Day 6 – Exploration of the Unknown

January 20, 2012

 

I woke up motivated to run. With no idea where to go but a map in hand I trekked over to the Clipper House for breakfast at what I thought was an obnoxiously early time. To my surprise, a table full of Dukies were already immersed in eggs and bacon.

I consulted with my professor for the best running routes, ate eggs and took off. I was headed for the other side of the island – running a path that went across the runway and along a closed beach.

The first issue was the runway. I was told time and time again to take care and cross only at the designated crossing points and that they were clearly marked. They lied. The first crossing point had a tiny biker symbol painted on the path 20 feet before the runway so I assumed I was in the right place. The second crossing point had a warning sign and the third place was entirely unmarked. I ended up crossing the edge of the runway and running along the side until I met back up with the trail.

On this side of the island, Black-footed albatross provide a stronger presence and attempted to thwart my running goals. They walk in an angry-old-man-fashion and aggressively fly at you while clapping their beaks. I stopped running and walked timidly past mumbling, “It’s ok, I’m not here to hurt you, I’m just walking past, leaving now….”

A five-mile run took over an hour – I could not resist stopping at every moment to snap a few pictures. When the fairy turns joined me for a short time, they flew away the moment I got my camera ready. I think they knew…

Back from the run and showered, we finished the tour of the island. Stopping along the path of my run we watched as a Laysan albatross egg begin to hatch! If it is successful it will be the first Laysan chick on the island! (Black-footed and short-tailed have already hatched)

After lunch we partook in giving back to the island. We spent an hour pulling out verbaceena and planting plank grass, albatross walking among us, nesting birds snapping at our feet. It was interesting – many of us took to talking to the birds. Letting them know we were working to make their nests more suitable for survival, telling them how much their chicks would love the plank grass – they are such amazing animals!

With time to spare before dinner a small group of us took off exploring. We found a forest of ironwood trees, stark contrast to the ideal sand and grasses. It was odd seeing albatross sprinkled throughout such a dense forest – sea birds do not belong under trees!

After dinner we awaited the arrival of the VIPs. Big wigs from NOAA, Fish and Wildlife Service and other monument managers were coming in to assess parts of the island. Unfortunately, there is not enough money to save and restore all of these amazing historical places and hard decisions must be made to prioritize. Places like the famous Midway Island theatre will most likely not make the list…

Anyone want to start a fund? We would most likely only need around 60 million…

Day 5 – I’m never leaving this place

January 20, 2012

 

Our first day on Midway. Waking up to the sound of albatross dancing, eating delicious food at the Clipper House, and escorted to the Fish and Wildlife Visitors Center (via limo, of course) for island orientation.

We were told a little bit about the island – its history as a naval base and then in the commercial era as a vacation destination. We were told that the island started out as nothing more than sand and bunch grass and that the original cable company (the one that helped decipher the Japanese code) brought in mounds of top soil from other islands and completely recreated the ecosystem. Ironwood trees were established to break up the wind and verbaceena stowed away in the soil. These plants would grow to wreak havoc on the island years later.

We then walked over to the equipment hangar for bikes. Most everyone here rides bikes around the island. Next most popular are golf carts and lastly, farm equipment such as Gators.

The bikes are vintage. Mine is a stylish white women’s bike that has allowed me to master the art of gracefully dismounting while still in slight motion – everyone is very impressed.

After biking around the island to tour a little more we satiated our appetites that seem to have grown overnight. According to our professor, it is just Midway, you’re always hungry here. It might have something to do with the phenomenal food. The chefs are from Thailand and everything we eat is delicious. They even go out of their way to make vegetarian options specifically for the three veggies in our group!

It seemed the day could not get any better. And then it did. With the weather holding beautifully we hoped on a boat and made our way out to the far end of the atoll for snorkeling. On our way we stopped to enjoy the pod of spinner dolphins showing off. These dolphins are named for their spinning motion; the motion is supposedly used to wake the other dolphins in the pod and get them excited for the nights’ foraging festivities.

