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You are here: /main/research/NWHI RAMP 2004/journals/Laysan

Laysan: a Model of Restoration (9/24/04)

Written By Dan Suthers September 27th, 2004

As the sun greeted relatively gentle seas and another day of ideal weather, we awoke stationed near Laysan Island. On the Education Team's agenda today: replacement of a Surface Temperature Recorder near the "Landing Cove" (allowing the Mooring Team to concentrate on the other side of the island), and a visit to the island itself, including the base camp and an ecological tour. Therefore, this journal will be a story in three parts. This is a long article, but only a sample of the many fascinating aspects of the natural and human history of Laysan.

Laysan (see our summary description here) is the largest island in the NWHI, and is also distinguished by possessing a large hypersaline lake [1]. The image shows Laysan on a nautical chart with the tracks of the Hi`ialakai during our visit. Laysan is considered the "crown jewel" of terrestrial restoration because of its present state of preservation, but all the more so because of its history of exploitation and devastation. For this story, see [2], and also summaries by the NOWRAMP 2002 documentation team, including The "King of Laysan" and The Value of Tranquility by Carlos Eyles.

Our party included photographers David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton, our guide Stephani Holzwarth, and Able Bodied Seaman Gaetano Maurizio, as well as myself. When we approached the island we made radio contact with its present occupants, and were greeted on the beach by Stefan Kropidlowski, in his third season as a U. S. Fish and Wildlife caretaker on Laysan, and Mark Vekasy, a research assistant with the US Geological Survey Biological Resources Division.

Replacing the Surface Temperature Recorder (STR)

Laysan beach and coveWhile Gaetano stayed with the Zodiac, Stefan accompanied the rest of the landing party to the STR site a short walk up the beach. The emerald landing cove against a deep blue sky was stunningly beautiful, and a hint of the color we would later see in abundance at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (where I now write this article). When we reached the approximate area where the STR had been deployed a year before, we donned snorkeling gear and headed out over the reef, guided by Stephani's GPS unit. With no trouble at all, we found the algae-covered device strapped to the reef underwater.

STR device strapped to reefThe Surface Temperature Recorder consists of three short pipes, which Kyle Hogrefe (Mooring Team leader) refers to affectionately as "pipe bombs of science." But these are not explosive: two tubes contain weights and the third a temperature sensor, battery, and recording device. These devices are able to "wake up" and record the temperature every half hour for at least two years. However, the scientists intend to retrieve and replace them every year: the second year is a safety margin in case an expedition misses an area. See our article on coral bleaching for examples of STR data and its significance for coral life. By placing STR devices strategically at different depths around the islands and atolls of this region, scientists gain a more comprehensive picture of how long term climatic trends are reflected in this region, and can look for local relationships between organisms being studied and the physical characteristics of their environments.

bluefin trevally fishStephani and Stefan shared the work of cutting away the straps holding the old device and strapping the new device in its place. Meanwhile, David, Susan and I took turns photographing the operation from the optimal angle, and I took the opportunity for more reef life photography. Several blue fin Trevalys observed our work, becoming increasingly bold and inquisitive.

Our job complete, we snorkeled back to shore, and walked back to the Zodiac for lunch on the beach: a stunningly gorgeous day, with the Hi`ialakai waiting offshore in the distance. After lunch, David returned to the ship to catch up on his specimen photography, taking another island resident, Jim Kelly (Biological Technician, FWS), with him for a tour of the Hi`ialakai.

Laysan Camp

Mike in Interior of headquarter tentAccording to Laysan's quarantine rules, we (as well as the Hi`ialakai-based dive teams) are allowed to walk on the beach in the intertidal zone provided they do not disturb any Monk seals (a federally listed endangered species). However, one cannot approach the vegetation without donning "quarantine clothes." One prepares quarantine clothes by freezing new clothes for two days and transporting them in sealed buckets, after which they are worn only on the designated island. This procedure is necessary to prevent the introduction of alien seeds and insects, which can devastate the native ecology. As I noted in my departure day journal, I was not expecting this opportunity, so made no such advance preparations. Fortunately for me, the Laysan camp keeps extra clothes available when needed for visitors. I selected my choice from Stefan's finest castaway wear, and changed before accompanying him and Susan (who had clothes from a previous visit) off the beach and up to the camp.

Emergency water bottles in sand and sceneryThe camp is an interesting mixture of improvisation and technology. Aging tents are being replaced with newer quonset-hut shaped tents that do not need guy wires (both people and birds were running into the wires and injuring themselves). All power is provided by the solar panels pictured, which charge 12-volt batteries. A portion of this power is converted to a voltage usable by household devices and computers: the load includes lights, two laptop computers and their peripherals, radios, a GPS charger, a satellite antenna, and the desalination machine. This latter machine makes fresh water by osmosis from salt water pumped up from a well by the ocean. According to Stefan, it requires about 19 gallons of salt water to make 1.5 gallons of fresh water, and does so at a painfully slow trickle that dispels any thoughts of taking a shower. (It is run 4-6 hours a day to supply 4 people.) The fresh water supply is supplemented by rain runoff (perhaps 2" over summer; more in winter) gathered from the tents by a carefully constructed drain system. Dozens of 5 gallon jugs of "emergency water" are also lined up outside the tents, and refilled occasionally by passing ships (unfortunately, we did not have time to do this service). The kitchen is rigged with separate faucets for salt and fresh water. I mentioned the satellite antenna: it is a puny thing compared to the Hi`ialakai's model, but being land-based it does not require a gyroscope.

