Markets in the Morning

Our ciguatera team has been heading out most mornings (when their alarms go off) to census the offerings in the Aitutaki Market down at the main wharf on Sir Albert Henry Drive.  It opens at 6:00am and we usually shoot to get there around 6:20.  While have had an array of student make the drive into town with me, our most consistent stalwarts are Shannon (when her alarm works) and Aspen.  They have done a great job of both interviewing local folks about the understanding of the ciguatera situation (origins, historical trajectory, their own incidents of getting poisoned, etc.), trying to buy fish for our ciguatoxin assay, and surveying the local produce being offered.

Adventure Day

Our team was bolstered by the addition of Aspen today as Dr. A needed to help the robotics team move around/operate units.  The ciguatera team were kind enough to take us to our first lagoon survey location.  Today we surveyed lagoon sites arrayed around the innermost “v” of the island where water quality tends to be poor/highly turbid.  These sites were all very shallow so they went quickly.  We completed our first set of transects in short time, waited for Dr. A for a bit and then ended up getting a ride from the ciguatera team again.  Again we finished up our lagoon transects quickly… and waited for Dr. A without seeing him.  The ciguatera team again came to our rescue and drove us to our third site.  Upon their heading off, we agreed to meet at a pier at 3:00pm (they said that they would wait for us if we weren’t there at that time).  This third site had extremely murky water so we opted to not survey it and instead started our walk to the pier.

This is where the day got interesting.  We walked for about 30 minutes, missing the turn that we needed to take to the pier.  When we looked at our map, we noticed a little road that ran out quite close to the pier.  We decided to do our third and final survey for the day right then given the pier seemed so close. Again the water was shallow so it was completed quickly.  The pier was actually farther  from where we were then we though and so we didn’t get there until nearly 4:00pm.  We thought our drivers would miss the turn so we went to the main road where we waited for a total of 3 whole minutes for our ride to get us. However it wasn’t the ciguatera team it was Steve. That was when we heard that our original drivers got to our rally point at 3:00pm and waited there until 3:45pm. In the end it all worked out and we all got back safely.

Over all it was an adventures day.  A day where we got a good amount of data and all had a good time.

-Lagoon team

Hayden, Meg, Julie and Aspen

Teaching the next Generation

On Tuesday, August 4 we were blessed with a visit by group of students from the local school here on Aitutaki.  These young people (who ranged from middle to high school ages) were in the middle of their two-week Independence Day holiday but still managed to muster up the energy to come by our “Base 1” (aka End of the Runway) site.  We (hopefully) regaled them with ecological stories and showed them various aspects of our monitoring efforts to characterize lagoon health.  After patiently sitting through our overview, they got down and dirty and helped with everything from our sand coring to looking for micro plastics in beach sand via our ESRM mobile microplastics lab.  They and their Araura College Principal Tracy Spiers (who we first met on last year’s preliminary visit to Aitutaki) had a fun time (we hope!).

Portable microplastics lab Base 1 08-04-15b

Our mobile ortable microplastics lab.

Araura College students learning how to search for and quantify microplastic particles in beach sand.

Araura College students learning how to search for and quantify microplastic particles in beach sand.


Sifting through core sand to hunt for invertebrates.

Sifting through core sand to hunt for invertebrates.

Coring at our Base 1 beach site.

Coring at our Base 1 beach site.

Tevin showing students a just-collected worm to our  Aitutaki students.

Tevin showing students a just-collected worm to our Aitutaki students.

Our CSUCI students had a great day showing the local kids how we do what we do.  The kids also taught us a thing or two (what it feels lilt to get ciguatera poisoning, etc.).  We hope to get them up and running with some subset of our lagoon monitoring protocols throughout the school year to help integrate more environmental science into their routine classes and simultaneously building a cadre to local Aitutaki folks into the routine monitoring we hope to foster here.

Successful lagoon day

Today was a good data day for the lagoon team.  We did not just do one lagoon site today, nor two or even three. We did four lagoon sites!!!  The first lagoon we surveyed we were at a beach that was near a popular establishment called the Boat Shed.  This lagoon site probably had the greatest biodiversity we’ve seen yet.  This surprised me because there are a lot of people that use the lagoon in this vicinity.  We saw a few species of sea cucumbers that we haven’t seen before.  One was super long with brown bands on it (Synapta maculata).  Another was purple with cream colored papillae (species identification TBD).  Then Julie and I saw a ton of pale pink sea urchins (42 on one rock) in the last 200m transect (200m from shore).  These were Echinometra mathaei (beige morph).

The next beach was right off the road from the golf course (the site we call Airport Terminal). This lagoon site was only 75 meters long before it hit the barrier reef (with the main crest at roughly 110 meters from the shore)…this one had a lot of big waves and intense surge.  Our first transect was at 10 meters and so right in tight to the fringing intertidal rocks that buffer the water-sand interface at this spot.  And were those rocks slippery!  One of our team members (Amanda) had a bit of a slip there and cut her knee (no need for stitches or anything, we just washed it out and butterfly bandaged it up and she was good to go).  So once that happened we all knew to be extra careful of those rocks.  Along that transect we didn’t see a whole lot of invertebrate diversity.  This was not surprising given all the wave action.

The third lagoon site we hit was what we are now calling (after the local’s name for the site) Base 1, close to the end of the runway and the site of both our first snorkel in Aitutaki and (two days later) our first night snorkel.  This site also had a LOT of sea cucumbers.  Mostly the smooth black ones (Holoturia atra) that have been abundant in most of our lagoon sites, but these were joined by a few other sea cucumbers. There were also a few bright blue sea stars there (Linckia laevigata) so that was nice.

