Friday, June 28, 2013

Packing for Palmyra - Part 1

Packing to spend a month on remote island is a interesting exercise.  Anything you forget to bring or break once you are there you will have to live without.  So on the one hand you want to make sure you have everything you could possibly need.  On the other hand weight is a limiting factor for the small charter plane that flies to Palmyra out of Honolulu. There is a strict weight limit on what I can bring.

Logistics are handled by the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium (PARC), a collaboration among universities, museums, and conservation NGOs.  They send out instructions to all visiting researchers outlining things they provide and making recommendations on what to bring.  They will be providing most of the dive gear such as tank, weights, regulator, BC, and dive computer.  I will bring my own mask, fins, snorkel.  I plan to bring extra fin straps, but do I also bring a spare mask?  I needed to buy a wetsuit since I would roast in my thick, custom, cold-water wetsuit.  I went to a couple Monterey shops with the intent to buy local, but the selection was fairly limited since 3 mm suits are not in high demand here with our cold, upwelled waters.  I ended up buying a Pinnacles Tempo 3 mm Large/Short online.  The advantage to buying online was the wide range of sizes.  Pinnacles makes 17 different size wetsuits for men.  I was pleased with both the quality and how well it fit. While it is a great suit, it is quite a departure from my plain, black, cold-water suit.  It has lots of color accents that, as several reviewers of the suit mentioned, make you look like a superhero.

"The Research Plan" -- what I am going to be doing on Palmyra

While I have been preoccupied learning about Palmrya and refining my packing list, I wanted report on the purpose of my trip.  Here is slightly edited version of the description Doug sent me of our research goals:

The primary goal of the trip is to get recruitment tiles in place on the forereef for a new experiment that is aimed at investigating how the microengineering influence of parrotfish affects rates of coral recruitment and coral survival. We have 180 tiles that have been cast with "bites" made to simulate the bites of the two largest parrotfish at Palmyra: Steephead parrotfish (Chlorurus microrhinos) and Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum).

Photo by Richard Ling of Steephead parrotfish asleep in nighttime coloration 

Photo by Richard Ling of two Bumphead parrotfish 
The tiles have about even coverage of bites and flat surface area. We will be caging half of the tiles to prevent the large parrots from accessing the tiles. We are hypothesizing that coral recruits will prefer to settle in the bite scars created by these parrotfish because 1) they provide small physical refuges from benthic scouring herbivores 2) they will do better once settled in these scars and 3) the advantage conferred by the divots will be muted in the cage treatment. The trick is going to be getting enough recruits on the tiles to rigorously test these hypotheses. With that in mind we are attaching 180 tiles across three sites. Half will be in cages and half will be uncaged. We actually need to start by building the cages first thing when we get to Palmyra. We will be using 5x5 cm plastic construction fencing to build the cages. When we get enough cages ready for deployment at our first site (30), then we will get out on the offshore boat to install these on the forereef. Rates of recruitment are highest on the forereef, hence our choice of this part of the reef. We need to drill a guide hole in the reef with a pneumatic drill and then anchor the plates using a screw into a socket that seats in the hole.

The second mission of the trip will be to get some more shark tags out. We have been working with Giulio de Leo, Fio Micheli, The Nature Conservancy and others on a project to try to estimate the population size of the two major species of reef sharks at Palmyra – the grey reef and blacktip reef shark. We are using standard numbered marking tags to work on the population size science and this will be a work in progress for the next two years. We are also using SPOT tags to try measure long-range movement of grey reefs between atolls. We put out 8 SPOT tags in May and we will put out 3 this trip.

I’m not sure how long the installation of the tiles will take. If that goes quickly that will give us more time for the shark work. I’m hoping we won’t need more than a day or two for the shark work. If the weather/boat gods aren’t with us, then we may need to save the shark work for a future trip.  If we are way ahead of schedule and get tiles and SPOT tags out then there are a half dozen side projects that have been simmering away that we can do more to help into maturity. We are only allowed out on the boats from 8-6ish, but we can do all we can do with that daylight. We will probably try to build cages afterhours until we get caught up – I don’t think/hope it will take too long to make 90.

It should be a fun 3+ weeks. We will be on island with teams from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UC Santa Barbara  - all good guys.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Background on who invited me to dive on Palmyra

I know when I tell people I am going to spend a month on the Palmra Atoll they envision me making a couple dives and then sitting back and sipping Mai Tais as I watch the sun set in paradise.  While I expect to have a great time and enjoy some phenomenal diving on a pristine coral reef, this is going to be work.  Weather permitting, I will be doing three to four dives a day.  Much of the diving will involve drilling into dead coral to install bolts for holding settlement plates.  The goal is to install 180 tiles.  That is a lot of plates, and I understand the vibration from the drilling attracts sharks that are numerous.  Also, while Palmyra is a tropical "wet" rainforest, it is a "dry" atoll -- no booze served.

