Invertebrates Stole My Heart

I have always been fascinated with fish.  When I was growing up and people would ask me my favorite animal, my response was always “fish” or maybe “turtles.”  Before going to the Cook Islands the only places I had seen fish were in lakes, rivers, or right off the coast of California. The fish I had seen in those lakes and rivers were always bass or trout that tend to be dark green and brown.  Even though these fish may seem boring in terms of their color, I still found fish species to be extremely interesting!  The brightest and prettiest fish I saw in the ocean growing up were Garibaldi.  On our first day of the Cook Islands my eyes were opened to so many beautiful fish I had only seen in pictures and movies.  As soon as I got into the water, I immediately wanted to learn every species of fish.  My team member, Laura, also grew up with a fish fascination.  We were both apart of the reef team with Dr. Clare Steele who is a true fish expert.  This was very convenient as we were to soon spend long days in the water and were constantly seeing new fish.  Dr. Steele had taught us a large number of fish species by the end of our trip.  Of all the fish I saw over the course of those two weeks, my favorites tended to be tiny damselfish that swam in schools and inhabited Acropora corals.  Close seconds that often intrigued me while we were running our reef transects were the pipefish (Corythoichthys spp.). These small syngnathid fish normally were most frequently spotted by themselves on top of coral bommies looking like a tiny snakes swimming in throughout water.

At the beginning of our trip my interests were primarily fish-oriented.  I was blessed to be a part of the reef team where I was able to see a wide variety of fish while also monitoring invertebrates.  My contributions to the reef team included counting and identifying the invertebrates as well as measuring the height of the transect.  Originally I was not interested in invertebrates at all, but was thrilled with my task as I was able to see those fish I loved so much.  This quickly changed.  After being exposed to so many different invertebrates, my interest in them grew.  Tridacna clams are the so-called giant clams, but vary is size and are covered with so many amazingly different colors (thanks to their commensal zooxanthellae). Once I saw those in nature, I became interested in learning specific details about the Tridacna species we were seeing as well as other invertebrates.  My curiosity has grown and pushed me learn about the life cycles of these species…and I now plan to take an invertebrate biology class!



The fieldwork aspect of our community-based research and service was typically what I enjoyed the most.  However, that is only the beginning of the research.  After long days in the field, all that collected data must be entered.  I actually enjoyed doing this task.  When we entered our data, we were able to look over numbers and see patterns emerge among the different sites.  For example, I noticed that the shallower sites had more sea cucumbers and sea stars, whereas the deeper sites had more Tridacna. I look forward to continue working with my team by analyzing the data more in depth! entering data

What will I miss about the Cooks? EVERYTHING!

Snorkeling in the Cook Islands was by far the most amazing experience of the entire trip.  If you go snorkeling or diving off the coast of Southern California, you will see luscious kelp forests and lots of marine life.  The marine life in the Cook Islands was definitely different from the marine life seen off of our coast.

This beautiful view was near the Boat Shed restaurant in Aitutaki.

I want to go into the Marine Ecology field, so being able to see all of the colorful fish, coral, and invertebrates was a dream come true.  We were able to snorkel with giant trevally, schools of tropical fish, moray eels, and so many more.

The beautiful green chromis hiding in the coral during one of our snorkels.


Our professors definitely did an awesome job at selecting the students that were able to go.  We had some of the best people on this trip, and I know that I made some lifelong friends that I hope feel the same.  We worked so well as a team and we were able to get so much work done in our short amount of time there in the Cooks.  The memories that I made from this trip will last a lifetime, and for that, I am so thankful.


I will definitely miss being able to just walk out to rhe lagoon and snorkel and see this everyday.


Remotely Operated Vehicle Reef Surveys

Today the AARR team set out to conduct the first reef surveys using ROVs on Aitutaki. The beginning of the day started out a little rough with one of the ROVs flooding which forced the team to return to base to grab the back up unit. Once back underway, a total of five surveys were successfully completed, four of which were within the lagoon and one outside along the edge. Average transect length was 35 m with the duration of the surveys lasting approximately 2 minutes. Depth, water temperature, and heading of transects were recorded with an onboard inertial measurement unit (IMU). Average depth of the surveys was 3.64 m, average temperature was 23.9 Celsius, and average heading was to the North (with the current). Surveys were conducted on all sides of the island (north, south, east, and west) to determine if there is a difference in fish abundance and species richness.