Interesting tidbit: these are the dolphins people travel hundreds of miles to swim with in Hawaii. However, they sleep during the day using the bays around Oahu and the Big Island as protection from predators during this vulnerable state. By swimming with them, humans have disrupted this pattern causing the dolphins to wake early and therefore not have enough energy for the long night of foraging.

We finished off the trip there, holding on for dear life in the waves, and got our gear together to jump in the water. I somehow missed the sea turtle welcoming crew, however, I did see some amazing fish.

Christmas Wrasse colored bright pink and green dodged between the rocks while sea cucumbers lazily hugged the sea floor. The water was so shallow and clear, the colors bright and vibrant with fish and coral close enough to touch.

Swimming forward against the current we were careful not to be sucked out to the other side of the reef. Not only are there sharks and larger predators on that side (even though they could care less and are the first to swim away from you), there is nothing between you and Japan – the whole open expanse of the Pacific.

Deeper waters gave room for more corals and schools of fish. A four-foot long Jack came to say hello, well, more like came over to say, “You don’t scare me so don’t mess with me”. Stopping by the remnants of a platform, used for core sampling and escaping the army wives, a large school of Convict Tangs joined us in our exploration. I missed it (I was trying not to be thrown into the pilings by the waves) but if you sat very still you could hear them picking at the corals.

After returning to the boat I stripped off my wetsuit and hopped back in the blue water. The temperature was much warmer than any of us expected and we just could not stay away.

The trip back held more spinners and green sea turtles, large waves and chilly ocean air. After a warm shower and delectable dinner, we headed to the ship store to stock up on souvenirs.

That night we explored the All Hands Club. A historical bar with rooms for the officers as well as multiple rooms for the army men to enjoy a beer and play games. Today, there is a bar and a stage (for the Chugach band) in one room and shuffleboard, pool tables and pinball machines in the other.

I went to bed on cloud 9. There is no way I’m going home any time soon (sorry!! But I’ll let you visit!)

Day 4 – On to Midway

January 19, 2012

 

Lazy day. Oh, wait. There’s no such thing as lazy here, even when everything scheduled for the day is – go to airport and get on the plane.

I woke up and ran before checking out of the East-West center. It was a nice run where I followed people who looked like they knew where they were going and ended up at the University of Hawaii athletic complex.

A good number of us then decided to walk to breakfast (my third meal of the day at this point) and stopped at a nice vegetarian grocery store for coffee, scones, shakes and cookies J

Then we headed onwards towards the beach. Including the walk to breakfast it was a 3 mile walk; but oh, so worth it. The water was clear to about 20 feet and there were parts that dropped off that quickly. I wish the color of that water could have been painted everywhere for me to stare at everyday.

A few of us decided to brave the chill and stay in longer than just a few minutes. It proved fruitful. While staring out at the ocean I spotted what looked like an awkward snorkeler, however, it was staying underwater too long to be a snorkeler….it was a green sea turtle! There turned out to be three green’s in the water with us, some close enough to swim over and touch – even though we did not.

After geeking out like teenage girls around Brad Pitt, we headed for lunch. Instead of braving the three mile hike back, we hitched a cab and made great time. Then on to the airport!

Free food awaited us in the plush lounge of the private company chartered for all flights to and from Midway Atoll. As we sat and vegged we contemplated the journey we were about to partake in. I could not imagine what was in store!

The flight was a little over three hours long hopping from island to island following the chain up the archipelago. Upon landing on Sand Island (one of three in the atoll) we were met with pitch-black darkness, sounds of the birds and a welcoming crew of workers and “limo” drivers. Our “limos” – extra long golf carts, escorted us through the dark highlighting pockets of hundreds of birds.

We arrived at the Charlie Barracks, were given the orientation for housing and told to head up to the bar for a welcoming night beer and pizza. We played darts and Jenga and tried to relax from the excitement.

