Steaming Southeast to Honolulu

The Hi’ialakai makes a close pass by one of the dive boats.

I can’t believe this day is here already- we are embarking on a five day transit back to Honolulu!  Our amazing adventure to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is drawing to a close.

We visited a total of four remote islands- French Frigate Shoals, Pearl & Hermes, Kure, and Lisianski.  Each had its own unique character, both above and below water.  Kure was by far our favorite, as you may have gathered from our earlier enamored blog posts!  A combination of beautiful weather, extra time, and perfect diving really sold us on Kure atoll.  At each island, we put out three different types of hydrophones to record acoustic data for two days, and 3-6 time lapse cameras.  We also completed surveys of the surrounding ecosystem, using photo mosaics, transect lines, and fish counts amongst other things to quantify the character of each individual site.

Lauren excercising on one of the ship’s bikes.

We have learned firsthand about some of the most pristine ecosystems in the world, and collected as much data as we possibly could with the amount of small boat time we were given.  We are both looking forward (really!) to analyzing it and turning it into scientific papers and PhD chapters.  It is far more meaningful to research something that you got to experience yourself.

We have also learned some of the ins and outs and eccentricities of living on a research vessel and working at sea.  It has been quite an experience in of itself!  Lauren’s feeling is that this was an incredible opportunity, but she doesn’t want to base her career on working in such remote areas.  There is so much planning, logistics, and time involved in collecting data, and at any moment technical difficulties or weather could preclude you from getting what you need!

Lauren with her friend, Mr Ulua. He took a special liking to Lauren’s fingers later on.

On our last dive at Lisianski, we had two casualties.  One was relatively minor- Lauren was bitten by one of the large ulua that have followed us around every dive site up here.  It was a small injury, but certainly a big reminder that we are diving with large predators, and that they are not afraid of people!  Much more significant was an incident that we began to suspect when the hydrophone array was not as buoyant as usual when we brought it up from Lisianski.  Upon getting back to Hi’ialakai and opening the battery and computer cylinders, Simon quickly learned that the computer compartment had flooded with seawater.  He is working hard to salvage as much of the equipment as possible, and will send the hard drive off for data recovery once we return to land.

The ulua was very curious… aggressively so.
Lauren’s hand after an altercation with the big ulua.

Equipment failure is a normal part of field work, but this was our first big hit.  We are now both working on developing modified field plans and experiments for our upcoming time on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island.  We appreciate all of the mentors who have reassured us that this is to be expected in seagoing work, and rather an important experience that comes with being a graduate student!

Simon at the helm of Malolo while our coxwain takes a short swim break

We are steaming back to Honolulu against swell and wind, so the Hi’ialakai is only doing 8 kts (she did 10.2 kts on the way out). It will still take four full days from Lisianski.  We are scheduled to make port at 0900 Friday, August 24 (Honolulu time).  Feel free to give us a call on our cell phones after that!  We are looking forward to catching up with all of our family and friends on the phone, skype, and facetime.  We’re planning a ‘vacation’ three day weekend when we return to rest and recover, and then we’ll be getting started on our next Oahu leg after unloading our stuff from the vessel.  We’ll also be back to public blogging when we are off of the NOAA ship.

A Hawaiian monk seal (only 1200 left!) inspects Lauren.

This cruise has given both of us some of the most amazing experiences of our life. The diving has been spectacular, in particular since we were in the water alone- never on a tour or as part of a large group, and often in places that may never have been dived before (or again!)  We were so impressed by the natural curiosity and un-altered behavior of all of the animals that we encountered. By far the most memorable were the impromptu ‘lunch’ snorkels with dolphins, manta rays, monk seals, and sharks.  We were completely alone in the sea with these beautiful swimmers, who were in their natural habitat and acting as they ‘should.’ (Before humans pushed these species out to the fringes, anyway).  Our sense of ocean wonder has only grown from this trip.

Aloha! Over and out from the Hi’ialakai.

