For any new readers, I should let you know that I’m blogging from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which encompasses the mostly uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. I’m on board the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette, on a 25-day cruise to remove derelict fishing gear and other marine debris from the shores and shallow-water habitats of the islands and atolls. I must have done something good to deserve this opportunity!
However, this morning I felt rough; headache, sore toes, bone tired. But today we were heading north, to an area called the Maze. I imagine it’s so named because if you tried to boat through it you’d definitely find yourself following false trails and needing to turn around when a shallow reef blocks the way. Because of the very shallow water in places, divers can’t be towed. So today was our first day of swim surveys. I know I still haven’t explained tow-board surveys very well, but I’m counting on getting a diver to explain them. And guess what? I’m not going to try to explain swim surveys either, mainly because I was baffled the whole time. Working from a black-and-white image of the atoll, which is roughly 450 square miles, the scientists have indicated tracks to swim. Two or three swimmers get in the water at one time and are directed by shouts and gestures to the track they’re to swim. The folks left on the boat can translate that black and white photo plus the GPS* into where to swim, and the swimmers can translate the shouts and hand gestures into swimmable tracks. Impressive but baffling.
We started the day in clouds, moderate winds, and drizzle, with an 18-kilometer transit to our site. As soon as the first two swimmers got in the water, sharks appeared. But these were Galapagos sharks, and they apparently don’t eat people. After maybe an hour of swimming, Guy and Kyle came upon a monster net.
We tried to wrestle it into our boat but had to call another team over to help and to take half our load. Getting that net conglomerate freed and on the Avons took over three hours. I believe there may have been every type of net and line ever manufactured in that one enormous bundle: green, red, blue, black, and white trawl or seine nets, hawsers, miscellaneous lines of various colors and thicknesses, and straps.
After lunch, even though we had close to a full boatload, Mark and Marie were up next for swimming lines. The idea was that we would note the locations of any nets they found and come back first thing tomorrow to pick them up. But then they found a couple that weren’t so big and “Can’t we fit just this one?” “And this one?” and next thing you know we had a pile of nets so high, we had to have a spotter on top of the pile to check for shallow water. But the swim survey continued, and we really did leave one more net for tomorrow.
Near the end of the afternoon, Mark and Marie took a short break to admire the sharks and ulua that were swimming with them, and I finally got in the water to check them out as well. I would love to share the photos, but guess who forgot to charge the battery? These photos are some that Kyle took first thing in the morning. Imagine four of those cute little Galapagos sharks followed by a school of at least 30 ulua (remember, those are the giant trevally). Amazing.
The long transit back to the ship took forever with our huge pile of nets and five people on board, but the payoff came at the weigh-in. We had 780 kilograms of nets! If we threw one of the female divers on that pile of nets, it’d weigh the same as a two-passenger Smart Car.
Today’s grand total for all four boats had to be over two metric tons, which is about equivalent in weight to a 2004 Honda Element loaded with three average-sized American males, three average-sized American females, and a slightly chubby Finnish spitz.
*The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system made up of a network of 24 satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense. GPS was originally intended for military applications, but in the 1980s, the government made the system available for civilian use. GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. There are no subscription fees or setup charges to use GPS.