20 May 2013 – French Frigate Shoals Day One

We arrived French Frigate Shoals lagoon early this morning, and were back on track for dive operations. Still quite windy, but the swell is down, which makes launching the small boats easier, and also makes life aboard the small boats with so much dive and collecting gear more challenging. I finished Ric Gillespie’s book on Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and read with interest how the battleships of the 1930’s recovered their catapult launched aircraft. As the scout aircraft returns, the battleship begins a slow turn to the lee, creating relatively calm water for the sea plane to land in. Once landed in the protected wind shadow, the aviators are hoisted aboard, and a net hauls in the plane. We launch the small boats from Hi’ialakai the exact same way. The small boats are craned against the side of the ship, we load all the gear and personnel, and the captain turns the ship in a slow leeward turn, creating calm water for the dive boats and chase boats to be lowered into. Once lowered, the lines from the hoist and the spring lines are released, and we are free to go.

French Frigate Shoals has a true lagoon, unlike Nihoa and Mokumanamana, which means that the lagoon waters flush in and out with the tides. As a result, diving is often murky compared to the oceanic banks. Today was no exception, although at 60m, the visibility was greatly improved from the surface, it was still not very clear. One of the UH students had enough of large trevally and small(ish) sharks appearing out of the gloom, and aborted his SCUBA dive after 10 minutes. He will need to get used to the Galapagos and Ulua, as they are only going to get thicker as we continue the cruise.

I recorded about 35 fish species on my 20 minute dive – not very diverse. Fish of interest included small Parupeneus chyrsonemus – a deep water goat fish, and the Lantern Toby – Canthigaster epilampra, which was a new record for French Frigate Shoals in our occurrence database. The video is of a quality that is useful only to record presence of a species I’m afraid.

I spent some more time topside photographing sea birds. I did get my black footed albatross as some of you asked for ;-). I also filmed a dedicated fairy tern parent with three small fish in her bill, heading back to La Peruse pinnacle to run a gauntlet of frigate birds, desirous of her fish, before she can feed her chick. The frigate birds often feed by harassing other successful hunters in the air, forcing them to drop or regurgitate their catch, and then the frigate bird swoops at the falling snack and devours it. They cannot alight on the water as many other seabirds do. In Hawaii, they are known appropriately as iwa, the thief.

Another day tomorrow here at French Frigate Shoals, and then a transit day to Laysan, where we will spend three full dive days. The morning dive team is back to the boat by 1pm, which means there is actually leisure time until the afternoon crew comes in to film birds, process video clips, read email from friends and family (ahem…).

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