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.
After having a successful trial of the bio-fluorescence sensor package for the ROV, we made some adjustments to the payload. We improved the balance and the lights and did three 50 meter zig-zag night transects into the patch reefs, and found a lot of fluorescence! The system and collaboration with Guy Trimy/PML has worked out just as planned!
The next step was to work on ways of minimizing interference from the ROV main lights. We covered the main lights with blue filter paper, and added yellow to the main camera, in attempt to see the fluorescence with the main camera, in order to navigate toward the fluorescent corals.
In addition to just proving we could find fluorescent corals, we set out to identify which specific species fluoresce. We sought out, marked, and characterized 8 sites during the day light, and then sent out our further modified ROV at night. Unfortunately we were met with a heavy tide, and the darkened main lights proved to make navigation to the sites nearly impossible. We removed the yellow filter from the main camera, but it was not good enough to properly navigate.
Unfortunately time was running short, and we had a lot of work to do. The equipment arrived late, broken, and the weather had taken a turn for the worse, making progress difficult. The next day the team split up, half went go to the Aitutaki lagoon via boat to do surveys of the reef, and the other worked on mapping until the evening. At dusk, the team reunited and marked the coral sites with glow sticks, and had a successful night dive!
The Aerial and Aquatic Robot Research team (aarr.piratelab.org) now has a somewhat reliable internet connection and will now have more frequent updates. The team split up this morning, half of the team joined the other sandy beach ecology group, and the rest of our team went to the main village in Aitutaki to obtain a better internet connection, and download the files that are necessary for mapping, and beginning the remotely piloted surveys. After returning to our hotel, the team reassembled, and the cargo finally arrived from the airport!
We opened our luggage and to our dismay, one of our ROV submarines (Leviathan) had been smashed to pieces. This came as a shock as it was in a tough pelican case, and the other ROV was loosely packed in a crate with foam padding. The team rushed to assemble the shattered ROV, and affix the bio-fluorescence payload to the ROV, and compensate for the chance in balance / ballast. We also assembled all of our robots, and took a picture with the rest of the teams, to publish in the local newspapers, to inform the local villagers about the work that we are doing, and the the strange looking tools that we are using.
After repairing the broken ROV (Leviathan), and mounting up the payload on the other ROV, we headed out to the northern part of Aitutaki and launched our experimental setup on it’s first dive.
The dive was successful, and we detected the proteins in the coral that we were looking for! There are a number of things that we need to improve before the next dive, but that will come in the following days.
As part of the Cook Islands expedition, the CSU Channel Islands Aerial and Aquatic Robot Research Team (AARR) will be performing a number of different studies. I lead the team which is comprised of many multi-disciplinary students, under Dr. Sean Anderson. I am excited to visit the islands to help the country explore and conserve their natural resources from above and below the water!
The AARR team uses underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to perform Environmental Science and Resource Management related research. The projects that are slated for the Cook Islands include: coral reef surveys, detection of fluorescent proteins in corals (in collaboration with Guy Trimby of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK), and mapping of coast lines and agriculture.
Florescent proteins lighting up with special cameras.
Preparing for this trip is a large undertaking, and beyond personally preparing for the trip, the team members are furiously working to ready our Remotely Piloted Systems. Our specialized equipment has seen heavy use and is in the process of being upgraded and repaired. The progress can be followed along at http://aarr.piratelab.org and https://openexplorer.com/expedition/cookislandscoastalresearchands
The Cook Islands population size is decreasing due to migration to NZ.