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2006/ Day 10
Experiences on the Edge of the Universe
By Paulo Maurin, University of Hawai`i
Paulo Maurin carefully restraining a Laysan Albatross chick, while
State of Hawai`i Wildlife and Forestry worker (behind) bands the
leg. Photo: Ellyn Tong
Aboard the NOAA ship Hi`ialakai, we have reached Kure Atoll, the last anchor of the long
chain of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Kure Atoll is also the northernmost atoll in the world. Its
land area, Green Island, is best described as a bird nest of 320 acres. It has ten thousand Laysan
Albatross chicks raised every year, and with their parents and non-breeding adults, can altogether
number 50,000. When we add other species (Boobies, Tropic Birds, Terns, Petrels and Frigate birds,
among others), we can find over a quarter of a million birds.
We banded 93 of them. Being a member of the education team, we have been snorkeling on what feels are the
waters at the edge of the universe – far from anything and everything, clear, and full. And for two
blissful days, we were invited to visit Green Island, managed by the State of Hawai`i’s Forestry and
Wildlife Division. This terrestrial excursion was engraved on our memories. The grandiosity of the
experience was only matched by the amount of preparation for this visit. Kure is the farthest of all
of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from the Main Hawaiian Islands, and it took us six days of
transit to get there. To avoid introducing invasive species, there is a set biological protocol that
visitors need to abide by: footwear needs to be brand-new, all clothing item needs to be put in a bag,
frozen for 48 hours, and then sealed in a container.
Our two-day visit was full of activity: we first helped digging a hole in the
ground, which has to be
several feet deep to reach the atoll’s water lens. This is set to become a small
pond, which could be used for future relocation of the Laysan Duck to create
a third wild population of this endemic species.
We also banded Laysan Albatross, a docile sea bird with an 6-foot long wingspan.
We helped clear an invasive species of shrubs, verbicina, a shrub with yellow
flowers not unlike a small sunflower, but
which provides very poor habitat for nesting birds. Verbicina displaces the
native naupaka shrub, which provides adequate shade beneath its spacious
for the albatross, and has small
branches strong enough for other birds (such as terns) to nest on top.
We cleared a very small area, while much of the inner part of the atoll remains
completely covered by verbicina. The open spaces were
quickly used by the nearby albatross as a landing and take off area, since these
large birds need a runway
to perform both maneuvers safely.
Standing watch, over the lagoon (note the albatross in the foreground).
Photo: Paulo Maurin
We went on a dolphin count, armed with binoculars, cameras with powerful zoom,
notebooks, and a depth measuring device. Between the five of us, we counted
a grand total of zero dolphins. That’s a typical day of
field biology, since the behavior of wild animals tends to be intrinsically unpredictable.
Among the scientists at work was Heather Eijzenga, another graduate student
from the University of Hawai`i
monitoring seabirds and vegetation on the island.
Not all is untouched by us, however far we are from civilization. A somber moment
came when we performed a necropsy on a Laysan Albatross chick that had died
hours earlier. Its stomach was basically a trash
can, full of plastic rubbish. A plastic piece had punctured its stomach and
caused the bird to die a painful death. Every now and then you could also
see young chicks, obviously unhealthy, with “droppey
wings,” wings that are deformed and hang low on young birds’ frame, possibly
a result of lead ingestion from the paint of an old tower installed on the island.
Even though the tower has been long-ago defunct, the paint
still affects the ecosystem decades later.
A magnificent sunset is enjoyed by all Kure residents. Photo: Paulo Maurin
theory tells us that to produce separate species all nature needs is time
and isolation. Living at this edge of the universe, for extended periods
of time, has created its own human culture
too. Its spartan facilities are not for everyone: there is no running water,
all power is solar-generated, a toilet out in the open (and you are asked
to burn any tissue used, to reduce the volume of waste!).
Even though it’s inhabited by only a few people (less than 10) and only during
the summer, there are traits of the Kurean people that would be odd elsewhere:
on the wall of the main quarters, they have
taped a list titled “You Know You Are in Kure If…” which includes: “if you stay
inside on a clear day, and go out to work if it’s raining,” and “you ask someone
to do a shark-watch while you swim in the lagoon.” Another trait common to
the Kureans I met: hard workers, passionate about the work that they do, and
in love with the place where they live. After only two short days as their guest,
sense why its World War II monument declares that “You may leave Kure, but
Kure will never leave you.”