An Excellent Day at Kure Atoll

We got lucky yesterday- we were given a full day at the last minute instead of a half!  We used the extra time to explore Kure Atoll, and for the first time we brought our ‘big’ camera along for the ride.  Here’s a collection of some of our favorite shots from the day.  We are currently steaming full speed to our last stop, Lisianski, and gearing up for our final gear deployment on this cruise!  (PS- don’t let our last title confuse you. It’s pronounced cure-ay)

The Kure

sunrise at Kure

Sunday saw us retrieving the last of our acoustic equipment from the lagoon at Pearl and Hermes atoll, which went very well. All through the dive Lauren and I had been admiring the half-dozen or so galapagos sharks that had shown up. We sent the hydrophone to the surface and watched them swimming around for about 15 minutes. As we ascended the sharks became more curious, reducing the distance between them and us. Being in blue water and surrounded by sharks and big alua was very special – so special that our coxswain and one of the science outreach team got back in the water for some snorkeling. Soon, the coxswain suggested they be picked up as the sharks were becoming very curious. After they got in the boat, we dropped over the side for a look. Initially, there were around four sharks visible in the very clear water. The bottom could be seen clearly, easily 30 m below. Slowly, the number of sharks began to increase. In almost no time at all there were around twenty galapagos sharks below our feet, swimming close by and inspecting our flippers. Lauren reports that this was one of the most amazing experiences of her life.  Looking down on the school of sharks was absolutely incredible, and the visibility was perfect so we could see them all the way to the sandy bottom.

schooling sharks at Pearl & Hermes- coolest thing Lauren has ever seen!

We motored overnight to Kure and were back in the water first thing Monday morning.  We’re back from our first day’s diving at Kure Atoll, the northernmost atoll on the planet.

Looking back at Hi’ialakai from Malolo over a flat calm

Initially formed much further south in warmer waters, Kure has been slowly transported north by the tectonic motions of the pacific plate. Sometime in the future, conditions will presumably be too cold for corals to grow. Right now, it’s hanging on, barely at the edge of the tropical currents that sweep through the Hawaiian Islands. Consequently, the species we see here are like what you’d see in Northern New Zealand!

Lauren on site

Our first day of diving at Kure was very nice (Lauren says it was idyllic). Both topside and underwater colors were vibrant and bright, and most of the views we saw looked like they could be used for postcards. The term “gin clear water” describes well what we saw off the southern side of Kure atoll. Underwater visibility is around 50 m, making the search for an ideal hydrophone deployment site a task we could do from the boat, rather than having to get in, dive down, and swim around.
We motored over an expanse of spur-and-groove coral habitat, and an ideal section of white sand straddled by two high spurs of coral reef was selected as a candidate site for our equipment. Diving down, a few galapagos sharks immediately came in to view. They stuck around but their numbers did not swell to what we had seen the previous day at Pearl and Hermes. The white sand was deep enough for our sand anchors – a critical aspect we needed to check out before the flyby array was bought down to the sea floor. The coral spurs adjacent to the sand were teeming with a large number of different fish species – there were hundreds of fish, but it seemed that there were very few which were alike.

Simon was stoked to find this ‘zebra-fish’ (Lauren’s name) on the reef (Actually, it’s called the Hawaiian morwong, similar to New Zealand moki)

The tropical species which are so familiar to us were there (surgeonfish, squirrelfish, angelfish, parrotfish, wrasse), but they were also joined by subtropical varieties (morwong, boarfish, endemic butterflyfish, etc). Interestingly, big snapper hung out near one of the overhangs, a good sign that fishing had not really taken place here in some time. The coral situation was an interesting one – the large spurs of rock on which coral was growing are clearly made from calcium carbonate, or dead coral. This suggests to us that at one stage massive reef-building corals existed here. Nowadays, however, small porites colonies dot the surface of the rock, too small and sparse to build reef, but enough to maintain habitat for the animals which rely on live coral growth.  This was the first site on this cruise where Lauren spotted one of her favorite sea slug relatives, a neon yellow and black flatworm.

