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!

I’ll Be Back One Day

Cook Islands 363 Cook Islands 191 Cook Islands 329 Cook Islands phone 116 Cook Islands 144

I experienced a vast amount of things going to the Cook Islands; it is almost hard to even put into words. I was able to go snorkeling several times, which I had only done once before this trip. I was in awe seeing all of the coral, beautiful organisms, and clear waters; I am excited and proud to have experienced that kind of snorkeling. Many people from our group hiked up to the highest point on Aitutaki, Maunga Pu Summit, and the views up there were beautiful. It was surreal to be able to see all the surrounding motus and light blue water in the lagoon. In addition, I ate foods I have never tried before; I am not a very adventurous eater, so I am proud of myself! We visited the Cook Islands Marine Park center, too. We were able to speak with Kevin Iro about the marine park, the challenges the Cook Islands face in regards to the park, and his hopes for the project. Honestly, I was pretty star struck because some of us watched a documentary at CSUCI on their marine park, and Kevin was in it! In addition, I was able to experience a completely different culture. This trip allowed me to familiarize myself with the daily lives of a society so removed from my own urbanized life. For instance, their daily struggles and life worries are just as important, yet living on an island does not make those difficulties any less valid than my own. Also, I made new friendships with the people in our “CI in CI” group, as well as with some of the locals from the Cook Islands. The people out there are so kind, and I am very grateful to have experienced such a friendly and welcoming community.


The biggest things I learned on this trip were the many aspects of research. I am fairly new to the concept of collecting, recording, and analyzing data. I did research more days than not, so it was important that I caught on performing field work quickly. I was in the lagoon group on this trip, so I learned the correct procedure when surveying the lagoon with the assistant of transect tape. Also, I quickly acquired the skill of efficiently recording data while performing these surveys. Neither writing big nor writing many full words is preferred because both take up too much room on the waterproof paper; every bit of space on the slate is valuable! In addition, I learned how to input data into Excel in a way that can be generated into a graph, if necessary. Doing this, we are able to analyze the data to find trends in the research we did. I am really glad that I was able to obtain these skills because this is the same kind of work that I will hopefully be doing once I graduate and to have these abilities will be vital when doing field work. On a more personal note, I learned a lot about myself on this trip. For instance, I learned that I am not as anxious on planes as I thought I would be, my tolerance for working in groups, and that I sort of (and by sort of, I mean really) freak out when I am in water. Mental note: a spring wetsuit is not enough for me to feel comfortable in the water. The whole trip was a learning experience, and I think I gained a lot from it personally, academically, and socially.


As I mentioned in one of my first posts, I am quite naïve when it comes to other cultures and general act of traveling. I would not say I experienced “culture shock” when staying in the Cook Islands, yet I loved seeing a culture that strayed far from the urbanized, hustling life I know. Being able to experience a society so completely different than my own, I am humbled. I think we often forget about other regions of the world that do not have similar living expectations as ours. With that, we lose the connection to the fact that each of our individual actions affects those that are out of site and out of mind. Now, I am much more aware of the repercussions of my personal choices, such as using plastic-based products, because I witnessed the depressing reality of where it ends up: on the shores of a small island nation far from the origins of these plastics. What I took away from this experience is that the world’s problems are much bigger than my own; however, that is not to say that my small, single efforts are not worth putting forward in attempts to ease the severity of the problem. With that, I hope we all realize that the world’s problems are each of our problems and our responsibility to help.


Thank you again to all of those who made this trip possible. I think it was extremely valuable, and I hope CSUCI and the others who joined us get the opportunity to continue this research on the Cook Islands.


Missing the Islands

 The Cook Islands definitely delivered when it came to giving us ample research opportunities. In particular, the Reef Team was able to travel all over the lagoon in Aitutaki studying and surveying reefs. From less than a meter to over 6 meters deep, the reefs provided us with a multitude of species to learn and study, including corals, invertebrates, and fishes. With our ability to see and learn from these amazing ecosystems, we now have the knowledge to delineate a healthy reef compared to an unhealthy one. We can use this baseline information in our future studies, whether it be in marine or terrestrial ecosystems, as we can determine indicator species and the abundance of algae within the habitat. Overall, I could not have imagined a more amazing place to study such important ecosystems. Healthy coral reefs are a major indicator of a healthy ocean (or lagoon, in this case). The amount of knowledge that I gained during my time in my wetsuit surveying is unbelievable, and I cannot wait to get back in the water and study more. 

The reef team all together (Vanessa, Aimee, Laura, Dr. Steele) on the last night in Aitutaki.

 After two weeks on an island, one can get quite tired. Of course, leaving such a magnificent area was difficult. However, I was beyond excited to get home and start our data analysis for all of the data that we collected (I was dreaming of data analysis in this picture).

Waiting for the airplane home: Aimee’s pillow became very comfortable.

I could not have imagined having a better group of students to learn with and professors to teach us. We all come from various backgrounds and have different perspectives on life, but we all share a common admiration for the world around us. I cannot put into words the amount of respect and compassion I have for these people. Studying with them on a remote island was a breeze and I am so excited for future research opportunities we may have together. 


What an amazing trip….

I am so lucky to have been able to go on this research trip. The experience was amazing and I will never forget the beautiful Cook Islands.   The people there are extremely welcoming and kind, the water was clear and beautiful, the marine life was spectacular.  I learned so many new things and have a list of new skills for my field resume.  Something I cannot put a price on as a student that will be looking for a job next year.

If you ever get a chance to go, Do It!  

Missing the Islands

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.


