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.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Johnston Forereef

16 43N x 169 21W We spent today out on the northern portion of the forereef of the atoll. It was pretty cool, but you can tell the area gets totally pounded in the winter. We must be hitting a really lucky calm spell. The weather and seas were spectacular today. About a 6 foot long period swell which was pretty nice and almost no wind. It was great. On our first dive we saw a number of gray reef and Galapagos sharks and a few spotted eagle rays. Other than that, the large fish population was conspicuously absent. Not quite sure why. Most of the bottom was coral pavement primarily composed of Acropora (table coral) skeletons that have been turned over by the waves. This seems to happen a lot here. There were a number of live table coral colonies as well, but not as many as I would have expected. The wave energy keeps the number down I suppose. Our later dives had even fewer large fish. There were still clouds and clusters of smaller fish, but again, not as many as I would have guessed.

Tomorrow we plan to continue around the eastern end of the atoll, exploring areas where we have not yet towed.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Johnston Atoll

16 39N x 169 33W It is now 9:30PM and I have litterally been running non-stop since 630 this morning. NUTS!!! I haven't had the time to train anyone on the stuff that I usually do, so now I am doing both that and all the "lead" stuff. Planning the next day, looking at the video, etc. Tomorrow I am going to try to deligate more. Otherwise I won't get ANY sleep for 5 weeks!

Johnston is amazing. We started out in the lagoon this morning and then moved ot the outer reef because conditions were so good. A light wind and small swell. Hopefully it will continue tomorrow so we can finish out the forereef.

The lagoon was cool. Shallow with lots of small patch reefs with table corals (Acropora) and crystal white sand. It was an absolute maze. We had to cut one two short because we got caught in a maze of reef with no way out :-) After lunch and our mid day tank switch we made our way to the south end of the forereef and started working our way northward. We dropped into 70 feet of water and were immediately greeted by two small gray reef sharks (about 3 feet) who followed us for much of the dive. Soon they were joined by their friends and shortly after we towed through as school of another 20 or so. They were all small and very docile (almost like little puppies following along behind). Before long they bored of us and we were left to ourselves. We saw little for the rest of the tow in terms of large fishes, but did see clouds of smaller ones along the ridges of the reef. It was wonderful. Not a whole lot of live coral on the forereef and you can tell it usually gets pounded in the winter. We had a good day!

The island itself is definitely tropical but not all that noteworthy so far. It is low and flat and dotted with stands of Australian pine. There is one large building tat looks like an assembly building or large storage unit and many small bunkers undoubtedly used for storage of some kind. It would have been neat to see it before it had been completely leveled and paved. Oh well.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Almost there

17 08N x 163 23W In a final push this evening I think we might actually have everything ready for tomorrow. We shall see. The seas are still pretty rough (ok, well, not really) but we still hope the wind will die down by morning. I gather there were 20-30 foot swells when the team was last here 2 years ago. We should get to Johnston about 1am and be ready to launch boats after the 730 dive meeting. I'm really excited to see what Johnston looks like under water. It would have been neat to see what it looked like before the Navy flattened it, too.

As far as opperations go, we will be launching the tow team to conduct the long range observations around the atoll, the REA team which will conduct more detailed surveys at a smaller number of sites, the oceanography team which will replace and install several oceanographic buoys and then conduct shallow water CTD casts and water sampling proceedures, and a terrestrial team who will camp on the island for 3 days surveying birds and land animals for the US Fish and Wildlife service.

I think I have finished up everything that needs doing tonight. The cameras are set, the GPS is loaded, the boat wiring is done, SeaBirds are set, the towboards are ready. Off to the rack...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Big Blue

18 52N x 164 02W Our second day out of sight of land has been a day filled with preparation. There is so much gear that needs to be preped for these cruises it almost boggles the mind. Video cameras, still cameras, housings, radios, GPS units, temperature/depth loggers, shoe boxes full of batteries. This morning I lead a dive safety meeting going over general dive operations and safety concerns. I spent part of the day working with Rocky, our recompression chamber operator, sending the "uninitiated" divers on training chamber dives simulating what would happen in an actual dive emergency.

The seas have been calm and the skies clear. A good trip so far and everything seems to be coming together. As lead towboarder it is a bit of a learning curve putting everything together, not forgetting anything and bringing everyone else up to speed. It is a little nerve-racking, but feels good at the same time. I know the first day of operations is going to be mayhem, but I am sure everything will come together. I hope I don't forget everything.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Heading South

20 38'N x 159 34'W Steaming south through calm seas the stars are burning like sparklers in the sky. We departed Pier 9 in Honolulu about 10:00 this morning and are on our way to Johnston Atoll, our first stop on our journey to the south pacific. Shortly after leaving the peir we started in on our safety drills. Fire. Abandon ship. Man overboard. We do these weekly to keep eveyone on thier toes. Tomorrow morning I'll be giving the opening dive safety briefing where we will go over our dive plans for the next week, safety, and the operation of our recompression chamber, something we hope never to use. We have two and a half days of transit before our seven days of diving at Johnston and will spend most of our time readying equipment, planning our time to be able to collect as much data as possible during our short stay at the island and watching the obligatory movie or two.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Getting Ready

We are in the final stages of preparation, getting the last of the equipment and making the ship ready to leave.