Sunday, October 28, 2012


It’s eight-o-clock in the evening. Halfway through one of my favorite movies “Master and Commander”, right when the naturalist/ship doctor is about to remove a bullet from his own gut no loss – after being shot by one of the master’s of arm trying to kill an albatross off the coast of Ecuador, Chad gets a page. I didn’t know that technology was possible out here or even existed anymore, but I figured it would be slightly expensive to use and therefore rather important. He left for a few minutes and returned to inform us that an earthquake had just been reported off of Queen Charlotte Island in British Columbia; a potential destructive wave generating 7.7 magnitude event triggering a tsunami warning for the Hawaiian Islands.
“Oh”, we all thought, “so turn the movie off?”
“Yeah... go ahead and turn the movie off.”

The first waves were predicted to strike at 2230 hours, giving us ample time to gather treasured personal items, buckets of peanut butter and Poptarts, 24 gallons of drinking water, survival suits (aka Gumby suits), and a pillow for the long night ahead. All of this gear was hoisted onto the tallest structure on the island, the warehouse roof. Designed to withstand a tsunami, it would be our safest option for riding out any large wave that would flood the six foot high sea walls.  With the natural headlamp of a nearly full moon high overhead, we watched the white breakers on the fringing outer reefs that protect Tern Island from violent northerly winter swells. The waves have been quite high over the past few days, so it would be difficult to detect a tsunami less than six feet. Which was exactly the case. 2230 hours rolled by with no visible change in the sea, no unusual currents, no inundation of the beaches or sea walls. No roaring of water, nothing but the persistent chatter of Brown Noddies arguing with their chicks, ALLLL Night. Protocol states that personal wait out the night on the roof in case any unexpected events happen.

USGS and NOAA called of the tsunami warning by 1am. I’ve read that Maui received the full brunt of the surge, a whapping 2.5 foot increase in average wave height. Luckily this turned out to be more of a drill than an actual emergency, and although from an oceanographic perspective I think it would be fascinating to witness such an awesome force of nature, let’s hope this will be our last tsunami warning of the season.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Settling In

Time has already become irrelevant out here, but I think it’s been over a week since first stepping off a boat onto Tern. Several meals since my last fresh supper on the Kahana and my stomach has finally adjusted to a diet of canned food – I foresee a lot of bean and rice dinners in my future. The six person population is settling into their respective routines. I typically awake around 5am to utilize the unlimited internet allotted time of midnight to 6am, make a cup of French pressed coffee, photograph the stars  before the sun rises, and photograph the birds after the sun rises. This is all usually followed by more coffee drinking in the hammock before the work day begins at 8am. Once the two cups of coffee kick in, I have been doing nest box repairs and maintenance, organizing the field gear, setting up field notebooks, and helping with odd jobs around the barracks. Started the first of what will be a weekly check of about 60 Bonin Petrel nest boxes to follow their breeding success throughout the season, so far only a few lingering Wedge-tailed Shearwater chicks who’s parents have taken over some boxes. The bread and butter of the biological work out here on Tern will be the albatross monitoring, which will likely begin sometime in mid November, when we expect to see the first Black-footed egg layed, with Laysans following a week after. The Black-footed Albatross have been essentially doubling in numbers on a daily basis. There are somewhere in the range of 40 birds on the island, with a few pairs beginning their elaborate courtship displays. There’s expected to be at least 4,000 breeding pairs with an additional 4,000 non-breeders hanging around in the months ahead. Still no Laysan Albatross, but we should see our first individual within the week.

We’ve also been getting to know the small sand islands that pepper the rim of the atoll. We have two functioning fiberglass boats which we use to access these islands. So far I’ve seen Trig Is (essentially a small sand dune), Round Is (an even smaller sand dune), and East Is (the second largest island in French Frigate Shoals). The sand on East Island is stable enough to support vegetation, and a small population of breeding seabirds, Hawaiian Monk Seals, and roughly 90 percent of the worlds Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. We only counted a few beached turtles, their nesting season ended last month with the emergence of thousands of hatchlings. Sea Turtles drag themselves onto the beach above the high tide line to excavate a ditch where the females deposit their reptilian eggs. The hatchlings eventually dig themselves out of these tombs, typically with all nests hatching in synchrony, and make a quick dash to the relative protection of the sea before getting snatched up by a hungry frigatebird or crab.  Occasionally a few hatchlings become lost and travel in the opposite heading; there are dried up chip sized hatchlings scattered throughout the runway on Tern of turtles that decided to crawl in the wrong direction. It’s thought that turtle hatchlings us the highly reflective surface of the ocean to cue in on the proper bearing to water; perhaps the flat white runway reflects enough starlight to confuse them, or perhaps their biology just didn’t get the memo. Natural selection I suppose.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Royalty Has Arrived

