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Ship Logs

R/V Townsend Cromwell Retirement and Coral Bleaching - Updates from the R/V Townsend Cromwell (9/25 - 9/28/02)
Midway Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Atoll
Posted by Stephani Holzwarth
Photography by Jim Watt

Fairy Tern at Midway Atoll.Sept 25, 2002. Midway. The fairy terns are one of my favorite things about this atoll. They nest in the ironwood trees planted by the US Navy years ago. We watch them fly by with fish dangling from their bills. Many seabirds swallow what they catch, and regurgitate it for the chick, but fairy terns deliver the whole fish to their chick. This requires fishing close to shore and making lots of trips back and forth, but may allow the fairy terns to duck under the radar of the dreaded avian pirates known as frigate birds. Frigate birds have 6 foot wingspan and steal food from other birds, by force. They are like the mafia, or tax collectors.

Brian and I have a game. It is called "what's eating the slate pencil urchins?" We see urchins flipped over and their insides devoured during our dives. The uhu uliuli (spectacled parrotfish) here are huge, and would be a prime suspect with their powerful mouth and sharp beak. Parrotfish are herbivorous, so we don't think its them. "How about porcupinefish? or hogfish?" BZ suggested after looking for suspects during a tow. Those are the only other fish that seemed big enough to accomplish the task in the shallow backreef habitat, but I was doubtful. Porcupinefish have soft lips, with the hard part of their mouth inside for crushing small inverts. And hogfish have teeth more like a dog, good for grabbing but not urchin smashing. A couple dives later we came up with a better idea- "It's the pufferfish!" Brian said, and I answered- "I was just thinking that too!" They've got a strong jaw, fused beak-like teeth, and I wouldn't put it past one to eat an urchin.

Sept 26. Pearl & Hermes Reef. Stormy day- low, leaden clouds in the morning and not a breath of wind, we slid over the swell without any spray. The water's surface was glossy like a dark mirror, like a black pearl. I like the pre-storm calm. Rain and wind squalls pelted us the rest of the day. We towed over back reef so folded and convoluted that it formed deep secret chasms and caverns that we could see into through narrow slots. Interesting habitat. Six butaguchi (thick-lipped jacks, Psuedocaranx dentex) hovered under an overhang. A large, pregnant whitetip reef shark swam across the reef flat in front of me. And I think there must have been a hatch of baby parrotfish recently because the shallow reef flats were overrun by small dark juvenile scarids, each with a black dot on a white tail, looking like jack food.

Bleached Pocillopora corals.Sept 27. Holy cow! Launching and loading the small boats this morning on the north side of the atoll was a bit of a rodeo. The wind and swell kicked up last night (fall out from a powerful low pressure north up by Alaska) making for a messy sea. Once we crawled around to the inside of the barrier reef it wasn't so bad. We towed the inner north and east backreef and verified that most of the Pocillopora (rose coral) along that area is bleached. The Porites (lobe coral) has fared much better and there is still living, zooxanthallae-occupied coral on all of the reefs we filmed, but the rose coral definitely took a hit. I'm not a coral expert, but hazarding a guess- the water has been warmer than I remember it in past years- 80, 81' F, instead of 78, 79' F. Rusty told me that both our CREWS buoys and satellite measurements of sea surface temperature showed this summer to be warmer than usual. He said "NOAA's Coral Reef Watch alerted us a couple of months ago of a potential bleaching event in the making." I'm curious to see what the CREWS buoy at Pearl & Hermes recorded for water temperatures though out the last year. Corals are sensitive to even slight changes in water temperature.

R/V Townsend CromwellSept 28. The education team from the Rapture taxied over to our ship in a small boat and spent the day aboard the good ship R/V Townsend Cromwell, documenting one of her last days of service as a NOAA vessel. I for one will miss her sorely when she retires and is replaced by a bigger, beefier, and probably less charming ship. Jonathan, who celebrated another one of his birthdays aboard today, adds a little reality to my nostalgia- "Her hull is thin in a lot of spots, and whenever we need a part for an engine they have to fabricate it from scratch. She's done her duty and done it well- earned her retirement." It's true. Jay, Monica, and Elrod, the engineers, work miracles to keep the engines humming. None-the less, many of us feel great affection for this ship that has carried us and scientists and sailors like us safely across thousands of miles of ocean and home again. She was and is still a great ship, old school and very nautical in her bearing, something the newer ships lack.

The fish, benthic, and tow teams all worked in the southwest part of the lagoon today, near Seal Kittery Island. Joe and Brian towed along the west spur reefs. Joe said it looked like Mars- a bunch of 5 foot high coral mounds in the grooves (valleys) between spurs. usty and I towed the backside of the barrier reef- amazing habitat. We flew across rolling fields of Montipora (rice coral) plunging into wide canyons with white sand on the bottom and coral piled up along both sides. The crazy thing was that Montipora is usually wonderful shades of blue and purple and golden brown. There were still patches of bright color, but acres and acres of it were gleaming white, like snow fields. "It looks like Whistler!" I said when I came up. Jean Kenyon, our coral ecologist, points out- some of it isn't bleaching, and those hardy, lucky, and/or genetically favorable colonies will reproduce and recolonize the reef. "It's natural selection, happening right before our eyes," Jean commented. I wish I could spend the next few decades here, underwater, watching the changes come about. I wonder what the fish think of all this white stuff that used to be purple and blue. Their camouflage won't work anymore!

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Stephani Holzwarth
Stephani Holzwarth

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