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An expedition of monument proportion
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Mission Log: June 28, 2006
Arrival at Kure Atoll

Patricia Greene, NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellyn Tong, Hawai`i Audubon Society

ocean and clouds
Stunning aqua marine colors. (Photo: Claire Johnson/NOAA)
We awoke with anticipation at approximately 5:30 a.m.  Today we were scheduled to arrive at Kure Atoll and with any luck would have our first snorkel experience in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

We have been in transit twenty-four hours a day for six days onboard the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai.  We have covered a distance equal to traveling from Houston, Texas to Reno, Nevada. 

Our snorkel gear is placed on deck near the loading area at 6:45 a.m. and after a quick breakfast we go up on deck with anticipation of our first view of Kure’s Green Island.  Two shade trees are in the middle of the island and appropriately a rainbow drapes the north end.  Birds; albatrosses, terns, and frigate birds fly out to greet us, while spinner dolphins play in the spray at the bow of our ship.  What an awesome welcome!

Threadfin butterfly fish
Facing off with a beautiful threadfin butterflyfish. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
At 7:30 a.m. the dive and snorkel team meet on the fantail and receive one last safety meeting from the Chief Boatswain and Dive Saftey Officer, Mark L. O’Conner.  Protocol on the ship is that the Maritime Archeology dive boat, the H1, is loaded first with supplies and people then lowered by crane into the ocean.  Next the research vessel Ahi with the University of Hawaii and NOAA mapping crew will enter the water, also by hydraulics.  Lastly our snorkeling boat, an inflatable zodiac with a 50hp 4 stroke will be placed in the water.  The only difference is our boat is not loaded so therefore we pass supplies into the boat and then we will need to climb down a Jacob’s ladder on the side of the Hi’ialakai in order to enter the boat.

At last we are instructed to load and we pull away from the Hi’ialakai, excited and anxious to see this underwater realm that we have all been reading, researching and immersed in the last six days while transiting.

Our first reward is the sight of a Hawaiian monk seal on one of the sand spits.  Ordinary Seaman, Jason Kehn, our coxswain, is careful to take the boat far around the area so as to not disturb this rare, endangered species.  The monk seal is apparently oblivious to our presence and only when we see a flipper move and his head rise, are we sure he is not dead. 

blackside hawkfish
A blackside hawkfish swims above the abundant finger coral. (Photo: Claire Johnson/NOAA)

Jason competently maneuvers to our dive site; we are grateful that he knows the area because our GPS is telling us we are still 21 miles from the site! We tie up to a CREWS (Coral Reef Early Warning System) buoy; one that transmits temperature, turbidity, and other environmental data that can detect significant impacts to the coral reef ecosystem.

After last minute safety instructions and advice to “look predators in the eye,” we are ready to enter the reefs.  The water around us is a collage of vibrant shades of blue and turquoise.  We open our eyes and are surrounded immediately by a huge school of chubs; seemingly curious and unafraid of us.  The visibility is phenomenal, probably 80ft.; the water crystal clear with no turbidity.

Goldring surgeonfish
Goldring surgeonfish were common at the CREWS buoy snorkel site. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
Fishes are numerous in Kure Atoll’s lagoon. Smaller species dominated our survey area. This may be explained by the coral reef habitat.  Coral cover was around 80 percent, with finger coral (Porites compressa) being the dominant species.  Living finger coral provides many hiding holes for the juveniles and adults of smaller species, and this may be the reason for the great abundance of smaller species of fish. 

Goldring surgeonfish
The finger coral is a desirable home for this small, endemic, Hawaiian cleaner wrasse. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
Finger coral may be an endemic species and is quick growing, often out competing other coral species for space.  Massive continuous heads created yards of living reef on our survey site.  We observed that the sheer weight of the massive heads often forced large pieces of living reef to break off and form rubble fields below the living reef.  These rubble fields provide highly desirable substrate onto which other species of corals recruit and create many tiny hiding holes, very desirable homes for larval fish to recruit into from the water column.  Homes for the adults, homes for the recruiting juveniles…what a perfect place to live!

Ellyn, our naturalist from Hawai`i, observed that overall there is greater diversity in the fish species in the NWHI than on the main Hawaiian Islands, however, in general the fish were smaller in size for their species.  Patty, our Teacher-at-Sea from the Florida Keys noted that overall the coral appeared much healthier that many of the reefs in the keys and noted the absence of the soft corals and brain coral so common in the keys. 

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