Sunday, February 12, 2006

Swains Island

11 05S x 171 04W Due to weather considerations around Tutuila, we decided to steam 200 miles north to Swains Island in the hope of better weather. Our hopes have been rewarded and we have seen sun for the first time in a week.

Swains is INCREDIBLE!!!!!!! The best visibility we have had so far. It is INCREDIBLE!!! Did I say that? The island itself is about 8 miles in circumference, is ringed in white sand, and is almost completely covered with coconut palms. An idyllic South Pacific tropical paradise!!! The current population of the island ... 5!

Underwater was just as amazing! We are at the end of 200 foot tow lines and 60 feet underwater and I could see the propellers on the towboat!!! Visibity was near 175 feet!!! Not a whole lot of big fish aside from a school of about 1000 rainbow runners, 100 barracuda, and 4 huge Napoleon wrasse! Coral cover was very high and numerous schools of smaller fish made the dive memorable to say the least. That and the fact that, now being in the southern summer, water temperatures have jumped to 84 degrees. It's nice not having to wear 2 wetsuits just to stay warm :-)

Well, that's all for now. Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Rain, rain, go away

It has rained nonstop since we arrived in Pago Pago and gives no indication of stopping. Samoa seems to be sitting in an unusually stable tropical trough which has resulted in almost nonstop rain for the past 2-3 weeks. I gather they have not seen rain like this since the late 1990s. Most of the streets are flooded and pot-holed and water is running everywhere.

We have still managed to get out and see some of the area and I joined Kyle and Ron on an excursion to the east side of the island where they wanted to surf. The waves looked pretty nice and sitting on the beach in the rain wasn't too bad at all.

Last night we went to Tisa's, one of our favorite places, for a traditional Polynesian dinner. We had turkey, chicken, fish, freshwater prawns, pork, banana, squash, papaya, and countless other delectables all served on a long table and eaten with your fingers from palm frond plates. It was spectacular! The next morning I am still full!

For the past few days we have been looking at the weather and trying to decide on a course of action for the next leg of the cruise. Our initial plan has been to work around Tutuila but with the weather, I think we may be heading up to Swains Island instead. Current surface analysis suggests Swains may be on the north side of the trough with north winds 5-15kt and waves 5 feet or less.

It has been nice to see Tutuila and I gather the diving is pretty good, but I will admit to not being disappointed to be able to see Swains. Another small island not too many people get to visit. I hope for good weather.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Pago Pago

We have been in Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango) for 3 days now and have started to get the lay of the land. It has been raining here for 3 weeks straight so things are mighty drenched and the semi-paved roads are riddled with potholes to say the least.

Pago Pago is the main port in American Samoa, is home to the Star Kist tuna cannery, and is the main village on the island of Tutuila. Tutuila is home to approximately 60,000 people most of whom live in or around Pago Pago. The town itself is a myriad of tin-roofed two story buildings filling the narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains which rise jungle covered and steeply not several hundred yards from the beach. Many of these structures are white or any one of a number of vibrant Caribbean-style colors and serve as home and shop for their residents.

The rain has made exploring a bit of a chore, but we have found a few of the local hangouts and were actually able to catch the Super Bowl at a small bar/hotel in the center of town. Not that I am much of the football fan, but it was fun to hit the dock and head into town for some much needed revelry. Shortly after the game we headed out and along the coast to Tisa's, a quintessential open air Pacific island Tiki Bar sitting on the beach overlooking a small bay. Discovered by some of our scientists and crew during expeditions past, Tisa's has become a mandatory point of call for all future arrivals. Generally we are the only ones there, spending the afternoons snorkeling in the bay and the evenings relaxing with homemade Pina Coladas or Vilemas, the local lager. We are excited for tomorrow, for each Wednesday they put on an all you can eat feast on the beach with pig, lamb, fish, breadfruit, coconut, papaya, and many more delicacies all roasted in traditional fire pits on the beach.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Samoa Bound

It has been a few days since I have written, but suffice it to say that we have crossed the equator and are bound for Samoa. The islands of Howland and Baker were spectacular and some of the best diving I have done. The anemones and clown fish around Baker were particularly touching (the photo shows an anemonefish (Amphiprion chrysopterus)).

Crossing the equator on a ship brings with it certain ceremonies and rites of passage through which we have been passing the past few days. Thus, my email absence. Crossing into the Realm of King Neptune a Pollywog (me) becomes a Shellback, but not before passing a number of tests.

