A day in the life of the East Island Exiles

How we stayed sane on the smallest island field camp in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Marylou Staman

Imagine this: You wake up on a cot, under a canvas tent, and blink your eyes, wondering where you are. As you remove your ear plugs, the dull sound of birds nesting under your tent becomes a cacophony of screams, honks, and wails, and the afternoon sunlight streaming through gaps in the tent walls burns your eyes. It’s hot, you’re exhausted, and yet you smile, because you finally remember that you’re on East Island, and in the middle of the greatest adventure of your life.

Monk seals and turtles often basked together on East Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

East Island, our home for the majority of our summer up at French Frigate Shoals in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is only about 2000 feet long and 400 feet wide. Because of its size and our initial impressions from satellite images, we originally dubbed our future home a “sand bar,” devoid of life. But upon closer inspection we found the island to be rich with birds, Hawaiian monk seals, vegetation, and of course, sea turtles. Even the beautiful turquoise water surrounding the island, our front yard, provided us with daily sightings of schooling trevally, foraging eagle rays, and huge tiger sharks, patrolling the shallow lagoon waters for disoriented albatross fledglings that landed on the water while learning how to fly. With the gorgeous scenery and wildlife keeping us company every day, it was easy to fall in love with our tiny island home.

Marylou, Jan Willem, and Alex (L-R) pose on their camp “front porch” on East Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

But what brought us to East Island? My husband, Jan Willem Staman, and I, along with our colleague Alex Reininger, made up the three-person Sea Turtle Research Team in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with the NOAA Fisheries Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program. It was our job this summer to set up a camp on East Island and study the hundreds of sea turtles that come to this small island to reproduce. While it is not known why approximately 96% of Hawaiian green sea turtle nesting takes place at French Frigate Shoals, we are learning more and more about this phenomenon with each passing field season. This season, we identified 871 individual male and female turtles with a small white number we gently painted onto their shells. On East Island alone we counted 413 females that came up to nest this season, more than last year’s 87 but less than the banner year of nearly 900 in 2014 (because turtles nest every few years, every population has natural seasonal highs and lows depending on which turtles decide to make the migration and nest). Along with numbering each turtle, we also gave each one small flipper tags and took their measurements to track their growth. Since researchers have been tagging in Hawaii for several decades already, it was exciting to find turtles that had tags from 10, 20, and even over 30 years ago!

Sea turtle researcher Jan Willem Staman counts the eggs of a nesting female turtle (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marylou Staman).

Because sea turtles nest at night, we had to adjust our sleeping schedule to make sure that we would be awake when the turtles were most active. That meant that our work day actually started around 4pm in the afternoon. Just like in the main Hawaiian Islands, the sea turtles at French Frigate Shoals would haul out onto the beach during the day to bask, or rest in the sun. From 4-6pm we would walk around East Island and record all of the turtles we saw based on the white numbers we wrote on their shells. On our very first day on East Island, we walked around the island and counted 229 basking sea turtles! However, that number steadily declined throughout the summer as more and more females finished laying their eggs and returned to the main Hawaiian Islands. Those females, with our white numbers still on their shells, have now been seen back around the main islands and have become a part of a unique citizen scientist project recently announced by NOAA! (Learn more: By the Numbers, Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii.)

The sea turtle research team didn’t need headlamps to see the turtles crawling up to nest when the moon was up (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

After completing our afternoon survey, we would spend a few hours transcribing the data and eating dinner before starting our night survey around 9pm. While in theory walking around a deserted island at night may sound spooky, there was actually so much going on that we didn’t have time to get creeped out. In addition to the dozens of nesting sea turtles crawling out each night, we also encountered sleeping monk seals and restless birds, all lit up by the most impressive display of stars I have ever seen. When the moon was up we didn’t even need headlamps, and when the moon was set, the darkness allowed the stars to light up the whole sky instead. We spent so much time on our night surveys looking for turtles on the ground, that I’d occasionally remind myself to look up, and the night sky always took my breath away.

Sea turtle #252 digs a nest in front of the East Island camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

When the sun began to rise on the horizon, it meant it was time to do one last lap around the island and head back to the tents. After 8-9 hours of walking laps around our sandy island, the biggest and completely unanticipated challenge we faced each day was still to come: trying to sleep! Between the loud birds and the hot sun, sleeping more than 2-3 hours in a row became a notable achievement around camp and something I do not take for granted now that we’re back here in Honolulu.

