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You are here: /main/research expeditions/May 2006/Days 9-13 Johnston Atoll

Days 9-13, The long trek to Johnston Atoll
Afternoon of June 1, 2006
by Dr. Malia Rivera

The Sunset from French Frigate Shoals

The beautiful sunset bids aloha to the team as they depart French Frigate Shoals. Photo by Randy Kosaki.

We left beautiful French Frigate Shoals, its birds, the monk seals, and the turtles, on Monday night, and spent two solid rolling days heading south toward the lonely Johnston Atoll, some 500 nautical miles away. Johnston is considered the single most isolated atoll in the world, and has a dotted history of military presence ranging from being a strategic refueling site for the US Navy during WWII and the Korean War, a nuclear testing site during the 1960s, and finally as a chemical weapons and Agent Orange storage facility after the Vietnam War. Over the last several years, Johnston went from a population of approximately 1,200 people during its military deactivation and chemical clean up days, to absolutely none today. Indeed, as Hi‘ialakai neared along Johnston’s shores, we could see the recently deserted military buildings, feeling an eerie sense of desolation from afar.

Johnston Atoll abandoned buildings

Onland at Johnston, abandoned buildings from past military operations and chemical cleanup remain.

Through its checkered past and with help from management from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Johnston has remained a site with spectacular coral reefs. Military control of fishing at the atoll left an ecosystem high in fish and reef biomass. Despite apparent chemical spills in the waters, whose effects continue to be studied by researchers today, there still appears to be a healthy diversity of reef life, with many similarities in species composition to the Hawaiian archipelago. In fact, this likeness in the kinds of organisms found here led to early hypotheses about Johnston’s connection as a stepping stone to Hawai‘i, an idea our scientists intend to further investigate using sophisticated genetic techniques.

Fire coral

Fire coral, not found in the Hawaiian archipelago, dominates the outer reef of Johnston Atoll.

Today was the team’s first day out at Johnston. The coral team however will only do a half a day, coming back early in order to prepare for a second dive tonight in the dark. This time of year, late May to early June, is known to be the period of the yearly coral spawn, where hundreds of colonies release their gametes into the water column to reproduce. The coral biologists onboard are eager to photo-document this event, and collect samples of sperm and eggs from the spawning corals to further study their genetics in the lab. Together with the connectivity studies within the Hawaiian archipelago, our genetics team will attempt to tease out the secrets of Johnston’s relationship with our own island chain of Hawaiian Islands.

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