Things are starting to get exciting around here, as if the giant frigatebird chicks weren’t enough, we had our first of what will soon be thousands of the most majestic seabirds land on Tern this afternoon. Gusty rain ridden squalls have been periodically rolling in from the southeast throughout the day, and since it’s our day off, we’ve been reclining around the barracks reading, writing, and eating pasta. After a photography walk around the runway a decided to test out the gym equipment before dinner. As I was leaving the warehouse/gym after 30 minutes of crunches and pushups I was greeted with a graceful silhouette all too familiar from watching birds on Monterey Bay. A Black-footed Albatross glided over the runway; nose into the wind as if it were a Boeing 747 coming in for a landing. Immediately I shouted to the barracks not far from me “BFAL! BFAL!”, the code for Black-footed Albatross. After several passes it eventually landed on the north side of the warehouse amongst juvenile Brown Boobies and Brown Noddies. This was the first time I’d ever seen an albatross on land, the first time Larry and Olivia had ever seen an albatross outside of pictures and museum preps, and as expected it looked pretty awkward out of its element. It walked like an old hunched over man with arms clasped behind back, head bobbing with disapproval from side to side.  According to the records this particular bird with a yellow field readable band C392 was banded here on Tern Island as a chick in 1994, about the same time I was taking my first science class in my fourth year of elementary school. Cool. Our first BFAL will come and go for the next few weeks until more birds show up in November. If this season is a success, there will likely be around 2,500 BFAL and 1,500 Laysan Albatross breeding pairs by Christmas. Let the season begin.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Welcome to Tern

I have made it to Tern. After four long days on the Kahana, fighting a cold, catching tuna, and scanning the ocean for rare seabirds, we finally anchored inside the crescent moon shaped atoll of French Frigate Shoals. I awoke to the sight of La Perouse, a pinnacle of rock in the middle of the shoal, standing tall as the red sun rose from behind a blue horizon. Morgan and I hopped off the Kahana onto a RHIB (Rigid hull inflatable boat) and disembarked at the landing dock on the southwest end of Tern. A small fixed crane aided in the loading and unloading of heavy gear, although the Kona winds were making the landing a bit hairier than normal. A string on juvenile masked boobies swung back and forth on the boom as large white pallet tubs full of the summer crew’s trash and personal items were loaded onto the RHIB. It took many trips to the Kahana and many hours to finish the landing by midday.

There is so much to say about the island and what I’ve experienced thus far, but I have little energy to type. So instead I’ll give a brief history of Tern Island based on Pamela Fiersnon’s book “The Last Atoll”.

French Frigate Shoals is a crescent shaped rim of reef, a sinking atoll formed as the ancient volcanic island beneath it dives into the tropical Pacific. It’s literally as remote as you can get in this ocean, roughly 2,000 miles from the nearest continent and 500 miles from Honolulu on the main Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Tern Island itself is an artificial stretch of land that supports a dense and varied swatch of marine life, from around 16 species of seabirds to a single highly endangered species of seal.

On November 6th 1786, a French explorer by the name Jean Francois de Galaup aboard the frigate La Perouse had an unexpected encounter with the reefs of an unnamed and uncharted shoal. He and another frigate were en route to Macoa from of all places my home away from home Monterey California with a shipment of fur seal pelts when they came upon breaking waves in the dead of night. Within minutes his experienced crew and that of the second frigate managed to about face and avoid the jagged teeth of the shallow reefs without wrecking into the history books, leaving only the name “Basse de Fregates Francaises”, meaning the Shoals of the French Frigates in their wakes.

The newly named French Frigate Shoals remained off the radar for many decades until it was re-discovered in 1858 by a US schooner, and claimed as US Territory under the Guano Act of 1856. Guano was an important source of fertilizer and was heavily harvested in those days, a similar history to the Farallon Islands and many other bird crap laden rocks throughout the Pacific.