The stars shone a little brighter over East Island, where the only other light came from red headlamps the researchers wore during surveys (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

Jan Willem and I returned to Honolulu at the end of August and have been busy entering all of the data we compiled over the summer. In order to collect another month of nest data, Alex bravely stayed behind on East Island alone, with daily check-ins from the nearby monk seal camp on Tern Island. Sitting behind a desk in a cubicle is definitely not as adventure-like as carefully sneaking up behind nesting turtles to count their eggs, but we do value the data and enjoy the memories it elicits.

Green Sea Turtle Nesting on Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Camryn D. Allen

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Sea Turtle Research Team members Alex Reininger, Marylou Staman, and Jan Willem Staman prepare to depart for the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for five months, aboard NOAA Ship Sette (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Shawn Murakawa).

Meet the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Sea Turtle Research Team
Marylou Staman (1st season) – Marylou conducted three years of sea turtle research on Guam, and only saw 30 individual nesting females.  She’s seen almost 14x that number in the first few weeks of the nesting season!
Jan Willem Staman (1st season) – Jan is making the big transition from being a full-time soccer player with the Guam national team to a turtle researcher on the French Frigate Shoals team.
Alex Reininger (1st season) – Alex has mostly known nesting sea turtles from those that strand and wash up on Oahu. She’s enjoying seeing them alive and well on their nesting grounds.

East Island

Welcome to East Island, Elevation 8 ft and Population of two Northwestern Hawaiian Island researchers! (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers)

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sea turtle researcher team (Marylou, Alex, and Jan) arrived on French Frigate Shoals on May 30th to assess the number of nesting female green turtles because 96% of Hawaiian green turtle nesting occurs at French Frigate Shoals on East, Tern, Trig, and Gin Islands. Since then, they have identified 150 basking males and 416 nesting females. The peak of the nesting season has begun and the researchers have already seen 5 times the number of nesting females compared to the number of females seen for the whole season in 2016. So, 2017 will be a ‘whopper’ of a year, however, it is still less than our greatest nesting season with 811 nesting females on East Island (only) in 2014! Some of the turtles seen this year are turtles previously tagged on East Island during nesting events over 17 years ago and five other turtles seen this year were originally tagged during in-water captures in the main Hawaiian Islands (some as juveniles over 15 years ago)!

East Island Nesters

Green sea turtles nesting on remote atoll East Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).

L2

“Hiwahiwa” or L2 has been nesting on East Island for 15 years. Her nesting migration to East Island in 2010 was tracked with the attached satellite tag (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).

We want to highlight one particular turtle, L2, tagged by Hawaiian green turtle expert George Balazs. L2 is also known as “Hiwahiwa” – meaning precious, favorite – by Mālama Na Honu volunteers on the North Shore of Oahu. Hiwahiwa was originally found alive on Laniakea beach, Oahu with an impact lesion to her shell in December of 2001. After 11 days of rehabilitation at NOAA facilities, Hiwahiwa was released back into the wild. A few months later, in June of 2002, she was seen nesting on East Island. Since 2002, Hiwahiwa has been seen basking in the sun every year at Laniakea beach and in 2009, she was outfitted with a satellite tag so that scientists could learn more about her migration patterns. During the nesting season in 2010, Hiwahiwa was re-sighted back on East Island digging a nest (see photos with satellite tag attached). Just a few days ago, the sea turtle research team saw her digging a nest; fifteen years after the first time she was seen nesting on East Island!

The research team return to Oahu at the end of the nesting season (September) and will bring with them valuable information to determine the number of green turtles in the Hawaiian population. This data is important for designating whether the species is threatened or endangered so that we can effectively manage this distinct population of turtles.

All research conducted and photos taken under permit approval.

The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Team French Frigate Shoals

Get to know the bold field biologists stationed on remote islands for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment & Recovery Camps.

Every year (since the 1980s!), the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has deployed camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to monitor and help recover the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. These assessment and recovery camps, or ARCs, are deployed from large NOAA research vessels. Large vessels are necessary because they need to transport everything that field staff at five camps will require for their three to five month season in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You can follow the latest deployment cruise on our Story Map. We thought it would be nice for you to get to know the dedicated biologists of our monk seal ARCs and will introduce them over a series of three blogs.

