by Brad Evans
The Rapture reached the waters off Laysan Island early Saturday morning. While the trip the previous day was "snotty", as Captain Scott McClung had predicted, the conditions today looked great for us to go ashore and get our work done. From about two kilometers off the western side of the island it looked like a thin two-layer cake - a bottom of light sandy color and a top layer of green. Squinting into the rising sun over the island, I could see a small grove of coconut trees sticking up above the green and a few low shapes that when we went ashore later turned out to be the US Fish and Wildlife camp. The sight of a green carpet on Laysan stands in stark contrast to what Alexander Wetmore wrote in his diary as he approached the island during the Tanager Expedition 77 years ago:
"Two coconut trees rose in front of a half a dozen low tumbledown buildings with a low bush or two at either side were the only signs of vegetation. Birds were everywhere but there was no sign of green."
The desolate island that Wetmore saw had been denuded by the release of rabbits on the island in 1903 or 1904 which had driven to extinction several endemic plant species. When the island was discovered in 1828, scientists believe that four of the twenty-seven plants that were found on the island were endemic, found no where else in the world, as were five of the twenty-two bird species that used the island for breeding, and an unknown number of insects. The devastation caused by the rabbits drove three of the native land bird species extinct. The ruined buildings Wetmore described were the remains of a guano mining operation that had functioned off and on from 1890 until the guano was deplete twenty years later. Those buildings are long gone and the US Fish and Wildlife camp has sprung up where they once stood.
We would have about eight hours on the island and there was plenty to do. For Eric and Chris, the two US Fish and Wildlife biologists that we were dropping off at Laysan for a six month stay, today was the last day they would see other people until March. Their food, supplies, personal effects, and materiel for the camp filled 75 five-gallon buckets, taking up an entire stateroom on the boat. Each bucket was labeled by content - "Eric toiletries", "Beans", "Radio, batteries". Like the other islands that the NOWRAMP expedition has visited, all the buckets that went ashore were brand new and their contents new and recently frozen to kill alien seeds and insects. In light of the continuing, though unfinished, success story of Laysan's revegetation, measures had to be strict to not lose any ground.
Rapture's crew and all of the members of the NOWRAMP expedition ate their breakfasts quickly so we could help to transfer the supplies bucket-brigade style from the boat to its four zodiacs. We reached the island, gliding up to the steep white sandy beach on the west side of the island, as the island's only human inhabitants came down to meet us. Jen and Bojo (a nickname short for another nickname - Barnaby Jones - the origin was a long story he assured me) said hello to us. We were the first people they had seen since July when they landed on Laysan.
We unloaded the zodiacs and started to put Jen and Bojo's outgoing containers on the boats. Bad conditions had prevented previous changeouts of the Laysan crew to remove all of the buckets, used equipment, and trash that should have been removed, so we loaded as much into the zodiacs as possible. In the end we took off of the island about nearly double what we brought ashore. Lots of the buckets had glass or aluminum for recycling. The camp had three large canvas tents built on top of platforms, a tarp covering a number of five-gallon water containers, and a table in the main area. In a windstorm a couple of years ago the old tents were shredded. The new tents seem able to withstand some serious weather. Bojo and Jen pointed out their hurricane shelter just in case the weather turned really bad.
In the next few hours, Jen and Bojo had to explain all of the workings of the camp to Chris and Eric. The camp is just a few tens of meters up from the west side beach that we landed on. Chris had already done one six month stint on Laysan, but a number of changes had taken place since he was there three years ago - the tents had been updated, a couple of rare native plants had been successfully propagated in the new shadehouse (sort of the opposite of a greenhouse), and new equipment for cooking and communication had been installed. The crews exchanged information on the progress of the weeding and revegetation efforts that have brought about a stunning turn around of native plant species on Laysan. One alien weed, cenchrus (pronounced SEHN-krus), introduced to Laysan in the 1960's, had come to cover more than a quarter of the island. Since 1991, the USFWS has targeted this species and now the weed is nearly beaten.
Stuart and Renee were in a hurry as well. They had come along on for two weeks aboard Rapture for this single day - a chance to get a close look at the hypersaline lake in the center of Laysan. We helped them carry a coolerful of sampling equipment and an inflatable raft down from the camp, to the northwestern corner of the lake. Plastic poles that seemed to zigzag like a ski slalom course marked the trail. The ground is honeycombed with Wedge-Tailed Shearwater burrows, so despite the fact that we wanted to move quickly, we had to choose our steps carefully. Even on the trail you would occasionally collapse a burrow. Bojo and I were in front carrying the inflatable raft when I was suddenly up to my knees in the sandy soil. We put down our gear and began to dig out the hole to make sure that a chick wasn't inside.
