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Mission Blog: October 6, 2009
Working In The Monument

By Kate Cullison, Scientist

Launching small boat.

(Photo: John Coney)

This is the third annual research trip to the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument for the crustose coralline algae (CCA) project. A coralline alga looks like a simple pink crust on rocks, but is an important source of reef structure. It is a plant that has calcium in its tissues which cements and builds reef rock as it photosynthesizes and grows. Many species of coralline algae also serve as preferred substrate for coral larvae on which to settle and mature. CCA, despite notable ecological contributions, is an understudied component of reef ecosystems. NOAA has funded this survey to identify the species present in the monument as well as identify any biogeographical patterns to the distribution of CCA throughout the archipelago. Our sampling strategy this year involves detailed photographs of each specimen both in its habitat and after collection, for the purpose of providing a "field guide" to the CCAs in the Monument.

Launching small boat.

(Photo: John Coney)

The Hi'ialakai is an exciting platform from which to work. Each morning before breakfast we gather all the diving gear and science equipment near the boat we have been assigned. Each boat goes to the sites that were chosen during a team leader meeting the previous evening. I select sites that provide a diversity of habitat types and depths. While we would like to work only in the prettiest environments, we also have to work in high-surge reef crests, strong currents, and areas of very bad visibility. The coxswains of the individual dive boats have a mastery of the charts and underwater environments of each atoll, often help us locate suitable and diverse sites for our study. Our coxswains expertly and safely maneuver their boats to allow us access to a variety of habitats from deep to shallow, protected lagoon to exposed reef crest.

Launching small boat.

(Photo: John Coney)

Our team of two usually dives on our own. We carry a dive float with us so that our location remains visible to our coxswain at all times. We descend to the bottom, do a quick survey of the area, and then start our sampling. John Coney takes detailed photographs of the site to document habitat characteristics and then takes detailed pictures of each sample I collect so that we can later see any trends in species composition with regard to light availability, wave exposure, and associated plants or animals. The camera bright flashes, as well as the sounds I make with my hammer and chisel, tend to attract attention from the diverse local underwater wildlife. Monk seals come right up to us for a closer look, and so do sharks and other predatory fish.
Launching small boat.

Lisianski (Photo: John Coney)

I admit it is hard not to be distracted by the onlookers, especially those with big teeth. However, we are all well aware that the presence of predators is one of the more noticeable indicators that, unlike the over-fished main Hawaiian Islands, these islands have healthy marine ecosystems. Working in the monument is a privilege and a joy, and we are very glad to be here.

 

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