Featured Seawords Article

Featured Seawords Article October 2017

How Far I’ll Go
MOP Graduates on the 2017 Kiritimati Expedition

We have all seen the documentaries on Discovery Channel, BBC, or National Geographic of the small teams of scientists doing incredible work in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps you have also wondered, “What would it be like to do that someday?” This past July, I was privileged to answer this question with a team of five other scientists during the University of Victoria’s 2017 expedition to Kiritimati Island (pronounced “Kirisimas” like “Christmas”). Of the small six-person team, four of us were University of Hawai’i and Marine Option Program (MOP) graduates. The field work during the month-long expedition was rigorous and intense. Perhaps I have never worked so hard in my life. In exchange, the pristine white sandy beaches of the largest atoll in the world graced us with their beauty every day. The experience and personal growth each of us had on the expedition made it all the more worthwhile on what most would consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Before we set foot on Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribas”), was almost a year’s worth of logistics orchestrated by University of Victoria’s Kiritimati Island Project Manager, Kristina Tietijen (UH Hilo Marine Science and MOP alumna). This expedition was made possible through the research lab of Associate Professor and Principle Investigator, Dr. Julia Baum and her graduate student, Jenn Magel. The Baum Lab set out to recruit three additional members which would mark a decade’s worth of consecutive research. Selected from a long list of applicants was returning fish team 2015 member, Sean Dimoff (UH Mānoa Marine Biology alumnus and MOP alumnus), Kevin Bruce (UH Hilo Marine Science alumnus and MOP alumnus) and I. Dr. Baum, Kristina, Jenn and Kevin comprised the coral and microbial team while Dimoff and I, my 2015 QUEST tent-mate, became “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy” of the fish team.

 

Months before the expedition, Dimoff and I practiced our flashcards, studying over 300 species of fishes we would have to identify by scientific name for our surveys. This was similar to when QUEST alumni Sean, Kristina and I had to study for our QUEST species id tests, which laid down the foundation for our scientific diving careers. Weeks before the expedition, we all ran through checklists and frugal packing to accommodate the enormity of equipment we would be bringing to the field. With the exception of Dr. Baum who would be joining us for the last 2 weeks, the team rendezvoused in Oʻahu a few days before our flight. Kiritimati is located 1,200 miles directly south of Hawaiʻi, but there is only one flight per week so missing our flight was not an option. There are no Walmarts or super stores on Kiribati. Everything we needed we had to bring ourselves in addition to dive gear, cameras, lab equipment, and survey equipment. About a dozen checked bags did the trick!

The massive atoll with hundreds of lagoons was breathtaking to witness from the air. Touch down on Kiritmati, through the shack of an airport, we hit the ground running. As we drove to Ikari House, a fishing resort and our home-base for the next month, we passed thousands of coconut trees covering the very low elevation island. We transformed our three bedroom room into a wet lab and camera lab, unpacking and organizing all of our luggage and many boxes from storage at Ikari House. Within 16 hours of arriving in Kiritimati, our survey dives and lab work would begin. Unfortunately, the first day did not get off to a good start for Bruce and me.

You see, Bruce and I, had the lobster for dinner… We were so excited to be welcomed to a surf and turf meal for our first night! I guess the new guys missed the memo about avoiding the shellfish. For his first night, Bruce was on the toilet, and my stomach was in a knot the rest of the day. Otherwise, our first day on the boat went well. Dimoff and I spent the first two days rolling out lines of cut PVC tubing to calibrate ourselves visually estimating sizing, and doing practice fish surveys. The coral team got to work monitoring pre-tagged corals, collecting data from benthic photo quadrats, taking coral tissue samples, water samples, and photographing fixed areas for 3D modeling. Our fish team focused on running belt transects (three 25m transects, separated by 10m, per dive) and herbivore observations. The strong El Niño events in the past years decimate the coral populations of Kiritimati with an estimated 90% mortality. Unfortunately, Kiritimati is experiencing a phase shift with blooms of macroalgae. During observation dives, Dimoff and I followed herbivores such as parrotfish (Scaridae) and surgeonfish (Acanthuridae) for 15 minute intervals recording bites of which algae they were grazing. Planning which sites we would be diving became important in order to accomplish our objectives, taking it one day at a time.

