It's a time of transition now. We are underway and en route through, and eventually out of the waters of the Phoenix Islands archipelago, out of Kiribati, and back to Fiji. We are rolling, but not so badly that we cannot work. On our last two days of diving, while I was running transects, Craig Cook tried out the Nikon D2X-coral fluorescence rig. The purpose of the rig is to make it easier to quantify very young coral recruits – or at least some portion of the coral recruit pool, by taking advantage of fluorescent pigments produced by the coral animal and its symbiotic algae. I'm grateful to Craig for taking the time to parallel-task while I was preoccupied with Stuart on fish transects.
Anyway, it worked! Craig ran around with the funny yellow goggles over his mask (borrowed from Randi) and my blue pulsing LED light, to find interesting fluorescent signatures on corals, then photographed them with the same filter gear fitted to the Subal housing of the D2X.
Orona Atoll, Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Kiribati.
© Google Earth
The common Montipora
encrusting the sites we've been diving in the lee of Orona has brilliantly green fluorescent epitheca (growing margins). The next day, I think Craig might have gotten some of the brilliant electric pinky-orange epitheca and wound regrowth areas of the Porites lobata
and Porites lutea
groups. There are also what appear to be coralline algae out here that fluoresces at the same or similar spectral peaks; that I'd not seen before.
For our last dive, the two skiffs made off for Orona's northern point, choosing two adjacent sites a few hundred meters apart. The other group wound up on an area of rich coral regeneration. We pulled the short stick, and the dive that resulted invoked some of the strongest and most conflicting emotions I have ever felt while in the field- and scientific objectivity be damned, field experiences can evoke some very strong emotions. We descended into a vast coral graveyard. Here was a place where the coral growth of an earlier epoch (the epoch that ended for the Phoenix Islands in the fall of 2002) had clearly been truly magnificent. The tombstones that stood in for corals were large and majestic. The scene was littered with large dead and collapsed table corals, reaches of fingery rubble, and great domes of dead and partly living Lobophyllia falling away in columnar shards like cracked cassava.
|Photos © Randi Rotjan, New England Aquarium|
The whole area was covered by a crunchy and friable mass of multilayered coralline algae. When you pulled a chunk away, pieces of coral skeleton came away with it, like a rotten tooth, exposing the bright orange telltales of a destructive boring sponge. Point one: something vast and terrible had befallen this reef. It came from the sky; and ultimately from New York, Tokyo, London, and Beijing.
Searching along the transect lines for the fishes it was our job to record, it was soon apparent that here, as elsewhere, there were healthy populations of herbivores and big predators. There was also an abundance of young coral colonies poised to refill the void. Point two: the reef had formidable regenerative power and was just then in the process of reinventing itself.
After the transects were done, both Stuart and I were drawn to the depths to round out our diversity survey, but also for a moment of that special peace associated with the change in the sound of your regulator, and the darkening of the world about you as you descend below 100 feet.
There we found a refugium for greatness. Sharks, giant Napoleon wrasse, and unicornfishes paraded before us. Curtains of purple queen basslet hung themselves up and down in the water column above the rapidly sloping atoll ramparts. And there, down below us in the slightly cooler, deeper waters, scaling the walls into the depths as far as we could see like a bird's feathered nape, tier upon tier of lush, living foliaceous corals. The overlapping plates were fixed precariously to the reef like crowds at a spoonhanger's convention. The dive near its end, we rose to the lip of the drop-off.
Looking up into the shallows, terse warning and harsh punishment. Looking across the young corals and down into the gloriously feathered reef slope, hope and fulfillment. By then my decompression warning had advanced from green to yellow, and it was time to move back to the shallows before surfacing to the skiff, to the Nai'a, to Fiji, to Boston, and back to what passes for normal existence. But a dybbuk that had struck deep within me, and lodged there, had begun its mischief. It would haunt me through the data analyses, the writing of papers, and the telling of its story through a once much smaller voice that had been my own.
This morning Greg called an all staff meeting to list and prepare our documents and products from this expedition. It begins with quick-look reports for the Kiribati Government, for the IUCN, for the partner organizations. But our juiciest morsels will emerge in scientific papers and the popular media…and ultimately, in the special wisdom that grows from returning to a once untouchable place again and again; to watch as it and the world it represents dances and drops, dances and drops, each in turn of its seven veils of mystery and excitement.
– Les Kaufman, Conservation International Marine Management Area Science Program
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