A preliminary analysis of the videos showed the reef area outside of the lagoon had the highest fish abundance and potentially the highest species richness. Also, the surveys on the east side of the island appeared to have the lowest abundance and richness overall. However, a more thorough examination of the videos followed by a statistical analysis is required to confirm these assertions.


The unit that flooded was flushed with freshwater to remove salt from the electronics and dried the rest of the day. This evening we put it back together to see if it would turn on, which luckily it did! The unit was outfitted with the bio-fluorescent sensory package once again will be launched to look for fluorescing coral later tonight.East side Lagoon Forward

Service Learning

I may have spoken a bit too soon about having stable internet!  The heavy work load, coupled with a very congested, slow and often unavailable internet connection has led to slow posting. Two of the major reasons that we are in the Cook Islands are: to work with Guy Trimby of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory to search for the biofluorescent proteins and for what we call “Service Learning.”  Service Learning is where our undergraduate students have the opportunity to work and learn while helping others.

Being that I spent many years as a paramedic, helping others is ingrained in my personality.  The Cook Islands are very isolated, and have a number of environmental issues that we can lend a hand with based on our experiences and training in the United States.  There have been many hard lessons learned when it comes to managing natural resources.  By coming to these islands, our students can both learn about a new culture, a different biome/climate, and deepen their commitment to and appreciation of the value of helping others.  The government of the Cook Islands has faced financial issues and suffered a fiscal collapse in the late 1990’s. The main generation of revenue for the country now is through tourism (fishing and agriculture are a mere blip compared to tourist dollars).  After their restructuring and the islands switched to using the New Zealand dollar and (at least to the outside world) seemed to become something of a protectorate of New Zealand (even though their sovereignty/free association with New Zealand status had not changed over the past 50 years).

Though we are outsiders, the people of the Cook Islands have been very welcoming.  In the past, some scientists have travelled to the Islands, done research, and left without sharing anything with the people or the government.  This has left the indigenous people somewhat in doubt about foreign scientists, specifically because some of those scientists performed experiments which some islanders perceive to have induced changes in the lagoon environment (allegedly due to drilling and injecting chemicals into the reefs).

We would like to help with a number of issues that are currently present.  The Islands are incredibly isolated, luxuries such as internet and telephone are difficult, but there is electricity and running water.  Fresh water is an issue both in terms of quality and availability.  Currently Aitutaki is in a drought and it is not uncommon for the island to run out of water during the dry season or peak tourist periods (Austral summer).  There are also many issues with the water quality of the larger lagoon waters.  Several marine species are threatened.  One issue that we have targeted spans many environmental science topics (ecology, agriculture, marine biology, resource management and more) and is known as “fish poisoning.”  This poisoning is caused by a dinoflagellate (numerous species actually) and called Ciguatera.  These photosynthetic organisms, one type of phytoplankton, emit a neurotoxin which causes illness and paralysis in humans.  Dinoflagellates are best known to most of us for producing the “Red Tides” we see in the United States.  Ciguatera poisoning is a regular occurrence here in the Cook Islands, impacting people who consume fish from the reefs.  We are working toward finding out why Ciguatera suddenly spiked in the past 20-30 years.  We have formed the hypothesis that the agricultural and septic runoff enters into fresh water streams, which in turn exit into the lagoon may be facilitating blooms of dinoflagellates, similar to a harmful algal bloom.

Our current goals include:

  • Talking to local people about the history and social aspects to the “fish poisoning.”
  • Visiting fish markets to obtain samples of reef caught fish for Ciguatera identification.
  • Mapping of all of the fresh water streams, and agricultural presence which can cause runoff.
  • Surveying the sandy beach environment on both the main island of Aitutaki and the surrounding “motus” which translates into English as “small sand islands.”
  • Surveying the lagoon and reefs using traditional snorkel teams and ROV surveys.
  • Continuing our use of the ROVs and biofluorescence payload to detect specific proteins in corals, and also to use in the detection of coral health, as our preliminary results show that the package may be able to detect disease.
  • Performing beach cleanups, and characterize the amount of microplastics present in the sand.


Last Field Day for the Reef Team

August 8th was our last field day for the Reef Team and we set our record for reefs surveyed.  We finished a total of 11 transects at three separate locations.  I think we saw a total of five Crown of Thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) which was the first time I had seen them on the reef.

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Dr. Steele noticed the damage to this coral, and upon closer investigation … a crown-of-thorns seastar was found!

We finished up with a few transects off of the Pacific Resort.  During that transect, we saw another moray eel (Muraenidae). The combination of moray eels and Crown of Thorns in our transects made this last day of field work very memorable.