We walked for a little while down the coast (towards Puffy’s/Pacific Resort) to get to a different different part of the lagoon.  This lagoon site was very very shallow.  We usually try to float over our transects, but that was impossible here so we just walked our survey transects.  This lagoon was mostly our smooth black sea cucumbers (Holoturia atra)and only two sea stars (Linckia laevigata).

All in all a busy but successful day collecting invertebrate data in the lagoons of Aitutaki. Until next time blog world.

Lagoon team,

Hayden, Amanda, Julie, Meg

Tuesday with the Reef Team

Today, the reef team surveyed two sites. At the first site, there were hardly any reefs. We then swam across a channel to a motu where there were two small reefs we were able to survey. This area was on the ocean side and not protected, so there was a heavy surge and was hard to survey. Aimee surveyed the invertebrates and within one transect from zero to five meters she found 91 sea urchins! After the first site we continued to our second site that was behind a restaurant called Puffy’s Bar and Grill.

The second site was beautiful. The visibility was good and there was not as much surge as the first site. We saw a variety of fish that kept the site interesting. The corals were mostly Porites covered with macro algae called Turbinaria. There was way more of this macro algae found on the second site when compared to the first site. The highlight of our day was on the second transect at our second site where we saw a Moray eel that was about five feet long. After completing four 10 meter transects at the second site we met up with other groups at a different beach north of the airport, where we helped complete surveys with the lagoon and sandy beach teams.

Another day

Another adventures day here in the Cooks. Same old breakfast in the morning. The new routine of getting my snorkel gear ready for the day. Getting waterproof paper, our slates and transect tapes ready for a day of use. Today the Lagoon team went to Sunny Beach Lodge which is very close to the Pacific Resort which is a very fancy hotel here. We also surveyed the beach right outside the Pacific Resort. We didn’t really see anything that was special the same old sea cucumbers with some “volcanos” just mounds of sand that have a little hole in them. Dr. A wants us to try and dig up a few so we have but haven’t found anything inside. Then we went down for a bit to another beach where there was A LOT of coral which made laying out the transect tape a little hard but that was fine. This beach was right outside Puffy’s Beach Bar and Takeaway. There Julie and I saw a few sea urchins. The other pair saw a few really big sea stars and a really big clam evidently. So that was just about it for the day. Now we are just hanging around for dinner. Until next time blog world.

Point-intercept substrate research 

The reef team is in charge of all things coral reefs, including a point intercept focus on lagoon bottom substrates. This allows us to get a better determination of the health of the reef systems and characterize the lagoon, in general. 

We look for dead and live coral Bommies, as well as coral heads. We also note as to whether the bottom is sand or coral rubble. We then characterize the coral cover, including the type of algae or the species of coral. In addition, we measure the height of the Bommies from the lagoon bottom. 

All of this combined gives us an idea of the health of the reef and the lagoon. 


Lagoon day 1

This was our first day of doing our own lagoon survey and it went ok. Our first site had A LOT of sea cucumbers. At the 10 m and 25 m transects there were easily a 1000 sea cucumbers. At the farther ends (100 and 200) there were a good amount of tube worms but very few sea cucumbers. It went very very slowly mostly because it was our first time and there were so many sea cucumbers to count. Then we had lunch. Went to another beach/atoll called honeymoon island where there was just about nothing where we surveyed. There were a fair amount of sea cucumbers where around boat was parked. Which was about a 5 minute walk from our survey sites. The current was also very very strong at honeymoon island. On the beach itself I say about 10 small white crabs scurrying around. That was just about it for our first day of surveying the lagoons.

I currently hope that the surveys will get easier to do as the trip continues. This time there was just a lot of sea cucumbers to count.

Lagoon Survey

Since we got the rest of our stuff today I was able to get trained to survey lagoon. To do this we need at least 2 transect tapes, a ruler, waterproof paper, something to right on and a pencil.

To complete a lagoon survey we had to take a transect tape out 200 meters (m) and at the 10, 25, 50, 100 and 200 m spots take out another transect tape and go out 50 m perpendicular to the long tape. Then once we did that we had to count all of the slow moving animals that we saw, such as sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs and other such animals. For the sea cucumbers we had to go down and get a relative measurement in cm. Then for the other animals we had guess the size.  We would transcribe the number of animals along with their sizes for every 5 m and we would also need to saw the percent coverage of sand, coral, coral rubble, rubble and rocks. Once we did the 50ms for all of the points then that lagoon was complete. 🙂

Finally moving forward!

The Aerial and Aquatic Robot Research team ( now has a somewhat reliable internet connection and will now have more frequent updates. The team split up this morning, half of the team joined the other sandy beach ecology group, and the rest of our team went to the main village in Aitutaki to obtain a better internet connection, and download the files that are necessary for mapping, and beginning the remotely piloted  surveys. After returning to our hotel, the team reassembled, and the cargo finally arrived from the airport!

We opened our luggage and to our dismay, one of our ROV submarines (Leviathan) had been smashed to pieces. This came as a shock as it was in a tough pelican case, and the other ROV was loosely packed in a crate with foam padding. The team rushed to assemble the shattered ROV, and affix the bio-fluorescence payload to the ROV, and compensate for the chance in balance / ballast. We also assembled all of our robots, and took a picture with the rest of the teams, to publish in the local newspapers, to inform the local villagers about the work that we are doing, and the the strange looking tools that we are using.


After repairing the broken ROV (Leviathan), and mounting up the payload on the other ROV, we headed out to the northern part of Aitutaki and launched our experimental setup on it’s first dive.

The dive was successful, and we detected the proteins in the coral that we were looking for! There are a number of things that we need to improve before the next dive, but that will come in the following days.