Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Terrestrial work & snorkeling today

No photos today.  It is almost midnight and we just finished building the last of the caged tiles.   Today we did some more terrestrial surveys on Eastern Island.   Before that we got to snorkel off North Barrens.  We were looking for evidence of parrot fish divots and newly settled corals.  More on that later.  I need to get to bed, so I will elaborate more on this later.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Animals you see when wading across the sand flats

Today was another day of 4 dives. We dove on the third and final site for tile placement. Doug finished drilling two of the transects and almost finished the third.  We made great progress, so there was no time for photos. I did have a very large manta ray swim by when I looked up for a second. I had a blacktip reef shark come straight at me as we were descending on one of my dives, but it turned away as soon as I exhaled.

Tomorrow we aren't diving since the Scripps group needs to use the boat. Instead we will do another terrestrial day. There will be more hiking across long stretches of shallow water where you can encounter all sorts of marine life. Here is Doug heading toward Eastern Island.  I am hanging back trying to snap a few photos of the wildlife around my ankles. Notice all the red-footed boobies flying around.

Here are some examples of what you see.

baby blacktip reef shark
Carcharhinus melanopterus

This was actually taken when the tide was high enough to get to the island by boat.  All my attempts to photograph the baby blacktips while wading in the water have failed. They are all over the place, but they are very skittish.

spotted eagle ray
Aetobatus narinari

 I wish this eagle ray had come closer.

moray eel
Gymnothorax sp.

There were lots of morays in the water on the hike to Eastern Island.

red-clawed fiddler crabs
Uca tetragonon

We were greeted by thousands of fiddler crabs as we approached the shore of Kaula Island. Below is a closeup of one of the fiddler crabs. Doug let me take a few extra minutes to get out my terrestrial camera to get a better shot.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Making progress on project

This will have to be short. I am tired after doing four dives and then helping prepare 40 tiles and cages for tomorrow's diving after we ate a delicious dinner. Today we finished installing 40 settlement tiles, so we now have 80 out of the 180 done. We also completed most of the underwater prep work for two more transections. If the weather holds and the underwater drill continues to function, we should be able to complete the task before it is time to leave.

Here is a photo of what the tiles look like once they are installed. A thing of beauty.

During today's dives I saw a sea turtle and a manta ray. I also saw my first gray reef shark. It was one that had already been tagged. I was working when they swam by, so no photos.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Scientists don't rest on Sunday

While the staff had off today, we kept working. We started by doing some prep work for our diving that resumes on Monday. Here you see the bottom of the settlement tiles which I have labelled with numbers and also etched the number into the tile. You also can see how we stack them on a metal rod to carry around under water. They go on top of the plastic white base plate with a matching number both written and etched.

I also thought you should see the underwater pneumatic drill that is our critical piece of equipment.  Pounding the holes in by hand is just not practical when you need to do 180 of them.

Since no one was cooking for us, we could eat an early lunch and get in a long afternoon of terrestrial work, counting and measuring coconut palm trees on three more of the islands. We started on Paradise Island, then went to Kaula Island, and finished on Eastern Island.  There are huge areas that are either exposed at low tide or less than knee high. This means we have to anchor the boat on the edge of the shallow water and hike across VERY long stretches water that is about knee deep. I threw in this photo to try to give you a sense of distance. You will have to click on the image to get a larger view. If you look closely you can pick Doug out.  Go from the left until the island ends and there is open water until the next small island that starts around the center of the photo. A little bit to the right of center in the gap between the islands is a dot that is just down from the water horizon. That is Doug. There is another dot half way between him and the center island which is our boat. I am taking this photo about half way between Doug and the shore where Francesco is waiting for us.

As we walk through the shallows you get to see lots of interesting marine life.  I have some photos to share but they will have to wait for another day.

Some more local terrestrial critters

Here are a few photos of the local terrestrial crabs.

Coconut crab with my flip-flop

Hermit crab

Two yet to be identified crabs

A view of some of the Palmyra Atoll facilities

Despite being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about as far from civilization as you can get geographically, we have quite nice facilities. Here is a picture of the all important "out house" with four flush toilets. The fact I wasn't going to have to use a pit toilet made the decision to come even easier.

