A Marine Science Adventure

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Rosie at a Science Camp beach cleanup at South Point, July, 2017.

Rosie Lee is a counselor and marine science instructor at Science Camp for Teens on Hawaii Island and a senior at the University of Hawaii at Hilo majoring in marine science. This fall, as part of her marine science program at the university, Rosie participated in a scientific research expedition into the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Rosie shared her amazing adventure with us here.

by Rosie Lee

When we hear the word “scientist” as kids, it’s easy to think about the rough stuff; the letters in math, the pipetting in chemistry, lab glasses, coats, and gloves, and being stuck in a lab with the A/C turned on too high. What Science Camps of America does so well, is remind our youth that the word “scientist” has a million and one applications. Right away from the first day, the students learn about volcanology, space botany, and a whole lot of other“-ologies”, each unique and unfamiliar to the majority. What I got to experience this fall was another great example of what being a scientist is.

For 25-days this September, all other aspects of my life came to a screeching halt as I boarded the NOAA Ship, Hiʽialakai, for a research expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).

 

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The scientists and coxswains on the fantail of the Hiʽialakai. Photo by NOAA.

The NWHI is known as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and is the second largest Marine Protected Area in the world. This means that all activities (boating, fishing, diving, etc.) are strictly prohibited unless approved under federal permit. It also means that these tropical coral reefs are isolated from human foot-traffic and every crack and crevice, above and below the surface, is teeming with life.

 

During these 25-days, I spent 21 of them underwater, identifying, counting, and sizing fish; everyday seeing new species I had never before seen. During each dive, my dive buddy and I were more likely than not to be the first to lay eyes on that specific patch of reef.

We were the first, and probably last, to ever see that given part of our earth.

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Rosie diving amidst a school of Ulua at French Frigate Shoals. Photo by Jason Leonard.

Field science is such an integral part of one’s education. During my time in the monument, I felt like I could have read a thousand peer-reviewed scientific articles and still would have learned less about the NWHI ecosystem than I did by jumping in the water every day and seeing it with my own eyes. By interacting with the environment around me and being immersed [literally] in my work every day, I was able to make new observations about the NWHI daily, each making me a better scientist. Enjoying the work one does makes it significantly easier to achieve great things.

 

Frequently throughout the expedition, I would find myself in a full-on laughing attack underwater because I could not comprehend what I was doing and what I was seeing. I was able to SCUBA dive (which is my favorite past-time) nearly every day while being swarmed by thousands of fish, many larger than I.

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Rosie diving with some really big ulua at French Frigate Shoals. Photo by Jason Leonard.

Before heading into the monument, all new divers are told story after story about the infamous ulua fish, or giant trevally- Caranx ignobilis, and its bully-like behavior. This fish often proceeds more than 4 feet in length and 150 pounds in weight. This fish is also known as an apex predator, meaning it’s not scared of you so you should be scared of it.

 

Curious about us humans, the ulua would often swarm in schools up to a hundred around us divers, making us very aware that we are no longer the biggest and the baddest.

While that would make the average Joe rather uncomfortable, the feeling is far too comforting for us fish ecologists. These fish so rarely seen in the Main Hawaiian Islands do to overfished waters, are thriving under the protection of Papahānaumokuākea.

Just like the ulua, many species, whether coral, sponge, limu, or fish, are thriving due to the federal protection.

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Rosie in front of a large coral colony. Photo by Jason Leonard/NOAA.

Unfortunately, although these waters are protected from direct human impacts, the implications of the human race do not go unnoticed. Many reefs are overgrown by forests of macroalgae or are no more than large flats of coral rubble due to the overhanging effects of global climate change. Along with the declining reefs, every day we ran upon marine debris such as plastic bottles, buoys, nets, and many other average household items. Thousands of miles away from human populations, it’s disturbing to think how far the debris has traveled. Regardless, even with the death and debris, every day I would experience moments of awareness.

Maybe it was a dive on a vibrant, healthy reef, or the ulua that tried to bite my face off, but I would always come to the realization of where I was and what I was doing: I was floating around in the middle of the Pacific, diving nearly every day, working with a well-established group of scientists and ship crew.

Rosie diving with sharks at Kure Atoll

Rosie diving with sharks at Kure Atoll. Photo by Jason Leonard/NOAA

It is important for youth to hear about all aspects of the scientific community, so they too can find something meaningful and important to them. Some may want to too dive with large fish and sharks on the daily, and some may want to plant potatoes in space. But finding out about how vast the world of science is at a young age is important for dream making and goal creating.

The point is, if you can question it, there is probably a science behind it. So, with that, find the science that suits you and explore it.

Science Camps of America provides the opportunity for our youth to discover what they may have thought was the undiscoverable and it opens up a whole new world of opportunities and exploration.

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Sunrise from the bridge of the ship. Photo by Jason Leonard/NOAA.

Conservation in Ka’u

Recently I was able to attend an ‘After Dark in the Park‘ event at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The speaker that evening was John Replogle of The Nature Conservancy’s Ka’u Preserve. The Ka’u Preserve is a very close neighbor to  Science Camp, and we are working on plans to include programs at the Ka’u Preserve this summer.

Ka'u Preserve

The Ka’u Preserve consists of four parcels of land adjacent to the Ka’u Forest Preserve, which is State-owned forest reserve lands. The Ka’u forest is the largest and most intact native forest in Hawaii. Many rare plants and birds still survive in this forest. The forest itself features ‘ōhi‘a and koa trees which provide a canopy for the lush native understory.

In his presentation, Mr. Replogle presented the goals of TNC (The Nature Conservancy) in the Ka’u Preserve, and discussed the various programs they are carrying out to achieve those goals.

Most of TNC’s efforts are focused on controlling feral animals and invasive plant species. Controlling the pigs and goats that are the forest’s biggest threat consists mostly of the very difficult work of putting up fencing through very dense forest undergrowth.

Once fences are in place, though, the effect is dramatic, as these images illustrate:

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This image illustrates how quickly the forest can recover once feral pigs have been fenced out.

This image, from the island of Molokai, shows the effect of a fence built to keep feral goats out.

This image shows the effect of a fence built to keep out feral goats on Molokai.

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Also just a short distance from camp is Kamekame Beach. TNC purchased this land in 2002 in order to protect the endangered Hawksbill Turtle (hanu`ea) for whom this beach is the single most important nesting site in the U.S.  Together with the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, TNC operates a volunteer turtle monitoring program to protect the nests from invasive predators such as rats and mongooses.

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At Science Camp this summer, campers will have the chance to learn first-hand about the plants and animals that make up these habitats, about the methods used to protect them, about the scientists, environmentalists, naturalists, and volunteers who do this important work, and to participate in that work.