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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/FFS Day 1/


Ship Logs

French Frigate Shoals, Day 1 (9/11/02)
by Carlos Eyles
Underwater Photography by Jim Watt

Under running pop corn clouds butter tinged by an egg yolk sun the Rapture carefully works its way through shallow channels into the extensive half moon atoll whose low shores and barrier reefs in the far distance can scarcely be seen. We anchor up in sixty feet, six and a half miles from Tern Island. Inside, the wind blows timidly out of the west and the seas are calm relative to the stretches we have so far encountered. It is seven in the morning and those on the bow appear bleary eyed, no doubt through the demanding sixteen hour work days that everyone so gleefully endures. After all we are exploring new and exciting territory. For much of the time this whole operation seems to run on a large measure of adrenalin that is as contagious as it is uplifting.

Coral reef at French Frigate Shoals.  Acropora table corals, Pennantfish.We are at the midpoint of the Hawaiian Archipelago, and the largest coral reef system in Hawai‘i, including Maro Reef and Pearl and Hermes Atoll, French Frigate Shoals, total some 500 square miles of reef system. To put this into some perspective the main Hawaiian Islands reef system totals 360 square miles. So we are dealing with a lot of reef here, and by virtue of the extent of this system it would be difficult if not impossible to cover just a small portion of it. The teams have their work cut out for them. Clearly they cannot measure and observe it all so they, through studying charts and satellite photos will selectively chose to set up their transect lines, underwater video cameras and digital still cameras in the most favorable areas. From their findings they can quantify how the fish populations are doing, and what's going on in the invertebrate world.

Off in the distance a tall white monument of a rock, La Parouse Pinnacle, demands ones attention. It stands in the center of the atoll at one hundred and twenty-two feet. When the light strikes it right it appears to be snow white, what with a thousand years of bird dung clinging to it and looks very much like a square rigged sailing vessel. Hans Von Tilburg the on board Maritime Archeologist tells me that more than one ship mistook the rock for a unlighted vessel and drew them onto the shoals and their ultimate demise.

This area is also the home and resting place for the Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtles. However on these shoals it is the bird populations that hold court in this place so far removed from man. Sooty Terns are the most abundant species of seabird in the Sooty Terns on the runway at FFS.central Pacific, and quite naturally the most plentiful in these Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Nearly one and a half million breed right here. Another million and a half come and go on the wind, but are not involved with breeding. They rarely land on the water because their plumage is not waterproof, which for a seabird is highly unusual, additionally their feet are not strong enough to propel them off the surface, so landing on the water is pretty much out of the question. Perhaps the most astounding feature about the Sooty Terns is that they can sleep while flying, and spend up to nine months in the air. No one knows how they do it, but if I may be so bold as to offer up a theory. Such behavior has been found in dolphins, who swim while asleep. One hemisphere of their brain is asleep while the other hemisphere hangs out in a deep alpha state, mildly keeping watch. Is it possible these terns could be doing the same thing?

Runway at French Frigate Shoals.Andy Collins went ashore today at Tern Island. The island has the largest running seabird research study in the world, under the auspices of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Not coincidently it is also the one of the largest seabird rookeries in the Pacific, the home of Terns, Blackfooted Albatross, Great Frigate, Masked Booby, and Red Footed Booby, among others. The experience of entering such an environment was other-worldly. Coming in on the boat they were followed by flocks of birds all hovering just above there heads, as if looking to perch. When they landed at the dock birds were sitting everywhere a bird could sit, there were no empty spaces. They were perched on rooftops, gutters, pipes, push carts, anything that protruded into open space. The noise level was unnerving, non stop chatter and screeching, that I am told increases as night falls. Thousands upon thousands of birds, more than he had ever seen or imagined could be seen in one place at one time. A Fairy Tern flew over to Moani and as she extended her hand it regurgitated a fish; a gift of the highest order. When you don't know what to get that special person for Christmas this year, remember where you heard this distinctive gift idea.

As Andy walked down the runway there were always one or two birds shadowing him just above his head, so close he felt they would land on him at any moment. But as soon as he stopped they flew off. This behavior brings to mind the dolphin again, when swimming on the bow of a moving boat they are content to run for as long as the boat is moving but as soon as the boat stops they wheel away. Of course, the dolphins are being pushed along by the force of the wake, perhaps Andy was creating a wake of his own.

A rather keen observation was made when he saw signs of different species holding on to a section space and fighting off same species who tried to intrude. While four different species of birds were occupying a bush, a Frigate, Brown Booby, Red Footed Booby, another Booby tried to land on the same bush, the four birds assaulted it rather viciously and ran it off, passing doubt on the notion that birds of a feather flock together.

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Talk About It!

Maritime Archaeology at French Frigate Shoals

Asked by John on Sep 13, 2002.
Did the Maritime Archeologists have any luck finding any of the vessels wrecked at French Frigate Shoals?

Answered by the NOW-RAMP Crew on Sep 14, 2002.
The Maritime Archaeology team began to formally document the remnants of a known wreck, a barge, near Tern Island. A more complete update on shipwrecks will be posted on the web at a later time.

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