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.

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.


Remotely Operated Vehicle Reef Surveys

Today the AARR team set out to conduct the first reef surveys using ROVs on Aitutaki. The beginning of the day started out a little rough with one of the ROVs flooding which forced the team to return to base to grab the back up unit. Once back underway, a total of five surveys were successfully completed, four of which were within the lagoon and one outside along the edge. Average transect length was 35 m with the duration of the surveys lasting approximately 2 minutes. Depth, water temperature, and heading of transects were recorded with an onboard inertial measurement unit (IMU). Average depth of the surveys was 3.64 m, average temperature was 23.9 Celsius, and average heading was to the North (with the current). Surveys were conducted on all sides of the island (north, south, east, and west) to determine if there is a difference in fish abundance and species richness.


A preliminary analysis of the videos showed the reef area outside of the lagoon had the highest fish abundance and potentially the highest species richness. Also, the surveys on the east side of the island appeared to have the lowest abundance and richness overall. However, a more thorough examination of the videos followed by a statistical analysis is required to confirm these assertions.


The unit that flooded was flushed with freshwater to remove salt from the electronics and dried the rest of the day. This evening we put it back together to see if it would turn on, which luckily it did! The unit was outfitted with the bio-fluorescent sensory package once again will be launched to look for fluorescing coral later tonight.East side Lagoon Forward

Rarotonga Snorkeling

One thing I wish I got the chance to do more of was snorkeling while we were in Rarotonga.  The lagoon tour that we did was really quite amazing.  The water was light blue and unbelievably clear; it is the kind of water I never thought I would see in person let alone snorkel in.  The creatures in the water were another amazing site to see. I feel like I saw more fish during this snorkeling session than I have in my whole twenty-three years leading up to this trip.  In addition, I saw a small eel that traveled from one rock to another, as well as Roger (a giant moray eel).  I could not believe how huge Roger looked when a crew member from the lagoon tour pulled the eel out and up from his hiding spot in the rocks!  Another thing I recall seeing was the coral garden in the lagoon.  This is where a metal grate/structure is placed on the sea floor and pieces of coral are attached to the top and grow with less space restrictions than on the coral reef itself.  It was really cool to be able to see a protective environmental measure that I have learned about in school while I was out in the lagoon; I was glad to see that the locals put forth those efforts and were educating other people and tourists about what they are doing to enhance their coral reefs.

Service Learning

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.


Last Field Day for the Reef Team

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.

DSCN2186 web      DSCN2187 web

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.


What a Field Day!

DSCN2168On August 6th our Reef Team surveyed two sites.  The second site, the Clam Hatchery, was definitely the highlight of the day.  The 30-meter visibility left us in awe as we surveyed the reef.  Clams were abundant and there were huge bommies covered with various types of coral.  It was amazing to see cryptic clams living within coral.  The clams camouflaged with the coral so well the snorkeler counting invertebrates had to move their hand over the rock to generate a shadow.  If a clam was hiding there, it would clamp closed its shell/retract its mantle from the diver-generated shadow, confirming it was indeed a clam rather than a rock.  The larger clams seemed to stay on the bottom while the smaller clams were on the reef.

The Red-Tailed Tropic Bird

On one of our last days of research on the motus of Aitutaki, the sandy beach crew sampled the motu of Maina.  To our surprise, this motu turned out to be a nesting site for red-tailed tropic birds (Phaethon rubricauda) and we were sampling during breeding season.  Like other seabird species, tropic birds make very simple nests called scrapes.  These scrapes are just small depressions on the back beach made by parents scraping the sand away.  I was able to get close to a few nests without disturbing the birds and took some great pictures.  It was nice to see the beginning of life take place for these beautiful birds in such a wonderful place.  This seemed a nice symbol for our overall trip; this research trip could be the beginning of our lives as naturalists helping out different parts of the world.




Sandy Beaches of the Motus

The sandy beach crew sampled beaches at two different motus yesterday and found some interesting results.  Because sandy beaches tend to be low in diversity on their beach face, we changed our protocol for the Cooks to take more cores in the sand submerged in water than is our norm.  As a consequence, we found multiple species of tube worms, horn snails and crabs. One of the larger motus, Motukititu, was naturally built on uplifted coral and had the highest biodiversity of the motus we have sampled.  Honeymoon Island (also a motu) had the lowest diversity, although more studies need be conducted to make a clear connection between the structure/geomorphology of an island or given beach and its associated biodiversity.
Another interesting observation we have made about these moths revolves around the imprints in the sand.  In California, we are so used to seeing every beach filled with divots made with footsteps, we have assumed this look to be normal.  On the nearly untouched motus of Aitutaki, the beaches lack such ubiquitous divots, but do have hundreds of hermit crab tracks, shells, and pristine, smooth sand.


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…