Friday, March 13, 2009

#11: Leaving Rich Biodiversity At Risk

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

Up and going straightaway even though not enjoying much sleep after getting into my rack at 1:30 AM. Having not blogged on previous cruises I didn't realize how serious the impact on beddy-bye time would be. The 10th of March will be a double day because we get to live most of Tuesday all over again after flying across the International Date Line on our way back to the States. Two breakfasts, lunches, and dinners today--that's kinda strange.

OK then. A lot to do before we aquarium folks step back ashore. All that odoriferous dive kit has to be coaxed into a bag, clothes packed up, and project bits including animal ID books, reference papers, and the now important computers and external hard drives (in the old days it was all done in notebooks) get loaded strategically in our duffels and backpacks.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

I peer out through the porthole and see immediately that Capt John Smith and the crew have the Nai'a tied up smartly at the pier in Latouka. The huge pile (60'?!) of woodchips harvested from Fijian pine plantations is visible on the dock where it is located in close proximity for loading onto the big cargo ships that take it to Japan (we hear) for use in making paper pulp. The sweet smelling pine resin completely permeates the air, and we know even before peering outside that we're here. After 7 trips on the boat, that pine chip smell is unmistakable, and unique. I could detect it on my way down to my state room from the bridge last night even though we were still miles offshore. The scent apparently can travel on the breezes quite effectively.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

10 AM- The goodbyes were emotional. Even if this boat's crew puts on a great act about looking forward to the next time we aquarial folks are back, it sure feels genuine and always makes me tear up. We hugged ‘em all and said that we'd get pics to them right away. All they ever ask for is pictures. Pretty simple request. I think about what is waiting back in the States for us: good jobs, a gov't that works (… when was the last time the U.S. had a coup?!), confidence that better times are ahead. And what they likely have waiting for them: a couple of days off to spend with their families, and then back out to sea for at least another charter, an economy that is having a tougher go of it than ours.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

That has to be rough. As I sit here in a room at the Mocambo Resort continuing to ruminate about that, the similarities to being in the military strike me. Financial hardship, and long, continuous separation from family is something I couldn't take well at all.
We'll all head into Nadi town for our traditional farewell lunch, a quick stop at the Fijian handicrafts stalls, and then back to the Mocambo to ready luggage and gear for schlepping to the airport.

5:30 PM- Still a few minutes yet before Air Pacific opens up the check-in desk for the 11 PM flight to Los Angeles.

A bunch of us were just chatting about how great our dives were, all the fun we have when we come together, the new members of our merry band of Fijian Fishes Fanciers Federation, and when the next expedition together will be.

Some of the amazing biodiversity that relies on diving tourism to support it. Photos: Keith Ellenbogen

We then drift onto the uncomfortable topic of the apparent decrease in some numbers of critters since the last time we dove all those sites. It was touched upon one or twice during the dives, but nearly an entire day now separates us from those last dives and I suppose we are being a bit more general in our discussion. Seeing fewer sharks at Nigali Passage could be explained a number of ways, or maybe only one--fishing. Ugggh. It makes my euphoria coefficient drop a couple of points just contemplating it.

But why is it fair to expect (with the current global economic situation) Fijians to not make do by tapping into their country's riches?! Hey, if the divers and tourists stay home in Australia, Japan, and the States, these people's livelihoods start to wither. Yuck. Another complicator added to this great place's handicap-pile to keep its aquatic world one of the top on the planet.

More of the amazing biodiversity that relies on diving tourism to support it. Photos: Keith Ellenbogen
More discussion before going back back to planning our next reunion. Rendezvous and reunite in 18 months we chant! So October of 2010 it'll be. Maybe I'll even be able to get my high school senior of a son onboard. Wow.

- Bailey

Monday, March 9, 2009

#10: The Closing Hours of the Expedition

Post by Steve Bailey

6:15AM- Another amazing sunrise. Wow.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

Within the hour, it'll be back into those wet and very ripe (quite amazing how funky neoprene becomes after 9 days and about 3 dozen dives) 3mm wetsuits to start our last day of dives. -sigh- All of us Aquarium Folks are trying hard not to think about work-esque things, and dwelling as long as possible on things Fijian, aquatic and soaking in every bit of this 82dF H2O and sweet smelling air. Nothing, absolutely nothing smells like the tropics.