 

Our days started at 5:30 A.M. as we rolled out of bed and attended to our individual responsibilities in getting the team ready. This was preparing camera housings, checking safety equipment, loading sample containers, gathering personal dive gear, packing lunches and drinking water. Dimoff’s day started a little bit earlier to walk to the fish collector’s house we were working with to fill our cylinders so he could test the air was safe to breathe. More on this in my other article, Diving Safely in the Middle of the Pacific on page 6. By 6:00A.M. we had a quick breakfast, usually my favorite meal of the day but in Kiritimati it  was my least. Served to us were plates of greasy scrambled eggs, sausage, and coffee that must have been re-used, microwaved, frozen, and reused again (or at least it tasted like that). The experience of the team anticipated this and brought packaged oatmeal or dined off petrified white toast with peanut butter. I didn’t bring much oatmeal and tolerated the egg plates as long as I could before switching over to raisin bran cereal with powdered milk. Thankfully the coffee drinkers of the team, Dr. Baum and I, brought Starbucks instant coffee that saved our mornings. 

At 6:30A.M. a truck would pull in front of our room to load all the safety, dive, survey equipment and coolers. Riding on top of our gear in the back, we hobbled to the beach where we loaded the boat. After making a second trip to pick up Dimoff and the tested air cylinders, we departed by 7:00A.M.. The goal of fish team was to make four dives a day, because of the required 1.5 hour surface interval per DCIEM tables, the coral team was limited to three dives in the interest of getting back before dark. As a requirement of the dive plan, we needed to have a tender on the boat while one team was diving, so we alternated. To be most efficient we had to operate like clockwork. Fish team prepped gear, data sheets and briefed on the way to the first dive site. As soon as the anchor was set at the site, we, or the coral team if they were up next, were ready to roll in the water and begin their dives. To make it more fun and to entertain ourselves, Dimoff and I thought of different roll back saying we would do each day as we rolled off the boat into the water. Some of the team favorites were: “Pull the lever Kronk! Wrong leverrrrr!” “Great Scott, we have to go back! To the reef!” “How many fish bites are we going to count? To infinity, and beyond!” “I’ve never seen so many fish! It’s never over 9000,” then pretending to “KA-MEH-A-MEH-AH” each other off the boat. Ending the trip with our renditions to some Queen songs, “We Will Count You,” “Some Fish to Count,” “Another One Bites the Turf,” and “We Are the Fish Team.” The coral team just asked “Clear?” before rolling back each time. Fish team was clearly the cool team.

Upon surfacing, each of us would quickly hop out of our gear to pass survey equipment to the other team as they rolled in. During surface intervals we talked story, including some deep life pondering questions, helped filter water samples, practice size estimations using a measuring tape, review species IDs, ate lunch or snacks and plenty of napping as the trip went on. I can tell you exactly what we had for lunch. A ham sandwich with American cheese on white bread, original flavored Lay’s Potato Chips, a red apple, an orange, an Oats N Honey Nature Valley Granola Bar, expired peanut butter crackers, fruit gummies, and a mini candy bar, like Snickers if we were lucky. This was our lunch every day. Many opted for the PB&J sandwich, but I didn’t find it as filling. Once in awhile we were surprised with an egg salad sandwich instead. After a couple cases of bad acid reflux, Dimoff and I started avoiding these.

We spent 11 hours on the boat each day, returning around 6:30P.M. After quickly unloading the gear together, we split up into our different responsibilities. The coral team immediately started processing tissue samples to preserve in a buffer solution for later DNA analysis. Dimoff would divorce me to help unload tanks, help fill them, and run air tests. I was able to steal Bruce away to help me rinse gear in the Action Packers and hard cases that we brought as luggage. We generally draped the dive gear over low hanging beams outside our room. Wetsuits were hung on a clothes line I made using some paracord and a few handy knots (thank you Tate Wester). By then it was 7:00P.M. and time for dinner.

The Ikari House kitchen served the same meals every week. We had curry night, pasta night, fish night, surf and turf night (bleh), and so on. There was no shortage of starches or carbohydrates from pan fried potatoes or fried rice. The weekly flight brought a new group of fishermen to socialize with every Wednesday and semi-fresh vegetables. The lettuce in the salad was generally bitter from being under ripe at harvest but the cherry tomatoes were sweet. Otherwise, the only veggies we saw were from a freezer. They may not sound exciting, but dinners were tasty! Especially after being on a small boat for 11 hours doing hard working dives. After a while we all started to crave variety.