As tensions between Japan and the US intensified in the early 1930’s, the US began conducting military training exercises in the placid semi lagoon of French Frigate in preparation for a pending conflict. They would fly seaplanes 586 miles from Honolulu since there were no large islands within the shoals to land on. Eventually a major airstrip and community was erected on Midway Atoll further down the island chain, but fighter planes were unable make the long flight from Honolulu to the newly established base at Midway. Thus in 1943 the 53 acre Tern Island was born out of compacted crushed coral and sand, to serve as a refueling point for planes destined for Midway. Shaped like a large aircraft carrier, the island’s sole function was that of a runway, no birds were allowed to nest and no vegetation allowed to take root throughout the duration of World War II.

After the War had ended Tern Island, again like many other abandoned military islands, was handed over to the US Coast Guard. They occupied the island for several decades, and tried as best they could to maintain a normal life in the middle of nowhere, complete with dogs for moral and a tennis court for exercise. Despite these amities it’s rumored that a man hanged himself from boredom in the barracks I now live in, and his ghost still haunts the long corridors at night. It seems every island has its ghost stories.

Eventually the Coast Guard willingly forfeited possession of Tern Island to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who now serve of the active stewards of the island. Much has changed since those early days, as vegetation and seabirds they support have slowly taken over this precious oasis in a desert of blue.  Most of the seabirds out here rely on a native shrub called Naupaka for nesting habitat, a shrub that has not yet established itself on Tern. Tournefortia (if I’m spelling it correctly) however, a similar shrub not native to Hawaii but of which is found throughout the tropical Pacific, has established in place of Naupaka. Its rigid limbs and woolly broad leaves provide a critical substrate for seabirds to lay an egg on. Different seabirds use the plant in various ways. Frigatebirds at the very top and boobies a layer below build rudimentary nest platforms of collected sticks and guano atop the shrubs canopy, White Terns and Black Noddies lay their eggs on the branches within the shrub, and Christmas Shearwaters and Red-tailed Tropicbirds nest on the ground at the plants shady base. Although traditionally burrow nesters, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters will occasionally lay their egg beneath a heavy branch and in a dense shady patch of Tournefortia. Without this shrub, about 10 feet in circumference and 6 feet high, these birds would not be successful on Tern. It’s amazing what a little vegetation will do to spruce up and diversify a community.

The barracks left behind now serve as critical habitat for the researchers that inhabit this island year round. The building itself, split into two parallel hallways and one main living area, contain roughly 15 personal rooms, several offices, at least three bathrooms I have found so far, a large kitchen and pantry, storage for scientific gear, a shoe room, a patio, a shade house for native plant propagation, and a large recreation room complete with couches, 2 pool tables, a ping pong and foosball table, and a wide selection of books and movies. There’s also sheds for stowing boats and tractors, a warehouse with tools and construction material, and a large gym with weights and workout videos. The tennis court has been converted to a catchment pad for drinking water stored in aging redwood tanks, while large solar panels and a decent bank of batteries provide (in theory) electricity. We eat mainly canned food, and have enough rice, flower, and butter to keep us alive when our supply of Poptarts runs low. My room has a view of the ocean and is often coated with a film of salty air. Hopefully my computer survives the winter, if not Mom now you know what I want for Christmas.

Should be an interesting 5 months indeed – stay tuned.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Bonin Cloud

After a long night of reluctantly drinking tequila shots that were generously supplied to us by the crew of our transport vessel the Kahana, and playing several rounds of foosball at the “All Hands” bar just down the street, I awoke to a predictably cloudy head. Luckily a managed to hold down some eggs and bacon for breakfast, and after a mug of coffee and a dip in the lagoon, I was ready to start the day. Honestly most of my morning was spent napping.

Later in the afternoon I rode my bike around a few new stretches of Midway I hadn’t seen yet. I spotted about a dozen manta rays doing loops and back flips in the main harbor, feeding on tiny plankton and larvae. They had roughly six foot wingspans, not the big mantas most are familiar with, but a smaller variety I’ve seen both in Baja and Costa Rica. I photographed the Pacific-golden Plovers and Bristle-thighed Curlews, and went on a quick hike through the pine forest to enjoy the White Terns and Brown Noodys some more. Just before dinner we checked out turtle beach and found 10-15 Green Sea Turtles basking in the sun on the sand, and watched the Kahana leave the harbor on its way to Kure Atoll 60 miles northwest of Midway.