What a Field Day!

DSCN2168On August 6th our Reef Team surveyed two sites.  The second site, the Clam Hatchery, was definitely the highlight of the day.  The 30-meter visibility left us in awe as we surveyed the reef.  Clams were abundant and there were huge bommies covered with various types of coral.  It was amazing to see cryptic clams living within coral.  The clams camouflaged with the coral so well the snorkeler counting invertebrates had to move their hand over the rock to generate a shadow.  If a clam was hiding there, it would clamp closed its shell/retract its mantle from the diver-generated shadow, confirming it was indeed a clam rather than a rock.  The larger clams seemed to stay on the bottom while the smaller clams were on the reef.

Rest of the Trip

Now that we are home let me give you a full account of what happened over the last few days of our trip.

The day after (August 7, 2015)  we had our little moving-around-the-island adventure we (the lagoon team) lost another team member Julie.  She awoke the next day with one of her eyes super puffy and red.  During breakfast she put some ice on it which helped reduce the swelling a lot, although her eye was still super red.  She ultimately got some medicated eye drops later that morning after a super quick trip to the Aitutaki Hospital.  Those drops helped, but Dr. Anderson still removed her from underwater work/rearranged our field teams for the next fews days as a precautionary measure.  As such our lagoon team was now made up of myself (Hayden), Mag, Aspen and Shannon.  Aspen and Shannon had originally been part of the ciguatera team.  We also had Clare (one of our hosts) as a part of our team for a little while.

That day we hit another four beaches.  We surveyed the shallow lagoon that was right outside our motel (our Reef Motel site) to start off that round of sampling.  The sand at this beach was black; it was anoxic and smelled very badly of rotten eggs.  Whenever we stepped into it, we would sink deep into into the silty sand.  This beach harbored no invertebrates.  We then drove down a little down the road (directly south south) and surveyed another lagoon whose silty sediments sort of ate us.  Again, not a lot of invertebrates were found at this beach.  Then we went down a little further down the road and surveyed another site (South Point).  Here, the sand was a little bit more normal of the grain size we were seeing across the island.  It was very nice in comparison.  However there was a “minor” problem of my own making.

I was in charge of getting the GPS to this third site.  I thought I had it wrapped up in my towel, but we couldn’t find it anywhere at this site.  We looked in my backpack.  We looked in everyone else’s bags.  But there was no GPS to be found.  The logical explanation was that it fell out of my towel at our second site.  So with a rather upset Dr. Anderson and a disgruntled team we made our way back to our second site.  Aspen, Clare, Shannon and myself got dropped off a little bit down the way to see if we could make our way back to the beach from the lagoon (a stretch of woody coastal strand vegetation separated the road from the beach.  We eventually made it back to the beach to scour the beach of where our gear had been sitting and where I knew that I had last seen the GPS.  It wasn’t there.  So we then walked up to the road to wait for Dr. Anderson and again hunted for the missing GPS.  Again no luck…. I remember thinking “Well this sucks for me” and “I lost the GPS.”  The one piece of our lagoon-sampling equipment that was expensive.  Then we started to walk down the road hoping Dr. Anderson found it and that we would eventually run into him.  Three minutes later, we saw him driving up to us with that misplaced GPS in his outstretched hand, gently swinging from the driver side window of our van.  With a big sigh of relief we got in the van and didn’t talk about it anymore (it apparently fell out of my towel as we boarded the van an hour before; Dr. Anderson found it in the middle of road).  We next swing by our hotel to drop off Clare as she had other things to do that day.  Our fourth and final lagoon site of that day was adjacent to the Aitutaki sailing club down the street from Koru Cafe.  This site had some parts that were really deep (relative to what we had been seeing the past few days).  For the most part, though, it was really shallow.  Again there were few invertebrates there; we saw only a few “volcanos” and a occasional sea cucumber.  That was it for that day.  Rather eventful.

The next day (August 8) our lagoon team (Aspen, Shannon, Mag and myself) and the sandy beach team (Tevin, Dorothy and Guy  were paired for the day.  Dr. Anderson drove us all around in the van and Dorothy drove the little blue car.  Dr. Anderson had to go a little early because he had meeting with a the Island Council in their office near downtown Arutanga to update them on the progress of our work for the island.  Nevertheless, he took us to our first two sites.