A Nai'a crew member mentioned to one of our gang last night that when we are onboard it isn't like working for them. Geez. When I heard that I got all misty-eyed. Seriously. I'm comfortable enough with my manliness to admit that I love these guys. The high grades for these bi-coastal aquarium voyages in Fijian waters is 50% what we see and do, and 50% the incredibly genuine staff that makes this boat so unique. It's an honor that they feel that way about us.

group photo: Keith Ellenbogen

The day's first dive is Mt. Mutiny, a seamount rising up from 3000' to within 5' of the surface, no larger at the crest than a football field, and named with the ubiquitous Captain William Bligh in mind. Bligh managed to chart this seamount while heading to East Timor in his launch overfilled with loyal crew (very short on food and water), being chased by Fijian war canoes, with nearly 2000 miles under his keel after Fletcher Christian set him adrift, and another 2000 to go. Amazing. Talk about a multi-tasker.

'To-dos' for this dive include getting a new coral 20 meter transect mapped out near the reef crest to replace the multi-year study abandoned (due to persistently strong currents) on the Go Mo site. Dr. Webster, Keith Ellenbogen, and I will drape the marked surveyor's tape over the coral starting at 7' and ending at 55', in preparation for videotaping on the next dive. The pitch of this transect will be nearly 60 degrees! After all, this bathymetric feature falls quickly away to 3000,' and the length of our study is determined by the cliff. Beyond that edge, it'll be nothingness, only the indigo color of deep water and something resembling acrophobia (fear of heights- is that possible in water?!) for anyone hovering at the tape's end.

Photo: Mark Rosenstein

The rest of the gang is headed to 110' where silvertip sharks (Carcharinus albamarinatus) have on occasion been seen. Not a high probability exercise, but all feel it is worth using up valuable bottom time to head down there. It's a classic wall dive, and those not doing the day's more mundane science are really itching to get into the skiffs, therefore skipping 1st Breakfast.

1PM- Another terrific lunch; which is both a good thing, and a bad thing. Getting back to Boston means the start of caloric austerity for weeks to come.

The morning's dives hit on all cylinders. The 'deep-crew' saw 2 silvertips at 107' and Mark Rosenstein managed to snap a decent photo even though he had his macro lens on his camera for taking pictures of tiny critters. I'm very envious of them all.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

We succeeded on the transect as well (photo above). Both John Larkin and Keith swam four legs up and down that line slowly videotaping the abundant coral growth. It made my ears hurt just watching them. At this point of the expedition, my middle ears have required serious molly-coddling after every dive to keep me eligible for the next one.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

The transect footage will be analyzed once we get back to the States for percent cover of coral and the number of species. This same exercise will be done each time we revisit Mt Mutiny because repeatedly filming and analyzing this pristine stretch of coral will clue us into environmental change. Here's to hoping Doc Webster sees no change when he visits later this year!

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

9PM- The gang just finished an expertly prepared meal of wahoo (freshly caught at 5 PM off the Nai'a 's stern) and rice by Chefs Penni and Ben. Immediately on its heels were Graham Connor's 71st Birthday Celebration (replete with a Fijian version of Happy Birthday sung expertly by the Crew), our last 'Diver of the Day Awards,' and the traditional end-of-expedition slide show. Everyone was pretty shaken up by the combination of our time here ending tomorrow, and the powerful images that we all captured during our expedition.

