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.


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. 🙂

Heading Home

We are on our way home after two fantastic weeks of learning, service, all manner of interdisciplinary coastal monitoring and assessment, cultural exchange, and making tons of new friends.

Our internet credits have all expired, so we have been unable to post for the last day and a half, but check in the next few days for our pent up posts.

We had a wonderful final few days.  There were many watery eyes among our CI students and new Aitutaki friends alike as we held our final farewell to the Islands ceremony as the sun set on Aitutaki minutes before we boarded our plane to Rarotonga.

We will see everyone soon!

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

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.

At Last…

…and it finally begins!

Day 5 of our trip finally saw our gear arrive.  At breakfast we caught the tail end of an announcement over the local radio station about our work and the students’ being here on Aitutaki.  They emphasized our remotely piloted system-based monitoring of the lagoon and so created a bit of additional anxiety as to when we would ever be able to use those much-discussed instruments.  It was therefore a very happy sight to pull up to the airport and see all our equipment boxes lying there just waiting to be plucked up at 11:30!


Sandy Beach Surveys

We began today with our first mainland sandy beach surveys, focused on our Samade/inner lagoon sites near the southern most section of the runway.  The good Dr. Lambrinos took the helm of the sandy beach crews, still in the midst of trying to suss out our new coastal strand vegetation descriptors for our S-BRASS sandy beach protocols.  Given the very shallow faces of many of our beaches on some of the motus and inner lagoon sites, we have modified our quantitative coring  to capture more immediately shallow sandy regions (and concomitantly decreasing the number of cores in the upper, dryer sections of the beach).  As such we are getting all kinds of cool worms, etc. (that we have yet to fully identify) in our infernal transects.

Our lunchtime break provided us with not only tasty cured ham sandwiches, but our missing gear as well.  We quickly posed for a picture with our newly-arrived robots for a story in the local paper and set off to get to work.  Our robotics team began assembling and repairing parts broken in the shuffle of air cargo handlers and getting on with attaching Guy’s UV sensors to the ventral array on our workhorse OpenROV.

Giant Clam Cultivation at the Marine Research Station

Following lunch and a bit of equipment unpacking we headed down over to the Marine Research Station (the Aitutaki arm of the Ministry of Marine Resources).  We will post more about the station in an upcoming post, but it is a fantastic and classic island marine research station.  What a fantastic and fun place to research.  I’ve worked in various research stations over my career and they are always amazing places: never enough money, never enough equipment, but tons of can-do attitude and a wellspring of creativity and love of natural history.

Lagoon Survey Training at Pacific Resort

We next ran back to the Reef Motel to grab our snorkel gear and headed to Pacific Resort for our training in shallow-water lagoon surveys.  These surveys emphasize quantifying our mobile invertebrates.  We are especially interested in holothurians (sea cucumbers) and other echinoderms.  Sea Cucumbers are eaten here in the Cooks.  Common members of the coral reef community, they also seem to do well in sandy areas with high freshwater and/or nutrient inputs.  They are therefore a very interesting organism to follow from both a management/fisheries perspective and a water quality perspective.  I have been surveying these guys (although only cursorily) for the past two summers.  Their being a fishery and potentially valuable export to Asian markets has driven various historic surveys both here and across various Pacific Islands and give us a nice context for understanding the abundances we will be seeing here in Aitutaki.

Night Snorkel & UV Test

We finished up our jam-packed day with a night snorkel at our End of the Runway beach.  It was great!  Lots of five-lined cardinal fish and squirrelfish as well as things like light-loving puffer fish and light-avoiding sea cucumbers (one we don’t really see in the daytime).  The robotics crew also had a super successful first test of our ROV-mouted coral illuminator!


Aitutaki and Californian Oil

We finally arrived here in Aitutaki, with our small airplane landing adjacent to the classic landing point of TEAL’s Coral Route (albeit on a terrestrial plane and landing on a tarmac rather than the surface of the lagoon).


TEAL’s classic seaplane lands in Aitutaki Lagoon in the 1950’s. Image: TEAL Archives via Escape Magazine

We proceeded onto our hotel


Reef Motel south of town on Aitutaki.

…where we got wind of the newest oil spill in Santa Barbara.  This time proximate to Goleta Beach.  As of this writing the slick has grown to 2 miles in width and appears to be associated with Platform Holly.

Sean's not happy about the oil spill 07-29-15

Sean is NOT happy after he heard about the oil spill back home in California.


Celebration Night #2

Another day of poor Internet connectivity but great goings on!

We started today with an island cruise off of Muri Beach where we got to see some giant Tridacna maxima inside protective cages.  Individuals were brought over from Aitutaki (and they were not native there, but that’s a story…). The cages are more of a demonstration of what is possible.  In fact we actually got to see a predated clam thanks to a hungry octopus who got into the cage.  We finished up with lunch and a demonstration of coconut tree climbing by the world champion coconut tree climber, were instructed how to husk and open coconuts, how to properly tie a sarong, etc.

We then headed over to TIS’s new Marine Park Visitor Center and got the update on the efforts to implement their Marine  Park vision.

After some tasty dinner from outside the National Amphitheater, we are headed in to see the second night of the 50th Anniversary Independence Day dance and song celebration.

(We will post pictures when connectivity is better).