Isn’t it funny how before one takes off to a place unknown they picture it in a differently than it may actually be? And one may visualize and be expecting things that may not even be present when you finally see the environment itself?
When I arrived in Aitutaki my initial thought was that it felt alright. It felt like home. I wasn’t expecting these feelings to exist within me on the first day. I felt welcomed and I felt excited. I felt relatively established and proud to be there doing something good for the benefit of good people and to be doing so based on their terms and not ours. I learned a few of the things that are culturally significant and may even be lessons to the wider world itself. In Aitutaki, Sundays are “off” for religious purposes, families pass down their land to other family members so that it is never lost to the lineage, people don’t have huge houses or necessarily a personal bedroom (as far as I saw). Most importantly, the people themselves were very connected, generous, loving and patient. Regarding the marine life of the Cooks, I don’t think I’ll ever quite picture the lagoons the same as I sunk at least 4 feet deep into muck of the back lagoon (between the two lobes of the island) too many times to count, but I will remember the beautiful things such as the way the majority of the reefs flickered against the sun and the water that flashed aqua blue. The cascading abundance of fish species never let me down although many that I saw such as parrotfishes, the moray eels, snappers and giant trevally were know to have ciguatera poisoning. A sad but honest truth, one that I am hoping will improve as our research evolves.
What I may miss most is the culture and having the opportunity to explore it alongside my fellow classmates and island residents alike. I will miss how the people of Aitutaki interacted with their surrounding environment and the learning experience it brought to the table for us all. Although I was pleased to return home, the Cook Islands will always have a special place in my heart.
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.
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.