Carmen handing the array down to Simon

The flyby and another hydrophone were put in the water and bought down to the bottom in short order. Working on the sea floor here was a pleasure not just because of the stunning scenery, but because it was also so calm! Our time at Kure is the first time on this cruise we’ve experienced good weather. The surface was mirror calm, the swell was of low amplitude, long-period, and manageable. We took a number of photographs of the array deployment, which runs as follows:

Simon pulling down the buoyant array

1) Assemble the hydrophone cable, battery pack, and data acquisition computer together. 2) Power on (don’t forget!). 3) Simon and Lauren kit up and enter the water. 4) The coxswain places the cable in the water, and lifts the computer/batteries to the boat gunnel. 5) The array is lifted from the gunnel and lowered into the water, Simon guiding it in while the coxswain does the lifting. 6) A rope is tied to the array and the divers descend to one of the sand anchors. 7) The rope is strung through an anchor eye and the array (very buoyant) is slowly pulled to the bottom. 8) As the array reaches the bottom, Simon maintains tension on the line while Lauren ties the array off to the sand anchor using a shorter rope. As soon as this is done, Simon can let go and relax! 9) The array cable is strung out and fixed to other sand anchors, the array geometry being carefully measured so we’ll be able to process the data with greater accuracy later on. Retrieval is the reverse of deployment – the only difference being that it’s much harder to bring the array back on board the boat than it is to put it in the water. Hopefully Wednesday will be just as calm!

The array is all set up and ready to go, in beautiful blue water

Once the array, another hydrophone, and our camera ‘tree’ were in the water, we moved site to deploy one more hydrophone and a couple of cameras in the inside of Kure lagoon. Arriving on site inside, it was immediately clear that things were very different here. The slow ocean swell was gone, replaced by some confused wind chop (wind and swell were in opposing directions). The clear blue water outside was gone too, and in its place was something more greenish. The

Boxfish! Lauren has been hunting for this type of box (cowfish, Lactoria cornuta) since she started diving

environment on the shallow lagoon floor was like what you would experience in a harbour. Fine silt, lots of dead coral, many small fish, including juvenile versions of what you’d find outside the lagoon. Visibility was worse but not bad. The temperature was considerably warmer at 28 degrees (as opposed to 25-26 outside). We positioned our equipment and began surveys. What initially looked to be piles of dead coral rubble turned out to harbour lots and lots of small critters – many kinds of reef fishes (including a boxfish!), cone shells (venomous), juvenile fish, rock lobsters, polychaetes, sea cucumbers, and some pufferfish! While definitely a dive where the small things were of greatest interest, the lagoon was an equally fantastic place.

Lauren on the bow, waiting for sunset. No green flash yet, but the last few nights we’ve been glad for clear enough skies to SEE the sunset!

Its our day off today due to the boat shortage.  We’re taking advantage of the down time to sleep in 🙂 enter data, back up data and photos, update our notes, and of course write a new blog!  We’re planning to head back out tomorrow morning for a half day to retrieve our gear before the Hi’ialakai steams back east towards Lisianski tomorrow night.

Sharks & Sharks With Flat Tails

We are at Pearl & Hermes atoll, in the middle of the last day of dive ops!  Tonight we will steam overnight to Kure and begin full days of dive ops tomorrow (Monday) morning.

Boat launch from the Hi’ialakai.

A number of technical and political issues are arising.  We expected this so are not too stressed, but we’ve had to be very flexible as our schedule changes all the time.  Most notably, the biggest dive boat (8 diver capacity) is out of commission, presumably for the rest of the cruise.  We are also learning what it is like to be at the very bottom of the planning and scientific food chain.  We are not NOAA divers (so we are here as guests), not paying for the cruise, and are also brand new to cruises in general and the leaders of this cruise in particular.

Lauren excited to see some pomacentrid damselfish. Pomacentrids are very loud – their ‘chirping’ can be clearly seen around dusk on Simon’s recordings.

Fortunately, and somewhat amazingly considering all that, we are still able to get out and collect data!  We had a full day of diving on Thursday, where we found a site in the lagoon (there were huge swells that prohibited any diving or small boat ops on the outside) and set up all of our equipment to record.  On the way out we encountered a couple of squalls with 40 knot winds!  Our small boat turned tail to the wind to ride it out, it was truly amazing to see.  I never thought I would be wearing full wetsuit along with foul weather gear and grateful for that combination.  Thanks mom, for buying me the nice raincoat that is both water and wind repellant!  I have truly used it on this trip.  The rain flattened out the swell and chop, it looked amazing and surreal.

Squall at Pearl and Hermes. All of a sudden, the rain hit us like hail and the winds were shrieking! Luckily its nice and warm.

