Thursday, March 10, 2011

Indonesia Expedition: Making the Most of a Lot

Yesterday morning the clouds disappeared, the sky was tropical blue, and the sea as smooth as silk, with a long 2 to 3 foot Pacific swell. Dr. Mark Erdmann and I, with our dive gear, jumped into one of our ship's two sleek, fast tenders (inboard motor boats) for the 30 mile trip to our second ship, the "Putripapua," an Indonesian live-aboard dive boat.

The Putripapua (Photo: Alan Dynner)

The Putripapua was just off the tiny tropical island of Mof, and when we arrived at 8:30, Dr. Randi Rotjan of the New England Aquarium and her Indonesian scientist colleagues from CI were already into their first dive of the day, exploring the surrounding coral reef that, to our knowledge, had never before been dived. After Mark and I boarded the Putripapua, Dr. Crissy Huffard, a CI scientist, got on the tender and Bruno, our driver, took her back to our main expedition ship, the Plan B, to help with operations there.

Plan B with tender (Photo: Alan Dynner)

The assets we have for our expedition are amazing. Thanks to the generosity of the Waitt Institute and other sponsors we have the full use of a 164 foot state-of-the-art expedition ship, its two tenders, its dual jet helicopter, its ROV that can dive to 1,000 meters (almost 3,300 feet) and its excellent and enthusiastic crew. The Akiko Shiraki Dynner Fund for Ocean Exploration and Conservation, of the New England Aquarium, is supporting the charter of the Putripapua and the expenses of many of the expedition's scientists. Expedition leader Dr. Greg Stone is making sure that we make the most of these assets. Yesterday was a good example.

The Plan B and the Putripapua in the Wayag Islands, West Papua (Photo: Alan Dynner)

Crissy was needed back at the Plan B because it was into the second day of a search for three unknown seamounts that Crissy had identified by hand-held GPS readings last year during a flight from an ultra-light aircraft. Local fisherman talked about these seamounts, but lacking technology, they could only find them occasionally. The Plan B was conducting a downward and forward-looking sonar search around Crissy's GPS points, moving back and forth in grid patterns, like mowing a lawn. When the sun moved overhead, Brian Skerry and Crissy made two helicopter flights with Plan B's super pilot, Tom Sharp, to search the areas from the air for tell-tale light blue patches that would mark the shallow reef top of the seamounts. These would be the third and fourth such flights. I went on the first flight with Brian and Mark, and can attest to the difficulty of seeing small patches on the vast ocean. The ROV team was standing by to launch if the search for what were known as the ghost seamounts proved successful.

Erdi Lazuardi and Dr. Erika Montague at lunch on the Putripapua (photo: Alan Dynner)

Meanwhile, back at Mof Island Mark and I dove with Dr. Erika Montague, a scientist at MBARI, to place her new specially designed and built underwater video camera 60 feet down on the reef surrounding Mof. Erika's camera is designed to monitor undersea life for long periods of time, to record what species are there and how they behave; after these initial tests, it will be capable of being deployed much deeper and capture tissue samples of fish. Mark, with his sea scooter giving him great range and mobility, explored the reef and discovered two new species of fish on this dive. Mark is remarkable, capable of managing CI's conservation activities in West Papua, while remaining an active field scientist.

The Putripapua and Mof Island (photo: Alan Dynner)

On our second dive Erika and I dove among the beautiful hard corals and reef fish, but we couldn't help notice the craters of dead coral on the reef top where bomb fisherman had left their mark. Fortunately Mof and the surrounding area are now a marine protected area, and the reefs are quickly recovering. Near the end of our dive we were stunned to see an enormous green sea turtle swim past us and down under a ledge. When I dove for a closer look under the same ledge, it was apparent that the turtle was bigger than I am. What a great signal of the success of marine protected areas!

The search for the ghost seamounts continued until 11 p.m. Without success. We can't explain why they couldn't be found after all of our efforts, but failure is part of any good exploratory expedition. It was time to move on to another area that looked promising.

-Alan Dynner

1 comment:

  1. Dad, sounds like you're having an amazing adventure so far! Talk to you soon. <3 Susan