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.
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.
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.
On Thursday we left with the sun starting to peak across the water to do a full day of surveying in the lagoon surrounding the main part of Aitutaki. We left the dock and zipped across the clear turquoise water to see the amazing coral reefs in the lagoon. As the boat stopped we were greeted by a giant trivially (Caranx ignobilis) and crystal visibility.
We found flame tail snappers (Lutjanus fulvus), honeycomb groupers (Epinephelus merra) and Vanessa spotted a scribbled pipefish (Corythoichthys intestinalis)! With the help of the awesome Dr.Steele we were actually able to learn what all these pretty reef fish were as scientists instead of a typical tourist simply glimpsing them on a short snorkel.
As we ventured along the white sandy-bottomed lagoon, large piles of corals called bommie’s, would appear like mountains under the sea. Villages of fish and coral species were mystical to see.
We stopped on Barefoot island, a bit of a tourist spot to get our passports stamped as a special Cook Islands treat!
Once we were on the far motu, a small island on the outer edge, Dr. Anderson helped us identify awesome invertebrates and some cool worms we haven’t even identified yet!
This day was magical. We learned so much and are so greatful for this amazing opportunity!
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.