I felt horrible when I heard the little squeaks of a shocked shearwater chick as Jen and Bojo carefully dug. They reassured me by saying me that the gray, down-covered chick was nearly ready to fly as they made a mat of Eragrostis grass to recreate a safe burrow for the chick. Their businesslike manner and calm optimism for this chick had no doubt come from hard experience. We finally reached the muddy flats that surround the lake and put down our loads breathing a sigh of relief now that the seabird burrows were behind us.
Stuart and Renee's plan was to take salinity measurements and water samples from various parts of the lake and study the samples for microbial life back on Oahu after the expedition. While Stuart and Renee started calibrating their instruments, Gordon was off to the north end of the lake to collect insects in the small grove of coconuts.
While we took pictures and asked questions of Renee and Stuart, Bojo was surprised as an immature Brown Booby landed on his forearm. "This is the first time this has happened! And on the last day!" He lowered his arm as Jen moved hers close by and the booby changed its perch. Soon the bird spread his wings, caught the light easterly winds, and swooped away. The smiles on Jen's and Bojo's faces were those of two people heartbroken to leave a place that they had grown to love, then receiving the most poignant going away present that they could have imagined.
By this time, it was nearly noon and we hadn't yet seen the Laysan Duck - one of the rarest ducks in the world, a bird that only lives on Laysan. With only six hours before the zodiac picked us up and miles of hiking and searching ahead of us, we had to start looking for the birds, and finding them, fast. We all knew that we wouldn't forgive ourselves if we didn't see the birds on our only day on the island. Aulani, Monte, Rex and I divvied up the heavy photographic and video equipment, packed up some water and food and started working our way around the lake clockwise from the northwest, around the whole lake if necessary, to see these endangered birds.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Shootin' the Curl!
Let's see, I missed a few days because we were traveling in really heavy seas and I was pretty busy and didn't get around to it. So sue me. I was gonna write about shootin' the curl as we came out of Pearl and Hermes lagoon in the launch and we were going across the face of these huge swells and we looked like those outrigger canoes at Waikiki that ride the waves like a surfboard and are completely packed with hysterical sunburned tourists. But other things have transpired since then and I'm not inspired by that story anymore. Needless to say, Chris thought it was cool. Michelle and Tom were unconcerned; they'd been through much bigger back at Nihoa. I played it cool. It was a bit of a struggle.
We left Pearl and Hermes at 10:00 a.m. yesterday morning and got here, Laysan, at about 8:00 a.m. We hit 14-foot swells during the night. It was a pretty rocky run and we had a few cases of seasickness. Dramamine was my savior.
Laysan is pretty small. It's about a mile and a half long and it has a big lake in the middle (which we didn't get to see 'cause no one's allowed on unless they wear clothes that have been frozen, etc.) We picked up two people who'd been living there for who knows how long and we dropped off two guys who are gonna stay there and bird count and, I'm not making this up, weed. It's called "species annihilation." There's some foreign weeds on the island and they're gonna try and get every last one of them. They'll be picked up by another research vessel, get ready for this, at the end of March! They have the entire ships respect and sympathy.
It was really rough this morning so we were only able to ground-truth and take sediments at a couple of sites on the western side of the island. We were fortunate enough to have one of the scientists on the island get us a sediment sample from the lake and one of the divers brought us back a deep sample from the outer reef. We found a terrific stretch of reef close to the beach and snorkeled for a long time. Tom, Michelle, and Chris saw some white tipped reef sharks while I was haplessly floundering around somewhere else. We went back later in the day with the divers and went for another snorkel. I wanted to see the reef sharks so I headed off vigorously in the direction they were sited. I stopped at one point to ask Michelle exactly where they saw them and was totally grossed out by a bunch of bird feathers in the water. Anyway, I was bugging Michelle about the sharks when she said that it probably wasn't such a good idea just then as, a: it was getting late in the day and, b: the feathers floating in the water used to be a gooney bird (at that moment I spied some beak and bones) and it was probably the work of a tiger shark. I contented myself with the huge trevalley that showed up not too much later.
We're gonna pull anchor tonight and head on down to Maro so we arrive first thing. We're not sure how we're gonna do down there as it's not an atoll but open reef. That means the waves are gonna wreak havoc on the launches. The captain has warned us that it will again be a bumpy ride. *great*
We had Cajun chicken and dirty rice for dinner courtesy of the boys from Pensacola. They usual crowd is in the corner playing hearts and another group is reviewing the days video. Ryan, my roommate, is making slides. I'm getting ready to type in the ground-truthing observations. Maybe we'll watch a film later tonight. Anything but "The Perfect Storm" or "The Poseidon Adventure" is cool with me. Aloha and goodnight from Laysan, the isle of flies!
Next Installment: Why Wind and Huge Swells Make Long Distance Traveling on the High Seas Not as Much Fun as it Could Be.