Well, it’s been a few weeks since we were on the island.  I sort of feel as if it didn’t really happen to me.  However when I look at the pictures I know it really did indeed happen and wasn’t just an amazing dream.  I am eternally grateful that I was one of the few people selected to go on this incredible trip.

The goals that I set for myself were; get to know people, learn a lot, and to just have fun.

I got to know just about everyone well… maybe a little too well.  I learned much about the coral, fish, plants, animals and the culture of the Cooks…I learned so much it is hard to put into words.  It was also a lot of fun to learn about how the Cook Islanders do things from the very people who cooked and all around took care of us.  I enjoyed every second that I was on those islands.  It was truly a life-changing event for me.

I want to thank everyone that came on this trip for making it so special.  A special thank you for Drs. Clare Steele, Sean Anderson and John Lambrinos.  Without you guys this trip would not have been even thought of.  Thank you to everyone that helped us out on the Islands while we were there.  Without you all having our backs this trip would have been chaotic indeed.  Lastly thank you everyone at CSU Channel Islands who made this trip possible via funding, logistics, and organization.  It was truly amazing!

The Dancing

One thing that I thought that was truly amazing about our time on the capital island (Rarotonga) was the big dance competition they had.  I thought it would have been a lot more fun if we could have seen some more of that or to learn a quick little routine or two.  I really thought it was beautiful.  Anyone can learn a lot about someone’s culture by the dancing, the music in their air, and the objects people take the time to craft by hand.  I would have loved to have stayed on the capital island for a few more days and to learn more about our host nation that way.

I thought that it was cool to see the many different kinds of dances and songs.  At first, I had a hard time telling if there was a different style of dance going on from dance to dance.  However it soon became clear that there were two broad categories of “dance” that I could distinguish;  one was “sitting” and the others were “standing.”  The mostly sitting variety was cool in its own way.  More solemn and soulful in my opinion.  These pieces also escalate as it progresses.  A piece would often start at a normal pace but then seem to pick up the pace after a little bit.  Towards the midpoint one of the women would stand up and start to dance a little.  And by the end of the dance something like three or four women would be energetically dancing around.  These would also follow a defined arrangement with all the women sitting and the men standing behind them, clothed in Aloha shirts/flower print full-length dresses.

The other broad category of dances had everyone standing throughout the entirety of the dance.  These seemed to be more of the typical dances that one would associate with the Hawaiian Islands or greater Polynesia.  Or with any other island nation for that matter.  It was all very cool to see.  I just wish I was able to learn more about these awesome traditions from the local people.

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. 🙂

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

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

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.


Went to church yesterday. It was really cool to see all the locals get into it. To me it seemed to to be and older crowd, 60’s and a few people that were younger like in 30’s with a few kids in side. The church that we went to was catholic. There was a lot of sitting and standing. The service in general seemed like any other service that I have been to. However the singing is what made the whole thing amazing. It was mostly relatively loud and soulful. These people truly believe in what they are singing. The priest gave us a very brief history about the church for the visitors. The two things that really stuck in my mind was that the church was the first church to be made in all The Cook Islands and that it took 10 years to complete it. Seeing the inside and outside I can totally believe it.

The inside was so beautiful. The inside was mostly white and a few with few colored tiles that were around the lights and the windows were mostly stain glass. They weren’t exceptional stain glass windows. They had the four main colors melded together to make it. However just the simple fact that they had it there in the 1800s was an extraordinary feet. The place where priest stood was also spectacular. There was just so much to look at during the service. It is hard to describe. I would have loved to see another service someday.

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. 🙂

Some history

After I got over the shock of getting accepted to go on this amazing trip I first started to look at the history of the islands. I found it interesting that the British captain whose name was James Cook, that found the islands in 1773 named the group of islands Hervey Islands. It didn’t get the name Cook Islands until the 1820’s when that name came up in a Russian naval chart! Crazy how things happen isn’t it? 🙂