The expedition has been going fast and furious, and moments to write blogs are sometimes fleeting. Our ship’s deck salon and cabins are constantly in motion with NAI'A crew in their blue uniforms running the ship, scientists lugging dive and science gear around, and so on.
A moment ago, Stuart Sandin walked by, wetsuit half pulled up, looking for his clipboard. Craig Cook came over and said he was about to set up the hyperbaric chamber again for testing. Brian Skerry is walking by with two underwater camera housings with strobes, one draped over each arm like leggy spiders. All is going well as we make our way through PIPA.
Yesterday, we stopped for nine hours at McKean Island, the smallest of the Phoenix Islands. It is no more than a big piece of coral rock rising some two meters out of the heaving swell of the Pacific Ocean, with thousands of seabirds circling, screeching and walking around this outpost for ocean bird life, including red-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda), great frigate birds (Fregata minor), white-throated storm-petrels (Nesofregetta fuliginosa), Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri), brown noddies (Anous stolidus), boobies (genus Sula) and terns (family Sternidae) – just to name a few! The island is very hot, without a tree or bush above 12 inches, and bird eggs lying on the ground everywhere. You can walk around the perimeter of island in about an hour.
IN DEPTH: Visit the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) website to explore an interactive map of the PIPA islands.
There is no landing site for a boat on this island, so you have to swim ashore. Rob Barrel drove a skiff toward the island with Alan Dynner, Larry Madin, Craig Cook, Tukabu Teroroko, Tuake Teema and myself aboard. We were within 150 feet of shore when Rob said, "This is it boys – you gotta swim from here." Rob understandably didn’t want the skiff to get caught on the swell and overturn, or to hit rocks with his propeller.
We were within 150 feet of shore when Rob said, "This is it boys – you gotta swim from here."
Photo left to right: Tuake Teema, Randi Rotjan, Stuart Sandin, David Obura, and Les Kaufman.
Larry, Tuake, Alan and I stepped off the side of the boat with shoes, hats, shirts, shorts and glasses on, and started to kick to shore, all suddenly wishing we were wearing fins instead of boat shoes. In one hand, I held my hat and water proof camera bag, the other pawing through the water doing a one armed "dog paddle."
The closer we got to shore, the larger the waves got, and the water remained deep; I kept reaching down with my feet, trying to find the bottom. The water was so clear the coral bottom looked just out of reach. Then the back surge from the receding waves carried us out to sea again. After a lot of to-and-fro-ing, we finally made it to shore, crawling through the shallow rocks and surf to sit on the beach to catch our breath.
Sitting on the beach with my wet clothes pasted to my body, I could see the wreckage of a Korean fishing vessel on the far side of the island, rusted mast and stern section awash in the surf. The boat shipwrecked here in 2005, before PIPA was created by Kiribati. Story has it the crew was drunk and drove right into the island. Most ships have Asian rats as permanent residents, especially the old commercial fishing vessels. The rats jumped ship as it crashed and came apart in the surf. They swam ashore to McKean and established prosperous lives on the island, preying on the defenseless birds that, in the absence of predators, had evolved ground nesting behavior – laying their eggs unprotected on the bare ground.
A year ago, the New Zealand Government, in collaboration with PIPA, Conservation International and the New England Aquarium, funded a rat eradication program on this island. Under the PIPA management plan, the New Zealand Government paid for a team to come and set up poison stations that would eradicate the rates without harming the island’s other species.
Now it was time to us to go to work. Our job was to check the bait stations and look for evidence of rats to see if the project had been successful. Good news! I found many bait stations with fresh bait, meaning that the rats were probably gone. There were also no eggs with rat chew marks on them. The amazing bird life on McKean appears to once again be safe from these invasive predators.
The swim back to the boat was easier, as the same surf that kept us away from the island now carried us out to the waiting skiff. Back to NAI'A, back to the buzz of the ship and back to our SCUBA diving surveys.
– Gregory Stone, PIPA Expedition Leader
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