The days spent on this boat pass by at lightning speed. It's unfathomable that tomorrow we'll be listening to 'Mo and the UndeNai'ables' sing Isalei, the traditional Fijan farewell song. There won't be a dry eye amongst us.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

#9: Touring the Reefs Around Gau

Post by Jody Renouf and Mark Rosenstein

Our first two dives are both in Nigali Passage, a narrow channel through the fringing reef around the island of Gau, known for strong currents and many large fish. The Nai'a comes here every cruise for the sharks.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

On our first dive there is just a mild current entering the channel. We have to swim the length of it, passing large schools of barracudas and jacks, and several huge groupers, one with several tiny golden trevally leading as pilotfish. A large blue jellyfish drifts alongside. Near the end of the channel we reach the "Bleachers," where we hold onto the rocks and watch the shark action in the fastest moving portion of the channel. We are treated to eight adult grey reef sharks and about 20 juveniles circling, with a couple of white-tips as well. After watching the sharks for awhile we continue up the channel to the "Cabbage Patch" (a large field of Turbinaria) and then pass into the lagoon where the water is warmer and there is little current.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

The second dive is a shark feed. When we drop in there is quite a bit more current than the previous dive. We quickly get into our places on the Bleachers, and Captain Johnathan and Divemaster Richie bring down a "popsicle" of fish heads frozen in a big block of ice. This is tied down in front of us, and the smell quickly brings in many fish: first the red snappers, small wrasses and fusiliers; then the groupers (photo above), and finally the sharks, take an interest.

Photo: Mark Rosenstein

About six adult grey reef sharks (above), all females, circle and occasionally lunge at the food as it thaws. The feeding lasts about 15 minutes, after which we move on through the rest of the channel. On the edge of the lagoon three of us are treated to a quick view of a scalloped hammerhead shark that appears out of the blue, checks us out, and disappears again. Further along the lagoon wall an eagle ray is seen cruising near a 3,000 year-old 30-foot tall head of Porites coral.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

While the shark feed (above) is an impressive and exciting display of top-of-the-line predators, we cannot help but note that the numbers of sharks seen on this trip is down significantly from previous years. Even more alarming is the amount of monofilament line we see tangled on the reef; several large hooks and weights are also salvaged, leaving us to wonder who is fishing for what in this relatively remote site.

After lunch we dive Jim's Alley, named for Jim Church who was an underwater photography pioneer. The current is blowing so strongly it's a challenge just to hold onto the reef; not much else is recorded for this dive!

Photo: Mark Rosenstein

Our next dive is at "Anthias Avenue." A similar site, but this time the current is manageable. Here we find several interesting nudibranchs (photo above) and many large starfish. As we work our way up the bommie, true to its name there are huge clouds of purple and orange anthias. A peacock mantis shrimp briefly peeks out of its burrow.

A few people do a night dive in the muck near the island; it's all about sleeping animals, with many individuals of just a few species. Parrotfish are sleeping in their mucous cocoons, with a scattering of odd shrimp and crabs. Other people sit up on the sun--err, moon--deck for an impromptu kava party, or go to bed dreaming of our encounters with elasmobranchs.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

#8: Visiting the Bule (Village)

Post by expedition member Jody Renouf

Dive photos: Keith Ellenbogen

Yesterday we did only three dives, forgoing our usual dusk dive so we could enjoy a village visit in the late afternoon and early evening. Instead of wet suits and fins, we donned bright island bula shirts and colorful sulus (complimentary fabric wraps provided by the Nai'a). Suli, the boat's purser and only female crew member, showed us how to correctly don this traditional Fijian garb; we needed all the help we could get! In preparation for the visit to Makogai Island, we were also given a few basic rules: wear shorts under your sulu, don't wear a hat into the village or touch anyone's head (including the childrens'), and don't sit with your feet pointing towards the elders during the sevu-sevu welcoming ceremony.

We board the skiffs for the short trip to the island, where we are greeted by the smell of outdoor cooking, the sight of about twenty smiling faces and the sound of their singing; the welcoming spirit is genuine. The children are front and center, presenting us with leis made from island flowers. Chief Watson introduces himself and shows us the pit of smoldering rocks where our dinner will roast under a thick cover of palm leaves. Next he explains the history of the island, which dates back to 1911 when the French Catholic Church set up a leper colony here; after a cure for leprosy was found the remaining inhabitants were transferred to a hospital in the capital of Suva and the current village was founded in 1956. While most of the buildings have crumbled, a few are still used.

