by Brad Evans
The four of us had less than six hours left on Laysan Island. Not much time to find our way around the hypersaline lake, locate the Laysan Duck, take as many pictures and as much video footage as possible, and make it back to the west side beach where we would catch a zodiac back to the Rapture. By this time tomorrow we'd be anchored at Maro Reef, more than 100 kilometers to the east. The time crunch wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't for the strange beautiful island that we were exploring. It was hard to hurry when so many exotic sights presented themselves whenever you turned around: curious seabirds hovering two feet overhead, huge surf crashing on the windward side beach with spray ten meters high, sand dunes, clouds of bright red brine shrimp in the lake, cryptic bits of plastic trash that had drifted in from who knows where. The light was perfect for Monte's photos and the winds were light so Rex could record the sounds as well as the sights on video. Plus they had Aulani and me to carry extra rolls of film, batteries, lenses, and other photographic equipment. There were so many subjects to interest us so it was hard to pursue our real goal.
We left the mud flats on the northwestern corner of the hypersaline lake at the center of Laysan, slowly working around the island to the northeast corner. Bojo had told us that the ducks like to spend time there in a small ephemeral lake that had just recently filled up. The island had gotten nearly three inches of rain in a single day about a month before, and the small seasonal lake had filled up once again to a depth of an inch or so. The small pond was surrounded by cyperus, a rushlike sedge. Hawaiians had used the plant to weave baskets and fish weirs but the plant is now rare in the main islands and people have turned to other fishing techniques. Crossing the cyperus was a slow job, like walking in molasses, as the stems slowly bent under your weight, making a mat underfoot.
We searched the smaller pond but there were no ducks to be found. Since it was Bojo and Jen's last day on the island, they needed to go back to the camp and get their replacements up to speed on the island and the work to be done in the coming months. As they left they told us to walk down the eastern side of the lake, looking for freshwater seeps where the ducks might be. We nodded, though none of us knew what a freshwater seep on the shore a hypersaline lake on a low coral island might look like. "They usually come out in the evening, when it's not so hot" Bojo said. We didn't want to hear that since our own deadline was 6:00pm.
In a barren patch of coral sand I saw a broken kukui nut - amazing - the nearest kukui tree somewhere on the west coast of Kauai, a thousand kilometers to the southeast. Nearby were the bones of an albatross, probably a chick that had not survived the last fledging season. Here and there were albatross eggs that had never hatched. Bojo and Jen had warned us not to get near them since with the heat of the sun they sometimes exploded. It did not smell good, they assured us. The eggs were so big, smooth, so pretty I couldn't resist. The albatross eggs were laid more than six months ago and were light despite their size. I was lucky and didn't pop one. Bojo and Jen had seen the last of the fledglings off when they had arrived in July and the birds should be returning within the next month. They were hoping that they might catch an early returning albatross before they left, closing the circle in a way. Sorry to say that they were disappointed.
On the east side of the lake the ground was completely covered with beach morning glory. With its wide shiny leaves and curving tangle of stems, it was hard to believe that Laysan was nearly devoid of all plants only eight decades ago. The rabbits that were intentionally introduced onto the island in the early years of the last century devastated the vegetation to the extent that the population had ballooned then crashed as the island was turned into a desert in less that twenty years. The loss of vegetation was a disaster for three of the five endemic landbirds of the island. By the early 1920's, the Laysan Rail, Laysan Apapane, and the Laysan Millerbird were extinct and the Laysan Finch and Laysan Duck were in dire straits. The rabbits were exterminated by 1925 and revegetation efforts began soon after. One estimate in the 1930's put the Laysan Duck population at a single individual - the slenderest of threads to hang from over the pit of extinction.
Low-lying bushes on our left and the strange purplish lake at our right, we headed south, looking for the ducks. As we walked, immature 'iwa, frigatebirds, would eye us warily and squawk if we came too close. Aulani likes them - says they're sassy and have a great attitude. I think they look like bald vultures with long hooked beaks - creepy.
I prefer the boobies with their heavy bills and more regal look. I got up close to a couple of boobies who stood their ground, slowly swinging their heads back and forth. As we walked down the lakeside, some birds like the 'iwa and boobies didn't mind our presence. Others like kolea, curlews, and tattlers were skittish and would fly away before we were very close at all. Others like the noio, or Brown Noddy, fell somewhere in-between.
It was hot going and occasionally the path down the east side of the lake was easier in the water than over the morning glory or grasses. The water was cool on my feet. Since my tabis were black, my feet were warm anyway and we had been walking for about four hours by now, stopping every once and a while to take pictures of birds. Ankle deep was about as far as I wanted to get into the lake - albatross carcasses dotted the shallow water and the smell hinted at the water's dirty nature.
Aulani and I joked that our teammates, Rex and Monte, were on photographer's time - SLOW. It seemed like a shot that should take ten seconds would take ten minutes. But that's the amateurs talking. Rex and Monte are professionals and they knew exactly what they were doing. We came up on another small side pond surrounded by cyperus. Here were the ducks that we had been looking for. Rex and Monte slowly advanced in tandem, looking like a pair of lions hunting, low and slow in the grass. Aulani and I hung back as the two pros went to work.
The Laysan Duck is small. They used to be called Laysan Teals, teals being smaller cousins of ducks, but I suppose a scientist had figured that they were more closely related to the duck than the teal side of the family - don't ask me how. Their plumage wasn't spectacular in color, but the patterns were beautiful. It looked almost like tortoise shell with veins of dark brown and gold weaving and curling around one another. I counted twenty birds. Estimates of the population of the Laysan Duck range around 600, all found on the 900 acres of Laysan Island.
We made our way around the southern shore of the lake. As we rounded the southwestern corner, I now saw clearly what I had thought were white salt flats when we were across the lake. Mounds of white foam were blowing across the surface of the lake and mounding up, caught here at the shore. Some drifts were a foot thick and quivered as the wind blew over them, bits splitting off and rolling over the mud flats nearby, getting stuck in the grass nearby. I couldn't help it - I started whistling "Winter Wonderland". When we got back to camp Bojo and Jen told us that the foam is mostly made up bacteria and other stuff that is left over as the water evaporates. The foam builds up on the downwind side of the lake, changing with the weather.
When we returned to the camp, there was about an hour left before we returned to the ship. After our hike, we had a quick drink of water at the communal tent and walked down to the beach to cool off in the ocean. Perfect crystal blue water. Monk seals a hundred yards down the beach in both directions. Time to just relax and soak it up while we could. We watched as the scuba teams on the reef pulled in their members and headed back to the Rapture on their zodiacs. Soon it was our turn. We said goodbye to Chris and Eric, Laysan's new caretakers - we were the last people they will see for six months. Bojo and Jen said goodbye to the birds and plants they had come to love - both said they already are planning on returning for another tour of duty on Laysan. From the island we slowly headed into the direction of the sunset and the Rapture. Soon we would be underway for Maro Reef, sailing all night, for dives and study on Sunday.