Reef and Gardner Pinnacles
by Brad Evans
The transit Saturday night from our anchorage off the west side of Laysan Island to Maro Reef started late. Maybe 1:30 AM. This gave a chance for the researchers to be soundly asleep when the engines started and the gentle rocking of the boat changed from a slow side to side roll to a definite pitching bow to stern. Once again we were heading into the tradewinds and the disorganized swell that they create.
When the motor revved up, I was still awake, processing and e-mailing digital images to send back to Honolulu. As we left I took one last look at Laysan with the just waning moon overhead. The shallow waters to the west of island shimmered and I could see a dim glow from the US Fish and Wildlife camp where we had just dropped off Chris and Eric. It looked like they were up late on their first night on the island.
At dinner Saturday night, Dwayne, an invertebrate specialist, told us his stories of diving at Maro. His descriptions made me happy that I couldn't pass the strict requirements to be able to dive on this expedition. "Murky, lots of currents, sharky...." Enough for me. With Dwayne it was hard to know when he was just messing with you, though. Nevertheless, I think that Dwayne had convinced most of the divers their bottom time at Maro, our penultimate stop on the expedition, was not going to as interesting as previous dives.
Just looking at the charts and satellite photos of Maro Reef made even the most experienced sailors and divers on board scratch their heads. Maro would look less odd if it had a fringing reef surrounding it. As it was, Maro appeared to be a lagoon in search of an atoll. The reef was built up of lines of coral forming kilometer-long c-shapes, squiggles, and isolated bumps. Basically, the reef looked like a mariner's nightmare: twisting shallows, abrupt changes of depth, and marks on the charts that said "foul" and "breakers".
When we arrived in the vicinity of Maro Reef, Scott anchored about 3 kilometers to the southwest. With the northeast trades blowing, our anchorages had all been on the lee sides of islands and atolls. That way the energy of swell waves were dissipated by breaking against the shoreline. In the case of Maro, even though there is no emerged land, the shallow bathymetry, the shape of the underwater landscape, caused the waves to break, protecting us as we bobbed in the water.
The dive teams were in the water as soon as possible despite Dwayne's stories. The sediment team got started early too since our careful anchorage southeast of the far west end of the reef system would mean long trips in the zodiacs. While the teams were out working, I had a chance to do computer housekeeping: downloading digital photos, moving files from the "To send" to the "Sent" directory, choosing and preparing the best photos from the past few days to send for web posting.
The first of the dive teams arrived back at the Rapture for a late lunch, around 1:30. When I asked Jim Maragos how the first dive was, I didn't expect to hear good news. Jim's tanned face lit up. When it comes to diving, Jim is all business, no fooling around.
"Best coral coverage I have ever seen in Hawaii."
"You're kidding right?"
He wasn't. For Jim, a great dive isn't the size or number of fish. He's a coral researcher. He jokes that he spends so much time looking at the substrate when diving, if a shark came up it would bite his head off before he knew it was there. The spot they had picked was covered with coral, not necessarily rare ones or new species, but almost a complete cover of the seafloor - a rare thing in Hawaiian waters.
The other team led by Dave Gulko was similarly pleased to find Dwayne's predictions of less than ideal conditions wrong. The teams ate a quick lunch and were ready for their second dives of the day. Both teams came back and had to admit that Dwayne was at least partially right. Dark, murky conditions made their last dives of the day a letdown from the morning.
After dinner, the crew leaders convened to decide how the rest of the trip should be planned. We had planed to stay Sunday night at Maro, moving to the eastern section of the reef Monday, then moving on to Gardner Pinnacles over Monday night. After a half-day of diving, we would start to Honolulu, expecting a fifty-one hour transit. This would get us into our Aloha Tower berth Thursday afternoon.
A late Thursday afternoon arrival meant that agricultural inspectors and customs agents might not meet us until the next day. Because of the hectic schedules of the researchers and crew, any delay at the docks would be a disaster. People had plans to fly to Indonesia, California, and other distant places, so we thought it better to play it safe. We decided to start off immediately for the Gardner Pinnacles, sailing for twelve hours over Sunday night. Once there we would dive, access the island and leave for Honolulu Monday night.