On our off day, the sun finally came out!  We spent awhile on the bow watching for flying fish and seabirds.  We also went out Friday night to look for the meteor shower.  We only saw 3 shooting stars during about half an hour. There were reports that last night was more successful so we are hoping to try again tonight if we are not too tired.

A brown booby flies past the Hi’ialakai.

Yesterday was an amazing day.  We recovered all of the acoustic and camera equipment in record time, and had two full tanks to spare.  While we took a break for lunch, we saw what looked like a shark in front of the boat. Looking closer, Simon exclaimed that it was a shark with a flat tail! A pod of 40 or so dolphins were playing in the swells and in the bow wave of our boat.  At our coxswain’s suggestions, we jumped in on snorkel to check them out and spent a happy 20 minutes chasing dolphins, who were chasing our small boat to play in its wake, as it drove in circles around us.  Simon noted that he was glad they showed up after we pulled out the recorders since they would have corrupted all of the ambient noise he was trying to capture 🙂

Dolphins at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

We did our final two dives at two new sites on our way back to the Hi’ialakai.  The first site was amazing, and was actually what we had been expecting all along.  There was a reef with relatively low, but clearly present, live coral cover.  As soon as we entered the water, we were surrounded by schools of giant trevally and watched 5-10 gray reef and Galapagos sharks cruise past.  None of this megafauna were remotely intimidated by us.  In fact, the trevally followed us around and wanted to check out all of our equipment.  Every time I turned around, I’d see 3-5 of the 30 – 50 kg fish behind me. Every time Simon left something on the bottom the trevally would swim around the object and ‘sniff’ it like a pack of inquisitive dogs. The sharks were slightly more cautious but still curious and rather sneaky. Oftentimes we turned around to see 3 or 4 sharks creeping up behind us, aware that we couldn’t see them. Although this might seem unnerving, none of the sharks were larger than about 6 ft. We left one hydrophone and one time lapse camera at this site. Hope they are still there!

Giant Trevally patrol one of our hydrophone sites.

The second site was a pinnacle that we had spotted on our first day, and marked on the way out on Saturday.  It is a piece of the outer reef crest/atoll edge that is eroding down (there is a gap along the atoll ‘ring’ in the northwest section of Pearl and Hermes).  It rises out of deep water, so we were very excited to check it out.  This site appeared rocky, although we suspect that the rock in question is fossil coral skeleton.  It was mostly covered in various algae, but also had single coral heads distributed about.  It was incredibly steep down to about 50 feet, where it leveled off to sloping sand.  We also saw several reef sharks and giant trevally here!  The coolest part of this dive was surfacing- we slowly swam around the pinnacle and hung out at 5 meters for our safety stop.  The upper part of the pinnacle was really cool, with lots of little caves, crevices, and archways.  We spotted a number of large ark shells (like giant mussels/scallops) and tons of little reef fish near the top.

Grey reef sharks were also interested in our activities.

Since the transit was so long to the first site, we also had a full day for recovery yesterday.  We have an extra day at Pearl & Hermes (4 instead of 3), so we made plans to move the two small hydrophones (which are still running) to a couple of sites closer to the ship.  We wanted data from more lively ecosystems than our original pick.  We planned to pick those up in a quick operation this morning and return the boat for someone else to use for 2/3 of the day.  This plan has changed, since the ship has moved to the south side of the atoll!  This usual lee was raging with huge swells for most of our stay but has finally calmed down today.  This means we’ll have another long transit today BACK to where the ship was originally stationed on the northwest side, and two quick dives to recover the hydrophones.  We will be on our way out after lunch!

Lauren with her photo quadrat. In the foreground is the ‘christmas tree’ – four time-lapse cameras are mounted facing the bottom. These take one photo every 5 minutes to create a series of images that reveal the nightly changes in benthic activity level.

Rocking and rolling

We’ve been steaming for Pearl and Hermes atoll since leaving FFS some 30 hours ago. We have another 22 or so hours before we arrive at roughly 6 am HI time, ready for a full day of diving operations tomorrow. Lauren and I have some time to clean and repair equipment, and start processing/storing the ~110 GB(!) of data we collected before we arrive.

