Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two Days on Kingman Reef

This teak-hulled ship washed up on Kingman in 2007.
Greetings again from Palmyra Atoll, to which we have returned after a very successful two-day trip to Kingman Reef! When I tried to imagine Kingman - one of the remotest bits of land in the world - before visiting, I pictured a single wave breaking in the middle of the ocean. After 36 hours anchored in the middle of the reef, I decided that my analysis was pretty correct. A couple of grains of sand form island strips (one of which we discovered and named Thursday!) to break up the horizon, but other than that, it's all waves and sky. The real magic happened underwater, as vista after vista of corals, reef fish and beds of hundreds of giant clams spread out before our eyes.

Giant Tridacna clams on the sea floor
We spent Thursday and Friday snorkeling around the pristine corals and clam gardens on Kingman, checking out colorful fish and locking gazes with curious grey reef sharks. A couple of us also studied the damaged reef around a teak-hulled shipwreck that washed up on Kingman in 2007. The wreck has spawned the growth of a 'black reef,' an area of reduced coral growth and cyanobacterial takeover, which looked like a pool that hadn't been chlorinated in months. In addition to cyanobacteria and metal debris from the wreck, however, there were still many beautiful corals, and hundreds of colorful wrasses, parrotfish, unicornfish and butterflyfish, as well as clownfish guarding their anemone homes (think Finding Nemo). I was reluctant to sail away from the reef last night - Kingman has a mysterious quality, at once familiar and completely other-worldly. Breakers washing over submerged corals are reminiscent of waves crashing along the California coast, but the deserted land seems somehow like a last, lost bit of earth, saved from all outside touches except for our very lucky eyes.

We have returned to Palmyra for three more days, to finish our reef-based research projects, where we have been greeted by a series of insta-showers: bursts of rain and squally weather intermittent with sunshine. The weather won't stop our missions, though (most of which are in the water anyway!).

We'll be sending out boats to study coral color and diseases, the shipwreck on Palmyra, manta ray ecology, parasitism in corals, and hopefully some recreational snorkeling and island exploration as well. We all feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to visit two beautiful, remote Pacific islands, places that most of us would probably never be able to see otherwise.

We were fortunate to acquire the temporary company of Amanda Meyer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agent in charge of Palmyra and Kingman, on our trip north to Kingman. She has been a fun addition and a wealth of knowledge about the islands and their coral and fish communities. We've also taken on Joe Bonventura, a professor at Duke and Barb Block's Ph.D. advisor, as company for the rest of our trip. We have appreciated a little new blood to shake up the ship, as well as the chance to talk with Joe about his research in fish respirometry, and we look forward to his continued company. Next, we sail on to Christmas Island! But first, a few more days of science and relaxation in this tropical, coconut-and-azure paradise.

-Laura Lilly

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