On the way back to Charlie, I was fortunate enough to have my first petrel encounter. Previous students informed me these birds – who fly at night – will take care to fly over the light source. Now I am told they fly straight into it. The person ahead of me decided to investigate the bird further at which time the bird freaked and flew straight into my stomach. After flapping about for a few seconds trying to figure out why in the world it was not moving forward, it came around and flew away.

What an amazing welcome to the island!

For more pictures and other perceptions of the day, go to the class blog

Day 3 – Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!

January 18, 2012

 

5:00am and my alarm sounds. Groan. Roll-over. Try to ignore it. Then I remember, I’m in Hawaii, smile and hop out of bed.

The Hawaii Seafood Auction opens before 6am but I believe they took pity on us, allowed us some rest and met us at 6am for the tour. Guiding us was Sean Martin, co-owner of POP Fishing and Marine, a company managing six longline fishing vessels, bait shops, ice supply, liferafts, and a plethora of other fishing needs – quite an impressive list. For such a busy man, I was impressed and thankful he was willing to take two hours out of his morning to show us around.

The auction was unlike anything I had ever seen. A well-orchestrated symphony of buyers, fish, workers, and onlookers, fast-paced and high-energy. I felt always in the way with the number of people in constant motion and instantly mesmerized by the action.

A longliner arrives at the port the night before the auction. Fish are left on the boats on ice until the next morning when fish are removed, weighed and tagged – to distinguish which boat the fish originated from, the weight and any other important details. The fish are then laid out on palettes in long rows across the floor creating aisles of traffic. We saw bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, oil fish, opah, marlin, swordfish, wahoo and many more.

Auction workers follow the palettes down the line; the auction manager inspects the fish to determine health and a baseline of quality. Any fish he deems unfit for sale will be given back to the boat (and most likely discarded). The Hawaiian Seafood Auction takes pride in selling only the highest quality, however, low quality fish are not often seen. A man with a long metal tool takes a core of the fish and lays it on a white index card for buyers to inspect. The next man uses a large knife to slice off a chunk of the tail to expose the meat for further inspection. According to Sean, the buyers can immediately determine the quality of the fish simply by glancing at the core and the meat color.

The buyers and auctioneer move as one. In slow constant motion they work their way down the rows of fish speaking a secret language of prices and quality, unintelligible to the spectators peering over shoulders and down the line. A sale is made, the price per pound is noted, a buyer tag is printed, and everything is stapled to the original tag. By the time the tag is printed, the group has already moved on, most likely 4-5 fish ahead. Designated auction workers collect the sold fish on a palette and cart them off to the loading area where they are collected by the buyer and shipped to their final destination. One last worker scoots around sweeping the excess ice onto the grates to clear off the floor for the next batch of fish. The process repeats until all fish are sold.

Cornering one of the assistant buyers (ok, we didn’t corner so much as strike up a conversation when he least expected it), we learned that the process did not stop once the fish left the market. He described that his buyer – an intimidating looking Hawaiian fellow – was inputting all of the bought fishes’ information into an iPad-looking machine that transferred the data to sellers back at their office. Those sellers were then using the information to sell the fish to buyers all over the US – he shared that his company sold all the fish for Iron Chef! – by 8am the fish would be on a plane to the mainland via UPS. Some auction buyers even sold to Canada!

Sean then brought us outside to show us one of his “smaller” longliners. The boat is 64 ft long and serves a crew of four – one captain and three deckhands. The average time fishing is 12-14 days with 1-5 days of travel before and after. Sean told us later that the fishermen spend around 268 days a year out fishing! On a good day, boats might bring in upwards of 25,000 lbs of fish to sell and can net a pretty penny (to be split between auction charges, ship gear and maintenance costs, the ship owner and the crew).