The highlight of the day was actually the day’s end. Royce and Corey (both going to Laysan) and Morgan and I (both going to Tern) rode to the end of the old runway to a northwest point called Rusty Can. Just before the sun began its rapid descent below the horizon, small black shapes started to appear from beyond the reef, occasionally arching high above the turquoise water. This is what we had been waiting for, the nightly arrival of thousands of small seabirds called petrels. Petrels, like their relatives the albatrosses, shearwaters, and storm-petrels, spend all of their time and indeed a majority of their lives out in the open ocean. Making a living on fish and squid and sleeping on the water, they fly great distances across a featureless ocean; only returning to these remote atolls for the necessary task of finding a mate and laying an egg. These are Bonin Petrels that breed on Midway, and they number in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. As night falls the sky becomes clotted with petrels, their calls which remind me of the sound your stomach makes when you’re hungry, fill the island with the vibrant commotion of life. Once the petrels locate their burrows and identify their mates, the calls diminish, so the best time to view this nightly phenomenon is just after sunset. We used to travel 50 miles offshore on 12 hour pelagic bird trips in Monterey hoping to spot a brief glimpse of these birds, and here they’re so thick that we had to dodge at least a half dozen resting on the roads.  Amazing. I’m told there is a smaller population of Bonin Petrels on Tern, but I’m glad I had the chance to witness these birds here on Midway.

Midway Across the Pacific

I’m typing this while lying on a double bed in an air conditioned room at the Charlie Hotel, on a remote atoll midway between California and Tokyo, appropriately named Midway Atoll. I can hear cockroaches rummaging through the garbage bin by the sink and thousands of Bonin Petrels calling from outside my window, as night takes over the street light free neighborhood. I just had one of those moments when I closed my eyes and wondered how the hell I ended up out in the middle of nowhere, in a setting as bizarre and unique as this. I finally made it to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, a place I’ve also wanted to visit ever since reading Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross. Here is my synopsis of the first day.

Boarded a fancy G2 private jet around 7am, and left Honolulu and the famous Diamond Head behind us as we pierced the clouds. The plane was as smooth as butter in the air, with two couches facing the aisle and six bucket seats arranged in a non-traditional pattern towards the back. We were free to move around the cabin and could help ourselves to the snake bar and drinks (no alcohol of course). It was awesome to say the least, not sure I will ever fly in such style again. En route to Midway we followed the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument and flew over Oahu, Kauai, Nihoa, French Frigate Shoals (my soon to be home), what we thought was the shallow reef of Brook’s Bank, Laysan Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and finally landed on the runway of Midway Atoll 2 hours and 45 minutes later. Aside from our ears popping and the blue ocean out the windows it was hard to notice we were flying 40000 feet up in a jet.

Once we landed hundreds of Brown Noodys and White Terns greeted us as we taxed to the hanger, where we disembarked and hopped onto limo-sized golf carts, passing by the power plant, greenhouse, and welcome to Midway sign. We were given an orientation and our rooms at the Charlie Hotel, and breaked for lunch. I was so excited to explore the island, but hungry enough to wait until after eating. 
After lunch, the fragmented Tern and complete Laysan team headed out on a bike tour around the island. We each get our own bike during our three day stay. The sheer beauty of this place is almost overwhelming. White Terns flutter around everywhere we look, perched in the trees and lazily flying in a lofty pattern overhead. Brown Noodys grunted at us as we passed their adult sized fledglings, occasionally swooping gingerly, although nothing compared to the aggressive assaults of the Western Gulls on the Farallones. White-tailed tropic bird chicks were crotched beneath walkways and low branches, and Great Frigatebirds chased Masked Boobies above the tree line. We even came upon a few Wedge-tailed Sheartwater chicks still in their downy stage sitting in the sun at their burrow entrances. In terms of shorebirds, Pacific Golden Plovers with their handsome yellow tinted heads, Ruddy Turnstones, and Bristle-thighed Curlews gave out alert calls as we rode past flocks of them on the roads. We even came across a few Laysan Ducks which were introduced to Midway from Laysan and seem to be flourishing here. It’s too early for Albatross, but in a few months the landscape will become overrun with thousands of Laysan, Black-footed, and if their lucky a few Short-tailed Albatross. The only albatrosses we’ve seen are the Short-tailed decoys on the hill and many plastic-filled carcasses of chicks that never made it the fledging.

We finished the day with a swim in the lagoon, which was slightly cooler than Oahu but all the more refreshing. The water is so green in the inner lagoon that the puffy clouds overhead turn turquoise in the reflection. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s only day one. Can’t believe this is going to be my life for the next 6 months.