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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/feet/


Ship Logs

Put Your Face Where Your Feet Are!
Posted by Dr. Larry Basch, Senior Scientist-Advisor, Pacific Islands Coral Reef Program, National Park Service, & Associate Professor, Graduate Program in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology, University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
October 22, 2002

Maro Reef Intertidal area.  Photo by Jim Watt.At the dawn of tank diving an eminent and wise marine biologist-professor, Don Abbott, husband of Tutu Izzie, said to his students - my mentors - who wanted to dive in pursuit of their research that there are lifetimes of work and study still left to do in the intertidal zone, that narrow and stressful yet magical band of shore at times washed by the waves and at others exposed to the air, and the heat and ultraviolet rays of the sun. Fifty years and many research tank dives later by his academic progeny and other successors, we've learned lifetimes about the world beneath the waves. Nowadays it's so relatively easy to put on a tank to dive and study the biology, geology, or ecology of coral reefs and other subtidal benthic ecosystems. During this era in the islands of Hawai'i nei the intertidal has gotten pretty short shrift, little attention has been paid to it, reflected today by there being only two marine biology students out of hundreds in Hawai'i whose research focuses on intertidal ecology.

Jeremy Polloi and a slate pencil sea urchin at Midway.  Photo by Jim Watt.Leading up to this expedition I enjoyed meeting weekly with others on the RAT - Research Advisory Team, planning the scientific research and integrating it with cultural and educational efforts for NOWRAMP 2002. I was originally asked to be an REA - Coral Reef Rapid Ecological Assessment -- team member, responsible for collecting data on marine invertebrates, one of my intellectual passions. I was really looking forward to diving and doing subtidal ecology in the NWHI - an opportunity of a lifetime! But, for a bureaucratic reason I wasn't able to strap a tank on my back and go to work as usual. Getting past the questions and comments of many mystified colleagues (like: that's BS; what do you mean you've done 1000's of dives, you're a dive instructor; trained many, including some aboard this expedition…) and my own initial disappointment wasn't easy… until we reached our first island in the Northwest chain - Nihoa! Shortly after we landed but before the chants by our Kanaka Maoli shipmates were over, I began to realize the incredible nature of the world between the tides that we were now standing in and about to explore. And it dawned on me that despite some earlier natural history explorations that we, Jeremy Polloi- team limu-ologist and the other half of the intertidal duo - were going to be breaking new ground at every island, atoll and shallow reef flat we traveled to!

Gardner Pinnacles.Up till now there's been little work done in the intertidal of the NWHI other than collection of specimens and some good "19th century" natural history. Now, there's nothing bad whatsoever about natural history - it's key to any meaningful rigorous ecological study. It's also fun! Our goal was to add to that earlier knowledge. So we packed our transect tapes and quadrats, sample bags and calipers ready to get data - numbers - on sizes, abundance, distribution, densities, and whatever else we could find about critters and limu in the shallows. That's when reality came crashing down, literally. The waves, many - way -overhead, smashing onto the rocks were enough to make the most hard-stuck opihi shudder. And much of the intertidal shore's rock faces were shear vertical walls, dropping off into deep water. So, it was pretty much impossible to lay meter tapes or put down quadrats. Uh, time for plan B. Between huge sets we looked or scrambled down to the mid- and low-intertidal like 'A'ama crabs and picked up a critter here and a clump of limu there. In most places this was all we could do, spotting each other and the incoming waves as we moved along the shore. On a few islands we were able to lay quadrats down and get out our calipers to count and measure opihi. And there are some tutu opihi out there, bigger than we've seen living on the populated "lower" islands. Recalling that many opihi pickers are killed every year we were careful, wore life jackets, spotted and belayed each other, trying to not bus-up our head. Now and then a big set would wash over the opihi and us. One day, working our way around to the windward side of Gardner Pinnacle measuring opihi, a big sneaker wave came through. All of a sudden I was surrounded by fast moving water -- lots of it -- and heard Jeremy calling out my name. I remember putting one hand on top of my head while sliding down the limu-covered rock 20 feet or so on my back and okole, totally awash under the receding wave, then facing the rock, spinning around and swimming hard away from shore before the next big swell smashed into the rock. I turned around and gave Jeremy the OK sign, then swam to safety, another near life experience. Better than any water park attraction, if you have a tough okole.

Pearl and Hermes Intertidal.Jeremy and I have now worked every island, atoll or pinnacle with basalt or limestone (old coral reef) rock habitat in the Kupuna islands. Working the benches, terraces, walls, and beaches, and free-diving to cover the lower reaches of the intertidal and the shallow waters just offshore, we've enjoyed the freedom and ability to approach these habitats on their terms, whether dodging the waves or swimming below the surface without the noise of bubbles from a scuba rig, and being tossed around in the surge with the fish. We've asked a lot of questions but we've really just scratched the surface. There are several student theses-worth of work to do in the future here in the Kupuna's. We've started putting our heads together and some interesting patterns are coming out, especially about biogeography or the big-picture on distribution of intertidal organisms -- which islands and environments they live at across the NW stretches of the archipelago, and why. We've learned that there are a lot of subtle things out there between the tides, ones that are so easy to miss. Indeed, Tutu kane Don is still right: there are worlds in the intertidal as yet undiscovered, … if you put your face where your feet are.

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