The other very important building is the Galley. This is a combination dining area (in front with the view) and kitchen. Katie is the chief cook and Robin is the second in command and also does our laundry for us.

Here is what my cabin looks like on the inside. There is a second bed on the other side of the armoire and a number of hooks on the walls at the foot of the bed for hanging gear.  Small, but more than adequate, especially for me since I have the cabin to myself.  One of the perks of being the most senior scientist -- that is senior in terms of age.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Another full day of diving

The day started out with a beautiful sunrise.

After breakfast we loaded the boat with 15 SCUBA tanks and headed out to our first site (FR9). Lots of installation of settlement plates on the first dive, and the rest of the dives were spend drilling holes and prepping them for plate installation on Monday.  No diving on Sunday since the staff gets the day off, including the skipper of the boat we use. We also don't have our daily laundry service or food service. Don't worry, we don't starve. There are tons of leftovers for us to grab on our own.

Here is a photo showing the transect line and two holes that are drilled, epoxied, and marked so they can have settlement plates installed on our next trip out. They have pink flagging attached so we can spot them easily on our return.

During one of our surface intervals between dives, we were surrounded by a large pod of melon-headed whales. They were tricky to photograph, but here is one that is OK.

Melon-headed whales
Peponocephala electra

And here is just a pretty picture of a small fish. Still not much time for underwater photographs, but I am starting to take my camera with me just in case there is a short break in the task at hand.

ringtail wrasse
Oxycheilinus unifasciatus

Friday, July 26, 2013

Underwater photos at last

Long, but successful day. The underwater drill is now working. This makes things go a lot faster. We completed one transect line installing 10 settlement tiles with cages and another set of 10 without cages. We also got a second transect line ready to install another 20 plates. The holes are drilled and the screw anchors epoxied into the dead coral. We go out again tomorrow for 4 more dives. The first dive we will install 20 plates on the second transect. We will then move to a new area and will spend the next three dives drilling holes and installing anchors for the screws that hold the plates.

I think I caught Doug by surprise when I whipped out my camera on the last dive of the day. I had brought it along hoping to take a few photos while we were doing our mandatory safety stop. For you non-divers, we have to come up to between 10 to 20 feet below the surface and hang out for three to five minutes to rid our bodies of some of the nitrogen our tissues absorbed under pressure. This is to prevent "the bends".

This is a new camera and it was late in the day so the sun was not great for wide angle photography. Normally I wouldn't post two of these, but I wanted to finally show some marine life. Hopefully I will have better photos so share soon.

This first shot was taken looking down at the bottom which is probably 40 to 45 feet deep. I was probably 30 feet above the bottom when I took the picture. The colors are terrible, but you can get a sense of how much coral covers the bottom. Gareth, a Scripps graduate student, has a phenomenal photo of the bottom covering a huge area. Hundreds of photos were taken with custom designed dual SLR camera rig with lasers to measure distance.  A computer is then used to stitch the photos together.  I am hoping to get a copy of the image.

The second shot is of Doug holding the extra SCUBA tank and underwater pneumatic drill while hanging out for his safety stop.

Finally, here is a photo of a blacktip reef shark. I had some come very close, but naturally not when I had my camera out and ready. I am not sure if that is Francesco's or Doug's fin in the picture messing up my shot. Be sure to click on the image to enlarge. I should have plenty more opportunities to photograph sharks on this trip.

blacktip reef shark
Carcharhinus melanopterus

The other cool thing we saw today were manta rays. They were cruising around the boat dock as the sun was going down.  Unfortunately I didn't get any decent photos.

Sunday the staff has the day off including the shippers who take us out to our study sites.  I am not sure what this means as far as meals, but I will find out soon enough.  This means we will have another day of terrestrial work. This time I plan to make sure I have my own booties.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Terrestrial Day with Coconuts

It is getting near midnight and I need to get to bed since we are doing four dives tomorrow. I have so many interesting stories to tell, but I will have to limit myself.

Today we didn't have use of the dive boat as one of the other dive teams needed it. In the morning we did a lot of prep work on the settlement plates we are putting out. In the afternoon we got to go to Holei Island to do some transects measuring plants. This is work Doug's wife, Hillary, is doing. Below is a photo of Doug along the transect which was entirely coconut trees. There were no native trees to be found at this site.

