Heading back down the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain

We are just now leaving French Frigate Shoals after to diving days here.  A little shallower than some earlier dives, working a subtle 60m ledge that goes around most islands in the Pacific.  The ledges are often rich with life, as they act as an oasis of sorts, providing cover for all manner of reef fish and invertebrates, which in turn bring in the predatory fish.

Brown booby on Metal Shark

Brown boobies will often land on our boats to take a break from the constant searching for small fish and squid. They are mostly unafraid of humans, and have a little bit of an attitude.

Galapagos shark - turning towards camera

A galapagos shark turns at the camera and then bumps it.

Rob rolling in at Midway

Rob rolling in at Midway

Rob Selfie with Galapagos shark

Rob Selfie with Galapagos shark

Decompression up here seems to be boom or bust – today was a good one – sharks and pelagic reef fish like Ono and small tuna schools came by.  I also saw my first Mobula ray – at first I thought it was a small, slightly funky Manta Ray, but as I swam closer, I was almost certain it was a Mobula.  Later review of the footage led our group at least to call it a Mobula – pretty cool.

Mobula ray at French Frigate Shoals

Mobula ray at French Frigate Shoals

On the way up the chain, earlier this month, we also stopped at French Frigate Shoals, and I saw a rare unicornfish, Naso annulatus on decompression.  However, my camera was on a drop line and turned off, and by the time I pulled it up, turned it on, and looked for the fish, he was gone.  Luckily today, there was a small group of 10 or so, feeding on the plankton around us as we decompressed.  Such a bizzare group of fishes; I don’t believe that anyone really knows why they have such outrageous noses.

Naso annulatus

Naso annulatus

Naso maculatus

Naso maculatus

We came up with a fun diversion on deco at Lisianski earlier on the trip, where I hang a GoPro on some stainless steel fishing leader, and dangle it about 8 feet below where I am off-gassing.  Sharks and jacks are naturally curious, especially when items are shiny or clank around.  At Pearl and Hermes, I had a huge Ulua (Caranx ignobilis) actually eat the camera twice, then spit it out.  The shot below is what a poor little reef fish must see, just before the end.

Caranx ignobilis about to eat the GoPro

Caranx ignobilis about to eat the GoPro

Hiialakai - bow shot

Our home for almost a month, the NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai.

Malolo and crew

Our trusty safety divers, Senifa and Keo, ready to roll. Hadley was their coxswain for the trip

Brown booby and Rob

Rob making a friend, a rather testy booby

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Mesophotic Reef Fishes (Fish nerd warning)

We have been experiencing multiple thermoclines on each dive, resulting in about a 20 degree difference between the bottom (200-280′) and the surface – 84 degrees at the surface and low 60’s at the bottom.  Possibly because of this cool water at depth, we have seen a few fish that I never thought we would see outside of a submersible.

Chromis struhsakeri - juvenile

Chromis struhsakeri – juvenile

C. struhsakeri - juvenile 1

Chromis struhsakeri (juvenile)

Randy Kosaki first noticed an unusual Chromis at Midway in around 200′, and Brian Hauk was able to get a photo.  The next day at Pearl and Hermes, Rich Pyle and Jason Leonard saw the fish again, and confirmed the identity as Chromis stuhsakeri, previously recorded from deeper water.  Rich collected an adult and some video images.  They also saw and recorded Bodianus bathycapros – possibly the first divers to dive with this fish, that is usually caught by fisherman below 100m.

Chromis struhsakeri and Genicanthus personatus.  Chromis verater in the background is a constant deep reef presence

Chromis struhsakeri and Genicanthus personatus. Chromis verater in the background is a constant deep reef presence

Odontanthias fuscipinnis - usually upside down in caves, but yesterday they were right side up out in the open...

Odontanthias fuscipinnis – usually upside down in caves, but yesterday they were right side up out in the open…

Prognathodes "basabei"

Prognathodes “basabei”

Caprodon unicolor - female

Caprodon unicolor – female

Liopropoma aurora

Liopropoma aurora

Yesterday, we were down a bit deeper at 280′ and saw quite a few of the rare damselfish myself, and recorded them.  We also are seeing the undescribed, but known butterflyfish Prognathodes “basabei” (long time in press by Rich), Genicanthus personatus, Bodianus sanguineus, Liopropoma aurora  as the more unusual.  More common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but rare in the Main Hawaiian Islands are the Morowong Goniistius vittatus, Apolemichthys arcuatus (Bandit Angelfish), the boarfish Evistias  acutirostris and thousands of Thompson’s Anthias (Pseudanthias thompsoni)

