Saturday, May 25, 2013

Highlights from Palmyra Atoll

A reef community in Palmyra atoll

For the past four days the Seamans has been anchored at Palmyra atoll and we have taken advantage of our time near land. Long hikes through dense Pasonia forests littered with Strawberry and Purple Hermit crabs with the occasional large land crab, snorkel transects on Penguin spit coral reef, rope swimming off palm trees into turquoise waters, and yes even venturing onto the internet. Atoll based project have taken off with flying colors. My research project comparing the change in herbivory and coral cover across the four islands has gone swimmingly. We finished three sites of transects on Penguin Spit coral reefs recording the abundance of reef herbivores, percent coral cover, and conducting focal fish follows recording the bite rates and amount of territorial behavior. Saying that the coral reefs were spectacular is an understatement. I have never seen a coral reef more vibrant with colors, large corals, and fish. Convict tangs schooled in the hundreds weaving between the heads of branching Acropora picking off the crustose and turf algae from the sea floor. Within seconds the school is bombarded with predators. Large iridescent blue fin trevallies dart into the fray trying to grab a late morning snack, snappers lurk from below the school waiting for the tangs to drop their guard, as a four foot black tip reef shark lingers over the school surveying the frenzy. As the school moves past, queen parrot fish the size of a small child begin to take the reef apart. You can almost hear the sounds of the corals screaming as their powerful beaks scrape the coral into rubble. Its any wonder how there is a reef even left intact. Beautiful red and green ruffled soft corals sway in the current surrounding a giant clam peering back into our masks with their dozens of eye spots. We watch in shear amazement as a hawkfish, as camouflaged as a ninja assassin, darts out of the coral to grab an unsuspecting damsel fish. Even as half the damsel fish is in the hawkfishes belly, it futilely tries to swim to safety, only to be swallowed whole with the next bite.

            Yesterday Martini and I went on an expeditin across the island to find the elusive coconut crabs. We assumed that these beasts which can reach a weight of 30 pounds a a length over over 3 feet would be quite easy to find, seeing as they make up a pecentage of the small atoll. However, despite our efforts of trekking through miles of palm forest we were foiled in our plans. However we did see a huge 7 pound Triton trigger fish, moray eels darting onto shore from 2 inches of water hunting damsel fish, the potatoe chip of the coral reef, and a black and white banded sea snake that darted into a layer of sea foam to never be seen again. In the afternoon I returned to the island to jump off the rope swing into the turqoius watrs of the swimming hole, collect cyanobacteria Lyngbia majescula for Jacob’s summer research, and begin a second expedition to the southwestern portion of Cooper and Strawn Islands. This time Frido, Anja, and Christina joined me in my mission in the afternoon tropical heat. We followed the trail to an abandoned movie theater with views of the whole island from the roof. We passed an abandoned WWII bunker as well but no coconut crabs insight. As we approached the end of the trail we found the endangered curlew and nesting red footed boobies hanging out around a marsh. The highlight of our expedition was hanging out with baby black tip reef sharks circling our knees before heading back to the Seamans. It was a great farewell.

-Zack Gold

1 comment:

Kate Gormley said...

Is the old runway still a nesting spot for thousands of terns? I was on Palmyra in 1990.
Kate Gormley, Bainbridge Island, WA