The nearly 100-year-old diesel-powered generator still chugs along, powering the lights and the village's clam and turtle farm. The clams from the village help sustain the local reef's population, proving that even a community of such limited resources can give something back to the ocean. Unfortunately, at this time the tanks are empty because there hasn't been a delivery of diesel fuel to run the water pumps for several weeks. Chief Watson also shows us a few relics from the Europeans' occupation, including a large concrete wall that used to be a cinema projection screen and an enormous overgrown cemetery with leaning crosses.

One of us coughs; Chief Watson pulls up a plant and reveals its white core that is used like menthol to treat the problem. Then we pass a vine-covered fence that is selectively harvested before our eyes. Children, eager to share something with us, squeeze the leaves and the bright green juice produced is given to us as a topical treatment for our many cuts and scrapes; some of us are a real mess! The villagers obviously know and love the land, and Chief Watson is proud of their Fijian heritage; he left the hustle and bustle of the city to help preserve these traditions.

When our tour is over it's time for the official sevu-sevu welcoming ceremony. This consists of an offering to the village and the sharing of kava, the watery medicine-flavored lip-numbing beverage made from pepper root. The children also give us large leaves to use as fans in the hot and humid mbure (meeting house). The ceremonial exchange between Chief Watson and Nai'a's representative (Bosun/ Divemaster Moses) is beautiful to listen to, but lacks subtitles! Mo apparently represents us well, because soon the kava is poured and shared by all. The villagers greatly appreciate our gifts: school supplies for the children, twenty gallons of diesel fuel, and some money for additional fuel in the hopes of filling the clam beds again.

After a few rounds of kava Chief Watson announces that it's time for entertainment. The children have worked hard to prepare a show for us, and their efforts are evident; the choreography and costumes are topnotch! Between every song Chief Watson apologizes for the lack of high tech special effects and lighting but we are impressed, especially by the final number when the boys lunge ferociously at us with spears and grimaces!

Next, we are all invited to dance. Our dance partners, the village children, pull us one by one from the perimeter of the mbure where we are seated; eventually everyone is dancing, first as couples or trios, then as one long conga line.

Group photos and general socializing follow the dancing. By now it's quite dark, and the smell of cooking meat and veggies scents the air. Our dinner is ready to be dug out of the hot pit and loaded onto the skiffs to be enjoyed back aboard the Nai'a.

Later, if the wind is right and we listen closely, we can still hear singing from the island. The bula spirit is unmistakable; while they may run out of diesel, they'll never run out of energy!

- Jody

Friday, March 6, 2009

#7: Bula vinaka!

Post by Dr. Steve Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium

I've decided the crepuscular dive (just before darkness envelopes the reef) is my favorite. Our vision adjusts to the dimming light, our cameras take some of their most dramatic photos and videos, and the denizens of the reef are frantic in their attempts to score a before-bed snack, or are already snuggling into their protective cracks and crevices for the night. The jacks are tearing though the schools of Anthias. The Anthias are dashing in unison for the protective cover of the reef corals, and the groupers, lurking there with keen eye and open mouth, are doing just fine on Anthias snacks.

Stonefish do their rock-mimic act with elegant precision, and their unsuspecting prey are all but unaware of their presence. Divers with lights (a.k.a torches) are better equipped to pick them out. Thankfully! Contact with a stonefish would be a memorable event. Perhaps one's last memorable event.

It is the divers' lights that also illuminate the pygmy seahorses, a half-inch tall and tail-hooked to a feathery hydroid colony. They are saved by their tiny size (for a fish), stingy use of swimming as a sensible thing to do, and (perhaps) by the stings and venoms of the hydroids to which they anchor themselves.

Just over the edge of the reefs, looking upward from about thirty feet deep, the corals at the edge of the wall are silhouetted against the last light of day, providing some of the best photo ops of the day. Heading back to the skiff, I look back to see the several points of light – my companions still squeezing the last great find in their torchlight before batteries and SCUBA tanks are drained of their contents. The ride back to the Nai’a is a happy recounting of all the firsts and bests of the dive, bathed in the last rays of a gorgeous sunset.

