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The Home Stretch
by Brad Evans
 

Out of the starboard windows of the salon, we are passing the island of Ni'ihau and its small neighbor, Lehua. Until today, like most people in Hawai‘i, my only view of Ni'ihau has been from the east, from the island of Kaua'i. Ni'ihau was sold to private landowners in the 1800's and since then visitation has been very tightly regulated. Now there are only a few hundred people on Ni'ihau, mostly working for the ranching company who own the island. The controls on visiting the island have sheltered it from much of the modern world's changes and because of this, the population of Ni'ihau speaks Hawaiian as their first language and they maintain many cultural traditions forgotten or out of fashion in other places throughout Hawai‘i.

Just after lunch today we spotted the islands. Coming from the west, the small island of Lehua off Ni'ihau's north coast looks like a less rugged version of Diamond Head on O'ahu. Just like Diamond Head, the explosive eruptions that created Lehua probably happened during a period of tradewinds, pushing ejecta to the southwest, giving the craters their distinctive asymmetrical look. The resemblance to Diamond Head reminds me of home. The beaches on Ni'ihau seem to stretch on for miles on the north and west, while the east side drops off in a shear cliff.

As I write 'Aulani comes down from the stateroom where we send and receive e-mail messages with a huge grin. She tells me that the stories and photos we have worked so hard to send had been featured on another group of prominent web sites and newspapers. After I stop jumping up and down hooting, I remember the meeting that we had earlier in the day. At the meeting I had realized the double-edge of our efforts to bring people along to see the sights of the NWHI.

At the morning's meeting, we gathered around one table and each researcher in turn announced their preliminary findings, impressions, or realizations from the trip; Jim talked about how he was stunned by the pristine quality of the reefs in the NWHI; Bill talked about hypotheses about fish size, ecosystem reactions to pressures like fishing, and comparisons with the reef communities of Big Island; Erica, Ralph, Duane and Ryan said they needed to get back to the lab to deal with classifying of the specimens. Dave Gulko, a coral reef biologist, was one of the last to speak and he put the expedition and the next part of our efforts into perspective.

"The reason why we see these huge fearless fish and such a diversity of other species is because they are remote and unexploited. Every picture we send out has to have the correct message - that these places need to remain off-limits. These really are the last unspoiled coral reef ecosystems in the world. We all have a responsibility now that we have visited these places."

It's easy on an expedition like this to lose your perspective. Frankly, despite the long hours and lack of the usual conveniences, this trip has been a blast. Interesting people, incredible wildlife, and the satisfaction of a job well done. In all of the excitement, you want to forget that there are not many people who can, or maybe even should, visit the islands and reefs of the NWHI. The same tight control of visitation to Ni'ihau that allows the original language of these islands to flourish in an unbroken chain also applies to these wild natural places. For that chance to see such a place, everyone on board feels profoundly lucky.

The scientists aboard describe the NWHI as what the main islands of Hawai‘i may have looked like almost 2000 years ago, before the coming of humans. As the resources of Hawai‘i's reef are pressured by overfishing, many worry that people's eyes will turn to the NWHI. Especially now since our expedition and others have sent pictures showing plentiful, easy to catch food species. From talking to the scientists and managers aboard the Rapture during the cruise, they think that even small regulated catches of fish or lobster might upset the balance of these pristine marine ecosystems, and that even low-impact eco-tourism to these remote islands would undoubtedly introduce alien insects and plant species that could wipe out terrestrial species.

This is my last journal entry for the expedition, and on the last night of the expedition the mood in the salon is upbeat - people listening to music on the PA system, a surf video playing on the TV, a card game is going on over on the port side, lots of smiles and laughter. So I don't want to finish on a down note. I don't see the islands that we have visited as places that should be forbidden to humanity. They are places that should be important and should be preserved for many of the same reasons as we could care for a precious rare book, an irreplaceable family heirloom, a masterpiece of art or music. They are beyond price because we decide that they are, not for any economic decision. Since we know how delicate these reefs, islands and lagoons are, we are all responsible to see that they thrive as they have for millions of years.

Remote Sensing Team
by Daria Siciliano

Growing up in Rome, Italy, I often found myself stuck in traffic on my trusty Vespa scooter dreaming about some remote tropical islands in the middle of nowhere as a way to escape the frustrations of the busy, congested city life. I couldn't have anticipated at that time, that some 10 years later, my job would be to carry out research on the coral reefs of some of the most isolated and remote tropical islands in the world, places much like those envisioned in my teenage dreams, located almost exactly 180ƒ of longitude away from my home country.

I have the privilege of being here since I work on remote sensing techniques to monitor coral reef ecosystems as part of my Ph.D. thesis. The strength of remote sensing technology in assessing and monitoring marine ecosystems lies in the ability to obtain digital images covering large areas simultaneously and objectively, in order to get "the big picture" in patterns of distribution of habitats and ecological units, and in the potential for re-visiting these sites periodically to assess changes in the health and extent of the reefs. The NWHI are ideal candidates for this type of work. These islands and their associated reefs cover huge geographical extent, and their remoteness and isolation greatly restricts access and hinder in-situ ecological evaluations of their biota, except for carefully planned operations such as this REA expedition -the first of its kind. The strength of this project lies in the possibility of linking the detailed in-situ observations gathered by the REA teams, which are restricted to few localities, with the less detailed but larger scale surveys made possible by remote sensing acquisitions for this area. My specialty is working with a particular remote sensing platform called hyperspectral imaging, which represents the newest generation of optical remote sensors and shows great potential in assessing and monitoring the diversity of sessile benthic fauna and flora and of the habitats they associate with. Since this is a relatively new technique, especially as applied to marine ecosystems, in-situ work is needed to characterize these habitats and provide baseline data that will aid in the analysis of the imagery. To that end, every day for the past 6 weeks I have been diving in the waters surrounding the 10 islands constituting the NWHI chain carrying around a couple of handy optical instruments that allow me to spectrally characterize the benthic communities as well as to better understand the effect of the water column as light travels though this medium.

I also feel fortunate to be the only person in this expedition to have had the opportunity to dive all 10 of the North Western Hawaiian Islands, without exceptions! That privilege comes from the opportunity I had to be one of two people who participated in both legs of the expedition, for a total of 6 weeks of intense diving. For the first leg of the trip I was carried from one island to the next by the NOAA research vessel Townsend Cromwell, and then hopped on the research vessel Rapture once we reached Midway Atoll. Experiencing the different organizational approaches of the two research vessels was interesting and instructional. The smaller scientific complement of the Cromwell (about 10 scientists) allowed for greater daily exchange of information and facilitated interactions among the scientists, compared to the more scattered atmosphere aboard the Rapture, which comprised about 32 scientists at any one time (and a lot more room to spread out). The Cromwell expedition benefited from the navigational expertise of the crew who periodically sails the NWHI waters to deliver goods and supplies to the teams of terrestrial biologists that set up seasonal field camps on the islands. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Rapture crew would fill all of our SCUBA tanks every day, a task I didn't miss as I left the Cromwell (it can be daunting to have to fill 30 tanks per day with an 8 cu ft / minute compressor at the end of a long diving day!). Needless to say, this has been an incredible experience, both on a professional and on a personal level. It has been great to work with many of the top experts in Hawaiian coral reef biology, and it has been interesting to see how productive an inter-agency collaboration can be. Next time I will go back home for a visit, and find myself stuck in traffic in Rome, I won't have to think too hard to picture some exotic tropical island in the middle of nowhere. I'll think of Kure or Pearl and Hermes atolls, and it will make any rough day easier.

 

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