After the excitement of the auction we settled down and trekked over to NOAA’s Pacific Island Regional Office (PIRO) to meet with former CEMs and other office members. We discussed current issues amongst sea turtles, false killer whales, 83 proposed endangered coral species and spinner dolphins. Overall, an interesting conversation and educational on the applied process of the Endangered Species Act and current Hawaiian issues.

We rounded out the day by enjoying lunch and dinner with Charles Littnan (can never get enough of the Honey Badger) and CEM alums. The discussion, of course, turned to monk seals and conservation issues in Hawaii. The last comment of the night from former CEM, Elia Herman, “I think about Midway everyday; Midway will change your life.”

Tomorrow, we’ll experience that change.

For more pictures and to see this blog on the website, go here

Day 2 – Could it get any prettier?

January 17, 2012

Today was a relaxing day. Woke up, grabbed coffee (unfortunately we tried to support local business and it took way too long and was so overpriced), and took a nice long drive to the northern shore of Oahu.

We were aiming for Ka’ena Point. A newly created predator-free reserve for albatross, other sea birds and monk seals. It literally looks like the point of the island on the northwest shore when viewed on a map. It is thought to be the jumping off point for the native Hawaiian spirits (remember this, it will pop up later…) and is a gorgeous merging of mountains and sea.

The area was originally invaded with rats, mongoose and pets such as cats and dogs. These animals caused the albatross and other nesting birds to leave the island in search of areas without predators. You might not think a tiny rat or mouse can eat an egg or albatross chick but they tend to gang up and can suffocate and take down a chick.

Biologists on the island decided to take the area back from the predators and give it to the native organisms. A predator fence, as first seen in New Zealand, was designed and built, closing in the point of the island and keeping it free of rats, mongoose, mice, cats and dogs. Visitors are still allowed inside the reserve, however pets are not.

Remember the bit about the spirits jumping off? Well this is where it gets interesting. Native Hawaiians were worried that the fence would block the spirits from the point and keep them from jumping. Area managers had to work with natives to design the fence in such a way that the spirits could still pass through; the fence now has extra entrances for this purpose. It is an interesting example of issues environmental managers often have to deal with that are not the usual sort we prepare for.

After the three-mile hike out, Ka’ena Point was lovely. Lindsay Young, a bird biologist with Fish and Wildlife, met us at the gate. Lindsay is famous for discovering the unusual female-female pairs within this nesting colony. It is thought that when the sex ratio becomes skewed (most likely towards females seeing as they are more successful at immigrating to new nesting locations) females pair up to raise an egg. Lindsay and other biologists think these birds show this behavior because they are more successful raising a chick together than on their own.

Then we saw our first albatross – we all jumped and pointed, only too soon we’d know how commonplace this event would be – nested in the distance as Great Frigate birds flew in masses overhead. Never has that many Frigate birds been seen like that! The reserve is also equipped with Black-footed albatross decoys in the hopes to draw those birds to nest. Solar panels power a sound system that plays bird calls, again, hoping to attract other birds to the point.

Walking further out to the point we momentarily ignored the crystal blue of the crashing waves and focused in on the first monk seal sighting! These guys are my absolute favorite and are the most critically endangered animal residing completely in US territory (you would think this makes things easier…it doesn’t). He (or she) was hauled further out than usual and therefore gave us a great look.

Then the water beckoned. Rocks overpowered the landscape creating tidal pools in the low tide. Naturally, we all hopped from rock to rock, looking in the pools, taking pictures of more hauled out seals and exploring the area. Fish played tag in the larger pools while a sea snake slithered his way through the nooks and crannies of the smaller ones. I could have stayed there for hours.

Unfortunately, it was time to leave. Lindsay and her colleagues had to continue on working – currently working to eradicate the few rodents that had slipped past the gate at low tide – and our stomachs were growling.

After returning to the van we hopped in towards lunch. The rest of the day consisted of shaved ice (an island tradition), a nice 6 mile run into Waikiki, and resting before eating dinner at a Pho (a type of noodle) restaurant. All in all, a great day.