The unfortunate weather we are currently enduring.

Since we left FFS, the weather has deteriorated. Winds have been gusting steadily 15-22 kts from the southeast. GOES infra-red satellite images show the remnants of a tropical storm right over us. We’ve enjoyed a following sea but now the swells are larger- things are starting to fall off tables and sleep is harder to come by. We’re hoping the kidney-shaped atoll at Pearl and Hermes provides a little shelter..

The acoustic array deployed in an L-shape. Thank you Mike and Fernando!

The last day at FFS (Monday) was a great one. We were surprisingly organised, driving 7 km to the site where we deployed the array and other equipment on Saturday, doing 4 dives to remove all the gear, and finishing up before 11am! Removing the array was surprisingly straightforward, bulky as it is.

Simon raising the buoyant array to the surface.
The array ascends back to the dive boat.

A little thought and pre-planning went a long way when figuring out how to get the thing in to the boat and stow it away so people wouldn’t trip over it. We deployed four time-lapse cameras (1 image every 5 minutes) on the ‘windmill’-shaped PVC camera frame…all of which 1) worked 2) didn’t flood! The ebay-sourced second hand cameras seemed to have earned their keep.

Lauren holding on to our surface marker float – essential because if the boat loses us, we’re truly gone! (Don’t panic moms- it is attached to her, and we each have another backup marker too)
Lauren, Simon, and friend at La Perouse.
La Perouse head-on. Very thin. Lots of birds.

Given that we had the afternoon and that the swell on the windward side of FFS was again picking up to sickness-inducing levels, we ran 18 km down-swell to our second site for coral surveys – La Perouse rock. The northernmost basaltic outcrop in the Hawaiian Islands archipelago (and the next to eventually submerge and be re-absorbed into the crust), La Perouse is the shattered remnant of some long-extinct volcanic crater rim. No more than a thin sliver of rock (only 30 m or so wide and about 200 m long), the island is covered with thousands of nesting seabirds. As we approached the birds took to the air and filled the skies, squawking in protest at our arrival. After ten minutes or so however, they settled down and began approaching our boat in groups, hovering over the boat by a couple of metres and eyeing potential landing sites.

Giant table corals and a few other species make up the bulk of coral biomass. The damselfishes are very reminiscent of the two-spot demoiselles in New Zealand, following divers in their hundreds.

Diving La Perouse was very different to the atoll rim. Where sandy bottom and wave-swept coral dominated the first site, La Perouse was surrounded by basaltic boulders that gave way to typical spur-and-groove coral reef at around 12 m. Giant table corals more than 3 m across indicated that this place was relatively more sheltered than the exposed outer atoll slope. Besides from one alua and a few white-tip reef sharks, few large predators were seen. No lobster to be found anywhere either, even though the basalt rock was highly perforated with ideal nooks and crannies in which they could hide. The impression La Perouse gave us was of a patient in recovery – something our chief scientist Scott Godwin confirmed later on: La Perouse was heavily fished until 2008, and is still recovering from the effects.

Lauren photographs Simon under La Perouse.

Approaching the side of the island at the end of a dive, we were astonished to see sunlight coming from its base. A small cave at around 10 m depth means that it is possible for a diver to swim through the island! The swell striking the windward side of the island created a strong suction effect, pulling us (temporarily) through to the other side. Later on, Simon was snorkeling around the island when he saw a little face poking out from under an overhang. A Hawaiian monk seal cautiously poked its nose out of its hideaway, waiting for the right opportunity to come back to the surface for another breath. Upon seeing the snorkelers, the seal shyly left the area. Two yellow scientific tags on its tail were testament to its previous encounters with humans. Perhaps this is why it seemed so shy?

Happy and worn out after a successful (and fun!) day of science diving

Highs and lows

Today is windier, and grayer, than previous days

The open ocean is at best a fickle place. The weather is always unpredictable. The sea ruins the hardiest of equipment. We can only do what we can.

Lauren watching for birds while one of the small boats is recovered. The crew get the boat right up against the Hi’ialakai as shown here so that people and gear can be off-loaded before the small boat is lifted to its skids.