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Unloading buckets of camp gear and food at French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Team French Frigate Shoals

French Frigate Shoals

Map of islands in French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The French Frigate Shoals team tackles one of the toughest sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands when it comes to monk seal research and conservation. The seal team must survey many islets across a large atoll and spend much of their time monitoring shark predation activities at Trig Island and the Gin Islands. They pay special attention to pups at these islets and scoop them up to move them to another location in the atoll before they become prey for resident Galapagos sharks. To read more about the shark predation issue check out our webpage. The turtle team on French Frigate Shoals will attempt to survey the largest nesting area for Hawaiian green sea turtles. Both the seal and turtle teams will survey the declining infrastructure that was used to create Tern Island and now poses an entrapment hazard for seals, turtles, and birds.

FFS_Team

Meet the Team at French Frigate Shoals: (Back L-R) Josh Carpenter, Sean Guerin, Shawn Farry, Jan Willem Staman, (Front L-R) Ali Northey, Alex Reininger, Marylou Staman (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Hawaiian Monk Seal Team

Shawn Farry (14th season) – Shawn been working at French Frigate Shoals long enough to remember when there were 800 seals at the atoll (now home to less than 200) and no digital photos or photo databases – he can make a perfect sketch of a seal’s identifying marks in moments! 

Sean Guerin (4th season) – Sean was part of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program for several years before following his dream to learn the art of zymurgy (brewing beer). He brewed 900 barrels of beer last year, and will now spend the summer on a dry island in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Josh Carpenter (1st season) – Josh’s most recent marine mammal necropsy was a blue whale. We hope he doesn’t need to bring that skill set to this field season.

Ali Northey (1st season) – A gymnast from the University of Washington, this is Ali’s first time away from Washington for more than two weeks. May it be a homey camp!

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Team

Marylou Staman (1st season) – In three years of turtle research on Guam, Marylou saw 30 nesting females.  She’s looking forward to her first mass nesting site (she’ll beat 30 in no time)!

Jan Willem Staman (1st season) – Jan is making the big transition from being a full-time soccer player with the Guam national team to turtle wrangler on the French Frigate Shoals team.

Alex Reininger (1st season) – Alex has mostly known nesting sea turtles from those that strand and wash up on Oahu, she’s looking forward to seeing them alive and well on their nesting grounds.

Wish these campers a good season at their Tern Island camp at French Frigate Shoals!

Tern Island

Hawaiian monk seal and turtle camps set up along the decommissioned runway on Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals. The runway and buildings are from previous days when the island was an outpost for the U.S. Navy (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

A twenty minute boat ride to safety

French Frigate Shoals has earned a reputation as one of the more challenging sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – both for monk seals and monk seal camp biologists.

Why?  Life can be hard at French Frigate Shoals!  Once the home to the largest subpopulation of Hawaiian monk seals, French Frigate Shoals is now the site most consistently showing the highest mortality rates for seals, especially for young seals less than 2 years old.  The greatest threat to young seals is one that is entirely unique to French Frigate Shoals.   A small number of the Shoal’s Galapagos sharks have developed the peculiar behavior of focusing predation on monk seal pups, often swimming right up to take pups off the sand.

Shark Bite

A pup with a substantial shark bite! Such an injury greatly reduces this pup’s chance of surviving the season. This pup is lucky to have survived the initial attack, as many French Frigate Shoals pups do not. (NMFS Photo)

At least 9 of the 35 pups born at French Frigate Shoals this season were lost to Galapagos shark predation. This is not a new problem.  And while it is a relatively small number of sharks involved, the impact on the monk seal population is significant.  In recent years, more than 250 of the roughly 1000 pups born at French Frigate Shoals have been a victim of Galapagos shark predation.  The total number of pups known to be taken by Galapagos sharks in the rest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during the same period is 0.

Over the years, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) field researchers have tried an assortment of mitigation strategies.  They focus efforts at the most dangerous islets where Galapagos sharks are observed attacking nursing and weaned pups right at the shoreline. Efforts have included deterrents such as underwater speakers, large magnets, and electric “shark shields” designed for scuba divers. But none have significantly reduced the mortality rate.  The team even dedicates part of their field season to fishing for the specific individual sharks that prey on monk seals at the high-risk islets. This selective fishing of a few sharks will likely have greater impact reducing seal mortality than other methods.  However, the highly selective nature of the fishing means often only one shark may be caught in a year (and often none).  So we have a way to go before we start seeing the benefit of the effort.