Death by Plastic

Around camp, Stefan shows me plastic toys and buckets of cigarette lighters he has collected. I have heard that the windward beach of the island is littered with trash, and ask whether he gathered these plastic invaders there. To my surprise, the answer is "no": the plastic was gathered inland, from albatross nesting grounds. The story behind this is a superb example of the "law of unintended consequences," and the reason why we must raise awareness of the public so that we have the choice to not commit unintended but murderous acts. The circulation patterns of the Pacific are such that much of the plastic that finds its way into this ocean ends up in a gyre in the North Pacific. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lie in the southern region of this gyre, and pick up marine debris as it flows by. Flying fish have adapted to lay their eggs on anything that floats: they find plastic quite suitable for the purpose. Albatross have learned that these eggs are nutritious, so scoop up the egg-laden plastic and regurgitate it into the mouths of their young being bred on islands such as Laysan. Dead albatross surrounded by plasticThe indigestible plastic accumulates in the bird's stomachs, decreasing the room available for real food and thereby often killing the fledgeling. Later, while walking through the nesting area, I would see clear examples of young skeletons surrounded by plastic. Stefan also showed me albatross boluses full of plastic to be sent to Hawai`i schools where children will hopefully learn an important environmental lesson.

Land of Restoration

Mark then took Susan and I on a guided tour of Laysan Lake and the vegetation restoration efforts underway around it.

Frigate bird on lush vegetation with coconut trees in distanceThe Laysan restoration effort is the most successful in the Hawaiian Islands, and is considered by many as exemplary on a world wide basis as well. I refer you to [2] for details, but for a quick way to appreciate this miracle, as you view the lush greens in these pictures imagine this entire island almost completely denuded of any vegetation by an exploding population of rabbits, introduced to raise for meat canniing, the surface torn open by guano mines, and the bird population decimated by feather and egg collection. Not only has vegetation been restored, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been systematically removing non-native vegetation--Sancros (common sandberry) has recently been eliminated, painstakingly picked by hand--and replacing it with native and endemic species. "Endemic" means that the species is found nowhere else. Native species include Eragrostis (a bunch grass important for supporting bird burrows), Chenopodium (goosefoot), Ipomea (a morning glory), Sesuvium, and Makaloa (Cyperus), which the ducks and finches like to hide in. Mariscus, an endemic sedge on the endangered species list, is receiving special attention. Restoration is made more difficult by our inadequate knowledge of the original ecosystem.

Brown BoobyLike Tern Island, this island is covered with birds (about 2 million breed on its 915 acres each year). In our walk about the island we see Frigate Birds, Brown Boobies, Brown Noddys, Golden Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and a Red Tailed Tropic Bird. Near the former guano mines we are mobbed by sooty terns. We are also lucky to see the endemic Laysan Duck and Laysan Finch. Laysan once had at least five endemic bird species. The Laysan Miller Bird, Laysan Honeycreeper, and the flightless Laysan Rail are all extinct. The first two were killed by a severe sandstorm that resulted from high winds on the then-denuded island. Presently, Laysan is still home to the Laysan Duck (pictured below) and the Laysan Finch. Laysan Ducks drinking water

Although re-vegetation may prevent a repeat sandstorm on Laysan, what other dangers could destroy such small and geographically concentrated populations? A single hurricane could extinct a species. As insurance against such an event, secondary populations are being established elsewhere. The finch has already been relocated to small islands in Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Mark is participating in an effort led by Michelle Reynolds to relocate 20 Laysan Ducks each year to Midway Island. Fresh water seeps have been prepared on Midway for the ducks. No salt water pond is deemed necessary: ducks depend more on the fresh water, and althoughy they eat brine shrimp on Laysan, will adapt to other invertebrate food sources. (On Laysan, Mark has been digging small pits to increase fressh water sources for all of the birds.) When they visited Laysan last year, the crew of the Hokulea took Makaloa seeds with them to Midway to be planted for duck cover, where the plants are now thriving.

Susan photographing Laysan ducks on lakeWe are fortunate that the NWHI marine environments have not suffered devastation comparable to that of Laysan: the reef ecosystems that are the subject of this scientific expedition are considered to be among the best remaining examples of relatively undisturbed and healthy ecosystems in the world. For a marine analogy to the terrestrial story of the NWHI, we need to look closer to our own homes: the reefs of the Main Hawaiian Islands. We can only hope that the reefs of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands will experience a restoration as successful as that on Laysan, guided by the knowledge gained by expeditions such as this one, and perhaps inspired by the beauty that education and outreach efforts bring to the general public.


Since tomorrow is a transit day, and everyone is very tired from 9 continuous days of hard work, the atmosphere is very relaxed tonight. Many more of the scientists than usual are taking time out to watch the evening movies; others are relaxing and talking in the galley.

Moon at sunset

[1] Maragos & Gulko (2002)
[2] Rauzon (2001)
[3] Sibley (2000)

Ship Logs

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Guy and Steph looking at maps on a boat

Gaetano and Stephani navigate to Laysan



Portrait of Stefan

Stefan Kropidlowski, USFWS caretaker of Laysan



snorkeler holding GPS underwater

Stephani follows GPS unit to locate STR


Stephani cutting away straps holding STR to reef

Stephani cuts away straps holding old STR in place


Stefan freediving to strap in new STR

Stefan strapping new STR to reef




Quonset hut shaped tents

Camp Laysan


Solar power panels

Solar power panels and batteries


Desalination machine

Desalination machine


Brown Noddy

A Brown Noddy watches us in camp


buckets of lighters

Buckets of cigarette lighters gathered in the nesting grounds


Ipomea vines on lake bed

Ipomea (morning glory) vines spread on the lake bed


Chenopodium plant

Chenopodium or "goosefoot"


Sesuvium beds and sky

Sesuvium and sky


Mariscus (an endemic grass)

Mariscus, Laysan's endangered endemic plant species


Topic bird

Redtailed Tropic Bird in Eragrostis


Laysan Finches hiding in Makaloa

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