Doug McCauley is leading our team of three.  I first met Doug when he was interviewing for the Ph.D. program at Hopkins Marine Station back in 2005.  Over the next six years I would bump into Doug at Hopkins in between his forays into the field. When he wasn't on Palmyra he was often in Africa.  I remember receiving an email from Doug when he was having a problem downloading a journal article.  He was in the throes of writing his dissertation and explained that he was sitting on a porch with his laptop and a pile of rocks next to his chair that he used to throw at the baboons if they got too close.  I am glad to be going on this adventure with someone with experience working in remote, exotic locations.

After completing his Ph.D at Hopkins, Doug took a postdoc at UC Berkeley.  This spring he will be joining the faculty at UC Santa Barbara.  He is a bit camera shy. Photo directories often have a fish photo or some other placeholder for Doug's face.  I have also seen photos of him on a web pages that later mysteriously disappeared.  He did capitulate when he created a nice set of personal web page for competing in today's job market.  Below is a photo found on those web pages, so hopefully he won't make me take it down.  He has some great photos and descriptions of research programs. You can check it out at:

May 27, 2015 UPDATE:

As I prepare for my third field season on Palmyra and look back at my old blog entries, I discovered the link and photo I had posted here were dead.   Since Doug is now a full-fledged tenure track faculty at UCSB, his web pages have moved to:

Also he is no longer able to hide from the camera, so it is much easier to find photos of him online.  Here is the original one I posted back when I made this blog entry.  This time I actually uploaded the image instead of just pointing to a URL that might change again.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Birds on Palmyra

I found a bird check list for Palmyra at:

It differs slightly from the list of birds from the Environmental Impact Report for the rat eradication project.

I am not a birder, but given there are only about a dozen species of birds on Palmyra Atoll, I think I should be able to learn how to recognize the ones I am likely to encounter.  The bird numbers will be relatively low when I am there since some of the birds nest and raise their young up in the Arctic during the summer months. I am still expecting a large number of birds.  One of the students on the Stanford@SEA trip commented how quiet it was after they left Palmrya and visited some of the other Line Islands that had more humans and fewer birds.

There are at least eight species of birds that probably nested on the island before the introduction of rats when the military occupied the atoll during WWII.  Now that the rats are gone, the hope is that some of these indigenous bird species will be repatriated. Maybe I can be the first to document the return of one of these species to Palmyra.

I am anxious to have photos to share, so to wet your appetite, here are a couple pictures I took of red-footed boobies when I was on Namenalala Island, Fiji.  Palmyra is home to around 5,000 breeding pairs of red-footed boobies.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Learning about Palmyra Atoll

I have been reading the blog entries written by the Stanford@SEA students and know that my writing is not going to be nearly as eloquent.  This group just returned after sailing the 2,000+ miles round trip from Honolulu to Palmyra Atoll.  They spent a week in the Palmyra lagoon and also visited the neighboring Line Islands -- Kiribati (Christmas) Island and Fanning Island.  Check out their blog at:

It took them about 9 days to make the sail to Palmyra, but for me it will be a 3 to 4 hour charter flight to a 5,000 foot unpaved dirt/packed coral runway.  You can vicariously experience the approach and landing at:

No photos yet.  Hopefully they will be plentiful once my trip has started in mid July.  In the meantime, the librarian in me is trying to find out as much as I can about the Atoll. I had a head start since I had already collected journal articles, bird check lists, nautical charts, etc. to support the Stanford@SEA students as they prepared for their trip.  But I am going to have a different experience since I will be living on land and not aboard a ship.  I also will be there a lot longer -- almost 4 weeks.  There were lots of practical questions such as "Is there a rainy season?" and "What is the food like?".  I had visions of it being like a season on the reality TV show Survivor where I am eating raw fish and insect larvae.  Given the fact that the general public has very little opportunity to visit Palmyra, it is no surprise that there is not a lot of information to be found on the web.  There are no Trip Advisor or Yelp reviews to read. Unless you are a scientist or a major donor to the Nature Conservancy (who bought the island in 2000), you are not going to get to visit there without motoring or sailing 1,000 miles after making a reservation for one of the two spots they allow ships to use in the lagoon. Fortunately, there is a cadre of students at Hopkins who have spent time on Palmyra and can answer most of my questions.  I was assured that I would be very well fed and that while fish was on the menu, it did not dominate it.  Because this is a National Wildlife Refuge, there is a weekly quota on fish that can be taken.  The fishing must take place outside the reef, and only a handful of non-resident species can be taken. These are pelagic species that are just passing through such at tuna and dolphin fish (Mahi mahi).

Below are a few web links I found useful.  The Wikipedia entry is pretty good.  I also found a series of stories by a reporter from NPR to be very informative as far as practical information like they have flush toilets!  Another surprising source of information was the Environmental Impact Report that was written as part of the rat eradication project done a few years ago.  Rats arrived with the Navy during Word War II and were having a significant impact on the nesting sea birds by eating their eggs.  I am told the project was a success.