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.

Good morning, ocean science!

(A Cautionary Tale)

I have been taking an Oceanography class this term (Science of the Sea, Dr. Floyd McCoy, U. Hawaii Windward Community College). I have been enjoying it immensely, amazed at how little I actually knew about the ocean even though I have lived next to it for over 30 years. Now I know a little bit more, just enough to make an early morning walk on the beach yesterday a different experience.

Sophie and I started our walk before sunup – the sky was just starting to lose its blackness.

Sophie

As the waves lapped the shore, I could not help but think about the processes we had just been learning about in class.  It was like a pop quiz in my head:  why are these waves behaving as they are?  Why is the tide so low? And as I walked I tried to answer those questions.

It got light quickly, as is usual in these latitudes, and with the light the wind came up.  Aha!  A brisk sea breeze caused by the temperature difference between the air over land and sea.  With the wind, the waves picked up a bit.  I could see squalls suddenly forming off shore.  Every one of these processes working exactly as we learned.  The pop quiz went on: why are the waves bending? what happens when they come together? move apart?

By now, it was almost fully light.  I looked down and there it was. The last lesson from my oceanography class, most obvious of all:  a thin line of plastic debris stretched uninterrupted from one end of the beach to the other.

Midway - plastic debris

Plastic is really useful. It is lightweight, strong, durable, and cheap.1

It is lightweight, so it floats and concentrates at the surface.

It is strong, so it entangles marine organisms.

It is durable, so most plastic just keeps breaking into smaller and smaller floating pieces.2

It is cheap, so we mass produce it, much of it for one-time use.

Most of the plastic in the ocean comes from careless handling of plastic on land. Dumping of plastic in the ocean is forbidden by international law, and while there is still some, dumping is not the major source of plastic debris in the ocean.  Most plastic enters the ocean through runoff. Water that runs down storm drains goes directly to lakes, rivers or the ocean, carrying our plastic litter with it.

What can you do to help?

  • Handle your plastic properly (reuse, recycle, reduce).

  • Try to avoid purchasing anything that includes one-time use plastic (very difficult given today’s packaging, but do what you can). Avoiding plastic grocery bags is a good place to start.

  • Participate in beach clean-ups – these are remarkably effective at a local level, and if enough are done, can have a global impact.

  • Educate yourself and others about the importance of protecting our oceans. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) has created the Marine Debris Program that provides a great place to start that education (http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/).

Lessons Learned

My walk on the beach taught me two things.

  • Studying something is not the same as experiencing it. The scientific data read on the pages of my textbook1 bothered me, of course, but when I looked down and saw that line of plastic, it just about broke my heart. Scientific facts experienced in a way that affects us emotionally give us understanding and perspective.

  • Scientific knowledge has a profound affect on how we see the world around us. I have walked that beach many times, but because of my oceanography class, I saw it this time with new understanding of the forces that created it and that continue to sculpt it. Though invisible to the eye, I could still “see” the multitude of life in and under the sand and the water. Forces such as the gravity of the sun and moon which make the tides or the energy-generating storms hundreds or thousand of miles off-shore that created the waves were “visible” in the light of my new-found knowledge.

This is exactly what we want to do for Science Camps of America campers: give them the scientific knowledge to SEE and the experience to UNDERSTAND.


Additional resources:
NOAA Marine Debris Program
Environmental Protection Agency Marine Debris Website
Plastic Debris Rivers to Sea

1Trujillo, A. P., & Thurman, H. V. (2011). Essentials of Oceanography (Tenth Edition). Prentice Hall.

2New research reported by National Geographic indicates that some plastics do in fact break down faster than previously thought; unfortunately, as they do they leach extremely harmful toxins.