|Photos by Randi Rotjan, New England Aquarium.|
An extremely fine and exciting day in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. On the way out for our first dive, fairy terns fluttered about the skiff, while others darted around in the distance.
The day unfolded through 3 dives with Stuart (Sandin) to collect fish data (the coral and photography teams not far away), a swim down the landing channel to a Nikumororo landing, two lovely manta rays at the channel mouth, and the way home to a beautiful sunset seen from the Nai'a.
Today we worked the windward side of the Nikumororo, and this brought views of a rich buffet of busily regenerating reef corals, already with substantial (30 percent to 50 percent) live coral cover in many places.
Old mounds of finger coral framework were overgrown with thick crusts of bright coralline algae and green Halimeda, a branching upright green alga with cactus pad – or coin-like plates all joined together.
Atop all this, and spreading rapidly over it (as evidenced by thick growth horizons around the peripheries of coral colonies – fluorescent pink in the case of an unusual type of Porites coral that is common here) was an impressive diversity of small to medium-sized coral colonies.
They were of all the possible growth forms – branching, pillared, massive, encrusting, and foliose, like cabbages. The fishes were fun. Good species diversity, many individuals quite large – except the sharks. Only a few big ones, but lots of smaller individuals - blacktips and grey reefs.
Along with the return of the corals came the velvety-hued corallivorous butterflyfishes: Meyer's, ornate, reticulated, and many others.
|Photos by Randi Rotjan, New England Aquarium.|
My nose was totally buried in the reef until Stuart tapped my head and I looked up – straight into a massive school of silver-grey jacks and another one of medium-sized barracuda, the two clouds of fish the woof bound by weaving skeins of blue and white trevallies. Up in the jack school were scattered knots of yellowfin surgeonfish, looking totally out of place. They weren’t spawning or interacting much behaviorally, so they must have been feeding, but on what? Every so often one or more jacks would defecate, and the surgeons would rush to this suddenly full table set atop the water column and consume the waste matter.
|Photo by Randi Rotjan, New England Aquarium.|
Actually, coprophagy (as it is technically known) is an important energy conduit on coral reefs, as in some terrestrial habitats. After our dives, we swam to the island (tough going through the blasted-out landing channel’s powerful surge) through vast shoals of convict tang, about half of which sported a most unusual color pattern for this species.
We walked up the beach to encounter Craig, be-earphoned, sitting amidst a web of antenna cables, all radiating out from a single tall aerial - that he carted that contraption all the way out here is a truly a thing of wonder. Craig looked up to greet us with the most enormous smile – now here was a happy man! He had set up a ham radio station and was chatting away with folks all over the world, from one of the world’s most remote, which is also to say most coveted, broadcasting venues.
One odd thing was that Craig’s face was plastered with sand. Well, there were two huge pelican cases, maybe he’d fallen, but once on each side? As it turns out, all the regular landing party were led through a traditional Kiribati thanksgiving upon landing at Nikumaroro. I did so in my own way, as it happens. After sharing in Craig’s triumph, I wandered into the scrub of coconut, pandanus, noni, and Scaevola, sat down on a fallen pandanus trunk in the shade, leaned up, and gloried in the black noddy terns. These smart-looking white-capped black birds were roosting in the treetops, many on nests, others not, surrounded by their wheeling and soaring cohorts.
I should have been collecting the ants. Surely somebody wanted skink samples. I should have been botanizing.
Closer to the ground, fairy (white) terns scooted into the lower branches of pandanus, and back out again, like large, frosty swifts with a shiner in each eye. The ground litter was alive with reddish-brown, elongate skinks…a peculiar, metallic emerald fly settled beside me, and tiny ants streamed about the log. I should have been collecting the ants. Surely somebody wanted skink samples. I should have been botanizing. I also should have been soaking it all in, paying reverence to nature from my ocean mountaintop perch, reflecting on all we had learned and would still in the coming days…and that is precisely what I did.
If only there weren’t those hours ahead of transcribing barely legible notes! Tonight we push off again…for McKean Island, a tiny bird island. Stay tuned.
– Les Kaufman, Conservation International Marine Management Area Science Program
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