When we left the dock it was overcast and the lagoon was littered with floating coconuts as shown below.  No wonder they are so successful propagating across tropic islands. You need to click on this photo to get the larger view. All those dark dots on the water are coconuts.

The one story from today's adventure that will be remembered is the fact that I picked up the wrong set of dive booties. I didn't discover this until we were at our site. They look just like mine except they were size 6 and I wear size 9. I managed to squeeze in them, but it was painful to walk. I hiked to the first site and recorded data, but Doug let me off the hook for the hike to the second site. He and Francesco were able to do it without me. I sat on the beach and took photos, which I really enjoyed.  Below is one of the endangered bristle-thighed curlew.

Bristle-thighed curlew
Numenius tahitiensis

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Today we were diving from dawn to dusk. After breakfast we left as soon as we could get the boat loaded with 12 tanks and all our gear. We returned barely in time to clean up before dinner was served. We did four dives. Here is a photo I took in the channel on our way out of the lagoon.

This time I saw a small school of bottle nose dolphins and a black tip reef shark. Of course there are lots of beautiful fish that I can't ID yet. Things are going slower than Doug would like, so I am concentrating on the the tasks assigned. Once Doug feels comfortable that we will get all 180 plates installed, I will start taking along my camera. Since I don't have any underwater animals to show, here is a photo of a terrestrial crab whose burrow is right outside my cabin.

Below is a shot of the fuel tanks and the generator building. Note how the building has been decorated. Flip-flops are standard footgear, so you might imagine that some break and get left behind.  They are now art.

My Home for a Month

I think I might have figured out how to fix the date and time so it is on Palmyra time instead of California time.

Here is a picture of my cabin.  I am in number 4, and as the "senior" member of the team, I have the cabin to myself.  What luxury!  Doug and Francesco are sharing the cabin next to me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First day of diving & first day with sunshine

Busy day today. We made cages in the morning and then went diving in the afternoon. The first dive had lots of problems. I was underweight. I have my weight worked out for my cold water wetsuit, but didn't know how much I needed for my new 3 mm surf suit. I had 18 lbs, but added 6 more pounds for the second dive. The regulator they signed out to me had a number of problems. The nubs that you bite on to hold the regulator in your mouth were bitten off. This made it a bit of a challenge to hold onto it with my teeth. It has a slow leak around the hose that is used to fill the BC. Nothing to serious, but it meant I went through my air a bit faster. The dive computer also didn't turn itself on when I entered the water like it is suppose to do. I had my old Skinny Dipper computer as a backup, so I was OK. There was a spare regulator on the boat, so I swapped out, and the second dive went very well for me. However, it did not go well for Doug since the pneumatic drill was not working despite having tested it before we went out.

Tonight Doug is working to see if he can repair the drill. Francesco and I will be building more cages to cover the settlement plates.

The sun finally came out this afternoon. Below is the post-dinner sunset. I could kick myself because I took it from inside the dining hall. It is a screened in area, so you can see the screen. If I had taken it with my "terrestrial" camera, I would have noticed the screen and gone outside for the photos. I took it with my "underwater" camera which doesn't use a view finder, so I didn't notice the screen until I downloaded the photo and saw it on the big screen.  It is still beautiful.

The island experience

As shown on the welcome sign as you arrive, there are 19 of us here on Palmyra. If I am counting correctly, there is one US Fish and Wildlife Officer (Meg) and maybe six Nature Conservancy staff. There is the station manager (Perri), the cook (Katie), the assistant cook (Robin), the person in charge of diving and boats (Hank), the mechanic and all around handy man who can also skipper the boat (Chris), and I think one other person whose name and job I don't know. The rest of us are scientists, mostly graduates students or postdocs. The Scripps group of 5 came on the plane with the Stanford group. The group from Santa Barbara was already here, staying on after having already been here for several weeks.

