Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Blog 2 - French Frigate Shoals

Greg McFall – NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

After a slow start to the trip (we had to return to Honolulu for a couple of days) we're back out in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument; our first stop is French Frigate Shoals. French Frigate Shoals was named after Jean-François de La Pèrouse who nearly lost two of his frigates while sailing across the Pacific to the port of Macau. French Frigate Shoals is the largest atoll in the Hawaiian archipelago and the nearby La Pèrouse pinnacles are named after the Captain who “found” them. I use the term “found” in quotations because this atoll was undoubtedly discovered and used several hundreds of years prior by native Polynesian cultures; it is odd how we often use the word "discovered" or "found" as synonymous with "the rest of the world knowing about it." Surely the native peoples of this area could have told many stories of the atoll and how it was used both culturally and for subsistence on their many voyages of 'discovery.'

I had the honor of sailing to this area with the native Hawaiian Navigator, Nainoa Thompson, back in 2002. I’ll never forget all the information that he would provide about how the ancestors would navigate without the use of instrumentation by virtue of being truly "connected" with their environment. At risk of great oversimplification on my part, they 'knew' the habits of particular birds and sea creatures, they knew what different colored clouds meant in terms of proximity to particular atolls or islands and everything meant something; all were clues to where you were and where you needed to be. I smile and think of Nainoa every time I see green low-hanging clouds which are reflecting the color of the shallow water inside the lagoon (which can be seen from miles away) or when I see the ‘Iwa (frigate or "robber bird") which rarely ventures far from where they roost. Don’t get me wrong, technology is wonderful in so many ways but it saddens me a bit to realize just how disconnected we are from our environment as a result of it.

Dr. Carl Meyer
replacing an acoustic receiver.
Today, we dive on an area outside of the fringing reef known as "Rapture Reef" which is characterized by beautiful "table" coral. The coral starts as a very small single polyp and grows outward, continually branching to form a relatively flat surface under which many fish find refuge from predators which constantly search from above for their prey. My dive buddies today collected data on the numbers and types (species) of fish by counting them along a "transect" tape that is twenty-five meters (~75 feet) long. One buddy counted the fish while the other took pictures of the seafloor at random points along the transect. By collecting this data, year after year, scientists will gain a better understanding of how the populations and the seafloor organisms and habitat change (or remain the same) over time and how they compare to other islands in the archipelago. One scientist, Dr. Carl Meyer, has been tagging fish with acoustic "pingers" which indicate their presence or absence within the detection range of an acoustic receiver which has been placed in the sand at the reef. By using this technology, he will be able to determine how "resident" some of the fish are and how this reef is used by the fish which have been tagged. He was very excited to return to the surface with the receiver and find that there were over 5,000 detections.

Table coral and fishes at Rapture Reef in French Frigate Shoals

Tomorrow we sail for Gardner Pinnacles which will undoubtedly have more secrets to share on this "Monumental Voyage of Discovery."

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