Day two at French Frigate Shoals (today, August 5) sees us on board the R/V Hi’iakaiai without a tender – a loading wire on one of the davits was found to be frayed this morning, meaning the ecological survey team – which has priority – commandeered our boat to do their work. Even then, they had to leave four of their team on the boat as our vessel is smaller than theirs. So it transpired that Lauren and I have a day on board the mothership (Hi’ialakai) to rest, reflect, and prepare for tomorrow after a hectic first day. The downtime is also a great opportunity to write a blog entry!

The crew working on repairing the broken davit.
A booby flies past the boat.

Our arrival at FFS was made apparent to us by the sighting of a large object in the distance, La Perouse Rock. This and the small sandy islands on the atoll, are the only land for hundreds of km around. An excellent visual reference from which to get your bearings around FFS, La Perouse is also home to thousands of boobies (sfw). These birds now regularly fly past our boat, using our wind shadow to accelerate in the direction they need to fly.

We met with considerable success yesterday, although it did not come without cost: we were completely strung out and exhausted by the end and Simon was plagued with seasickness the entire day. Four dives in open-ocean swells on the windward side of the shoal were completed. In the process, two single-hydrophone recorders were deployed, the 11-hydrophone fly-by array was also deployed, and the ‘windmill’ – a bottom-mounted tower holding four time-lapse cameras, was secured to the bottom.

Simon works on securing a camera to the ‘windmill’, totally oblivious to the school of giant trevally circling him.

We even had the opportunity to conduct several benthic photo-transects and stationary fish count estimates! However, we also found that the flyby array was a challenge to maneuver and deploy from a pitching and rolling small boat. Simon also found that assembling the flyby in such weather was exceedingly difficult and leads to  vomiting sessions off the side… Luckily once the array was in the water and we were underneath, things calmed down greatly.

Even though we had made it to the bottom with their equipment, the challenges continued for us. The bottom environment on the southern side of FFS is dominated by large tracts of coral rubble, patchy reef, and white sand. Large, living reefs don’t occur in this area due to the occasional cyclone that comes this way and destroying the windward reef. While the sand looked like an ideal substrate into which one could screw in sand anchors, it seemed that in most places the sand only formed a thin veneer over hard coral. After about a dozen tries (3 mins of work per try), we finally found a place where the anchors ( about 4 ft, 1.25 m long) could be driven in to the ground more than half their length. After so much thought on where to put the acoustic instruments to extract the maximum scientific value from the recordings, it seems now that the deciding factors are simple: 1) near the reef 2) where the sand is deep enough to securely anchor the instruments.

Deploying one of the tenders. It looks precarious but the crane and tag lines allow the crew to place the boat exactly where they want.
Loading and unloading. A challenge in big seas.

We spend so much time concentrating on deploying the equipment and collecting information about the benthic habitat we almost forget to look up and miss some of FFS’s wonders! The first dive of the day seemed like diving in some kind of crystal palace. Visibility was much better than 40 m horizontal (130 ft) and the colour of the ocean was an intense blue. As we descended, long sinewy shapes moved over the sand – the shadows of large crimson jobfish swimming towards us to see what the commotion was all about. They were soon joined by giant trevally or uluas that seemed to act completely without reservation – no fear of spears or hooks, swimming tight circles around us at arms length. The quantity of predatory fish in this area is surprising although not unexpected – this reserve has not been fished (legally) for many years.

Coming alongside is the most ‘exciting’ part. The ship recovers the small boats while steaming ahead at moderate speed, and turns to make a lee for the small boat just as the bow line (painter) gets hooked on. Before you get into the lee, the lucky person on the bow line (Lauren for our boat, Simon takes the stern line) gets a good shower and arm workout holding on through the bumps.  (This is one of the bigger boats, HI-2.  Ours does not have any covered area at all and is a little bit smaller)

The small boat transits are extremely exciting.  We aren’t allowed to sit, because the jars and bumps can damage your back as we go over the big waves!  Yesterday we got a full on water-park effect when we plowed straight into one.  Fortunately the scuppers worked well.  Everything we brought on board was soaked, and eating lunch was a bit of a joke.  Simon wasn’t eating much anyway, and Lauren struggled to eat small packaged foods without them getting a salt wash first.  We worked hard under and above water, and made it back safely.  Our coxswain is awesome and we are glad to be working with him!