The Zenobia is the boat that is used for going to the outer reef. Hank or Chris are the skippers. It is live boating since they do not want to anchor and damage the reef. We used this for today's afternoon dives. While I was busy dealing with my gear problems (first dive) and helping hold the extra tank for the pneumatic drill (second dive), I did manage to see a gray reef shark cruise by me just a few feet away.  He did not look hungry. My dive buddies saw several more sharks, but I missed them. I also saw a steephead parrot fish. Sorry no pictures. I didn't take my underwater camera with me on these first two dives as I wanted to concentrate on the new equipment, the new environment, and the tasks that Doug wanted me to do. Once things get more routine, I plan to take my camera and get some marine life photos.

Tonight I saw my first coconut crab. It wasn't an especially big one, but they are not that common on Copper Island. They  are much more plentiful on some of the other islands.

Note that I said tonight even though this will probably say it was posted on Wednesday, July 24. For some reason the bog still thinks I am in California. This means if I post something after 9 pm, it dates the posting for the next day.  So far I haven't been able to figure out how to fix this.

Local Fauna - Spiders

Did I mention it rains a lot in Palmyra?  I have yet to see the sun.

If we get enough cages built this morning, we may make our first dive this afternoon.

I keep seeing lots of land crabs, but never when I have my camera with me.  In the mean time, here is a photo of one of the local spiders with Francesco's finger tip in the picture for perspective.  I found one of these in my cabin last night.  It got away before I could do a capture and release.

Cane spider
Heteropoda venatoria

Working into the night

Still working.  Here is a photo of Doug drilling holes in the mounting plates.

The next two are especially for Fio Micheli since she said she needed more photos of the actual settlement plates.  Here is one of the specially made plate that simulates the divots made by parrot fish in the coral substrate.

Here is what the settlement plate looks like after it has been mounted and caged. Half the plates we put down will be caged like this and the other half will be left uncaged.

First day wet and dirty

It rained three times since we arrived.  I was caught without my rain jacket, so just got soaked.  I spend most of the day recovering mesh that has been used previously.  We will be using it to make cages for half the plates we will be putting out.  Even though there were rolls of un-used green mesh, we decided the orange mesh would be easier to use because it had wider openings.  We also preferred the wider openings so it could let larger fish in while still keeping out the large parrot fish.  Below I am holding a piece of the recovered mesh.  For you Cyamus and IAMSLIC members, notice the t-shirt I am wearing.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Arrived safely in Palmyra

Cabin of the Gulf Stream II

The cabin of the plane was very nice.  There were 12 of us on the flight not counting the pilot and co-pilot.  There was seating for 13.  Leather seats that can move forward or backward, lots of wood appointments, a spacious bathroom, plus many other amenities that I could get used to very easily.

We arrived safely on Palmyra Atoll.  There was a very low cloud layer so no good aerial photos as we landed.  Even after we landed, the air was so humid my camera lense kept fogging up.

As the "senior" member of the team, I was given my own cabin.  Sweet.  It has a view of the lagoon which is only a few feet from my front steps.  I just have to be careful and immediately turn to my right or left when I leave it at night.  Otherwise I will end up in the ocean.

I just had a delicious lunch.  I am off to watch the plane take off for Honolulu.  After that there is an orientation before Doug puts us to work making cages for the settlement plates.

More pictures later.

At Bradley Pacific Aviation in Honolulu

We arrived early and are in the airport lounge as I write this.  There is coffee, juice, and cookies.  Below is a photo of Doug and Francesco in the lounge discussing a paper they said they want to finish before they return from Palmyra.  We will see.

Here is a picture of them moving our gear to load on the plane.  Some of the food is on the far right.  My two bags are on the ground in the center.  The yellow bin is Doug's, and the red bag still on the trolley is Franeesco's.  Most of Doug's very heavy research materials were taken down this spring on the SSV Robert C. Seamans by the Stanford@SEA class.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Arrived in Honolulu with no problems

I breezed through security at the San Francisco airport without TSA opening any of my bags.  I thought for sure they would question the SPOT tags when they saw them in their scanner.   Doug's flight from Boston was late so Francesco and I wondered if he was going to make the flight.  As a VERY frequent flyer (having just returned from Africa), Doug was bumped up to First Class on both flights.  This allowed him to be first off the plane when it landed at SFO and then pass by us in line to board the Hawaii flight since we were in Group 5, the very last group to board.

