September 21st: First Day at Maro Reef
Written By Dan Suthers September 21-22, 2004
I slept in after a late night working on the web site. While I slept, we arrived at Maro Reef, the largest reef in the NWHI . Yet in spite of its size, only one small collection of rubble appears above sea level at low tide. Because of this exposed rubble, the state of Hawai`i can claim jurisdiction for 3 nautical miles.
Maro Reef is very dangerous for mariners: all you can see is water, but very intricate reefs are interwoven in the area (see image). There are some uncharted areas and undocumented coral heads may be present. A nautical chart I examined is covered with multiple warnings, advising against any navigation in this area. An optimist, this makes me feel privileged to be able to see it!
I am planning to spend two days on the Hi`ialakai catching up on writing before going out on one of the launches, and was worried that I will not have much to report in my daily journals. I was wrong.
We Are Not Alone
Midmorning as I am working in my room, an announcement on the intercom: dolphins visible off the starboard bow. I grab my camera and race up top, but the crew there says they are already gone. If we were moving, perhaps they would have ridden our bow wave for a while, but we are sitting still in relatively smooth but rolling seas. It is a beautiful blue day: deep blue seas and a luminous blue sky with clouds here and there. Scanning the blue-on-blue horizon, the sea is all I can see, except for an occasional breaking wave very far in the distance providing evidence that something lies below the surface.
But then I spot a white object: clearly another ship. I went into the cabin to ask about it, and whether it could be an illegal fishing boat. The Commanding Officer was on the radio talking to them. If they were here illegaly, they would have packed up and run upon sight of our ship. It turns out that this is a lobster fishing boat, but one operating under a NOAA contract to catch, tag and release lobsters for study of the population up here. The commercial lobster catch in the Main Hawaiian Islands declined dramatically by the end of the 1960's , leading to increased exploitation of NWHI lobsters, where the population also plummeted by the mid 1980's . Currently, the endemic Spiney Lobsters are partially protected. They are known to form part of the diet of the Hawaiian Monk Seal, but the seal's diet was not studied before the lobster decline, so the importance of lobsters to seals is uncertain. Without further study we can only speculate about whether lobster decline has any bearing on the "failure to thrive" syndrome seen among young seals.
Lobsters and Plovers, Calazones and Drills
Working up in the dry lab in the afternoon, I hear some excitement in the wet lab. The Mooring team (Elizabeth Keenan, Danny Merritt, Stephani Holzwarth and Kyle Hogrefe) has just returned, and brought with them some specimens. The catch includes: mushroom coral (Fungia scutaria, a free-standing coral); a red pencil urchin; a spotted box fish (Ostracion meleagris); a convict tang; a sand anemone (Heteractis malu), which had contracted to the size of a sandwich bag (tomorrow in the photographers' aquarium it would expand to a magnificent and unusually large specimen); a large reticulated cowry (Cypraea maculifera; Hawaiian name: leho kolea, in honor of the kolea or Pacific Golden Plover, whose plumage its shell resembles); and perhaps not coincidentally, a superb Spiny Lobster, brightly colored and with both antennae intact. (Identifications from [1,2,3,6] and on-board specialists.) David tells me they will be setting up the large aquarium to photograph these specimens. Joe Laughlin, fish team member of the Towboard team, reminds us that box fish will emit a toxin that can kill everything else in the bucket if it gets upset. David immediately starts working on giving this esteemed guest a private room (its own tank).
I finally got through my email; I am settling down in my bunk room to get some writing done this afternoon when the bell rings: fire drill. On-board scientists must assemble in the dry lab. We chatted there while I pined for the piece of blueberry pie I had left in my room. After we were all accounted for and the all-clear signal was given, I'm back at the paper and pie, but the bell goes off again. A long ring and six short rings: abandon ship! I grabbed a quick bite of the pie, my life jacket, survival suit, and grab bag (emergency clothing) and headed for the upper aft deck. This time we were not required to put on our suits, so it was over fairly quickly.
Returning my cutlery to the kitchen, I find Stewards Allan Gary and Susan Parker at work, stuffing pastry with chicken sauce, and mozzarella and ricotta cheese for dinner. Allan explains that this is an Italian-French fusion, as the pastry recipe is similar to that for croissants. Two huge plates of white salmon await the oven, covered with what Allan describes as a seafood seasoning, and destined to be covered in a cream sauce. At dinner we confirm once again their skill: delicately flaky crusted calazones, and an indescribable sauce on the rich moist salmon.
During my sunset outing, I notice that we have a stowaway on board: a juvenile Pacific Golden Plover  or Kolea is walking around on deck. What an odd coincidence to take on both the shell and its bird namesake in the same day. It looks tired as it walks slowly away from me to keep its distance. The nearest reliable land is Laysan Island, 60 nautical miles away . Has it gotten lost, or is it just exhausted? In either case, if our stowaway is patient, it will find itself within a short flight of Laysan in a few days.
Once again, despite my best intentions to focus on writing, one cannot be in the presence of these scientists without discovering something.
Early in the evening, Craig Musberger shows us one of his Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) videos, with an ever changing audience of interested expedition members. Erin Looney is reviewing REA images of benthic cover. In the wet lab, Greta Aeby is examining and photographing diseased coral samples. She comments, "This is an object of beauty" and I reply, "Beauty is in the eye of the specialist." Jean returns and begins to prepare for her evening of coral sampling. David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton, assisted by Stephani Holzwarth, are deeply engaged in photographing the stunning spiny lobster specimen. Attempting to pose the animal, they are cajoling it with "the minnow and the stick" (a carrot would probably be ineffective): Stephani dangles a minnow in front of the lobster while David prods it from behind with long chopsticks. By the end of the evening, they had exposed 10 rolls (120 medium-format images) of the lobster alone. It is worth mentioning that all samples brought onboard for David and Susan's "critter portraits" are returned to the same area from which they were collected, with the exception of those to be retained for study under a scientists' permit. The lobster is already home as I complete this article the next day.
Meanwhile, Scott Ferguson has begun the evening series of Towed Optical Assessment Device (TOAD) transects. During one of the transects, we hear that sharks have gathered, possibly attracted to the light of the TOAD. Off the starboard aft deck we can see ghostly forms swimming about, and occasionally they rise close enough to the surface to reveal their sharkish forms. The rolling sea pitches the boat over as if to offer the humans leaning over the railing to these carnivores. Off the stern, a half moon gives the water a shimmering beauty as the deep waters surge and recede with the passing swells.
Returning to the dry lab, Kyle, Danny and Elizabeth are working on the Surface Temperature Recorders (STRs) they have retrieved (pictured). These sensors were deployed between 1-5 meters deep over a year ago, and have been recording water temperature every 30 minutes for the entire time. Kyle shows me the data from one of the sensors: the highest values in the summer of 2004 were about one degree centigrade higher than the highest values after it was deployed in the summer of 2003. Could this ocean temperature increase account for the coral bleaching they are seeing on their dives? We have been discussing a single sensor and subjective reports of bleaching: more data will be needed to test that hypothesis. However, the trend from this sensor is striking.
 Gulko (1998)
 Hoover (1993)
 Hoover (1998)
 Maragos & Gulko (2002)
 Rauzon (2001)
 Sibley (2000)