We tried to finish dinner as expeditiously as we could to get back to work. Dr. Baum, Tietjen and Magel processed water samples, coral tissue, and settlement plates; Bruce was our cameraman and processed the thousands of photos taken for 3D models; meanwhile Dimoff and I would crank through an incredible amount of data entry. Due to the diversity in our fish surveys, it took us about 45 minutes to enter data from three transects per 60 minute dive. To pass the time in the lab we took turns playing each other’s playlists, audiobooks and plenty, plenty of “Moana” songs! In between transect entries, I would make my way to the shower to make water for the team. What came out of the faucet had a yellow tint and was definitely not potable. We ran the shower head water through a filter and collection bag. Afterwards I gave it a chlorine dioxide treatment so the water was safe to drink. The first couple days were an adjustment but after a while Kevin and I made sure that there was always enough drinking water available.

 

On principle, nobody went to bed early if they finished their work early. We were operating out of a small team and each did our part to help one another finish so we all could collectively go to bed as early as possible. On average it was lights out at 12:00A.M., midnight, sometimes a little earlier and sometimes later but the next day started at 5:30A.M. again. Unless, it was a dry day!

We operated on this 19 hour work day cycle for six days on, one day dry (not “off”). The dry days were an opportunity to catch up on sleep (we generally got about eight hours), catch up on data entry, and do outreach. The first dry day, Dimoff and I were on the computer for eight hours catching up on data entry before taking a break to visit Kiribati’s Independence Day festival. They had the fastest, and sketchiest, Ferris Wheel we had ever seen! The following two dry days we visited local elementary schools to teach the kids about sharks and coral reefs. The 3rd and 4th grade levels had a contagious enthusiasm for science and got so excited whenever we showed them how large some of these apex predators were using pre-measured and cut paracord. On the last dry day, Dimoff and I met with local fish collectors where I led a presentation on dive safety and trained some of them how to use an emergency oxygen unit.

We operated on this 19 hour work day cycle for six days on, one day dry (not “off”). The dry days were an opportunity to catch up on sleep (we generally got about eight hours), catch up on data entry, and do outreach. The first dry day, Dimoff and I were on the computer for eight hours catching up on data entry before taking a break to visit Kiribati’s Independence Day festival. They had the fastest, and sketchiest, Ferris Wheel we had ever seen! The following two dry days we visited local elementary schools to teach the kids about sharks and coral reefs. The 3rd and 4th grade levels had a contagious enthusiasm for science and got so excited whenever we showed them how large some of these apex predators were using pre-measured and cut paracord. On the last dry day, Dimoff and I met with local fish collectors where I led a presentation on dive safety and trained some of them how to use an emergency oxygen unit.

 

We had other heroes too that didn’t wear a red mask. In particular we could always count on our neighbor, Bill Kidenstein, to make us laugh. Kidenstein was another longtime resident at Ikari House like us, contracted in to manage the installation of a new waterline in Kiribati. When we were out drilling through terracotta tiles for coral settlement on a dry day, he saved our hands by letting us use a proper electric drill! A hilariously entertaining story from his world travels was something we always looked forward to. And lastly, Tione (we pronounced as “Sony”), our boat driver. Bruce and I referred to him as the “Chosen One,” because he drove the boat at one speed, and one direction. In our minds, he is the champion of napping. We looked forward to see what position he would choose next, with camera in hand of course.

The Kiritimati expedition was an unforgettable experience. Working in a small team in a very remote location has its challenges and rewards from bonding with one another. It was an honor to be a part of such incredible research while working with an incredible team. A special thank you to Dr. Julia Baum, Kristina Tietjen and Jenn Magel for their Herculean logistical efforts and for allowing us to accompany them. Undoubtedly, the education and training Tietjen, Dimoff, Bruce and I received in MOP and UH prepared us for the rigors of professional scientific field work. We encourage prospective MOP students to join and current MOP students to stay the course. Because there’s just no telling how far you’ll go…

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