La Perouse rock in the distance. Atoll reef is visible closer in.

Now we wait anxiously for tomorrow. The hydrophones were deployed in an area that is a little rougher today as the wind is now blowing 25 kts from the south east. Will we get our equipment back in once piece? Will Simon be overcome by seasickness again?

Another booby flies past.

Our First Days Aboard

We are currently steaming northwest to French Frigate Shoals.  It’s a three day journey from Honolulu, so we expect to arrive tomorrow afternoon.  So far, we have been set up with internet, settled into our room, learned the ship schedule including mealtimes (700, 1100, 1700), found the (only?) two living plants, and done our laundry in the ship’s laundry room…not to mention working on hardware, checking Matlab software, and readying our equipment for deployment much of the time. In addition, there are many, many briefings, lessons, gear examinations, meetings wit coxwains and deck crew, medical examinations, you name it!

We’ve been out of sight of land for at least 24 hours, but we still see seabirds wandering by, cruising through the waves troughs, including blue-footed boobies, shearwaters, and fairy terns. Every time we drive through a patch people get excited for the chance we’ll hook up on a Wahoo or similar – we’re still not in the marine reserve so we’ve got four lures trailing out back on 900 lb monofilament and shock-cords. Not exactly angling with the most finesse, but pictures of Wahoo on the crew’s doors show that it works out from time to time.

The Hi’ialakai is an odd ship. She was designed to be an incredibly quiet ship, used to spy on Soviet submarines during the cold war. She was designed to tow a long (10 km) array of sensitive hydrophones out back, listening for the tell-tale sound of imperfectly designed propellers.  Consequently the engines are not connected to the props! The ship runs four electrical generators hidden deep inside the hull on vibration isolators, the props being driven by electric motors. This may not be the only reason, but the ship is fairly top heavy as a result – so we roll a lot!  Even though seas are moderate to calm, there is a constant, slow, side to side sway.  Neither of us have felt sick at all, but we kept waking up last night as we were rolled around our bunks!  Simon mentions that his pulse races every time there is a large swell at night as he visualises all his equipment rolling off the desk in the dry lab. We are starting to get the hang of walking down the hallways- a persons trajectory follows a slow S curve as the ship rolls.

We have been through a seemingly endless series of briefings and orientations since arriving onboard yesterday morning.  We have gone through fire and abandon ship drills.  During the latter, we learned how to get into our survival suits.  We were advised to store our IDs and long sleeved shirt and pants in the bags with our suits so that we have them with us in a real emergency.  We have also been briefed on dive safety, small boat operations, and diver emergency situations.  In addition to our normal and scientific dive gear, we have a P-PIRB emergency locating device for our team and we each have to carry an orange, inflatable, safety float that can be seen from the surface if our coxswain can’t locate us.  (Hopefully we will never use these items).

Another major point at briefings is galley/mess (where we eat) etiquette.  We are scooted in and out pretty quickly, and meals are served for exactly 45 minutes.  Hats and tank tops are not allowed, and we have been repeatedly asked to promptly leave the table when we finish eating and push our chairs in.  The food has been better than expected, including a salad bar at every lunch and dinner, and fresh fruit.  The coffee is OK at best, but we have made friends with the electronics technician who has a Keurig brewer in his room!  Lucky us.

Everyone is divided in to teams, and ours (the acoustics team, or Team Freeman) is the smallest with two members. This is actually good, because we get to focus on our research every time we have a chance to be in the water (we don’t have to help with other projects) and we are used to working and diving together.  It looks like we will even have our own small boat!  This is a big deal, since there are only 4 small boats used for diving and 16 divers.  Most of the science divers here are with the NOAA Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) surveys.  There are two other ‘oddball’ teams- a group of 3 graduate students from University of Hawaii studying bioerosion, and a group of 2 education and outreach officers who will be tagging along and snorkeling.  There are updating Facebook regularly (like Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument to see these) and blogging here.

Right now, in addition to training, we are building frames for our cameras and surveying out of PVC.  We are also preparing to deploy acoustic recorders (EARS) over the side of the ship for Simon’s mentor, Marc.  Our first EAR deployment will be tomorrow night after arriving at French Frigate Shoals. Stay tuned for exciting photos of Simon and Lauren in hard hats, winching stuff into the water.