Trig Camp 2016

The small satellite camp biologists use to monitor nursing pups and fish for sharks at Trig Island, French Frigate Shoals. (NMFS Photo)

In the meantime, vigilant and protective monk seal moms are the best defense for nursing pups.  Unfortunately, when mom is out of milk and abruptly weans her pup, the young and naïve seal is left to fend for itself. This is when most shark attacks happen.  So field biologists at French Frigate Shoals must remain extra vigilant as well.  They carefully track nursing pups, and as soon as a pup weans, they scoop the “weaners” up in a stretcher net and give them a 20 minute boat ride (during which pups usually fall asleep) to Tern Island, which is relatively safe with 0 shark attacks most years.

 This video shows a protective female monk seal fending off two Galapagos sharks attempting to prey on her pup at Trig Island, French Frigate Shoals. 

WeanerCollage

Pup are especially susceptible to shark predation after they wean from their mothers and start exploring the near-shore environment. (NMFS Photos)

trans1_ed

The French Frigate Shoals team scoops up a weaned monk seal pup to translocate it to a beach safe from shark predation. (NMFS Photo)

This year HMSRP researchers translocated 11 weaned pups to the safety of Tern Island. Unfortunately, upon ending our field season and leaving French Frigate Shoals on August 20th, there were still 6 pups nursing, and more expected to be born at these high-risk islets. For the biologists, it is always difficult to leave knowing there are more seals that would benefit from our help… but we can only do what we can do.

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The trusty French Frigate Shoals boat moored off shore, ready for another day of carrying young seals to safety. (NMFS Photo)

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

Small Boat, Little Room, Big Water: Deploying BRUV’s on an AVON on the Outside Reef at French Frigate Shoals

The team and their BRUVs

The team and their BRUVs

From May 19 to May 31, 2014 the non-profit research vessel Searcher brought small boat coxswain Jamie Barlow, cruise lead Jake Asher and PIRO employee Emily Crigler to French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

French Frigate Shoals map. Source: Wikipedia

French Frigate Shoals map. Source: Wikipedia

They worked as if their individual efforts were like one, they were the “BRUV team” On a small 5 meter AVON rigid inflatable boat on the outside of the atoll reef in sometimes 15-20 knots of wind. Each person was close enough to the other so that everyone could grab a handle, pass a float or flip a 4 ft wide baited remote underwater video station (BRUV) unit onto its “table” without moving more than a foot from “their spot” on the cramped tiny boat. Each set of hands moved to support the others as they deployed and recovered these units. Exercises included: pull out line-bin from under the table, lift top bin and place it on deck, put bottom bin under the table, grab camera case resting on fuel tank and move camera case on bin so that Jake and Emily could swap the memory cards and change batteries. (This was a necessary repetition for the cameras prior to every BRUV deployment). It was a standard motion that the team did so routinely, that everybody knew what to do and 6 hands did everything like one.

“The deck” organized after a BRUV and its line just came on deck

“The deck” organized after a BRUV and its line just came on deck

Jake and Emily watch closely as they fit the cameras into their underwater housings & double check the “seal” before deploying the BRUV over the side

Jake and Emily watch closely as they fit the cameras into their underwater housings & double check the “seal” before deploying the BRUV over the side

A BRUV is a rudimentary frame (station) that holds two stereo video cameras that film fish as they swim in front of the lens. The soak time is for one hour and that is to maximize the species comprehension. Some stations were baited but most were un-baited; the primary study was looking at un-baited.

The footage will be processed back at the lab to show fish species, size and abundance. This information will be used later to complement the surveys The Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) uses in their reef fish monitoring studies. There are several advantages to using BRUVs as a survey method: 1) they don’t spook fish or attract fish unlike the presence of divers 2) they can be sent to depths past the comfort for safe diving ~100 feet and 3) the team can cover more sites in a day per dive team.

Jamie takes a break in the lee of Round Island

Jamie takes a break in the lee of Round Island

Jake reviews the site selection and decides where to move to next

Jake reviews the site selection and decides where to move to next

The BRUV team often worked outside of the atoll at French Frigate Shoals and would work in 5-6 swells with 4 ft seas. Although that does not sound like much, the game of fitting all the gear in a boat was like a game of Tetris on a moving platform. Three frames, many different lengths of coiled lines, fuel cans, floats, camera case, safety equipment, base bars, and of course, lunch and water. By the end of the trip the team did an average 10 drops (deployments of the BRUV unit) a day, and came away with a lot of footage of fish! By using cameras and technology as a survey method, it is becoming a very viable option to study our reef fish abundance.