As we approach the sparkling lights of the mother ships, loud cries of "bula!" ring out from the Fijian crew, welcoming us back to their floating "village." And the fifth great meal of the day.
And tomorrow we'll just have to do it all over again. Hot, wet work, but somebody has to do it!

- Steve Webster

Thursday, March 5, 2009

#6: Finding a Life Fish in Fiji

Post by Heidi Munzinger

This morning seemed to come earlier than most. Last night after dinner the Nai'a crew hosted a traditional Fijian kava party, and many of us stayed up until midnight singing and enjoying the local "grog."

However, it was definitely worth getting up in time to take advantage of favorable tides and enjoy the first dive of the day at "Fantasea" in the South Save-a-Tack region of the Namena Marine Reserve. Our cruise director Brigitte advised us to take it slow and make it a long, leisurely dive. We dropped onto a wall teeming with small triggerfish, colorful dottybacks and damsels, then cruised across sand flats and "high quality rubble" featuring decorated dartfish, flagtail blanquillos, and bluestreak gobies, admire a half-dozen ghostly cornets, pair of yellow boxfish, and huge star puffer that disappeared into the blue before doing our safety stops on a reeftop amid swarms of ubiquitous purple and orange scalefin anthias.

(photo: Keith Ellenbogen)
Not a bad way to start the day, and as we like to say: "Here on the Nai'a we see more before breakfast than most divers do all day!"

(photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Late morning we moved back up to North Save-a-Tack to revisit a couple of our favorite sites. Some divers were dropped directly on Kansas (with its iconic Sinularia soft coral "blowing in the breeze" of the mild current), others chose to explore again the area around the Arch (where a resident whitetip reef shark lounges in the sand), and a few of us managed to get lost in "No Man's Land" in between (that we not so affectionately dub "Arkansas"). Halfway through the dive many of us heard a strange sound which we were not able to identify; when we returned to the boat we learned it was the song of a Minke whale that our skiff driver Wally saw breaching in the distance while we were all below the surface! As it turns out, this is not an uncommon occurrence in this area, so we all will be keeping our eyes and ears open in the future.

For the afternoon dive both skiffs went to "Two Thumbs Up" where there are plenty of pinnacles and definitely enough cool critters to go around. Mark Rosenstein, New England Aquarium volunteer collector and self-described "fish geek," was thrilled to score a "life fish" when he sighted his first ever leopard blenny (Exalias brevis).

Leopard Blenny, Mark's life fish (photo: Mark Rosenstein)

This event exemplifies why so many of us return again and again to this part of the world; we may have dived these sites dozens of times, but the abundance and variety of Fiji's underwater fauna ensures that there is always something new and exciting to delight us.

Our dusk dive was back on "Teton I" where divemaster Mo led us directly to the den of an octopus that was resting and not at all interested in interacting with us at the start of the dive. Later, after we had explored the rest of the site, we discovered that the octopus had moved into a more visible space where we could all admire its ability to change colors and textures instantaneously depending on its mood. This time of day marks the "changing of the guard" on the reef, when many animals take advantage of the limited light and either engage in mating and spawning, or hunt by taking advantage of those who have let their guard down. As Bailey succinctly states, "It's either pure bliss or outright death"--a compelling combination!

A decorated dartfish (photo: Mark Rosenstein)

We are still digesting dinner and discussing the highlights of our day when the night divers return to the boat; Keith Ellenbogen (who has made every dive offered on this trip so far) is raving about the "dazzling nudibranch" (Flabellina rubrolineata) he saw, while Bruce Thayer relates his close encounter with spotted unicornfish. Fifteen hours after our dive day has begun it finally comes to a close, and tomorrow we get to do it all again!


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

#5: Namena Marine Reserve

Post by Ellen Garvey

"If it's been more than 15 minutes since you've eaten, it's time to dive"

Giant clam

During the night, the Fijian captain and crew have moved the boat to the Namena Marine Reserve for the next 2 days of diving. We wonder when they sleep--they seem to be around whenever we're awake and they're on duty every night!