Our biggest entertainment thus far has been watching the two most seasoned coxswains fight over who has the better boat (HI-1 or HI-2) to deploy our acoustic array (which you can learn more about in this post).  Getting the fully assembled 160 pound (~70kg) beast back aboard our small boat will certainly be our largest challenge.

We are looking forward to testing out the gym this afternoon.  Lauren is playing it safe with the spinning bicycles bolted to the upper deck, but Simon is going to brave the treadmill (oriented at a 90 degree angle to the ship’s heading, and aligned well with the rolling).

Loading at Pearl Harbour

The NOAA ship Hi’ialakai berthed at Ford Island

We’re continuing to post! Since the beginning of the cruise we’ve changed the status of our blog to ‘private’ – NOAA can be sensitive about some of the stuff that goes online (they are part of the government after all, and these days the government is apparently evil, so anything said needs to be said carefully).If you’re reading this, then you’ve been subscribed to our list!

After a month-long wait, we’re finally loading our equipment on the research ship that will be taking us to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands! We’re aboard the NOAA research ship R/V Hi’ialakai – you can read all about her here. We’re to spend 24 days driving more than 5000 km to Kure atoll, at the extreme northwest of the NWHI island chain. On the way (or on the way back) we’ll be stopping for three days each at French Frigate Shoals, Pearl and Hermes atoll and Lisianski Island.

Lauren receiving instructions on how to command the ship.

Monday saw us at the NOAA cultural briefing – the islands are strictly off-limits to anyone unless they have a permit, and nothing can be done in the area unless expressly permitted. The Hawaiians are fiercely protective of the island chain, to put it mildly. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is one of the world’s largest marine reserves and many rare and endangered animals live in the area such as the Hawaiian monk seal and laysan albatross. It was made clear to everybody on board that sensitivity to the environment is paramount.

The view from the bow at dock: The radar-on-a-drill-rig, known locally as “the death star”. Simon thinks it almost looks like an elephant…

The Hi’ialakai is currently berthed at Ford Island, Pearl Harbour. Here, she takes on fuel and supplies and maintenance is performed. The J-frame crane needs repair. One of the four drive engines is having issues. Nevertheless, the ship is scheduled to leave on Wednesday morning as intended. Next door, an enormous structure floats in the harbour – the sea-based X-band radar operated by the US navy. Who would have thought to put a giant ballistic missile tracking system…on a portable offshore drilling rig? Park it just outside China’s EEZ and huzzah! A great idea in theory, but apparently not so great in practice. An impressive sight nevertheless.

Rear bridge window, Lauren on the bow, and the ‘gym’.
The ‘dry’ lab. Luxury.
Simon’s stuff in the corner. His office for the next month.

A visit to the bridge reveals how the Hi’ialakai is built for rough seas. The flared bow is around two storeys higher than the stern of the boat. There are hanging bars from the roof of the bridge to grab during violent pitching. Rotary rain wipers are mounted on the back windows. An ex-US coastguard cold war era surveillance vessel fully kitted to withstand the worst Pacific weather, we reckon this ship (built in 1983/4) has seen it all. Although very utilitarian aboard, the standard of living is very high (and somewhat better than the apartment we have been subletting for the last month…). The ship even has satellite internet (although its very band-limited) and although we will miss most of the Olympics, we’ll be able to catch some of the highlights on the 5 satellite TV channels currently streaming on board.

Lauren in our room – 2 bunks, private bath. It even comes with a fridge!! and space to stretch one’s arms.

The Freemans have been given space in both the wet and dry labs to store and unpack their equipment. Simon’s stuff takes up most of the allocated space. A rare privilege – Simon and Lauren have been given a shared berth with a private bathroom! We had thought that NOAA policy was for male and female crews to berth separately, but when we mentioned that we were married to some of the ship’s staff they suggested we appeal. Sure enough, the science team berth manifest was released today with our names together – right next to the chief scientist’s quarters. This development further compounds our lucky run – to get a place on the cruise in the first place, then to get a second. Then to be allocated a ‘small’ (10 m RIB) boat to ourselves. Now, a private berth. Of course, we are very appreciative. Hopefully we can do some good science!