Research Realities

Research Realities

By: Aimee and Laura

With coming out to the Cook Islands, we were excited to conduct a new type of research. This excitement was blinded by the difficulties that come along with marine research. After being split into our teams these specific challenges started showing.

Today, the reef team conducted research on the lagoon near the airport and out in front of the Pacific Resort. 10 meter transects were laid out with one person surveying for invertebrates and two others measuring the coral height and species. We faced many challenges today, in the morning there was cloud cover and it was a bit breezy. The team was dressed in wetsuits, but we all were freezing. Though cold, we managed to stay in the water for three hours and finished the transects. Another problem was that the water was very turbid, which made it hard to spot and identify species. The turbidity, along with recently learning the specific species identifications, made our first transect take the most time. By the fourth transect we were well on our way at identifying coral and fish.

The Night Snorkel

Tonight we snorkeled north of where we are staying. The snorkel site is considered to be one of the best on the island. The night was beautiful for snorkeling while the full moon lit the water. Our flashlights led our way into the lagoon where the floor was littered with sea cucumbers and purple starfish. As we swam further into the lagoon we came across coral with their polyps out. We saw some fish that are common during the day like the convict tang hiding in the coral. We also saw cardinal fish that took the place of damsel fish during the night. Another exciting spot was the squirrel fish that was reddish with big eyes. Snorkeling at night was drastically different from during the day. There were more translucent fish out during the night and overall the fish species out at night were different from during the day. The different day time and night time species shared similar niches but were out at opposite times during the day making it possible for both types to survive.

Reef Team

The reef team has the role of surveying coral reefs as one aspect of the entire research project. Surveying coral reefs includes studying fish species, corals, algae, and invertebrates. The protocol is done in four 10 meter transects per site. First the fish expert swims through the transect counting and identifying all the fish in a two meter width along the transect tape. After all the fish are counted, the person identifying and counting invertebrates swims through. This person swims five meters counts and identifies two meters wide then the transect by doing the remaining five meters. Then the person identifying invertebrates within the transect goes next and measures the height of the coral at each meter mark along the transect. The last team member identifies the substrate which includes corals, algae, rocks or other matter that might be on the ocean floor.DSCN1867 web

Comparing both days of conducting reef research is interesting. The first day posed multiple challenges. There was poor visibility and the tide was going out making the site very shallow. Today the visibility was great and the water was deeper. The only challenge today was the strong current. There was also a much higher biodiversity among invertebrates on the first day most notably the amount of sea cucumbers. There were a lot of sea cucumbers at the site surveyed on the first day and less sea cucumbers on today’s sites. However, there were more Giant Clams, Trochus snails, vermetid snails, and sea stars. The coral was different from the first day. There was less acropora and pocillopora and more porites. Tomorrow we will go back to one of the sites of the first day and another new site. Cannot wait to see what is in store next.


Night snorkel at airport beach

DSCN1634 webSeveral of our group undertook a night snorkel at Airport Beach last night. The moon was full, the water was warm and the corals were busily fluorescing. We spent an hour swimming between coral bommies looking at the fishes that were active during the night, including iridescent cardinal fishes, squirrelfishes and a curious porcupine fish that came to investigate the dive lights. We also saw several invertebrates that we had not observed on the reef during the day, including some photophobic sea DSCN1645 webcucumbers and a couple of species of shrimp.

Tug o’ War with the World

Today we all went to the island of Motukitiu on Aitutaki. This island was previously a pit stop for planes traveling the Pacific in 1950 to 1962. During this time planes could not travel far distances, so Tasmanian Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) built up this island for wealthy travelers to visit. This island has one side facing the lagoon and the other side facing the open ocean.

IMG_4579 web The team conducted a beach cleanup on the island starting on the lagoon side and then we made our way to the other side. In pairs, we took off with giant trash bags. Laura and I started following other groups down the beach and thought we would never fill up the bag or even have trash to pick up. The lagoon side of the island had no trash. I even had the thought that this beach is the cleanest beach I’ve ever been to. This thought quickly changed as we made our way across the island through the “jungle.” Slowly, trash started appearing until we made it to the other side of the island where there were large quantities of marine debris. There were tons of plastic bottles, flip-flops, and multiple pieces of rope, even a pair of eyeglasses. The trash bag became full fast. Then, we saw a 98-pound rope we began to dig up from the bushes. We then tugged and pulled until it was free and dragged the rope all the way to the path that led to the other side of the island and got help. Sean and John continued carrying the rope to the other side of the island where we met up with the rest of the group who made it all the way around the island. We then filled the boat with trash bags and ventured back to our camp where we sorted and weighed all the marine debris.

This beautiful, remote island was accumulating massive amounts of trash. This really had an impact on me because this is just one small island and there are so many larger coastlines around the world that are being affected by the same problem of marine debris taking over the beaches. This is a problem that is growing with the world population as humans resume to use non-reusable goods. This problem could easily be remedied if others begin to recognize the impact of non-reusable goods and made changes in their buying and consumption habits.


Sunset Snorkel

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Lauren and Aimee enjoy snorkeling off Airport beach in Aitutaki (click photo to enlarge).

This evening, our first on Aitutaki, we had an amazing sunset snorkel at the airport beach. This area is one of my favorites for snorkeling on the island as it has an easy access from a beautiful beach on the northern tip of the island, and has a great diversity of fishes just meters from the sandy beach. I was thrilled to share this favorite spot with our CI students who are taking to the marine environment like (gray) ducks to water.