The dry erase board where the daily plan is posted said "ETA Gardner Pinnacles: 11:30 AM". True enough, the engines slowed Monday morning right on cue as we came up on the pinnacles. Many of the descriptions of the Gardner Pinnacles say that the basalt peaks look snowcapped from the millennia of guano that seabirds had left on the rocks. Not to be contrary, or spoil a nice metaphor, but they looked like rocks that birds like to sit on. When I had visited Southeast Island in the Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Laysan, I was struck by the pungent smell of guano - like ammonia, but different. A kilometer downwind of Gardner, the smell was still strong.
Gordon Nishida spent the day clambering up the rocks collecting insects. Before he left the boat he said that seven insect species were known from the island. The last time that anyone could remember an entomological survey was during the Tanager Expedition in 1923-24. Monte, Aulani, Dave and Jen joined him on the rocks while the divers spent their time underwater, doing their transects and collecting specimens. The dive teams came back to the Rapture for lunch and watched the videos of the dive they had just completed. Jason asked "Why do you guys want to see where we were just an hour ago?". But the teams had fun making snarky comments back to the television about people's wetsuits, their tans (or lack thereof), their hair, or their collection techniques.
The land crew came back after a whole day on the island hungry but happy. Monte had taken plenty of great shots of the birds. Gordon thought that he had collected more species of bugs than were previously known on the island, maybe even a two undiscovered species of spiders. The divers from the last Rapid Ecological Assessment Team got back to the boat let out a big whooop - NO MORE DIVES ! Their schedule of three dives a day for a month was exhausting. All told the Rapture had hosted more than 900 dives by dozens of different people in the past thirty days without a single accident or injury. This safety record is a remarkable accomplishment given the weather and the number of researchers on different dive plans and zodiacs. A large part of the credit goes to the crew of the Rapture.
Now all we have ahead of us is the trip home and soon it will be back to all those pedestrian activities of normal life: shopping, paying bills, going to work, and dealing with traffic and car alarms. The transit to Honolulu looks like it will be a gnarly two days into the wind and swell. Make's me wonder how the this ocean got it's name - doesn't seem particularly pacific to me. And while the dives may be finished for the researchers, they have a month's worth of data on the algae, fish, coral, sediment, plants, birds, and water quality of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to begin to organize and analyze. And when it's time to take a break, there's always foosball, cards, videos to watch, and if the muse strikes, there are guitars and an accordian to play.
Many of us were excited over breakfast this morning at the thought of arriving in Honolulu in less than 48 hours. But that mood was tempered somewhat when the ship's engines suddenly went quiet and Captain Scott McClung called First Mate Noah Bailey to the bridge right away. We had run over a big pile of cargo or fishing net and it had tied up one prop or engine stopping us from moving. While the confident and capable crew jumped into action to untangle the engine clog, I jumped for my camera gear, excited at the chance to work, to get into the middle of things.
I was looking for a visual sequence to tell the story, or, perhaps a little drama reflected on the faces of Scott as he wrestled with his scuba equipment or Noah over the radio communicating with his divers below. Maybe slowing down the shutter speed, adding some blur or motion to the images, would more easily convey the urgency and sense of immediacy of the situation I thought. But most of all I was hoping to find shots that might reveal the character of this crew - professional, level-headed, focused - which has kept us safe throughout our adventure, with whom we've trusted with our lives. These kinds of pictures are difficult to find even under the best of circumstances. Shooting photo-journalistically, it usually requires spending lots of time with your subject. But I was hopeful.
After a short time the Rapture team dislodged the netting successfully and we were on our way home again. According to Noah, this is a regular occurrence - particularly on trips outside the main Hawaiian Islands and in the zone between 30 degrees and the equator where there is a convergence of currents that encourages coagulation of the stuff. The marine debris story is significant and I thought this incident might serve as illustration.
As our trip comes to a close, I think of moments had that will remain with me for a long time: snorkeling in shallow water of Kure with hundreds of aholehole surrounding and encircling me so tightly I could have felt trapped; investigating a gang of young red-footed boobies in a beach heliotrope tree that were so unafraid of my presence that a few hovered overhead close enough to touch and, in fact, landed on my head occasionally; and feeling intrigued, and at the same moment, afraid of a very assertive, 120-pound, black ulua in the deepish-water pass of Pearl & Hermes Reef.
My background in photography has made it possible for me to be a part of this expedition, an opportunity for which I am grateful. It's the subject matter that interests me most. I'm easily excited by anything having to do with the ocean and this project has afforded me experiences that solidify that connection.