Emily stands ready to move a BRUV “to the rail”, she proved to have the reflexes like a cat and the balance of bird on a moving telephone wire.  Emily would lift or move a BRUV with both hands and by only hanging on to the pitching and rolling boat with her toes tucked under the table. Impressive.

Emily stands ready to move a BRUV “to the rail”, she proved to have the reflexes like a cat and the balance of bird on a moving telephone wire. Emily would lift or move a BRUV with both hands and by only hanging on to the pitching and rolling boat with her toes tucked under the table. Impressive.

The final count: cruise for monitoring of effects of ocean and climate change in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands completed

By Chip Young

Scientists from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) recently completed a 17-day expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where they conducted coral reef monitoring surveys at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island, and French Frigate Shoals. These 3 locations are part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site, the third largest marine protected area on Earth and the largest conservation area in the United States.

This PIFSC research cruise (HA-13-05) aboard the NOAA Ship Hi`ialakai implemented a standardized set of methods for the measurement of fluctuations in the region’s coral reef ecosystems caused by global climate change. NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan (NCRMP) outlines the importance of monitoring changes in temperature and the chemical composition of ocean waters within which the coral reef ecosystems of the United States are found. Coral reefs are fragile biological systems that have been observed to live best in specific ranges of water temperatures and composition parameters. Changes in either of these ranges can cause a coral reef system to malfunction, through problematic processes that are familiar to much of the general public. Such processes, including coral bleaching (a result of increased ocean temperatures) and ocean acidification (a result of a drop in the ocean’s pH), affect the ability of corals and other reef organisms to calcify or “build their houses.” Other potential effects can occur, as well, such as shifts in biogeochemical cycles, shifts in species diversity, and changes in the ocean’s food web.

Jamison Gove and Chip Young of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division deploy oceanographic instrumentation on Sept. 13 at Lisianski Island as part of the recent research cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. NOAA photo by Oliver Vetter

Jamison Gove and Chip Young of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division deploy oceanographic instrumentation on Sept. 13 at Lisianski Island as part of the recent research cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. NOAA photo by Oliver Vetter

As part of the implementation of the NCRMP, CRED scientists on Sept. 3–19 deployed 16 arrays of temperature sensors along various reef systems, installing a total of 64 instruments at depths of 1–25 m. At its specific location on a reef, each sensor records the seawater temperature at the same time as other sensors, every 5 min, over a period of 3 years. The resulting product is a high-resolution picture of temperature variability of 16 different reef systems across space (across the archipelago and to a depth of 25 m) and time (3-year deployment of each sensor).

During the monitoring cruise earlier this month, 100 calcification accretion units (CAUs), like the one shown above, were installed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by staff of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. CAUs are used to measure not only net reef calcification rates but also species-specific recruitment rates and the percent cover of corals, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy algae. NOAA photo

During the monitoring cruise earlier this month, 100 calcification accretion units (CAUs), like the one shown above, were installed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by staff of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. CAUs are used to measure not only net reef calcification rates but also species-specific recruitment rates and the percent cover of corals, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy algae. NOAA photo

CRED scientists and partners also collected samples of seawater for chemical analysis, conducted hydrocasts with a conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) instrument, and deployed installations designed to measure specific biological activities that can be affected by changes in the pH of a reef’s waters. Settling plates, known as calcification accretion units (CAUs), are used to measure net reef calcification rates, species-specific recruitment rates, and the percent cover of corals, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy algae. Bioerosion monitoring units (BMUs) are made up of precisely measured pieces of calcium carbonate, the material that makes up the skeletal structure of corals, and will provide a value for how much biological removal of reef structure is naturally present along the reef. Autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) essentially act as “hotels” for cryptic biota living within the matrix of a reef ecosystem and provide a standard method for evaluation of the existing community of sessile and mobile organisms found on a reef.

Including work conducted during this cruise and the earlier PIFSC cruise SE-13-05 to Kure Atoll in July, CRED scientists have installed 100 CAUs, 50 BMUs, and 24 ARMS throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands this year. Because monitoring activities associated with NCRMP are conducted on a triennial basis, CRED will return to these islands in 2016. At that time, researchers will retrieve and replace all instruments. NCRMP is a long-term project, and the goal of this work is to measure change over time. The results from this ongoing project will be available to help the managers of these remote islands monitor, evaluate, and predict the ecological effects of global climate change on the reefs of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.