Mesophotic reefscape at Pearl and Hermes.  Evistias acutirostris, Myripristes chryseres, Neoniphon aurolineatus

Mesophotic reefscape at Pearl and Hermes. Evistias acutirostris, Myripristes chryseres, Neoniphon aurolineatus

One of the stranger organisms I encountered yesterday was this 4″ blob.  On the ship we couldn’t identify it to Phylum.  With help from Marine Invertebrate experts, the little animal is an anemone in the Genus Alicia – provisionally “mirabilis”

Closed Alicia "miribilis" - anemone

Closed Alicia “mirabilis” – anemone

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Midway Atoll

Golden Plover Midway

Golden Plover Midway

I finally made it to Midway Atoll – near the end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, only Kure is farther west.  The last two cruises aboard the Hi’ialakai, we did not venture this far.  Midway is unique in the area for having good infrastructure, as the atoll still has a functioning runway for pan-Pacific flight emergency stops, as well as a good deep water port with pier and fuel facilities.  It also has a liquor store, and the ship and scientific crews took full advantage of the Friday night on the town.  Fish and Wildlife service built us a huge bonfire, loaned us bikes to sight-see around the island, and we played volleyball on North Beach at Sunset.  Good times…

Rob at sunset on North Beach, Midway Atoll

Rob at sunset on North Beach, Midway Atoll

Tech team at the pier at Midway

Tech team at the pier at Midway

Something like 75% of all seabird nesting in the Hawaiian Archipelago happens here at Midway, and the island is a bird watchers dream.  The birds are unafraid of humans, and are very approachable.  The island is most famous for hosting the three species of Albatross found in the islands – commonly the Laysan and Black Footed, and rarely the Golden Gooney.  Unfortunately, this is not nesting season, so no Albatross.  Apparently, it is quite a sight to see, with over a million birds jostling for nesting space on the tiny atoll.

Fairy Tern pair in tree

Fairy Tern pair in tree

Fairy Tern in flight, Midway

Fairy Tern in flight, Midway

Canary on Midway

Canary on Midway

The canary seems way out of place – introduced after the turn of the 19th century and now well established, on an atoll dominated by sea birds.

Tropic bird chick on Midway

Tropic bird chick on Midway

Laysan Duck on Midway

Laysan Duck on Midway

The Laysan Duck has been intentionally introduced to Midway to provide some measure of species level disaster backup should disease or catastrophe fall upon the Laysan population.  They have been very successful on Midway, so much so that some will be moved to Kure to the Northwest in the near future to further spread this rarest of ducks around the islands.

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French Frigate Shoals

Brown Noddy with La Perouse pinnacle in background

Brown Noddy with La Perouse pinnacle in background

We are well underway with our three and a half week cruise through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, arriving now at Lisianski after two full days at French Frigate Shoals.  The deep team had two very good Mesophotic dives down to 280′ (85m) and conducted fish counts (transects), benthic surveys via photo quadrat, and general biodiversity surveys via high definition video, which is of course where I come in.

Malolo - safety divers ready to roll

Malolo – safety divers ready to roll

NOAA diving supported by the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai is probably some of the logistically best supported diving we ever do on expeditions. The ship has an onboard hyperbaric chamber, a physician with full sick bay, we have safety divers, a separate safety boat, the latest communications and navigation gear etc. We are running the deep team as two separate dive groups of three, so get double the data collection per day of diving.

Steindachner's Moray Eel (Gymnothorax steindachneri)

Steindachner’s Moray Eel (Gymnothorax steindachneri)

One of the interesting biological aspects of the Northwestern or Leeward Islands is that there are certain species of fish that are rare or absent in the main Hawaiian islands, that are common up here. Steindachner’s Moray is a fish that I have encountered only twice on Oahu in about 20 years of diving, and I found one on both days at French Frigate Shoals. A cool eel, methinks.

Another neat aspect is the presence of apex predators on and around the reefs. We have sharks on every dive, and large jacks cruise the shallows. Sharks are rare to see when diving the main Hawaiian Islands – they are present, but in much fewer numbers, and more wary of inshore dangers. Here, they seem curious, and spend the entire 75-90 minutes of decompression with us. I saw my first Scalloped Hammerhead on deco two days ago, and we always have Galapagos Sharks around us as we dive, some quite large for the species.

Caranx ignobilis

Caranx ignobilis

Galapagos shark

Galapagos shark

Other large predators are common inshore, including Uku – Green Snapper (Aprion virescens), Kahala (Seriola dumerilli), and amazingly, three large Ono (Acanthocybium solandri). They were fearless, eyballing me as they circled and I filmed, very cool.