What will I miss about the Cooks? EVERYTHING!

Snorkeling in the Cook Islands was by far the most amazing experience of the entire trip.  If you go snorkeling or diving off the coast of Southern California, you will see luscious kelp forests and lots of marine life.  The marine life in the Cook Islands was definitely different from the marine life seen off of our coast.

This beautiful view was near the Boat Shed restaurant in Aitutaki.

I want to go into the Marine Ecology field, so being able to see all of the colorful fish, coral, and invertebrates was a dream come true.  We were able to snorkel with giant trevally, schools of tropical fish, moray eels, and so many more.

The beautiful green chromis hiding in the coral during one of our snorkels.


Our professors definitely did an awesome job at selecting the students that were able to go.  We had some of the best people on this trip, and I know that I made some lifelong friends that I hope feel the same.  We worked so well as a team and we were able to get so much work done in our short amount of time there in the Cooks.  The memories that I made from this trip will last a lifetime, and for that, I am so thankful.


I will definitely miss being able to just walk out to rhe lagoon and snorkel and see this everyday.


Cheers to CIinCI

It is our last night in Aitutaki before our plane takes off to Rarotonga and then back to LAX.  Emotions are running high as almost everyone seemed to have cried during and/or after our final salute on the beach before coming to the airport.  With the sun setting at the ocean’s horizon, our group stood in a circle and shared what we thought was the most interesting thing or what we were amazed by over these past two weeks followed by what we thought we would miss the most upon leaving.  As some probably knew I would say, I said that one of my favorite things was the beach clean-ups that we did.  Honestly, I was blown away by the amounts of trash that we picked up off of these beaches, and it saddens me to think that I cannot be there everyday to collect the present and future marine debris that washes up onto the shores of the Cooks Islands anymore… In regards to what I would miss, I said the island life.  I am going to miss the quiet (along with the random and frequent rooster calls), the beautiful views that I could never get sick of seeing, the absolutely amazing people that we met out there, and the opportunity to do research in service of the community.  This trip was life-changing; I built new friendships, strengthened previous relationships, learned a lot about data collection and recording, and I feel less naïve about cultures that differ from mine.  I promised myself prior to our last tribute to CIinCI 2015 that I would not cry.  I got through the whole thing without shedding a tear, gave hugs to those who I most likely will never see again, and patted myself on the back for not crying.  However, once I get to Tasha, a lovely woman who (along with her husband Shane) took care of us daily throughout our trip, the tears start pouring down my face because the reality of leaving these wonderful people and inspiring place finally hit me.  Their hospitality and genuine care is something I am always going to remember and yearn for in the future.  Thank you guys again for everything; I’ll miss you all…


Symbolic of…something

I just got home and started bringing bags/equipment crates inside.  A turned to put my new CSUCI (aka CIinCI) hat on our hat rack and what did I see?  This:  

To the left is either my son’s or wife’s Koru Cafe hat we got last year and to the right is my “old school” CSUCI hat from circa 2006.  I think this symbolizes something, but I can’t quite figure it out in my exhaustion/unpacking stupor.  

I welcome interpretations of said hat rack.

Clam Hatchery 

A couple days ago we visited the Marine Research Center and looked at the clam hatchery. Charlie Waters, a specialist regarding clams, gave us a thorough explanation about the reasons for low spawning success and the purpose of his research. Charlie explained that low reproduction was due to the distance between individuals. Each species of clam are too far away from each other to spawn, those species include; genera tridacnidae maxima, tridacnidae gigas, tridacnidae derasa and the genera hippopus.  

In the 20th century, many areas in the Cook Islands relied on clams as a food source, and therefore many clams were removed from the population overtime causing a decrease in the abundance of clams. Clams are significant to the reefs as they are coral reef filter feeders and food for the octopus as well as other marine life. When they are spread to thin, the cannot reproduce. This could easily offset the balance of marine environments.

With the current ciguatera research in place my assumption is that with the lack of clams, increase in tourism, the previous banana exportation, and chemical runoff the reefs and lagoons are less viable to fighting off the neurotoxin. It may also be that the potentially ciguatoxic coral is spread when large storms come through, causing unsettled ocean water and debris.

First day on Aitutaki

We temporarily split our group up today so that the plane could actually get off the ground.  Our first group left the Rarotonga Airport at 9am and the second group flew out at 10:30am.  A mere 40 minutes later we touched down on Aitutaki.  The island looked so amazing from the air with water so blue and clear.  As we emerged from the Aitutaki tarmac we were warmly greeted by our hosts who promptly bedecked us with ei’s (the Cook Islanders’ version of a lei).

We are staying at the Reef Motel.  Such a nice place!  Our hosts made us a great lunch of sandwiches and local fruits.  As our food was digesting, we took a quick tour of the island as either Dr. Anderson or Steel as our guide (depending on which car you where in).  We stopped at a beach near one terminus of the runway (adjacent to the Boat Shed at Popoara Ocean Breeze Villas) that harbored all kinds of coral sub tidally and on the beach itself.  We explored for about an hour and got one additional introduction to plants, reef flats, etc.  Then we piled back into our cars to head to another beach (at the opposite end of the runway) to snorkel…where I saw A LOT of sea cucumbers.  I also saw a good sized moray eel and crown-of-thorns starfish!  Two animals that can cause serious harm if you get too close.  After that we held a formal class welcome to Aitutaki and shared what we were thankful for.  Our brief ceremony really helped make this trip feel a lot more real and relevant to my academic training.  I am very excited to see and experience all the adventures and stories that I am sure are to come in over the next few days.