One of the more important lessons I’ve learned after decades of conducting scientific expeditions throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific is to pack my gear well in advance of the departure date. As I prepared for our project to explore the deep coral reefs of Pohnpei in Micronesia last week, I once again completely failed to do so. After multiple last-minute runs to the hardware store for parts and supplies, late nights in the garage repairing various pieces of equipment, tidying up loose ends at work in advance of being gone for three weeks, spending quality time with my wife and two children, and various other tasks that fill the days of an over-committed life, I ended up pulling an all-nighter (as I always do) Thursday night making sure that none of my seven pieces of luggage exceeded the 70-lb (32-kg) limit.
Our eight bleary-eyed team members arrived curbside at Honolulu International Airport at 5:30 am Friday morning, and began the process of transferring the 28 pieces of luggage from our vehicles to the United Airlines check-in counter. After some confusion about where, exactly, we were supposed to check in (Seriously? You want us to move literally a ton of equipment from this counter all the way over to that counter?), and with the help of some extremely helpful check-in agents (and paying only $1,300 in excess baggage fees — not too bad under the circumstances), we made our way through the TSA security screening and to our gate with minutes to spare. We boarded what is known as the “Island Hopper” — a flight that starts in Honolulu, then stops at Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Guam), and tried to catch as much sleep as possible during the mostly one-hour flights between 45-minute stops at each airport along the way.
Fortunately for us, we only had to endure three mini-layovers before exiting the plane and arriving at our destination: Pohnpei (formerly spelled “Ponape”), the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia. More that 25 years have passed since I last visited this beautiful tropical paradise (except, of course, for the occasional 45-minute mini-layover while en route to some other destination along the Island Hopper’s flight path), and I was delighted to see that the island has managed to maintain it’s peaceful charm, having escaped the fate of over-development suffered by so many tropical islands.
This time, our team consists of four Bishop Museum members (myself, Brian Greene, Robert Whitton, and Sonia Rowley) and four members from the University of Hawai‘i (Joshua Copus, Dave Pence, Richard Coleman and Garrett Johnson). We are here as part of a collaboration between the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (part of the University of Hawai‘i system), and Bishop Museum, funded through the Seaver Institute to survey deep and shallow coral-reef fishes and Gorgonian (sea fan) corals. Each of us will be posting to this blog during the course of the next three weeks, and we will include more specific details about our research as we go along. Very generally, we are using high-tech mixed-gas closed-circuit rebreather systems to access coral-reef environments at depths well below those that can be safely accessed using conventional scuba gear — in a habitat that has come to be known as “Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems” (or, more popularly, the Coral-Reef “Twilight Zone”).
After clearing immigration and customs in Pohnpei Saturday afternoon, we were met by the family of Wilbur Walter, owner and operator of Nihco Marine Park, where we will establish our base of operations. In addition to our 28 pieces of luggage (not to mention our over-stuffed carry-on bags), we had previously shipped a scuba compressor, twenty standard scuba tanks, sixteen 44-lb containers of Sofnolime® carbon dioxide absorbent material, eleven industrial-sized cylinders of oxygen, and nine similarly large cylinders of helium. All par for the course. After we confirmed all of our gear had arrived and was in good shape, we were mostly too tired to do anything else, so we had dinner and crashed for the evening.
Sunday and Monday were spent setting up our rebreathers, blending our various gas mixtures, making runs into town (Kolonia) for provisions and various odds and ends, and generally doing the sorts of setup activities we always do on the first two days of an expedition. Late in the afternoon on Sunday, Brian, Rob, Sonia and I went for a quick dive to Palikir Pass, right outside Nihco Marine Resort, to test the functionality of our rebreathers. What was intended as a gear-check dive turned into a spectacular drift through a panoply of marine life, including a dozen small grey reef sharks (including one that was no more than 18 inches long), two manta rays, vast schools of big-eye jacks, and a mesmerizing school of large barracuda (among myriad other reef fishes). The ocean was bath-water warm and clear, and we ended our dive just before sunset among vast hordes of spawning surgeonfishes and various predatory jacks cruising through looking for meals. After a brief hiccup Monday morning with a flat tire on our van, we returned to Palikir Pass with the addition of Josh and Richard Coleman for an afternoon dive. The sky was overcast and the reef much gloomier, but it was another fine dive nevertheless. Tomorrow morning we need to take care of a few more logistics and meet with Eugene Joseph, director of the Conservation Society of Pohnpei. After that we will make our first deep work-up dive on the outer-reef slopes of northwest side of this magnificent island. On a final, more personal note: over seventeen years ago, when the “World Wide Web” was still relatively young, I had an inspired idea. I had just learned how to create HTML files (using Notepad, of course…), and thought to myself: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I uploaded daily reports from the field on our next expedition?” I had planned to include pictures of our dives and the more interesting specimens we collected, with the hopes of receiving feedback from my colleagues that would help shape our priorities on subsequent dives. Armed with my new digital camera (with a whopping 0.8-megapixel resolution) and a 2400-baud telephone modem connection, I dutifully reported our daily activities from the 1997 Palau expedition. The response vastly exceeded my expectations. It received more hits than any other page on Bishop Museum’s website up until that time (even more than the home page!), and the daily feedback from friends and colleagues was outstanding. It was so successful that I vowed to follow suit on every expedition. Alas, despite vastly improved internet access throughout the tropical Pacific, greatly enhanced software tools for generating blogs, and a growing culture of international social networking, I never managed to get my act together and repeat that experience. When I look back at that original Palau Expedition web page, it looks embarrassingly quaint. To be fair, I think it was somewhat ahead of its time (indeed, as far as I can determine, it was one of the first scientific expedition “blogs” ever). So it is with a mixture of nostalgia and excitement that I write this first post for the 2014 Pohnpei expedition website. In the coming days and weeks I, along with other members of our team, plan to post many more updates, complete with photos and (bandwidth permitting) video clips highlighting our discoveries. Please check back often, and feel free to post questions in the comments section! But most of all, we hope you enjoy the ride!