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Marine Debris Ops: Day One

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Yesterday, October 9, was our first day of marine debris operations. We had finally arrived at a destination! French Frigate Shoals is a big atoll with a few sandy islands rimming it. We got up early to prep the boats and our personal equipment, wolfed down as much breakfast as we felt comfortable with, had a safety briefing at 7:30, and immediately started launching the boats. I’m still figuring out what to do so I mostly stay out of the way.

Scientists prepare for launching the Avons

This group is a fairly well-oiled machine. There are 5 Avons (you might call them Zodiacs) and a SAFE boat scattered here and there. One of the Avons is even perched on top of the debris container. This photo was taken after the day’s operations; Kevin and Jeff are preparing to clean out the boat, but you can also see some debris in the container.

The boats are launched with a crane operated by the ship’s crew. Safety is job one, as you might imagine. Lifejackets, hard hats, and stay out of the way if you don’t need to be there.The marine debris operations were less than half of what went on yesterday; two of the boats went to La Perouse, a volcanic pinnacle near the center of the atoll, to pick up and deploy some oceanography instruments. They used SCUBA equipment, which the marine debris ops don’t.

Tern Island International Airport, Population 4, Elevation 6 ft

The boat I was on, Avon 3, was assigned to deliver some supplies to Tern Island and pick up land debris that had been collected over the previous year. There were about 7 pallets full of derelict nets and ropes that had washed up on the beaches. We tied up alongside their pier and, with the help of a tractor forklift and a crane, were able to dump the debris into the bottom of an Avon. It took three trips back to the Sette to offload it all, for a total of 988 kg. That’s how much a 1993 Honda Civic hatchback weighs.

Tractor forklift moving pallets

Pallet holding derelict gear

While the Avons were shuttling the debris, most of us stayed on Tern Island and looked around. A handful of Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers stays on the island to count birds, remove invasive plant species, and help out with other maintenance. There are also construction contractors working on rehabilitating the warehouse. The quarters are pretty nice for being far away from the main eight Hawaiian islands. The common area includes a ping pong table, pool table, vast library, and TV for viewing DVDs (not much broadcast TV reception out here).

The recroom at Tern Island

We took a tour of the 26-acre island, using bicycles and tricycles. If you’ve ever seen Hitchcock’s The Birds, you might get a little uncomfortable with all these birds. Everywhere! But for bird-lovers, this is where it’s at. Apparently there are very few birds there right now, because one species had left for the season, and the albatross have not yet arrived. Still, it was hard to find a roost that wasn’t taken. We also saw several seals hauled out and basking on the shorelines. Apparently there’s one pup that hangs out on Tern Island, but we didn’t see it.

Birds line the runway on Tern Island

Biking and triking down the runway at Tern Island

After all the land debris was offloaded, we took a side trip to Trig Island, which looks vaguely like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean; white sand, uninhabited except for the occasional seal or bird, no vegetation to speak of, it’s really just a shifting sand bar. We hoped to haul away a sedan-sized bundle of debris that the FWS folks had found but couldn’t unearth. They had reburied it to keep it from entangling seals. Unfortunately, when we got there, a pair of monk seals were resting right on top of the site. Since you can’t just politely ask them to move, we moved on.

I don’t have space to describe the in-water portion of the marine debris ops. I’ll try to talk one of the divers into writing a guest blog. Today we’re in transit again, headed toward Maro Reef.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

One thought on “Marine Debris Ops: Day One

  1. Hi Kris, I have been on many beach clean ups on Mustang Island and San Jose Island (barrier islands north of Padre Island, TX). I am still shocked at the tremendous amount of plastic debris we find.

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