During our daily 'first' breakfast (the continental breakfast to hold us over during the first dive), we fill out the forms for the Reserve and collect our badges. The Reserve was founded 6 years ago. It prohibits commercial fishing, but the local villagers may still partake of the bountiful sea life using lines (no nets). We're briefed on the dive, which is purported to end at 'Kansas'--more on that later. And, of course, on the way to 'Kansas' there's 'Oz.' Unfortunately this inspires some divers to sing various munchkin songs which are now stuck in our brains for the next few hours.

We all back-roll off the skiff at the count of 3 and drop down 100' on a wall where we're swept along as a few gray and white tip reef sharks (above) swim by leisurely, wondering what we're doing in their world. After drifting around in the current while watching the show, some of us missed the next point of interest on this tour--"the arch." No worries--we'll do it on the next dive when they drop us off right at the arch, and there are plenty of other 'bomies' to explore, including Oz and Kansas. There's an impressive school of double spotted queenfish (lysan) that just goes on and on. Two varieties of garden eels are in the sand patches between bomies.

When we get to Kansas (above), the field of coral (singularia) is waving in the current, looking like the field of wheat for which it's named. There's one community of life above the 'wheat' another down in the stalks.

The return to the Nai'i comes all too soon. No worries--there's another dive as soon as we finish the real breakfast. Eggs Benedict hits the spot! The second dive of the day is a variation on the first. Some choose to spend the whole time in Kansas, others of us start at the arch and end up spending the whole time there. The varieties of fish and fish behavior are too varied to describe.

Pennantfishes (Heniochus acuminatus)

Now that we've finished the second dive, it's time for lunch. Since we crossed paths with some local fishermen yesterday, lunch is wahoo tacos--fantastic! After lunch it's time for ... a dive of course!

The entertainment for this dive is to entice cleaner shrimp to floss our teeth. This involves taking your regulator out of your mouth and sticking your head in the hole with the shrimp, which he happens to share with an eel. Hmmm. Several divers executed this maneuver successfully, and the moments were captured expertly for our logs by Keith Ellenbogen. After the third dive of the day, we don't have a meal--just a snack. Teriaki chicken, popcorn, and home-made cookies.

The highlights of dusk dive were a pygmy seahorse (about 1/4"!) and an octopus. There will be no night dive--we had 'only' four dives today. Gotta run, dinner is being served. Wahoo salad to start followed by Mahi Mahi or lamb curry. Then we have a kava party on the dive deck.
Another day in paradise ...


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

#4: Shipwreck Dive

Post by Mark Rosenstein.

Our first dive is on the Nasi Yalodina, a medical supply ship that sank in a storm a dozen years ago. It lies at 90 feet, the hull intact but having shed many pieces of structure. A large lionfish lurks on the deck. Soft corals cling to the railings. Several curious spadefish follow us around the wreck. Then we work our way up to shallower water where we encounter a beautiful hard coral garden hosting many butterflyfish, wrasses and damsels. The garden includes table corals ten feet wide. A hawksbill turtle rests on coral rubble. As we surface, we find a tiny juvenile spadefish hiding in floating sargassum seaweed.

The second dive site is Cat's Meow, named for Cat Holloway, wife of the owner of the Naia. It's a narrow pinnacle rising from a 70-foot rubble plain to within 15 feet of the surface. The area around the pinnacle has zoanthus polyps in many colors, as well as a littering of fungia plate corals and larger bowl corals. A dragon nudibranch crawls slowly across the rubble. Near the bottom of the pinnacle is a 20 foot long swim-through in which lurk a dozen many-spotted sweetlips. In a wide area in the middle is a Randall's shrimp goby waving its eye-spotted dorsal fin. We searched diligently, but were unable to find the ghost pipefish who is often at this site. On top of the pinnacle are many anemones each red, green, or beige and hosting clownfish. Many fusiliers, anthias, and surgeonfish swarm around the top.

After lunch, Dr. Steve Webster from the Monterey Bay Aquarium gives part 3 of his lecture series on marine invertebrates, covering cnidaria - corals and anemones.