The first site was right across the street from the airport terminal and offered very little water.  This terminus of the lagoon had the other bank a mere 35 m out from our waterline/starting point.  As this area had close to no water, we didn’t all detect sea cucumbers in our transects but found abundant crab burrows.  Once the lagoon team finished our transects we helped the beach team finish up their surveys.  Both teams got through all our transects in about 30 minutes.  Dr. Anderson returned from gassing up the van and we drove off to another sheltered lagoon site.  That was where things got interesting for the day.  We had to do our usual protocol of laying transects out to 200 m, but the first 8 m or so was in soft silt and sand that would envelop us, sinking us to our knees.  Needless to say that took us a very long time to get through.  Once we got past that it was still a little sink-like but not nearly as bad (we just had to step on patches of sand we could tell were higher/more solid, evidenced by their lighter color).  Again not a lot of invertebrates; just a few cucumbers and a few volcanos.  We again quickly finish our transects and moved to the beach to finish the sandy beach team finish their work.  After our second beach, Dr. Anderson showed us where our fourth site would be before he took us to our third site just before he left us to go to his meeting.  He also instructed us to take the sandy beach people to one of the places where we had surveyed two days ago and to try and do the site we opted to not survey that same day.  Dr. Anderson also told us to go finish the trash clean-up of the beach paralleling the airport runway.  He wanted us to leave no later than 4:30 for that clean-up.

With that in mind, we started on our third site.  It went the same as the previous two; sinking sand, few animals, and helping out the sandy beach team.  The lagoon teams last site was comparatively easy because there was very little life with no sinking sand.  It just got a little deep which made the writing everything down a little harder.  After we finished our lagoon and beach surveys we went to one of our sites across the island.  Once we finished up that sandy beach survey it was nearly 4:00 and we were unable to do our last site.  We headed back to our hotel to change into clean clothes and get more people for the beach clean-up.  All together we had each people and one bag per person.  We started our clean-up at 4:45 after dropping four people off at each beach end.  We all got back to the van at around 6:00 with 8 very full bags of trash plus a little extra that we picked up on the way.  We sorted and weighed that material the following day.

Today (August 8) is the day. We all helped to sort trash.

10 bags of trash from airport beach 2 days of pick up. Took 45 minutes to sort, weigh and count everything.

10 bags of trash from airport beach 2 days of pick up. Took 45 minutes to sort, weigh and count everything.

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All the trash from Airport beach. 10 bags in total 2 days of pick up

All the trash from Airport beach. 10 bags in total 2 days of pick up

On our last day in the Cooks began by helping the sandy beach team survey three more beaches.  That left us with three hours to do whatever we wanted to do.  A few people and I went into town to get a few souvenirs and then to Koru Cafe for a little snack.  I got a chocolate milkshake (which was more of a chocolate milk) that was refreshing.  After that excursion the day got a little sad.  We finished up our packing and left for the airport to get all checked in before heading down to our Base 1 beach site to salute the island and all the people that helped us get here and do our work.  There were a few tears that were shed that night.  We then quickly flew from Aitutaki and into Rarotanga where we had a brief snack for dinner.  After we all got through security at the airport, a few of us (Chris, Aimee, Guy and myself) played Rummkiub. As we finished our game it was time to board and we lined up.  That was it for the last few days of our trip…a very exciting last few days. 🙂

Moving forward with our RPS

After having a successful trial of the bio-fluorescence sensor package for the ROV, we made some adjustments to the payload. We improved the balance and the lights and did three 50 meter zig-zag night transects into the patch reefs, and found a lot of fluorescence! The system and collaboration with Guy Trimy/PML has worked out just as planned!

The next step was to work on ways of minimizing interference from the ROV main lights. We covered the main lights with blue filter paper, and added yellow to the main camera, in attempt to see the fluorescence with the main camera, in order to navigate toward the fluorescent corals.


In addition to just proving we could find fluorescent corals, we set out to identify which specific species fluoresce. We sought out, marked, and characterized 8 sites during the day light, and then sent out our further modified ROV at night. Unfortunately we were met with a heavy tide, and the darkened main lights proved to make navigation to the sites nearly impossible. We removed the yellow filter from the main camera, but it was not good enough to properly navigate.

Unfortunately time was running short, and we had a lot of work to do. The equipment arrived late, broken, and the weather had taken a turn for the worse, making progress difficult. The next day the team split up, half went go to the Aitutaki lagoon via boat to do surveys of the reef, and the other worked on mapping until the evening. At dusk, the team reunited and marked the coral sites with glow sticks, and had a successful night dive!