Everyone's bags arrives safely, and we were met at the airport by a librarian colleague of mine, Dave Coleman.  What is amazing is we were able to fit all our bags into his Prius.  There were four of us in the car along our gear for the month.   Check out Doug's bin in the photo below.  My shoe is in the photo for perspective.  Fortunately, I had prior experience packing a Prius.  The fact the back seats fold down separately and not evenly is a great design feature.  You can lower the seat on the left while still having the middle and right seat available for passengers.

After dropping our bags at our hotel, we went out to a late lunch or an early dinner depending on whether you are on Hawaii time or California time.

We have an early start tomorrow.  A cab picks us up at 6:15 am which should give us plenty of time to get to the airport by 7:15 am.  We then have our bags weighed before doing a bit of waiting before we take off on our two and a half hour flight to Palmyra.

Since we catch our cab before most restaurants are open for breakfast, I am off to buy some food to eat in our room tomorrow morning before we depart.  I am not expecting any food at the regional airport, and no food is served on board the plane.  We should arrive at Palmyra in time for lunch.

Friday, July 19, 2013

More on the Palmyra Atoll Airstrip

The photos below are from a web site titled "Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Western Pacific Islands".  The section on Palmyra Atoll is the second entry, so you have to scroll down.  There you will find a dozen photos and maps of the airstrip.  Be sure to click on the images to view them full-size.

An August 1, 2005 aerial view of Palmyra showed the single remaining runway on Cooper Island.
Only a small northwest portion of the northwest/southeast runway remained recognizable.

An August 1, 2005 aerial view looking northeast along the single remaining runway on Cooper Island.

An undated (1980-2009) photo of the remains of Lodestar N163R off the southwest end of the Palmyra runway.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Packing for Palmyra - Part 2

You knew this blog entry was coming, right?  The Part 1 that I posted the end of last month should have been a clue.

I finally did a practice pack tonight.  Here is a picture of all the stuff I am trying to take with me.

Almost everything is there except the camera since I am using it to take the photo.  Also missing are several t-shirts that were being washed.  I am little over my weight limit, so I am going to have to eliminate some things.  The problem is most of this stuff doesn't weight a lot individually except for the computer and cameras, both of which I don't want to leave behind.  So getting rid of a few pounds means removing lots of little things.

The box on the bottom left won't be going -- just its contents.  It contains three SPOT tags we will be attaching to gray reef sharks.  SPOT stands for "Smart Position Or Temperature Transmitting" tag.  I had planned to post a nice photo of one, but they were very well sealed in bubble wrap and I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize their safe arrival on Palmyra.  The 3 tags cost over $5,000!  These are fin mounted versions of the tags produced by Wildlife Computers.

Two of the SPOT tags in bubble wrap

Give their value and also the fact that they have lithium batteries, they have to be taken as carry-on.  I am concerned that TSA is going to look at them and think "detonation devices", so I am bringing along the purchase invoice, a printout from the manufacturer's web page, etc.  Between these tags and all the other odd stuff I am bringing, I am expect to have TSA paw through all my carefully packed gear when I go through airport security.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Weather & Tides on Palmyra Atoll

No picture today.  I wanted to provide a link so you can follow the weather I will be experiencing on Palmyra Atoll.  It rains a LOT.  I am hoping I get a few sunny days when I can take photos with my non-waterproof "terrestrial" camera.  This link gives the rain, temperature, tides, wave height, swell period, wind speed and direction.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Coral ID Guide for Palmyra Atoll

Brain Coral 
Platygyra lamellina

One of the other scientist that will be on the flight to Palmyra with me is Gareth Williams, a postdoc in the Sandin lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  He has put together a coral ID guide for Palmyra.  You can check it out at:

I took the above photo in 2008 diving off Namenalala Island, Fiji.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Video of takeoff from Palmyra Atoll airstrip

In my initial blog entry I provided a link to a video of plane landing on the Palmyra airstrip.  Here is one of the takeoff.  This one is much more interesting as the plane banks around and you get a good look at the research station where I will be living and working.  You also get a sense of how small the island is.  My marine librarian colleagues at IAMSLIC will tell you how I like to go on long "death marches" when I visit new places.  It is going to be a bit of a challenge to do one here given how small the island is.