In the water at last! We reached Nikumaroro at about 10:30 am, and were on our way out to dive at about 11. Our first site was the NW point (aka "Nai'a Point").
One skiff, full of the gonzo divers and photographers (with Greg Stone intrepidly in the lead) plus Team Blue Water (Larry and Kate Madin) ran off to meet their blue destiny, while we, the seabottom science wonks, puttered off dutifully to the workaday tasks in our own little stretch of paradise.
The very first moments in the water did not disappoint – gangs of grey reef shark showed up immediately to check out what all this new commotion was about…but rather small ones on the whole. Could these be young'uns, indicative of a local population regenerating from shark finning? These quickly lost interest and at least so far, our elaborately prepared (thanks Nick Keeney!) and much admired on first inspection shark billies proved a bit of an overkill.
Visual transect depths (30 to 40 feet, closer to 30 when possible) found Stuart, me, and renowned Kiribatis fishery officer Takawe Tema over coral rubble with scattered living Pocillopora eydouxi (A species of cauliflower coral). The coral team (David Obura and Randi Rotjan) later reported that live coral cover picked up in deeper water. Lots of pocilloporid rubble about: clearly that's what the original shallow reef had been composed largely of. As Randi noted, the live colonies exhibited a high rate of predation, quite possibly because they were all the remaining games in town until the reef regenerates to its recent former glory. Curiously, though, a remarkable abundance and diversity of fishes!
The celebrated Napoleon or humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, is a common fish here, in all sizes up to some pretty big ones, closing on 2m long. Then came my joyous entry into a fish census protocol new to me in its details. Despite Stuart's extremely clear and explicit pre-dive preparation and energetic underwater instructions, which could easily have been bubble-read by anybody with half a brain, I immediately took off at 90 degrees to the transect line and headed for the reef crest (the idea is to swim along the line).
The prize for best fish of the day, though, hands down, is the big Griffis' angelfish that crossed the end of one of our transects just in time to get sucked into statistical infamy.
Once we got that straightened out, we both began taking data in earnest: first pass, all fish over 20 cm. Next pass, all fish, period, all sizes recorded in 5 cm intervals. Final pass, added species only for full diversity profile. Then again. Then again. Over and over, place to place. There are several points to this exercise, but clearly we could see that this was a place with a lot of fish, quite a few of them on the larger end, and this despite the coral being in an early stage of regeneration from the last major disturbance.
Our second dive revealed more of a coral reef system gearing for revival, this time with nearly all surfaces jacketed by the bright pinks of crustose coralline algae, and many more living corals, including vibrant new colonies of Pocillopora, Pavona
, and other genera. With more coral came more coral-dependent fishes, secreted deep within branch interstices like the young damselfishes, or perched hawkishly atop, as in the case of the appropriately named hawkfishes.
There was, however, a lot of rubble – healthy rubble if you will, rubble ready to have lots of new corals growing on it. Meanwhile, it was densely occupied by rubblephilic fishes. Among these my favorites – listen up aquarists! – have to be the two very abundant pygmy angelfishes: flame and lemonpeel, and the spectacular exquisite flasher wrasse (that is actually its name).
Never in my life have I ever seen such a density of flame angelfishes, and these individuals are among the most brightly colored of their kind to be seen anywhere.
The other super aquarium fishes out here so far are the juvenile tangs, six-line wrasse, yellowfin damsels, and the anthias of course.
The prize for best fish of the day, though, hands down, is the big Griffis' angelfish that crossed the end of one of our transects just in time to get sucked into statistical infamy. This strange and beautiful, black and white angelfish was first seen and described from the Phoenix Islands in 1978. The odd thing was to see it so shallow – about 50 feet.
We returned to Nai'a for afternoon tea and snacks (rough life out there in the middle of nowhere, eh?) but while some of us hit the books and began transcribing our notes and data, others flashed back out to have a look at the wreck of the Norwich, a large freighter that is now a landmark on the Nikumaroro reef.
So, first impressions? From a sum of two dives, the Phoenix system thus far appears to be in a fairly aggressive recovery phase from the mass bleaching event of 2002, which hit just after the New England Aquarium expedition in July of that year. The event was devastating to reef corals, causing very high mortality – so what we are seeing now is quite impressive…and reassuring.
||In the water at last!
– Les Kaufman, Conservation International Marine Management Area Science Program
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