The third dive is Cat's Reef, the larger reef structure nearby. We started over a rubble field that was covered with more zoanthus soft corals. Many small fish were around, and some huge hermit crabs. Further on we followed a wall, and saw a hundred midnight snapper passing by. A half dozen spadefish came up to us, very curious, and followed us for the rest of the dive.

Back at the Naia, the store is open! Shopping time for Naia logo-wear.

The day's fourth dive was at dusk on Humann Nature, a bommie named after Paul Humann who has written several popular fish ID books. A nice find in the rubble at the bottom was a solar boxfish. As it started to darken, hundreds of banner fish appeared. On the top many fish milled about as the daytime fish were looking for places to bed for the night, and the squirrel and cardinal fish were starting to stray from their caves.

After dinner, the Diver of the Day awards went to Shawn for having a group of spadefish follow her throughout a dive, and to Russ for his ability to be down on the reef within seconds of hitting the water.

The night dive was again on Humann Nature. Sea cucumbers were out, along with a variety of squirrel and cardinal fish. We found a couple of scorpion and lion fishes. Many different kinds of crabs and shrimp were out. The tubastrea coral had its tentacles out feeding. One black-blotched porcupine fish was hunting on the reef top.

A five-dive day is exhausting. Time for bed!

- Mark Rosenstein

(New England Aquarium member and four time expedition team member)

#3: More Dive Photos

Photos taken by Keith Ellenbogen on Day 3 of the expedition:

Sunday, March 1, 2009

#2: First Dive Reports and Island Exploration

Post by Steve Bailey

6 AM During the night aboard Nai'a, while the team was in the arms of Morpheus, we've sailed east into Bligh Waters (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) to the island of Vatu-I-Ra. We awake to a calm sea, a majestic South Pacific sunrise, and Chef Penie sending incredible smells wafting from the galley.

A full day of diving lies ahead that includes visits to favorite sites: Charlie's Garden, Mellow Yellow, and The Whole Shebang. It'll be an initiation of sorts for the newest members of our gang and a reunion for those of us who've explored these sites on four prior expeditions. Also in our sights is to dive on an amazing undersea pinnacle called Go Mo (named after Nai'a's long serving Bosun & Divemaster Ratu Mosese Tuivuna) to continue our work on coral transects. The last two trips powerful currents sweeping around this dive site have blown our dive teams off the pinnacle and prevented our goals from being met.

11:30AM We enjoyed two, terrific dives this morning. The mind-blowing abundance of fishes was just as we remember it, and the surface water temperature was 83 degrees Fahrenheit--a tropical gift for many of us who left the snow and ice behind in Boston! After donning our dive kits and rolling off the skiffs, we drifted down current right to our study sites and settled into the protected lee of towering coral formations. Those currents play a critical role in having the stunning multicolored, Fijian soft corals blown up like 'Michelen Men,' pumped full of water to maximize their ability to filter-feed. The clicks of underwater camera shutters started immediately, and our recording slates and pencils commenced scribbling.

6:30 PM Instead of suiting up for a 5th dive, 11 of us decided to visit Vatu-I-Ra island to observe nesting seabirds. Fortunately, the Fijian government has conserved the island so that terns, boobies, noddies, and frigate birds can make future generations unmolested. Even some distance off this isolated place, the sight, sound (not to mention the smell!), of more than 10,000 winged guano machines was overwhelming.

After landing on the beach, and just steps from the water's edge, we observed an enormous number of nests with chicks in virtually every tree and shrub, every rocky ledge, anywhere really that would accommodate a nest. The spectacle made us wonder how airborne parents could find room to land, let alone, recognize their offspring.

Disturbingly, we soon were very aware of a wagon-load of plastic debris that had apparently washed ashore during recent storms. With this group, however, there was no need to mention what was necessary. Our divers-turned-birdwatchers had in quick order collected a small mountain of rubbish, whipped it all into bags, and loaded the skiffs for ferrying it all back to Nai'a for proper disposal. Now all that caught our eye as we walked the beach were the hermit and Sally lightfoot crab tracks, made even more pronounced by the slanting rays of Fijian sunset.