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Mission Blog: October 18, 2009
Back At Midway

By Krista Pierce, Scientist, Photographer, Diver

Launching small boat.

(Photo: Krista Pierce)

Ah, back at Midway! We had gotten a brief introduction to this remote Pacific atoll, wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary a few days earlier and I had loved the diving here. Our survey sites had been conducted amidst an expansive labyrinth of underwater topography that weaved long winding sand channels with extending fingers of rock and coral. Such a 'spur and groove' seascape creates a habitat abundant with rocky overhangs and cozy hideaways for the fish typically seen in the Hawaiian archipelago, but also where species unique to Midway and Kure Atoll, such as the Spotted Knifejaw, Hawaiian Morwong and Masked Angelfish can commonly be found.

As part of the fish monitoring team, my role on the cruise is to conduct fish surveys with another member of my team along a 30m transect; each of us recording species' presence, abundance and size in a 15 meter diameter circle. Our work gives the monument a snapshot of what the abundance and diversity of fish biomass looks like in varying habitats and depths throughout the NWHI reef ecosystem.

As we rolled off the boat and descended into the clear blue water, I glanced over at my dive buddy, Paula Ayotte, and gestured to the flat, sandy and algal-covered sea floor. Peppered with coral rubble and an occasional coral head, the flat expanse spread out beneath us in all directions. This isn't what we were expecting. Where was the beautiful fish laden seascape we had dove in days earlier? "Oh well, this shouldn't be too exciting" I thought, "there's nobody down here."

Indeed, at first glance such habitat appears to be barren of life. However, as we approached our survey site at 95 feet and began to roll out our transect, my initial thoughts were washed away as marine life began to emerge. A school of blue-spined unicorn fish suddenly filled the water column and several inquisitive Galapagos sharks cruised by to see who was visiting their home. Paula and I began our survey, glancing up to note the few species of larger fish skirting the edge of our site, and to pay respect to the patrolling sharks, but focusing in on the tiny juvenile fish taking refuge in the small corals, rubble and algae that such habitat is known for. The dive passed quickly as I immersed myself in the identification of tiny sand perches, wrasses, angelfish, and surgeonfish. In an ocean filled with so many fascinating creatures and varying habitats, even a dive that looks to be mundane at first glance quickly turns into an intriguing hour of discovery under the sea; I loved this job!

Launching small boat.

(Photo: Krista Pierce)

I finished rolling up the transect, Paula untied the dive float that identified our location on the surface and we agreed to begin our ascent. A few feet up and we were already being drawn together by the odd gravitational forces in a vast wide ocean that somehow cause you to be adhered to your buddy upon ascent. I chuckled to myself and made a small kick away from Paula. As I did, I turned, and was immediately stricken with awe at the immense creature slowly swimming towards us. I nudged Paula to attention. The overwhelming size of the creature left no question in my mind what it could be. Steadily approaching us with an intense and fixed gaze, the distinct shape of its head and characteristic down turned mouth verified what I already knew. This was an enormous tiger shark.

Maintaining faith that on scuba I am not something a shark would care to taste, I had dreamt of meeting a tiger shark one day while diving, seeking to encounter it at the bottom and in clear water. But now here it was swimming straight at me in accordance with all of my 'ideal encounter prerequisites'. Despite such ideal conditions, pre-existing beliefs and my passion for meeting new ocean inhabitants, somehow my dreams never quite factored in the emotions and fear of encountering such an incredibly powerful ocean predator face to face at 85 feet. This was, no kidding, a serious shark; beautiful, yet frighteningly huge, its commanding presence and unwavering focus on us was far more stunning than I could have ever imagined.

"Remain calm," I told myself, "keep breathing and don't miss this shot!" Time seemed to stop as the unassailable shark continued slowly swimming towards us, gaze fixed. Adrenalin surged through my body as Paula and I stared into the face of this incredible predator of the sea. Approaching within 10 or 12 feet of us before its curiosity was quelled, with a quick whip of its tail and a sideways sneer back at us, the shark swiftly turned to the left and powerfully thrust itself out of sight. Back to back, with adrenalin shaking our bodies and eyes wide monitoring the clear water below, Paula and I safely ascended the longest 85 feet of our diving careers.

Back on the boat exhilarated and extremely humbled by the whole new element of ocean that I had just experienced, I looked out into the vast blue Pacific and reflected on the irony of the 'mundane' dive I had anticipated when first rolling off the boat. Just another day at work aboard the Hi'ialaki, but an incredible encounter in the waters of Midway that will forever serve as a powerful reminder to be ready for anything when diving into the ocean for work or play.

 

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