Ono (Wahoo)

Ono (Wahoo)

Another visible difference up here is the large numbers of sea birds. Without human habitation and the associated threats, the seabird numbers are much larger in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Piles of Brown Noddies on fish bait balls, cruising Boobies, Frigate birds and terns are a constant presence topside.

Brown Noddy in flight

Brown Noddy in flight

Rich on deco with Rob freediving

Rich on Deco with Rob doing a free diving Selfie

We are just now arriving at Lisianski Island for two or three days of dive operations. A coral bleaching event was reported here, earlier this summer, and we are investigating, along with our normal Mesophotic (deep reef) biological surveys.

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Pohnpei Micronesia

Sokeh's Rock - Diamondhead of Micronesia

Sokehs Rock – Diamondhead of Micronesia

Greetings from Pohnpei State in Micronesia. We are finishing up three weeks of deep dives around Pohnpei island and neighboring Ant Atoll, documenting fish biodiversity for the Bishop Museum and collecting specimens for DNA analysis for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.  This is the final expedition sponsored by the Seaver Institute to characterize mesophotic coral reefs across the Pacific.

Pohnpei is a high volcanic island in the middle of Micronesia (Caroline Islands), and is the home to the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia. Our dives have been along the outer wall of a barrier reef that encircles almost the entire island, creating a protected lagoon, similar to our diving a few years ago in Moorea, French Polynesia. The lagoon allows us to travel fast on protected waters, and then exit through one of the many passes and search for interesting sites based on vertical terrain.

Corals exposed by the Supermoon low tide

Corals exposed by the Supermoon low tide

Pohnpei is a rainy place, with very consistently high humidity and air temperature, which is almost the same as the water temperature (mid to high 80’s Fahrenheit). We get cold zipping along in the sometimes heavy rain in a speedboat, and then hop in the water which feels like a warm bath. There are several noticeable thermoclines around 200 and then again at 300 feet. These temperature changes usually indicate a shift in fauna for us, as certain deep fishes prefer cooler water. After 20 minutes or more below the thermocline, moving back up the wall feels like switching to warm baths, which means that the three plus hours spent on decompression are very comfortable.

Reef top at Ant Atoll, Pohnpei in background

Reef top at Ant Atoll, Pohnpei in background

Symphysanodon

An undescribed species of Symphysanodon at 345 feet (105 meters)

Hoplolatilus randalli

Hoplolatilus randalli

I have been switching between capturing video clips of mesophotic reef fish and spearing or hand netting fish for DNA sampling. I occasionally try to do both filming and collecting at the same time, with typically less than stellar results. One lesson in deep fish collecting is to never count a fish as collected until it is back in the lab – I have lost fish this trip from net to bucket, bucket to hand (for needling to relieve expanding gasses in the swim bladder), bucket to boat, hand to mangrove channel (don’t ask), and even fish bag to photo station. I wouldn’t make a very good jailer – everyone would escape.

Pseudanthis 'jazwinskii' - a catch that actually made it to the lab

Pseudanthis sp. – a catch that actually made it to the lab

Pseudobalistoides flavomarginatus

Pseudobalistoides flavomarginatus

As usual, we are making a fish list for the island and neighboring atolls, and are over 320 species for about 10 dive days. John Earle has joined the expedition for a week, and has been a machine, recognizing and recording hundreds of reef fish. Richard and Brian tend to focus on the deep reef fish, and also on collecting. John’s expertise is to record the totality of species, not only the charismatic, rare and valuable beauties.

Aluterus monoceros

Aluterus monoceros – another new fish for me

Glassy conditions

Glassy conditions

We have had exceptionally calm seas and winds the last few days, and took the advantage to cross the 10 miles or so from Pohnpei proper to the west side of Ant Atoll. The commute ran a bit long – 90 minutes or so, but the ride was worthwhile, as the vertical drop was probably over 1000 feet from the reef top. We had great visibility, and lots of interesting cuts, caves and undercuts. Richard is one of the leading Angelfish experts in the world, and was delighted to find Centropyge aurantia – Golden Angelfish during decompression. This was a new fish for me – famous for it’s cryptic nature. 30+ minutes of watching and waiting and I have a few clips of the little fella. We may return Tuesday to revisit the deep caves, and also see if we can record more of this little known angelfish.

