm), a non-profit organization that supports marine conservation research and education. Marc is also head of the Acoustics Program in NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. Polly-Ann delivered Ecological Acoustic Recorders, commonly referred to their acronym EARs. Developed by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and NOAA, EARS are used for long-term monitoring of sounds in an area. EARs are used to monitor the presence and behavior of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), studying the acoustic signature of reef fishes and monitoring long-term biological sound patterns on coral reefs.  
 Here is a radio broadcast interview with researchers from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The use of EARs in reef ecology monitoring are discussed in a segment. Keeping things related to sharks, there is a mention of a notable shark encounter by one student. Click the link to listen: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2012/05/26/himb-on-the-radio/ 

You can also view publications of studies that used EARs for long-term acoustic monitoring here: http://oceanwidescience.org/docs/Publications.htm

EAR that is almost ready for deployment. Coating the instrument with tape makes it easier to cleaning the bio-fouling off when the EAR is retrieved a year later.

You can also look at the HIMB Marine Mammal Research Program’s website to learn more about the studies done on marine mammal acoustics and acoustic monitoring: http://www.hawaii.edu/mmrp/MMRP_Hawaii/Home.html

Similar to how our team deploys and retrieves VRW2 acoustic receivers, each EAR that was loaded onto the ship is labeled for each location it will be deployed and they will replace the EARs that are currently deployed at each location throughout the NWHI. Some of these instruments have been deployed for over a year; they have to be retrieved in order to download the data they gather. 

Inside the ship's wetlab

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Pathway to the Sea

July 3nd

The days before we set sail are spent loading the ship with gear and equipment that will be needed for shark and Ulua fishing, handling and tagging.  Material and tools for mooring construction and deployment are loaded and secured.

Our morning starts at 0600 at the Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor. Each morning at 0400 the vessels of the Hawaii long-lining fleet offload the catch form their weeks out at sea. Yellowfin and bigeye tuna are the majority of the fish that come in. Depending on the season, location and depth you can also find lots of mahi mahi, opah, billfish, bottom fish such as the Opakapaka and Uku, and deep sea such as the monchong. Long rows of the fish are laid out in a large warehouse that is kept at a low temperature. Very reminiscent of the fish market in Japan, the Honolulu Fish Auction is the only commercial fish auction in the United States. We rummage arm-deep through dumpster bins that are loaded with tuna heads and fish carcasses that didn’t stay fresh on the boats. The tuna heads are the prized bait pieces we go for, the workers at the auction sometimes hand us the cut off heads from the large tuna they process. Going through a large tote full of large dead fish and tuna heads is not for the faint of heart; the smell of dead fish is made more pungent with the dripping blood and oily juices. You always get some or a lot of fish blood/juice or flakes of flesh on you. With our loaded bounty of tuna heads and whole mahi mahi we head to the University Marine Center at Snug Harbor to load our fishing gear and mooring supplies. Our lab keeps a shipping container full of fishing and shark tracking supplies in the harbor. The University of Hawaii fleet is docked here as well.

The NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai (R 334) is home-ported at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor along with her sister ships the Ka'imimoana and Oscar Elton Sette.  The ship was laid down in 1984 as a US Navy Military Sealift Command Stalwart-Class ocean surveillance ship USNS Vindicator (T-AGOS-3) by the Tacoma Boat Building Company in Tacoma, Washington. She was then transferred to the US Coast Guard in 1993 and then later transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and refitted as a research vessel in 2001 and was renamed the Hi’ialakai which means “embracing pathways to the sea”. The ship is outfitted for intensive scientific diving operations with a diver locker and fill station, a 3-person recompression chamber for immediate diver decompression treatment, and five small crafts that can be launched amidships to transport teams of divers to working sites. To learn more about the NOAAS Hi’ialakai andUSN  Vindicator visit: http://www.moc.noaa.gov/hi/ and http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/66/6603.htm.

 There is a lot of activity around the ship as scientists, crewmembers, NOAA officers and longshoremen prep the ship and continue loading supplies and equipment for the voyage while going over cruise plans and itinerary. Our departure week falls on a particularly busy time for all of Pearl Harbor. The United States Navy hosts and administers the largest multi-national joint warfare exercise Rim of Pacific Exercise, (RIMPAC) on a biannual basis during June and July in Honolulu, HI. An awesome display of dozens of ships can be seen docked in Pearl Harbor and throughout the greater Honolulu area. An impressive view of the USS Nimitz (CVN 68), the flagship of the carrier strike group, can be seen with her squadrons of various aircraft from the bridge going to Ford Island. During the exercise the USS Nimitz will be running on biofuel, making her the flagship of the “Great Green Fleet” as an effort for a more environmentally friendly Navy. More info about RIMPAC and the participating ships can be found at: http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/2012/about/ , and http://www.naval-technology.com/features/featurerimpac-2012-vessels-aircraft-countries/ .

After we loaded our mooring and tagging supplies and stocking the ship’s walk-in freezer with totes full of tuna heads, we headed to the NOAA building to receive a briefing on the significance of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to Hawaiian culture. Information on that subject are well publicized on the official website for the monument: http://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/heritage/welcome.html

Introduction to the NWHI

July 2nd, 2012

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, designated as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument under Presidential Proclamation 8031 on June 15, 2006, is the largest conservation area in the United States, the second largest in the world, encompassing 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Within the boundaries of this monument lies a chain of atolls, shoals and small islands, comprising of only one tenth of one percent of the total landmass of the Hawaiian Islands, but contains an invaluable cultural, historical and ecological value for Hawaii and for our nation.

For the first Polynesian explorers and who found these islands by navigating solely on observations of the natural world around them, they would regard them as the homelands where spirits go to rest and where new life arises. For centuries, ship captains would learn the perils of navigating through low inconspicuous islands and poorly charted reefs. And in 1942, on a small atoll 1100 miles west of Pearl Harbor, American sailors, marines, and airmen would face insurmountable odds against an overwhelming force, and endure unimaginable sacrifice to achieve one of the most decisive battles in US history and forever alter the course of America and the Pacific as a whole during the Second World War. On the small areas of land within the region, 14 million seabirds, 90% of the population in the Hawaiian archipelago, nest here in the largest seabird rookery in the world. Hawaiian Monk seals, a species unique to Hawaii and threatened with extinction, and the only Marine Mammal found exclusively in the United States, uses the beaches to bask in the sun and give birth to their pups. And in the vast pristine coral reefs around each island and atoll, 7,000 species of fish use these reefs as habitats. One quarter of these fish as found exclusively in the Hawaiian archipelago. And lurking around these reefs are great numbers of predators, such as the Galapagose shark and the Ulua. These islands contain some of the last remaining apex-predator dominated reefs in the world.

While I hope to use this blog to record the events and actions primarily of our Reef Predator team in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, I also hope to share the work conducted by the other science teams on this voyage, and to promote other research by colleges at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, many of whom have voyaged to the NWHI on previous cruises. The primary mission the cruise is Maritime Heritage Research under lead scientist Kelly Gleason. Other project teams include Reef Predator (Shark team), Coral Disease Assessment, Alien/Invasive Species Monitoring, and Reef and Water Quality assessment. I hope to express the importance these islands have on the ecology of the Pacific Ocean, the cultural heritage of native Hawaiians, maritime history, and American history.
Mahalo, and enjoy.

NOAA Map of Hawaiian Archipelago. NWHI are outlined.