For more pictures and a different perspective on the day, visit the class’ blog!

Day 1 – Starting Strong

January 16, 2012 (Obviously, I’m behind but I’ll work hard to catch up!)

After getting in to Honolulu yesterday at 2:30pm, showering, walking around the island exploring, having dinner and walking back to the East-West center, I was exhausted. I fell right asleep and amazingly didn’t wake up until 5 minutes before my alarm. My body seemed to have already adjusted, however, I was oddly awake and alert at 7am.

Scheduled to meet at 8am we all felt the same odd energy for that early in the morning – maybe something to do with the fact our body’s were convinced it should be 5 hours later in the day – well, all but one of us. One student’s stomach did not enjoy the dinner (a place that he picked out) and had been upset with him the entire night. What an awful way to start such an amazing trip.

Andy, our professor, drove us to coffee at a local place, Coffee Talk, where we sat and enjoyed iced coffees, frappacinos, mochas and scones while waiting for the last member of the class to meet us. We discussed the week – the plans for Honolulu, transportation to Midway, who we’d meet, topics for discussion – and then discussed it again after she finally showed up.

After breakfast, we drove out to Diamond Head Crater for a nice morning hike. It was hot and steep; the class spread quickly over the expanse of the trail – the athletic competitors blazing ahead while the more relaxed classmates strolled along taking pictures and enjoying the sights. The view from the top was astounding. Breathtaking blue waters, whales breaching in the distance, little houses overlooking the water stood in stark contrast to the development of Waikiki and the fingers of houses creeping up the mountain in the distance. Every piece of land that could be built on was. Impressively depressing to an environmental student dreaming of the gorgeous Hawaii that seems to only exist in pictures.

After the hike down the crater, we stopped for lunch at “Wahoo Tacos”. Fish tacos and vegetarian taco bowls were inhaled before hopping back in the sketchy white van to depart for Hawaii Pacific University.

Once there, we met with David (pronounced D-ah-veed) Hyrenbach, professor and researcher in the field of seabirds. David specifically researches plastic pollution and its effect on seabirds. He lectured on the vast complications of his research – how birds feed, where they feed, the type of plastic, the degradation of the plastic, the target prey and so much more can effect conclusions – and then allowed us to join him and a PhD student to necropsy (animal autopsy) three seabirds, two shearwaters and one Black-footed Albatross.

Apart from the smell and the guts, the necropsies were fascinating. There were vast differences in amounts of fat in each bird (a sign of health), muscle strength and amounts of plastic in each stomach. The albatross had easily identifiable pieces of plastic the second the stomach was opened!

Naturally, after that presentation we needed more coffee and had time to kill before dinner with Charles Littnan, head of the monk seal recovery program. Following recommendations, we went to The Morning Brew, where I ordered a Kona Mocha – again based on recommendations and was surprised when I received a frappacino in my insulated mug (side note: they don’t work well in mugs).

We picked up beer and headed to Charles’ house early, seeing as we just could not wait any longer. Upon arriving, there were three other people from the Pacific Islands Regional Services Center – Tracy Young, the monk seal biologist who would be accompanying us to Midway; Jesse, a logistics manager for the team and Sean, who I can’t remember what he does….

We settled in finding seats and drinks as Charles began explaining the game – what he estimated would take 15 minutes to complete. Forty-five minutes later, we decided we should order pizza before beginning.

The “game” consisted of four phases in which we, the students, would play the part of NMFS Monk Seal Recovery Team, Tracy played disasters, Jesse was mayhem and Sean was every stakeholder involved. Andy interjected comments and Charles played the part of “The omnipotent one”.

Phase 1 – someone in the Northwest Hawaii Islands (NWHI) notices that monk seal populations are decreasing. They inform NMFS. NMFS then has to decide what to do about the issue with what little money they have. We discussed taking surveys, how surveying technology has changed and how to survey with no funding money. A simple phase that still lasted us an hour (we’re all too good at starting a discussion).

