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Change of Plans
by Brad Evans

Sunrise at Pearl
and Hermes Atoll

Morning broke over our southern anchorage on our last full day at the Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Since we make calls to O'ahu schools, radio and tv stations, we have kept our watches and the ship's clock on Honolulu time. Since we are so far west of Honolulu though, the sun rises at 7:30 our time, and sets after 7:00 pm. Likewise, when I look at my watch when it says 12 noon, the sun is still to the east of straight up. As we move back toward the Main Islands the sun and our timekeeping will slowly get back into synch. The upshot of the time shift is that I've seen more sunrises in the last few days that in the last couple of years - I'm not much of a morning person.

The daily plan for the teams aboard Rapture is in the salon on a dry-erase white board. The prinicpal investigators meet after dinner to discuss where the ship should anchor, what time zodiacs will leave with which teams, and where each of the teams will go. Since many of the scientists aboard have travelled from far outside of Hawaii and they only have a limited time at each of the stops along our way, careful planning is important. A couple days of bad visibility for divers, broken equipment, or large waves that make getting into the zodiacs too dangerous can seriously cut into the work of the expedition.

The tentative plan this morning was to sent a zodiac to the Townsend Cromwell to drop off Rex from the Media Team. He was going to spent the day getting footage of the TC's crew as part of their marine debris cleanup cruise. Monte, Aulani, Chris and I dropped him off at the TC while the Rapture got underway to drop off the zodiacs for a series of dives about three miles east of Southeast Island. Once there, the researchers hoped to check out the damage to the reef caused by the grounding of the Swordman I, a fishing boat, last June. I asked Jim Maragos what he thought the might find there last night. Large waves had pushed the boat a few hundred yards more onto the reef between the time of the wreck and when tugboats arrived to remove it earlier this summer. He thought that more damage to the coral reef may have occurred during the salvage of the boat, two months after it ran aground.

Bird in flight, Pearl
and Hermes Atoll

After we dropped of Rex, Chris piloted us into the lagoon to try and find good snorkeling conditions for Monte to take underwater photos. As we sped through the pass that is the safest entrance to the lagoon, we caught a transmission from the Rapture. Scott, Rapture's captain was letting us know that the 25 knot plus winds and the rising windswell had convinced him that putting people and equipment into the water, much less letting them get a close up look at the wreck site in the surf, was far too dangerous to try. Time to change plans. The Rapture turned around and anchored off Southeast Island again and the teams of researchers headed back out into the lagoon - they may have lost an hour of dive time and a chance to check out the wreck site but when the ocean conditions change, so do the plans.

'Aulani Wilhelm
in the shallows

By the time that the Rapture had returned to Southeast Island Chris, Monte, Aulani and I were stopping every few minutes to try to find good subjects for Monte to shoot (and material for Aulani and me to write about). Since this was my first chance on the trip to get into the water with snorkel gear, I was loving it - beautiful branching coral and bright lime-green-yellow encrusting corals. But for Aulani and Monte who had seen some even nicer sections of the reef, our first stop wasn't what they were looking for. And if it got better than what I saw, I was ready to move on too.

Brown Noddies at
Pearl and Hermes Atoll

We had the additional problem in the passing low clouds and high cirrus that reduced the amount of light for Monte's underwater shots. After trying unsuccessfully to find a section of the lagoon with an interesting variety of corals and algae, we wound up on the southwest side of the pass, near a small sand bar, inhabited by a few brown noddies.

Monte Costa hard at
work, Pearl and Hermes Atoll

Monte had given up on getting good underwater shots with the lack of light and the fairly murky water. Time for our change of plan. She spent about 10 minutes changing her camera gear so that she could take half and half shots - pictures with a split of above and underwater in one frame. She got into the water and began to move toward the islet when from a Hawaiian Monk Seal Rounded the corner. We watched as the seal bellyflopped its way up the sand bar.

A monk seal swims
close by, investigating us

I figured it was there to bask for the rest of the day, so I couldn't help but laugh when the seal got to the top and simply rolled back down the incline it had just climbed. It got back into the water and continued swimming around the sandy spit. We soon realized it was a mother seal, making sure that the island was safe when her pup came around the corner where she had first appeared.

Turtle basking in the sun

We backed away so that we didn't interrupt the behavior, and the two were soon basking on another smaller sand bar about 50 yards to the south west. The island we were at didn't stay uninhabited for long - a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle took the spot that the seals passed up.

Later on the murky water seemed to have cleared a little and so we tried to find a spot on the reef that Aulani and Monte had visited the day before. We soon found it, dropped the anchor and got our gear ready. As soon as we got in the water we realized that the current was too strong to snorkel against, especially for Monte who had her hands full with a camera housing. Change of plan. Chris decided that we should put Aulani and Monte up current and slowly motor behind them as the current pulled them along. At any sign of a problem Chris and I would motor over and get them out of the water within seconds.

Seemed like a good plan. Monte and Aulani hopped in and kept an eye on each other as they explored the deep pass. After less than a minute in the water we saw the two of them slowly turning circles in the water. "I think the see something" I said just as Monte gave a quick wave of the hand. We had them inside the zodiac fast and with the shaky voice that adrenaline gives you, they told us about the Galapagos Shark that had gotten a little too close for comfort. It was only around a four footer (but a shark) so Aulani and Monte soon relaxed and were ready to hit the water again.

So, we dropped them off. Watched them swim for a minute or so and then start slowly turning around in the water again. Only this time we could see the fish too - a huge black ulua. It saw the zodiac and circled us too, tilting his body to the side to get a good look at us. Then he headed back for Monte and Aulani swimming right at them and not acting very friendly. When Aulani was back in the boat thirty seconds later, she said that the ulua was easily as big as Monte. Now, Monte is petite, but that was a big fish - five feet long and probably 120 pounds. After that we had a new plan - no more snorkeling. Since the divers had been showing us videos of ulua chasing away sharks, we knew that they were not to taken lightly.

When we got back to the Rapture in the midafternoon, we met up with researchers in the salon. The Sediment / Ground Truthing team was dealing with their own change of plans. The previous three days had been so productive that they didn't need to spend their last day at Pearl and Hermes gathering more data. Instead they had begun the long work of interpreting their readings a day early. Some changes of plans are better than others, and I'm glad that our changes gave us some chance meetings with some of the lagoon's more impressive wildlife.


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