The ceremony of crossing the line is an initiation rite in the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, and other navies which commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the equator. Originally the tradition was created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Sailors who have already crossed the equator are nicknamed (Trusty) Shellbacks, often referred to as Sons of Neptune; those who have not are nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs. "King Neptune and his court" (usually including his first assistant Davy Jones and her Highness Amphitrite and often various dignitaries, who are all represented by the highest ranking seamen) officiate at the ceremony, during which the Pollywogs undergo a number of increasingly disgusting ordeals, largely for the entertainment of the Shellbacks. Once the ceremony is complete, a Pollywog receives a certificate declaring his new status. Another common status is the Golden shellback, a person who has crossed the equator at the 180th meridian (international date line) From Wikipedia

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Wall

While tiring, our first dive today was probably one of my best tows EVER. The water was clear and the west side of Howland island is as steep a wall as I have ever seen! We were litterally closer to shore than we were to the bottom. We dropped in deep and then towed in to the wall so as to keep the boat from going ashore. On the way in, while we were still in deep water, we towed past a school of 20-25 scalloped hammerhead sharks. REALLY amazing. They were just hanging there, barely moving, and paid us no attention at all. All the rest of the tow there were huge fish everywhere. We saw 3 Naploeon wrasse the largest of which was about 5 feet long. The crowning glory, however, was when 12 Dogtooth Tuna swam into the transect. I ACTUALLY GOT TO PUT TUNA ON MY DATA SHEET!!! :-)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

10 Degrees North

09 31N x 172 32W The transit is going well and we have just passed 10 degrees north latitude. This will be the furthest south I have yet been. Exciting. I am looking forward to the next two islands and to the Samoan summer after we cross the equator in a few days time.

As a lowly polliwog (one who has not yet crossed the equator) I have just been given my first `task' by the shellbacks (those who have crossed). The memorization of the Polliwog's Pledge begins the `ceremonies' associated with an equator crossing and the initiation into the realm of King Neptune and his Ancient Order of the Deep.

Change of Plans

16 41N x 169 28W Having finished most of what we set out to accomplish at Johnston Atoll, we have decided to begin the transit to Howland and Baker. I must say, a break is a welcome change of pace. The weather the past two days has been blustery, wet, and dare I say ... cold. A strong east wind has been steady throughout the day and, deploying at the western end of the atoll each morning, has meant a daily pounding into the weather to get to our survey sites.

The last 2 days of diving have been interesting, but not the most spectacular. We have been surveying the central and southern portion of the open lagoon which, with the wind, has been pretty murky. Much of the area is dominated by sand and rubble with interweaving sections of dead coral reef covered with coralline algae and caulerpa, a green algae which looks like an inverted bunch of tiny green grapes. Our final dive was downright spooky. Visibility was between 5 and 10 meters and the area was all but devoid of animal life. We kept expecting something big to appear out of the gloom. Thankfully nothing did, but we were greeted by a school of 25-30 jacks as we neared the end of our survey. They trailed behind us for the last ten or so minutes, no doubt confused by our presence.

Howland and Baker Islands, situated just north of the equator, should be an interesting change. Both are strictly islands, without the classic atoll ring structure. As such, all of our diving will be on forereef and visibility and fish life should be excellent. The islands are both small and, while it took us 6 days to nearly cover Johnston Atoll, we are likely to make a complete trip around these islands in little more than a day for each.

The four days of transit will be a welcome chance to relax, sleep, and ready gear for the next leg of the mission. I have been feeling a cold coming on and it will be nice to hopefully get over most of it without having to dive in the mean time.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Lagoon at Johnston

16 46N x 169 29W A much better day of towboarding today. The weather cooperated a little more (aside from a few nasty squalls) and I seem to have picked better sites all in all. We had a few camera problems in the morning and so only got in 4 tows instead of 5, but 4 is better than none. I am still beat, but it is much nicer to be beat after a good day of towing than beat down after a bad one. No large fish today, but the coral was spectacular! We were towing along the inside of the reef in the lagoon, which is much more sheltered than the forereef. Some of the Acropora table corals were 6-8 feet across. It was wonderful. Visibility was good, it was pretty warm, much better. Hopefully the same will hold true for tomorrow...

Towboarding yesterday was crappy because it was windy, cold, and the visibility stunk. The morning was ok but then the wind started to kick up. We tried to tuck in around the south side of Johnston island after our mid-day switch-out, but the visibility was terrible. We had to abort the dive after less than 5 minutes. Then we decided to head further south where it was deeper and hopefully less murky. It was deeper, but also much more wavy. We went down and found it to be pretty murky at the bottom. That and, with the waves, our shoulders were almost being pulled out of their sockets! I had my board yanked out of my hands once. That's what we have the drag line for. I caught it quickly and was back on the board in less than a second. Then another gray reef shark came by. it really wasn't any more threatening that any of the others we have seen, but with the poor visibility and rough conditions, it made me a little less comfortable. I decided to abort the dive and we started to head for the surface. Just then we took a really hard jerk and the benthic tow line snapped. I quickly tied off the benthic line to my board and the boat spun around and pulled us in. All in all, not the greatest way to end the day. Today was a nice change. There were a few nasty squalls with driving rain, but the tows were all really nice. I am beat, but it is a good beat this time.

We have 3 more days at Johnston and then 4 days of transit to Howland where we will spend 2 days before going on to Baker. It will be nice to have a bit of a break, but I will have a lot of data sheets to enter, a video log to fill out for all of our tapes, and then my dissertation proposal to write. No rest for the weary.