The phases progressed from there and included the labeling of monk seals as endangered, the translocation of aggressive males, the creation of the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument, the decrease in the NWHI monk seal population (even though it is entirely protected inside the monument), the increase in the main HI (MHI) population (even though there’s disease and competition with fisheries and fishermen shooting them), the list goes on.

Essentially, I do not envy Charles, but the issues at hand fascinate me. How to reach out to the local Hawaiian populations to gain their support of the monk seals? How to deal with a declining population in the protected reserve? How to deal with a budget that is cut year after year? That is just the tip of the iceberg.

I left that night feeling elated. My mind was reeling with thoughts of monk seal conservation and science outreach. I even asked Shaun if he was willing to move to Hawaii to allow me to work on this issue after grad school (obviously, semi-joking…but not really). I have been intrigued…

For more pictures and a different perspective on the day, visit the class’ blog!

It’s a busy time of year, understandable. But I wanted to make sure that the post tributing to 9/11 was posted in September. If more people would like to submit their stories, we can add them later.

Toni:

September 11, 2001 is a day that I, like many others, will never forget.  I have two very specific memories.  One relates to the fact that I was at work and informed shortly after the first tower was hit, that everyone was in our office kitchen watching the coverage on The Today Show.  I went into the kitchen and standing there with my co-workers, I was dumbstruck to see the second tower being hit as well. The surreal part was knowing that my company (Aon) had several hundred employees working on the upper floors of the South Tower, the second tower attacked.  We would later learn over the course of several days that Aon lost 176 employees due to this horrible tragedy.  Since I had only been working at Aon since June, I did not personally know any of those we lost but I certainly felt the pain and sorrow of all those who lost loved ones and friends that day.

My second vivid memory is of talking to Erin that day for several hours in multiple conversations, trying to make sense of what had happened and why.  It was so difficult to be away from her on such an emotional day since my daughter had been away at college for less than a month and she had turned an impressionable 18 just four days earlier.   We just kept asking ourselves how something so atrocious could have occurred at all.
It is good to remember lest we should ever forget the heroic efforts of so many people who tried to save others from the tragedy that befell over 2,700 innocent victims.

 

Me:

 

8th grade. I walked into the American History classroom to see my teacher, Mrs. Rhodes, sitting at a table watching TV. She traditionally had the news on when class started so I thought nothing of it at first. Then I saw the screen. Twin towers, standing stark against a grey sky, smoke billowing out of the left hand tower. I stopped. Stared. Students filed in behind me, all of us confused. We slowly moved to sit down as Mrs. Rhodes begun explaining the scene in front of us: a plane crashed into a tower of the World Trade Center just before class started. We stared, open mouthed and mesmerized, at the TV as the scene progressed.

 

The next hours were a blur. Mrs. Rhodes made comments predicting this act as the start of the third world war, that Columbus could be a target due to a manufacturing plant that made weapons; students scared and requesting to go home; math class with the TV turned off, opening our books to a page with a picture of the Twin Towers; rumors turned truth that a second plane hit the second tower. I can’t even remember going home or talking to my mom…I assume we discussed it, I assume I told her Mrs. Rhodes’ comments.
The next day, stories surfaced regarding students who knew people working in the towers. People who ran late and watched the plane dive into the their place of work while sitting in traffic. People who had not talked with their loved ones since the attacks and weren’t sure if they made it. Some good, most bad, all of it horrible.

 

10 years later and people still remember. It amazes me how most everyone you talk to that was old enough to remember, does. Details that can shake you away from reality and put you back in that fateful morning. My recollection of most of the day might be somewhat blurred but I remember those minutes when I first saw the towers precisely. September 11, 2001: We will never forget.

 

It’s times like these that make me sit back and think of the ones I love and how thankful I am to have all of you.
Love always,
DC

 

PS – feel free to put your stories in the comments section or email me and I’ll add them to the body of the post.