Centropyge aurantia

Centropyge aurantia

Leaving Ant Atoll

Leaving Ant Atoll

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Days Nine – Mapating

Brian's collecting bucket - Pseudanthias and Cirrhilabrus (and a few other goodies)

Brian’s collecting bucket – Pseudanthias and Cirrhilabrus (and a few other goodies)

golden eel

Gymnothorax probably flavimarginatus, but an unusual golden color

Lionfish in sponge

We see many lionfish deep, especially Pterois volitans, the same lionfish now introduced in the western Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, and causing much disruption to the reef fish populations there.

We are still looking for 100m reefs, and are following any rumors, recommendations, legends etc to find one. Today, a combo or rumor and Google Earth scouting revealed a small sea mount / raised reef about a mile off shore. We acquired a hand held depth sounder, and found a fairly steep ledge dropping from 5-8m down to 75m in a fairly short distance. We try to find sites that don’t required much lateral swimming for a couple reasons – exertion a depth may contribute to an increased decompression risk, and secondly we don’t like swimming over boring terrain. Steep slopes tend to be more interesting, with outcropping habitats for fish. Steep slopes often are washed by strong currents which support sea fans and soft corals, which further increase the odds of interesting habitat.

The site turned out to be a pretty good one – the deep part ended in gently sloping sand around 285ft, so we turned around, but on our slow ascent, we found a steep ridge that held an elaborate cave system and lots of marine life. Dave may have seen a deep ridge dropping away from the base of the cave at 175ft that could run down to our desired deep reefs. We will likely try this site again tomorrow.

Clownfish in anemone (Amphiprion ocellaris)

Clownfish in anemone (Amphiprion ocellaris)

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Day Six – Layag-layag 7 December 2013

 Collecting day

Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences searching the deep reef for photo subjects

Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences searching the deep reef for photo subjects

In order to conduct valid genetic analysis on fish, our scientific team needs relatively high numbers of specimens of each target species. In the case of the deep fish, the desired counts are around 30 individuals. The challenges are many in achieving this goal, as many of the target species are not found in little convenient schools of 30, and often flee at the sight of our bright lights, especially in these murky conditions we have had so far. The

Robert Whitton collecting a fish on the deep reef

Robert Whitton collecting a fish on the deep reef

other main challenge is limited time where these fish are found. Even on a dedicated collecting dive (no real exploration) a good spear collector can probably collect 20-30 fish total, assuming they are discriminating in only targeting the desired fish. As a result of these challenges, Josh, the lead genetics scientist is getting nervous that we won’t hit his collecting targets. We dedicated today to only collecting target fish at one of our previously discovered ledges, and we cleaned up.

Sonia Rowley sampling a sea fan

Sonia Rowley sampling a sea fan

One of the more exciting collections was a deep goatfish that Richard had seen on two previous dives, and Brian corroborated yesterday. The fish was only 50-75m deep, which is usually shallower than most new large fish species are found. Anyway, just seeing a possibly new fish doesn’t help the new discovery process, we need a organism in hand. I was moving along the ledge looking for fish when I saw a goatfish that matched the description from Rich. I shot it poorly and stunned it, and while attempting to bag it, he ran. I gave chase and was lucky enough to get another shot before he disappeared. Unfortunately for him and science, the shot broke him in half. I collected him, but

Poorly collected goatfish, but collected is better than nothing...

Poorly collected goatfish, but collected is better than nothing…

mangled specimens are frowned upon for species descriptions, so we will have to be on the lookout over the remaining dive days to get an intact specimen.

Evenings on expeditions are time for the less glamorous aspects of scientific expeditions, the processing of the days specimens. Field labs are often unpleasant places to spend time – dead fish, rotting sea fans, ethanol, formalin and other chemical smells permeate the small area, with crowds of sweaty scientists trying to get their samples through their workflow in the least amount of time. I pitched in for awhile on the Gorgonian processing

Sonia Rowley processing Gorgonian specimens

Sonia Rowley processing Gorgonian specimens

workflow, and learned a few interesting tidbits about sea fans. First off, many of the species are covered in a thick mucous that slimes everything it comes into contact with, and is difficult to remove. Others just plain stink, especially after rotting in a plastic bag for half a day. Despite their unpleasantness, it is hard not to be excited about the new discoveries that Sonia has been making, as she has endless energy to simultaneously separate, photograph, document, sub-sample twice and repack for transport and keep up a constant stream of superlatives about each and every specimen. She is a kid in the candy store on these deep, relatively unexplored reefs, and has already identified over twenty new species of Gorgonias, and many range and depth extensions.

Posted in Philippines - December 2013