The HIMB fish team (Kim, Tonatiuh, and Brian). (Photo: Tonatiuh Trejo) Click on thumbnail for a larger image.
Our fish team, led by Brian Bowen from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, had a single mission at Laysan Island: to collect specimens from 22 species, representing 9 separate families of fish, including parrotfish, wrasses, damselfish, blennies, goatfish, and snappers. For some species, the goal is to provide a large enough sample size (30) for population genetic studies. Other species are part of range-wide genetic diversity studies, so our goal with those species is a more modest 10 specimens. In coral reefs like the ones in the NWHI, there are simply too many hiding spaces for fish, so instead of using nets, we collect our samples by spearfishing. In addition to actually hitting a small moving target, spearing fish presents additional challenges in the NWHI.
Monk seal on the beach at Laysan. (Photo: Tonatiuh Trejo)
At Laysan, we had what could only be described as a marauding gang of 4 large ulua following us closely, ready to consume any of our samples before we could get them inside our collecting bags. Twice during our time at Laysan, an ulua measuring more than 3 feet long devoured a large parrotfish I had just speared. In only 2 quick and powerful bites, my sample disappeared. The second time, the ulua even bent my spear tip to add insult to injury. I have to say that it is quite unnerving to have large fish like this harassing you on each dive, intent to prove that they are the meanest, baddest creatures on the reef, almost mocking us as they swim ever-tightening circles around our team.
Tonatiuh Trejo off the SW side of Laysan. (Photo: Tonatiuh Trejo)
And with blood in the water, it doesn't take long for sharks to pick up the scent. In addition to the uluas, we also had 2 whitetip reef sharks and a gray reef shark following us around. At Necker Island, after spearing a few fish, I was actually bumped from behind by a 5-ft gray reef shark. When I turned around, a whitetip shark also had its snout in my goodie bag, inches from my hand, so as you can imagine, I've been keeping a close watch on the company we attract on the reef.
Topside, we had great weather, so in between dives, we relaxed aboard our 8-meter dive boat, admiring the beautiful
sand beaches of Laysan Island as we sharpened our spear tips, ate our lunches, and marveled at our luck to be in such an amazing place that few others will ever see.
Dan Wagner returning to the boat. (Photo: Tonatiuh Trejo)
In addition to a few monk seals basking on the beaches, we also saw lots of birds overhead, mostly terns, but also boobies and a few Laysan albatross (albatrosses?). At the end of five dives over the course of two days, our fish collections are not complete, but we are ready to move on. I've heard that Pearl and Hermes Atoll (our next destination) is the underwater crown jewel of the NWHI, and I am hopeful, perhaps foolishly, that the uluas and reef sharks there will leave us alone. We soon shall see...